Certainly, The Game Is Rigged

*Sorry to be so late.  I originally had a different post written, but I realized some friends and mentees needed THIS one.  So I wrote it this morning, while dealing with interruptions.*

I confess I feel a little sheepish going over this yet again, but it’s clear I’m not getting through judging by the number of friends who are in a panic because they’re being dropped by their traditional publisher.  And then it occurred to me that though I’ve covered the differences between traditional publishing and indie publishing until I’m blue in the face, I never explained, at the basic, mechanic level, the difference between sales models.  I’ve told you that you’re free to do all yourself: hire an editor, do the layout, etc.  I’ve told you that you can do it.  I’ve told you that you will be better off and make more money that way.

What I’ve failed to tell you is why the traditional publishers are pushing 9 out of 10 promising newbies that way (if not more these days) and why you absolutely must take your career in your own hands.

And it’s shocking I have failed to tell you that, since I too had to be told, by  Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.  Repeatedly.  And it only finally sunk in when I took their publishing workshop.  I urge you to follow those links to their pages and read the Business Rusch going back at least two years, and read Dean’s series Think Like A Publisher.  or buy his book from Amazon and/or Creatspace. And no, they don’t give me a kickback– it’s just everything I’ll say here they said earlier and better, and I don’t have the time to go into the detail they go into.

I confess I’ve dismissed all “younger” (which in my field means you entered the publishing game after me) writers who refuse to go indie witha shrug of the shoulders and a “If you want prestige you’ll screw yourself for it.”  I might have been doing them an injustice – except for those few who explicitly told me they want the prestige.  For those, I say only – on your own head be it.

For the others, the ones who are in honest and understandable despair –  after either a career of some length, or after earnest attempts to break in, crowned by encouraging letters from publishers – at the state of their prospects, I apologize.  I should have not dismissed you out of hand, nor would I have save for all the twits who want the “prestige” and who drove me nuts long before you came to me with your real problem.

I understand your doubts.  I understand your fears.  I understand your (misguided, for those of you I’ve read) conclusions that your writing must suck like a Dyson.  I understand you despair and your tears.  I was there, as little ago as a year.

First full disclosure.  As far back as my first rejection slip, I framed a Heinlein quote and hung it on the wall near my desk – so at some level I understood it even then, back in the eighties (and yes, it took me that long to put it together, though to be honest, it also got much worse over time.) – it says “Certainly the game is rigged.  Don’t let that stop you.  If you don’t bet, you can’t win.”

This countered all the times when I was sure the story was publishable (and it got an honorable mention in year’s best when it finally came out, so I wasn’t even wrong) but it got eighty five or eighty eight rejections most of them standard and impersonal.  I looked at it and I went “The game is rigged” – which it was, though not on purpose or nefariously – and went back to playing.  (Yes, Heinlein continues bringing up some of us from beyond the grave.)

We’ll go into how that game was rigged FIRST so that you understand how, with no malice on either side, things can stack against you.

First you have to understand this is NOT school.  In school, if your work is good enough you get an A.  Unfortunately that’s the model most of us know well, when heading out into publishing.  Also unfortunately it has very little to do with old style publishing.  (It might have more to do with indie, and I’ll explain later.)

In a magazine, which is what I was mostly submitting to at the time (well, novel publishers too, but that’s a whole different ball of wax), you have x slots per magazine – be it monthly or quarterly or whatever.  You buy for those slots, and when those slots are taken up, it’s all gone.

Having read slush, I can tell you how that process goes.  First, you look for names.  Why?  Names sell magazines.  When the magazine is on the shelf, or displayed on line, people who are fans of an established author are going to buy the magazine for the author.  And even if the magazine is tiny press, they’ll get a number of “names” – with trunk stories or reprints.  So, you read those immediately, as soon as they come in.  And if one of them fits the theme of your magazine, you buy it.

Let’s say you bought two. You now have eight slots.  What you’re going to look for is stories that sort of fit the theme of the magazine issue established by your anchor stories.  And you’re going to look first for what I’d call medium-names.  Why?  Well, because you hate new writers of course.  Okay, I’m joking.  No, it’s because solid mid list usually needs very little editing and takes instruction well.  So you pick up people whose name is familiar and read those.  Say, with a couple of rewrite requests, you now have two open slots.  (And this is optimistic, btw.)  Now you turn to the raw newbies.  By this time, though, you have length as well as theme requirements.  Typesetting might give you some flexibility, but you really can’t buy a ten thousand word story for a thousand word slot without running into some serious issues.

So, that game was rigged for good and sound business reasons on the publisher’s part.  I was right on that.  And hopefully now you understand why so many people experienced what I did where, after a hellish time breaking in, almost everything of theirs sold, including very old trunk stories.

Now let’s come to the way the novel market was rigged when I broke in, in 1999.  In some ways those seem like halcyon days compared to now, though reading Kris and Dean that’s when they consider the business to have gone off the rails.

