Home » The Business of Writing » Why book buying stats might stifle the next great author

Why book buying stats might stifle the next great author

28 December 2012

From The Globe and Mail:

Given the pressure to reduce costs, something had to give in the formerly genteel world of book publishing, and it’s not the publishers. Rationalizing with mergers, capitalizing on global fads and making up in digital sales some of what they have lost in print, the big houses are stubbornly resisting their oft-foretold extinction.

. . . .

The true dinosaurs of the new age are authors. Once happily enclosed in the “stables” of publishers willing to nurture and develop their talent, even if they never wrote a major bestseller, droves of so-called “mid-list” authors now find themselves roaming among the ever-present throng of wannabes flogging unpublished work in an indifferent market. And that throng is most likely to produce tomorrow’s bestsellers, even if they begin life as obscure, self-published digital texts that, onloy after they find a following, are taken up and heavily marketed to mainstream prominence by major publishing houses.

Many mid-list authors have fallen victim to increasingly sophisticated, widely available sales data, according to agents and publishers. Publishers can now assess every author’s lifelong sales thanks to such services as Nielsen Bookscan in the United States and BookNet Canada.

And once reduced to pure numbers, those track records determine the fate of proven writers looking for cash advances to begin their next books. “Everybody knows the numbers now,” Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski said in an interview. “You can’t lie about the numbers.” Retailers don’t order books from authors whose previous work sold indifferently, she added, so publishers respond by cutting them loose.

. . . .

“The professional authors are the ones who lose out,” Lorimer said. “They’re professionals, they’ve established themselves, but they’re not top-tier so they’re not going to have a runaway bestseller. They are going to find it very difficult.”

. . . .

Even the decline of advances is positive, said Good, former head of Penguin Canada. “It means that everybody’s basing what they pay on history and reality rather than hype and stars in your eyes,” she said.

Link to the rest at The Globe and Mail and thanks to Phil for the tip.

The Business of Writing

24 Comments to “Why book buying stats might stifle the next great author”

  1. *scratches head* How is this news? I started reading about these happenings years ago.

  2. “Once happily enclosed in the “stables” of publishers willing to nurture and develop their talent…”

    And that’s my home where dreams are born,
    And time is never planned.
    Just think of lovely things.
    And your heart will fly on wings,
    Forever in Never Never Land–
    Peter Pan by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carolyn Leigh


    • Yeah, I saw that line and thought, “Who do they think they’re fooling?”

      Those weren’t stables – they were cages.

    • I think a lot of newspaper reporters who are worried about being laid off have the idea that they could just as easily write books and earn a living.

      Part of this fantasy is that when the pink slip arrives, publishers with living-wage advances will be waiting to catch them.

      • Good point. I’d add that this is the fantasy of many other professions where people get laid off, too. It’s helped a number of my friends earn income teaching writing classes to people who think they’ll be novelists now that they’ve lost that day job. (One of my friends noted with surprise that so few people signed up for her classes in writing college-application essays or work resumes that those courses were cnaceled; but her novel-writing class was sold out early on.)

  3. The true dinosaurs of the new age are authors.

    Way to make the content producer sound irrelevant when it’s the purveyors who are. I wish someone had stifled the writer of this article.

    • Exactly–you’re only a dinosaur if you refuse to adapt!

    • Bear in mind that we are dealing with the terminally stupid here. The Globe and Mail is a newspaper: that is, it is a publisher in a segment of the industry which has been in decline for well over a decade, and at this time, though the decline is irreversible and almost certainly terminal, the patient is still in denial and blaming everyone else for spreading these slanderous rumours that he is unwell. The idea that publishers are the dinosaurs, not authors, is unthinkable to the Globe. Before such an idea could enter its corporate awareness, it would have to realize what century it is living in, and why it is unlikely to go on living much longer.

      • The [i]Globe[/i] also sees itself as a cultural icon, much like the NYT and as such it is the least likely paper to embrace a move away from big publishing. I’m sure the editorial board sees KDP/CreateSpace as nothing more than another vanity press.

        • Ah, yes, the cultural icon shtick. The Globe thinks it’s Canada’s answer to the NYT. At its best, it was Canada’s answer to USA Today — a thoroughly mediocre paper that just happened to be sold all across the country.

          Of course, it’s getting harder all the time to argue that the NYT is a cultural icon anymore, rather than a cultural fossil.

  4. “And once reduced to pure numbers, those track records determine the fate of proven writers looking for cash advances to begin their next books.”

