One slightly skewed view

I LOVE a good commenting community. Thanks, guys, for giving me the thumbs up, and for telling me what you want to know about. This post is about the publishing industry in general. I’ll write subsequent posts about proof reading and about what I see happening online. I’ll also post Brian’s reading schedule.

Caveat: What follows is one person’s potentially skewed perspective. That person doesn’t live in New York (publishing central), and she isn’t an old white male. This is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because she has fresh eyes for what’s going on. Bad, because she isn’t dyed in the wool and doesn’t understand a lot about the street level dynamics and history of the NYC biz.

That said, the economic model is screwed. Anybody who looks at it knows that it is. Publishing was tootling along doing just fine thank you until the 1980’s, when the America started building strip malls and mall malls. Suddenly there was an explosion of shelf space. Demand grew, big box stores like B&N gained speed, and publishing houses stepped up. More books were being published, there was more competition for the highest selling authors. Advances went up for the top tier–millions, sometimes, just on speculation. If the books sold enough to justify the advance, okey dokey. If the book didn’t sell enough to justify the advance, the publishing house lost money. And a lot of money, too. Millions. 

Meanwhile, midlist and unknown authors got the short stick. The big guys stopped concentrating on the author’s career, on building readership, etc, etc. Advances and marketing money shrank for the midlist. That’s one of the reasons that, now, you hear all this talk about the death of the midlist author (figuratively, of course. Nobody is actually dying, I don’t think. Though some of the part time jobs the authors have to take might be close to it…). The big guys want blockbusters. They don’t want long tail sales.

Then the internet happened, and Amazon happened. Bookstore sales dropped when readers went online to buy their books. This dynamic is still going on, and still playing out. The book industry is where the music industry was, pre Napster. Everybody is trying to figure out what happens next.

Then the economic downturn happened. Just last month (maybe longer, now) a few of the big guys announced that they were stopping acquiring new titles, that in some cases they were canceling contracts, and that they were collapsing their multiple imprints into just a few. One publisher is experimenting with a no-advance model. What does this mean? It means that the big guys are changing, but slowly, and with growing pains.

Independent presses, meanwhile, are thriving. Or, rather, there are a host of new presses started to fill the niche needs of specific types of readers. Because of the changing economic model, the time is perfect for small, nimble companies, run by smarts and by passion. That’s where Underland Press comes in. That’s why I wanted to start this company, and I wanted to start it now. The presses that are coming up now, and the independents that are making names for themselves, will be the new establishment once all of this stuff shakes out. It’s an exciting time.

One other thought: I recently returned from a residency at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. While the program doesn’t focus on the business side of writing, sometimes some conversations sneak through. I heard and overheard talk about what is happening now in publishing. The faculty at the program are all incredibly talented and successful writers. The word on the street was that the authors would be willing to take lower advances in exchange for higher royalties and more marketing push. What does that mean? That means that the era of the big advance is coming to a close. Which means that we’ll be getting back to long tail publishing, which is good for everybody except the agents. This isn’t going to happen overnight, of course. And it’s not going to happen across the board. But the iceberg is melting, and the industry is starting to be a little more fluid, again.

12 comments on “One slightly skewed view

  1. Seth Merlo says:

    Great post – thanks Victoria :o).

    Just to clarify – by long tail publishing, I assume you mean a strategy by which a title sells steadily over a long period, as opposed to a blockbuster title that sells a million copies on day one then disappears?

    I’ve seen a lot of indie press titles appearing on our big chain store shelves in Australia lately. It’s encouraging because our stores have never given much space to fantasy and SF. I think that may be down to all of the big publishers still trying to find the next Robert Jordan, epic 10-book series, and failing to realise that both authors and readers have been moving from that style for quite a few years now (the move back to single titles rather than series?).

    Would it be fair to say that the reason for the painfully slow change in the publishing industry is mainly down to the painfully slow process of publishing a book, as you described in your first post?

  2. Charles Tan says:

    Seth: I think Victoria’s succeeding post best explains the reasons for the slow change in the publishing industry. The complex process of a publishing a book probably contributes a little (it’s a variable) but for the most part I don’t think it has any significant bearing.

  3. A post it makes me happy to read. Transformation can be painful, but it’s not death. Long live publishing!

  4. Bill Ectric says:

    This is, indeed, a very exciting time for publishing. I like the way it’s going.

    I have one concern, and I hope I’m wrong. Sometimes I think, what if every person on every literary blog is an aspiring writer whose books I can’t afford because I’m putting all my money into my own book, and they can’t afford to buy my book because they are putting all their money into their books? That was a situation we had with local punk and alternative rock bands here in Jacksonville throughout the 90s. I don’t know how it is now because I’m not involved in the music scene much anymore. Everybody who showed up at a club, to see a band, was also in a band, and they couldn’t even afford a coke or beer because they were barely making it.

    Having said that, I should add that I do buy a book from time to time, but I mainly use the public library. The library has ordered several new books at my request, by Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, Corey Doctorow, and S. T. Joshi, so at least I’m helping library sales.

  5. Bill Ectric says:

    And I should add, there was usually no cover charge to get into the clubs, or if there was a cover charge, it wasn’t very much, so nobody was making any money.

  6. Yep, long tail as in steady backlist sales over a long period of time. I haven’t read the book that this idea comes from, but it’s a great way to express that particular model.

  7. Writers are readers, period. You going to the library is as good as you going to the bookstore. Might you ask for some Underland titles to be ordered?

  8. Bill Ectric says:

    Consider it done, Vic! Next trip to the library is this Saturday.

  9. Tess @ Work says:

    Really enjoying your posts, Victoria. I’m all for long tails; I’m a lazy shopper, and tend to buy my books long after the initial splash has faded away.

    (I also just like the comet metaphor. Books screaming through space.)

  10. Magess says:

    Here’s to hoping the new indie presses do well enough that they start hiring. :->

  11. Benedict says:

    I wonder whether the book industry will struggle with piracy once things like the sony e-reader become more common.

  12. Midori says:

    The internet certainly has the capacity to end run two disadvantages of traditional publishing: The disasterous results of the 1979 tax codes, which argued for the first time to tax stored inventory and prompted publishers to dispose of all inventory that wasn’t selling fast enough (which was the situation for most midlist and new authors) and the once upon a time invisibility of long tail niche markets. The internet now makes possible downloadable versions of novels (that never need go out of print), subscriber installments for new novels, and an opportunity to promote and market genre and niche books in a way that publishers can’t. It’s a very opportune time for writers despite the miserable economy to become entrepreneurs in their own distribution and promotion.

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