Another important essay from Kristine Kathryn Rusch provides a framework for understanding the clash between traditional publishing and self-publishers:
Traditional publishing, like network television, is built on scarcity. In traditional publishing, “airtime” was shelf space. Only so many brick-and-mortar stores that carried books (of any type) existed. Those stores only had room for a certain amount of shelf space. Only a handful of books could fit face-out on those shelves. Several more could fit spine-out, but it’s harder to sell a book based on its spine than it is to sell a book based on the cover.
Because the shelf space is limited, traditional publishers only kept books with a fantastic sales record in print. The other books had a short shelf life before they were taken out of the stores and eventually out of print.
I called this the produce model, because I couldn’t think of any other way to express what was going on. Traditional publishers treated books like produce that would spoil because, in effect, sales do decline if a book has been out for a long time. (Sales don’t evaporate and in some cases, sales increase. But they will eventually plateau.)
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Amazon had unlimited shelf space—the abundance model, to use Kyncl’s term. If a book existed, that book was probably available on Amazon. Only readers weren’t used to buying over the internet, so they preferred brick-and-mortar stores.
As brick-and-mortar stores became scarce, readers went to Amazon (and Powells.com and Barnes & Noble.com—places that had books on shelves, and with a click of a button, those books were purchased and mailed to the customer). Amazon in particular encouraged this thinking by making its website user friendly, by reducing prices to nearly nothing, and by working very, very, very hard to make the entire experience consumer-friendly.
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Combining new and used, like Powell’s and Amazon do, make it possible to order most books, in print or out of print.
Slowly, online book retailers were training the consumer to expect the abundance model.
But the traditional publishers still thought in terms of scarcity.
In fact, their entire business is built on it. The limited shelf space caused other issues. Over the years, traditional publishers had developed an arcane system of selling books. From returns (producing two books to sell one) to the distribution network (not selling directly to bookstores, but selling directly to distributors instead) had created a lot of unnecessary costs. (I explained some of this history in a previous post that you can access here.)
By the middle of the previous decade, it cost at least $250,000 to publish a mid-list novel with a nice cover and an author advance of $10,000. At least $250,000, and often twice that amount. As in television, the cost of content was prohibitive.
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It is, in fact, the ultimate clash between scarcity thinking and abundance thinking. In abundance, you can toss anything into the mix, quantify its sales, and pick winners based on sheer numbers. In scarcity, you have to go with the best of what’s available, and hoping (praying) that you don’t lose too much money on everything else.
Everyone currently working in traditional publishing, from the publishers to the editors to the writers, learned the scarcity attitude. Everyone. That includes me. That includes any unpublished writer who tried to break in before 18 months ago. That includes agents. That includes book reviewers, copy editors, book editors, and the publishing executives.
Our attitudes got formed in a model based on limited shelf space and expensive production costs. On “gut” decisions instead of quantifiable decisions.
On the idea that rarity increases value.
Each book becomes precious. Each book needs time to produce. Each book must be perfect, because its debut on the world stage is brief, and its ability to capture an audience limited.
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In the world I grew up in, no reviewer would ever review a title more than six months old. What was the point? The book would be hard to find, and the reviewer would have wasted a lot of wordage (and column inches) on something that would only make his readers angry because they couldn’t find the book in question.
Now, since so many of us have our backlists up, book bloggers review titles as they find the titles. Just this week, bloggers reviewed books I’d written ten, twelve, and fifteen years ago. Other bloggers reviewed some short stories published in magazines five years ago and now available as e-books. In the past, those stories would have been forgotten. Now they’re being read—not by millions of readers, but by hundreds in the past six months alone.
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One way that [publishers are] reacting, for example, is attempting to limit writers. By making their writers sign non-compete clauses in contracts, traditional publishers are trying to recreate the scarcity model. Unfortunately, they can’t. They might make one particular writer’s work scarce, but they won’t make other work scarce.
In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake. Consumers who expect everything they want at their virtual fingertips get angry when they can’t get something. We’re seeing that a lot with traditionally published bestsellers. For a while, traditional publishers tried to release the e-books six months after the print books. All that did was anger the consumer, who wanted their e-book now.
Traditional publishers thought scarcity—the lack of an e-book—would drive consumers to the hardcover. Instead, it made the consumers so mad that they actually wrote nasty online reviews of the books in question. Not a nasty review of a book’s content, mind you, but a nasty review of the book’s lack of availability.
Writers raised in traditional publishing make similar mistakes. In the scarcity model, having a publishing contract equals security. Traditional publishing contracts were (are) rare, and were (are) hard to come by, so a writer who had one had achieved something major. Writers who had more than one contract over the years had managed to prove themselves valuable. In a world of limited resources, when a major company spent those resources on a writer, that writer knew she had value.
That’s why writers saw publishing contracts as validation. And, as traditional publishers tossed books out into the produce heap, the writer had to prove her value over and over again. Because every traditional publisher relied on gut instinct as much as numbers (if not more than numbers, since numbers are so unreliable throughout all of traditional publishing), intangibles like a good review in a respected publication (like The New York Times Book Review) added value. Again, a good review in a respected publication was rare, scarce, something that didn’t happen often.
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All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was—by definition—short-lived.
Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur.