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It’s a Crisis

When I entered the publishing industry it was in crisis. I didn’t pay much attention to it, because friends who’d been publishing for decades told me it had always been in crisis.

What they didn’t tell me is that the crisis had been steadily worsening, since at least World War II. The reason they didn’t tell me that, is that if they’d told me that, I might have looked at print runs, and also how things were accepted/rejected/marketed.

Look, it is a condition of the human race to want control over scary situations. There is a reason for this. After all in the Neolithic, if you didn’t find a way to fight back/control the tiger/whatever, you’d be num num nummed, right? And you left no descendants…

So when the publishing industry entered its first crisis (as far as I can tell caused by paper scarcity in WWII though it might have been WWI) the executives decided there was ONE thing they needed: more control.

Little by little, they went from printing anyone who would “pass” the “okay” mark to trying to publish only “good” things (which quickly became a moral judgment where they confused themselves with social workers.) And then it was slowly morphed into “we will control how it’s marketed and how much it’s marketed and…”

With each measure of “control” culminating in the push model of the early oughts, the printruns took a nose dive.

This was predictable, not to say dead simple. If the person/s you’re trying to please aren’t those you’re selling to, but your bosses/colleagues/critics, you’re not going to please the public.

And this is how the crisis finally crashed, about five years ago. It crashed not because print runs had reached zero (though some rumors I’ve heard – never mind.) They were still finding things – usually one little line away from porn (if that) to bring in the rubes.

It’s a slippery slope, as movies have found out. Once you hit porn as a way to pack in the rubes, you’re going to have to increase the shock value exponentially EVERY TIME. But they hadn’t reached that point – yet.

But they’d reached low enough. Not to the level they weren’t a profitable industry, but to the level that their ignored and un-served clients were hankering for something.

Which is when, like the hero in a Western, riding over the ridge, we got ebooks. And kindle, and Amazon.  And those numbers made publishing houses have to pay attention to what was selling on Amazon…

And now, the wailing is that the publishing industry is more in trouble than ever. That is… b*llsh*t. It isn’t. Not the PUBLISHING INDUSTRY.  Just part of it.

Yes, some traditional publishing houses are in a mort of trouble. And of course, what they think they really need is more control.

They don’t. They need to take deep breaths and change direction. It should start with “Who are my customers and potential customers?” (One of the houses not in trouble is Baen who always kept sight of “serving our public.”) and continue through with “how do we attract good writers to our model?”

Dave Freer covered some of that in his post on Monday. It wouldn’t be very hard for even the most clueless publishers to turn the model around if they did that.

But as Amanda posted yesterday, they prefer to imagine they’re in control and to pay consultants to tell them what they wish to hear.  “Go to sleep.  There is no saber tooth tiger. You’re perfectly safe.”

It’s a crisis, see, and if they can’t control it, they’ll pretend they can. Or that they’re victims of circumstances. Or something.

It won’t work, but if it makes them happy, fine.

I’ll just wave as they fall off the cliff. Their crisis is not my crisis. I work for Baen and also now indie and, curiously, the old model holds true for this. Bad times are good for entertainment. I’m up to my neck in work, and things are starting to move. (If I can just catch up on lost time.)

So, forget the crisis. Read. Write. Let big publishing scream and run and jump off the cliff.

More for us.

21 Comments
  1. Traditional publishers’ “saber toothed tiger” ought to be readers walking away from their books. Instead, they are screaming and running from Indy, err, that new fellow with that “bow-and-arrow” thing.

    They need to realize that the readers may find ebook and shopping online handy–but what’s bring them to Indy is the new stories that are the rather a bit like some of the really old stories. Could it possibly be that readers want heroes and villians? That the Good Guys ought to win? That readers should put a book down with a satisfied sigh and walk away with a smile on their faces, ready to go out and be a hero themselves?

    April 9, 2014
    • “s. Could it possibly be that readers want heroes and villians? That the Good Guys ought to win? That readers should put a book down with a satisfied sigh and walk away with a smile on their faces, ready to go out and be a hero”
      Inconceivable!

      April 9, 2014
      • Hyou keep hyusing that hword . . .

        April 9, 2014
  2. People are abandoning land-line phones in droves too and going wireless-only. Book publishers are finding themselves in the rotary-phone market with no plans to get into this new wireless thingy. But they might allow Touch-tone for a small extra monthly fee.

