Polishing The Apple

I’ve said before that writing ebooks directly to the public would make it a very different game from the way most of us have been playing it for years. I don’t think I ever explained why except to give some vague nod towards “we had to get past the editor first.”

But Kris Rusch’s article reminded me of this.

So I’m going to spell it out. For years I was reading how-to-write books not because I thought my writing needed help, but because I was trying to figure out what the editors were looking for, which was the unspoken promise behind anything telling you how to write a bestseller.

I’ve read bestsellers SIMPLY to see what they were doing – what trick they used. (Yeah, I am a fan of a half dozen bestsellers, if you don’t count romances where it seems like anyone halfway decent is a bestseller. BUT I rarely read “mainstream” bestsellers. Only I did, because publishers/editors I worked with considered them upmarket from sf/f and I was seeing if there were tricks I could steal. I still don’t like “mainstream.” Agatha Christie’s definition of its being unpleasant people living lives more boring than anyone should applies.)

Look, years ago I took this workshop and the people teaching it (may I reveal names? I won’t otherwise) told us that we shouldn’t count on getting any royalties. Whatever we got on our advance would come out to about as much as the book would sell.

Do any of you have any experience in business? Because I don’t, exactly, beyond having worked retail a few times, having had garage sales, having been a multilingual secretary and having done this writing thing for pay for a little over ten years.

However I know logic. More important, I know probability. The people teaching this workshop didn’t tell me “the system is crooked and there’s ways to game it.” They didn’t need to. As I’ve said before, I can read print, at least man-sized.

Think. When a book first hooks the editor they have to take it to meeting and present it. When they do so, they have to tell the finance people how much they expect this book to sell. I don’t know what figures they show in those cases. When it’s a writer with a track record, I imagine those are presented. Probably. Almost certainly. This is stupid, because, say, a writer who writes primarily fantasy and is now writing romance or vice-versa will have a completely different probability of sales. Particularly under a different name. Never mind. You could still sort of squint and believe there was something straight forward going on there. Say you close your eyes a little and go “Oh, well, maybe sales are deterministic. Maybe there’s only x thousand people in any subgenre who like this person’s arrangement of words.” Right… improbable but perhaps not impossible in a “found in a Chinese fortune cookie” sort of way.

But imagine this is a brand new writer. No track record, nothing. The editor sits there and… what? Looks at similar books? What makes a similar book? Genre? Subgenre? The character is the same age? Color? Paints toe nails the same way?

Look, there’s no way to put this but bluntly: books are not cans of beans. Yes, there are some similarities between subgenre. Yes there are some guaranteed sales and non sales in each subgenre. Take me for instance – I never liked quest fantasy. Not sure why. Never took to it. So I’m a non-reader for quest. Just as I’m sure there are guaranteed readers for it.

Sure, sure, at the top of a trend, you can more or less predict what a book will sell even with no push (something I’ll explain down the page.) Take Urban Fantasy. About five years ago a typical urban fantasy would sell pretty well, regardless of what was inside the covers. (Provided the signage were right on the cover, and well… mine is not a typical urban fantasy – sigh.)

But even at the top of a trend, given different writing styles, views of the world and ability to hook readers, predicting an advance so your sales come precisely to that would require… mathematical genius. Also, rattling some bones, turning some cards and throwing some yarrow stalks.

And yet publishing houses did it, year after year, day after day. That gentleman in the wall street journal shouldn’t have been so upset at the prospect of losing publishing houses, because think of the benefits to the world if all those geniuses of predictive statistics flooded other businesses. Think of people on Wall Street going “this stock FEELS like that stock, so I can predict its trajectory over the next year or two to the penny.” Can’t you see it’s for the good of mankind?

Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Does this mean I’m mad at it? Do I think individual editors/editorial houses are crooked?

No. What happened to publishing would happen to any industry presented with the same type and amount of temptation. We humans like to control our world, particularly that part that affects our livelihood. In fact, some of it I’ve seen happen to other industries.

Atop my desk (okay, to the side, since my desk is floated in mid-room, facing the door so the kids and the cats can’t come at me from behind and give me coronary) is a framed Heinlein quote. “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you. If you don’t bet, you can’t win.” For years I’ve accepted that and tried to game the system.

