Again a Still, Small Voice

A year and a half ago I blogged about Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s novel, The Still Small Voice of Trumpets.

I’ll confess I was not perfectly straight forward with you, when I did that.  If I remember, I wrote from the perspective of a reader, and how happy I would be to see the writers who had vanished, how happy to rediscover them.  But I couldn’t close that circuit and make that connection.

I couldn’t do that because at the time I was still agented.  I was still not writing for indie.  I did not know if I could be or would be at any time.  And this imposed certain controls on my tongue.

For those of you who have never read Biggle’s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets, some spoilers follow.  I’ll just say that despite the spoilers, despite knowing how it will turn out, you should still read it.  It’s one of the classic space operas that is near and dear to my heart.

First, to give you space if you wish to read no further because of spoilers, let me tell you that the proximate cause for this post is a comment by Robin Munn about how, due to the horrible contracts houses are now forcing many writers to sign, until publishing collapses and something else rises phoenix-like from the ashes, many writers are going to disappear for ten years or so.  (It’s in reply to this post.)

My answer said something like “yes, but writers have been disappearing randomly, strangely, for fifteen or more years now.”

I’ve talked about this elsewhere, and I won’t go into the mechanisms.  If you wish to read my old post He Beats Me But He’s My Publisher, go for it.  If you don’t – and I’m not the first person to describe this mechanism.  Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch have described at least parts of it – I’ll give you a quick summary.  At the end of the eighties, sometime, while I was laboring largely in vain to break in, the publishing landscape underwent a marked transformation.

It was mostly a revolution in retail.  I remembered reading at the time about the bright future ahead, now chains were displacing indie bookstores, and how there would be more books and cheaper for the public.

This was true to an extent.  I was very happy when a Borders opened here in town, because it had a much bigger selection than anyone else, and I could go out and buy anything, even late at night…


Except the book trade is a specialized trade.  If the people who were running, managing, distributing, etc, had been readers, true book people and/or if the publishing industry hadn’t itself gone through a convulsion of mergers and buy outs that left management quite removed from the day to day business of publishing… or had most publishers the most rudimentary understanding of economics, the chain bookstores would have been a very good thing.
If ifs an’ ans were posts and pans no one would ever be hungry.

However, the conjunction of book retail being treated as just any other retail “by the numbers” and of the publishing houses having clue zero why it would be a bad idea to control the numbers from the inside out… was a very bad thing.

Sorry, I’m so used to the situation that I just realized I might need to unpack it further, for you.  See, to some extent, publishers always had some control over how much “push” a book got.  To an extent.  The book reps – the people who went door to door, bookstore to bookstore, drugstore to drugstore, everywhere that stocked books saying “hey, you want to stock this because” – tended to be (I think, this was before I was in the industry) readers.  But they also got marching orders – of course – from the publisher.  If told “We’re pushing this book to be big” they’d go out and lean on the stores to stock a lot.  Did it work?  Eh.  Sometimes.  And sometimes, no matter how much they pushed, the retail managers, who back then were by and large readers, would read the book and go “Joe, this is a stinker.  It won’t move.”  And sometimes the reverse happened to.  You had “surprise bestsellers.”  A book that was slated to go down into obscurity would catch the fancy of retailers, and they would hand sell it.  It would reprint, and reprint, and reprint.

That was before retail became consolidated into three big chains and before Borders brought its innovation of “computer numbers” and “ordering to the net” to the business.  Ordering to the net is ordering to the last “net sold” number of books by that author…  No matter the genre, the subgenre or the author’s growth.  (And let me tell you right away that there is no writer – not even Heinlein or Pratchett (genuflect) who never wrote a stinker.  And there are few writers so bad – one or two – who never wrote a book I like.)  Or… what was on the cover.  Or…

What the “computer numbers” system was supposed to do was streamline ordering and give the retailer a real basis for re-ordering.  What it did was provide cover and allow both retailer and publisher to play the numbers.  Let me put it this way – if you had only two books on the shelves per store your chances of selling more than half were almost none.  Your chances of reprint were less than that.  And your writing name would have to be changed within three books.  The alternative was you gave up writing and retired in disgust.

BUT the publisher didn’t have to think about “did we use the right cover?” or “If we bought it, how come it didn’t sell at all” or even “Should we have pushed more.”  No.  They could say “the numbers were bad” and cut the author off.  It was ALWAYS the author’s fault.  Even when the book didn’t even make it to the shelves.

This is what made me think of The Still Small Voice Of Trumpets.  In the book – spoiler warning! – our hero finds himself in a world of people with a mad appreciation for the beautiful.  The most valued art form is music and the type of music is the harp.  The world is ruled by a mad king who periodically – for no reason anyone can divine – has an harpist mutilated by having an arm cut off.

This makes it impossible for the harpist to play again and though the harpist might have been very popular, it effectively erases them from public view and public consciousness.  They disappear into the villages of the one-armed men, where they are in fact untouchable and “dead” to their fans.

In the interest of fomenting revolution, our hero invents a trumpet that can be played with only one hand and teaches the one-armed men to play.  In one of the most moving scenes of the book, the one-armed men march into the capital, playing their music and all their former fans, suddenly, remember them and realize how unjust their condemnation was.  Which starts the revolution.

When I wrote that first post, a year and a half ago, I was thinking how much traditional publishing was like that mad king.  I know of an author who sold very well and had the door slammed on her face because… she dumped her agent – one of the big names in NYC.  I know of authors who gave up in despair after two or three series died without their being able to do anything.  I know of authors who never got started, because they saw how their “older” (in the field) friends and mentors were treated.  And I know of authors who suddenly wouldn’t be bought and never found out why.  The wrong word at a party; the wrong blog post; the wrong expression when a political joke was told…  And it all came tumbling down, and you were banished from publication and from the shelves.  And your fans forgot you.

(In here, because the commenters asked before, I should say that it’s an open secret in the business that if you’re writing for Baen “you’ll be okay” – partly because Baen is in many ways a family enterprise, and not run strictly by bean counters.  OTOH when, like me, you like to write many different genres, it’s rather a lot to ask Baen to start a mystery line just to keep you happy.  So at least one of my pen names – Sarah D’Almeida – was sent off to the village of one armed men.)

