Trainwreck Fall Edition

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

I adore a good gothic and a somewhat creepy novel (but not too creepy, mind you), so in June, when a reliable friend recommended Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel, I ordered a copy immediately, and read it the moment it arrived. Loved it. It’s in my recommended reading list for July.

As soon as I finished, I ordered a copy for my sister, who also likes this type of book. Immediately, a notice flashed on my screen: she wouldn’t get the book until September. I was stunned. I looked at the publisher, thinking I was dealing with a specialty press, but no. I wasn’t. How odd.

That was my entire reaction: How odd. The book had released in February, so I should have been able to get my hands on a copy quickly. But I couldn’t.

That same thing had happened with a couple of other books I had ordered for my sister back in May. They were backlist for an author I knew my sister hadn’t tried, but would love. It took six weeks for her to get the books, with the shipment getting delayed more than once.

Because so many other things were going on, I hadn’t put my experiences together with something I wrote about at the end of April. Traditional publishing was headed for a trainwreck, and I was worried about it.

Part of the trainwreck was—and is—the closed bookstores. Many are still closed. But a lot of that trainwreck had to do with publisher panic, old systems, supply chains, and more.

When the pandemic hit, everyone thought we would get through the damn thing in a few months. We’d club that virus into submission, and return to normal life—or close to normal—by summer.

. . . .

Some industries aren’t very nimble. They can’t just shuffle one thing to accommodate something else. Traditional publishing is like that.

(This is where a handful of my indie-writer readers usually check out. I suggest you don’t, because I’ll be talking to you below. We’re part of an industry and a large part of the industry is mismanaging a crisis, which will have an impact on you. So, breathe, and dive back in.)

With the bookstores closed, some companies moved their biggest spring and summer releases to the fall, hoping that all would be better by then. There was some wiggle room, because traditional publishers had tried to avoid publishing anything important in November since it is a presidential election year. So there were some empty weeks.

But not enough of them. The schedule got shuffled, then reshuffled, then shuffled again. I know some books got canceled entirely, but many have just been moved to the next available slot on the schedule.

That is, they got moved to an available slot on the schedule, if the book is expected to do well. If it was a standard midlist book, it got shoved somewhere random, so that it can be printed, shipped, and sent to bookstores—who ordered their copies pre-pandemic.

Yeah, even if the book doesn’t come out now until fall of 2021, many of those orders remain exactly as they were. Even if the bookstore isn’t selling as many copies in its brick-and-mortar store. Or if the bookstore has shuttered its brick-and-mortar store—or closed entirely.

Here’s what a lot of readers don’t know—consciously anyway. Traditional publishing is built on velocity—that is, how many books sell in a short period of time.

The system that traditional publishing is using was designed post-World War II (or as I said to a friend yesterday, after the World War II generation survived its once-in-a-lifetime crisis). Back then, there were very few bookstores, and those that existed had limited space. Most books were sold in other retail venues—drug stores, department stores, magazine stands, and the like—which again, had limited space. In other words, there was only so much room for books in those places. Rather than keep old inventory on the shelf, retailers who sold books churned them—getting rid of those that were still on the racks after a month or two, and replacing them with new inventory.

This was easy to do, because in the Great Depression, the publishing companies subsidized anyone who sold a book by removing cost of excess inventory. Retailers could return books for full credit within a specific window. Which meant that retailers could make bad decision after bad decision, and not lose a heck of a lot of money.

They could also churn at no cost to them, replacing the old inventory with the new.

That practice created the idea that books were like bananas; they spoiled if they didn’t sell within a few weeks. And, indeed, there are horrid photos from the 1990s of Dumpsters filled with books behind shopping malls, because many publishers allowed retailers to strip the cover off books (and toss the rest of the book away) and still get full credit. Saves shipping costs, doncha know.

Even though it’s a stupid 75-year-old business model, traditional publishing still banks on velocity. And traditional publishing is fairly stupid about velocity. If an author’s sales numbers go down, no matter what the reason (y’know, like closed bookstores and a pandemic), that author will be offered a smaller advance next time—or will be cut loose. It’s brutal and unrealistic, and it’s on the horizon for so many writers.

. . . .

In addition to the messing up of the schedule, there were supply chain problems and the bankruptcy and auction of the two remaining major web press printers here in the States.

. . . .

The best way to sell books (as demonstrated by study after study) is word of mouth. My sister is at the end of a recommendation chain that went from my friend to me to my sister. My sister hasn’t even had a chance to read and recommend yet. By the time I wanted to give a copy to my sister, the book was out of print. The reason for the nearly three-month delay was because there were no copies of the hardcover in the warehouse—and no printing scheduled until September.

