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The Year in Review (Overview)

28 December 2017

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I’ve been trying to get my arms around what’s going on with traditional publishing for about a week and a half. I have varied reports from other writers, still working traditionally. I have been perusing back issues of Publishers Weekly, looking at other news sources, and reading some of my list serves.

I’m beginning to think I can’t figure out what happened to traditional publishing in 2017 because traditional publishing doesn’t know what’s going on in its own industry.

I’m writing this blog on December 26, 2017, and I’ve just seen the data that Amazon released on its various lists. I haven’t had time to go over it in-depth, but I did notice all of the backlist titles with legs on the Amazon lists. I said to Dean, “It’s amazing that traditional publishing still exists as mismanaged as it has been.”

I think that story of mismanagement continues, which is why I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what’s going on. Publisher’s Weekly barely mentions Amazon and doesn’t use its numbers to report its bestseller list, preferring BookScan. For an ebook bestseller list, PW uses the iBooks and (occasionally) Smashwords, which is well and good, but only gets a small picture of what’s going on.

Then there are all the cutbacks in genre fiction from the Big Five. That, and the lack of effective publicity for books. I ordered too many books at the end of this year, because I was looking through PW and was startled that this favorite author of mine had published a book or that favorite author had published two books, and I hadn’t heard of those books.

. . . .

It looks, at a casual glance, like the Big Five (Four? Three? Who the hell knows) is cutting its way to quarterly profits, and doing so exceedingly stupidly. In 2017, for example, Randy Penguin dropped its cozy mystery line, which thrives in mass market. Writers whose series were growing or selling at excellent numbers (for this time period) were unceremoniously dropped.

But…smaller traditional publishers, long-established traditional publishers, like Baen and Kensington, publishers not beholden to some international corporate overlord, are scooping up as many of these dropped genre authors as they possibly can, knowing cash cows when they see them.

. . . .

I wrote a post earlier in the year about all the traditionally published authors flooding into indie publishing right now, and the lack of patience long-term indies are showing them. That flood was the direct result of the cutting that occurred in traditional publishing.

We’re going to see a lot more hybrid publishing from writers, particularly those who have huge traditional careers. One traditionally published #1 New York Times bestseller just told me that his “test” indie published novella out-earns every single one of his bestselling titles.

I would have expected that from the financial angle—making 65% to 70% of each sale is much better than 12-15% (minus agent fees)—and I said that to him. He corrected me. He said that the novella outsells his bestselling titles as well. And that surprised me.

But the earnings are speaking to him, and he’s not alone. I’ve heard rumors about other bestsellers who are frightened by their sales numbers through traditional, and watching their income decline precipitously. Some of those writers are going hybrid fast.

Others are moving full indie.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

As usual, PG thinks Kris is correct about many different things.

PG has used the “Not dead yet!” video from Monty Python to illustrate his view of traditional publishing on a few occasions.

Every month that goes by, PG has an image in his mind of groups of people in the publishing business holding secret celebratory Not Dead Yet dinners in dimly lit subterranean rooms. At the end of each dinner, the gathered publishers solemnly chant in unison, “Not dead yet, not dead yet, not dead yet” over and over before pulling their cowls over their heads, blowing out the candles and departing into the night.

Here are a few “But You’re Dying Fast” counterpoints that float to the top of PG’s consciousness:

  1. If traditional publishing were financially healthy, Barnes & Noble would not be circling the drain.
  2. If traditional publishing were healthy (mentally and otherwise), members of that establishment would not be trashing the world’s largest bookseller (and the publisher’s most profitable account), Amazon, on a continuing basis.
  3. If traditional publishing were healthy, it would regard ebooks as a wonderful and highly-profitable new market, the future of publishing.

PG suggests traditional publishing understands that James Patterson will die someday, their pipeline of star authors, the kind that will be good for 30 years worth of bestsellers in the future, is rapidly drying up and that physical bookstores won’t save them.

But they’re not doing anything about this reality. These publishers still require new authors to jump through a thousand hoops to be published. They still operate on an industrial-age production line that finally spits out a book a year after they receive a manuscript.

Publishers are still in a lockstep shared monopoly in which they offer identical royalty rates and require every author to pay 15% off the top to a third-party agent in order to be published traditionally whether the author needs an agent or not.

I don’t fear death so much as I fear its prologues: loneliness, decrepitude, pain, debilitation, depression, senility. After a few years of those, I imagine death presents like a holiday at the beach.

Mary Roach

Big Publishing, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

27 Comments to “The Year in Review (Overview)”

  1. Another worthwhile part of the OP is how she describes backing away from news and social media so that she can concentrate on thinking about stories she wants to write.

