Now Die, Die, Die, Die, Die!* – a blast from the past from May 2012

*Yeah, I’m doing a blast from the past, because yeah, I’m still trying to finish Through Fire, and it must be done before it finishes me.  It’s … probably going to be a very good book, because it scares me to death.

I might or might not do another post later today, depending on how quickly house gets cleaned and stuff packed (it’s all over the living room and I’m tired of it.) Meanwhile, this post still applies to Amazon-is-evil vs. Publishers-are-evil and you know, sometimes I need to remind people of the realities of the business.*

Yesterday night I didn’t know what to blog about.  The problem looked even more complex when Amanda Green dropped Mad Genius Club rotating Saturday blogship on my lap late last night.

Fortunately the gods of fate are kind to me.  And fortunately the publishing industry will never, ever, ever run out of teh stoopid for me to marvel at.  So just as I was about to go to bed, a friend of mine gave me a link to The Passive Voice which made my blood boil and my mind become awed at the sheer amount of stupid in this field.  The particular link was this.

The background for this is the DOJ case against the big six publishers who are accused of collusion in pricing in the so called “agency pricing” that was imposed on ebook retailers.  Amanda has covered this very ably here (as here, here, here here and here)  I don’t have time to go into it, but fell free to check it up.

Every time Amanda talked about it, someone came up with the talking point that “it didn’t matter” and “it didn’t hurt anyone.”  This puzzled us because on the face of it, agency pricing hurt quite a lot.  It hurt readers, who had to pay more for a book they wanted than they would have, had the free market been allowed to operate.  It hurt publishers, who sold fewer books because some people simply refuse to pay that much for what is essentially a license to carry the book on one, or a limited number of e-readers.  It hurt authors (at least it would, if publishers in most cases didn’t calculate ebook royalty by guess and by golly) because they made less money.  (This is not in dispute.  Publishers say everywhere the agency model means they’ve made less money.)

More importantly, Amanda said the law – unjust or not – is the law and price fixing is against the law, period.

BUT the talking point still puzzled us.  How they’d even come up with that gem made no sense to us (or probably ninety percent of human beings.)  And then, as I said, a friend sent me that link.  The link was about a letter Simon Lipskar, agent and board member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, sent to the Department of Justice regarding the antitrust suit filed by the DOJ against Apple and five large publishers alleging the group colluded to fix prices on ebooks.

Joe Konrath, long may his beard grow, fisked the letter here.  Also linked was another column by Konrath – a letter by a publishing insider.  And that is what caused this blog post, because it FINALLY explained what they meant by “but it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

This is the money shot: 2.  One Book Is Pretty Much The Same As Any Other.  Lipskar acknowledges, as he must, that the prices of New York Times bestselling books went up following the simultaneous industry-wide imposition of agency pricing (“prices for a limited number of titles published by these publishers increased, i.e. those ebooks that were digital editions of newly released bestselling hardcover titles.  Amazon had quite explicitly promised its consumers that these titles would be available at $9.99, and with the switch to agency pricing, these titles did indeed increase in price, mostly to $12.99”).  But, he claims, these higher prices couldn’t hurt anyone because the prices of other books decreased (“No Price Increase for Non-Bestselling Titles”).

Okay, got that?  (Beyond the fact that yes, they increased the price of non-bestselling books or else some of my books are REALLY selling beyond statements, but we’ll leave it at that.)  ONE BOOK IS JUST LIKE ANOTHER.

Look, guys, I’ve been in this field forever, and I have the bruises to prove it, but the thing about shocks me to my core.

We’ve long known that publishing execs weren’t readers.  But NOW, now, we have proof they’re not only not readers, they’re insane, or possibly an alien life form.

What they’re saying above is that if you’re a fan, say, of Nora Roberts, you’ll be just as happy with a book by Terry Pratchett.  If you’re a fan of Jonah Goldberg, you’ll be equally pleased with a book by Michael Moore.  If you’re a fan of Robert A. Heinlein, you’ll simply adore a random book with “SF” on the cover.

Got that?  Books are fungible, which means they are interchangeable.  You want to read Shadow Warriors by Tom Clancy and we don’t have it?  No problem, we have If you Give A Mouse A Cookie.  It’s a book and it should make you just as happy.

