Home » Amazon, Big Publishing, Bookstores, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » Strategies to cut overheads in a shrinking book business

Strategies to cut overheads in a shrinking book business

31 July 2017

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

An inexorable reality of today’s commercial book publishing world is that it is shrinking.Although there have been no obvious signs yet that actual long-form book reading itself has declined (even though that would seem a likely consequence over time of the changed ways we get our reading inputs), the self-publishing and indie segment of the market keeps growing at the expense of the legacy commercial business.

Although it would take data I don’t have to prove this, it certainly appears anecdotally that the big houses are cutting back their investment in midlist titles, perhaps actually cutting future title count (which, over the years, has been an often-espoused but seldom-pursued strategy) but also offering smaller advances for all but the very top books.

Sales seem to be drifting away from the established publishers as their title outputs shrink or remain static and are shifting to Amazon’s own titles and indies, which is where the title base is expanding.

When businesses are shrinking, or even just not growing, it is a normal reaction to find ways to cut costs to maintain margins and profits. And, in fact, the big publishers have generally been managing their costs pretty effectively during a period of flat or declining top line sales.

In that context, it was no real surprise when it was publicly announced last week that F+W Publishing, which recently changed ownership, will cut overheads by moving from doing their own sales and distribution to working instead through Perseus, an Ingram company.

Meanwhile, the whole legacy industry worries about the future for Barnes & Noble.

Last week a significant Barnes & Noble shareholder called publicly for the chain to offer itself for sale, apparently calculating that new (and perhaps “private”) ownership would see paths to profits that aren’t being followed right now. This follows continuing evidence that B&N’s overall sales track the legacy business, and are therefore declining. Amazon, of course, is not just the principal creator and beneficiary of the new competitors, primarily independent authors. They are also moving from being an online-only retailer to competing in B&N’s milieu: physical locations offering books.

. . . .

Amazon’s supply chain, built on a scale that the book business alone could never support, is now the gold standard. It will enable them to continue rolling out smaller stores, which is the kind of outlet that can succeed in today’s book marketplace. The stark fact today is that more than half the sales are online (and despite BN.com and the increased frequency of online book peddling from authors and various vertical organizations enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io and its competitors, almost all of those go to Amazon).

Big in-store inventories have become a pointless anachronism.

It is cheap sport to ridicule Barnes & Noble’s performance in the Internet age. They’ve made many of the standard incumbent mistakes in the face of upstart competition. They dealt themselves out of the online business by not pursuing either of the two most likely paths to success. They should either have made their dot com a stand-alone business, with pricing and growth aspirations beyond books that competed with Amazon, or they should have tightly integrated the online and store offerings to produce a hybrid that had its own appeal. They did neither.

. . . .

The shrinkage of the commercial business has other visible impacts. There is anecdotal evidence that the agents are suffering from these cutbacks. One much-younger-than-I-am publishing veteran recalled for me that when he started agenting (he no longer is active in that aspect of the business) a dozen years ago, he could live on his salary as a fledgling agent and he could really “build a list”. Neither of these things seem to be possible anymore, or at the least they are much more difficult. Meanwhile, even the older agents — those who have a list of productive authors — are finding it get harder and harder to make sales. And like publishers of a certain age, these agents don’t find their own progeny or their younger staff as willing to commit money or time to the future of the business as they would have expected them to 10 or 20 years ago.

Present trends clearly suggest that we will continue to have fewer commercial publishers signing up fewer books for smaller advances outside the handful of authors that are virtual guarantees to deliver big unit sales. And for those books that do have an assured big unit sale, publishers will tend to be willing to overpay because they need throughput to feed their fixed-overhead machines.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG has disagreed with more than one of Mike’s posts in the past. In this instance, PG doesn’t disagree with the way Mike has characterized the current business climate for publishers. Mike has described the serious (likely fatal) problems of the traditional book business utilizing perspectives and information sources only a long-time publishing professional would understand.

However, as far as a solution for Barnes & Noble’s or the publishing industry’s overall problems, PG is reminded of an old business adage, “You can’t cut your way to success.”

