When I came into publishing 20 years ago, publishing was an oligopsony.
Not literally, of course. there are relatively few capable of producing competent books (by competent I mean that a substantial portion of the population will enjoy reading, and maybe want more of) compared to a multitude of potential readers.
The problem was to get at the potential readers, you needed to go through a very few “buyers” — aka publishing houses — which had become even fewer in the decade and a half I’d been trying to sell to them. So the field was an oligopsony in fact if not in theory.
Oligopsonies aren’t a healthy market situation. They introduce distortions not just of the economic but also — as distorted economics usually does — of the psychological and mental health type.
The numbers I heard for the people attempting to break in versus those who sold were astounding. I believe — Dave Freer who has a better head for numbers can correct me if I’m wrong — it was something like 1 in 10000 who made it to publication, even just once. By the time I broke in getting more than one book in was difficult because publishers were playing a bizarre game of writer lottery ticket and buying a large number of first-timers, to whom they gave a chance with no publicity or push, and hoped to get one of those unexpected out of the blue bestsellers.
Except that when I came in they had rigged the game so there could be no unexpected out of the blue bestsellers. Not in the American market. The unexpected “just caught fire” bestsellers (I believe Dune was one of those?) used to come from small mom and pop bookstores where the proprietors were (often avid) readers. They would read the new releases in their preferred genres and then hand sell to the customers who would appreciate it. (There used to be a mystery bookstore in Denver. The store still exists, but the proprietor of whom I could ask “I’m depressed and I like cozies. What do you recommend” and get unerring recommendations I was sure to love is long gone.) Suddenly the houses would notice a pick up on sales, and go “Oh” and start pushing. This could happen for some years after the book came out because books were warehoused for years. (This was before the tax decision that taxed books as inventory.)
By the time I came along (and possibly dealing with the fact that they couldn’t keep books warehoused for any appreciable time) the publishers had shifted gears to favor and help big conglomerate bookstores. Also to take you out of print precisely a year after your book was released (Or sooner, if you earned out sooner. Literally the day after you earned out, the book went OP. They’re not doing that anymore (and Baen never did) because they want those tasty tasty ebook rights to continue.) Not only was there no time for the long tail, but the reason the publishers loved the big chains so much is that no one in the big chains read the books. This meant the publishers could say “Hey, you want a zillion copies of this book” and the bookstore tri-state rep would go “uh. Okay.”
It could be marginally manipulated, because the book reps didn’t read, but they did watch movies and TV. Hence if my Shakespeare series had come out two years earlier, it would probably have gone big because of Shakespeare in Love, and there was a brief, deranged time of mysteries trying to reproduce the ethos of Sex in the City. (I don’t think any of them sold that well, because they disappeared never to be heard from again in like three months, but for those three months, it was all you could find on the shelves. Frustrating for a then 35 yo mother of two, who really could do nothing but roll her eyes at all the obsession with the perfect o.)
The push model worked, because bookstores were ordering “to the net.” This meant that the bookstore reps, who didn’t read, decided the laydown of second, third, etc. books (Laydown=how many they’d order for the shelves) according to how many of the first had sold. This meant that if the publishers “pushed” enough books into the store shelf for the first book, they’d definitely order a lot of the second.
Like this, if you have 100 books in a store, in its own cardboard display, you’re going to sell. Maybe not to me at the time, because not only was I broke, but I knew most of the “pushed” stuff would make me roll my eyes, but to your average buyer. Yes, bookstores were the only way to get books. (Sure, some groceries, etc. but in general catering to the casual reader, not the addict.) So you went in, and looked for stuff to read. Books up front, particularly if they have a 10% discount for new and popular sticker, have an advantage. That book with 100 copies will sell at least 50 which was considered good enough to stock another 100.
What about the average book? The average book got 2 copies per store. This meant that at best you sold one. You might not sell any. In fact, my first book wasn’t even on shelves in most stores that had it. (I was young and green enough to try to do drive-by signings.) A couple of Borders in the area kept showing that they had the book, but never actually finding them. They told me with exasperation that a lot of these “small time” books were just never unpacked from the boxes, because they weren’t worth the employee time.
Also, if they actually unpacked them, there was no guarantee the employees would shelve you right. In fact it was highly unlikely because most of them didn’t read. They often went on the “look” of the cover. Which is why my first Shakespearean fantasy ended up shelved in history, theater and art. (Leading to a very funny non-fan letter from a Shakespeare biography professor asking me if I’d lost my mind and believed in fairies. Was fun.)
I found a great Arthurian fantasy in mystery, because Ace — never change, Ace — had given it a cover that looked like noir mystery. I later found the poor, bewildered author, who couldn’t figure out why he’d gotten non-fan letters telling him his mystery wasn’t a mystery and what was he thinking. He only got two books, too, mostly because the people who wanted his book never saw it, the ones who saw it were puzzled.
So… the computer would show you sold zero. Even if there as no way for you to sell any. The chances of the very few publishing houses buying a first book were bad. The chances of their buying a second book were maybe 1% of those who had a first, and the chances of a third vanishingly small.
Yes, I made it 19 books under that regime. No, it wasn’t amazing talent. It was an inability to give up. That’s all. One summer I wrote seventeen proposals and first 3chapters. For those under the new regime: when you’re done plotting the entire book and have three chapters ready for sale, you have done all the hard work of the book. Wrenching yourself away from it to do the next, knowing you might never come back is like losing a part of yourself. I did that 17 times in 3 months. An average of 15k per proposal, btw. But it kept me working for the next 10 years. If you ask me why I’m cynical and bitter, look you to the summer of 2003.
