Ain’t No Business Like Writing Business

 

Okay, if you’re reading Mad Genius, you’re probably a reader.  You might also be a writer, but at the very least, you’re likely a reader.

So, how do you read.

(Ah, ah, the gentleman on the second row who just said “from left to right and top to bottom” has earned the duct tape across the mouth prize.  I’m in a good mood, though.  I won’t set his hair on fire)

I mean that seriously.  I suspect most of us have different habits, and some of our habits vary depending on our time of life, and which writer we are talking about.  In my lifetime, I’ve gone through time periods of reading six new books a day, and other time periods (usually when health was wobbly) of reading the same book for a month.

However, Amanda’s post yesterday reminded me that, no matter how different our reading habits, no matter who we are, none of us reads as establishment publishing seems to think we read.  In fact, the only way I can account for their misunderstanding of readers is – when I’m being kind – that they read all that they can read at work, and so don’t understand those of us who pay for our fun.  (When I’m NOT being kind, I just assume they’re illiterate children.)

Here are some of the weird assumptions built into the business as was when I came into it – and which to an extent are still there in the traditional side –

1 – Assumption – No matter how much readers love an author, they don’t want more than one book by him or her a year.

Reality – my dears, if I could get my favorite authors to write a book a week, I’d buy a book a week from them.  Heck, I’d buy a book a day – even if I had to stop eating to do it.  Two books a year?  That’s nothing.  Three?  I’m still shouting more, more.  And most readers I know are like that.  Heck, that’s not even just my top favorite writers, but all the writers I even mildly like.  None of them can write enough to keep me in books.

2 – Assumption – If a book by an author tanks, all other books by that author, regardless of genre, treatment, cover and distribution will tank.

Reality – this is sheer insanity.  Any of us can – before the automation of the book business made it impossible to SELL more of one book than of the previous, because it wouldn’t be printed – point to authors who had some startling stinkers just before a blockbuster.  Or authors who wrote abysmally in a particular subgenre (Agatha Christie thrillers, anyone?  Georgette Heyer mysteries?) and yet write and sell very well in another genre or subgenre.

However the entire “book numbers’ business and dictating orders from the last book’s Nielsen’s (which btw, might be as little as 10% or 5% of sales) is based on the idea that a writer sells a certain number, period, regardless of what the writer wrote.  This is also the reason hat for the last twenty years agents wouldn’t let you submit to editors under an assumed name, because they “had to know how you sell.”

Nuts.

3 – Assumption – If we don’t give them what they want, they’ll read what they don’t want.

Reality – this could only be believed by people who never tried to give healthy food to kids.  Look, if you don’t give your kids something that approaches the same level of tastiness and fun as they can get from a candy bar, they’re going to eat the candy bar.  They’re going to do this even if they have to go a long distance to get the candy bar while the spinach is right there on their plate.  No, trust me on this.  And if you make it impossible for them to get the candy bar because, say, like my mom, you make them sit at the kitchen table, in front of a plate of black-eyed pea salad… they’ll eventually fall asleep face first in the black pea salad, and they’ll go hungry rather than eat.

For years, while the publishers thought they were “educating public taste” readers “went hungry” or re-read stuff they’d read long ago.  Now, they’re finding ways to get their candy bars.

The business meanwhile is still operating on the “if they get hungry enough they’ll come crawling to us and read our worthwhile dystopias which are politically correct and worthwhile and did we mention worthwhile?”

Nuts.

4 – Assumption – people want books to be just as they were in the nineteenth century.  If we ignore this newfangled ebook thing and make it hard to buy them, eventually the readers will come begging us for paper again.

Reality – the truth is that people are reading e and paper, and will read more e in the future.  Our kids are growing up with ebooks.  Paper will be something romantic and archaic for them.  Maybe something to have a few books in, as collectibles, but not “what a book is.”

5- Assumption – We can continue to treat writers as we always have.  They can’t work without us.

Reality – Mwah ah ah ah ah ah ah.  Yeah.

 

The end result is a system that can’t see reality because they’ve bought such a pretty lie.  It will be interesting times for them – and us – as the bubble shatters.

26 thoughts on “Ain’t No Business Like Writing Business

  1. “If a book by an author tanks, all other books by that author, regardless of genre, treatment, cover and distribution will tank.”

    This is like saying that a Corvette and an S-10 pickup should sell equally well, to the same people; because they both are made by GM. It makes me want to grab them by the ears and hold their head so they have to look me in the eyes and pay attention, then ask them politely, “Are you stupid, or just dumb?”

  2. 4 – Assumption – people want books to be just as they were in the nineteenth century. If we ignore this newfangled ebook thing and make it hard to buy them, eventually the readers will come begging us for paper again.

    You’d think they had never read anything written by an author who anticipated changing story delivery methods, and for whom characters who preferred paper books were anachronistic.Oh, wait. Sci Fi is “not literature”, so they probably didn’t.

  3. You know, two years ago I was wistfully wishing I could traditionally publish a few books, even as I was looking into this kindle stuff. Now I am so glad that I have nothing tied up in a publishing contract!

    I may never manage fame and fortune, but at least I’ll know it isn’t because half my stuff is under contract and tied up in bankruptcy court.

    1. What I’m hoping, Pam, is that Dean is right and that we can make a living even from just a few sales from property. What I’ve found so far, is that volume really matters above an “acceptable” threshold. Fame and fortune? No. But most of us just want to make a living like any other skilled worker.

