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The Reactive Business Model

8 January 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

As promised, I’m doing a lot of catch-up on the state of the publishing industry at the beginning of 2016. The reading is illuminating. Many things seem similar to the situation at this point last year, and many others seem so wildly different that it’s hard to believe only a year has gone by.

. . . .

For years now, I’ve been looking for a term to describe something that has increasingly irritated me about this new world of publishing. “Reactive Business Model” might just work.

I’ve been using the phrase “jumping on the bandwagon,” but it’s more than that. It also refers to herd marketing and non-creative thinking in all aspects of business and creation.

. . . .

 How The Reactive Business Model Works

The Narrative

Susie Q’s novel becomes a surprise bestseller. The publishing press (whatever it is) examines the bestseller. Someone (or someones) create a narrative that “explains” the success of the bestseller.

Narrative Number One

If most publishing professionals (whoever they are) hate the novel, the narrative becomes this:

Susie Q’s bestseller, The Surprise, sold half a million copies since its pre-Christmas release, making it the largest bestseller in the last half of December. Aggressive marketing combined with a hot topic have made this by-the-numbers novel reach the top of the charts.

The narrative will then examine exactly what the aggressive marketing campaign did, and why it was successful.

Narrative Number Two

If most publishing professionals (and/or critics) love the novel, the narrative becomes this:

The half-million copies of Susie Q’s novel, The Surprise, which appeared a few weeks ago have become a Christmas bonus for Extra Big Publishing House. Stellar writing, a savvy marketing campaign, and a bookstore blitz have provided the publishing industry with one of the biggest bright spots of 2015.

This narrative will continue with an explanation of the savvy marketing campaign, a mention of the bookstore blitz, and an examination of just what it is about The Surprise that makes it the novel of the year.

The Truth Behind The Music…I mean, The Narratives

One thing you must understand about these two narratives (and yes, there are usually only two) is that they are as big a piece of fiction as the book itself.

In traditional publishing, the narratives are designed to make the publisher’s effort paramount and the writer’s completely unimportant. Because of all of us who are writing at the moment grew up in a traditional publishing world, we’ve absorbed these narratives from the moment we decided to become writers—maybe even from the moment we became readers.

Look again at this sentence: In traditional publishing, the narratives are designed to make the publisher’s effort paramount and the writer’s completely unimportant.

Most of us, as writers, believe deep down that a publisher can make a bestseller. A writer can’t write one.

Why do we believe it? Because of Narrative Number One. If traditional publishing can’t figure out why a book everyone in the know hated sold well, then clearly, the book sold well because of the ads or the cover or the push that a select portion of the sales force gave it.

The book couldn’t have sold well because it was a good story. Because people outside of the literary bubble enjoyed the read.

And if crappy books sell well, then that simply proves the point: the only thing that will make a book sell is the proper marketing.

Before my comments light up with lists of crappy books that sell well, remember this: One reader’s crappy book is another reader’s favorite. At a certain level—and that level is often publication—we’re only discussing taste, not quality. There is no quantitative measure for the quality of a book.

. . . .

 The Reaction

Because traditional publishing gave up innovative marketing decades ago, they’ve developed a response to the surprise bestseller. First, the narrative. And then an analysis of the narrative. Finally, they act on that narrative.

Here’s what I mean by acting on the narrative.

Narrative Number One

So why did Susie Q’s craptastic book sell well? The narrative claims it’s all about the marketing. The marketing worked for The Surprise in (ahem) surprising ways. The cover was perfect—not too schlocky, a little different from the usual craptastic fare. The book debuted at San Diego Comic-Con where fans of the craptastic thrive.

Or maybe the book didn’t debut at all. Booksellers in the Midwest hand-sold it, and we all know that people in the Midwest have no taste, no discerning palate. They live in flyover country, for gods sake, communities everyone important tries to escape from.

Or maybe the book thrived in an ebook version first. That means it wasn’t about the cover or the hand-selling. It was all about the price. The book was priced higher than its competitors or lower than its competitors. Or maybe it was a Kindle Daily Deal (paid for by the publisher) or maybe the author herself did a successful Goodreads promotion. Maybe she’s on Wattpad and gave away the first three chapters there.

Or maybe she’s a heck of a promoter. Maybe she has her own YouTube channel. Maybe she spends every waking hour on Twitter. Maybe she gives speeches to three libraries a week.

Whatever it is—whatever they can blame the success on besides the book—they do.

And then what happens?