“Of course they don’t mean it to that extent,” you say.  “Are you out of your ever-loving mind, Sarah?”

Okay, so they don’t mean that to THAT extent, to what extent do they meant it?  I can tell you to what extent they mean it.  They mean if you’re into a certain sub-genre of science fiction or fantasy or Romance or anything, you’ll be just as happy with a book which is more or less along the same lines.  Say, you’re a fan of Nora Roberts and her book is too expensive.  Well, you can buy this nice book by Julia Quinn (or, since JQ is also a bestseller, let’s use a made up name, like Mary Smith).  See, you have a book.  It has words and everything.  So, you – being an idiot child who is easily distracted – will be perfectly happy.

“But Sarah,” you say, “they didn’t call us idiots who are easily distracted.”  No?  Really?  But they’ve been TREATING you and me and every other reader as idiots who are easily distracted.  This is the only way they can treat books as fungible and think a book is just as good as the other.  (And I’ll have something to say on this before I close this article, btw.)

This particular sentence though, this concept of any book being just as good as any other suddenly made sense of a bunch of industry practices which – otherwise – make no sense whatsover.  (It also made a mockery of a bunch of other industry practices, which is why I’ll have more to say on this.)

For instance, how many of you, as readers, are aware that publishers think books are bananas?  Okay, maybe not bananas, but some other, fragile, quickly-expiring, short-sell-by-date produce?  Probably not many of you.  Heck, I didn’t when I was just a reader.  (Though it was a little different then, too, because the particular inventory tax laws that killed back list hadn’t come into existence yet.)  Most books these days have a an expiration date of just a few weeks.  When you have a traditionally published book, you have to start promoting MONTHS before it is even available because that influences how much it will be available, which influences how many will be bought in the first weeks they are on the shelf.  After that, they are removed from the shelves (if they ever got on the shelves at all) and replaced with other books.  This never made sense to me, but now it does.

If books are fungible, why would you want to read a book that’s older than a few weeks?  If any book is much like another, all that counts is that the book is new and shiny and on the shelf, right?

Or consider what publishers do, by buying books for the AUTHOR’S life story or the author’s cute face, or the author’s nice bit of leg in lace stocking.  It makes no sense to readers who – silly us – read for the story and the words and couldn’t care less if the creature who wrote them is secretly a cockroach.  BUT if one book is exactly like another, then the only way to sell them is the “image” and the “narrative” – therefore buying writers for things other than their writing?  Genius!

Or consider “stocking to the net.”  Since all books are alike, readers – those idiots – must be attaching to the writers’ name in order to buy books (who knows why?  Maybe it’s like imprinting.)  So they will buy every book with the same author name in the same amounts, even if they are in totally different fields.  Romance by Georgette Heyer?  TOTALLY the same thing as mystery by Georgette Heyer.  And if a writers’ name isn’t selling, the best thing possible is to change the name, since that’s all the reader imprints on.

Or consider that the publishers thought it was a PERFECTLY VALID and, in fact, marvelous state of affairs to be able to control which books even got seen, much less bought.  They would buy a hundred books and plan on 80 of them failing and, in fact, make it impossible for those books to succeed.  (The reason for the inventory being so large is related to all sorts of other stuff, including “holding space” and the fact that even a book which “doesn’t sell” will sell a few hundred copies, which with the new print on demand tech was enough for them to make money.)  How could they think this made sense?  How could they think they could PICK the books the public would want to read, across the country with that much exactness?  How could they think they could say “this book will sell 100,000 copies and this one will sell 500?”  Let alone why would they buy the book which would sell 500, let’s concentrate on their belief that it was a good thing to decide how much the book would sell before exposing it to the reading public (this from an industry that does no consumer surveys and in which twenty one houses turned down Harry Potter.)

HOW could any sane industry think it was a good thing to be able to say “Well, I don’t care if the customers want more Pratchett.  We shall give them more Laurell Hamilton.  They’re both fantasy.  The readers will buy more of what is in a bigger display, and that’s the end of it?”  (Of course, both Mr. Pratchett and Ms. Hamilton sell.  However, Pratchett didn’t for almost a decade in the US while selling in the UK.  Why?  Because NYC had decided he wouldn’t sell.  So he got print runs of five thousand books and was about as well known here as I am.  The moment at the first Discworld con when Pratchett said “What changed between then and now?  Different agent, different publisher.  I write the same,” was a moment of intense relief for me, because if they can hold Pratchett at that level, they can hold anyone.  It’s their decision, not the writer.  More on that later.)