  2. PG>If traditional publishing were financially healthy, Barnes & Noble would not be circling the drain.<

    B&N's fortunes have declined because of the ease of purchasing books online. Also, because you don't need to schlep to a booktore to buy an ebook, which is also accomplished online.

    If traditional publishing were healthy, it would regard ebooks as a wonderful and highly-profitable new market, the future of publishing.<

    Traditional publishers love the ancillary income stream that ebooks represent. That's why they cut authors' net royalties on ebooks to 25% from a pre-Kindle 50% and fought with Amazon to win the right to use the agency model to sell them, which allowed them to raise their selling prices.

    • Publishers always controlled their own prices. Agency is about controlling retailers’ prices.

      The effect of agency was to raise the price consumers paid while reducing what the publishers and authors got less. The first part is what triggered antitrust action.

    • “Traditional publishers love the ancillary income stream that ebooks represent. That’s why they cut authors’ net royalties on ebooks to 25% from a pre-Kindle 50% and fought with Amazon to win the right to use the agency model to sell them, which allowed them to raise their selling prices.”

      To bad raising their prices brought down their sales – seems Amazon knew the price-point better than the qig5 did. I do like how you ignore that Amazon was paying the publishers their full asking price, the savings were coming out of Amazon’s profit. The agency game was to keep Amazon from killing their paper sales – not that it worked as they’d hoped it would.

      Bad contracts, overpricing, low if any advances, expecting the writer to do their own advertising – tell me again why any new writer would bother with trad-pub?

      They dig their own graves, whining that it’s Amazon’s fault every spadeful.

      • Bad contracts, overpricing, low if any advances, expecting the writer to do their own advertising – tell me again why any new writer would bother with trad-pub?

        I don’t know, but I observe they do. Since thousands of authors do enter the traditional submission cycle, we have to recognize they value a traditional contract. It doesn’t matter if I value it. They do.

        Perhaps it’s prestige, status, a lifelong dream, the thrill of seeing their book face out at B&N, the desire to walk in the footsteps of Stephen King, or the approval implicit in selection by an agent or editor. Maybe it’s money, a desire to do nothing but write, or a distaste for managing a book project. They might think the very biggest bucks are with a traditional publisher.

        Whatever it is, it’s real, and it represents an expression of those individual authors’ personal tastes and preferences. One of those preferences is not my approval.

    • Publishers paid 50% ebook royalties until about 2011, when they decided that they didn’t want to. As simple as that. They just said, “We’re not paying. We’ve decided that 50% was for sub-licensing, not individual sales.” And, “If you don’t like it, we just won’t sell the ebook version of your book.”

      • A little earlier: Random House was the first, in 2009, to send out contract addendums to their writers (bypassing agents) offering 2% higher pbook royalties in return for cutting ebook royalties in half.
        Within months all the BPHs did the same to the “industry standard” contract.

        Teleread had a piece at the time about agents screaming bloody murder at RH bypassing them. No objection to the bait and switch, though.

  3. If traditional publishing were healthy, it would regard ebooks as a wonderful and highly-profitable new market, the future of publishing.

    Traditional publishing’s competitive advantage is in the manufacture, distribution, and sales of paper books. It’s not easy, and they do it very well. Nobody does it as well or better.

    They don’t have that kind of competitive advantage with eBooks. Lots of people do it just as well, and better. eBooks are the future of publishing, but lacking a competitive advantage, they are not the future for traditional publishing.

    Trads do have one advantage in eBooks, but it stems from the cross-promotion from their paper products. As paper declines, their eBook prospects will follow.

    • Terrence – I see your point, but at the outset, traditional publishers controlled the vast majority of the content for ebooks, but didn’t manage to price them correctly or really cooperate with Amazon and other etailers.

      Basically, the publishers left the ebook door wide open for a lot of other people instead of carefully watching and effectively influencing the development of an ebook market and both building and exerting control in that market.

    • The big traditional publishers don’t do their own manufacturing or printing. That’s contracted out. So much for that competitive advantage.

      The competitive advantage of the big publishers was due to exactly one thing: keeping a stranglehold on a limited channel of distribution by saturating it with cheap second-rate titles, sold returnable at a regular and predictable loss, as a barrier to entry by new firms.

      Until ebooks became a major force in the market and POD became reasonably economic, nobody could crack that distribution oligopoly on a sufficiently large scale to compete with the major players in the industry. Small presses were either specialists in niche markets too small to interest the conglomerates, or labours of love run at a loss (or on grant money). None of them had the millions of dollars in capital to burn through by offering large quantities of product to booksellers under the unlimited return system.

      • Until ebooks became a major force in the market and POD became reasonably economic, nobody could crack that distribution oligopoly on a sufficiently large scale to compete with the major players in the industry.

