Catastrophic Change

Amanda had a post yesterday wondering if traditional publishers would catch on to the fact they’re killing themselves by refusing to adapt to ebooks.

Pardon me for being cynical here for a minute but: no. They won’t. Why would they? Ebooks have now been a reality for over ten years, with absolutely no change in the industry — not where it counts — so why would anything happen now.

Worse, Indie publishing has been a thing and been eating their lunch for 9 years at least.

And looking from the outside you, gentle readers, scratch your heads and go “but …. how can they not see it?”

Look, change is hard for humans. Change by itself, even positive change, can cause great destruction if it happens too fast.  Change plus what feels like the destruction of status and livelihood? Few humans can adapt without breaking or going into profound denial.

And I have it on good (though not infallible) authority that most people involved in traditional publishing are in fact human.

If the change were, say, a shift in public taste that affected maybe one department of a publishing house, it would be easy, “Yo, Higgins, no one is buying stupid baseball romances, anymore. Dump the ones you’ve bought on the market at as small a loss as you can and let’s buy football romances.”

If it were a change that affected only one publisher? Easy. It would get bought or go under.

But this change affects the whole industry.  The way many people now well past midlife have learned is the way to make a living. Their raison d’etre. Their source of being.

They’re not the only ones being hit. The early 2000s saw an hecatombe of computing business.  A great pyre of burning, prestigious and previously safe careers. My husband somehow managed to stay employed continuously for the last two decades, but he’s in a minority.

And journalism has also been burning for a decade.

I’ve watched a lot of friends, middle aged or older, get laid off.

And there’s a pattern to it.  People just never quite seem to adapt, to get things together. A lot of them fall in deep depression.  It takes an extraordinary character to pull out of it.  (Look, working on it, okay?)

So, imagine that happens to your entire industry.

The weird thing then is that you don’t even need to acknowledge it. Particularly if you’re an industry as — frankly — shifty as publishing.

You see, publishing in the 20th century was working on 19th century rules, at best. It was all “you’ll take what we give you and like it” and “if you want the prestige of being a published author, you’ll act utterly professional, even if you have to clean toilets on the side to make a living.”

And if the way they treated their suppliers would make any mafia don jealous, the way they reported earnings would make the most crooked casino blush.  Trust me on this. I wrote, one year, for four different publishers.

What would you wager against the chance that those books — different genres, different subgenres, very different covers — would all sell the exact same amount, down to the last, single-digit figures? What would you wage against their doing it, year after year?

But you see, they were the only game in town.  It’s very bad for any field to lack healthy competition. It does not encourage best business practices.

Which brings us to what happened when competition (at first small and hesitant) appeared after almost a century….

This will surprise only those of you who haven’t been following the long, slow debacle: they lied to themselves.

At least I presume it’s to themselves. Unless they think they’re lying to us, and that by lying to us they can influence reality.  It’s possible.

It’s also pathetic. And sad.

If I read ONE MORE article about how people are sick and tired of ebooks, and paper books are coming back, it will be one too many.  The publishers/editors/etc reading those and BELIEVING them maybe perhaps want to read a book called Lying with Statistics.

Usually the method employed is “ebook sales grew by a smaller percentage.”  The fact that most publishing nabobs believe this foretells the return of the popularity of paper bricks means — to me — that half of their chicanery in royalty reports MIGHT be due to the fact that they’re innumerate.  or that they follow the hot new trend of believing that two plus two equals cat if you subtract chicken.

So what happens when an entire industry gets laid off?

I don’t know. I think the next stop on this Via Dolorosa is their attempt to get someone — anyone — to legislate indie publishing illegal.

When that fails (hopefully. If it doesn’t we’re North Korea bound as a nation) they will retreat overseas, like ousted royalty. The fact most houses are held by European consortia is the only thing keeping them afloat.

And after that?  I don’t know. I’m a little shocked at how long it’s taking Europe to catch on to ebooks. But heck, it took them a long time to get rid of the Hapsburgs, too.

What about me and those caught in the maelstorm of publishing’s death.

