Exclusivity in 2022 Part Two

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I’ve owned a lot of businesses. I have some ethical issues that do not benefit me as a business owner. There are business practices that I do not like that, if I did them, would make me a lot more money than I am making right now.

Those practices are stupidly easy to do. They rely on the gullible side of human nature. People want to believe that the other people they’re doing business with are good-hearted and have their best interests in mind. Many business people do not have other people’s interest in mind. They only consider their interest.

So let’s look at exclusivity through that prism.

As a business model for a publishing or related industry, exclusivity makes complete sense. The more a business can bind an author to that business, the better off that business will be, particularly if the author is famous.

The problem with publishing businesses is that they don’t create anything. They buy other people’s creations and then put those creations in a form that can be distributed. Generally speaking, a writer or an artist who licenses their work to a publishing company is relying on that publishing company’s expertise in design, marketing, and distribution to get that book/project/writer out to as many readers as possible.

This is the deal writers make with traditional publishers. With the Big Five, and others that operate just like them, the writers have been brainwashed into believing those companies are the only route to distribution. And they were once, but ironically, they licensed fewer parts of the copyright in those days…when a writer, by necessity, had to be exclusive.

Now, though, there’s indie publishing and a million other ways for a writer to maintain their rights and distribute their work, if the writer is willing to run their own business. Which means that distribution companies, publishing companies, streaming companies, and others must up their game if they want bestselling writers in their fold.

. . . .

As long-time readers of this blog know, the writing business is not linear. Fortunes rise and fall. They never really go down to their lowest level. The rise always results in a much higher floor than the writer had before, but the rise itself is never permanent.

So, at some point the most popular writer in Company A will be superseded by some other writer who will sell more or whose product is fresher or more attuned to the moment. The original popular writer will still be popular, just not the Flavor of the Month. And slowly, ever so slowly, the original popular writer will be neglected.

Company A will still benefit from original popular writer’s latest releases, but original popular writer will run into new problems.

And that’s charitable. Sometimes original popular writer will fall off a cliff.

First, let me give you an example from my own business. And then, I’m going to show you some other ways that permanent or superstar or long-term exclusive can go horribly wrong.

My example has to do with Audible. Fifteen years ago, Audible was not just new(ish), but it was the only real digital audio player in the game. Unless a writer had access to a recording studio—and had the chops to read a book—the writer couldn’t even record their own work, let alone distribute it.

I’d had some audio books—on tape—from some of the best companies in the business…whose business soon got subsumed or at least offered through Audible.

Audible came to me with a great deal. I got up-front money on all of my books including backlist (under Rusch only at first, and then Nelscott, but never Grayson). In addition, I got paid a hefty bounty for each book sold, a bounty that did not get counted against that advance money. I got royalties and a bounty, and all of that translated into tens of thousands, and in one case hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I had my eye on it, though, and I had voice training. I knew that Audible would eventually get real competitors. One of my main priorities in setting up WMG was setting up our own recording studio, and we did it just as ACX got started. I was going to run the recording studio, but I got sick. We hired an audio director who turned out to be horribly unsuited for the work. (My fault: I thought she could grow into it. I was wrong.)

Had we followed my lead at that time, we would have had a lot of WMG-produced high quality audio that we could still market now.

But I was sick, the audio program fell apart, and so I relied on the money that Audible provided through the equivalent of its superstar program.

Which no longer exists. They use other incentives now.

My editor at Audible moved, a new editor got hired and then fired. He was replaced by one of those corporate employees who comes in as some kind of hatchet man—someone who wipes out all trace of the previous employees. I can’t even get my new editor on the phone or contact him by email.

Needless to say, Audible and I have parted company on new work. The old work has pretty good contracts—I can get out of them at any time—but that would make my backlist unavailable in audio, something I’m not currently willing to do.

It’s a mess, and it’s one I need to clean up.

Audible asked for exclusive, I granted it, and now, fifteen years later, I have a major mess to clean up. Part of that mess are my audio fans. There are a lot of listeners who don’t have time to actually read a book, so they listen on their commutes or whatever. And all that reaching, growing, and developing will fall by the wayside if I don’t do something in the next few years.

Yes, it’s on my ever-growing to-do list.

Here’s the thing: I benefited from Audible’s superstar program back in the day, but I’m paying the price now.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and here’s a link to Part 1 of her two posts.

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.

19 thoughts on “Exclusivity in 2022 Part Two”

  1. The problem with publishing businesses is that they don’t create anything. They buy other people’s creations and then put those creations in a form that can be distributed.

    There is no problem.

    For many years, publishers have indeed created things. They created zillions of paper books that were distributed around the world. They also created the networks to distribute millions of tons of bound paper.