Well, the publishing execs think one book is much like the other.  So, it’s perfectly fine to push the books they want to push, with the opinions and attitudes they want to promote.  The reader, is after all an idiot, and they can just buy whatever is available.

But Sarah, you say, printruns have been falling since this became policy.  Well, yes, I know that, but editors and publishers say it’s video games and TV and movies.  That’s their problem, not mine.  (And also, readership has increased with the e-book revolution.  I wonder why.)

Other things that are their problem – if every book is fungible and every reader will be just as happy with one book as another:

How come you stop buying an author when he/she doesn’t magically become a bestseller, when you haven’t slated him/her for it?  Because, look, if the reader will be just as happy with Harry Potter, A Farewell to Arms or If you Give A Mouse A Cookie, HOW can it be the writer’s fault?

How come you give different advance levels to different writers?  Exclude the celebrities, since you think that sells a book.  How come you give some writers millions and some a thousand?  If a book is the same as the other, then all writers should be paid the same, right?  Maybe a certain amount per word?

And if every book is the same as another book, why would anyone buy books from a certain publisher?  (Baen fans, SIT DOWN.  I’m not saying every book is the same.  Big Publishing is.  Baen is NOT part of teh stupid in this, and Baen is not guilty of this nonsense.)  Why not buy indie instead?

By their very logic this brings us to the conclusion that the big six might or might not be alien life forms or mentally damaged, but they ARE in fact fungible.

Don’t give big publishing a cookie.  BUY INDIE (Small press, micro press or self published and, of course, Baen who is in many ways indie).

*My title btw, is taken from Shakespeare, whose works still sell, and therefore – by not being bananas – puncture all of big publishing’s argument.

142 responses to “Now Die, Die, Die, Die, Die!* – a blast from the past from May 2012

  1. I thought publishers priced ebooks at $12.99 was because they hate ebooks and wanted to kill the market.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    On “One Book Is Pretty Much The Same As Any Other”, why am I reminded of the joke where somebody is given a book and thinks “didn’t he know I already have a book?”. [Sad Smile]

  3. Oooo! Fungible. Being on the petitioners side (Please, sir, will you buy my manuscript) I hadn’t thought about how easily interchangeable the Big Publishers are. And how the game has changed. I can go to KDP/CreateSpace, or Smashwords, Lulu, Kobo, iBooks, Nook . . . Give them the squeeze and sniff test, and try the next it that one doesn’t look yummy. I can change whenever I want. I can be exclusive, or not.

    They don’t matter, any more. Dang. I wasn’t quite grasping that, back when this blog first ran.

  4. Not invalidating anything in the post, but a contributing factor to this idiocy is the decision (made in the ’70’s, I believe) by the IRS to tax inventory as income. I head about it gecause my Father was a professor, and it hit college presses hard, but I expect it distorted all publishing practice.

    • Yes. I think I mentioned it somewhere.

    • Think of it next time the grocery store runs out of toilet paper because there’s a natural disaster expected, too.

    • Thor Power Tools was the case.

      • Ah yes, I recall the company. They had a really powerful hammer.

        • Sure, it was powerful, but nobody could lift it.

          • Well, except Captain America in the”Fear Itself” story arc…

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              Well, there was a DC/Marvel crossover and Superman was worthy of using Thor’s hammer.

              Oh, prior to this in the crossover Thor and Superman had a little “disagreement” with Superman winning.

              Mind you, Thor believed that he had underestimated Superman and was ready for a rematch. [Grin]

              • I don’t recall that match up. I remember Supes *almost* losing to the Hulk, but Thor went up against Shazam and won (it help to be able to control lightning when your opponent is powered by…lightning:-).

                • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                  It was a Justice League vs Avengers series.

                  Somebody tried to get the teams fighting against each other.

                  From what I remember, Cap and Batman almost “got into a fight” but Batman basically said “The two of us will fight, you’re the likely winner but both of us will be tired. Instead of fighting, let’s find out who’s really behind this mess”.

