The Publishing Business Is In Crisis
This is Sarah and this week I realized that traditional publishing is in more trouble than I thought. In fact it’s entirely possible the end is nigh at least for the business as it’s been since I entered.
You see, there have always been cracks and signs of break down amid the glitzy façade of traditional publishing. Most of it, though, was the normal churn of the business, as it changed and tilted and adapted, for a certain version of adapting, to new conditions.
When I came into this field I was told two things by older and more experienced colleagues. One of them was that for all its glitzy innovation and its very real new ways of doing business, the publishing business remained at heart a nineteenth century business: contracts weren’t as important as a hand shake; who you were as someone for people to work with was more important than cold hard sales; your publisher would take care of you. All of these things – except for one publisher in the field (Baen Books) – were a lie by the time I started in the late nineties. Well, maybe not the first. If your book was a year late in being published, and technically out of contract (my very first published book, Ill Met By Moonlight, now indie) the contract meant nothing.
This was my first experience with the fact that the book business was in fact not a nineteenth century business, but a fourteenth century one. You came in and you were an indentured serf. No matter how badly you were treated, you had to be nice to the Lord, because he held your life in his hands. And no matter how badly you were treated, the other Lords would side with each other and conspire to keep you in servitude and destroy you if you spoke out against it.
The second thing I was told when I came in was “the publishing business is in crisis. And it’s always been.”
This was meant to imply that for all the moaning and bitching from publishers about how bad things were (usually when making an offer for a book) things went on and the publishers continued being paid their salaries and their pensions and writers had both the security of knowing the business would continue and the awful certainty it would continue the same way – with them as peons.
This was the same kind of truth as the one above. To an extent it was true. You saw churn and failing lines and ups and downs in the field, but the field went on, no matter how many times your publisher told you they were effectively broke.
Except it wasn’t true in another way. For all the “keep on keeping on” the average print run for your “normal” (midlist) author had changed drastically, from around 70K or so books in the seventies, to around 7K nowadays.
The excuses abounded: “People no longer read” and “It’s all the other entertainment media” and even “Our books are too smart/daring/special for those dumb readers.”
Truth of course was nothing of the kind, as most of us who are readers knew. It’s more that the books that were being offered and how people found them had changed profoundly under the cloak of business as usual.
How many of you in the past twenty years or so went into a chain book store and came out with no books and disappointed? You remembered perfectly well going to the convenience store around the corner and against your will spending your last dime on a paperback because it looked so good, but now here you were, in a chain store, surrounded by metric miles of books and unable to find anything you even wanted to look at.
I realized around the early nineties that my reading life had changed. It had changed because I rarely found a book I wanted to read. Reading remained my main form of entertainment, but in the mid nineties I turned to fanfic on line, because I couldn’t find anything to read in the stores.
The problem was this: most of the books on the shelves, whether at our large indie store, or Barnes and Noble, or Borders (all then within easy distance from my house) completely failed to interest me. And I read Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and both popular history and historical novels.
However, with very few exceptions, no matter what I got from the shelves in SF/F it always turned out to be a lament about oppression, a glorification of victimhood or a “Humanity is vermin on the Earth” book. So I stayed home and re-read my Heinleins until they became part of my thought process.
As for Mystery it went through a long slog of trying to be “realistic.” I don’t read mystery to read about real cops doing their jobs, which, like most other jobs, are boring day-to-day routine, even when the results turn out exciting. And I certainly don’t read mystery to come up in the end against the conclusion that there is no justice in this sad workaday world. For that, I read the news.
I knew what the issue was, at least to an extent. As a would-be writer I’d bought a ton of how-to-write mystery books, all of whom sneered at Agatha Christie and explained to us that cozies weren’t “real” mysteries. In real mysteries, professionals solved murders, and the professionals were always right. This maligning a fiction genre because it isn’t “real” is something that could only make sense to intellectuals. People on the street know enough to say “of course it’s not, you dope. Real life isn’t FUN and fiction is supposed to be. In fact, this is still going on. See this for instance, which a friend of mine characterized as the publisher equivalent of a chocolate manufacturer complaining that the customers liked sugar and not ground glass in their chocolate and were therefore “unsophisticated rubes”
That is part of how the business had changed. It had changed to becoming a “push” business in which the customer would take what the publishers wanted to sell them and like it. (Which is why even when "cozy mysteries" came back, we kept getting weird waves of stuff no one wanted to read, like the solid two years when EVERY character in a mystery sounded like a Sex in the City character to the point even this shoe addict had no interest in it.)
But publishing had been taken over by MBAs and had been concentrated in the hands of six conglomerates. Selling books the public wants to read is fickle. You never know what those rubes your clients will want. Look how they embraced Dune which was published by a tiny press. Who could have guessed they’d like it? And why had all those mom and pop bookstore owners pushed this obscure book from nowhere?
When publishing fell in the hands of people trained to manage businesses predicting how a book would do was REALLY important. It was also impossible. So the new CEOs moved to do what dictators always do: eliminate the human factor.