Unless there is a reason to believe that a smaller book business will, by virtue of its size, gain access to powerful strategies, tools and talents that the larger one can’t obtain, cutting expenses is just trying to keep the Titanic afloat by tossing buckets of water overboard.

For authors, PG will repeat his harangue that the “standard” publishing contract that will last for the term of the author’s copyright – the remainder of the author’s life plus 70 years in the US and similar lengths of time in other countries – puts traditionally-published authors into a very difficult situation. They’re the only ones who can’t jump ship and take their sources of income with them.

Traditionally-published authors have signed a contract that ties up their books basically forever. The contract is with a publisher that is a corporate entity, not a person.

Although the publisher’s past record of selling books or an editor’s reputation for quality work developing other authors’ careers may have been a key element in deciding to place the author’s book with that particular publisher, the editor and the people who worked hard to establish a successful sales record are not parties to the contract. They have no obligations to the author or to the publisher. The publisher probably has no long-term obligations to the people who built the publisher’s reputation.

Cutting your way to success often means firing people with the highest salaries. Cutting your way to success can also mean ruthlessly pruning expenses so the corporation can be sold to an entirely new owner.

The author has no voice in choosing a new owner for the publisher and no ability to change the lifetime term of the publishing contract.

The new owner will undoubtedly be another corporation. That corporation may be operated by people who are experienced and skilled in the book business or the new owner may be a hedge fund that specializes in sucking the last dollar from distressed properties prior to placing them into bankruptcy where even lower bottom-feeders will pick over the bones of the once-successful publisher.

And the author continues to be an unwilling participant in the process by virtue of the lifetime plus 70 contract she signed.

Visitors to TPV can decide whether publishers operated by bottom-feeders will be conscientious about sending out timely and accurate royalty reports. And royalty checks.

If an author has an obligation to give the publisher first option on new books or is prohibited from writing books that will compete with those the publisher has already published, how likely is it that the bottom-feeder will promptly respond to the option manuscripts or agree that the new books are not competitive so the author can sell those books to another publisher or self-publish them? A bottom feeder might decide that the author should pay a fee to obtain clearance to take each new book elsewhere.

PG reflexively takes the author’s side in business transactions with others. As he has mentioned before, Mrs. PG is a long-time author, first traditionally published and, in recent years, very happily self-published.

He lays out these possibilities and probabilities not to ruin the day for a traditionally-published author, but as a warning to act like a business person who sees a big storm on the horizon and take whatever precautions are available to minimize the financial and emotional damage which is likely to occur based upon current trends in the book business.

Amazon, Big Publishing, Bookstores, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

79 Comments to “Strategies to cut overheads in a shrinking book business”

  1. “An inexorable reality of today’s commercial book publishing world is that it is shrinking.”

    Gee, maybe strangling ebook sales wasn’t such a good idea.

  2. His advice to B&N pretty much boils down to

    1. Get rid of the supply chain and rely on Ingram, which would free up money &tc.

    2. Smaller stores, and just generally get your act together.

    I, for one, will not hold my breath.

    • Felix J. Torres

      The funny thing is the supply chain might be the more useful/valuable part of B&N.

      Shatzkin’s looking for ways to keep B&N in the book business instead of ways to maximize shareholder value. The two are not the same and at some point somebody in charge at B&N will conclude B&N best interests no longer lie serving the BPHs. After all, he did get that much right: B&N’s decline is tied to the BPHs’ decline.

      He even addressed it in the comments, sparring with Nate. Missed the implications, though.

      • I would say B&N’s decline is more related to the decline of physical retailing.

        Book sales moved online, remember?

        • Shatzkin does have a point though: with Indie, inc taking over genre sales (as you pointed out) at $2.99-4.99 the BPHs can be expected to stay out of that space. Which they have done. That means less traffic for B&N stores.

          The migration to online is driven by price as well as convenience and if B&N’s suppliers won’t meet the market’s going rates or even abandon the field…

          How many romance readers do you think are making weekly pilgrimages to B&N these days? That alone accounts for a good chunk of their traffic decline.