If you’re like I used to be, before entering the business, you just went “Well, I guess so and so lost interest in the series; stopped writing; retired.”  If we were still writing – in other genres/under other names – we HAD to abet the deception.  In the interest of continuing to be published – not angering the mad king – we lied to you.  We said “Oh, I hated that series.  I’m much happier with this one.”  We said “Oh, that just never went anywhere.  I didn’t know what the next book would be.”  We said “We always just wanted to be myster/fantasy/romance writers, so we crossed over.”  And what the heck could you do but believe us?

But now we have our trumpets.  Indie publishing allows us to bring back dead pen names; to start writing again; to start writing at last.  We’re no longer dead and gone, banished to the unseen villages of one-armed men.

We are, more and more, marching into the capital, playing our trumpets.  Our fans are remembering us.

In the revolution that follows, a lot of mad kings will be deposed.  I agree with Robin that what emerges will be completely different.  I’d like to believe that as at the end of a fairytale the good are rewarded and the bad punished.
It’s more likely to be like the ending of Romeo and Juliet: “All are punished.”

Rough waters are ahead.  Revolutions are always hard.  But I think in the end, the system will be a little less closed, a little less insane, and a lot fairer.

Listen.  Can you hear it?  The sound of indie publishing is the Still Small Voice of Trumpets.  And they’re ringing freedom.

89 thoughts on “Again a Still, Small Voice

  1. Brava! If those trumpets march around the walls of the big publishers seven times, for seven days…. THAT is going to be something to see! (But maybe from not too close…)

    1. Sorry: one time each of six day without a sound, seven time on the final day ending with the sounding of the trumpets and the fall of the city.

  2. Jericho?

    Scary. I never really bothered to try, much, with the old system, from what I read during the years it did seem like an awful lot of work (and I don’t mean the part of writing the story here) for dubious rewards, unless you maybe won the lottery and ended up on the bestseller lists – and preferably not just once. And I have never particularly wanted to be a writer, it’s just that I have never been able to stop making up characters and stories for them. Now it seems like it makes sense to try – well, I can’t stop making up those stories, maybe there would be people who’d enjoy reading them, and now I can get them out there for sure and even maybe make some money from them – and I find myself scared whether this really will be as good as it looks now. Or whether the good will last. And yes, some nightmares about getting only one star reviews on Amazon, and hardly any sales, at times there too.

    I guess I understand those writers and writer wannabes who cling desperately to the old, no matter what proof they may be shown against that system, pretty well. Better the devil and all that. There has to be some sense of accomplishment simply in getting past the gatekeepers, no matter what happens after that, right?

    Or maybe it’s just my hormones. That time. Not month, life.

    So thank you for these posts. They help cowards like me, a lot.

  3. 1) It’s great to hear good stuff about Baen– I loved them since I figured out most of our ship’s library was from them– and
    2) now I’ve got hopes to find some of the authors I use to love, not to mention the possibility of reprints!

  4. Beloved Spouse & I were discussing that very aspect of publishers yestiday aftnoon, how they were being operated by people who read spreadsheets, not books. And how much the same thing happened to Hollywood in the 70s. Mergers & Acquisitions tend to emphasize folk who understand Finance, not Economics.

    And we remembered the effect Amazon had, and Harry Potter. Because we were among those who ordered the third book from Amazon UK for the Delighted Daughter and had it well in advance of the American release. Which forced publishers to do simultaneous release by the next book. And that meant the world had changed.

    Amazon also made readers less at the mercy of what stores and publishers stocked/kept in print. Discover a “new” author, say Robert E Howard or Lloyd Biggle or Sarah Hoyt and back in the dark ages you were limited to what was on the shelves of book stores (much less well stocked — SF was typically a single rack, if that) and libraries or what could be tediously hunted down in the used book stores, flea markets & yard sales. In 1970 or so I discovered how to get books directly from publishers and routinely ordered for my reading pleasure the nearly entire monthly SF/F output of Ballantine, Ace, Lancer from little more than a title & author listing in their monthly order form. Nowadays, discover a new author and with a couple clicks you can have in your hands almost everything of their in print in a few days (minutes if you don’t insist on dead tree.) (And notice: it is authors, not publishers and certainly not agents that readers seek out.)

    Marvel of marvels, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles. We stand on the precipice of a glorious new era for readers and writers together. It will take time for authors to learn to protect and preserve their publishing rights, and some never will because they prefer to have a publisher or agent tending their garden. But even those will benefit because publishers and agents will learn that there are limits to how much they can abuse their producers. You say Choice is a basic right my friend? Well, let the people choose. White List ethical publishers who employ Fair Trade labor practices and harvest Shade Grown authors for their coffee shops so that readers can express their respect for the authors who stoke their addiction. You have nothing to lose but the barriers limiting your book selection.

    1. Y’know, I think right at the end there I prefer:
      … barriers circumscribing your book selection.

      or perhaps:
      … barriers corralling your book selection.
      … barriers blocking? barricading?

      Sigh – so many lightning bugs, so little lightning.

  5. One thing to consider as subject for blog post: the different viewpoints of author, publisher and reader. I suspect many readers labor under the delusion that publishers are readers also, like them but luckier — able to get paid for reading all day long and discovering wonderful new authors for our delight. I very much doubt many readers comprehend the publishers as greengrocers, viewing books as so many potatoes, cabbages, cucumbers and tomatoes to be shined up and fobbed off on a hungry public without any taste.

    Meanwhile, you Indie authors are the equivalent of roadside stands, offering picked-that-day sweet corn and red ripe tomatoes to those discriminating enough to pause on their drive and sample something fresh.

  6. Once upon a time, before there was a Borders Chain, there was just Borders, just the one store in Ann Arbor. And it was the ONLY place where I would buy computer books. Why? Because not only did they have a large selection, but they had the BEST selection, all the books I really needed. Why was that? Because the guy in charge of their computer section was a computer guy. He knew the subject. He was even a member of our local programmer user group. He showed up every month to learn what was new and important, and he asked lots of great questions.

    They were also my favorite place to buy science fiction books. Why? The large, great selection. I never met the person in charge of SF, but it was clearly someone who knew the subject.