    There are thousands of businesses that buy supplies, transform them, and then sell the newly created product.

    • The contents of the books were created by authors, who were not publishers.
      The physical books were created by printers, who were not publishers.
      The distribution networks were created by distributors, who were not publishers.
      The books were sold by booksellers, who were not publishers.

      The only thing the publishers did was to exploit the oligopoly power granted them when copyright law replaced the old law forbidding books to be printed without the permission of the Crown.

      • This is particularly true of the BPHs who have outsourced everything in the process, from locating content tbey can exploit (to agents) to editing, graphics (stock images rule!), to promotion (to authors).

        The stock in trade of the BPHs is actually payday loans.

        Smaller tradpubs do provide actual value but few provide enough to justify their take.

  2. Exclusivity, for the nonce, is a dead equine.

    In the best of all worlds, there would be a retail economy in print, audio, and digital similar to the DVD market at its peak with no single channel dominating.

    We don’t live in tbat world.
    We haven’t since the 90’s. More than an entire generation.
    Volume discounts in the 90’s and the agency conspiracy in 2011 distorted the competitive environment; the first in favor of the big book chains and the latter, in classic foot shooting, by killing the interoperable ePub ecosystem that was starting to emerge. Mr Bezos has been laughing all the way to the babk since: with enemies like that…

    The world we live in is of limited distribution channels with a single, central, giant and a handful of dwarves with a few hundred wannabes and dilettantes pretending to matter.

    It’s not healthy but it is what we have.
    Railing against the “system” may feel good but achieves nothing because no single player can achieve anything of significance. Nobody that could is willing to step up and bell the cat. Those that created the “system” now sit back and whine hoping somebody else will step up and solve “the problem” for them.

    Today’s news?
    Not going to happen.
    Historically, players gifted with market domination have never been brought down by external forces. Only from internal rot and only after multiple generations. IBM ruled, depending on how you look at it, for anywhere between 50 and 100 years. Ma Belle was fractured only to reform after a decade. Different owners, same position. Microsoft is headed into its tbird generation stronger than ever and Apple has had its ups and downs spbut they too are doing fine after 50 years, making money just by breathing. Google and Facebook, though, are showing signs of early rot before tbe second generation exposing themselves to the rarity of rarities, a successful external attack. TBD.

    The world we have is the world we have.
    Adapt to its reality, exploit it as best as possible as long as possible, just don’t expect plaints to achieve anything of consequence not matter how badly the equine might offend you.


  3. Don’t like exclusivity? Get 95% of those other authors to stop producing, and then you and the remaining 5% will have some real market power. Whap those do-nothing publishers about the ears.

    But, lower barriers to entry so anyone can produce and enter the distribution channels, make it all easily available to consumers while leaving everything for sale forever, and you take whatever the guy with real market power wants to give. Whap!

    • The concern isn’t that others are producing; rather that they are forgoing the low volume channels that don’t return revenues in proportion to the effort it takes to use them, particularly in comparison to the benefits that come from *choosing* exclusivity.

      As with belling the cat, nobody is willing to sacrifice their well being in service of the collective.

      Ideally, if *everybody* were willing to sacrifice for the sacred cause of going wide, it might prop up the marginal channels as insurance to future evil.

      How likely is that?

      • Few are concerned that others are producing, but few appear to understand the difficulty one faces in making a living writing fiction is a partial function of the every-increasing supply and the never-diminishing stock of available books.

        Unfortunately, this isn’t accompanied by a corresponding increase in eyeball hours devoted to fiction.

        That’s what those maligned gatekeepers did. They kept the market in balance. The gatekeepers didn’t really give a rip what the book said, exciting new voices, or story arcs. That was easy. Their job was to fill quotas and no more.

        Lots of people are still living in Cabot Cove.

        • You’ve missed a key point to the supply problem: the fact that most titles aren’t in the running at all and are, therefore, not competition.

          Who are authors truly competing with for eyeballs?

          Not the thousands of books ranked above 100,000 on Amazon, but the ones ranked on a semipermanent basis below 50,000. Those 50k books are the ones readers want; they’re the most competitive ones.

          Right now, any look at the competitiveness of the industry has to include brick and mortar retailers, where corporate publishers flaunt their wares, and where a LOT of money is still being made by *someone*, whether it’s authors, agents, or publishers.

          And then there are other factors such as quality of prose and story, the effectiveness of marketing, timing, volatility in the market, hot genres and trends, and plain old luck, all of which have as much of an effect on an author’s booksales.

          The current state of the publishing industry isn’t as simplistic as “lots of books” and “they live forever.”

          • “. ..most titles aren’t in the running at all and are, therefore, not competition”.