          • I maintain that the biggest problem in traditional publishing is their focus on trying to force readers to buy (and maybe read) material they aren’t interested in. They do this to push their own tastes, literary favorites, and cronies. Money is diverted from popular genres, and back catalogues, to finance this money losing enterprise motivated primarily by snobbery and influence peddling. (Someone has to find the money for those multimillion dollar advances for politicians who don’t sell any books.)

            Retail isn’t dead, it just needs to fight for its life against tough online competition. People will still go out to shop for fun and in the process buy stuff that catches their eye. But if everytime they go into a bookstore, all they see is stuff they aren’t interested in, being pushed to the front of the store because of co-op money, they aren’t going to keep coming back. And every time they are told some new piece of literary fiction is a “must read” and turns out to be drivel, they are less likely to think that bookstores (and maybe even reading) have anything to offer.

            I’m sure romance readers could be lured into bookstores by plenty of stock, book signings, and creative efforts to attract them. But the traditional publishers still look down their noses at the genre and refuse to invest in it.

            • Waterstones’ CEO Daunt agrees with you.
              He saw a boost in sales when he stopped selling his displays.

              • So the implication is that bookstores are better at curating what appears on the market than publishers are at curating what appears on their submissions list.

                • They are when they let the staff of each store choose what to promote in that store. As opposed to letting a chain central buyer do the choosing.

                • Coming around full circle then, didn’t Shatzkin recently suggest that bookstores give up ALL their curation in favor of letting publishers decide what would go into bookstores? It would follow that this would be a disaster, no?

                • He did.
                  He even floated a cute acronym for it.

                  No surprise that he favors publishers over booksellers.
                  After all, booksellers don’t hire outside consultants.

  3. T.S. Starkenberg

    Thank you, PG, for the commentary. Emerging authors like me need to be constantly reminded to stay the course.

  4. “You can’t cut your way to success.”

    Agree. They are cutting their way out of specific sectors while maintaining their balance sheet.

    Squeeze as much cash as possible, for as long as possible, on the way out.

    Success for these firms is not a thriving and growing book business. It’s successful extraction of investment from a service that no longer provides economic value.

    Authors will continue to criticize publishers for not doing what they think publishers should do to achieve objectives chosen by authors. Publishers have different objectives, and different measures of success.

    The publisher may very well aspire to be that bottom feeder after he pulls out every dollar he can. An office in Topeka managing rights and online backlist sales can by very profitable.

    • An office in Topeka managing rights and online backlist sales can by very profitable.

      Has anyone opened such an office? Has anyone in the business even suggested doing such a thing?

      As usual, you attribute to large publishing companies a degree of intelligent planning and foresight that none of them have ever shown in their operations and policies. And you completely neglect the fact that ‘managing rights’ and ‘online backlist sales’ are profitable for the publisher only because the author is held captive and cannot obtain release from a life-of-the-copyright contract.

      • And you completely neglect the fact that ‘managing rights’ and ‘online backlist sales’ are profitable for the publisher only because the author is held captive and cannot obtain release from a life-of-the-copyright contract.

        No. That’s extremely important. It creates the opportunity for the Topeka office. It’s the source of the rights they manage.

        Go, Jayhawks!!!

        • In other words, you are advocating that publishers should simply squat on authors’ intellectual property and provide NOTHING in return.

          • I advocate nothing. I observe valuable assets and expect they will be fully exploited. The contracts the authors signed sealed their fate.

            • The assets are of limited and wasting value, so long as new intellectual property is not being acquired. There is absolutely no incentive at all under your proposed business model for anybody to make new products available; and the old ones, generally speaking, were not selling for a reason.

              • Felix J. Torres

                They aren’t properly marketed because the focus is on launch window sales. “Fresh produce” model.

              • I suspect we could find someone to exploit Steven King’s wasting back list for a limited ten year period.

                The beauty of a free market is that some folks see opportunity that others scorn.

                I think Riggio mocked Bezos and told him he’s never make it.

                • If nothing else, backlist titles can be bulk-licensed to a subscription service. Flat-fee per year. All you need is a legal crew on retainer, an accounting contractor, and a bank account to receive the license fees.

                  Now, imagine offering those licenses to libraries…

                  Gold dust is still gold. Collect enough of it and you’ve got real value.

                • Note that King does not sign his rights over to the publisher, but only licenses them for a limited period (I seem to remember it is ten years).

                  He’s not just a good writer, but a smart businessman.

              • the old ones, generally speaking, were not selling for a reason.

                Yes. They stopped selling because the publisher let them go out of print.

                Ebooks never go out of print.

                • And most ebooks don’t sell. They just sit there, preventing the author’s reversion clause from ever going into effect – even though most of those contracts were signed when the understanding was that ‘in print’ referred to paper books.

                  The majority of out-of-print books were published to appeal to a particular fashion at a particular time, in the hopes of making a quick buck for the publishers (or just to fill out the list so the distributors wouldn’t cut rack space for that house’s titles). There is little or no monetary value in bringing back such books now.

                  In most cases, the only money the publishers will ever see by squatting on an author’s IP rights is the blood money they hope to extract so that the author can get out of the contract and its non-compete provisions.

                • It’s all down to cost of production.

                  If you can create an ebook, create a cover, and publish it for $100, it only has to sell fifty copies at $2.99 over the duration of copyright to make it profitable. If you have the original Word document and the cover (and relevant cover rights), that’s trivial to do, and OCR is getting better all the time.

                  Wouldn’t you like to have a million ebooks averaging one sale a month at $2.99?

                  And, for all you know, one of those forgotten, out-of-print books may turn out to be the next Fifty Shades Of Harry Potter.

          • I think rather than advocating, TO is pointing out that the right to a written work is usually worth some amount of money, however small, and publicly held companies don’t typically just give such things away, indeed, are often compelled not to.

            I disagree with the Topeka conjecture though. Upstate NY is more likely, or maybe Jersey depending on real estate and tax angles.

            • “Upstate NY is more likely”

              I live in said hellhole good sir and would call anyone looking to move their business here “touched” as they say.

              This entire state is a hostile place for doing business, unfortunately.

              The only reason we do not have the highest overall property taxes in the nation is because other New England states apparently see it as a competition.

              NY likes to pretend it has low RATES on property taxes, but the assessments are so high you get creamed….

          • In other words, you are advocating that publishers should simply squat on authors’ intellectual property and provide NOTHING in return.

            It’s probably the only workable long-term business model for big publishers. We’ve been pointing out for years that they have an enormous backlist that they can monetize for decades while eliminating the cost of publishing new books.

            Once the income from publishing new books drops below the expenditure with no sign of ever recovering, that’s what’s going to happen. The publishers may not be smart enough to see it, but they’re mostly owned by huge media conglomerates who aren’t wearing rose-colored glasses and will cut the losses as soon as they can.

            • It’s even easier to just sell the rights to someone who has that business model. See: Open Road Media. Backlist is what they do.

  5. I hope authors will join organizations that keep them informed, whether it be Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America and/or especially The Authors Guild. It’s shocking that so many contracts have called for life of the copyright, and that so many agents allowed their clients to sign these greedy and unfair documents.

    On top of that, we have to fight attempts to shorten the term of our copyrights and to claim some kind of rights over supposedly “out of print” books (a term that has next to no real meaning these days, anyway).

    Being a writer, artist or composer has always been a struggle for most of us. Our best option is to work together to keep informed and fight those who, whether for profit or from some misguided arrogance or do-gooderism, seek to plunder us.

  6. Our best option is to work together to keep informed and fight those who, whether for profit or from some misguided arrogance or do-gooderism, seek to plunder us.

    The Amazon Kindle upload button is a great place to start.

  7. You can’t recycle your way to prosperity. If you could, Bangladesh would be a superpower.

  8. PG, thank you for the spot-on comments. I just wish authors heading into that traditional meat grinder would listen to you.

  9. Few years ago I caught up with a friend who works for Random House. She was lamenting at the cost cutting in staff, as well as the process of producing books.

    It occurred to me that maybe having two massive offices in the most expensive part of one of the most expensive cities on Earth might be a good place to start. Is there really any reason why, in 2017, business needs to be conducted in central London? Or midtown Manhattan? Or North Sydney?

