Some Hard Thinking About Our Business
One of the puzzling things about the writing business, right now, is that “nobody knows anything” (or in proper vernacular “we don’t know nothing.”
So I am continuously puzzled watching indie authors who are doing better by an order of magnitude than any traditional writer I know succumbing to the lure of a traditional contract. I’m not disapproving, mind you — who the hell am I to be disapproving of other people’s business decisions? If I had my time again, I doubt I’d have made most of the ones I made. I’d still want to write for Baen, but that’s about it — I’m just jaw-dropped shocked. Because they’ll be giving up 90% of their income or so. But perhaps they want the respectability. And perhaps they think it will give them further reach.
Is the reach thing true? For now. For a time. More on this later.
Is the respectability that important? Sure, if you want to have some sort of job as a “real writer” such places are starting to choose indies, but not really. Some conferences too (though we’re not absolutely sure, in this new era how much attendance of conventions contribute to sales, with the remarkable exception of hard copy books [more on that later.]) expect you to flash your “real writer” credentials in the form of contract. I even understand it from the social point of view, where when you’re at a party and people ask what you do, the question after you answer “writer” is “so have anything published?” (Or maybe that’s just to me, because of the accent.) Mind you, you can answer “Sure” and list your books and not say “indie” but I also know that when I say “Sure, x books with Berkley, x with Bantam and x with Baen” people’s attitude changes completely. And I can see that when people suspect you’re indie they say “So you published yourself” and dismiss it. I know that’s a stupid reason to give up 90% of your income, but humans are social animals and I can see “not being embarrassed at parties” making a difference. I can even see the velveteen writer thing, wanting to be a “real” writer in your own eyes, the wy you envisioned it.
The thing is, that though people sometimes mention reach, most of what they actually mention as a reason is not sane. They mention “excellent editorial developmental oversight.” I.e. the publisher will assign someone to help you develop your book or take it to the next level. I don’t know if this happens to some writers. It doesn’t happen to ANY writers I know. I’ve heard stories of it in the 40s and 50s of the last century, but whether that was true or memorex, who knows? They mention publicity. Uh… most of the publicity I’ve got, I’ve designed and paid for myself, and I suck like a dyson at it. If the houses offered anything (other than an ad in locus, which I’ve sometimes got, but like conventions the question is how much it helps) I wouldn’t do it. Baen puts me in the Baen slide show, most of the time, and that’s the most any publisher has ever done in terms of publicity. I’m grateful, and I’m not discounting it. Part of the reason I’d still go with Baen “if I had my time again” (I’d go with Baen and put in a drawer for indie anything Baen didn’t want, so when indie hit, I’d be able to put a lot of stuff up that first year. What? like you don’t plan for being able to send your mind back to your younger body.) is because they have a rabid and dedicated fanbase, and those slide shows help with word of mouth.
But other traditional houses? I wouldn’t consider it! Only most of the people doing this have never worked with the other houses, or studied the stories of successful indie who went trad. That’s fine. Their career, not mine. Their decision, their results.
Is this because I think traditional publishing will go away? No. I do think however that the current houses are going to mutate. They have to, if they want to survive.
Now, I’ve never been a publishing executive, but I’ve been close enough to have an idea how traditional houses operate, how small/agile new houses operate (I saw the running of two really close up and personal and heaven have mercy on my soul, part of the plan for 2017 is to embark in starting/running a new one. [It’s complicated, but for accounting reasons, I need somewhere to send collaborations, to publish anthologies and to provide a haven to some of my friends [Kate, cough] who inexplicably don’t want to do it themselves. If we’re going to do that, we’re publishing other friends who don’t want to do it themselves, and we’re hiring someone to deal with it day in day out so I still have time to write. Do NOT send me manuscripts because at this stage they’ll be circular filed. We have enough for the first year, and after that our manager will set up some process to review — maybe — cold submissions.]
Here’s the thing, the publishing houses, as they currently exist, are the lumbering giants created by the merge-mania of the eighties. They run several lines over several genres, hire mostly humanities graduates who might or might not have any interest in the line they’re overseeing, and more often than not belong to media conglomerates, for which they are a tiny and relatively unprofitable arm.
It wasn’t always like this. Publishing enterprises in the — ah — good old days were often small businesses, run by people fanatically devoted to the genre/subgenre they published, and passionately interested in their version of good sf/mystery/whatever. These enterprises ran at a tight margin and paid book-reps to hit the road, as traveling salesmen, putting books into small bookstores and gas stations and yes corner convenience stores.