What was the system. Well… I’m sure it started as just projections of what the book would sell. Can you do general ballpark, based on what a book like that has sold in the past? Sure. You can look at it and go “Um… Urban fantasy is selling like crazy. This will sell no less than 20k worth.” Can you swear it won’t sell more? Look… even if you are a fan of the genre and can “feel” how it appeals to other fans, you won’t be able to tell.

I’ve been reading science fiction since I knew it existed and there are bestsellers – real ones, swamped by fans at cons – that I read and go “pleasant enough, but… eh. If I stumble on another book by him/her, I’ll read it.”

Unless you have a DIRECT line to the minds of fans or conduct exhaustive test surveys with potential consumers before you make that address offer, the sort of “to the penny accuracy” that houses were achieving is not only improbable, it’s impossible. And none of them conducted surveys. Instead they told us it was more art than science (to be honest it would have to be art – the dark arts.)

Take Harry Potter, which bypassed the whole process – as did a few other Britts – by selling insanely in Great Britain before being picked up here. Suppose one of the American houses who rejected it had accepted it, and the second under editor (Ms. Thistlewhile) had tried to project how it would sell. “Fantasy juvenile, um… they don’t sell great. And the whole boarding school thing… well… Americans just won’t get it. And she does have issues with setting on opening. Well, let’s give her five thousand advance.”

And let me tell you, chums, if they had done that, she would have earned that advance, the book would have gone out of print. There would be books two and three, maybe, and then she’d have been told she either couldn’t work in this town no more, or she’d have to change her name and write something different. Perhaps those hot urban fantasies that are selling so well.

How would this be achieved? The same way they made sure their numbers were always right.

There are several prongs in selling a book, and there’s reasons for each of them to be controllable, when they didn’t use to be, say… twenty five or thirty years ago. I started explaining what happened to bookstores, but that’s an article on its own, one I can’t write without crying, I think.

So instead, lets stipulate that with a few, rare, wonderful exceptions, most bookstore personnel nowadays does no read. They view what they’re selling as editors do: by cover, genre, subgenre, and what did this person do before. Oh, one more thing “How much ‘push’ does the book have?” And the rare, wonderful managers are circumvented by the fact that stocking is decided at regional – usually tri-state – level. Who do these managers talk to? The distributors. How do they decide what to stock? Well… by how much “push” the book has. These are busy people, controlling a lot of bookstores. They can’t read every book. Blurb and cover might come into it, but MOSTLY it’s “push.” So, what’s push? Push is how many books the house chooses to print, and how desperate the house-reps are to place them.

What determines how much push you get? Well, at the rawest level, your advance.

Does “push” work? Not any longer I’m told. (Which might explain some of the interesting statement ballet we’re seeing, because the numbers STILL have to conform. You see, those poor creatures, editors, are paid on how close they’ll sell to their projections. And there’s no way to make those projections. There simply isn’t. Books are too individual.) Did it work back then? Oh, hell, yeah. There are ways to cap the distro a book has at x. And it’s possible to calculate mathematically – if book is on x shelves for x time, it will sell in this range. Why? Because THAT’s law of averages. You should by rights still have the occasional surprise and I can attest to some, like my first Musketeer’s book, but never mind, you can bring it back in line with the next book. Those surprises are rare enough, anyway.

Look, at that same workshop, I was told that if I wrote a really good book it would sell. I appreciated the intent, it was well meant. Sometimes you have to lie to the young. The truth is that even Harry Potter would never have taken off if it had been distributed at one, maybe two books in half of the bookstores in the land, with a “do not restock” order attached and taken out of print at the year anniversary. Word of mouth might still have worked – would. People might still be looking for it – would. But when there are only 3k books printed and they climb to $45 used in the Amazon marketplace, distribution is going to be slow to non existent. And there are a lot of books in that exact situation just now. The fact that the houses aren’t hastening to reissue books that sell for crazy amounts used means… I don’t know what, but it means the model is broken, I think.

So… the best way to have a bestseller was to have the editor read your book or proposal and go “Oooh, this is bestseller material.” Which is why the how-to books worked – when they did – because they were written by industry insiders, who might know cold nothing about how to write a selling book, but by gum, they knew what made an editor’s mouth water.

And then there’s the fact these books “expired.” Because different generations of editors went “oooh” at different things.

