A writer always faces the the same problems as anyone wanting to achieve a nice quick dash to the fine rewards to be reaped if you were strong enough to collect them… on the far bank of a 300 yard wide tidal river. Oh and for most of us, that’s with 50 ponds of lead weightbelt around your waist, which kind of precludes simply swimming.
Still, if you choose your time and place, the tide is out, the strip water is narrow, and not over neck deep and not moving too fast… You can do it.
The truth though is that is only a dash if you have a boat, a full slack tide, and someone else to carry the weightbelt and start the outboard, or at least help paddle. Otherwise, well…
In theory, that was what publishers did. They owned the handful of boats, and their steersmen knew the shoals you had to pass. For a mere 40% or so of the rewards (the other 50% going to shoals as fresh mud) If you were one of their darlings they gave you a steersman, an outboard, and plenty of fuel. If you were just one of the hoi polloi that none-the-less got one of the boats – possibly with paddles, or at the bottom end, at least a leaky canoe. If you could bale with your cupped hands and paddle with them, you had some chance. You’d be tired on the far side, but alive, and able to gather a few rewards before having to do it all again. The darlings would look at their nice fat pile of rewards carried down to boat by the servitors, and sneer a bit at your in adequacy and preen a bit about how great they were.
If you didn’t have a publisher, you had, at best, a chance to wade through the thigh-deep glutinous mud, and most likely the tide would catch you before you got across. Every now and again some strong soul would time it right and manage it.
Only there have been some severe floods upstream, and the resultant washout has moved the mud. It’s only knee-deep mud now. And, in the flood, huge amounts of debris came down, submerged logs are still floating in the full tide, the boats all got damaged, and most of the fuel got lost or got water in it. And most of the boatmen don’t know where the mud-banks are, many got fired because the business isn’t strong, and some nicked the paddles (their editing, proof reading and cover skills) when they left.
The flood, of course, is the shift to e-books, and debris is the remains of the brick-and-mortar book trade and the new online retail environment. A few years ago those were nice clearly deliminated mub-banks, dominated by Barnes and Noble shoal and Borders shoal, with a handful of other minor players that those two hadn’t devoured. As the boat-men and boat-owners prefered to have to steer past those two shoals, rather than steer through hundreds of lesser ones, they’d happily added extra mud to them. That was 70% of what you had to get through… and the mud was impenetrable unless you had a boat to sail over the top. Your chances as a writer of wading through the independents to the other side was slim. In fact if your leaky canoes struck against one of those two banks, you were probably going to drown. I know this because Barnes and Noble refused to take one of Eric and moi’s early books in hardcover, and then again DRAGON’S RING.
It was pretty hard paddling and dragging ourselves through the gluey mud that got us to the far bank at all, and the rewards -despite good sales outside that venue – were decidely smaller.
Things have changed. Despite the huge and bitter protests from the boat-owners, the big shoals are actually smaller now. Amazon at 27% of total sales (according to Bowker quoted here) – is now the biggest shoal. If you can’t get past that, you will struggle. Barnes and Noble – which is a lot tougher to cross is 16% and down from 17% and fighting bitterly for more mud – not from their rival, Amazon, but from the boat-owners. The victims – besides Simon and Schuster and B&N market share, are largely the smaller publisher-published authors. The poor beggars who got a leaky canoe in first place, or at best a dodgy old rowboat and a map. It’s very noticable that SFWA, many of whose members are badly hurt by this is not pulling B&N’s buy buttons or delisting S&S as qualifying market.
The sweethearts who got a speedboat and boatman, and plenty of fuel are still getting them… except the fuel quality has turned to fairly dodgy, as suddenly B&N and Amazon are demanding 8 months notice and lots of online goodies, so they can eat the pre-sales. So I’ve come across industry darlings – as well as the hoi-polloi like me, moaning bitterly that their marketing and planning come to naught (A minor example from me – the blurb for STEAM MOLE and CUTTLEFISH
contain an error – date – which arrived from the proposal, not the book. I’ve tried to get it fixed, and perhaps so has the publisher. They also got the release date wrong – meaning the build up I planned for the last week… was… over befor it started. That was the date the publisher gave them. It changed but Amazon it seems was not prepared to. No-one, of course saw fit to tell me) because the big players do what they please. Of course the boat owners are now in dire trouble and really not able to refuse.
The interesting part about all of this, is that it is actually possible to wade across the river right now. And wading (with the help of a broken paddle from one the many ex-editors, proof readers, cover artists, which make really good sticks to keep you upright.) can bring you across as well as some boats Of course, it’s a long hard wade, and the rewards aren’t always large.
But it is possible without drowning.
The mudbanks are still shifting. Hopefully none of them get too big.