Factors shaking up publishing – industry and individual

Over the past few weeks, several articles relating to writing and publishing have caught my eye and my interest. Some may change the way we write and market our books in months and years to come. Let’s analyze three of them, and see what they have to offer.


1. “How Trump Is Shaking Up the Book Industry: America’s literary bubble is rethinking its identity.”

That’s the title of an article at Politico. Frankly, I couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about the commercial publishing industry’s “identity”. To me, that’s a concept that has little or nothing to do with business. The late Robert Townsend, whose book “Up The Organization” is by far the most effective reference on management and business that I’ve ever read, said (in that book) about excellence:

If you don’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all. Because if it’s not excellent it won’t be profitable or fun, and if you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?

Words of wisdom indeed!

One has to ask: when last did “big publishing” focus on producing an excellent product, irrespective of ideology? It seems to me that much of what we hear from the Big Five focuses on their self-proclaimed “mission”, or their social conscience issue du jour, or the publishing industry’s “identity”, as mentioned in the Politico article’s title.  All those things completely lose sight of the fact that we’re in business to make a profit, and (to as great an extent as possible) to have fun while doing so. (Anyone who doubts that should try working at a company where everybody’s miserable. I have. Such companies are usually heading for the trash heap of history.)

Contrast that with the Politico article‘s pontifications. Admittedly, by its very name, that publisher examines society and culture through the lens of politics. Nevertheless, just look at the following excerpts, and ask yourself: “What have they got to do with publishing as a business?” (Underlined text is my emphasis.)

Over the past months I spoke with 20 gatekeepers in the fiction world—agents, editors and publishers—to see whether they anticipate a change in the types of stories that shape the American novel. While they were apprehensive about making generalizations, most, if not all, seemed shaken by the realization that they are out of touch with a significant portion of the American electorate.

. . .

There is, however, a vocal minority of agents and editors who have turned in the opposite direction. They too have been stirred by the election, but they are responding by reaching out to the exact voices that Trump’s victory silenced—the foreigner, the disabled person or the transsexual. They worry that the administration will further disenfranchise these communities, many of which have never had a proper footing in the political arena—or in literature. And they hope that fiction might represent these groups at a time when politics cannot.

. . .

To Chris Jackson—who edits Ta-Nehisi Coates and recently opened One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House devoted to providing “a home for authors … who seek to challenge the status quo, subvert dominant narratives, and give us new language to understand our past, present, and future,” the chasm created by the election is rife with opportunities. Not necessarily around the white working class though … What Jackson finds more compelling are the ways in which Trump voters have created space in the political conversation for heretical ways of discussing class, gender and race.

. . .

While Trump’s influence certainly appears to have permeated the most aloof corners of the country’s social consciousness, it’s less clear whether the resulting changes in the fiction world will make any difference. The working-class memoirs, rural love stories or Argentinian thrillers that might come out of this period will probably circulate only within the literary stratosphere. To Howard, who draws on almost four decades of experience, there is no work of fiction strong enough to heal our differences. “The cultural divide between the world that we live in and the world that Trump voters live in is so deep that I don’t think it can be bridged,” he said. “But we need to try.”

Please note the underlined portions of that excerpt. Would someone please tell me what those perspectives have to do with publishers making a living – i.e. a profit – out of what they’re publishing, or helping those who depend on the publishing industry (including authors) to make a living? Where do we see any reference to excellence in business – doing things really well, rather than really ideologically?

If you ask me, I don’t think President Trump has so much “shaken up the book industry” as exposed the fact that it appears to have fundamentally departed from the essential foundation of commercial business – namely, to make a profit. If businesses don’t make a profit, they fail. Period. If we, as authors, write to make a living (as I do), and we don’t make a profit, we fail. Where do you see that realization in the views cited in that article? I don’t . . . and I suspect that’s the reality behind the publishing and book-selling industry’s (and many authors’) woes. Both appear to have lost sight of the reality that, first, last and always, publishing is a business. That’s why so many parts of it are failing.