    • Amazon Publishing runs out of Seattle and Michigan.
      BAEN operates out of North Carolina which has some of the best quality of life in the country.

      Of course, the BPHs do get some benefit from all being within walking distance in NYC: it makes contract terms collusion and release schedule coordination easier. Less chance of incriminating emails getting out.

    • There’s been a slow exodus at least from Midtown. Macmillan just announced they’re leaving the Flatiron Building for a location downtown. HarperCollins already moved a bunch of non-editorial staff to New Jersey. And Random Penguin House had announced plans to condense offices.

      So, my guess is inertia, long-term building leases, and talent concentration. Most of the industry is in Midtown already, so most of the employees live in the metro area. Move the company too far and you risk losing talent to the houses that stayed.

      • Less staff would be a plus.
        They’re always looking to reduce employee count.

        • Don’t be hasty, publishers are hiring in one department at least. Randy Penguin has a job opening they’d like to fill…


          Reporting into the Director of Copyrights, we are seeking an Associate to join the team! This individual will be processing copyright registration applications, approving copyright pages, securing clearances, interpreting contracts and maintaining book files.

          * Responsible for analysis of third-party text usage within the Company’s publications and, if necessary, obtains and/or assists with permission clearances.
          * Corresponds with the Copyright Office located in Washington D.C. on matters relating to copyright registrations
          * Checks copyright notices and acknowledgements in the Company’s publications (prior to publication) for conformity with the terms of the author contract and third-party permission agreements
          * Responsible for scanning and filing copyright registration certificates
          * Maintains personal and/or departmental files
          * Performs detailed research as necessary
          * Works closely with other departments within the Company
          * Updates the Company database with information about newly published titles as well as amending existing entries as necessary
          * Works with the Director to create and implement departmental policies


          It goes on to mention their assorted imprints in the US and Britain. I’ve seen a couple of job postings from publishers specifically looking for copyright people. It’s one area they don’t seem to be shedding people.

  10. Bookmarked, so I can show this article and PG’s comments to those who still hold faithfully to the holy grail of traditional publishing. Giving up copyright for life+70 is slavery.

    • There comes a point where we have to simply honor people’s free choice. If they want to give up life+70, then that’s their choice, and I wish them luck.

      Nobody has to do that today. Anyone can click the Amazon Kindle upload button. And there is so much information available today, there is little excuse for claiming ignorance.

      Different authors place different values on things. Some value the publisher so much, they are anxious to give life+70.

      • At *some* point you have to LIVE AND LET DIE.

        • Except dying is about to go out of fashion, as we’re rapidly figuring out the mechanics of aging and how to cure it.

          ‘Life+70’ may soon mean a thousand years or more. Almost certainly will for a twenty-year-old writer just starting out today.

      • There comes a point where we have to simply honor people’s free choice. If they want to give up life+70, then that’s their choice, and I wish them luck.

        And what about all the thousands of authors who gave up life+70 because there was no other choice at the time?

        Here’s a hint for you: ‘I wish them luck’ is not a synonym for ‘Screw you, Jack.’ Your attitude is more aptly expressed by the latter phrase than the former. It stinks.

        • And what about all the thousands of authors who gave up life+70 because there was no other choice at the time?

          They are bound by the terms and conditions of the contracts they signed.

          They did have a choice. They could have walked away. But, they chose to sell into a buyer’s market. The supply of manuscripts was so large, competition among authors forced the manuscript price down.

          But, I do wish them luck, regardless of when or how they bring their book to market.

        • In the US there is a law that allows them to recover their rights after 35 years. It went into effect in 2013.


          So far, few have decided to exercise their rights.

          • They only have a five-year window to exercise that right. I imagine a lot of authors, and their heirs, don’t consider thirty-five year stale or niche works to be worth the effort, aren’t aware of the option, or have trouble finding estate advisors who even know it exists.

            It’s a shame.

            • Five? I thought it was eight.

              The earliest they can submit notice is ten years before (at 25 years) and the latest is two years (at 33). Given the retaliation they’re likely to face after the file but before they get the rights back most would most likely wait to near the two year limit.