Well– even though I expected it and counted on it, it’s been a difficult adaptation.  I suspect more because of when it hit — both in terms of my health and my life — as in, in the last 18 months my entire life has changed, was expected to change.

It’s just that… well, a lot of change in a short time screws you up even if you know it’s coming.  They say people get stress-sick while moving, even if they looked forward to the move.

But– I’m writing again (even if still laying down flooring on weekends. ) — and I have SO MANY books to catch up on.

One way or another, I’ll get them to the public too. Sure, right now amazon, but it’s important to remember the change isn’t done with us, so I’m keeping an eye out.

One way or another, though, the stories will get told and sent out to the audiences. Because that’s the important part.

The paper brick industry was only ever a way to accomplish that.  A way that now belongs mostly to the past.



50 thoughts on “Catastrophic Change

  1. That’s unfair to crooked casinos.
    If their ledgees weren’t impeccable, it would be a lot more difficult for them to launder money, and government officials would get suspetious that they were getting shorted their cut.
    An Intelligence Agency’s congressionally approved budget might be a better analogy.
    (Curses. Now I’m sketching out a setting where publishing consortiums are largely controlled by the CIA. It’s disturbing how well it works. But there’s no frigging plot!)

    1. Of course there is a plot. If it’s the CIA, there HAS to be a plot. We may never know against whom, but there is one.
      Even if it is a rogue action by the dinosaurs on the Central American desk.
      Three days of the Condor looked at it from the reader side, but they are so much into concealed influencing of society that they would be failing in their duty if they did not influence editing and publishing, at least to the extent that they influence news by their leaks.

  2. For decades now the traditional publishing model has fostered confusion regarding the publisher’s market, by equating selling to a distributor with selling to end users. Editors were judged as successful if they produced books which got big pre-order numbers from the major chains.

    In, say, 1980, that was a good indication of how many readers were buying the book because in 1980 chain bookstores sold books. Today, those few chain stores that are hanging on are covering utilities and employee salaries with Funko dolls and designer coffee, and the floor displays are mostly window dressing.

    The author -> agent -> publisher -> printer -> distributor -> bookstore -> reader model was the only way to get books to market for so long that traditional publishers don’t know how to sell books to readers (or to buy books from authors, but that’s another issue).

    Changing, at this point, would mean retooling the entire industry from the ground up.

    1. Gotta wonder how much of this is influenced by lobbying from agents desperate to keep collecting their 15% rent, which kinda went out the window with indy publishing (which is to say, mostly ebooks). I’m reminded that literary agents first appeared in the 1950s; they were not a day-one necessity of getting published, but rather more of a luxury item.

      1. Literary agents used to work as an advocate for the author, negotiating better contracts and acting as a point of contact for offers from publishers. These days they seem to function more as outsourced slush pile readers for the publishers.

        1. Yep. I had an abortive try at getting an agent for my first two novels … and as the book blogger known as Grumpy Old Bookman (he was a British book blogger, writer and publisher and quite well thought of) advised – give it a try for a year and then go indy. Don’t kill yourself as a writer for beating your head against a closed and bolted door.
          And the Kindle e-reader changed things enormously; all of a sudden, straight to the reader – no printing, no warehouse, no weird return policy and eventual payment after three or four months – just straight to the customer, no muss, no fuss. Straight up, amusing the reader for the cost of a gourmet cuppa coffee. The whole concept threatened the whole structure of the Literary Industrial Establishment, so of course they looked away. Their whole mode of doing business depended on them looking away and pretending it wasn’t happening.

          1. I pretty much assumed that going into ANY kind of writing in CURRENT YEAR is going to be starting out as an Indie at this point. Unless you know the right people already in the right places or can sell yourself as the latest cause de jure (see Zoe Quinn and Mags Visaggio).

            Even a proven record in the market isn’t going to help-Warren Ellis (Warren F(YAY!)KING Ellis!!!) got himself canceled recently because he was flirting with girls on his board and at cons. Consensual flirting with girls on his board and at cons, which they claim was “grooming(1)”. I personally suspect that he got angry at someone at DC that knew how to work the Mean Girls back-channels and got him shafted. Because that’s what they do these days if someone has a problem with them-they destroy the person with things they can’t disprove.

