PONDERING: What’s happening in publishing?Monday, January 14, 2013 13:00
Recently I’ve self-published a few backlist titles, and my, do they do well! These books are already professionally edited, so all I had to do was reformat and find a new book cover. So, reluctantly, I’ve had to climb down from my writer’s cave and get back into promotion and marketing.
Now I understand what the fuss is about. Until last year, I really wanted a contract with a big publishing house, to get my name “out there.” I already knew that the money wasn’t good, except for the stars, and the chances of becoming a star are, frankly, in the laps of the gods. It’s not something I can control, although authors continue to spend scads of cash on promotional services which service very little but their egos. Still, the star was there to be grasped. Still is, for the very few and the determined. You can always make money if you’re determined enough and are willing to sacrifice most other things and have a following wind. The trick is, how much do you want it?
For an author, the agent and publisher go-round is a dispiriting journey. For me, it got so bad that I almost stopped writing altogether, forgetting the point of why I did it in the first place. Typically I got the “we love your writing, it’s very strong, but we can’t see where to put the book” response. Well, I could. Of course, that could have been a polite brush-off. I have no way of knowing and my ego isn’t big enough to assume that everything I write is gold. Whatever path you take, you’re unlikely to make much. I used to be in a very well-paying job, before Life stepped up to bite me in the butt in the form of ill-health, so I expected more from my writing than I was getting, but when I compared my income to that of other authors, I discovered I was doing fairly well. Which surprised me considerably, because I’d had and fired three agents who failed to get me the contract I wanted. But my income from the epublishers had gradually grown, and because the terms for authors are better there and the market was growing, I was doing all right.
Since World War II, the publishing industry had settled down to a few big conglomerates, a handful of indies, and the agents who serviced them. All the big publishers were agent-only, which created what amounted to a closed shop. You had to have an agent to stand a chance of getting a contract. But publishers started dropping advances, and since the royalty rates were pretty miniscule, the deals started looking a bit less attractive. An author might get something like 6% on paperback sales. Which is all right when you factor in thousands of books sold, and you get a decent advance, but not with a much smaller advance. Authors typically get 25% of net sales on ebooks, and I think the big publishers are surviving on those. Net—that’s after costs have been taken from the base figure. It’s what the publisher says it is.
But with the growth of self-publishing and the high profile of authors who came from that field, publishers found another source for cheap input (it’s cheap if you can make a great profit with little input). When EL James was taken by a big house, they altered very little of her books before putting them on the shelves. Copycats followed, and continued to follow, to cash in on the fad, some good, some blatantly bandwagon-jumping. But that’s a short-term strategy. Grab ‘em and throw’em on the supermarket shelves, like cans of beans or frozen peas. Because supermarkets reckon everything by profit per square inch (or centimeter). It’s their icon. Doesn’t matter what the item is, except in statistical comparison with the like-for-like market. Just profit (guess what my well-paid job used to be!)
For the customer, the reader, that eventually leads to diminishing returns in quality, but it does provide a source of profit and a quick name-recognition to an author, so it’s awfully tempting. I won’t do it. I don’t have that kind of ambition. Last year, I had several talks with a person who really helped me to focus my drive. What did I want, really want? Fame and fortune? Well, sorry, no. Money would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but eventually, no. I want to publish books I can be proud of and books that give other people some pleasure. And I want to have fun with it. When I started on this journey, I decided I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t feel right about and that I didn’t enjoy. So I’m sticking to that resolution. Writing a copycat, doing something for the fame and fortune doesn’t seem worth it to me. It does to others. Fair do’s, not everybody is the same.
Despite that, I’m doing rather well. Writing erotic romance about rock bands seems to help. But despite the sudden rush of rock star heroes, I’m doing it because I love music, and I was once involved in the lifestyle, so I have some background knowledge. That’s serendipity for you. And I want to do more historicals this year, despite the dip in the historical market.
Again, motivated by short-term profit. The non-historical historicals had a boom a year or two ago. Big sales. But that didn’t last long, as readers learned that repetition doesn’t necessarily make for a good read. Or they just got bored, I don’t know. Some very good historical romance authors suffered in that one, too. However, the books were rushed out and were consequently poor quality. New writers were picked up by the bushel—they’re cheaper than established authors—and the publishers tried to sell brand over author name. Didn’t always work. Or not for long, anyway. But what does that matter? Beans are beans, after all. And that’s not to dis the authors, who were just doing what was necessary to establish their names and start their careers, it’s the publishers who created the demand who should look to their laurels.
The marketing department now has a significant say in the purchase of new work, more than the editor does. I fell foul of that last year, when the editors were enthusiastic over a new title I wrote, but the marketers nixed it. Not that I minded overmuch. Just sold it on elsewhere. Makes sense for a company whose main aim is instant, fast profit. Not so much for long-term planning. Writers aren’t nurtured by their publishers anymore, as they were as recently as the nineties. The noughties brought significant change to that.
Big companies always find it harder to change than smaller ones. A juggernaut has a much bigger turning circle than a mini-cooper. That’s understandable. But what isn’t is this emphasis on the short-term. Surely the bigger publishers have a great opportunity to slip into the new, vastly altered market in a slot ready made for them.
The one thing the self-publishing market doesn’t have is quality control. The reader has to wade through umpteen books and samples before she discovers one that she wants to read. So if the bigger publishers started imprints that specialized in quality, that would give them the distinctive difference they needed. Instead of pushing out a vast number of books to supermarkets – or rather, as well as doing that, invest in the future. Give authors a reason to stay. Give them the nurturing, the support they need. Give the author stuck at home, shy or unsure about marketing, promotion, book production and the rest a chance to do what they do best—writing. Let the editor have control and employ great editors with a good track record. Wait—most of the big publishers have them stashed away somewhere. Produce books of guaranteed quality, with plots that make sense, rigorous attention to details like world-building and historical accuracy, and authors who aren’t pushed to write faster and faster (I write quite fast, but being pushed to deliver isn’t the best way to produce quality). That’s what makes a lasting brand, one that withstands the vagaries of the market, and the big publishers are in the perfect position to do so. Strengthen the brand, don’t diminish it.
If not, the reader is going to vote with his or her wallet. If the big publishers are only producing books that are comparable to the self-published ones, then why bother buying them at the higher prices they charge? Because the self-published can afford to lower the price and can react more nimbly to market conditions. Authors are gathering in collectives to exchange information about promotional opportunities and how well certain strategies (eg, free versus dirt-cheap) are working. I’m not talking about “gaming,” although plenty of that goes on, too, and is discussed, because I won’t do it. Not something I feel comfortable with.
Oh, wait, there are companies doing that, too. The medium-sized publishers like Tor, Sourcebooks, Choc-Lit, Ellora’s Cave, and Samhain have increased editorial standards in the last few years. They’re reaping the benefits, too, creating recognizable brands that readers can relate to, gaining ground where the big names are falling behind. Not to mention the behemoth here, Harlequin (not one of the big five). But I want to address that company in another post, because what they do is—very interesting. And do they ever have a brand!
The big five are throwing away their market advantage. They’ll continue to survive for a while longer at least, but with Harper Collins greedily eyeing up Simon and Schuster, Macmillan “streamlining,” and the recent Random Penguin merger, how long will they last?
And because I should really try to plug my self-published releases, here’s the link to my latest one:
You can get it at Smashwords, the istore, and most other outlets. Go get it–you know you want to. Ghosts, vampires, lots of eroticism set in a Southern plantation house.