              Or, since they “have people to take care of them” don’t kniw or care they have an option. It is easier to cry for government intervention of one form or another.

              The UK society of authors has so far floated two proposals. The latest being a call for government-sanctioned price-fixing.

              • I wonder how much a publisher can damage an author’s career in two years if there’s no new book coming out. Actually, that’s a disturbing speculation to entertain so let’s change the subject.

                I love when you get riled up about government intervention, Felix. In fact, we need the government to pull 13 Reasons Why from printing and television because it’s too dangerous and people can’t be expected to make the right choices! 🙂

                (I was reading a Reddit thread related to that yesterday and noticed that hundreds, if not thousands, of comments had been deleted. I don’t know what those comments were about, but my guess is that they were of the wrong opinion.)

  11. I agree that we all have a choice these days, but I still see those traditional contracts as criminal, even if they aren’t illegal. I mean, if someone offered you a job that meant they owned you, and your descendants for a couple of generations, you might be entitled to accept it, but how can a democracy /allow/ it?
    And yes, I know that was a rhetorical question. 🙁

    • The devil might ask, “Why should a democracy care?”

      Do democracies care about every single “crime”?
      At what point do you draw the line between “unfair but tolerable” and “send out SWAT?”. Nigerian inheritance scams? Repair shop over-billing? “Excessive profits?”

      How much power do you want to give to the state to “protect people” from themselves?

      The alternative to enforcing your values on others (typically at gunpoint) is:

      1- Inform people.
      2- let them choose, according to their value system, and live with the consequences.
      3- live your life according to yours.

      A lot less strife lies down the second road.
      But, hey, some people prefer strife.

      As Lt. Nick Holden said in 1959: “In chaos, there is opportunity.”

    • Perpetual ownership is the model democracy uses for most things. Cars, houses, ball caps…

      Nobody protects us from selling our stuff because it will be gone forever.

      It would be far simpler to just buy the IP rights like we do most everything else.

      • Actually, you don’t have perpetual ownership of your house. If you don’t pay your property taxes, the government will seize your property, and even if you do, you remain subject to the power of eminent domain.

        Further, cars, houses, and ball caps are all physical property, which by full right and reason is not treated the same as intellectual property. If I take your ball cap, you are deprived of it; if I make a copy of a book on your shelf, you still have your book and I have (in terms of physical property) stolen nothing at all.

        Indeed, intellectual property is not property at all, but a monopoly granted by the state to a certain person or persons. Nobody is allowed to own a legal monopoly right to sell any particular class of physical goods; but monopolies are granted to sell copies of works of art and literature.

        As for just buying the IP rights: It might be simpler to do so, but the best authors would refuse to work on such terms. Siegel and Shuster had to sell all rights to Superman for $130, and were subsequently locked out of their own intellectual property and forbidden to work on it. Nobody wants to be subjected to that treatment.

        • As for just buying the IP rights: It might be simpler to do so, but the best authors would refuse to work on such terms.

          OK. Walking can be the best option. I wish them luck.

        • True.
          Government has the right to take your property away at gunpoint and give it to developers to exploit for private profit. Even if the developer never gets around to developing the land taken.


        • As for Siegel and Shuster the case is a lot more complicated. When they sold the character it wasn’t known to be worth much if anything by anybody–it hadn’t been published. By the standards of the day they were well paid.


          They were treated badly after it became clear just how valuable the character really was. Over the years there have been several lawsuits and settlements. Substantial sums.

          By the last one there were no innocents involved.

  12. Quote: Present trends clearly suggest that we will continue to have fewer commercial publishers signing up fewer books for smaller advances outside the handful of authors that are virtual guarantees to deliver big unit sales. And for those books that do have an assured big unit sale, publishers will tend to be willing to overpay because they need throughput to feed their fixed-overhead machines.~~

    And that means more authors figuring it’s worth it to go on their own, increasing the self-publishing sector that can sell books more cheaply, more competively, more nimbly when circumstances change.