    And I knew friends who had interviewed to work there. Many of them failed the interview process, which involved a lot of questions about books in general and their section in particular. For decades, Borders was THE place to shop for books. After I left Ann Arbor, I would sometimes drive two hours just to shop there.

    Then they became the Borders chain. And their selections (while still large) went downhill. And their sales staff (while still helpful) were a lot less knowledgeable. The original store lost a lot of its character; and their other stores were pale imitiations even of that.

    They were no longer a book store run by book people; they were a retail store run by retail people.

    And a decade or so after that, they were nothing at all. Gone. Poof!

    Some might suspect a cause and effect relation there…

    1. Having shopped at that Borders in the Distant Past, I heartily agree with your assessment of the Ann Arbor store. I think the Grand Rapids Schulers stores survived the demise of Borders because they maintained a sense of independence and/or maintained closer touch with the fellas (or gals) who started the original store a block west of Woodland Mall–next to the separate comic book store.

      1. Yep, Schuler’s is a marvel. Or at least the Woodland store is. I’ve never been to the others. (There’s two others, aren’t there?) They’re about the largest Indie bookstore I’ve ever found,

    2. In Chapel Hill there was a book store named The Intimate owned by Charles Kuralt’s brother. It was a most marvelous place to spend an afternoon. Two and a half floors of books upon books of all sorts. When the chaining of bookstores started it tried, a little to late, to join in, but once the original burned down ( sniff, sniff) it collapsed.

  7. Very apropos, since I have just published on Amazon the same book that a major publisher made an offer on, and I turned down–because they refused to consider ANY changes to their rather sorry contract. (I didn’t even ask for more money!) Now I get to enjoy seeing people reading the book the publisher could have had.
    (The Long Way Home, which as far as I can tell is the first book to have the tag Human Wave, so there!)

  8. “… Indie authors are the equivalent of roadside stands, offering picked-that-day sweet corn and red ripe tomatoes to those discriminating enough to pause on their drive and sample something fresh.”

    Loooove the analogy. Because that’s exactly what it is like, although sometimes you do have to pick and choose among the roadside stands. There are rather a lot of very bad POD books out there, just as there are rather a lot of awful trad-published books; things like Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature, or authors being able to post sample chapters on their websites. Those writers who are serious about their writing will take the effort to make their book as best as it can be – getting their own editor, hiring a cover designer, and layout expert, doing their own marketing and publicity, whatever it takes. Those indy writers who started early on and took it seriously – say, about five or six years ago – they are doing good, seriously good books. They are original, quirky, not cut to the same old pattern.

    Many of them might never have gotten a second look, going through the traditional agent-big publishing-nice contract route. I got as far as having a well-respected agent look at my first MS entire (which was a fantastic courtesy as far as agents go!) and he loved it, but said regretfully that it wasn’t marketable. No one he talked to (in NYC, presumeably) had ever heard about the historical event I had written about. So, scratch getting published the tradtional way. That book (it’s called ‘To Truckee’s Trail’) has become my constant best seller. I hardly do any marketing specifically for it any more, but month in, month out since 2006, it just keeps chugging along.

    And if I had relied on the traditional publishing modal, it would never have been out there at all, save as a few sample chapters on my blog.

    1. “There are rather a lot of very bad POD books out there,”

      A comment that strikes complete fear into the heart of those of us just dipping our toes into indie, but who never had a traditional career. What if I stink? What if the agents/publishers were right? How do I know I’m not fooling myself?

      Sarah, here’s a potential advice column: for the indie: time to publish, or time to go back to the workshop?

      1. How do you know you’re not fooling yourself? Besides what I said about an editor and designer … it helps to have alpha and beta readers, to test-drive your material and give honest feedback. Blogfriends and fans, a circle of other readers, readers who will give you honest and helpful critical feedback. I know it goes counter to the usual advice, but my parents were quite helpful in this respect. They both had an eye for small items that needed fixing, and they also had a friend who taught creative writing at the college level who was also very, very helpful when it came to the structure of my first novel.
        Another suggestion – read some of the really bad stuff, or even just some of the mediocre. Then look at your own. Is it better than the bad stuff? Sometimes it is as helpful knowning what NOT to do, than it is knowing what to do.

        1. I discovered the Kindle free site the other day and immediately went through and downloaded a selection of books and stories. They varied from the worst I’ve ever read to very good. Unfortunately the very worst one was the one that sounded the best by the outline. Proofreading would have did a lot for it, at least by a literate proofreader (the author thanked his brother for proofreading in the acknowledgements, but I think his brother actually must have just told him it was good without reading it) ignoring all the grammatical and formatting errors (what exactly is not knowing how to form or break up paragraphs called anyways?) The story line was so full of holes, implausibilities, physical impossibilities and outright contradictions; that by shortly into it I was no longer reading to see what the characters were going to do next, but was reading because I wondered, ‘OMG, what is this author going to do next!’
          I would advise for readers benefits though to make sure you label your story as the correct genre, I ended up with one very well written contemporary romance that was under SF, romances just aren’t my thing, but it was very well written, I sure it would do much better if listed under romance.
          This longwinded comment started out simply to point out that you can download lots of free stories to compare both the good and the bad to what you have written, without breaking your budget.

        2. Sometimes it is as helpful knowning what NOT to do, than it is knowing what to do.

          I have learned from every boss I’ve ever had, and usually learned more from the bad bosses than the good. From the good I learned what TO do, from the bad I learned what NOT to do.

  9. Wandered over to Instapundit. Good stuff. Thanks. Re. Borders, I used to work for them in between assignments. I loved it because I worked in my areas — history and travel — and the readers/customers (some people would come in and read entire books) were passionate about their interests and our chats made the work go so much faster. And I loved the Remainder tables and sales! B&N never worked for me for so many reasons, but principally the staff. Sorry to be unkind but some thought they were in the land of produce and not books. I still seek out independent and specialty bookstores whenever I can.

  10. Sarah, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. You spoke of accounting-driven by-the-numbers managers of Major Publishing Houses who know nothing of writing and care nothing of readers. And then you lament the demise of certain artists whose careers were destroyed for whimsical reasons. I’m having a hard time connecting these dots.