All of this is as dead as the dodo, and it was the change in distribution that caused the change in publishing.
When the mega bookstores came in, and, with their discounts and glitzy fronts swept the mom and pop bookstores out of the business, small publishers were out of luck. You didn’t even need book reps, really, though you still had them. Their job was now to wine and dine the regional manager of B & N or Borders, or what have you, who in turn chose to place the books the publisher was “pushing” (not all of them) into every branch of the store int he tri-state area.
And this is ultimately what burned the mega stores, because h*ll, the market is different in the same state, say between Denver and the Springs, let alone between Denver and Columbus Kansas.
To make it worse, the agglomeration and conglomeration of the business made it that the people in charge really didn’t read what they were pushing. Push or non push was decided in a business meeting at the publisher’s headquarters. The rep didn’t read it, and the store’s tri-state manager was an MBA graduate who might never have read a book in his life and who, last year, might have been managing shoe stores, and next year might manage grocery stores.
This worked for a time, both because book addicts are book addicts, and because there was nowhere else to turn for our fix. The “push” worked too, because if there are a hundred of the book, you’ll stop and pay attention, where you might not if there are two.
But such a model could only work with excellent choices, geared at the fandom of the particular genre, and that was not what we were getting. It was more the “new new” thing that some NYC office decided to pursue.
And so, as a reader (I wasn’t even published when the decline became obvious) I (and my friends) started referring to bookstore trips, looking for new material, as “I’m going to go and get disappointed by Barnes and Noble, or Borders, or whatever.” And here we’re talking of people who had a hard and fast trip to the book store a week penciled into their social calendar.
It might have dragged on. Almost certainly would, see addicts and fix. But disruptive technology happened. Kindle came on. And though a few hard and fast (older — more on that) readers are still stuck on their paperbooks, I actually prefer my paperwhite, because of lighting and ability to read next to a sleeping spouse, as well as portability of an entire library in my purse. Most people seem to.
And here I go into how I have visibility into at least two new-publishers (we should call them agile-publishers) and countless indies. For every one who says they sell a lot of paper books (and there are reasons usually for those) most people sell a hundred ebooks to one paper book.
You read that right. A hundred to one.
Which brings us to bookstores. Barnes and Noble still survives — barely — but I had to go there last month, to buy a gift for a friend (because I’m a derp and was having massive asthma attacks, so I forgot to order.) They still have books, at first blush. On second approach you realize a good 50 percent are book-shaped objects.
I’m not dumping on the adult coloring-book craze. Some of my hobbies are weirder. BUT I’m telling you that those aren’t books that will help traditional publishers of FICTION. They’re just books in which traditional doesn’t face competition from Indie. Yet.
Most of the other books were non fiction (that’s not new) i.e. what celeb x says about how you should run your life, manuals for this or that computing platform, or (and I confess for research I still use paper books) history books, quote books, that sort of thing. Oh, and a whole lot of lifestyle gifts “Night lights for the discerning night reader” and “Mugs to impress your colleagues at work” type of stuff.
Mind you distributing to B & N even in their present state is still an advantage of traditional (hence the more later) but how long it will be, I don’t know. No one knows, at this point, if B & N will survive, or if the pivoting of their business away from fiction books will leave any room for fiction books on their shelves.
Also from grumblings I heard, while trad publishing is still making money in fiction, that part of the business is being subsidized by non fic and “lifestyle and hobby books.”
Which brings us to the part of this post (ah, you though we were almost done, you fools) where I put on my futurist hat.
Remember that making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. However, yesterday I had some news that made me think “All is proceeding as I have foreseen.”
Before we get to that I’ll give anecdata which might or might not be in any way significant, but it’s the sort of thing I do to keep an eye on what is happening in various fields, books included.
Because I am a cheapskate (Everyone say “Noooooo”. Thank you. I feel better.) I often shop through craigslist. I knew vcr tapes were on the way out when people were giving away the cabinets and shelves designed for them. And I suspect a lot of people are giving up on dedicated TVs (we already have, but we are a techy household) and having large computer screens fulfill the need (which btw, must play havoc with Nielsens because you really watch whenever) because everyone is outright giving away “entertainment cabinets” made for the huge tvs of the 90s.