        Anyone who did crack it would simply be another traditional publisher, contracting with printers and exercising a competitive advantage in the manufacture, distribution, and sales of paper books.

        • Amazon Publishing is a traditional publisher. Their contracts are reportedly kinder/gentler than than the predatory “industry standard”.
          Their terms for Kindle Scout are publicly available and somewhat reasonable for what they are.
          So it can be done, even in the service of a giant multinational.

  4. “He said that the novella outsells his bestselling titles as well. And that surprised me.”

    It would be useful to know the price of the novella and the price of the tradpub books. Price elasticity alone can explain the higher sales volume: veteran authors have name familiarity even among readers who haven’t bought their work before so a reasonable price would be very effective “marketing” all by itself.

    • Good point, Felix. Hadn’t thought of that. His novella is indie priced ($4.99, I think, maybe $2.99). His trad pub ebooks are ridiculously priced (over $12).

    • I know at least one author whose novellas interest me, but whose novels don’t. His main books are all about his OP (overpowerful protagonist) doing urban fantasy. His novella is about the OP’s previously under-used familiar, a dog, solving mysteries.

      Need I mention that the cover art he commissioned shows the dog? And that it is much more attractive than the tradpub “art” on his novels?

      So yeah, I’m not even reading his novels from the library, but I’m excited about the novellas.

      (Okay, I might be slightly influenced by his dog character being the same breed as my family’s dogs have been. But no, the dog really is cooler.)

  5. The OP mentions how bad publishers are at getting out the word when an author has a new work coming out. I agree. Other than looking at Bookmarks (yes, I use a print magazine to see what ebooks I want to read), I haven’t come up with an easy way to track my favorite writers or musicians. Anyone have any favorite tools?

    • Author Alarms is a fairly simple one that works well for books. I’m not sure for music, but my guess is there’s an online app for that as well. I know I get emails from Author Alarm when one of my chosen authors puts out a new book.

    • In the old days I kept a paper list of authors and twice a year, just before Christmas and my wife’s birthday, I would check on Amazon to see what they had put out. It worked and gave me plenty of ideas for presents but was hardly an ideal system.

      Nowadays, I either subscribe to an author’s newsletter (if they have one, though I unsubscribe quickly if they put out too much that does not concern new releases) or click the “follow” button on their Amazon author page.

      If they are traditionally published I track them on eReaderiQ to see when their e-book prices on Amazon (USA, UK or Canada) drop to a reasonable level or when a Kimdle version is published. I also find it useful to look at authors’ backlists on fantasticfiction.com.

      I must check up on Frances’ tip for Author Alarms – unfortunately it is not clear from their website whether they are limited to USA releases (I’m awaiting a reply to my emailed enquiry.)

      I’m told that Facebook is a good way to follow authors and, in particular, musicians but it’s not really my thing and I very rarely go there.

      • Isn’t it puzzling that Amazon, at least, doesn’t make this easier? I’ve got money at the ready for a whole host of ambient/drone artists whose music I listen to while writing. I just found the Record Bird app, which looks promising, but if Amazon incorporated alert functionality for new releases for authors and music artists, I’d be all over it.

        • From Amazon’ s help pages: “Follow authors to receive new release alerts. You may also receive occasional personal announcements from authors you follow.” So clicking on the follow button on the author page may help but I’m not sure how a new release is defined. I hope a new e-book is included even if the paper version has been out for some time. If it is this seems to do what is needed for authors but doesn’t help with music and, as you say, there is a real need for something here.

          For books I actually prefer Author’s newsletters when they tell me about future release dates so there is something to look forward to (even if it’s only the announcement that the pre-order link is up.)

      • I may lead a sheltered life, but I never see any fiction promotion outside of bookstores and Amazon emails. Is my ad-blocker intercepting a bunch of internet ads?

        Where does promotion money go? Who do the publishers pay? What do the people who get paid do? Where do we see their product? If they get paid for doing nothing, is opportunity banging on the door?

        I see ads for car insurance, Vegematic, video games, movies, and My Pillow. But nothing for books.

        • Book publishers advertise in the NYT book review section and in the various establishment publications. Also other big city book review sections.
          They also spend promotion efforts on preferential placement at B&N and other select outlets.
          If course, those efforts are limited to a handful of titles at a time, maybe a couple dozen a year. It’s not as if they can actively promote 10,000 titles at once.

    • I follow my favorite authors on social media if they’re active, and sign up for email lists to hopefully get their own new book announcements.

      For discovery of new authors, I follow Scalzi’s “big idea” feature, and browse through Amazon’s category listings and also-boughts. If I notice interesting social media posts from someone who happens to be an author, I’ll also check out their books, but that’s been very hit or miss so far.

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