    A purely numbers-driven decision matrix should not have any connection with the odd comment at a party or the untoward blog post. To the contrary, readers, by their buying decisions, should provide reliable signals to booksellers, distributors, and publishers.

    Yet, in the face of this, we see bankruptcies in these businesses. My personal wish-dream is that readers are saying “none of the above” to what’s been pushed upon them. And that they’d open their wallets again were they offered books they want. My fantasy extends to posit a cultural disconnect between the denizens of mid-town Manhattan and those of middle-class America. (Like the Times columnist who didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.)

    It seems that in order for your thesis to work, abusive agents and publishers have some way of jiggering the numbers to reward their friends and punish their enemies. More likely, there are NO numbers that can be attached to manuscripts in a slush-pile: only the subjective judgment of potentially vindictive interns, agents and editors can advance those manuscripts. If so, then the numbers-driven managers can escape bankruptcy by replacing those interns, agents and editors with others who better understand readers.

    This suggests that the bean-counters are not the problem. Larry Correia is an accountant and his Monster Hunter books sell very well. I don’t think this is in spite of his profession, but because of his resonance with what you’ve termed Human Wave. Or because he likes guns.

    1. What I’m saying is that the numbers could be gamed from above: exposure, shelf space, etc. And corporate was “bean counters” in the sense they thought books were cans of beans. So…

    2. Everybody else had good points, but I think I can sum it up simply for you Steve.

      “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

      If accountants were all as honest and aboveboard as you say, why would we need auditors?

      1. Oh, Patrick, you SOooo don’t want to go there. I am a corporate accountant and in my experience the vast majority of corporate accountants (yeah, limited sample, I acknowledge) ARE honest and aboveboard. Heck, they’ve no reason to be otherwise and few have sufficient charisma to be crooks. Others here have already amply explained how the numbers the accountants generate can be jiggered by managers — and it is managers, not accountants, who benefit from those numbers. Frankly, I very much doubt accountants give a hoot about the numbers; who ever heard of an accountant getting a raise because the quarterly sale numberss were so good?

        And auditors don’t evaluate the honesty of accountants (couldn’t — any halfway competent accountant knows how to rig the books because he knows where to look for mistakes) they evaluate the effectiveness of the company’s accounting controls. Controls in place to minimize error and limit opportunities for knavery. Which is why the standard form auditors’ report on financial statements is a formulaic and precise legal assertion. I know – I had to memorize it and more than memorize it to pass the CPA exams.

        Nobody wants to deal with the tedium of understanding accounting or accountants, so let’s leave that dog lie.

        But the thing is, any competent accountant could tell you that the numbers are NOT representative of the company performance and merely represent the cash flows, not the values of assets. Put bluntly: the accountants can tell you what an asset cost but not what it is worth.

        Sigh. Must walk about and let BP ease. ; D

        1. RES:

          I do apologize if I somehow implied most or all accountants are dishonest. What I said was if they were all honest we wouldn’t need auditors.

          The vast majority are exceedingly honest. There are some who are not. Which is all I was saying.

          1. No apology required. You weren’t conveying distrust so much as ignorance — and I suspect my rant failed to properly explain that auditors are not needed to detect dishonesty so much as incompetence.

            Although incompetence gives ever so much room for dishonesty to flourish. In which case the auditors can’t do much.

            1. I’ve been an auditor, briefly, and my dad is an auditor’s auditor, so I’ve grown up with this. As RES says, it’s not the accounting department that’s the problem, it’s management. Even then, people are mostly honest and auditors are mainly about getting the numbers to match the latest regulations. (When you see big cases of financial fraud, most of the time it’s a company in serious financial trouble and people getting desperate, which is more a tragedy to me.)

              Now, I did participate in auditing the clean-up of a huge embezzlement, done by a manager, but he was only able to do it because the company didn’t have controls in place. The people remaining were still in shock that someone they knew and trusted would do such a thing. Nice company and nice people, btw. And my dad has some stories to tell, over the years, but again, it’s management, not the accounting department. They’re the ones that have something to gain.

              I’m now in the corporate accounting department. I couldn’t benefit from fudging the numbers even if I wanted to. I don’t have access to actual assets, and there are pretty strict controls that govern that. The financials are good a step above that; auditors come in to verify that, yes, there are actual physical assets behind the financials. It’s good to have other eyes to check on things, too.

              Now, private accountants can be a different matter. Dad always talked about Hollywood tax accountants – there’s a reason all these stars are hit with million dollar tax assessments. But that’s the fault of clients going with the guy who says he can get them the lowest taxes, over the one who says he’s by the book.

        2. RES – not sure how many people appreciate the difference, but I think the implication was not towards Accountants, but Data Analysts (and, of course, managers). Being a Data Analyst, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the accounting side of the data I aggregate and correlate, but I can tell you how many online ads that my company sold were delivered to browsers and how many were clicked on, break it down by Ad Size, Advertiser, Website, or any of a dozen different parameters, and we deliver this kind of data every month. I also generate data on how many forecast pageviews are available to have ads sold for them, and deliver that data to the sales people.

          If a manager takes my data and modifies it, it could have similar effects on how many ad spaces are sold to an Advertiser. Of course, the situations are not exactly the same, but there is definitely a similarity.

    3. Envision Hollywood. It is driven by numbers, but @#$%^ forefend you should offend them by an untoward statement or opinion — well they fear that it might out and taint the whole of the business.

  11. Steve, you’re combining about three purchasing levels. A regularly bestselling author can probably get away with saying anything they want. Midlist? It’s just too easy for a thin skinned publisher to find this writer’s quality just not up to par on the next novel, and this new person’s prose is fresh and . . .

    Computer sales numbers influence how many copies of a title a buyer for a bookstore orders. The bookstores have minimal input as to what the publishers produce. They just go by “This author, her last book . . . we ordered ten and sold seven, we’ll order seven of her latest.”

    Readers, on the other hand, can only buy what’s on the shelf. Or in the computer inventory, IF it’s a really slow day and someone will go hunt through boxes in the back and find the book that didn’t get shelved. Or will hunt for books that were mis-shelved. They can only vote with their pocketbooks if there’s something they want to buy. The pool of readers had been reported to be shrinking . . . but is now apparently expanding, possibly driven by eReaders and the greater variety of stuff available.

