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.Â
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.