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The Publishing Business Is In Crisis

23 June 2014

From author Sara Hoyt via PJ Lifestyle:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

[P]ublishing 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.

Link to the rest at PJ Lifestyle and thanks to Andrew for the tip.

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29 Comments to “The Publishing Business Is In Crisis”

  1. Most of this was a screed against Hillary Clinton’s book for some reason. She talked about it tanking. I went and checked. It’s at #149 and #1 in several sub-categories on Zon. I’d like a book that tanked like that. Yes, publishing is in crisis. No news there but she kind of lost me though as she rambled on.

    • There have been several articles recently (including some posted here) about how easy it is to manipulate the bestseller lists and how there are active service companies that will do that very thing. Given the size of Clinton’s advance, I’d be stunned if her publisher wasn’t doing everything humanly possible to try to move that doorstop.

      OTOH, I visit a B&N at least once a week (passing though it to get into the mall 🙂 ) and it makes me smile a little bit every time I see the huge piles of that ghost-written fluff totally undisturbed.

      While Clinton’s not the first, nor will she be the last, to get her just rewards from the Powers that Be in the form of a ludicrous book advance, I think that political differences aside this is a pretty relevant item when discussing the state of modern publishing. It’s A Shore Thing for the literati and the cognoscenti, a means of signalling, not an actual informative piece, and the publisher blew seven figures for the privilege of publishing it. “How did we get in this mess?” wailed the publishers. “How indeed?” mused the wise.

      • So is the Zon ranking gamed the same way as the NYT bestseller list and others?

        • Bestseller ranking can be – although it’s much harder to game the Amazon ranks, because somebody has to plunk down the cash for the actual books. But if somebody buys it, somebody buys it, and that counts. Get a burst of sales, and you go up the rankings accordingly.

        • if you google how to make a bestseller on amazon, you will see the ways to game amazon. One ploy apparently is to email scads of people, tell them to buy the book all in one day designated. Apparently after the chum buy, the buyers can return the books if they wish. But it has raised the book into the top 100 of the tiny to large categories AMZ uses, and thereby, by gosh, is a Bestseller1

          This ploy I believe you will find among many kinds of self pub’d authors in the ‘sell you something’/ motivational/ fiction biz.

          • That definitely counts as gaming the system, but it far predates Amazon, and is used for other things besides books. My favorite band, The Cruxshadows (no I can’t be bothered with the little dots) asked their fans to all buy their new album on a certain day after it was released, and as a result got their first #1 Billboard Dance Single out of it.

            Whatever the metric is, there’s a way to game it. I just wish people were more realistic about the fact that it’s just as much gaming when you’re a TPH and have publicists to coordinate it as when you’re an indie and use your blog to do it.

          • USAF, according to David Gaughran in Let’s Get Visible you can use these ploys to run up the bestseller lists, but once the sales drop or stop, you fall back down just as quickly.

            • thanks Kathleen. I think for some, the point might be to just ‘get there’ even for a day to be able to put on book ‘amazon bestseller’ or other venues.

    • Approximately 17%, being very generous, of the words in the article are related to Clinton’s book in any way. None of them are about Clinton herself or any particular view or actions of hers. 😉

  2. I saw this yesterday. In between the ramblings, you find some good insights into the way things were in the 90s (and how little they’ve changed.)

  3. It was an interesting read until she turned it into a political screech…

  4. I dunno, I didn’t see a political angle as much as an anti-NYC corporate culture angle. (The Tri-state benchmark reference, the MBAs taking over, the creeping political correctness… It’s all NYC corporate culture.)

    The way I see it, if there ever was a book destined for major sales, it was Clinton’s. Everybody in the BPHs wanted it and now it looks like the only thing worse than losing that auction was…winning it.

    (Edit: S&S won that auction. Maybe CBS will be more willing to sell it now. 😮 )

    As near as I can tell, the “rant” really only runs the last 15-20% or so but it does make the point that the BPH “bestseller machine” has publicly misfired on this one. So either there is something wrong with the Clinton brand (which polls regularly show is not the case) or the bestseller machine slipped a cog. They misread the timing, the message, or they’re chasing readers that are going elsewhere.