Which brings us to bookshelves. I have been a bookshelf hunter for years (now I intend to build up another wall in the library, after I deliver the next three books, and donate/get rid of mine, too) and now, in the last five years for the first time, they’re showing up free or very cheap and in batch lots. And I hear of more and more people going “electronic” and getting rid of paper books, which, let us face it, for all their sentimental associations, are cumbersome dust traps that make you need twice the house space.
Also, when we moved out of the last house, we put up a batch of 1k books for sale on amazon, and then the bottom fell out, after about a month or two, and I just donated something like 7 k books.
Judging by my own buyer behavior, I only buy 1c used books, and only for things I either can’t get or are insanely expensive in e (I’m not buying a mystery for $14 in ebook. No. Won’t be happening. I’ll buy some of my sf favorites in both paper and e but it hurts like hell.)
And here we hit on the problem traditional houses are having. They’re not geared for ebooks. Ebooks offer them no advantage over indie. (In fact I wish to hell they’d get competent ebook people. I just bought an e “boxed set” of Miss Marple mysteries, and when I have time I’m going to ask a friend to remove the DRM. Oh, not so I can give it away, but so that I can put it on my computer and reformat it. This is a 7 (I think) book collection that has NO WAY to navigate between books. There’s a table of contents within each book, but not for the boxed set in general. Also, the indents are about half an inch, which looks bizarre on the kindle, and there are ENTIRE SECTIONS doublespaced.) They don’t know how to publicize/promote books, beyond the obligatory page on a genre trade magazine, and maybe some talk from their editors in blogs. They only know how to push books to the super-bookstores and those don’t matter with indie. I saw them once put an ad for a book they were pushing in a times square billboard. This was early days of kindle competition. It doesn’t seem to have done them much good, particularly since the book was a fantasy niche. I sometimes hear of that book and author, and I judge they’re both about the level I’m at.
They are simply NOT equipped to make the switch from “big push to big stores” to “market ebooks.” And part of the problem, of course, is that none of us is too sure how to market ebooks. (I seem to have had some success with DST marketing on comics vaguely related to the book. I need to look into that again. The years since 2011 have been too fraught to do anything like that again, but things are calming down.)
Most of what markets ebooks seems to be word of mouth, which intersects badly with the annual-and-done model of big publishers, who at least are no longer taking books out of print on the anniversary of their publication, but also aren’t giving those books any help, while holding onto them.
Compared to the new agile-model long-tail publishers (most of them medium size, not large, sort of like the old publishers, pre mega-mergers. Or sort of like Baen, though Baen is mixed on this, since it’s larger than these agile-publishers) the traditionals have hellofalot of sunken costs: buildings in NYC, dedicated editors/proof readers/book reps/cover designers who must be paid every month, whether or not the book makes money. The model I’m seeing emerge from the agile publishers is more a 50/50 (or sometimes 75/25 (with the house taking the greater part and justifiable, depending on what the writer negotiates and how much of the burden the publisher is shouldering, for promo, etc.) with fees for proofreaders, cover artists, finders fees for readers, etc. coming out (as a percentage, say 5% for a proofreader, 10% for a structural editor, etc) of the book’s earnings.
Since there is no advance in most cases, this reduces the house’s sunken costs to pretty much zero. Which makes them better, faster, leaner, and more able to survive bets on books that just don’t sell. (This is something that can’t be helped. Even if there were decent customer surveys — there aren’t — it’s impossible to figure out what will catch fire. See the “nobody knows nothing” in this new ebook thing.)
Meanwhile, these emergent, agile businesses, in the end, provide the same respectability and further reach to indie writers. Maybe not as much, but they’re changing, and these are the people that traditionals need to compete with.
Dave Freer, in this site, has many times told them “abandon the office in NYC. Give up the raft of employees that do almost nothing for the books. Stop with your concentration on promoting bestsellers who would sell anyway.”
They probably won’t do that. They probably won’t do what I suggest below, too, though I’ve seen some movement in that direction.
Yesterday I heard that Ace, who was an almost-exclusively paperback publisher has now gone all-hardcover. And I muttered “quite right” except at their decision to shed writers they don’t think “fancy enough” (my wording, not theirs) for hardcover.
Because those are the writers they should be concentrating on. The ones with a large following, writing popular books, not “prestigious” ones.
From what I’ve seen, both from agile publishers, and from my own experience as a reader and a writer, paper books are becoming, instead of a vehicle for the story, a sort of promotional product, crossed with a souvenir/collectible.