That September printing was probably ordered in May, which meant that the May numbers might not reflect the actual interest. The Times noted that one of the hot political books of August, which I had actually forgotten about (because so many hot political books have followed) had a similar problem:

The CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s new book “Hoax,” about the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox, was out of stock on Amazon this week shortly after its August 25 publication date, and showed a ship time of one to two months. Mr. Stelter’s publisher, One Signal, a Simon & Schuster imprint, which initially printed 50,000 copies, has ordered another 100,000 copies.

Two-month delay from August 25 on a political book places that 100,000 copy rerelease at the end of October, a week from the November election. 

. . . .

Ah, I hear you all now. What about the ebooks?

This is where traditional publishers have—pardon my crudity—fucked themselves blue. Stelter’s ebook costs $14.99. The ebook for the St. James that I mentioned above is $13.99.

Ridiculous, right? But it’s part of traditional publishing think. They want readers to buy the hardcovers, so they’ve priced ebooks unbelievably high, which is causing another problem. From that same New York Times article:

Some worry that the current crunch could reverse the yearlong trend of stable and sometimes rising print sales, sending readers back to digital books, which are less lucrative for publishers and authors, and especially brick and mortar retailers.Sa

Less lucrative for authors? On what planet? Oh, yeah, right. The traditional publishing planet. I’ve seen article after article that talks about how ebooks are a bust, that they don’t make money, and that sales of ebooks are “depressed.”

Yeah, if you overcharge for them.

. . . .

So, if the reader can’t get the novel that caught their attention this week by ordering it online, and if the reader won’t pay over $10 for an ebook, and if the reader can’t get the book from their library, what does the reader do?

The reader moves on to a different writer, another book, something new and different. Sales—and fans—aren’t allowed to build.

At all.

. . . .

As The Guardian noted, the blockbusters will make it into the retail stores. But those midlisters won’t. There just isn’t room. And with overpriced ebooks and no library access, there’s no way to discover these writers.

So many writers have gone to traditional publishing because those writers believe traditional is better at getting books into stores (really?) and is better at promotion. Let’s ignore the first part, shall we, and assume that some poor traditionally published writer was actually slated to get promotion on their book.

First, as The Guardian notes, there’s not enough room in the literary press to cover all 600 books that were released on September 3. There isn’t enough room to cover the books that will be released after September 3.

And if you were lucky enough to get a rave review from a reputable publication? Well, you better hope your publication date remained the same. Because review copies were mailed months in advance, and the review was written months in advance and published to time with your original release.

The Times quotes Sasha Issenberg whose book The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage was slated to release in June for Pride Month. He got a stellar review in Publisher’s Weekly. Only his book got pushed to early September, then late September, and now won’t come out until June of 2021.

Will the bookstores that ordered the book even open the boxes when it arrives? Remember the order at all? Will the bookstore even be in existence when the book arrives? Will readers remember that they wanted the book in June of 2020? Will the publishing company redo their promotional efforts for the book?

Oh, wait. I can answer that last one. No, they won’t. They’ll expect Issenberg to do it, and maybe he might be able to finagle some interviews and additional reviews on his own, the way an indie writer would do things. But his book is going to tank, unless someone does an intervention. And believe me, there will be a lot of other things that will have grabbed our attention by Pride Month 2021, and none of them will be his book.

. . . .

[N]ewly published traditional writers? They’re screwed. They really are.

A handful of them will be resilient enough—and smart enough—to learn how to indie publish their next books. But most of these traditional writers won’t be that resilient. Their dreams are going to die a horrid, horrid death.

I empathize…up to a point. If they want to learn how to publish books, point them to our Publishing 101 class, and then stay out of their way. They’ve had years of warning to stay away from traditional publishing, and they didn’t listen. They’re probably not going to listen now. You know the rules about drowning victims, right? Send them a lifeline. Don’t get close enough to let them grab you and pull you down.

After I published the first Trainwreck piece, I heard from indie writers who panicked. They asked if they should stay away from the crowded fall schedule. I said no.

Because the real business model for publishing in the 21st century is this: readers will discover books over years, not weeks. Put your book out there. Yeah, maybe some reader won’t find it until 2022. That’s okay. Then they get to read your entire backlist.

Indie writers aren’t dependent on velocity. To have a successful career, we need widespread availability. We need to be in all the possible markets we can. We want our readers to find reasonably priced ebooks from all the major vendors

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This is a first-class Kris Rusch analysis of traditional publishing and PG strongly suggests reading the entire OP (which is substantially longer than this excerpt).

PG will add only a bit of reinforcement for the main point Kris makes in the OP: Traditional publishing is a very poorly-run business. It might be compared to that great restaurant you used to enjoy, but don’t think about much any more because the prices are steep and the last time you went, the kitchen wasn’t doing the job it used to.