                  So Batman and Cap teamed up instead fighting.

                  Later, Superman using Thor’s hammer (and Cap’s shield) took on the Real Bad Guy. [Smile]

                  • Not the crossover that I was thinking of then. I’m remember the one where the two Universes merged and all the characters were combined. Supes + Cap, Batman + Wolverine, Bruce Banner + Solomon Grundy, Doctor Strange + Doctor Fate, etc. May have been back in the 90’s.

    • The fallacy in this theory being that in most other arenas the IRS only taxes a person or business when there is an actual exchange of money. This allows the government to rake off its portion without forcing liquidation of assets, at a time when the monetary value of the exchange is readily measurable.

      A tax on inventory derives from a faulty assumption that the inventory can be accurately valued. The flaw in this ointment becomes apparent when you consider the valuation of Acme Buggy Whip LLC, a value established by measurement of costs of production, not by likely receipts on sale of the goods.

      For non-accountants, valuation of inventory is a highly specialized field, not for the feint of math. Suffice to say that such valuations can vary widely in response to external events having no relationship to the actual inventory contents. Consider the valuation of film libraries prior to widespread acceptance of home video, or the potential effect on the De Beers inventory of a discovery of a major new source of diamonds.

      • Oh, yes. The foundry I worked at for a couple of years hated to find excess inventory in mid-stream, where the valuation was very tricky.

      • William O. B'Livion

        Or, taking into account the nature of De Beers, the valuation of the inventories of various arms sellers before and after the discovery of a major new source of diamonds.

  5. I recall one person on the Kindle boards saying one book is the same as another, because all you’re buying is words. I think I replied along the lines of the Kindle comes with a free dictionary which has all the words you’d ever want, so why read anything else?

    • by that logic, all painters are Rembrant because a house painter uses paint just like Rubens, Leonardo, Van Dyke, Allen at the auto body shop …

    • After all “some assembly required” is a perfectly valid business model.

      • reminded of the Jewish story of a guy praying by saying the alphabet. “Here Lord, you know the prayers, so here are the letters to make them” or something of the sort.

        • *snort* Seeing as Yahweh tends to reply to His children in these stories, what was the Almighty’s response?

          • Something very “old testament” I’m sure.

          • either it’s one where he keeps his peace or I never heard that part of it.

          • Given the usual pattern, probably something along the line of metaphorically giving him breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month at midnight on the first, and then saying “you know the meals, so here– you put them together.”

            ****
            I still love the one about the guy who wanted to read the Torah and interpret it for himself– none of this listening to scholars stuff. So he asked a Rabbi to teach him to read it.
            First day, he studies the alphabet A to Z.
            Next day, he comes in… and the Rabbi starts to teach him Z to A.
            Guy says something like “hey, that’s not what you said yesterday!”
            Rabbi replies something like “if you can’t trust me to teach you how to read the Torah correctly, why are you trusting me to teach you how to read it?”

            • That’s why I love those stories. Snarky, but makes the point… and stabs it in deep.

              Heck, the fact that there’s stories where the rabbis effectively tell God to butt the hell out because ‘that’s not your jurisdiction’ and God laughs in delight because “My children have bested me!” says a lot that, Old Testament aside, they really look at Him as a Father.

    • What you are buying is a specific arrangement of words, with associated punctuation. Elsewise every published author is guilty of plagiarizing the dictionary.

      People tend to undervalue punctuation, but it is the difference between “You are? My god!” and “You are my god.”

    • I went on a date once where the young lady was expecting lobster and I substituted chicken fingers. She didn’t take it well when I told her one piece of food is the same as any other.

  6. To be fair, as long as you stick with traditional print publishing, most of those arguments are valid. Limited shelf space means that books are sold in rotation. And authors can’t write enough to continually stack new books… The publisher task is to find enough best selling authors (mostly by letting a ton of little fish publish and perish) to make money.

    The publisher problem is that the only justification for their cut comes in relationship management of distributors. Selling through amazon doesn’t require that. So, they have this big infrastructure that loses value as ebooks expand…and few legal ways to slow the transformation of the market. Same for agents.