    I have had maybe half-a-dozen books I wanted in the last few days that I did NOT buy for being 12.99 for the ebook. They do not learn.

  13. What an interesting sight from Mike (and your comments, of course, PG)

    I’ve been watching the US book business for years now (I’m from Europe) and find many parallels to the German market. With high overhead (as far as I know, most US publishers are located in pricey Manhatten) and ancient marketing (do they still believe that book stores are their customers?), traditional publishing is facing a rough time.

    I’ve been self-publishing for 3+ years now and I’m seeing more and more success learning from you and many indie authors. I personally have nothing against traditional publishers, but I do dislike the way they treat new authors, especially with those ridiculous non-compete clauses.

    Let’s see if they can adapt and get their act together or go the way of the Titanic.

  14. 6 months ago Penguin reached out to me with a book offer. HOW EXCITING! They offered me an advance so small my book out-earned it in the first 2 weeks post-launch.

    Forgive me from drawing broad conclusions from N=1 but I wonder if this is a new strategy – reach out to new/first time authors with a small to middling platform and offer peanuts. So many of us are nervous or insecure about the whole thing so we JUMP at the validation of having a big publisher. The cost of the paltry advances is so nominal only a very small % would have to sell well to make this a profitable approach to publishing.

    • That’s very much their model. Get people before they can recognize what a bad contract looks like, and and grab all the rights for a few thousand dollars. And maybe even rights to future books, via non-compete/first option clauses

  15. Hey, cutting their way to success worked for Circuit City! It wasn’t too much later that they didn’t have to worry about going out of business anymore.

    (Because firing their top sales staff drove them out of business.)

  16. Makes me think of the YouTube video I saw the other day. It was a Createspace book unboxing. The author was young, probably early twenties by the look of her, and this was at least her second novel. She had a note on the video basically telling people to stop asking where they could buy her book (really, the tone of the comment was kind of aggravated, and she said she’d had at least 100 people ask her this already) because it wasn’t for sale and wouldn’t be for sale. She make the paperbacks for herself and family, she said, and was pursuing a traditional publishing deal. She didn’t want to self-publish them because that would, she claimed, hurt her chances to get a tradpub deal. She said she was adamant that she was doing what was best for her book, even if it meant the book never actually got published, and she wanted people to respect her decision.

    You just can’t help some people.

    • @ Shawna

      LOL. Well, there go at least 100 pbook sales. Good thinking there, young semi-debut author who desires tradpub life+70 contract validation.

      Meanwhile, I hope you’re not holding your breath waiting for that tradpub phone call.

      • Right? Although to be fair, a lot of people who eventually decided to go indie thought more or less the same thing at one point. Maybe she’ll wise up before signing one of those contracts.

    • She was adamant that she was doing what was best for her book, even if it meant the book never actually got published, and she wanted people to respect her decision.

      This reminds me of a discussion that I had years ago with an idealistic young woman who said that it was better that the surplus wild deer starve to death (rather than be thinned out by hunting some of them so the others could live) because that was best for the deer (because it was Nature’s way) and that I should respect her position.

  17. > cutting back their investment in midlist titles

    Haven’t I seen that movie before?

    The industry gave most of the midlist the boot back in the 1990s when they went with the “go big or go home” policy.

    One or two star authors were going to support each publisher, without all that grotty overhead for steady midlist performers. Think of the savings!

    Unfortunately, that plan worked out like the “pick the slot machine that pays off next” plan at Reno…

    • The way I heard it, ten years ago they redefined the midlist to be authors selling over 30,000 during the 3 month launch window. They cut loose those that didn’t meet the cutoff.

      Shatzkin is merely confirming what KKR reported last year about big cutbacks in manuscript buys. Given the public plaints that they’re not seeing as many good manuscripts it follows that they either publish less titles or they go to market with books their gut feelings don’t buy into. 🙂

  18. To me, it’s sad to see the big traditional publishers on their downward spiral. They produced many of the books that I treasure.

    The big publishers could open their eyes to the many changes that have taken place both in the way books are produced and the new economic realities of electronic publishing. They are in a double bind because literacy is changing also. The relationship between readers and writers has become much closer. Consequently, book marketing, all retailing in fact, has changed and continues to change, but the publishers don’t seem to be able to muster a reasonable response.