    Hoyt is reading it as a publishing system failure; failing to promote a slam dunk. In the context of readers moving towards indie titles, she may be right. Certainly a few somebodies in NYC have to be hoping she is wrong…

    Anyway, the historical insider stuff is interesting.
    Now to go see who publishes her mysteries… 🙂

    Edit2: Berkley. Late of Penguin land.

    She’s picking big fights in this one.

    • “… it does make the point that the BPH “bestseller machine” has publicly misfired on this one. So either there is something wrong with the Clinton brand (which polls regularly show is not the case) or the bestseller machine slipped a cog. They misread the timing, the message, or they’re chasing readers that are going elsewhere.”

      I think the traditional publishing “bestseller machine” cannot churn out the megasellers like the days of yore because the indie era offers so many other choices for readers these days.

      This same thing has already happened in music, TV (so many more channels) and the movies as well.

      When the reader/viewer has massive choices, you rarely get the super-duper hits like you did when record labels controlled music releases or there were only three major TV channels.

      • In the TV, a surprising result is actually better quality on the broadcast networks. Now, instead of trying for the lowest common denominator on every show, they tailor them to specific audiences and instead of killing a show because they have enough episodes for syndication, they let them run as long as the audience is there.
        A lot more counterprogramming, too.

        Paying attention to the audience pays off.

  5. “[P]ublishing had been taken over by MBAs”

    Personally I get really irritated when people blame MBAs. Or other ‘classes’ of professionals. The blame, if there is blame, lies with the owners and CEOs who make the decisions and hire MBAa. The MBAs do a damned good job because they are smart and extremely well trained people.

    • The MBA issue is just a specific case of the general rule that a person with great depth of knowledge in a particular field will often assume that their expertise is more broadly applicable than in fact is the case. You can be extremely smart and extremely well trained, and if you try to sell lifestyle/entertainment goods as if they were fungible widgets, you will fail miserably no matter how sound your strategy. At best, you will simply fail to do much harm to the sales of something that was going to sell anyway.

      Granted, though, that the lion’s share of the blame should be placed on those who give the MBA’s more power than is justified over the operations of the company. If I send my genius AI programmer who has difficulty dealing with NI to a trade show, it’s MY fault when she alienates all the journalists by telling them their questions are stupid. She’s right: their questions are stupid. However, you’re not supposed to say that.

      • And you’re not supposed to send “real programmers” anywhere public without a translator. 🙂

      • Wait, what … you’re not supposed to say the questions are stupid?

        Ok, true story. I once embarrassed my boss by saying in a meeting that a idea proposed by one of his peers was stupid. After the meeting, he told me I couldn’t say things like that. So I agreed. I told him that henceforth, if an idea was stupid, I would just say that seemed like a “suboptimal approach.” Every time I said that in a meeting, he struggled to keep from laughing.

        So, when I write that legacy publishing has a suboptimal approach to ebooks, you all will know what I mean.

    • I’d agree Howard. It’s dunning a profession rather than calling out *by name* those who make crud decisions.

      Frankly, knowing some of the ‘hires’ you would not want them as friends. Some care not for human beings, are disassociated from social relationships, were hired not just to ‘keep track’ but to make policy… and unheartful people make decisions accordingly. It isnt the MBAs, nor even the absurdist notion that the Mohn family should put a guy with a Ph.D. in “Insurance” from Germany, in charge of Randy Pengie. It is the individual personalities, many of whom are true blue persons, but there is a deep and chronic typhoid Larry that runs through pub,as the result of those in decision making, who are jaded, who mock authors in private, who hold only to their jobs for the money and perceived power. Toto, however, has pulled the curtain back. Lucky for many. Very unlucky for the oligarchs.

  6. You kind of have to expect political stuff from Sarah Hoyt. She’s one of the Larry Correia/Michael Z. Williamson/John Ringo/etc. arch-conservative Baen SF writers crowd who fomented the Hugo voting bloc thing. Some of her political opinions are pretty far out there, and they color her writing in a lot of ways.

    That said, she does still tend to have interesting things to say if you can read around the politicking.

  7. Great post, Hoyt!

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