            (I hope it was over The Wildstorm” It read like an Ellis comic right up to the last issue and it felt like there was a ending-by-committee there.)

            So, first book is going indie. Second book, too. Even if I get a contract and an agent later on, “we either keep the rights, all of them, or we don’t sign a contract. I don’t want to be stuck like David Gerrold has been for the last thirty years.”

            (1-Joke I heard in a pick-up artist class by the (female) teacher-“What do women call it when they groom men? Flirting. What do women call it when men they don’t like flirt with them? Grooming.”)

    2. The Des Moines B&N is (was?) holding on by being a good place to get kids-and-enrichment-books. Stuff that is actually improved by being on dead tree.

      No idea what is going to happen now.

  3. “I don’t know. I think the next stop on this Via Dolorosa is their attempt to get someone — anyone — to legislate indie publishing illegal.”

    They won’t make it “illegal”. What they will do is make it possible for e-books to be declared “hate speech” and banned.

    We’re seeing it now even without an actual law, even on Amazon. Digital media is being made unavailable, or rewritten, because the woke didn’t like it.

    1. The gatekeepers are looking to install gates.
      Water will wet you, and fire will burn.
      The attempt to limit distribution only has a chance of success because Alphabet, Facebook and the like are attempting to limit information about alternate channels of distribution.
      I don’t think it’s a *good* chance, but it’s something we need to be proactive about.

    2. Damn it Steve. ALL the Amazon cases I dig into turn out to be an attempt at cheap publicity.
      Yes, Bezos is stupid. No, he’s not Zucker.
      Now might they turn in the future? DUH.
      Which is why some of us are working hard as hell on escape hatches.
      BUT again, Amazon is not Facebook. Partly for the same reason I get banned than MZWilliamson on FB. I’m more subtle. Books, by their size and complexity are not FB posts. They’re harder to ban without a LOT of false positives.

      1. There was one that was “Amazon allowed you to choose which publisher to buy from,” too, which blew up in your comments for a bit.
        (the legacy publisher didn’t get to keep e-book rights)

  4. — I think the next stop on this Via Dolorosa is their attempt to get someone — anyone — to legislate indie publishing illegal. —

    I can’t imagine it…but then, I could never imagine the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, or Barack Obama, or the Russian Collusion hoax either. Stipulate that it could happen. What then? How would the federal government enforce it? They had a hell of a time with Napster and Kazaa. Wouldn’t it require absolute government supervision of everything that passes over the Internet? (All for “the greater good,” of course.)

    Are you sure you have enough ammo?

        1. Or places that do tip jars. “Thank you for your tip, as a thanks, I’d like to send you a book please take your pick of these…” With also “because you have tipped so much I would like to send you X number of books. Thanks again for your support.”

  5. Hollywood has crazy accounting. The music industry has crazy accounting. It really shouldn’t be surprising that publishing has crazy accounting, but people think of books as somehow more serious than movies or music, so they’re resistant to the idea that the accounting isn’t correct. (Then again, remember all of those stories of writers surprised by back taxes for money they never saw? The signs have been there for decades.)

    1. Rather, they think authors more intelligent than actors (who mimic lines written for them) and musicians (who have a statistically significant chance of dying tragically in a bathroom).
      And I’m going to disembark that train of thought, now.

      1. To quote one musician who was surprised that authors fell for the same things musicians did. “But you can READ, and don’t seem to be high on the sh* we were.”

          1. I understand that. Not sure the musician ever did. But it was more an illustration of the weird attitude of ‘publishing is different!’ (than music, hollywood, or any other creative field) that seems to still float around and seems to feed into a lot of the surprise at weird publishing accounting practices.

            1. I get it. But if we wanted to be read, we had to play the game. And some of us did it while screaming.
              I literally destroyed my thyroid with stress, that’s how bad it was. Plus living a double life and the constant fear of being outed.
              I don’t think even myself now fully understands myself then.
              Honestly, I don’t even know if I can write in a sustained manner now. I’m not burned out on writing, but I’ve associated it with so much badness, it’s become difficult.