Slowly -- helped by changes in book retail, which in turn was helped by giving discounts to chain bookstores and leaving mom and pop’s out in the cold -- they turned book selling into a "command economy". Someone at the top had a five year plan, predicted how much each book would sell, and it sold that. This was accomplished by telling the stores how many books to stock and it was aided and abetted by stores stocking the same books in a “tri-state area” and also stocking according to “publisher confidence,” i.e. how many books the publisher said they would sell. Fortunately the new bookstore managers were “Sales Professionals,” not readers, so very few read or hand-pushed a book. Also fortunately most of those messy power readers whose main form of entertainment was reading (on vacation I can power through six novels a day, while doing stuff with my husband and sons on the side) had given up. They were re-reading their extensive collection, or they kept changing genres in search of one that was still fun to read. (In the early two thousands I found that most of my friends were now reading popular history because, bizarrely, it was less politically correct than fiction. It didn’t last. The publishers caught on and started pushing PC there too. In fact, about five years ago, when things started falling apart for them, they were in the process of doing this to Romance, where I’d been driven to escape their insanity. I read my first romance in my thirties, and by five years ago was reading five or six a day. And then all the new releases featured historical heroines who were suffragettes or modern-day-style feminists, or evil business owners, or… you know the drill and so do I.)
The result were lowered print runs, but by gum, the publishers had total control on how a book would do. If they targeted you for bestseller, you’d become one, even if they had to fudge the numbers to do it. (Look, the numbers are inherently fudged because according to the publishers themselves, they pay according to Nielsen numbers. Those of us who have become publishers and know what ships know that Nielsen represents at best one-third of books sold. For some books – those that sell in less traditional markets, like military-base stores or comic bookshops – it represents one tenth or less of sales. Yes, you’d think it would be a matter of counting how many books shipped and how many were returned, but trust me, because of legacy systems it’s far crazier than that. And even ebook sales, due to the byzantine way in which they’re reported, are very hard if you’re keeping track for anyone but yourself.)
This worked about as well as you expect of top-down systems. By the time Amazon came along, we were more than ready for them. Don’t let the Amazon-whiners deceive you. If everything had been fine in publishing – say if Amazon had come around in the seventies – it would have had an impact, but not nearly as large.
But Amazon moved in on a vacuum. Even now, the main publishers don’t get it (as Joe Konrath proves, taking Hachette to task.) Suddenly readers could find the authors that never got stocked, and found out that hey, books were still being published they wanted to read. (From the other side, the authors’ statements didn’t change much, even though they suddenly found themselves hailed as celebrities by neighbors and repairmen who came to the house. Strange. It’s almost like those numbers are the ones the publishing house decided on, and not what really sold. Some day, when my husband has time, he’s going to do a dissection of my mystery royalty reports, where – I swear – the print run changes in a quantum manner, to avoid paying me royalties. It’s obvious even to me that they’re lying, but my husband is a mathematician and will have lots of fun with it.)
Then Amazon opened the market to self-publishing, and people could find things that they wanted to read that insulted neither their intelligence nor their political beliefs.
Thereby precipitating whining, denial and outright illegal price-fixing from the publishers.
But you know, I didn’t quite believe in the revolution. Oh, I believed I could make a living from it, at least at the level I was making. Witchfinder proved that, if nothing else. (Though I need to bring out the two sequels soon or sales will crash. Indie has low attention span, because it’s spoiled for choice.)
However for real push, for real penetration of market, traditional publishing still held control. They could still make something a bestseller if they wanted to and pushed enough. Or at least so I thought.
I saw some signs it might not be so, because if I’m right, they tried to push Night Circus to the same level of publicity as Twilight. It didn’t get there. Nowhere near.
But then maybe I was wrong, because this was like a middle school chick watching the boys to see who liked her, or the free world watching the May day parade to see who was in and who was out at the Kremlin. One thing was sure, we’d get things wrong.
And then this week, I saw the walls tumble down. I saw the statue of Lenin dragged through the streets.
Oh, sure, they spin it. They’re publishers. They know how to spin. They’ve been doing it for decades. They say it’s selling well enough. They say it’s the “changing book market.” But it’s not.
"“The rollout was touted as the best planned book tour ever, meticulously crafted by the smartest Hillary aides, publishing PR gurus, and the savviest superagents," writes another publishing source.
"The book will probably debut on the bestseller list at number one and then fall like a rock. After the smoke clears, with tens of thousands of books sitting in warehouses collecting dust, there’ll be a lot of handwringing and probably a few people without jobs."
The book will debut on the bestseller list, because that’s determined not by books bought but by "laydown", i.e. how many books the publisher shipped. (Bet you didn’t know a book can be a “bestseller” without selling a single book.
What you might not appreciate from the outside is how amazing, how impossible this is. They still have control over what ships (and therefore gets on the bestseller list for at least one week), they have control over the figures they show, they have control over publicity, they can strong-arm bookstores to stock a book and to push it. And you bet your bottom dollar they deployed all this in favor of Hillary.