  4. Two days ago Assumption # 4 appeared in the guise of a book from Random Penguin House. It sounded interesting, so I went to Ye Electronic Emporium and looked for it. The eBook version cost $15.95. Hardback new – $2.50 (on sale but list was $18 or so). I could already find used – excellent to fine condition for $2.50. Gee, R.P.H., guess who decided to wait and see if the library gets the book?

    Only in publishing does someone say, “show us your sales numbers before we let you sell your book.” I’m not sure even the music industry is that dumb anymore.

    1. I wonder whether that’s true. re: the music industry. They’re picking up people via YouTube now, so maybe they’re asking something like, “Let’s see your YouTube subscriber numbers and the number of Likes on each video…” (Pure speculation, mind.)

      1. The music industry went indie and ‘micro-press’ quiet a few years ago. Somehow I doubt Toby Kieth regrets going indie when the big recording labels dropped him.

  5. “And if you make it impossible for them to get the candy bar because, say, like my mom, you make them sit at the kitchen table, in front of a plate of black-eyed pea salad… they’ll eventually fall asleep face first in the black pea salad, and they’ll go hungry rather than eat.”

    This strategy can sometimes work on children. Because they’re children, don’t control the market for their own consumption, and generally lack the iron will of the martyrs. Adults, who have the liberty to buy anything they can find and afford? Never.

    (And yeah, even on children, it can be tough. My mother still sometimes tells the epic saga of the struggle between her seven-year-old self and a plate of eggplant. She held out for a week. And just as hunger was beginning to be so powerful that she was giving serious thought to surrendering and eating the eggplant, my grandfather stepped in and insisted that my grandmother give the poor kid something else to eat, because insisting she finish the eggplant first was clearly pointless.)

    1. for some reason my mom loved to make boiled black-eyed peas, cold, with vinaigrette dressing and fresh parsley chopped in it.

      I’m not a big fan of beans to begin with, though I can warm up to bean soup or refried beans. BUT that salad was evil. It was all of it, the taste, the texture, its being cold, all of it combined to make me hate it with a passion. The only thing I hated at the same level was rice made with salted, dried codfish, something I called “Ruining both the cod and the rice.”

      And I was STUBBORN. It’s amazing my mom never strangled me.

      1. for some reason my mom loved to make boiled black-eyed peas, cold, with vinaigrette dressing and fresh parsley chopped in it.
        That actualy sounds pretty good. Maybe I’ll make some in your mom’s honor. 🙂

  6. “1 – Assumption – No matter how much readers love an author, they don’t want more than one book by him or her a year.”

    Sure. That’s why when I discover a new author I like I don’t call my local bookstore, order six books at once, or calculate who can send them to me quickest and cheapest and then get the shakes while I wait. Seriously, I might buy one book at a time under the theory this will allow me to have a life in the interval between finishing one and getting the next, but that’s a stupid theory. Instead, I just get all haunted and take weird routes home from work to drop by the store (carefully researched in advance) where they have it.

    I was recently reading an article about the phenomenon of weekends lost to watching three seasons worth of a tv series all in one sitting. That’s nothing on readers who absolutely need all the books of someone they like. Now.

    Publishers don’t know about this?

    1. Apparently not. And yet, when I got F. Paul Wilson’s Hosts at WFC, I devoured it on the plane, came home and ordered all of his 20 or so previous books in various genres and spent a glorious month with one of his books growing out the end of my fingers…

  7. I don’t know where they get those assumptions about reader behaviour. I may not be a typical reader, but my behaviour is the exact opposite. First thing I do when I find a story I enjoy by an author new to me is look to see what else they’ve published that I can buy. And I’m restricted to ebooks these days (no room for more paper books) so it really p’s me off when publishers make an ebook the same price as a hardback, or delay releasing the ebook until the mmpb is released – “because it might harm the sales of the hardback version”.

    1. YES, exactly — I too am restricted to ebook buying, because we’re hopefully downsizing space when the kids move, and also because I ran out of space to sock away books.

  8. 1 – Assumption – No matter how much readers love an author, they don’t want more than one book by him or her a year.

    So how do they explain this?

    The Doc Savage Magazine was printed by Street and Smith Publications from March 1933 to the summer of 1949. In all, 181 issues were published. … By 1967, Bantam was publishing one a month until 1990, when all 181 original stories (plus an unpublished novel, The Red Spider) had run their course.

    That’s 181 stories over about 192 months or one a month in the first run and again in the second run. Those readers weren’t waiting 181 years for their fix. I have a friend who read his sister’s collection in the 70’s so it’s not just an older generation thing.

    1. Eh. Because “I came after” — i.e. I’m ten years younger than my brother and he was five? years younger than all the cousins, most of the books we read growing up, we swallowed entire series in great gulps, without pausing for breath.
      For me the process went something like this — find books someone put away (a lot of these were from my great-grandmother and no one in the house knew what to do with them after my dad read them. The cousins read more recent stuff, mostly, and so did my brother — who introduced me to SF, so…) usually an entire leather bound collection: Dumas, or Sir Walter Scott, or various Portuguese imitations. These were found in the weirdest places, including once in the anex that served as a winter’s henhouse (we let them sleep there when it was too cold for the net one.) High up on a shelf, inside some old luggage. If I wasn’t reading, I was scouring the family homes and their annexes for hidden books. Anyway “find ten or twelve leather bound volumes” was the next part, then take them to my room and read through as fast as I could, then slower to savor, then start looking again. I spent the summer of my 13th year on the stories of Captain Morgan, complete with blood-soaked lithographs. You know what that means. Sooner or later … there will be a pirate series 😉

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