    But then, neither did the video-rental stores, the steam engine manufacturers, or a host of other dead industries. On the other hand, General Electric seems to chug along, IBM is still around and we often forget that it was founded in the same decade as Ford Motor. The big publishers don’t have to fail, but it is easy to imagine most of them will.

    • The big publishers could open their eyes to the many changes that have taken place both in the way books are produced and the new economic realities of electronic publishing.

      Perhaps their eyes are open.

      If we look at their actions, and then ask what objectives are consistent with those actions, it’s hard to conclude they see much of a future in publishing. So, it’s reasonable to ask what their objectives are.

      Alternatively, we can insist their objective is to pursue a growing and viable book business into the future. In that case, we might think their actions are misguided.

      • Perhaps their eyes are open.

        You keep insisting this, but there is no evidence of it, and abundant evidence that they are tightly shut.

        • Unless we know their objectives, we can’t judge their actions. If their actions are consistent with their objectives, then it’s reasonable to say they do have their eyes open.

          If their actions are not consistent with their objectives, then it’s reasonable to say their objectives are not reasonable, or their actions do not support their reasonable objectives, and their eyes might need to open a bit.

          So, what are the objectives of the Big five over the next twenty years? Specifically, what are their objectives for the fiction business?

          Anybody know?

          However, in either case, we shouldnt expect them to care about authors who supplied manuscripts in 1995 any more than they care about the guy who supplied copy paper in 1995.

          • Agree TO’B. It’s easy to project our own writer’s wishes for publishing onto the publishers. It’s probably equally fallacious to think that all large publishers think the same. I’ve had some experience on the inside of dying businesses and I have seen some roaring cases of ignoring what seems obvious to everyone else. I do not doubt that there is some of that among the Big 5, but I would not jump to conclude that corporate management and boards are incompetent. Folks don’t get those titles and on those boards because they are stupid.

    • Are you sure the people who brought to market the books we love are the same people running the BPHs today?

      The imprint might he the same but everything else changed when they sold out to the multinationals.

  19. For any authors not convinced by PG’s cogent commentary, I think DWS (who commented above)’s Magic Bakery posts (also collected in a book) are an excellent resource: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/the-magic-bakery-chapter-one/

    Life plus 75 is a harsh sentence.

  20. With respect to PG’s comments, all authors should familiarize themselves with the history of the Skyhorse Publishing acquisition of Night Shade Books.


    Authors’ books and contracts were held hostage with the threat of being tied up in bankruptcy proceedings. Authors were told they had to assent to the conditions of sale that Night Shade had already negotiated or see night Shade go into bankruptcy and all their backlist trapped in bankruptcy proceedings, which could take years. As PG has noted in previous columns, contracts that “revert rights” in the event of bankruptcy are making a false promise.

    “Vocal dissenters to the deal cropped up immediately. Most objected to the revised royalty rates in the contracts offered by Skyhorse—10% of net sales—and some disliked the inclusion of additional rights in the contracts, such as audio, while others simply mistrusted the bona fides of Skyhorse, newcomers to the genre as they are. The most common reaction, however, was vitriol for Night Shade itself. Kameron Hurley, an author with three books published by Night Shade, wrote on her blog: “The deal is seedy. It’s made to fuck writers in all sorts of interesting new ways.” Jeff Vandermeer, editor of an anthology with Night Shade and a respected voice in the genre, called it a “crappy deal.” Cartoonist, novelist, and apparently un-classy gent Phil Foglio called the Night Shade founders “wankers” and spurred his audience to comment on their Facebook pages. SFWA, however, calls the deal “likely in the best interest” of the authors involved.

    The entire asset transfer is becoming a game of prisoner’s dilemma, and the most vocal opponents to the deal are most often those with the least to lose.”

  21. Nobody gives a hoot about widget makers except for widget makers. So widget makers learned to take care of themselves. They know nobody else will. They don’t expect anyone to.

    God Bless the widget maker, for without him, there are no widgets.

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