Okay, so we used to write for the editor. We used to polish the apple for teach. Some of us with stunning lack of success (listen, bub, I can outline according to these books, but then I fall under my own influence, which is always a terrible thing, and then, next thing you know, there’s so many subversive digs hidden in my book, that the editor would have to be deaf dumb and paralyzed not to twig to at least one of those. Ruining the effect.) We still do, kind of, in this accelerating transitional phase, because we still need to sell to editors part of the time, and while “push” might not work, they don’t seem to have noticed that. But now we’re faced with the wonderful and terrifying possibility of writing directly for the public. How will things change?

Well, I can tell you what’s changed – here, inside my head. I have yet to self publish or even e-press publish something major, but I know I can and just knowing I can feels wonderful. I am no longer controlling every thought and idea that goes on the page. I’m no longer following a model. I no longer read bestsellers unless I like them. (How many people were reading them to steal their secrets? Was it enough to cause preference falsification?) It feels like sanity.

I can make some predictions and they’ve at least as much chance of being right as the next guy. I think we’ll see the long-tail effect. Part of the reason – I think – the industry moved from fad to fad was that editors bought into the fad first, and all of a sudden that’s ALL that was on the shelves, prompting people to go “oh, maybe I should read it.” Sometimes fads took, which meant they hit something people wanted to read, and to some extent there will always, I think, upswells of a certain type of book. But I suspect they’ll be less pronounced and – strangely – perhaps more long lived.

I think we’ll see trends that were as dead as the dodo – say, whatever happened to quest fantasy – come back in enough numbers to support people.

I think there will be a splintering of the field into more sub-sub genres. Because of the way ebooks pay, a writer can make what he would have made from a big house if he/she’s not a bestseller by just having say 5k steady readers, and writing three or four books a year. (Easier, without bothering with proposals.) That means if you find five thousand people who want to read about wizards who conjure using wood spirits, more power to you. And those readers, conversely, will find people to feed their habit directly, so they can read nothing but…

At the same time I’m hoping, as a reader, there will be an upswell of the strange and wonderful. You see, I’ve always liked the “doesn’t fit anywhere” books – say Barry Hughart’s Chinese Fantasies. There haven’t been many of those in recent years.

I hope – and I actually do have hope – we’re about to enter an era where they’re far more common.

2 thoughts on “Polishing The Apple

  1. Ah well, continuing the discussion: The publishers are not corrupt (at least not especially so, as a group) so much as their defaults are set to their favor (natural human tendency, although arguably also corrupt.) Start with the premise nobody likes to admit mistakes, much less explain them to their boss. That determines most of the defaults you cited.

    Look outside the publishing world, say at Pop Music. How many times since Rock ‘n’ Roll began have we seen the industry try to create and manage bands? Only rarely do such artificial life forms survive long, and when they do it is typically in spite of, rather than because of, managers. But because humans possess a desperate inner need to assert an illusion of control over events (rain dances and other ritual behaviours) they cast the bones and proceed to fulfill their prophecies. Because expectations often DO engender results. They expect a band/book to market well, so they push it enthusiastically. Most folk cannot judge quality nearly so well as they recognize enthusiasm (truth be told, most of us harbor inner doubts about our tastes and judgements and happily surrender to our judgement of enthusiasm.) And don’t many of us want to be the one turning others on to the hot new thing? Isn’t that a pleasure all of its own? So they build a bandwagon and we all jump on. And some of us accept grueling hours of tedious labor at poor pay to become a gatekeeper, to be able to inflict OUR preferences on the public taste (because that then verifies the superiority of our tastes, nicht wahr?)

    Thing is, in this new interwebs era the gatekeepers are being put out to pasture. The fences are being pulled down and hardly anyone uses the gate any more. What that article bemoaning the fall of great publishing houses was actually mourning was the demise of gatekeeping. Publishers no longer dictate what is read, networks no longer control what is watched, studios are losing control of what is screened, reporters no longer determine what is news, the bien pensant are forfeiting their ability to forcefeed the hoi polloi.

    Damned rabble are thinking they can govern themselves and, to quote Mel brooks, the governors are in danger “of losing our phoney-baloney jobs.”

  2. I sure hope you are right, and that along side it will come those just-in-time printers that have been chattered about for some time, and a revival of the art of book-binding, for the good ones.

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