Built on Scarcity

18 March 2012

Another important essay from Kristine Kathryn Rusch provides a framework for understanding the clash between traditional publishing and self-publishers:

Traditional publishing, like network television, is built on scarcity.  In traditional publishing, “airtime” was shelf space. Only so many brick-and-mortar stores that carried books (of any type) existed. Those stores only had room for a certain amount of shelf space. Only a handful of books could fit face-out on those shelves. Several more could fit spine-out, but it’s harder to sell a book based on its spine than it is to sell a book based on the cover.

Because the shelf space is limited, traditional publishers only kept books with a fantastic sales record in print. The other books had a short shelf life before they were taken out of the stores and eventually out of print.

I called this the produce model, because I couldn’t think of any other way to express what was going on. Traditional publishers treated books like produce that would spoil because, in effect, sales do decline if a book has been out for a long time. (Sales don’t evaporate and in some cases, sales increase. But they will eventually plateau.)

. . . .

Amazon had unlimited shelf space—the abundance model, to use Kyncl’s term. If a book existed, that book was probably available on Amazon. Only readers weren’t used to buying over the internet, so they preferred brick-and-mortar stores.

As brick-and-mortar stores became scarce, readers went to Amazon (and Powells.com and Barnes & Noble.com—places that had books on shelves, and with a click of a button, those books were purchased and mailed to the customer). Amazon in particular encouraged this thinking by making its website user friendly, by reducing prices to nearly nothing, and by working very, very, very hard to make the entire experience consumer-friendly.

. . . .

Combining new and  used, like Powell’s and Amazon do, make it possible to order most books, in print or out of print.

Slowly, online book retailers were training the consumer to expect the abundance model.

But the traditional publishers still thought in terms of scarcity.

In fact, their entire business is built on it. The limited shelf space caused other issues. Over the years, traditional publishers had developed an arcane system of selling books. From returns (producing two books to sell one) to the distribution network (not selling directly to bookstores, but selling directly to distributors instead) had created a lot of unnecessary costs. (I explained some of this history in a previous post that you can access here.)

By the middle of the  previous decade, it cost at least $250,000 to publish a mid-list novel with a nice cover and an author advance of $10,000. At least $250,000, and often twice that amount. As in television, the cost of content was prohibitive.

. . . .

It is, in fact, the ultimate clash between scarcity thinking and abundance thinking. In abundance, you can toss anything into the mix, quantify its sales, and pick winners based on sheer numbers. In scarcity, you have to go with the best of what’s available, and hoping (praying) that you don’t lose too much money on everything else.

Everyone currently working in traditional publishing, from the publishers to the editors to the writers, learned the scarcity attitude. Everyone. That includes me. That includes any unpublished writer who tried to break in before 18 months ago. That includes agents. That includes book reviewers, copy editors, book editors, and the publishing executives.

Our attitudes got formed in a model based on limited shelf space and expensive production costs. On “gut” decisions instead of quantifiable decisions.

On the idea that rarity increases value.

Each book becomes precious. Each book needs time to produce. Each book must be perfect, because its debut on the world stage is brief, and its ability to capture an audience limited.

. . . .

In the world I grew up in, no reviewer would ever review a title more than six months old. What was the point? The book would be hard to find, and the reviewer would have wasted a lot of wordage (and column inches) on something that would only make his readers angry because they couldn’t find the book in question.

Now, since so many of us have our backlists up, book bloggers review titles as they find the titles. Just this week, bloggers reviewed books I’d written ten, twelve, and fifteen years ago. Other bloggers reviewed some short stories published in magazines five years ago and now available as e-books. In the past, those stories would have been forgotten. Now they’re being read—not by millions of readers, but by hundreds in the past six months alone.

. . . .

One way that [publishers are] reacting, for example, is attempting to limit writers. By making their writers sign non-compete clauses in contracts, traditional publishers are trying to recreate the scarcity model. Unfortunately, they can’t. They might make one particular writer’s work scarce, but they won’t make other work scarce.

In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake. Consumers who expect everything they want at their virtual fingertips get angry when they can’t get something. We’re seeing that a lot with traditionally published bestsellers. For a while, traditional publishers tried to release the e-books six months after the print books. All that did was anger the consumer, who wanted their e-book now.

Traditional publishers thought scarcity—the lack of an e-book—would drive consumers to the hardcover. Instead, it made the consumers so mad that they actually wrote nasty online reviews of the books in question. Not a nasty review of a book’s content, mind you, but a nasty review of the book’s lack of availability.

Writers raised in traditional publishing make similar mistakes. In the scarcity model, having a publishing contract equals security. Traditional publishing contracts were (are) rare, and were (are) hard to come by, so a writer who had one had achieved something major. Writers who had more than one contract over the years had managed to prove themselves valuable. In a world of limited resources, when a major company spent those resources on a writer, that writer knew she had value.