When I was trying to break in, I realized, given the odds, it was impossible to be on merit alone. Out of roughly 10k books, you can’t pick the “best” one. Chances are you’re overwhelmed long before you get to even read the best one. In fact, publishers had long since abdicated their “choice function” to agents, thereby corrupting literary agencies and making them, from the writers’ advocates, into an aggregate contracting department of publishers. It was far more important to the agent’s bottom line to kiss editor butt than to keep authors happy. And the agents ALSO weren’t reading everything that came in.
One of the ways to “get in” was to meet editors and agents, and get them to solicit your manuscript. I’m not going to go into the art of getting to this, as it’s now, largely, irrelevant. However, that method worked (for me and others) over blind submission ten to one. This in turn, incidentally, caused a growth of conventions, where you might meet publishers, editors, agents, or failing that big time writers who might take a shine to you and recommend you to one of the others. Conventions that had contests which allowed you to have something to put on your cover letter were even more popular.
I don’t know if you’re getting the picture, but the oligopsony and the controlled market after that made pushing akin to nothing so much as the old USSR or Cuba (even without taking in account the leftist bend of most publishers and editors.)
You had to claw and bite to get to the top. You had to have a minimum amount of money to attend workshops and conventions where you might meet professionals in the industry and get your foot in the door (or in my case your nose under the tent.) This meant if you were a mother of toddlers, barely making it, you just couldn’t do so. This encouraged the growth of places like Clarion, part writing workshops, part brain washing factories. (I’ve heard of experiences. I was once offered a chance at Clarion. I was pregnant and had pre-eclampsia. So, I escaped that.) It also encouraged a certain demographic in writing: mostly women (like it or not, women being supported while pursuing their art is acceptable, men not so much, still. Though there were also a lot of gay men) from moderately well-to-do backgrounds. This in turn made the product appeal mostly to women of well-to-do backgrounds. It bears saying that the printruns were falling end over end all through the consolidation of this type of market, but no one cared about total print runs, and failures were always the author’s fault, and authors were replaceable widgets. So publishing houses felt no course correction. By the end of this they were all departments of (mostly European) conglomerates, anyway. And Europeans (and NYC people) totally bought the excuse that those rubes out there in fly over country didn’t even KNOW how to read, and it was Radio/TV/Computer games cannibalizing the market. Meanwhile readers caused a huge growth in used books. Never mind.
After you got in, you had to keep your editor happy. This meant that even if your book did badly, you’d be given another chance. However, if your editor didn’t like you or took a dislike to you for whatever reason, you were done. They wouldn’t buy you again, and a whisper set around the publishing community, on how you were “crazy” or “unstable” or “hard to work with” was enough to destroy your career forever. There was no appeal, and your agent would refuse to submit under a closed pen name, because they were more loyal to the publisher than to you. (BTW this alone proves it has nothing to do with quality, because their fear was that they’d buy someone they’d blacklisted. Which means the quality was good enough.)
Other writers? Potential rivals. Every one of them. If they got in, they would take a slot, and that meant there was one less for you, and more chance you’d get dumped. Besides, what if the editor took a shine to them and gave them push?
It was a dark, bitter place to be and to work in, in which writers had no true friends. Even if they liked other writers or some of their editors, they couldn’t allow for true friendship, because the machinery of the regime might dictate the career death of one of them at any minute and every newcomer was a potential replacement.
Many writers are still trapped in this, now with extra frantic clawing, because the slots in traditional publishing houses are shrinking, and the advances ditto.
So you see Romance Writers — Romance fricking Writers, for crying in church — trying to virtue-signal extra-hard to their editors’ NYC politics so they’ll be thrown off the sleigh last.
Many indie authors, even, who came up listening to these tales and internalizing the mind set, still view themselves as being at war with every other writer. See the sad case of Faleena Hopkins, trying to make herself special by trademarking “Cocky” (Google cockygate) and making enemies in every field of writing.
But indie doesn’t work that way. It is more what my son who was in First Robotics calls Cooperatition. Sure, you’re competing. But you’re also cooperating. And cooperating gets each of you a little further ahead, truly a win-win situation.
The pie is big enough that if one of the newbies makes it to bestseller, it doesn’t mean you lost your chance. It means if you helped him/her coming up, you now have a friend with a megaphone who can promote you.
There is no need to claw your way in. Extending a helping hand pays so much better.
And sure, you’re not getting in bookstores, and you won’t be surrounded by adoring fans at conventions. But let’s say I know more 6 figure earners who are pure indie than I ever knew in Trad.
Sure, if you want to get into trad, you’ll still have to claw and kiss ass. But beware that game is ending soon. Look, traditional publishing is ULTIMATELY in the business of selling wood pulp bricks. They’re expensive to print, expensive to make look attractive, expensive to distribute. Story doesn’t need them. It can be beamed in electrons to a relatively cheap device. The cost of distribution is fractions of a penny. The costs of making one more after the first are negligible. The economics dictate function.
Will traditional publishers go away? Nah. Leather-bound publishers never went away. Paper publishers will go the same way “Small, expensive and for those who already have a massive following or who had a massive following and are dead.” Ten years maybe, and I might be giving them too long given their increasingly panicky and boneheaded decisions, that’s where they’ll all be.
Meanwhile storytelling will flourish on the indie side, and make many authors better livings than they’d ever have got in trad, and result in much better and wider a variety of books.
It also results in a saner, more collegial atmosphere among writers, and a chance for friendships and cooperatition.
If you’re still clawing chances are you’re a dinosaur among dinosaurs.
Look, the meteor has fallen already, okay? Your area of the world has become a little darker and colder. The fact that some dinosaurs survive doesn’t mean they’ll go on forever.
Be a fast mammal and live.