            Precisely why Kindle Unlimited is so important to Amazon and Indies. Its terms keep out most tradpub, especially the BPHs, and gives exposure to the titles that B&M because of its biases and limitations would never bother with. At that point, “…other factors such as quality of prose and story, the effectiveness of marketing, timing, volatility in the market, hot genres and trends, and plain old luck…” take over.

            There is fairly big money is KU–well over have a half billion in publicly recordable author payouts, exclusive of the private bonuses and special deals–in rentals alone, without factoring in sales produced from the new True Fans acquired along the way and it all flows to Indies and small presses, rendering B&M and most tradpub irrelevant to those “non-competitive” titles.

            Make no mistake, there are plenty of authors making good coin in the world beyond the B&M’s 30-50,000, often more than most 90day launch window titles ever bring in. It is the power of 70% long tail and deep backlist lifecycle economics. Not many Indie titles end up pulped.

            There isn’t a single publishing market out there, even in narrative prose trade books. There is the ancien regime of B&M, agent query-go-round, and payola. And then there is the open world of Indie, Inc. Ne’er shall those two meet except in online stores, mostly Amazon. As I’ve pointed out before, it didn’t have to be that way but it is the world we live in.

            Kindle is 15 years old and KU is 8 and still growing steadily, day by day, month by month. Neither is going away. But B&M *is* still withering, day by day, month by month. Enough so that Amazon just threw their arms up and gave up: not even their store of big data, volume discounts, and logistic prowess has been able to make a worthy business out of B&M pbooks.

            Authors get to choose their primary market–B&M or online–act accordingly, live with the results. But with Amazon alone accounting for half of all US sales, independent of B&N online and others trying to play online, and the new post-pandemic high inflation world at war the odds aren’t good for already marginal B&M non-essentials sales. The withering of B&M bookstores will continue and likely accelerate.

            Think of it as “Son of Retail apocalyse”.


            • BTW, this is the history of KU public payouts as of January 2022. A 10X growth since its first full month in 2014.


              That is the carrot behind KDP exclusivity…in addition to access to the biggest reader pool for print and digital. Exclusivity may be theoretically suboptimal but in the world we live in money talks louder than theory.

              • KU eliminates the financial risk of trying an unknown author and book. The monthly fee is sunk costs. There is no incremental risk for the consumer in trying some book and author he never heard of.

                • And often leads to sales in the core KDP store.

                  That is a much negleted feature of subscription services with paired stores like GAMEPASS and KU.

          • Those 50k books are the ones readers want; they’re the most competitive ones.

            Sure they are. And they will stay on the shelves forever. Year after year, the top 50K, along with every other book will remain on the shelves. That means the stock of readily available books, tested for popularity in the market, will continue to increase.

            We can pick whatever cutoff point we want. 50K, 100K, 10K, etc. However the set of competitive books is defined, it keeps on increasing.

            Not too long ago, that wasn’t the case. Real shelves held the stock of available books. Inventory was limited. No more.

              • Tastes and preferences always change. But they also persist.

                Music is a great example. Look at all the various categories of music available on the subscription services. Oldies, classic rock, classical, rap, etc. Music can be indexed by publication date, but there are lots of other ways people look for it.

                The electronic store of music has been growing since about 1955. Anyone listen to Elvis? Beatles? (Yes, people do listen to the same song over and over.)

                I’d suggest the expanded availability is expanding and diluting tastes because the opportunity didn’t exist before.

                And 41 years? That’s Starwars which is still cloning itself.

                eBooks are playing catch-up with music and movies. I expect to see the same patterns.

                Cabot Cove doesn’t have internet.

                • Actually I lost my taste for radio music a couple decades back.
                  (Too many little girl voices and two few adult male voices. Karen Carpenter or Heart would get nowhere today.)

                  These days, I listen to my own CDs/LPs (ripped, of course–it was easy) or Amazon Music, the freebie that comes with Prime. They even have the new ABBA album complete. I’ll be buying it eventally but no rush. (40 years later and they still got it.)

                  I do listen to Amazon oldies playlists. Good stuff. I like tbe stuff tbat predates me: 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, etc.

                  Thing is, no content business can grow solely off backlist.

                  And genre fiction has evolved significantly in 40 years. Fantasy and SF a *lot* but also romance, suspense, and tough guy action. Entire subgenres have exploded: alternate history, superhero fantasy, “hot romance”, technothrillers. (Never mind the “cultural adjustments”.)

                  A store or publisher relying on a “veteran” buyer might be passing on perfectly fine books more atuned to changing reader tastes.

                  Time change, businesses need to change…
                  …or die. A lot of the latter is happening in retail.

Comments are closed.