The other factor PG has mentioned before is that even if the New York top brass was inclined to really innovate and make aggressive changes, the companies that own the large New York publishers – large European media conglomerates plus CBS (Simon & Schuster) are not going to be receptive to innovative changes, particularly if such changes might possibly result in lower short-term profits.

The CEOs of the major New York trade publishers are really middle-management in their business organizations. From PG’s prior personal experience with large European media conglomerates, he is 99.99% confident that cutting ebook prices to potentially goose sales numbers is a non-starter. The people who own the NYC publishers are just as locked into traditional strategies and practices as the NYC underlings Kris describes.

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.

If you want to make a contribution directly to Kris for her insights, here’s a link to her Patreon page.

7 thoughts on “Trainwreck Fall Edition”

  1. The fate of fiction publishers was set several years back before anyone ever heard of the virus. They can’t survive in an economy where their competitive edge continues to erode and their services are no longer necessary.

    So, whatever events came down the line, the weakness of the publishers’ position would make them very vulnerable. We attribute things to the virus, but that’s just the proximate cause. Then we attribute things to publishers’ reputed low IQs. If it wasn’t the virus, it would be something else, and the most brilliant managers alive can’t change the external environment in which the publishers live.

    The European owners know this. So do their American managers.

  2. The OP also links to this NYT article

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/books/printing-companies-backlog-book-publishing.html

    and there’s something I just don’t get in it.

    First, the companies that print books are suffering badly…

    The two largest printing companies in the United States, Quad and LSC Communications, have been under intense financial strain, a situation that has grown worse during the pandemic. LSC declared bankruptcy in April, and the company’s sales fell nearly 40 percent in the fiscal quarter that ended June 30, a drop that the company attributed partly to the closure of retailers during the pandemic and the steep fall of educational book sales. In September, LSC’s assets will be put up for auction. Quad’s book printing business is also up for sale

    But conversely, there appears to be a great deal of demand for what they do…

    At the same time, there has been a surprising spike in sales for print books, a development that would normally be cause for celebration, but is now forcing publishers to scramble to meet surging demand.

    Wouldn’t basic economics say that a company whose services are in demand would be making money and doing well? Why are book printers flopping around like fish when publishers are throwing business at them?

    • Feedstock, for one.
      There’s this:

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelkramerbussel/2019/06/10/how-the-paper-shortage-has-affected-book-publishing/#425552ca1b26

      The supply chain starts upstream of the printers.
      It doesn’t matter how much demand there might be if you can’t supply. And it has become more profitable to make cheap cardboard for packaging (booming online sales!) than expensive book quality bleached paper. (Environmental regulations, for one.)

      Second, the big publishers don’t rely exclusively or even primarily on the local printers. They are in fact the *fallback* printers for second editions or latter. The first edition printers are most commonly in Canada and China, especially the latter. Less demand for local printing —> less demand for print quality paper. Less volume, less profit.

      Printing houses have been consolidated for decades and losing business to foreign printers just as long. First to Canadian companies, starting last century, and later China. All cheaper.

    • Try this:

      https://www.callawind.com/book-printing-china

      “There are several reasons why our clients print a book in China. The main reason is price. Offset book printing in North America is expensive. This is especially true if you are printing a full-color, hardcover book with coated paper. China printing is usually 40% less expensive than book printing in Canada or the US. Even if you add shipping, duties, and sales tax (where applicable), you still save considerably.

      Overseas book printers can do a variety of special binding and printing effects at very little extra cost compared to North American printers. ”

      Yesterday’s solution often becomes today’s problem.

  3. Sorry, no. I read as far as the phrase “our idiot president” that cropped up in about the fourth line and stopped.

    I’m sick and tired of writers who inject politics into everything they talk about, even what should be a straightforward discussion of the state of the publishing business. I’ve always thought Kris had interesting and worthy insights into the book business, but I resent her rubbing my nose in her political beliefs. Those views have NOTHING to do with the subject she is talking about. It’s pure arrogance to push them at us completely out of any sensible context.

    I’m done with her just as I am with every other writers who chooses that path.

    • Sadly some people can’t step back from their religion and be objective about the world beyond for even a minute.
      I just tune them out and mine the nuggets of good info. There’s good stuff there, just skip the irrelevancies.
      You have to; the breed is all over.
      And it’s only going to get worse.
      There’s still time to prepare to hunker down, fortunately, both in publishing and the real world.

    • Actually, I say her comments have relevance to the article: since she can’t rationally analyze the Wuhan coronavirus, why should I trust her analysis of anything else? (I don’t want to get off in politics either, but will simply note that the data does not clearly support her comment)

      So, yes, I did skim the rest of the article, but I view anything she says with a lot more skepticism than I did before.

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