            2. no, and many musicians don’t ‘get’ it when they suddenly go indie and have control of their own destiny either.

      1. Engineering. Non-governmental level.

        And any small business that has lasted past a few years, because crazy accounting would only hurt the proprietors.

  6. Tradpub still treats certain authors rather well. That would be big name writers with a huge fan base, and folks famous in other areas doing tell alls the public want to read. Big, sometimes ridiculous advances but even for the elite increasingly pitiful editing and production values. For everything else the attitude is they buy raw unformed clay and carefully form it into a product that will either sell or more often earn the house social justice brownie points. That belief even as they continue to cheap out on that same editing and production.
    So with the exception of the occasional blockbuster they no longer take into consideration what the end use customer actually wants to read. The position of “you’ll take what we offer and like it” is still embedded in their business model.
    As for Europe, I wonder just how much endemic petty theft has to do with it. Lay a print book down only for it to walk away, you’re out a few euros. Same with a Kindle, iPad, or other reader, you’re out hundreds. Counters the fact of how quickly cell phones were adopted on the continent, but much of that had to do with the abysmal phone systems in most European countries.

    1. Yeah, but they also have NO blogs. I wonder how much of European reading is “for the social approval and social credit.” So, you know, you must show the cover.

  7. I’ve had enough change this week (and it’s only Wednesday!) to take care of me for the rest of the year. Tech this, tech that; back up this, policy that; because of X, you now have Y additional duties . . . Arrrrrgh! I was in tears during a briefing yesterday, because of the sheer overload of “in case of [thing], here are all the new duties, schedules, policies, considerations, and so on.” Too much, too fast, even if it is “in the we hope unlikely event of [thing].” And I’m one person with a very uncomplicated job, with a very limited “market.” So yeah, I can just imagine what it’s like for the acquisitions editor at TOR, or Scribners.

  8. The issue is that-I think/suspect-a lot of the New York publishing market was the avocation job for quite a few wives of powerful and/or rich men that were between marriage and kids or after the kids went to boarding school/college. Some of the stories of the people that were at the Manhattan cocktail parties really reminded me of the days when Adolph Hitler was the “dangerous darling” of the German upper class scene. The wives liked having the minor scandals of having him around, so they competed to invite him to parties, where he started talking to their husbands…

    But, I think in the late ’70s and on, we had the people that wanted to make a Career In New York As A Writer, and they thought that they could get it by starting working for a New York publisher. And, they came out of the universities from the ’60s with a “change the world!” mentality that involved the perpetual revolution to a Perfect (Socialist) World. And, nothing other than The Message mattered.

          1. So I thought.

            …and, damn, my brain went there…guy that sleeps his way to a NYT best-seller because he knows how to play all the sex-starved women that work at the publishers…

            1. Go whole-hog and make a anime series.
              Make him a straight guy who is faking that he’s gay. The problem is that he actually likes people, and has some morals. Not many, he’s a liar and a user, but he’s not malicious. Has emotional affairs (this would really hook lonely women who are starved for emotional intimacy but don’t even realize it) with the wives because he actually pays attention to what they say/do, and remembers it when another gal has a complementary problem.

              At the story’s climax, he hooks up with a man-eating editor’s fake lesbian wife….

                    1. I knew at least two, three guys that pretend to be gay, because there are so many girls that feel safe around gay guys and enough of those that will try to “f(YAY!)k the gay out of them, because they’re so cute…”.

                      And one guy that works wedding planning that plays up poofy gay because that’s what his customers expect.

                      There are some very strange people out there. And, this is from me.

              1. Maybe something close to those lines…

                Somehow, everybody keeps thinking that he’s as queer as a three dollar bill. But, he’s got a cute butt and dresses well and knows how to be emotionally intimate and help women out (three older sisters). And, he can defend himself when somebody tries to beat him up (three older sisters…). And, he works the chain of deals from lady to lady to lady until he has to choose between true love or a career…and decides that the compromises he’d make to get a career he couldn’t stand to live with for a moment.

                Last scene is the same one as For Love Or Money, where the one person he’s been helping out…just because it’s the right thing to do, didn’t have a clue…is the right person he needed to help.

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