I’ve cited the realities of business often enough in previous articles, particularly the fact that books are part of the wider entertainment industry. Our books are competing for the consumer’s entertainment dollar with movies, music, computer and other games, even music concerts. These are all regarded by the consumer as something fun and/or interesting. If books are not fun or interesting, they’re going to abandon them for things that are. What are we doing about that? What is big publishing doing? If we aren’t facing up to that reality, we’re essentially failing at business – and, what’s more, we deserve to fail.


2. “Affiliate marketing is approaching a crisis point.”

In a recent newsletter, Simon Owens pointed out that affiliate marketing – such as, for example, the Amazon Associates program, in which many Mad Genius Club authors participate – is running into headwinds.

… the recent explosive growth in the [affiliate marketing] industry is propelling us toward a crisis point, one that has massive ramifications for consumers. This is a crisis that the FTC seems ill-equipped to deal with. The agency has issued guidelines on disclosures, writing that “if there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed.” And to be fair, it has taken a few concrete steps to curb this kind of behavior, sending letters warning of violations and even taking legal action against bad actors.

But publishers of all shapes and sizes are flouting this rule. A study from Princeton University found that 90 percent of YouTube and Pinterest accounts that use affiliate marketing don’t include a disclosure. Presumably, many of these influencers aren’t even aware they’re engaging in blackhat practices, and would even argue that they would endorse these products regardless if there were affiliate links attached.

. . .

… as more and more publishers and influencers get in on the affiliate game, ethical lapses will only permeate, and this growing trend, over time, will erode consumer trust … if the tech community — from platforms to e-retailer sites — doesn’t establish and enforce stricter standards in the future, then nobody can argue that they won’t deserve the consumer and regulatory backlash that’s waiting for them on the horizon.

Those of us who include affiliate marketing links in our publicity material (i.e. newsletters, blogs, articles, and possibly even included in our e-books) should take note. This is an issue that may lead to legislative or regulatory restrictions, which might directly affect our income. Food for thought.


3. “Confirmed: Facebook’s Recent Algorithm Change Is Crushing Conservative Sites, Boosting Liberals”

The point of this article, for us as writers, isn’t conservative or liberal politics. It’s that our marketing efforts on social media are almost completely dependent on how visible our social media platforms allow our marketing and/or products to be. We can’t dictate that, and we’re at their mercy.

Campbell Brown … who now leads Facebook’s news partnerships team, told attendees at a recent technology and publishing conference that Facebook would be censoring news publishers based on its own internal biases:

“This is not us stepping back from news. This is us changing our relationship with publishers and emphasizing something that Facebook has never done before: It’s having a point of view, and it’s leaning into quality news. … We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step to try to to define what ‘quality news’ looks like and give that a boost.” (Emphasis added.)

If our perspective as authors, and/or the subject matter of our books, and/or how we cover other opinions, clashes with the point of view espoused by social media outlets or vendors, we may find ourselves censored, and/or our books “muted” in terms of public visibility. To name just a few examples:

  • What would happen if our blog platform (e.g. Blogger, WordPress, even many you may never have heard about) decided to “de-platform” (i.e. shut down) bloggers with whose views it/they disagreed?
  • What if book review sites such as Goodreads, Shelfari, etc. decided to ignore our books, or remove reviews of them posted by readers?
  • What would happen to our sales if a dominant vendor like Amazon.com decided to omit our books from the “Customers who bought this item also bought” lists that are included on the page of every article for sale on its Web site?

Those are some of our most important avenues to reach potential readers. They may become restricted, even closed to us, if their owners and operators decide to promote only (or mostly) products – including books – that meet their definition of “politically correct”.

There’s another facet to this. Publishers and partisan reviewers or commenters may attack books or articles – or their authors – that are, from their perspective, politically incorrect. Take, for example, Moira Greyland’s recent (and very courageous) book, “The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon“. In it, she tells the story of the rampant child sexual abuse perpetrated by liberal SF/fantasy author icon Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband, convicted pedophile Walter H. Breen. Despite its undeniable, verifiable truth, the book was greeted with outrage and condemnation by many on the liberal side of US politics and publishing – even by the president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who, if only by virtue of her office, might be expected to espouse political neutrality. Our own Sarah Hoyt has similarly experienced rejection and public condemnation through refusing to kowtow to the demands of the politically correct in the publishing industry. How many more of us may face the same thing in years to come?