Every publisher on the planet looks at their upcoming list of books (never ever at the backlist) and tries to see which book is the most similar to The Surprise. Maybe, they have an entire list of books that fit into that genre.

Whatever they find, they decide to do whatever it was that the narrative claims made The Surprise such a success.

All of these publishing houses copy the cover. Not the art, not exactly. But the fonts, the structure of the cover (where the pull quote goes—if there’s a pull quote at all), maybe even the color palate, will be the same. The back cover copy will suggest the back cover copy of The Surprise. There might even be a pull quote from a famous author (also in the publishing house’s stable) that says, “If you liked The Surprise, you’ll love This Pale Imitation.”

All of the publishing houses will use the exact same marketing campaign that The Surprise used and God forbid if the narrative claims that the reason for the book’s success was because the author spoke to a dozen book clubs or did a blog tour. Because then the author is going to have to do those things.

Never once does anyone say, “Write a book like The Surprise.” Because “everyone” knows The Surprisesucked. So the traditional publishers mimic The Surprise’s success with “better” books.

Narrative Number Two

The only difference between the response to Narrative Number One and the response to Narrative Number Two is what happens with the editor and the writer.

All of the publishing houses will look at their upcoming lists and see if any books are “good enough” to mimic the success of The Surprise. Because the publishers are looking at “quality,” there won’t be an entire genre rebrand.

(This explains why publishers did not rebrand all of their science fiction lines after the success of The Martian. Because, y’know, The Martian is a good book with great voice and a sense of humor and “everyone” knows that science fiction is a crappy genre without voice or a sense of humor. (sigh) [bitter much, Rusch?])

Instead of the genre rebrand, a handful of already-turned-in books will get the same treatment as The Surprise. Maybe no already in-house book will get that treatment.

What will happen is that editors will get a mandate to find books “just like” The Surprise. And if the editors can’t find those books, then the editors better force their writers to manufacture them.

If The Surprise succeeded because it had an unreliable narrator or two (see Gone Girl), then the Just Like books need an unreliable narrator or two. If The Surprise succeeded because it had a twist every fifty pages, then the Just Like books need a twist every twenty pages.

Those books, once they’re in-house, will get the same treatment as the books rebranded because of Narrative Number One. These new books, which have been manipulated by the editor and sales force to be as close to The Surprise as possible, will also be marketed like The Surprise.

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10 Comments to “The Reactive Business Model”

  1. To boil it down to one sentence:

    Big Publishing is a cargo cult.

  2. A bunch of monkeys throwing their deposits at a wall.

    Something sticks!

    All the monkeys run over to the one with the sticky deposits and start squeezing them to try to get more (hopefully) sticky deposits to throw at the wall.

    ETA hope! 😉

  3. Craptastic is my new favorite word. It’s hilarious and existential at the same time.

  4. If something works, it seems reasonable to make money off it while it does. Reacting to a competitor’s success by copying what he does is normal commercial practice. It’s a tactic, not a business model.

    • I agree in general but I don’t think many people can duplicate in an ‘art’ setting. And it’s only a tactic if it doesn’t consume your energies.

      A lot of people profited from making 50 Shades knockoff’s so it isn’t impossible to make money reacting to success. But I’m not aware of anyone who came close to it’s success much less surpassed it. That’s not exactly a failure but to me it indicates they weren’t able to distill down what made 50 Shades big in the first place.

      I think indies can write to market but that doesn’t mean anyone will notice your 50 Shades is ‘better’ than the original or agree that you are better.

      The main problem is if you overestimate and can’t deal with not making your goal.

      • A book can be very successful without selling more than 50 Shades, being better than 50 Shades, or duplicatng the success of 50 Shades.

        I’d be delighted to make 1% of what 50 Shades made. Who cares if I distill the essence of what made 50 Shades work? Bet I’m not alone.

        Popularity of various entertainment subjects moves in waves through consumers. Riding those waves makes sense for a subset of authors.

        • Remember, it takes tradpub two years to get a book to market. So when they react to a surprise success, by the time they get the clones out the market will have moved on to the next wave.

          • And that’s why it’s such a good opportunity for a subset of independent authors. Captalize on the unexpected success of a traditionally published book, and squeeze it dry before the publishers can get on board.

  5. I do think indies are optimally poised to be able to take something that meets the surprise hit criteria and duplicate its success to some level. We saw writers do it with 50SoG, somebody probably has their version of The Martian ready to go by now (though they should have hit it while the book was making an indie splash of its own).

    All I know is, I want to write a book called This Pale Imitation. I think it’s a love story, set in a SF universe.

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