Most of your paper books will sell from events where you meet your fans. Most of them will be signed. Even people divesting from paperbooks (even us!) keep signed copies of books they REALLY like. Because it’s something they can touch and admire and which sometimes reminds them of meeting the author.
So going hardcover is a brilliant idea, as is (as Baen who is smarter than the average bear is doing) bringing out numbered, signed leatherbound editions of your most popular authors and books. That cashes right in to the “collectible” market.
The next step to this, which I suspect that traditional publishers will not see their way to doing, would be booths at all the massive conventions (comicon, or more closely related to the book’s content, say gun shows for Larry Correia, or space conferences for me (scientists LIKE pulp.) Have your author flown to those, have them meet the readers. Sell books. Sell more books (and ebooks) by word of mouth, as people talk about how great it was to meet Big Bestseller, how fun he/she is, and how great his/her books are.
So, are there other venues for traditional publishers, where they would have the advantage (being able to fund a booth, which is pricey, at major events?) over indies.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of a packager. In SF/F (and mystery) for many years the late Marty Greenberg was the packager par excellence, and I worked for him for years, off and on, as a writer. Some years, he was the one who kept the lights on in my house, and certainly the one who kept my then fast-growing sons in shoes.
A packager is someone who comes up with an idea, sells it to major publisher, finds writers to work it, and takes a relatively small cut for his effort.
A lot of Marty’s sales were anthologies (and I miss getting a phone call saying “Sarah, we have a hole in an antho, can you write a short story on fairyland, say about 11k words by this afternoon?”
But there were others. If a bestseller got critically ill or ran away with his office boy and a suitcase of turkey feathers, and they needed the book yesterday, people who could imitate styles would get a phone call saying “Can you write this?” and then get very well paid indeed both for the work and for keeping their mouth shut forever.
Sometimes the houses took their own hand at a sort of packaging, too. I wrote Plain Jane under the house name Laurien Gardner, for what was then for me the biggest advance I’d ever got and — my agent fought like hell for this — a 2% royalty. That book has now made me double the advance on that paltry royalty share, which means it’s probably a cash cow for the house.
Houses can and perhaps should do that. Take young and eager writers, and chain them to the house name mills. Have them write in either fantastically successful series, (how successful? Well, Weber might work. I don’t know if anything below would) or really appealing concepts, or perennials, like say Henry VIII’s wives.
The more inventive houses could hire an actor to play the author at their booth. Or they could delegate a junior staff member to write the author’s blog, within guidelines. (NO politics, but you can talk about your dog, Little Tail.)
Another way to do it is shared worlds, either owned or contracted to the publisher. This is a risky thing. Sure some shared worlds (163x) do very well, (but it was also started way back, and the original concept-holder kept tight hold on the concept and who gets to play in it) but as Kindle World’s attests, it’s hit or miss, and depends (as all books do) on whether it catches the reading public’s fancy AS A CONCEPT enough to support books by very different authors. In the sense that each author uses his/her name, it’s fairer to the author, but it is also a big issue in terms of name recognition. This becomes not “I love that new series by Laurien Gardner” but “I kind of liked what so and so did with x world.” Honestly, if I were a publisher going that route I’d acquire the rights to some of the more popular gaming or anime series, because you have a proven “I like this world” concept there.
[Addendum I meant to put in: it would also be wise for publishers to start an ebook-only side, and some like Harlequin have. This could not just be the “farm team” to identify authors who could fly with a little push, but also a way to test “shared worlds” and “packaged concepts” cheaply. OTOH since having a paper edition is now the mark of “real book” it might be that this would be counterproductive and cause these books to be ignored. I don’t know. I just know if I were a traditional publisher, I’d try it.]
The middle option is frankly awful for writers, as they would be laboring in other peoples’ vineyards, with no right of reversal, no name recognition and maybe no royalties. BUT OTOH if they pay enough up front, it’s a living and new writers could sharpen their skills that way. Maybe. (Those who don’t wish to go indie.)
Will the houses do any or all of these? Yes, I suspect so. In the long run. Those that survive. Because they’re larger organizations, it’s going to take them a while to turn the boat around, but some of them will do it and will thrive. And some other houses will join in that model.
What I don’t think they’ll ever be again is the primary market for writers of fiction to sell to. No. That primary market is and will continue to be the general public, directly. And that’s an option that opens up new vistas of income and perhaps even of fan-building.
So strap down, it’s going to be a wild ride. But those of us willing to try new things should be better off in the end.