(That, by the way, is why I may say I didn’t enjoy a particular book, but I won’t attack its author, or his/her perspectives, beliefs or ideology. For a start, I believe very passionately in free speech. If others’ views and perspectives are different from mine, they’re welcome to them. I welcome the chance to read them – if only to educate myself – and I hope they take the chance to read mine. I hope readers on all sides of the political, social, economic and/or other aisles will compare them, and decide for themselves what’s worthy of their purchasing dollar, and what’s not. I’m not going to try to shut down others’ perspectives, because if I do, they’ll have every right to try to shut down mine. The Golden Rule applies.)


Food for thought from several sources this week. Let us know your reactions in Comments, please. That’s the whole point of Mad Genius Club – to keep the debate going.



  1. I see Trump is still living rent free in a lot of peoples heads. The publishing industry looks to be rolling left and diving for the bottom. As to Facebook, they control their narrative and there’s nothing really at the moment we can do about it with that platform. They’re a private company with their own set of rules and guidelines. At least we now know what to expect from them.

    I just hope that Amazon keeps their eye on the bottom line and don’t care about what people publish. At least as long as it’s in keeping with their ToS agreements. Reminds me need to read up on it before I do anything on there.

  2. I seem to recall that Blogspot churned the waters a few years ago (centuries in Internet years) by removing or restricting access to blogs that it deemed “offensive,” generally for adult content and language as G–gle shifted its search algorithms to exclude those sites as well. (The “pornpocolypse” some commenters called it.) It has happened before, it can happen again.

  3. 1) If these publishers want to carve out a little identity niche, let them. But it seems like a really small demographic to be targeting. That’s a long row to hoe to make a living

    2) re:Deplatforming on Goodreads. If you go into the “lists” on GR and look for “Best of (Year)” or “Best SF & Fantasy (year)” you’ll usually see in the comments that one of the editors removed Larry Correia or John C. Wright, etc. from the lists because of political views.

    1. Really? I knew Goodreads was sketchy but I didn’t know they actually removed authors from “Best Of” lists over politics. Links for that?

      1. It was a couple of years ago (Sad Puppies 2 I think, might have been SP3). I don’t remember which lists specifically. The lists are public and are more like popularity contests than an actual “Best of”. Reading through the comments can be ‘interesting’, as there will be comments responding to now deleted comments.

    2. Thought the same thing myself.
      Catering to a niche market is a valid business strategy for certain types of business, but general publishing, at least as I understand it, is all about bulk sales. Disenfranchising a large portion of your potential market just seems foolish. And demanding that customers read only what you push at them guarantees they will find alternatives, whether other sources for books or different forms of entertainment.

    3. Goodreads and my preferred web browser don’t get along. And I don’t see the point in providing free content for an Amazon service.

  4. Ok, i am only a little bit in but HAVE TO make a comment. Exactly HOW does Politico think that disabled pers0ons were ‘silenced’ by Trump’s election? If anything, his election and then moving back to VA had actually emboldened my roomate to speak his mind… I’ve seen him getting into some 2a discussions on FB that have made me go “Whoa, I thought i was the token rabid 2A supporter in the house”

    1. It is almost like they presume that everyone has a uniform ideological response to experiencing disability.

      As opposed to the possibility that a lifetime of overcoming disability could develop the qualities of stubbornness and independent mindedness.

      Reminds me of an interaction the day after the election. Keep in mind that I’d spent the previous six months angry enough with Trump that I now consider myself to have been a bit unhinged. Day after the election, I wanted to forget that the political season had happened at all. Someone was intrusively distraught, and tried the “I’m a parent of a disabled child, how should I feel?’ line. I wouldn’t meekly accept that from one of my own parents.

      I’ve had experiences myself with emotionally investing too much in political outcomes that were not certainties.

