There’s No Business Like Book Business Like Any Business…

I promised sometime ago to do a series on my views on ebooks – where I think all this is going, and what it means for the future.

First, though, I need to set up the stage – as it were – and explain what, from my perspective, is wrong with the current system of publishing and distributing books. Not my point of view as a writer, so much, though some of the “features” of the current system make any writer except the lucky top 1% want to scream with rage at times.

The thing about being a writer is that you can’t evaluate your own work. You just can’t. It’s entirely possible my work – for instance – gets kicked around by the current model because in some way – quality, thrust, execution – it deserves it. I’m not going to – cannot – dispute that. It is what it is.

However, as a reader, I can complain about the deficiencies I see in connecting with the books I would love, if only I knew they existed. As a consumer, I can complain about the inefficiency of the supply system.

And, because I’m a writer, and know some of the processes behind the scenes, I can hazard some guesses as to why the system is falling short.

Now, like a foot soldier in a corner of the battle field, it’s unlikely I’ll see everything. It’s also likely much of what I see will be inaccurate. I’m not averse to being told I’m full of it. I can only be sure of the results and guess at the causes.

Before I start I want to stress something very strongly: First, this is not the fault of any INDIVIDUAL in this system. The system itself has grown dysfunctional through a series of incremental changes that just piled error on error.

What we hear is that there is no money in publishing, which makes me want to go all LOLcat and say “Capitalism, u iz doing it wrong.”

What I know is that there is plenty of frustration of publishing and it hits at every level. As much as I sometimes want to SCREAM at the system, I’m sure so do my publishers, my agent, and even bookstore managers, regional managers, and possibly – I know very little about those – distributors and publicists.

So, first, from my POV as a consumer – if you count YAs read in elementary school (well, Enid Blyton. It’s like an illness. You’re born in Europe, you cut your teeth on Enid Blyton.) – I’ve been reading as my primary form of entertainment for about forty years.

For much of this time – except when the kids were really young – I read four or five books a day. While the kids were young, I cut back to one a week or so, and I’m now getting up speed again and not counting research read maybe two/three a day. I read while cooking. I read while cleaning. I listen to books on audio while exercising. If someone makes books to read in the shower, I’m sold.

I do not play computer games, save Mah Jong when I’m ill. I do not watch television. I watch maybe a movie a month. Reading is what I do.

When you read at the volume I do and are not very wealthy, you don’t buy every book new. In fact, you either borrow from the library or you buy them in thrift shops, used book stores and – when you’re young and really broke – grab them from the free bins in front of used bookstores.

For many years, I read in bulk, from various sources, used. BUT when I found an author I liked, I ran out and bought him new. Usually his whole work at a fell swop. And from then on, I bought them as they came out. It was worth it. Discovering that one author in ten or twenty that really was memorable and I linked to, was a guarantee of a life-long relationship. I’d anticipate their books coming out. I’d look forward to the next one as to a visit from an old friend.

About… fifteen years ago, I started noticing a funny pattern. I’d find two/three books by an author I REALLY liked that had been published maybe two/three years ago. I’d get excited and try to find his/her other books. And there would be nothing. Just a long silence. I thought “odd. People now a days don’t have stamina. They just want to write one or two books. I guess it’s more of an hobbyist’s world. Maybe Alvin Toffler was right about prosumers.”

I confess after a while this meant my ratio of re-reading increased and my rate of trying to find new authors decreased. You see, it was like a series of first dates, where the other person never called back. You get emotionally tired. What’s the point of finding someone really great, you really, really click with, only to never hear from them again?

It wasn’t till I was a writer myself that I realized what was happening. Those writers hadn’t stopped writing. Or at least, most of them hadn’t intended to stop writing. Any number of them continued publishing under other names. It’s just that the way the system was rigged they could no longer publish under their own names.

From my perspective as a reader, this is a huge, massive problem. If a writer I already know I’ll love is still out there, still publishing, I want to know about it.

Then I noticed another problem. Fifteen or so years ago, when the kids were little, we used to have these “movie date” nights. You know how it goes, you ABSOLUTELY have to get out of the house and away from the kids for an evening.