    1. Exactly. But also, there was some control from above. Say you were a midlister, trending up. Publisher gets upset at you for a real reason or not. Your next book, the rep tells the store buyer (who buys for three states or sometimes the whole chain. And “buy” is a misnomer for “takes on consignment”) “we’re not really confident about this book. It doesn’t seem to be up to standards” or even — less openly — barely flashes the cover while extolling other books and “pushing” them. Result, if you’re lucky is two books per store. At that level of “laydown” you often, as Pam said, don’t get shelved. You go in the back, in a box. If someone asks, and they feel like it…
      End result, at your next submission, you get told “Your laydown fell of a cliff. We’re not sure we can buy another book.” All “by the numbers.” All manipulated. And all beyond your control.

      1. And if you think cold-eyed Corporate accountants are immune to such influences, I’ve got this bridge you might be interested in. Sure thing, y’know, I could run the numbers for you…

        The brutal fact is that Corporate bean-counters are some of the easiest people in the world to scam, because all they’ve got is the numbers — and there are thousands of ways for non-accounting management to fudge the inputs. Pam’s example is unsubtle: “We shipped ten books and only seven got sold. Clearly we should only ship seven, or perhaps only five, next time.” That’s good, clear, correct number-crunching, but it ignores why only seven got sold because that data isn’t in the numbers. It’s why the epithet “bean-counter” came to be used in the first place.

        Accounting can have creative aspects, but in the end it’s very computer-like. Numbers go in, the music goes ’round and ’round, and out comes the result, as mechanically as a crank-organ. And like a computer, if what goes in to the process is distorted or incomplete, the result will be out of kilter. The task of good management is to include the numbers as part of the decision-making process, balancing them with the other inputs according to how confident the manager is in the quality of the data. One of the signs of an incompetent manager is going strictly by the numbers, abdicating his or her responsibility to take other influences into the reckoning. An agenda-driven manager may try to hide his intent by seeing to it that the inputs are fudged, then exclaiming with wide Calvin eyes, “Oh, I’m just going by the numbers.” It eventually catches up, but “eventually” can leave a lot of wreckage behind.

        1. and with books it’s ALMOST impossible to make it “just the numbers” It wasn’t just print run and management. My worst cover went on my up-till-then best book, Draw One In The Dark, hard cover. It sold the worst of all my books. (Of course, it was Baen, so they gave me a new cover for the paperback, but it could only be saved so far.) There is no column there for “We gave it a horrible cover because owner of company was dying.” No, that went against my numbers, as though my name, or something about the book drove it. (How bad? Well, it not only mis-signaled book as horror –it’s a light fantasy — but it was SO repulsive I didn’t want to be seen near it.)

          Again, then there’s “wasn’t on shelves at all.” How can it be the writers fault if the book doesn’t sell because it’s not on shelves and no one knows it exists? It can’t. But it is. And that is VERY easy to manipulate.

          And then there’s the truly easy to hide. Books one and three of my musketeer mysteries. GOOD covers, decent laydown. Third book fell off a cliff. Why? Well… at a signing I need to look really closely to see which book I’m signing. Cover design and color are exactly the same. You have to focus on FRONT COVER to see it’s not first book. I still meet fans who don’t know third book ever even came out. Why? Walk along a shelf. Look at spine “Musketeer’s Apprentice?” Uh… I guess it’s that first book. I have it. Pretty good. When is she writing another? And then for book four? They changed not only the design but FORMAT. It became A Death In Gascony. Half the people who FOUND it — a tiny proportion — wrote to me to say “Yeah, but I didn’t buy it, because it’s not musketeers. When are you writing the next musketeers?” AGAIN. BY THE NUMBERS. Was it murder? Who knows. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. However, one or the other IT WAS.

          1. Exactly. Often you don’t care about whether it’s malice or stupidity, you just care how to get around it. It might matter IF stupidity is of the curable variety; but I doubt stupidity at the large publisher level is curable by the average author. If it were, it would’ve been cured already.

          2. One thing to keep in mind is that for the publisher it probably don’t much matter which mid-lister sells. The very definition of a mid-lister is that their work is essentially interchangeable with any other mid-lister, so given a choice between a mid-lister who is easy to work with (or who remembers your birthday with a nice gift) and a mid-lister who complains about … every … little … thing — and given that either one will sell x number of books — who is the publisher going to prefer to handle?

            The stat geeks in baseball have come up with a concept useful here: the Replacement Level Player. It recognizes that the NY Yankees are NOT going to play the ninth inning with nobody pitching now that Hall-of-Fame closer Mariano Rivera has blown out his knee. SOMEBODY will pitch those last three outs, and it is possible to calculate the likely success at getting those outs of a “league-average” pitcher (a replacement level player.) A mid-list author is pretty much the literary definition of Replacement Level writer.

            A new author, like a new baseball player, is going to require some time to get established, to find a level of performance. And management naturally wants to give more playing time (shelf promotion) to a promising rookie than a seasoned veteran — more upside. But a prospect can turn into a suspect mighty fast, especially if they insist they deserve to be treated like a star.

            For a publisher a mid-lister is somebody who is expected to sell sufficient books to justify their spot on the roster, but only just. Like as not the publisher knows that they can slap a nice cover around 350 pages of classified ads and match the sales from any mid-lister — so why put up with one who insists on auditing their royalty statements or is habitually late or fusses about covers or won’t do promotions?

            To the writer and reader it may be art, but to the publisher it is just one of 57 varieties of beans they hawk. If this variety tends to sell slowly there are plenty of different varieties ready to take its place.

            1. RES,
              You are correct that’s what midlisters used to be. Now midlister means “not “sexy” enough to be a bestseller” and “sexy is life story, how you look, who you know, NOT how you write. Which is the real issue. What this means is most writers get two (now one) book to pull miracles out of… air. If they don’t get it, they’re gone forever. (Again, note this is NOT how Baen does it, but the big guys.)