    –Erwin

  7. And of course there is this classic example of to what high regard and esteem the publishing community holds its customers.
    The first Harry Potter book was a resounding success in Great Britain. A US publisher deigned to handle the American rights and distribution, but only if Rowling changed the title from The Philosopher’s Stone to The Sorcerer’s Stone as they felt the US public too ignorant to understand the reference.
    Which helps explain and justify why with the exception of Baen and indie I purchase all my books through the used market, thus cheating publishers of any added income. I do feel a tad sorry for the authors, but they really should find a fair and honest publisher or bite the bullet and go indie.

    • Which helps explain and justify why with the exception of Baen and indie I purchase all my books through the used market, thus cheating publishers of any added income.

      I don’t think you have to feel too sorry for J.K.

      With regard to the others, correct me I’m wrong but except for the top dogs didn’t somebody here say that they are pretty much going to get all the $$ they are going to see before the first printing?

      • That does seem to be the current business model for traditional publishing, at least for the mid list authors. Small advances that somehow never earn out given the brief exposure, fairly complete lack of promotion, and ever shrinking initial printings that kill any potential for success.

    • And here I thought “The Philosopher’s Stoned” was an updated version of “The Philospher’s Drinking Song”…

  8. In November I’m giving a talk about publishing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to end up leaning heavily on the Indie/Small Press side and just touching on the TradPub and academic press aspects. 1) I’ve never done TradPub and I don’t intend to and 2) I suspect most of the interested listeners will be more curious about indie.

    • Based on a raft of recent discussions both here and on MGC it’s apparent to me that TradPub are wedded to a failed business model. Once you add in the terribly long lead times, the short exposure, and blatant exclusionary practices based purely on issues having nothing to do with a book’s potential, what exactly is there left to say about TradPub except to avoid it at all costs?
      Baen and perhaps a few small specialty houses being the exceptions, of course.

      • I feel obligated to mention the basic process (and loooong lead/lag time) just so people know what it entails and how it differs from magazines, indie, small press, and other options. *shrug*

      • And then comes Amazon, which is launching a new publishing house that promises a 45-day lead time for writers plus Amazon’s heavyweight long-tail marketing power. I think THAT will be yet another game-changer. It’s like they’re lobbing boulders at the walls of publishing!

    • One of the things I wish were more available, in terms of information, is ‘how to approach being an Indie Author, if you DO NOT LIVE IN the US.’ The tax documents and legal stuff is intimidating as all get out, which is actually one of the bigger barriers to getting published via ebook/indie.

      I’ll admit that I don’t know who else here outside of Dave Freer isn’t an American, so I’ll cheerfully admit I have no idea how much of an in-demand thing that sort of info is.

  9. Now where are all those authors who keep piously telling us that we need to support Hachette and all the rest need to be supported because traditional publishing treats books as “special” and Amazon commoditizes books.

    • Looking at their six-months check and wondering how an NYT best seller author still ends up in the Ramen-of-the-Month-Club?

    • Having read through some of the background stuff, it’s amazing what a disservice the Big Five have done to books, authors and readers. I listen to all those authors, the special darling of the literary set and I’m amazed just how clueless they are. Don’t they understand just how little the people in charge of the Big Five really care about them. As far as that management’s concerned, selling books is the same as selling soap. Without all that market research and having to actually talk to those nasty readers of course. They push whatever dreck they want and we poor readers are supposed to eat it all up. After all one book is just like another. And those poor suffering authors, they are as replaceable as Kleenex. And as far as the bigwigs are concerned, as easily used up.

  10. Insightful, but …
    I’m not convinced that everything that offends you about the idea of fungibility of books is not essentially correct. Isn’t it plausible that most (90%?) of book buyers are almost entirely driven by impulse, with the threads of influence being author’s name, or cover image, recommended by the xxx, and blurbs? Have you been to an airport bookstore? Lots of people who would never consider going to a con enjoy immersion in scifi generically. I don’t actually know how most buyers pick out eBooks, but I would bet it’s largely based on recommendations of trusted sources, recommendation engines, bestseller lists, etc. I don’t think most people who read a lot have strong attachments to the books/authors/stories/ideas/characters/milieu/etc [with a few exceptions like Potter, Dan Brown, & like that – publisher’s dreams]

    There is as surely small slice of the market, still substantial, that are very attached to specific books/authors/stories/ideas/characters/milieu/etc., but in broad strokes it’s niche.