And it tanked. It tanked so publicly, so visibly, it can’t be denied.
Even five years ago, they could push Obama to bestsellerdom, whether that was true or Memorex. (Those of us with experience saw a lot of discounted Obama merchandise, but never mind.)
Now they can’t. And if they can’t do it for Hillary! having pulled all the stops, then they certainly can no longer do it for the industry darlings, those politically correct parrots they’ve been pushing up readers’ noses for years. They can still probably lie about those. They’re not as public a flop as Hillary. But all the lies and all the gloss won’t save them from losing their shirts.
Will they go bankrupt? I doubt it. As we’ve learned with Russia the fall of evil empires is complex.
However, it’s safe to say their domination of the market is over.
I’ve seen the equivalent of Lenin’s statue dragged through the streets this week. They can’t take that away from me. And they can’t take my freedom. I’m like one of those East Germans who, when the wall came down, rode their Trabants as far as they could and then walked away, west, ever west, many of them ending up in Portugal, by the sea.
As both a writer and a libertarian who decries the domination of the left-pc point of view in our culture, I’m perhaps more moved by this than the average person. Forgive me the religious-sounding quotation. I’m going to quote Elizabeth the first, quoting the Bible. When, against all odds, she found she had survived her two siblings (without being killed) and become Queen (news were brought to her in the tower, so it was a near thing) she’s reported to have said “This is the day the Lord has made, and it is marvelous in our sight.”
And so it is.
Hat tip to reader Laura Montgomery, who points us to Indie Author Land:
Their "about us" page describes them as:
But since you’re here, this is what there is to know: Indie Author Land is run by a couple. She is a journalist covering the arts, and he is a computer programmer. Neither one of us is an author, but we are both voracious readers and both want to contribute, in whatever way we can, to the creation of good fiction.
Hence, Indie Author Land…
The site is growing, and this is what we want. Our idea is for that growth to be organic, fluid – growing to fill whatever void it may come across.
(And, selfishly, helping us find our next favourite book!)
They sound like the right kind of folks.
In Avalon, where the world runs on magic, the king of Britannia appoints a witchfinder to rescue unfortunates with magical power from lands where magic is a capital crime. Or he did. But after the royal princess was kidnapped from her cradle twenty years ago, all travel to other universes has been forbidden, and the position of witchfinder abolished. Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater, son of the last witchfinder, breaks the edict. He can't simply let people die for lack of rescue. His stubborn compassion will bring him trouble and disgrace, turmoil and danger -- and maybe, just maybe, the greatest reward of all.
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Jason, a merchant sailor and the fourth son of a Duke, arrived in Boston just in time to get caught in the brewing turmoil over the tea stored on three ships.
Oona was there to help, anxious to be a part of the town’s search for freedom and independence. She did not expect, while she stuck feathers in dark wool caps and boot black on familiar faces, to see a smile she had not seen for ten years. When the man attached to the impish grin picked her up and kissed her while the crowd of disguised men howled, it was as if her dreams had come true
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Slivy, the daughter of a cop killed in the line of duty, is unhappily partnered with Detective Wilbur Pendleton, the annoyingly pompous son of the police chief. Together, they chase elusive clues and watch each suspect slither away.
Stumped by the evidence and stymied by Slivy's recurrent nightmares, the investigation stalls until Slivy uncovers a sordid family secret that brings her face-to-face with the murderer and drags the detective into the heart of her own spine-chilling nightmare. There, she confronts the demons of her past and the challenges of her future.
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FROM THE DEPTHS of a tunnel to the peak of a mountain, a soldier rarely chooses his battlefield …
Sir Jacien Blyne of Newelen was coming home, but a conspiracy has formed in his absence to overthrow the kingdom. Given no time for rest or to reconcile with his wife, Jacien must take up arms once again.
Along with a cave-dwelling Daferin and a disciplined female warrior, Jacien will face an overwhelming enemy with the advantage of Reticulative Magic on its side.
His chances, however, are irrelevant when his country is at stake.
Unfortunately, the invaders want more than Newelen.
Helen and Martine run unusual establishments: "sex shops" in Los Angeles and New York that never ask payment for their wares. They aren't there to make a monetary profit. Their mission is more serious than that. As priestesses of fleshly desire, they seek to spread erotic knowledge throughout Mankind. Quoth Helen: "A dollop of physical pleasure here and there, a little instruction in the ways of the body, a helping hand toward the fulfillment of this marriage or that affair, can sometimes avert the most terrible alternatives you could imagine." Erotica for good people.
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For his sin, the others banish Aguirre to the solitary path.
Seventeen years later, Magian are being slaughtered, and with a kind of power no magus has ever seen before. Suspicion quickly falls on Aguirre, who realizes that his only hope is to find the truth himself. So Aguirre turns his back on those who have already turned their backs on him, and with the Magian in pursuit, he races to save his own kind before they kill him first.