The game used to be rigged the same way the magazines were.  Given a certain number of slots, they bought a certain number of books, and the precedence was kind of like above.  First, buy the bestsellers, who are going to bring in x amount of money.  Then buy the midlisters who will pay for themselves and a little more.  Finally buy the hopeful beginner and give him or her (at least) three tries, so long as he or she isn’t losing you massive amounts of money per book.  Baen, to an extent, still follows these business model. They admit they are a “mid list” house, meaning they don’t kick their midlisters out and let them grow, so long as they are growing, no matter how slow.  Now, they might give them fewer slots, compared to better selling books, but they don’t shut them off.  They understand midlisters are – or should be – where bestsellers come from.  They are, as far as I know, unique among even medium houses in the business today, let alone fairly large and established, which they are.  Heck, even quite small presses (those I’m not associated with) are trying to follow the “go big or go home” model.  Which is stupid, but is their funeral.

I first ran up against this business in October 2001.  Please, note the date.  As far as I understood from my publisher (I might have been wrong, mind you.  I was very young and hopeful and starry eyed) they had planned to do medium push on my first novel.  Nothing insane, but since Ill Met By Moonlight had a literary bent, and was going hard cover, they had (this I know for a fact) bought an end-of-row display for it in the chain stores.)  Then September 2001 intervened and things went very odd.

There were things before that, that led to there being only 2 copies or so ordered per store (I’m not going to wash dirty laundry in public.  Suffice it to say it had nothing to do with me or my book, but with their suddenly needing to push another book which had been delivered late.) The bookstores, faced with two books on hand, couldn’t understand why someone had paid for an endcap display, and just didn’t – for Borders – for the most part unpack my book at all.  It was returned a month later, without ever being on the shelf.  BUT even those that made it on the shelf, didn’t always sell.  After all that was (till then) the worst quarter ever for American publishing.  But wait, there’s more.  Because the book had been slated for medium push and because they thought it would appeal across genres, it didn’t say anything on the spine, not even fiction and the cover was a pre-raphaelite painting.  As a result, it was shelved in biography, theater, art (!) main stream, mystery… anywhere but fantasy where it belonged.  When I did drive-by signings, there was always a fun game of “hunt the book” lasting up to an hour.  Friends and fans who were waiting for the book would email me ten months later to ask if it was out yet.

So…  Of a printrun of eight thousand, hard cover, I sold about twenty five hundred.

Now, look at the list above and tell me what I did wrong?  Remember most of the books didn’t sell because they were never on the shelf and no one had ever heard of them.  I confess the book is “literary” and involuted, but it must have a public because I STILL get fan mail.  However, books that aren’t on shelves can’t be found.

The company had already bought the next two books.  So they couldn’t just tell me to go away.  But they did the next best thing: they printed the absolute minimum on the next two books.  There are die hard fans of Ill Met By Moonlight who DON’T KNOW there were two more books.  People approach me at cons and go “I loved your Ill Met By Moonlight, but you never wrote more historic fantasy.”

However, the publisher’s conclusion, from these events was that there was something wrong with my writing of historic fantasy.  They thought I might still be salvageable though, so they bought an historic mystery.  And then a contemporary mystery.  We will not go into those sad tales.  They have decided that neither of those series will make money (yes, the tales are similar to above.  With the additional fun that the contemporary mystery is still on the shelves two years later, but they tell me it failed to catch with the public.  Also their statements are internally inconsistent.  Yes…  There are reports ordered, and I promise to publish all third party reports and publisher reports right here.)

There was another historic fantasy series with another publisher that went roughly the same.  Low laydown, low expectations and low sales.

So, right now you’re going “Is it possible your writing sucks like a Dyson?”  I admit I thought that.  I mean, it’s the logical conclusion, right?  Except that at the same time this was happening to me, the publishers were bleeding mid-listers.  Solid, established mid-listers, people I had grown up reading and loved to read.  Also, as a reader, I was having more and more trouble finding people to read.  Old favorites disappeared and new favorites had a book, maybe two and vanished.

I confess I’m not brilliant, and when I’m involved, my default position is “It’s all my fault.  I must suck.”  It took reading Dean and listening to a couple of editor friends talk frankly about what was going on behind the scenes to GET it.  It actually wasn’t my fault.  Yeah, I might not be the most brilliant thing since polished brass, but the truth was, I never had a chance.

You see, late nineties – in addition to a lot of other forces – publishers acquired full control of shelf space (pretty much.)  Do you know what the most influential thing was for getting on a bookstore shelf?  Not the book, not even the cover, not even the author’s name or previous book figures (though that counted.  Google “ordering to the net” and “books” and you’ll understand the statistical misuse that was screwing midlisters then.)  THE most important thing determining how many books went on the shelves was how many books the PUBLISHER said they were going to print.  If the rep said “We’re printing a hundred thousand copies, you should take fifty” the bookstore did, because this indicated “high confidence” on the publisher’s part.  And given that shelves were the only way to find a book, you usually sold at least half the print run.  (Because you took up so much shelf space.  People FOUND you easilly.) And no one called a book with fifty thousand sales a failure, even if half the print run had to be scraped.

So, how many books got this treatment?  Well…  Maybe one in four.  Often less.