    • If they were just buying writers randomly and putting them up to see what succeeded, it would be a fine thing. By which I mean, it would build some names and brands and those would generally speaking be the ones people wanted.
      But they’re choosing what gets seen by “right think” and by “interesting story of the author, which usually ALSO involves right think which means the only readers finding stuff to read are those who care.
      And actually people who read a lot — most people here DO have strong attachments to what they read. Not just names, but styles and types. None of which are getting served. And you do attach to writers, from Good to “okay” and want more of them. This was very difficult in the “Change your name or get fired after three books” era.
      I speak, you know, as someone who reads a lot. This system almost trained me out of it.

      • This system almost trained me out of it.

        And that, right there, is probably the reason that you thought to make the comment you did, zed, because so many people are NOT readers any more, and it was largely because of the ideological choices of the publishers on who to push and who to ignore, so that they killed the desire to read in those for whom it was not a strong enough drive to overpower the grey goo and continue on.

    • I have to say, this people who reads a lot disagrees with almost everything you’ve said here.

      While there’s a market for what I’d call “popcorn books” – the kind of cheap, easy read that used to be provided in small, cheap paperbacks that can still be found in second hand bookstores, even among those readers noticed the authors they preferred and chose them over other authors, just as they chose topics they preferred over topics they didn’t.

      Most readers I know are not driven by impulse – they’re driven by a mental listing of authors they like. Within that listing there are things they prefer. I know for a fact I’m not the only person who has a very small number of authors on a “buy anything of theirs, sight unseen” list; a rather larger number who they’ll buy if it looks good enough in the preview or blurb; and anything else gets checked out first.

      In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most readers are fans of authors – but they absolutely do not treat any book by their preferred authors as interchangeable with any other book by the same author.

      Books are no more fungible than movies. Would you say that any movie can replace any other? You wouldn’t notice a difference if someone switched say one of the Terminator movies with Bambi?

      If you gave a dozen authors the same prompt and got them to each write a short story from it, you would get a dozen completely different stories. That’s not the way a fungible item works, and those who treat fundamentally different items as interchangeable end up failing badly.

      • “If you gave a dozen authors the same prompt and got them to each write a short story from it, you would get a dozen completely different stories.”

        In fact this is a ploy used by publishers. I have seen it used as a contest, write a story with this prompt and we will give a publishing contract to the winner, and have even seen anthologies in Fantasy and Romance (actually didn’t read the romance, but it was advertised in the back of the Fantasy anthology) where all the stories in the anthology were written by different authors given the same prompt.

        “While there’s a market for what I’d call “popcorn books” – the kind of cheap, easy read that used to be provided in small, cheap paperbacks that can still be found in second hand bookstores, even among those readers noticed the authors they preferred and chose them over other authors, just as they chose topics they preferred over topics they didn’t.”

        Which is how authors used to become bestsellers, rather than being picked by publishers and ‘pushed’; authors like Louis L’amour, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Nora Roberts, Robert Heinlein, etc. started out writing smaller, cheaper stories that were published in magazines, then graduated to cheap paperbacks, and as their popularity and following grew they developed into suffiecently large enough sellers that publishers could afford to print them in more expensive bindings and larger print runs, and in larger more expensive volumes.

        • Yes. Exactly. I don’t object to being thrown out there with no push, provided I’m not going to be expected to become a bestseller when the game is rigged so I can’t. And provided I get enough chances to be a bestseller. Neither of which operated when I came in.

      • Evidence in support of this thesis is the public awareness of Carl Barks. At a time when all of his work was published under a “house” name, Barks still achieved fame and recognition for his work. That the audience for his work consisted primarily of small kids is testimony to blah-blah-blah, supporting the principle of non-fungibility of writers.

      • For any movie to replace any other, there must be alcohol involved, and even then some movies don’t work. Books are not even that fungible.