              1. A small demurral. For (most) publishers “sexy” is: This we know how to sell. This will let us book the author on Oprah, this will get the reviewers to pay attention and put up page 1 articles.

                See, most publishers know that, for their market, it isn’t enough that a book be well-written, with interesting characters and a compelling plot. Hundreds such books sink yearly in the market place with nary a ripple. As the strippers told Rose Louise: “You’ve gotta have a gimmick.”

                Baen cheats; for them the decisive criterion is not “is this easy to market” but rather: “Will our readers want to read this?” Heckuva gimmick, ain’t it?

                  1. Baen’s ploy reminds me of some snark I heard about Fox– they’re exploiting a niche market of ~50% of the country. ;^p

                    1. I’m going to have to steal this. I see great head exploding potential in it. 😀

          3. I think this argues for the author asserting greater control of her final product. “No, you can’t use so dark a cover, it’s light fantasy.” And being more open to suggestion, “If you entitle it ‘A Death In Gascony’ it’ll get shelved wrong. Perhaps you could put Musketeer in the title?”

            In my day job I write software. I know that when any one stakeholder exerts dictatorial control over everything, it’s a lot worse than if an open conversation takes place between more stakeholders. Aggregating information from diverse perspectives makes for better decisions every time.

            1. uh. Steve? You’re assuming the author has ANY say on the cover or the title? WHY? What makes you THINK I wasn’t open to suggestion of what to title it? My title was The Musketeer’s Inheritance. A Death in Gascony was THEIR title. I had NO say.

              FYI in traditional publishing, we don’t have a say over any of that. You seem to think this is an author’s failing, that we either sit back and go “don’t bother me with covers” or that we say “my title or the highway” or… WHAT? I’m neither J K Rowling nor Stephen King. I have NO say. (Mind you, after that first book, I do have a say of sorts at Baen. Toni allows me to send cover suggestions to the artist and she asks me what I think of sketches. BUT she makes the final decision, not I.)

              As for other houses… You can tell them the cover sucks, but all it will do is get you labeled “difficult”. Even in books I had cover consultation (three) I had the right to agree with the cover, or have the cover slapped on against my agreement. My first book was retitled under my nose and against my VEHEMENT complaints (It didn’t match the rest of the series). We REALLY have no control once that contract is signed. Which is an argument for Indie. Or for the sort of limited licensing contracts Dean Smith has been advocating.

            2. Steve, talk to just about any author and they will tell you they have absolutely no control over the covers they get. Most don’t even get to see the cover until it is already approved by the publisher and included in the publishing schedule. As for titles, the first thing authors learn is that their agents and their publishers can and will change them without input. We may write the book, but that, as far as many are concerned, is the end of our involvement in the process.

              1. A curious, tangential question: how different will that be at Naked Reader Press? On the very premature assumption that you’ll be interested in the stories I submitted, I will have some suggestions for covers, including an artist who might be perfect for one of them.

                1. Well… Naked Reader is a shoe string operation. We don’t normally have a budget for “real” covers (as in costume) for short stories. Sometimes we get the board to risk real money on a cover for a novel, but it’s been years even on that. So, I normally do the best I can for it. Part of this is that the pay back is so long, Martin. But I’m now (I think officially. If not, soon officially) the art director, (because I needed another hat) so… well, we try to keep authors happy. Within our very limited budget.

                2. Martin, what Sarah said with a caveat. For short stories, we don’t usually get author input once the cover is designed. However, they are asked if they have any ideas ahead of time. With the caveat that there is no guarantee simple because of the finances involved.

                  That said, we have had one author who supplied covers for several stories. This author knew the e-book market and knew what covers need to be for the digital media. So we were more than glad to use what was supplied.

                  For novels, we do talk with our authors and I have tossed more than one cover based on author input. But, in those cases, the editorial board happened to agree with the authors and, no, Sarah was not involved in the cover design at that point. The think to remember is that NRP does absorb all the costs for covers and doesn’t make an e-title “earn out” before we pay royalties. So, that means we try to do creative and visually appealing covers for all our titles without having to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for them. This also lets us pay higher royalties to our authors than a lot of other publishers do.

                  1. What I am hearing is that the more an author is able to bring you a compleat package, the more the author gets the package the author wants. Sounds as if it behooves an author to learn how to market product.

                    1. I do think that’s implied by the Naked Reader Submission Guidelines:

                      At least that was how I read them. “We are looking for completed manuscripts that have been polished and proofread… While we won’t reject a short story or novel because it goes slightly over our preferred word count, a poorly formatted manuscript or one that is in a genre we don’t publish may be rejected…” So they’re being very clear that they have no time for nor interest in helping to “fix” a manuscript. I don’t think that makes them much different from other markets, but I thought it was admirably clear.

                    2. I thought it was admirably clear.

                      I thought that alone distinguishes NRP from other publishers. 😉

                    3. Not necessarily. We’ve had some bring us cover art, etc., that simply won’t work. Yes, it might be fine for print, but it won’t work for digital. As for learning how to market your product, you have to know who to do that no matter how you are publishing. Major publishers simply don’t market like they used to. In fact, they want to know what you are going to do to market your work. Agents actually ask you before they read your submissions what your marketing plans are and what your contacts in the media are that you can exploit for marketing purposes. As for NRP, you can have the best marketing plan in the world and a cover to match, but if you haven’t given up a compelling story, you aren’t going to get past the slush pile.

                    4. Perhaps I ought have emphasized compleat more? A package with an unsuitable cover (please – leave us not quibble; a cover is only suitable if it is suitable; it is a tautological fallacy that yet applies) is incompleat, a package with an unreadable story is incompleat no matter how well packaged.

                  2. I understand entirely the value of good covers at great prices. My self-pubbed works so far have used images from Dreamstime, and I found some great covers for reasonable prices there. I expect you have a wider range of sources than I do.

                    1. We use dreamstime A LOT. There are a couple others, though, that I mentioned in the cover seminar. And sometimes, in a pinch, I do the cover as I did for Kate Paulk. (The cover we had lined up fell through — artists are more unreliable than writers, I swear.) 🙂

              2. Even authors who theoretically do have cover control can be gamed; I was at a panel where Michael Whelan explained how All the Weyrs of Pern got its cover. According to my memory, it went like this: He sent sketches. The publisher took the cover they liked, showed it to McCaffery, and said, “Whelan wants to do it like this.” McCaffery, being sensible enough (dude! a Whelan cover!), shrugged and said, “Okay.” They went back to Whelan and said, “McCaffery wants this one!” He said, “Wasn’t the one I expected, but okay.”