So, after we put the kids to bed, our friend Charles would come over and watch TV or read to keep an eye on things, and my husband and I would go off to the movies. Because we went to the cheap movie theater, sometimes we had to wait an hour or two for the movie to begin. And sometimes I forgot to take a book with me. So we’d go to the Barnes and Noble across the street from the theater and grab paperbacks.
Only… I started not finding anything I even remotely wanted to buy.

Look, I’m not hard to amuse. Yeah, the books that hit me just so and are memorable and change my life are few and far between. BUT the books I will read serially, as popcorn, are a vast amount. I read science fiction, fantasy and mystery and – though only in the last couple years – even romance. I read history and nonfiction. In a pinch and when absolutely deprived, I’ll read poetry. Heck, I’ve read old textbooks.

That said, there has to be something to the book that seems interesting or amusing – either because it’s new, or because it’s a perfect example of its kind.

Now, publishing has always been a cyclical field of sorts. A way to think about it is that if something hits big, everyone wants some of it. So there were always distinct trends. Like, say quest fantasy (sigh) in the eighties. Or dystopian-end-of-world-sf in the seventies. Or cozies in the early nineties.

However, for all that, there would be variation within the trends and also outside the trends. Yeah, in the eighties (I actually think late seventies. Some of my memory of timing is distorted, because for some of that period I was in Portugal, where trends were different) quests were king. But there were some very nice coming-of-age fantasies and even the beginning of urban fantasy. So, if I didn’t care for or was burned out on the current trend, I could grab one of the also-rans.

Then, sometime in the mid nineties, all of a sudden it was “bookstore of the clones.” All you could find was one kind of book. To me this was incredibly frustrating and it was the reason – as a consumer – I embraced Amazon the minute it started. (Okay, within the month.)

I know brick and mortars think Amazon ate/is eating their lunch because of lower prices. Trust me, that’s not it. I like bookstores. I like browsing in a bookstore and walking home with a bag of books, anticipating the joy of reading them. And because I treat books like candy bars (guilty!) I like finding a book and consuming it that day. The book fits the mood. So, for me to switch to delayed gratification (in the early days Amazon could take a week to get the book to me) was a huge step. But worth it, because I had access to books that never made it to my local bookstore.

The reason for this, I THINK – it’s hard to know, since I’ve never been a bookstore manager – is bulk-buying and treating books like cans of beans. Not, mostly, by bookstore managers, but by regional managers for chains.

It’s like this. It used to be that books were sold by people who loved books. But the advent of chain bookstores and efficiencies and… all that stuff, means that books are stocked for a chain by a tri-state-manager. Those regional managers are very busy people and not necessarily readers. They look at numbers on their computers and predict how the book will sell in three states and what books to stock. Part of this is how much push the publisher puts behind it. Part of it is how much that author has sold in the past. And part is whether the subject appeals to the regional manager – which can depend on whether he read a comic in the same vein, or just saw a movie about it.

Some of the problems with this approach are that three states (which is the normal territory) is a heck of a broad territory. Heck, here in Colorado alone I’d bet the markets for books in Colorado Springs, in Boulder and in Denver is completely different – to the point of being three different markets. Let alone, say, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Look, when I go to the same grocery chain I shop at, across town, they’ll stock slightly different stuff. In a well-to-do-suburb, the store will stock more organic produce for instance than in a neighborhood with a bunch of retirees, where it will stock more otc medicines. If that’s true for groceries, how can the book market be the same, uniformly, in a whole state, or three states. (The demise of the independent bookstores is something else again, that I don’t have room for in this space. Though a lot of it has to do with competitive pricing. Not all. But I don’t have room to even hazard guesses on those.)

Then there is the fact that not every book is alike, even if they are by the same author. For instance, I LOVE Heinlein. This is not a secret. But there are at least three books of his I can take or leave and it don’t make much nevermind to me. Books that, frankly, if I had read the first five pages in the bookstore and weren’t a completist collector, I probably wouldn’t have bought. This does not predict the next book. Or the next. It just predicts THAT book. His name has not stopped being a good brand. I just don’t care for THAT book.