    Bah, Technology! It’ll never last!

    April 9, 2014
    • PLUS they get consultants telling them theirs is the REAL phone. Yeah.

      April 9, 2014
  3. I hate to even say the word. (Politics) But that is what is killing the traditional publishers. This generation of owners and editors are all from college environment that demanded liberal views, well what currently is labelled as progressive liberal views.
    This admits no heroes. You didn’t build that business. You didn’t slay that dragon. How dare you feel you are right and your enemy’s view has no merit? All characters must promote disadvantaged minorities. It is bad and irresponsible to promote main stream people and views like – your customers.
    When you make a book that follows government approved thought you get a book similar to government designed cars. Insipid, with features you don’t want, and overpriced.
    We still buy cars from bailed out companies we don’t really want. We are forced to buy healthcare we don’t really want or be fined. How far off can it be to bail out the ‘approved’ publishers and require us to buy a book a month from their list?

    April 9, 2014
    • Yes, it’s a lot like the soviet art — it’s okay to decorate restaurants, it’s creepy on playgrounds, but it’s not really “art” because it all looks alike and has no soul.

      April 9, 2014
      • Like Kataturian, and a the Blue Rose (long story) some real art gets in, but then the other progs get jealous and the purges begin. After all, some petty bureaucrat wants to sit on the top of the dung heap for a better view. Burning buildings are pretty…

        April 9, 2014
        • Ooops, I meant Shostakovich. Khachaturian is different… everybody thought HE was a nazi, but he was smuggling Jews out in droves.

          April 9, 2014
        • listening to Khachaturian on youtube now–how does music, completely without words, become thoughtcrime? Or as you say, was it jealousy of his popularity?

          April 9, 2014
          • It’s because of who liked him. He was vilified for the fact that the SS came to his concerts..and that he was still holding concerts during the war…even during straifing. Turns out it was his excuse to get musicians, artists and other ‘undesirables’ out of the country.

            As for Schostakovich, well… he put too much feeling into his music, and the bright lights of the Soviet Thoughtpolice thought he was actually saying bad things about communism without using words at all. For this, he was persecuted, hunted, etc. I think he finally defected, but I could be wrong.

            April 9, 2014
    • Alan #

      History is entertaining, educational, an object lesson, a source of regrets – but you don’t have to live there. Tradpubs and, apparently, tradcolleges are in their death spirals, but their replacements have been born and are growing. Can post-modernist deconstruction be far behind?

      April 9, 2014
  4. The bottom line of it is learning what the public wants and delivering it. Part of the public wants schoolboy magicians. Another part wants sparkly vampires. Another part wants to use incendiaries to make vampires sparkle.

    Identifying these parts, and how to reach out to them is the job that is not being done by many traditional publishers

    April 9, 2014
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      Some of the public want adult wizards to show those schoolboy magicians how magic is really done!

      Go Harry Dresden!!

      Need a wizard’s help, call on Harry Dresden not that Potter kid!!!

      April 9, 2014
  5. Laura M #

    This is totally off topic, but very cool reality TV:
    ” Teams of engineers are rushing to put a robotic spacecraft on the moon in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which is offering up to $30 million in prize money for the lunar feat. This week, the Science Channel and Discovery Channel announced that they will cover the moon race, from testing to the liftoff to the live lunar landing of the winning team.”

    See: http://www.space.com/25356-private-moon-race-televised-live.html?cmpid=557144

    April 9, 2014
  6. xdpaul #

    My take away from this: be antifragile.

    April 9, 2014
    • Synova #

      I bought a book on the principle of anti-fragile for my son who is sort-of interested in economics and going for a degree in business. I don’t think he’s read it… I might borrow it.

      April 10, 2014
  7. Book #

    Him. I think the publishing industry needs to read “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson…

    April 9, 2014
    • But the publishing industry published ‘Who Moved My Cheese’. Don’t you know they don’t have time to read the books they publish?

      April 10, 2014
  8. ChuckC #

    Where can we see the historical print run data you refer to?

    April 10, 2014
    • I don’t know. I got it from hearing publishers talk. I don’t even know if it’s online. But they said that 70k used to be a median print run as close as the seventies. Now the median is I THINK 5k copies.

      April 11, 2014

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