                Later, they compared notes: “Why’d you pick that one instead of one of the others?” “What, there were other sketches?”

                You may wish to consider who was doing the covers and publishing of subsequent Pern books after that, if you can dig up the copies. I recall that there was a change.

            3. Steve, I know an author whose book was about a PI, and the PI’s car. This car was a character, at least in the amount of time said PI spent restoring, adding to, sitting in, thinking about, etc. Definitely the reader knew quite a bit about that car.

              When the author got the first glimpse of the cover art, the car was the wrong model, wrong make, wrong year and wrong color (all of which had been lovingly described in the text). The Publisher’s response to the panicked missive? “Well, change the book. Cover art is expensive and we’re not changing *it*.” Seriously.

              You have no idea what ‘traditional publishing’ is like. If the people on your cover are the same gender as your main character, you’re ahead.

        2. Yes, I’ve rolled my eyes at bean-counting gone wrong. It leads to some very stupid business decisions. I really hate financial ratios.

          During my brief auditing stint, I was one of the few people who liked doing inventories (got me out of the back rooms and let me see the client’s real businesses, which I found absolutely fascinating). Companies don’t like to have too much inventory on their books, because it’s a denominator in some ratios, and a too large inventory makes the ratios look bad. Makes sense for a for-sale inventory, right – you want your inventory to sell quickly, and too much sitting around implies slow sales.

          Only I was watching the inventories for industrial repair shops, and their inventory is parts. This was for oil and gas, and they’ve got a lot of old equipment still being used in the field. So, to me, it makes sense for them to carry as large a variety of inventory as possible, as long as they’ve got the storage room. But no, while I was there, one of their head office guys came out and started throwing stuff away, to get it off the books.

          And don’t even start on Hollywood studio accounting.

          1. Hollywood accounting is to accounting as Hollywood sci-fi is to science fiction: any resemblance is superficial, and maybe even accidental.

          2. Only I was watching the inventories for industrial repair shops, and their inventory is parts. This was for oil and gas, and they’ve got a lot of old equipment still being used in the field. So, to me, it makes sense for them to carry as large a variety of inventory as possible, as long as they’ve got the storage room. But no, while I was there, one of their head office guys came out and started throwing stuff away, to get it off the books.

            I don’t know about all the tax implications, but I know in some cases having an inventory means you get taxed on it– part of why grocery stores run out of non-perishables after a disaster, there are end-of-fiscal-year sales, etc. You want to get stuff off the books so it doesn’t cost you.

            Of course, that can be the motivation without it making sense, too– someone knows “if we have it, we’ll get taxed” and a bunch of other things. Come to think of it, oil and gas have some special EPA rules if the stores are over this amount, and I seem to remember you can get waivers for gallon measurements if it’s the amount used every X amount of time.

            1. Inventory rules should vary across industries, as industries vary in their need for and use of inventory.

              Foxfier has it right on the tax consequences of inventories. There were major effects in the publishing industry consequent to the change in tax rules on books inventories. More books get remaindered more quickly, print runs got shorter because the (cash) cost of holding inventory increased.

              1. Could be – I remember the taxes on books inventories. I’m not a tax person (I’m actually a business analyst these days, which is more fun). But corporate taxes are unreal. If anyone thinks corporations aren’t paying enough in taxes, go check out a balance sheet and compare taxes paid with income – odds are, the income will be the smaller number, often by several factors (in oil and gas, total taxes can be six times income – granted, oil and gas has a pretty low profit margin compared to most other industries).

                  1. Ouch, yes! My non-specialist understanding of taxes is that the IRS is determined to make sure that no one, especially the self-employed or small business person, can understand or do their own taxes correctly. (I cannot read the tax code. At all. I can read the accounting standards, which are intended to be understood, but I cannot read more than a line or two of the tax code without my brain starting to whimper.)

                    1. Laurie, I generally find Ayn Rand unreadable, but on this she was dead on: the IRS’ goal is to ensure that enterprises cannot comply, thus providing legal leverage over them. Large corporations can afford the costs and can tie up the government’s lawyers without harm to the company, but small businesses (especially entrepreneurs) are unable to afford the costs of defending their rights and are forced to spelunk.

                    2. (Hopefully this shows up as right below RES’s replies above) – what’s sad is that most people will think you’re being cynical about this being the IRS’s intentions, but things I’ve read (including an excerpt from a book by an ex-IRS agent who finally got a conscience) says that what you say is precisely true. And not just for IRS regs, but most governmental regs- there’s always something they can get you on. It’s a way for small-souled people to gain power.

                    3. We’re all criminals … just waiting for whatever charge the powers-that-be decide to charge us with. (Darn – I’m turning into an Ayn Rand fan…)

                    4. Google “Three Felonies a Day” — by Harvey Silvergate (full title: Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent) … but the returns from the four-word phrase should yield interesting (as in the Chinese curse) results.

                      From the publisher’s site:

                      Three Felonies a Day
                      How the Feds Target the Innocent – Paperback
                      By Harvey Silverglate
                      The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have not only exploded in number, but, along with countless regulatory provisions, have also become impossibly broad and vague. In Three Felonies a Day, Harvey A. Silverglate reveals how the federal criminal justice system has become dangerously disconnected from common law traditions of due process and fair notice of the law’s expectations, enabling prosecutors to pin arguable federal crimes on any one of us, for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior.

                      The dangers spelled out in Three Felonies a Day do not apply solely to “white collar criminals,” state and local politicians, and professionals. No social class or profession is safe from this troubling form of social control by the executive branch, and nothing less than the continued functioning and integrity of our constitutional democracy hang in the balance.
                      [ ]

                1. Oh, I don’t think there’s enough money to pay me to be a tax accountant. I cannot remember just when I read about the change in tax treatment of book inventories happening, and have not the interest to look it up — but I suspect it occurred about the same time as the other publishing changes we’ve been discussing.