      • Great points everywhere, and I’m by no means suggesting to change your approach, Sarah.
        I stipulate people use filters, and genre, author, cover image, endorsement language, puts them into the comfort zone of the type of book they’re looking for. This is not the reductio of every book is the same. They trust that if it’s on the shelf, and it’s endorsed by sources they recognize even vaguely, and the blurbs say the right sorts of words, and it’s NYT best seller, it’s within some expected bounds of topic and quality. All that stuff is there for people to see if it smells right. I still have the sense that’s as far as it goes for most.
        I’ll also agree that it’s probably common that folks have a list of authors whose names are pleasantly fragrant.
        I’m not so sure about Sarah’s point … do large publishers understand what smells right to people? They’re probably out to lunch in a lot of ways, but I suspect that, as they’re rather interested in making money, they look at their reader stats.
        I’m grumpier about people repeating the quip about the dictionary and thinking it’s clever. That’s the sort of point that makes both sides more sure they’re correct, and (quip!) if you’re not sure who is it’s not you.

        • In certain genres, they seem especially out of touch. Sci-fi and fantasy, notably, but certain types of mysteries (cozies), westerns, light romances and sweet romances and western romances all suffered (or almost vanished) until indie publishing or authors found a work around, like craft mysteries sliding into the niche of cozies (Miss Marple-type stories). Given the voracious demand for these genres and how well they are selling in terms of both numbers and dollars, the Big Publishers seriously failed to give people what they wanted. Did they look at the data and ignore it? Did they not have decent data? Did ideology blind them to market realities? I suspect the answer is “yes, probably, and yes.”

        • They don’t look at reader stats. At this point larger publishers are usually the arm of a media company and are less interested in making money than in “supporting the right causes.” See Hilary Clinton book advance.

    • Isn’t it plausible that most (90%?) of book buyers are almost entirely driven by impulse, with the threads of influence being author’s name, or cover image, recommended by the xxx, and blurbs?

      I barely hit that for library books, and that’s if you include things like “trying to find a new series.”
      Both time and money are too valuable to spend on something that doesn’t have at least “people who bought X tended to buy Y” recommendations.

    • Then why not buy a dictionary and let people assemble their own words? After all, by your logic, they aren’t attracted to the specific story as much as they are the book to occupy their time on a flight. Or that frantic mom of a three year old who couldn’t find Where The Wild Things Are could just as easily pick up The ABCs of Real Estate Investing and satisfy her child that way, right?

      • Well, the child would go to sleep, that’s for certain. (There’s a bookstore on Kohlmarkt Street in Vienna that sells government/EU/UN reports and tax books. Just reading the titles makes me yawn.)

  11. ” It makes no sense to readers who – silly us – read for the story and the words and couldn’t care less if the creature who wrote them is secretly a cockroach.”
    Well, I suppose that’s true in general, but I just took a bunch of Marion Zimmer Bradly books out into the yard and put them on the burn pile.

  12. One book might be the same as another if you’re only using them to fill out a bookcase to make it look like you read a lot. Or if you have several books written by politicians running for office, one of those is pretty much the same as another.

    • Sadly, it is (reportedly) common for home (and set) decorators to buy books by the yard without regard to content, genre, author or any factor beyond edge bindings. It is not known how much of the volume of book sales this represents. Some discriminating persons reputedly demand an array of books that make them look literate and tasteful (without having to go to the bother of reading the books bought.)

      And then there are households like mine who will freeze frame a DVD in order to zoom in on books shelved and read their spines. (N.B., this is particularly rewarding when watching episodes of The Simpsons, especially “the Book Job” featuring Neil Gaiman.)

  13. Hey, lefties have to skirt around so much of reality that the really dedicated omes DO all write pretty much alike. It’s kind of the literary equivilent of Socialist Realism painting.

  14. I remember reading that when L’amour, died his wife and daughter found drawers and boxes in his office with hand written notes of story lines as well as some unpublished stories. Always po’d me that he had the audacity to die before he finished his “Walking Drum” series. I have a friend who self-publishes and I keep asking him why some dude doesn’t figure out a way to set up a system where if you wanted to buy an author’s book you just order it by title and author and it gets printed and sent to your address for a reasonable sum. The printer takes his cut and the author gets the rest. That way the writer doesn’t have to keep ordering books for buyers.

    Nora Roberts: It’s is fun to find her older stuff (the old Silhouette line) and follow along as she hones her craft.

    • I read Nora’s old Silhouette stuff when it was first published – and Fern Michael’s 1970s novels were a hoot! I’m hopeful that some of these very old works will come out in eforms pretty soon.