Were these books exceptionally marketable.  The publishers thought they were.  And here you have to understand MOST publishers (other than Baen, again) are creatures of New York City.  They live in New York City, they attend the same parties, they come from the same colleges.  Once they could control what books sold (by controlling shelf space) they could indulge in their own fancies, and enjoy having them confirmed (Yes, power corrupts, but we still need the electricity.)  This meant the books that got this treatment were books the publishers would like to read.  People tend to think everyone is like them, more so if they live in the same closed millieu.

Unfortunately a lot of the ones they took a fancy to translated to “the writer’s story.”  By which I don’t mean the story they wrote, but their personal story.

I’m not the world’s most politically correct person, and I know the last time I said this people got all upset at me to the tune of “What do you mean being a minority gave you an advantage.”  So, I’m going to explain.  Being a minority-who-made-good gave you an advantage.  Come on guys, it’s the quintessential American story.  Why should it surprise you?  Of course, these had to be “right thinking” minorities who agreed with the publishers and were duly grateful for the hand up.  (And apparently counting as “Latin” – who knew? – I found the suggestion that I should play up my personal story as an immigrant incredibly smarmy. I was never oppressed because I don’t let people oppress me, and my ethnicity is the least of my concerns.)  So it was if anything harder for minorities who aren’t duly grateful.  Other things that might get you a good laydown – beyond writing the dream book of NYC – were: having contacts in the field (If you possibly could, you should definitely room with a future senior editor while in college); being pretty and young (while I was reasonably pretty while young and I still don’t break mirrors, I only broke in in my late thirties.  So I failed the second.  At any rate, just as well, since I don’t understand what looks have to do with writing well.  I think it’s publishing thinking they’re Hollywood); having an interesting “slant” other than personal history (say you have an egg farm and write about dragon farms.  That sort of thing.); there were other factors, of course, but none of them were writing.

The big publishers are still buying that way, and most of the medium/small publishers still imitate them.  They still control laydown (somewhat) though some bookstores have got smart (or desperate) and are taking account of things like Amazon numbers in what they order and stock, so the push model is failing before our eyes.  To be honest, it was before.  Which is why the market was ripe for Indie.  (Publishing didn’t fall, it was pushed.)

So, if you are a new writer and they’re dropping your series, remember a) It’s probably nothing to do with your writing.  b) You can do better indie.

And right now you’re saying “How can I do better indie?  I’m promoting as fast as I can, and people aren’t buying fast enough for me to stay in print.”

Okay – no one can promote fast enough for the book to stay in print.  NO ONE.  The publisher either “pushed” or didn’t.  And if the publisher pushed, you don’t NEED to promote.

The beauty of Indie is that you don’t need to “promote fast enough.”  There is a sense of urgency in traditional publishing because so much depends on the laydown (on how many shelves you are) and velocity (how fast you sell.  If you don’t sell x books by three weeks, they’re all returned and then you can’t sell them.)  So, you’re on the clock the moment that book comes out.  Because shelf space is precious, they treat the books like produce.  Three weeks and they’re “old” and must be removed to make room for new ones.

You don’t have that in Indie.  The book goes up and stays up.  What I’ve seen with my own stuff is that sales GROW per title, as word of mouth has time to work.  So that book will only make you more.  Oh, you can still promote, by doing things like blogging and going to conferences and getting your name out there.  It helps, and it’s all cumulative.  One push feeds on the other.  The time pressure is off.  And it works.

And of course, in Indie you can keep a much larger percentage of the price, so you can live on a much smaller number of sales.

You don’t need to promote fast, for indie.  You need to promote steady and slow.  And keep promoting.

But Sarah, you say, I still want to be on shelves.  You can be. At least as much, maybe more than your publisher is getting you on shelves. I haven’t tried it yet for my Indie stuff, but if you read Dean he outlines ways to do it.

In any case you should read him and Kris.  There are many things I glided over, and this post is already epically long.  And you should take their publishing workshop if you can afford it and they accept you.  TOTALLY worth it, and it’s cheap, plus spouses count as one person.

So, that’s what you should do.  But for now, be aware only that if your series failed it’s not your fault.  The publisher slanted you to fail.  (Yes, there are economic reasons for that – some crazy – and I’m not going into that here.) There is nothing you could do after that.  No human being could promote “fast” enough.  (Well, maybe Bill Gates.)

It’s not your fault.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  And you can make a living going indie. Depending on how hard you want to work, on both your quality (this is where school-like comes in.  More readable stuff sells better indie) and your quantity, you can make a GOOD living.

Be not afraid.  The game is rigged.  So, play to win.

4 comments

  1. Ah. That may explain why a local library system has “Ill Met by Moonlight” in the reference collection with a literature designation, rather than in fiction. The sequel to the book is in a different library, in the science fiction/ fantasy stacks.

    1. Yep. It’s maddening. Same issue with the bookstores. Actually there are two sequels and I think till the third no one put it in fantasy. It was anywhere but.

      1. I found Eric Flint’s _Rivers Of War_ in the history section (not historical fiction) of a bookstore.

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