Alas, Poor Trad Publishing

The last week or so has been anything but smooth sailing for traditional publishing. You could almost believe the success of Brandon Sanderson’s oh so successful Kickstarter campaign kicked off a time of bad press and potentially horrible decisions by trad publishing that will have a long-lasting impact on the industry for not only editors and writers but readers as well.

Let’s start with yet another attempt by publishing to limit access to e-books by public libraries and, therefore, their patrons. I’ve written about this in the past as have others Mad Ones here. Basically, many traditional publishers have historically charged libraries a much higher fee for e-books than they do the individual “purchaser”. Not only do they charge libraries much higher prices, but these same publishers limit the use of the license to a number of check-outs or put a time limit on the “lease”. In other words, once that best selling e-book the library licensed has been checked out x-number of times, they have to buy a new license.

Now, on the surface, that doesn’t seem so bad. However, consider print books. Libraries are allow to either buy the book or they lease them. They do so without–in the vast majority of cases–any limit on the number of times the book can be checked out. But ooooooh, e-books are different. According to the publishers, there’s some sort of copyright violation by allowing unlimited checkouts without huge fees being assessed to the library.

What they don’t ever explain in reasonable terms, imo, is why it is different for e-books than for print books. Of course, these are the same publishers who think readers are foolish enough to believe an e-book should cost close to, or even more, than a print version of the same book for “reasons”. So I guess this shouldn’t surprise me.

For more info, check out this article.

But what really lit up Twitter and other social media outlets this past week was the “great resignations”. What really happened were some mid-level to low-level editors resigned and, for once, weren’t silent about it. When this handful of editors spoke out, others who earlier left the industry joined the discussion. Basically, they complained of being over-worked, under-appreciated and prevented from promotion by their more experienced and technologically-challenged supervisors.

None of which I doubt.

Nor do I doubt the same culture exists in other segments of the trad publishing industry.

What I find hard to do is pull together a great deal of sympathy for many of these who are now crying “foul!” when it comes to publishing companies eating their own. We’ve seen it happen for years. We saw it when so many of the mid-listers, many of whom were solid sellers the houses could count on year after year to not only put out enjoyable books but books that sold to a solid fanbase, were let go without warning. Books were canceled, contracts not renewed. And why? Because trad houses wanted to chase the next big thing and kept making poor choices that cost the houses big money and the short-sighted bean counters or someone thought the best way to recover the money was to get rid of the guaranteed money-makers.

It wasn’t all that long ago when we saw other lower level editors and support staff leaving or being let go. Again, it was because of poor financial decisions made by the houses and their solution wasn’t to change business plans but to cut employees. Add to that the deluded idea that publishers have to remain locked in NYC and its environs because that is where it has always been. Instead of saving money, and offering employees the choice of living in less expensive areas, publishers want to stay where they have always been because of some cachet only they seem to value.

Will either of these be the death knoll of traditional publishing? No. But trad publishing continues to show the idiocy of its business models and its refusal to adapt to changing times. Add to that the terror that probably went through the industry as news of Sanderson’s success on Kickstarter and you have some very worried and upset folks in NYC right now. I have no doubt there have been discussions with editors everywhere warning what will happen if another major author pulls “a Sanderson”. All those dollars pledged on Kickstarter could have come into the publisher’s pocket. Why didn’t it happen?

I again applaud Sanderson for what he did. I wish publishers would learn to adapt and adopt like he–and other traditionally published authors–have.

For more on the editors walking, check out this article.

Featured Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay

20 comments

  1. I just read an article, can’t find it now though I thought Peter had posted a link to it, about how the Friday Fish Feed was analogous to the disconnect between NYC/DC and flyover country. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that TradPub cloistered in NYC would be oblivious to how the real world works everywhere else.

    1. Of course not – and regional-interest books like mine, and the ones that I publish through the Teeny Bidness are beneath the notice of the Trad Pub Lords in NYC.

      1. Publishers are going to prefer books that they can sell to every market they sell to. . .

    2. It’s Salerno Zito and if you Google her name and fits fry you’ll get it. It was a nice article.

      1. Salena…my weird inability to see comments that I am writing strikes again.

  2. They have to save their money to give those multi-million-dollar advances to corrupt politicians, for books nobody will ever want to read.

  3. There are plenty of publishers outside NYC, I review about 60-70 books a year, Increasingly the publishers of the books I review are not in NYC. Why? Because the NYC publishers are increasingly publishing yawners. The exciting stuff comes from the sticks (and that includes university presses as well as trad publishers in flyover country).