    I suspect anyone who needs a cash advance to start a new book has already been overrun by the competition that doesn’t.

  5. Well. I love your comment, Barbara. Totally on point. This is a fantasy world.

    The picture the author paints: that publishers have been nurturing and financially supporting authors only because they never saw their sales figures, is so utterly ridiculous, it’s actually pretty funny.

    Well, it would be funny, if it wasn’t so hostile toward authors. I also suspect this is a scare tactic, designed to reach authors, scare them and make them ‘shape up’.

    I guess I’m not that worried though. I’ve heard Canada is abit behind the times in terms of indie publishing, but according to this article, indie publishing doesn’t exist.

    Well, it does, and authors, even way off in the faraway land of Canada, will find it.

    • find it? yes and not only find it but bet on it. Up here in Canada indie writers are popping out of the woodwork. I just had coffee with about 50 of them in a Toronto starbucks (indie writers club). Trust me, we’re all over it.

      And nobody pays attention to the papers. Funny thing: at the famous Word on the Street bookfestival over here in September, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star had stacks of free papers to give out to the attendees. They still had the same stacks at the end of the day. Nobody wanted their papers. ce la vie.

  6. I agree with all of the above comments. Guess I’ll never press finger to keyboard again… unless… Hey, anybody written fanfic about bondage, butt plugs and virginal heroines? Now that’s where the big money is~ in the BBVs.

  7. Maybe with all this laser-focused tracking of sales numbers they can start paying royalties on actual sales in a timely fashion?

    Shut up, Marc, that’s crazy talk.

  8. Wow, I was going to post a comment directly to the article, but there is no such option. The entire thing is based upon some very interesting magical thinking. Apparently, they think that authors will be dropped from the large publishers and then flock to the small publishers. Why would they just not flock over to Amazon and self publish and take their platform and named with them? It is not like the path is new, or unknown. It is basically a six lane freeway right now.

  9. I’m kinda late to comment here, but just wanted to point out that the Globe is a Canadian paper, and this article is really a coded lament for the late, (great?) departed McClelland and Stewart. “This” may have been happening for a long time in the US, but M&S had coasted a long time on their reputation for nurturing Canadian authors, not without some justification.

    They were the first to publish Lucy Maud Montgomery, Margaret Atwood (who did not sell well for quite some time), Leonard Cohen, Pierre Berton, Margaret Lawrence, Farley Mowat, Mordechai Richer etc.

    The golden years started in the ’50s, when Jack McClelland took over the company. When I worked for a literary agency in Toronto in the ’90’s, there was still an aura about the company. It was not just advances, it was the whole career. If you got an author signed to M&S, they would be taken care of.

    That changed in the next decade pretty quickly, when Avie Bennett bought the company. But lots of old timers were still kept on, with more-or-less automatic advances for new books.

    The final sale to Random House (they now own 100%) took place in 2011. Right now, I hear there is a bit of a blood bath taking place, with M&S (RH) releasing all kinds of authors who were being “nurtured” more or less indefinitely.

    So that’s why it seems fresh to a Toronto literary scene perspective.

    Anyway. I also agree with the comment that many journos in Toronto have, in the past, gotten book deals for pet projects just because they write for the G&M, and that is no longer happening.

    • Aha! It’s been a good many years since I made any attempt to follow the ins and outs of Toronto publishing — it has always been radically irrelevant to the kind of stuff I write, which is Not Canadian Culture no matter how many Canadians write and read it. So I was blissfully unaware of the bloodletting at M&S.

      I will at least have the decency to feel sad about it: I got my first kind and informative rejection from an M&S imprint, back in the days when such letters were painted on birch bark and sent by canoe. (Well, almost.)

      But I cannot bring myself to feel sad that Hogtown journalists are alarmed over the loss of an easy sideline. A considerable tranche of ‘Canadian content’ over the years has been written by persons who were just about skilful enough to say Voulez-vous des frites avec ça? in both official languages. Such people will not have far to seek for a job that matches their credentials.

  10. Happy New Year from a proud member of “the ever-present throng of wannabes flogging unpublished work in an indifferent market.”

    As I recently told a friend (and believe sincerely), I think the worst day of trying to promote your book as an Indie is better than the best day on the agent query-go-round. If and when you succeed as an Indie, you’ve made actual progress, while if you succeed in the agent rat race, you’re still at the starting line.

    But maybe that’s just me. 🙂

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