    • In The Difference Engine they talked about just that. The tech exists today to have a file of thousands of books and equipment to print you out a copy to order in a print shop while-you-wait, in the size, font, and binding that you are willing to pay for; from Manila FM style in Arial to high end trade, custom font with original artwork. You could put it all in a workshop/display space the size of a studio apartment and still have room to display best-sellers and selected classics. With a closet to hold the toner, glue and paper stock. I’d love to see one of the ebook vendors get involved with that since the hard part would be getting the texts to print out. They could set up as a franchise.

      Actually, it might be a good idea for a convention or something.

      E-readers are making that a moot point though. I am carrying around 50 books with me right now and that includes Procopius, the memoirs of General Grant and a section of all the authors who’s last names start with M from the Gutenberg Science Fiction bookshelf – and I can read as long as the charge holds.
      Just, it is hard to put slips of paper with notes in an e-reader, and I do love books.

  15. Books are not fungible, but major publishers* sure are. They all sell books as if they’re selling widgets; why should you choose any one of them over another, or choose one at all?

    *and major does not include Baen or any small-to-medium house.

  16. This kept showing up in my timeline today. I can’t imagine anything that represents the NY arts scene better than invisible art:
    http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/uncategorized/p-t-barnum-said-theres-a-sucker-born-every-minute-heres-proof
    I’ve been watching the vacuous, empty atmosphere from the sidelines my entire life and still they manage to surprise me.

  17. Sigh, why should I even try to write a book.

  18. That’s what I was saying, Bob. Currently my friend, the writer, finishes writing a book, edits it down, changes font-size/whatever to bring it down to the number of pages that fits the format of the publisher he is using(Amazon spinoff I think). He then spreads the word that he has finished it. His friends then tell him they want copies. When he gets enough orders he orders the book(s) printed and sent to his house. So much easier if we could just order the thing ourselves and have it drop-shipped directly.

    • You can. Look up Create Space.

      • Books used to be sort of fungible for me…which meant that after picking up my 5 or 6 preferred authors, within a month, I’d be hunting for something worth reading and pick up something OK.

        Dunno. That has changed with ebooks. Problem is more hunting until I find something decent. And trying to make sure I find out when the next in a series comes out.

        I will say that if you have a decent backlog, nothing beats making one book free. I went through a phase of just looking up decent free ebooks. It ended up being pretty expensive…as I tend to finish series.

        But, what I am hearing is that there are 2 things going on. First off, traditional publishing is becoming irrevelant. Second off, being a stable oligopoly, run by.poor people, it veered left and started serving the cause of the day.

        For the second, I wonder a bit, as wright is published by Tor. I sometimes wonder what fraction is liberalism and what fraction is pseudointellectual snootiness. Cause, while I enjoy Wright, he is a bit literary. So is Stross. And, while I enjoy both, I sometimes feel they try too hard. Barn books are more reliably readable.

        –Erwin

      • But it costs more, unless what I’ve seen is incorrect.

  19. I worked for the Borders Home Office back in the day. What I did wasn’t that interesting. HOWEVER, I was very close to where Decisions Were Made, and how books were thought about. See, my direct boss was the AP department head for books. She decided not what goes on the shelves, but how book strategy worked for the stores all across the country. She was VERY good at her job, had store managerial experience, and was an avid reader. Well, one day she decided she wanted out. She left for California to manage a store. So, in their wisdom (wince) they replaced her for the woman who did the same thing for Magazines. It used to be, books and magazines are different, and require a different distribution schedule.

    This poor woman had NO idea about how books worked. She kept trying to treat them like magazines. She split her day between yelling at me and demanding I tell her how to do her job. Granted I was smart, (maybe still am) and was reasonably close to my former boss (we had lunch together twice a week, and my little cube was within spitting distance of her office), but I still had NO idea how to do her job. I did offer suggestions based on guesses, but I sometimes worry that in my ignorance I guided her wrong.

    It really sounds like she never learned how to do books… and then the whole industry decided to take her lead. *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

  20. Well, this certainly explains why I have such a large backlog of old books I want to read. I remember many a time walking down the aisles and thinking “Ooohhh, that looks interesting” but not having the money on hand only to come back a couple of months later and there were no copies left. It’s one reason why I like eBooks; I can go back and find many of those old books that disappeared before I got a chance to read them.