This is even worse if the writer writes in more than one field. For instance, suppose a writer is primarily a romance writer, but writes a one-off science fiction. Romance has a lay down (number of books that go on shelves in stores) tens of times the numbers for Science Fiction. So, using the same name for both, even though it makes the reader find you more easily, makes the manager consulting his computer decide you’re not viable in romance.

And then, finally, there’s the fact that readers like me – which they now say, in reference to ebooks form the core of the book business – don’t want to read all one kind of book or the same book over and over again. It would be like a glutton forced to eat only cream-center chocolates. Even the most devoted cream-center lover would give up on them. So, we appreciate that casual-readers can be much struck by the latest TV series and want to have a lot of books like that in their store. And these will sell to the casual-readers. Occasionally one or two will sell spectacularly to casual readers. But the hard-core readers like me will read five of them and – unless the trend hits our particular hobby horse, and of course, most won’t – we’ll go “yeah, that was good. Now, for something completely different.”

So, right about now you’re saying “but that’s the bookstores, Sarah. You’ve already said you buy from Amazon. So, you can get more books you love, right?”

Right. To some extent. Except now you hit the other side of the issue. Publishers.

Some say this all started with the ability of stores to return books with no penalty back during WWII, which effectively means any book on the bookstore shelves is a unit on consignment and therefore the risk is COMPLETELY on the publisher. I don’t know. I think that’s part of the trouble, but not all.

Some say the problem were all the publishing house mergers of the eighties, that ended with most publishers under “mega publishers” which are in turn part of giant media conglomerates and often – we suspect – the tax-deduction part of it.

Some say that it was the federal law about inventory being counted like tools (I’m sorry, I’ve heard it referenced, but don’t remember the number) which means any books in warehouses on the first of the year are considered stock publishers have to pay tax on and treated exactly like a warehouse full of widgets or tools.

I know for a fact that print-on-demand, which is the system most publishers now use (with just-in-time delivery) has worsened the problem.

But the problem ultimately is that the publishing houses, themselves, are not invested in 90% of the authors/books they publish. In fact, most of the books being published today, even by major publishers, don’t get a fighting chance. Or any chance. They never make it to the shelves in the stores and any sales they have are word of mouth or Amazon. And even those happen only for a very short period of time because they are put out on micro-print-runs.

The publishing process, simplified to the point of inanity, goes something like this.

Ms. Thistlewhile, the editor, finds a book she wishes to publish. (These days this is done mostly through agents, which is a whole other matter.) She takes it to “meeting” with the other departments of the publishing house.

To “sell” it to the other departments, she must come up with numbers of projected sales, from which she’ll deduce the advance to minimize risks of massive losses, etc. These numbers are based on the type of book it is/how it’s sold in the past; the author’s other numbers; the publicity-push the house will put behind it and, finally, a hunch.

Let’s say this is a first book and Ms. T. offers the standard first book advance – somewhere between 3k and 5k. This dictates the “push” the book gets – i.e. how much pressure the publisher will put on bookstores to actually put it on the shelves. With an advance like that, unless the writer went to school with Ms. T and/or becomes a celebrity between selling the book and having it published, that book will earn exactly that advance. Which means, the book will have a print run of maybe 2.5k. Which means if it gets on the shelves at all it will be less than a book per bookstore in the US.

Now, visualize your normal chain bookstore. Visualize ONE book in that store. Keep in mind the book might be lost/misshelved/never unpacked. (Whenever I do drive by signings, I find half of my books mishelved, not always by the store staff, but by customers who pick them up, carry them around and abandon them somewhere else. Or put them elsewhere, because they intend to return and buy them.)

The manager in his tri-state command room then looks at the figures for that book and decides that for book 2 of the series, they’ll stock only half that amount… You see, shelf space is precious, and that author didn’t sel that well. Which in turn means the publisher puts even less effort into that book. Round and round it goes. Most authors’ names are “dead” to publishing after two/three books. If the author wants to publish again, he or she must use a pen name. Which means any fans that he/she acquired, despite everything, will now be lost and – except in rare instances – never be able to find the author. Who will start again, as a new author. At 3 to 5k advance. Most books have only one printing and that’s it. Even when the used books are being sold at insane prices, the chances of being able to get them on bookstore shelves again are almost nothing and it doesn’t pay for the house to reprint. Unless the writer becomes a celebrity in some other way.