      1. Well, a lot of people would be perfectly happy in his position to just sit around and be happy on disability, instead he has a $75k/yr tech job

    2. I suspect it relates to his attacks on Obamacare and the risk that those with preexisting conditions would no longer expect to get health insurance for the same price as healthy folks. Of course decoupling health insurance from actuarial risk means it’s no longer insurance, just a conduit for government controlled health care.

      1. I understand the difficulties involved, given that insurance is tied to employment, meaning you can be left uninsured with a chronic condition despite having been insured you’re entire life prior to that.

        However, given that the whole “health insurance is tied to your employment” came about because of government meddling in the first place, I’m somewhat skeptical of government’s ability to fix the problem via more meddling.

        1. But with single payer we could save all sorts of money by euthanizing the disabled.

          Ignoring that if you don’t have socialism, a marginal human being is often still a tiny profit, and a lot of those add up. Add to that the lost income of the false positives for ‘cost more than they are worth’, and you get a serious amount of penny wise, pound foolish.

  5. Has no one at Big Publishing got the memo it’s 2018? We’re finding out those embarrassing people from over 100 years ago knew what they were doing. What did an author say in a recent Biolog? He went to workshops, attended panels, couldn’t sell anything. He started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. “It was horribly bigoted, sexist….and I couldn’t stop reading. I made my stories more exciting,and they started to sell”.

      1. Sorry, I’m totally brain farting now. It was a couple of issues ago in ANALOG. I might have the quote slightly off.

  6. I worked at Amazon up until 2014, and the company philosophy is that if you take care of the customers, they’ll take care of you. “Being frugal” is a company value, but doing things that screw the customers to add to the bottom line are right out. By and large, the bottom line is expected to take care of itself as long as the customers are happy.

    Amazon is the only place I ever worked that really took its company values (aka “leadership principles“) seriously. People mention them unironically in meetings all the time. They’re an integral part of the review process. They’re deeply woven into the company culture.

    If Amazon thought there was an unbridgeable gap between two groups of customers, it would probably try find a way to cater to both of them. “Use this slider in your profile to place yourself on the left-right axis and we’ll tailor your search results towards books you’ll like!”

    Warning: Amazon considers authors and publishers to be partners, not customers. The reader is the customer, and they expect you to be just as fanatical about pleasing the customer as they are.

  7. omit our books from the “Customers who bought this item also bought” lists

    Naiveté of the day: It never occurred to me that this list was subject to manipulation. The “We also recommend” list, definitely.

    I buy off those links. I just finished Light Magic and what should show up in the “also bought” list but Project Dystopia. Yay!

    Any idea how one would know something changed?

    1. Eventually you might notice that their suggestions no longer contained books you’d hear of in venues like MGC and other writer blogs.
      As for manipulation, those lists are generated by search algorithms and those are written by humans. It’s always possible for a bit of bias to intrude. A fair and balanced company will look for such and nip it early.

  8. Deplatforming people for politics is not only wrong, it could also be turned around and done to the deplatformers themselves. Why do they never consider this? The best defense is to allow everyone — including “those people” — to freely express themselves. Suffering a few A-holes is a small price to pay for freedom of expression.

    1. They’ll never be out of power, so their tools can never be used against them.

      So they keep telling themselves…

        1. yeah, that’s my point about net neutrality… actually encoded in law net neutrality isn’t going to work the way they think it is…

  9. – reaching out to the exact voices that Trump’s victory silenced—the foreigner, the disabled person or the transsexual.
    I hadn’t noticed their shrill little voices were stilled…

  10. > business

    But they’re not, not really. Most of them are parts of multinational conglomerates, and their concerns are about their status in the corporate pecking order. Profitability and customers really don’t have much to do with their daily operations.

    The big publishers operate more like the Soviet ministries that handled publishing and books; their budget isn’t directly connected to sales.

  11. “most, if not all, seemed shaken by the realization that they are out of touch with a significant portion of the American electorate.”

    That is actually related to the question of profit, because losing touch with a significant portion of your potential consumer base means that you lose potential revenue.

    The identity question is also related–is the publishing industry about profit, or is it about “educating” the public to think in a particular way?

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