                  But the thing is, taxes shape corporate behaviour — any management which did not actively minimize the expense would be legally and fiduciarily irresponsible. Tee-hee — I wonder what would be the result of taxing the publishers on rights held. They might be less inclined to contractually claim and defend rights “in all media” if that cut into the bottom line. Certainly they would more readily allow rights to revert to the author.

                  Sigh – those clowns running this country would probably think it sensible to tax authors for the e-rights for all stories written, whether or not published.

                  1. Hush! Don’t give them ideas!

                    (Stupid things done for tax reasons could fill volumes.)

  12. Read that – years ago. Great novel.

    Great post of yours, except I disagree with one thing: “And your fans forgot you.”

    Thee following is strictly from the reader’s perspective. And in case any of those you were talking about read this.

    No we didn’t forget you. We just couldn’t find you anymore. (Or we found you and found you’d switched to some genre we don’t like.) But we haven’t forgotten you – and we want more. Get a website. Go Indy. We’ll buy. We’ll tell our friends who also liked your work. Please?

    1. Exactly – go indy, do the e-books, have a website! Which is the most important bit. Have a website ‘home’ where the fans can go, build your brand and your fan-base, have an e-mail address where they can communicate with you. You might not wind up with Amanda Hocking levels of readership – but you will have an enduring fan base. And they will carry you through.

      1. …but you will have an enduring fan base. And they will carry you through.

        Ah, The Grateful Dead model.

    2. I’m sure hoping this is true–that the readers who loved my medieval time travel romance will find my newly contracted medieval series. My t.t. found a following in spite of everything it had going against it — small press, a distributor who for some reason never distributed, stock that went to Borders and was returned the next day (as far as I can tell, cause I was charged for returns Since the book was never seen in a single national chain store) and numerous other factors over which I had zero control.

      Now readers have the say, which may factor out all these extraneous forces that make good books look like failures.

    3. Biggle’s novel is at the core of a personal nightmare that reflects well upon the changed publishing world we now know.

      I was midway through the book in High School, reading it one late afternoon waiting for some friends to finish their late period class. They came out, I carefully put down the book, we chatted, we thought of some entertaining ways to while away some time, we went and whiled … and the next day I realized I had left my book on the table where I had sat waiting. SOMEBODY found themselves a really good read … but it took years for me to once again find a copy of the book, years of trauma, pain and suffering beyond measure. To this day if I realize I have mislaid a book I’ve been reading I am unable to rest until it is found and will troll the house endlessly searching for that lost love.

      Nowadays, of course, I could just go online and order a replacement. if it weren’t for that youthful traumatic disorder.

    4. Kathy’s right. We don’t forget. I found a brilliant fantasy author back in the early 80s who produced nothing more than a trilogy, then disappeared. But every bookstore I went to, I scanned for her name. And when the internet became more than an in-house party line for Bell labs, I searched for her.

      Twenty years later, I found her (now writing for Baen!).

      We don’t forget.

  13. P.S. One case in point is a VERY successful horror/ suspense author, who, early on in life, wrote about a dozen SF/Fantasy novels. (Most people say they were strictly SF, and I guess they were – but they had the feel of fantasy in some ways.) I’ve got them all. They had a sense of hope and wonder (along with some horror – I can see why he does well there) in them that makes them still enjoyable re-reads. And, in fact, I’ve read some of his horror, in hopes of finding that same wonder. I’ve found it in a few. But I wish he’d sneak out a few more in the SF genre. Reading those, I got the feeling he really liked writing in other worlds. (Reading some of his horror gave me the same impression…)

        1. Koontz was my guess. Wrote some quite enjoyable SF but he kinda jackpotted on a horror story (self-aware computer impregnates a woman, if I remember the jacket blurb correctly) and went that direction.

          1. Thanks. Looking at Wikipedia, everything before 1980 (Whispers) might be interesting. I’ll try to pick them up at the library since all his old stuff seems to be out of print.

          2. Well, that stinks. My library has nothing of his from before “Whispers” under his name or any of his pseudonyms.

            1. Hmm, I think I must half at least a dozen of Koontz’s SF … must make a note for self: before dying, make sure to sell* off book collection so that bereaved family has cash for gravetop dance.

              *Special Note: ship all Simak PPB to Sarah Hoyt, postage due.

  14. Oh you mean that, among things, the publishing industry is going through a similar thing that lead to: John Fogerty dropping out for a time, Bruce Springsteen’s former manager going to court rendering Springsteen unable to enter a recording studio for a year and Prince changing his name to something so unpronounceable, that he was publicly referred to, ‘the guy formally named Prince.’ (When I realized that Prince had done this on purpose, and not because he was a twit I had quite a laugh…)

    Independence can be a very good thing.

  15. I guess I’m an outlier here. I don’t need the income – I have enough. I write because I have a medical problem, and writing helps me deal with it. I did try to break in, but that went nowhere fast. I was politely told that unless I was James Pratchett, they weren’t interested. I’ve since self-published through Amazon and B&N, and I sell about thirty copies a year of my six SF novels (more in the works). I know enough about computers I don’t need a lot of help formatting my books (I have noticed that Adobe has a problem reformatting some word processing programs into PDF). My biggest problem is publicity. I’m also interested in reading more about the problems with DRM.

  16. Having been told to f*** off by one of Tor’s editors, you cannot imagine how happy I am to see the backs of the one-time Power Brokers broken.

    1. Really? I can’t imagine the ever polite, and oh so politically correct, CF doing something that could raise the hackles on an editior! 😉

  17. To Martin Shoemaker re: poorly formatted manuscripts. It isn’t that we aren’t interested in “fixing” them, it’s that if someone hasn’t taken the time or effort to put a manuscript into something resembling standard format, it usually means they haven’t bothered reading the rest of the guidelines. There is something to be said for appearing to have pride in your work and considering your first contact with a publisher much the same as a job interview. You should want to put your best foot forward. But, as stated in the guidelines, we don’t adhere maniacally to the formatting or word count requirements because we are more interested in a good story. Besides, regarding formatting, if we do accept a story, we will completely reformat it for publication anyway.

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