That’s why writers saw publishing contracts as validation. And, as traditional publishers tossed books out into the produce heap, the writer had to prove her value over and over again. Because every traditional publisher relied on gut instinct as much as numbers (if not more than numbers, since numbers are so unreliable throughout all of traditional publishing), intangibles like a good review in a respected publication (like The New York Times Book Review) added value. Again, a good review in a respected publication was rare, scarce, something that didn’t happen often.

. . . .

All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was—by definition—short-lived.

Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Big Publishing, Bookstores, Indie Bookstores, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Self-Publishing

9 Comments to “Built on Scarcity”

  1. This analysis is spot on in terms of how scarcity versus abundance influence the purchasing decisions of the reader. But the most interesting paragraph is this:

    In the scarcity model, “Each book becomes precious. Each book needs time to produce. Each book must be perfect, because its debut on the world stage is brief, and its ability to capture an audience limited.”

    Flip this statement and you have: In the abundance model, a book’s time on the world stage is potentially unlimited. Therefore each book need not be perfect.

    The abundance model encourages the writer to produce more, faster. Quality becomes a lesser goal. The key to success, in the self publishing world, is to build a backlist as quickly as possible. Rarely do I come across any post or comment suggesting that a writer devoted more than six months to a manuscript. There will still be amazingly crafted books available to the reader. But the abundance market must affect the average quality of the product. It has to. Please don’t mistake my intent: I’m not saying that all quickly produced works are bad, or that works taking longer to produce are by definition higher quality. I’m saying that the emphasis on volume, and the lack of barriers to publication, provides incentives whish must affect the average quality of the work. This in my opinion is the primary risk of the ease of self-publishing, and it’s a risk that affects writers more than readers.

    • I’ve been in 3 worlds. I started in traditional publishing, moved into television, and now it’s digital. When you write for television, a show is produced every day. There’s no luxury of time, thought, development, reflection, rewriting. A show has to be produced and the words are needed. Write some! Then I had a long stretch where I can easily say I worked on some books for 5 years.

      Every once in a while now I feel like I’m back in television. I know things could be massaged, I know they’re a little raw and baking longer would help (me, anyway, I’m not convinced anyone else would notice) but we all are finding the “good enough” point. Go with it, get it out. There are only a couple of my books that I haven’t revised later and republished. Correct a typo, add a scene, change all the names, what’s the difference? It doesn’t cost anything. You sure don’t have to put the set back up and pay the actors to come back to retape a show.

    • That’s one point I’ve been considering a lot lately. Look at Amanda Hocking for example. A lot of her books had typo’s and grammar mistakes. The characters and storylines resonated though and when she started selling she did get some of it fixed. People who get past the mistakes had a fun read, those who couldn’t moved to other authors.

  2. The biggest mistake the traditional publishing world is making is blaming the reader for the new abundance model. When you tell us that we’re acting entitled because we’re unhappy that you’ve windowed the ebook, or raised the prices, or tried to prop up your dying hardcover business, you’ve told us that you think we’re spoiled little children. We’re not, but we have recognized that the world has changed, and we don’t have to wait around for you to change with it.

  3. This is a very good blog. We spend so much time debating and lamenting the scarcity model instead of figuring out the abundance model. Quantity is the answer to the abundance model, or so it seems. I don’t think so. Quality will always be the answer. In spite of the oversupply of books, there continue to be a scarcity of consumers/readers, and that scarcity will demand quality. Although it is easier to publish a book today, if you want to succeed as an author quality must be the number one goal.

  4. Spot on! Great post! – but I disagree with Barron – In the abundance model works will have to be special to get noticed on average. Works will have to offer the reader something new and fresh. Traditional publishers are floundering because they don’t create the content that they used to have complete control over. They don’t know how to successfully control it and they won’t find a way to. The internet has brought the cost of publishing so low that artists now have the power to control their own careers. WOOT!

    • I’m speaking only for myself here. The creative process differs among individuals. My main point is that the lack of impediments to self-publication encourages a writer to value prolific output over quality. When you write for an existing TV series you have a contract and a deadline. Tossing one’s novel into the Amazon maelstrom is an entirely different prospect. The way the abundance model dangles the promise of immediate income before the writer is bound to affect how people approach the work.
      I am Konrath fan. I groove on how he and Barry Eisler speak truth to power. But as I labor at revision, Konrath’s voice sounds in my ear, saying “what are you waiting for?” and his voice sometimes clashes with my goal for the finished work.

      • RE goals – I think it depends on what your view is. I am looking at every project with a 10-year lens. I intend to be writing and publishing in 10 years. The last thing I want is to put something out that I will be embarrassed about a decade from now. I mean, it’s one thing to look at a project from my past and see how I’ve grown as a writer and therefore how I would do it differently. It’s another to look at something and know that I intentionally let something less than the best I could do at that time, with that skill set, out into the world.

        So…I think I’m saying fist-bump to taking the time not just to finish but to polish?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.