Now, it’s entirely possible if you write a great book, a book SO spectacular everyone can see how great it is, that the house will push despite themselves and that everyone will buy it. I don’t know. Again, I’m a writer – I can’t judge my own work. It seems to me I can’t possibly write only 0.000000001% as well as J. K. Rowling. But perhaps I do.

I do know, though, as a reader, that I can’t buy a book I don’t know exists. And I know, as a reader, that I often find series I would have loved – even now that I buy a lot of books new – too late. By the time I find book one, a year or two after publication, the series has died never to return.

I also know, from listening in when old hands in the field talk, that a 50k print run used to be considered too small to sustain a career, in the great, wonderful days of … the seventies. Nowadays this would be enough to make you a bestseller in most genres. The AVERAGE lay down nowadays is less than five thousand books.

And yeah, there’s lots of “reasons” why – like TV, movies, video games. But the thing about entertainment is that it doesn’t really supersede other entertainment. Radio is still around. Movies are still around. TV is still around. Heck, point and click computer games are still around.

People who prefer reading will still read and look for books. And I’m sure there’s more than fifty thousand people out there who would like to read any given book. If they knew it existed. If it were on shelves. If they could find it.

So – what I’m saying is that the book publishing and distributing business has got in a horrible mess through a lot of factors. And if it seems like I’m dissing the free market… sort of. The free market is a terrible system for linking suppliers and consumers – except for every other system.

There are many factors contributing to make this a mess, and some of them are imposed from outside. Others, simply relate to the fact that society has changed at such a galloping pace in the last fifty years, say. Which means that the system misadapted and moved too-fast/too-slow in ways that made it sclerotic.

The one thing we cannot question is that at this point the system is less than ideal. In fact, it might be so much less than ideal that it’s reached that point when it’s so inefficient that almost anything else would do better.

When this happens in politics, revolutions occur. When this happens in commerce, new ways of fulfilling the consumers’ needs appear. Amazon was one of these. But Amazon was not enough and therefore the development of a radically new way to read – ebook readers – became practical, possible and profitable.

And so we stand, in the dawn after the revolution, blinking into the grey light of morn, wondering where all this is going to lead, and what it will look like when it settles down. And will we have to go through Terror and the guillotine to get to another form of stability?

*Crossposted at Classical Values*

5 thoughts on “There’s No Business Like Book Business Like Any Business…

  1. Sarah, funny but I’ve experienced a piece of what you are talking about.
    Observation, I am an avid reader. I buy mostly at B&N. Probably I sue outside sources to locate most books that I purchase. When I go to B&N looking for a book the odds are 3 out of 4 the book will have to be special ordered.
    Now on to the Ebook. I bought a nook and now prefer it to a print copy for casual reading. I notice that my purchasing has shifted from new hard or papar backs to a 50/50 ratio with the other half being free books available from B&N and reprinted classics.
    You questioned your standing as a writer. I rate you below Shakespeare and better than 75% of the SF writers. Given that status you can help me to our mutual benefit. As my store doesn’t carry Locus I can search for Sarah Hoyt but can’t track your pen names so easily. Can you help us with pen names?

    1. Ron,

      They’re all at my website: At least all I’ll admit to. 🙂
      Right now there are two — Sarah D’Almeida and Elise Hyatt. If I branch into romance there will be a third. I also wrote a one-off novel under a house name — Laurien Gardner. That’s JUST Plain Jane. The other novels under the name were written by other writers.

  2. “odds are 3 out of 4 the book will have to be special ordered.” And beware, I ordered a hard-to-find Randall Garrett omnibus from a chain bookstore after the clerk said she had just found one copy in their system in the national warehouse, or something. It showed up after Christmas, looking as if someone had been playing rollerblade hokey with poor Garrett as the puck. I demanded and got a discount, and had to apologize to Dan, the recipient, for the condition. Never got a damaged item from Amazon.

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