  4. My thoughts, for whatever they’re worth:

    (1) On the library books: it’s not true that there’s no limit on the number of times that a paper book can be checked out. There’s no legal limit, but every reader puts a bit of wear and tear on the book. Corners get dog-eared or creased. Pages start to pull away from the binding. The book gets left in a hot car on a muggy day, and things start to deteriorate even faster. Eventually, the library is left with an assortment of more-or-less in order pages that are bound more with hope than glue and has a choice between taking the book out of circulation or buying a new copy.

    This isn’t to say that the publishers are right in what they’re doing, because I believe that the licensing fees they’re charging are absolutely ridiculous. There’s also the argument as to whether the wear on physical books is really a benefit or a harm to the publishers: is the money from the extra purchases from when a library decides to buy a new copy worth more than keeping older books in circulation indefinitely and thus generating interest ins some of the newer offerings? But I did want to point out that things are a bit more complicated than Amanda’s making them out to be.

    (2) On the resignations: the publishers likely figure that the Ivy League and Ivy League wannabee English departments are turning out a more-or-less infinite supply of graduates who will put up with almost any minuscule salary and unreasonable work hours in order to be able to tell their classmates, “Yes, I’m in New York working in publishing. How’s that secretarial gig in Akron working out for you?” But like Amanda, I find it hard to have much sympathy for these guys: not only has this been going on for years, but these “low-level employees” are some of the ones who’ve had the vapors at the idea of their employers publishing “conservative” books. Gee, guys, maybe if the Randy Penguin had the profits from publishing Jordan Peterson, they could afford to hire more help.

    Of course, to turn that around, it’s rather remarkable that the publishers are willing to indulge these stupid tantrums but don’t seem willing to deal with what seem like genuine workplace issues. They aren’t the good guys either. So in short, I think I’ll just make myself a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the literary equivalent of a pro-wrestling match.

    (3) A publishing issue that Amanda didn’t mention but that caught my eye this week: an author was withdrawn from consideration for an award for defending a friend against the mob:

    https://reason.com/2022/03/22/lambda-literary-lauren-hough-sandra-newman-transgender/

    On the one hand, Lauren Hough should be commended for defending her friend, but on the other, the tone of her defense seems very much, “But…but…you can’t cancel ME! Or my friend. We’re the good guys, unlike those hatey-McHatersons over there. Yes, of course you cancel TERFs, but we’re not TERFs!” Seems like another case of someone who fed the crocodile and is surprised when it then tried to eat her.

    1. I don’t know if libraries do this any more, but they used to be able to rebind worn paper backs into hardcover books.

      I absolutely loved finding those too. They were small enough for convenient reading, but were also hard backed books so they stood up to use, and were easy to hold onto. It took me years to realize they were all library rebinds of paper backs.

    2. #2) Web comic writer I used to follow a lot said the best thing you could do with an English Lit degree was join the Army.

      If you’re just an English lit grad, you’re one of a zillion working at the local café, but if you join the Army, you’ll be that one corporal who can write. And by the time you’re done, you’ll actually have experiences worth writing about.

      1. Yup – it worked for me, in the Air Force, and in my specialty, because I was always tasked with writing something (anything from a thirty second radio spot script, to letters of instruction, and performance ratings!) – and I didn’t have a phobia about putting words to paper, the way that some of my peers did. And I could spell, punctuate and use proper grammar, too. And when I was done with my twenty years, I had heaps of stuff to write about…

  5. I have heard that the money funding fiction tradpub comes from nonfiction and textbooks.

    It will be interesting to find out if the textbook market holds up should there be serious disruption to traditional education.

    1. I have . . . uncharitable thoughts about some (not all, but two in particular) textbook publishers because of the push to go digital. Yes, they can be “updated and corrected” instantly, and kept current, and come with neat digital supplements to help prep for major tests. None of which can be used on many student computers, and all of which depend on constant internet. No internet? No textbook. Older computer? No textbook.

      One outfit in particular seems to have reached the point that they are trying to squeeze every last penny out of schools and students before the company goes “poof!” But I’m biased.

      1. > “updated and corrected”

        Imagine, all that old text contaminated with badthink could be dismissed with a few mouse clicks, replaced by this week’s Truth. Other than some photocopies or screen captures, easily debunked, the badthink would be gone forever.

        Orwell had a few words on the subject, if I remember correctly…

  6. I saw in a couple of my writing groups that Sanderson had pledged support to some other writers’ Kickstarters, which if true would throw a wrench in the gears of some of the jealous hater types. The ones who think he should “spread it around” at least.

    1. Apparently Dragonsteel (his pub company) pledged support to every single fiction book Kickstarter campaign that was active on that certain day, including the one for “Four secret books by a non-famous writer.” Something like 79 campaigns, some of whom were only supported by the guy’s mom and Dragonsteel.

      Or at least, they were.

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