Hope you are having a happy new year so far. Thought I might give you some links to some articles on the state of publishing and a little personal comment.
Motoko Rich writes “Puttin’ Off the Ritz: The New Austerity in Publishing” in the New York Times. First. allow me to point out that SF/F folks have never lived a “romantic life of fancy lunches, sparkling parties, … and trips to spots like the Caribbean to pitch books to sales representatives. If the salaries were not exactly Wall Street caliber, well, they came with a milieu that mixed cultural swagger with pure Manhattan high life.”
The article notes cutting back on cash advances for authors and looking at the distribution of advance print galleys as ways publishers may tighten belts in the coming year. As for the “costly practice of permitting retailers to return unsold books…Some publishers said that they would like to reduce the costs of returned books — which have to be shipped and then pulped or sold at deep discounts — but that it might be unrealistic to abolish the practice in tough economic times… the custom of accepting returns from booksellers was created during the Great Depression to persuade bookstores to take more copies. ‘In a moment where getting people to put stock in a store of anything, not just books, is harder because of the money it costs to front them,’ [a publisher] said. “I think it might be counterproductive to have a return-free business at this point.’ ”
Booksellers were seen as hoping the publishing industry will use the downturn as an opportunity to publish fewer books: “They need to have some sense of what is going on in the country and what the readers are really looking for.”
Okay readers what ARE you looking for? What DO you really want? Tell me!
Meanwhile Anita Elberse’s “Blockbuster or Bust” article in the Wall Street Journal points out (using Sarah Silverman’s recent $2.5 million advance as an example) that “publishing executives are still making what many see as outrageous gambles on new manuscripts.” (Again—blockbuster advances are extremely rare in genre publishing. There are the elites—established super-sellers like King, Koontz, Rowling, etc.—but, for the most part, these folks did not start out with advances that busted blocks.)
She explains the system of big advances and blockbuster books well enough, but I wonder about her scenario for what would happen if a publisher were to stop the practice: “First, agents would stop sending such a publisher their most promising book proposals…’Agents will no longer consider you for what they feel are their best projects.’… Publishers can’t afford to cost-save themselves out of the market. Even if they could develop extraordinary competence in finding gold in the ‘slush pile’ of hundreds of pieces of unsolicited material received each week, the dividends would be limited. After one success, the talent the publisher had nurtured would discover the value of an agent.”
I do not disregard the importance of agents. I’m one myself. (No, I do not want to represent your book. Please don’t ask.) But not every author is a TV star and even celebrity authors’ agents have less than blockbuster clients along with the biggies. With so few publishers these days, just with whom would these agents stop dealing?
I also wonder about this system we have where agents supposedly “filter” the better books out overall. Juno may be small potatoes, but spud that it is, I’ve run across an awful lot of agents who are more interested in selling me whatever they have rather than selling me what best suits our guidelines. (Including the simple need of a female protagonist. There’s also a lack of understanding as to what the “urban fantasy/paranormal” genre is these days.)
In the SF/F field a couple of decades ago, it was common for new writers to be advised to try to sell their first book themselves, then get an agent. When most houses quit accepting unsolicited/unagented manuscripts, this no longer became such good advice. However, because SF/F is a small world, many authors still sold themselves without an agent. One reason for this may be that, as noted, there aren’t a lot of huge advances in our field anyway. Agents, in most cases, can’t make much off a debut fantasy writer, so why should they be “filtering” for publishers?
Of course, there are fewer editors and assistants to plow through slush these days, too. And much more slush to plow through…
Elberse’s second reason for sticking with the blockbuster advance system is that “the most talented editors and other creative talent would leave to work for a publisher that would let them pursue the projects they thought had the highest chances of success. Careers are built on blockbusters.”
Hmmm. In an industry that is downsizing, one wonders how true THAT is any more. Or maybe we should ask Jane Friedman if a substantial record of success means you can even keep your job…
Back to Elberse: “Not bidding for sought-after projects also makes it harder to get best efforts from sales and marketing representatives and other internal constituents…Book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble want to see evidence that a book is worthy of their scarce resources. They like nothing better than to know that a book publisher has made a significant push for a title and is planning an extensive marketing campaign.”
Sigh. Nobody knows, short of Oprah, what sells books. Sinking millions into marketing helps, but it also has failed. Sure, retailers want to see a commitment to market, but does that mean a huge advance? In other words, we are in a loop here where if you pay $X advance, you put $X into the book. What does this really mean?
Finally Elberse states: “Media companies’ hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. Compounding this tendency is the fact that media products are what economists call ‘experience goods’: that is, shoppers have trouble evaluating them before having consumed or experienced them. Unable to judge a book by its cover, readers look for cues as to its suitability for them, and find it very useful to hear that ‘Dewey’ is “a ‘Marley & Me’ for cat lovers.” In much the same way that potential publishers do, readers value resemblances to past favorites…Blockbuster strategies are certainly not free of risk, but, in the long run, they beat the alternative of more balanced investment strategies.”
It is true about consumers wanting to be part of the herd, but then I keep thinking of movies that have millions invested in convincing consumers that “everybody has to see this film” and that still don’t do all that well at the box office. Further, the author of the best-selling “Marley & Me”, John Grogan got a $200,000 advance for the book. Not $2 million.
An award-winning journalist, Grogan wrote a column about the now-famous Marley’s death and got hundreds of email and letters in response. It was obvious he’d struck a cord with the public and William Morrow thought so, too, and bought the book for a reasonable advance for a book they probably thought would sell 100-200,000 copies. According to an International Herald Tribune feature “It was not until Lisa Gallagher, William Morrow’s publisher, said she began to suspect the book would do well when she noticed staff members passing it around among themselves. Morrow printed nearly 6,000 readers editions and sent them to booksellers. It also gave away copies at June’s BookExpo America, the industry trade show, in New York. In a nod to the book’s tear-jerker qualities, the company distributed tissue with Marley’s image on it at regional bookseller meetings; it also sent Frisbees with the book’s title on them to stores.”
Yes, Marley went on to become a bestseller, but initially it was not seen as a blockbuster needing a big advance.
Yes, $200K would be considered a high advance for a fantasy or science fiction novel, but remember–this was nonfiction from a professional writer who had obviously come across an idea that moved the public. It was a good bet. But they didn’t bet the moon.
Thing is — “the next big thing” is almost always something unexpected. Sometimes a “big thing” takes years to GET big. Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, was not a “big thing” at the start of her Anita Blake series.
Just some thoughts. But, hey, do tell me what readers want. Maybe I can figure out what the next best thing is!