As someone who is now past fifty, I have like many of you been witness to lingering deaths. In fact, thanks to modern medicine most deaths are now lingering deaths. Even when the tumor/disease is found too late and we’re assured the person is not long for this world, the death drags on. Actually for a while it often seems as though it’s not death at all, as though the person will recover, as though everything is going to be fine.
Death, the final process, the final blow, tends to happen in a devastating, sudden conflagration so that even if the person had been dying for years, you truly don’t expect it. So it’s a shock, even when it isn’t.
Institutions and industries, particularly those that have been helpful and useful for years have the same “death process” at least from everything I can discover in history.
Let’s say something or other rendered an institution or industry irrelevant. Let’s talk about oh, not the buggy whip about which I know nothing, but candle making. And more specifically candle making in Portugal.
Once electricity came in, the candle industry was of course doomed. But it did not vanish over night. We are living in a time of such rapid change that it’s justifiable to image that change as say the change between VCRs and DVD players. Over a few years, VCR tapes disappeared, save in dusty stacks in thrift stores.
But when something has existed and been useful for generations, the change is not that fast. People had no particular emotional attachment to VCR tapes, at least that I know of. (People have emotional attachments to the weirdest things.) There was no time for a generation to grow up and become attached to vcr tapes as the way to watch movies. My own kids remember it only because their best friend Jake put a banana in a VCR which henceforward acted possessed. (The VCR, not Jake. Though Jake had his moments. Weirdly, from being an unpredictable hellion, he grew up into one of the nicest, most self-possessed young men I know.)
Candles were different. I think electrical light came into Portugal as it did to most of Europe in the 20s or thirties. (Maybe earlier. I have no exact date. My mom, born in 1935 (hopefully I have that right. I might be doing what my kids do who routinely think I was born in the seventies. She’s 81 at any rate.) ) still did her work by the light of an oil lamp when she was very young. A lot of our neighbors in the mid-sixties and later still used candles and oil lamps. I remember the candles, strung up like pale fish, to the side of the general store when I was very little. I remember people buying bottles of lamp oil. I have vivid memories of trimming oil lamps, and cleaning them, with my (older) cousin Natalia who was raised with us, but that could be because we were going through an extended period of blackouts. Or it’s possible that just like initially grandma’s house only had piped in water in the kitchen, it also only had light in the kitchen and that light in the upstairs bedrooms came later. I don’t believe so, though, as one of my earliest memories is of lying in bed in my parents’ shotgun apartment, cut out of the house’s ground floor, and listening to the electrical light “sing” above me.
Speaking of blackouts, they were fairly common in summer, when simply having all the lights on later overwhelmed the net. We all kept candles and sometimes oil lamps on hand, so we could weather those times. This lasted well into the seventies. Because my parents hated the amount of candles my brother and I ran through reading till late, blackouts became our exercise program. We used to walk up and down the village under the summer moon, until they’d tired us sufficiently we wouldn’t go through more than a candle each before bed.
By the eighties, the blackouts were less frequent and candles and candle sticks were getting difficult to find.
Is it dead yet?
Who knows? I’d bet the candle industry in Portugal is a shadow of its former self. I don’t know if it has revived yet into the scented-candles-and-aromatherapy niche it now occupies in the US.
For the purpose of what it was, though, the main purveyor of light to households, it is dead. Yes, sure, people still have candlelit dinners and still talk of the romantic feel of candle light. BUT no one seriously builds a house without electrical light and plans on using only candles and oil lamps.
Why I’m talking about this: when I was at Kris and Dean’s self publishing workshop back in 2011 I was shocked to hear them say that they expected the traditional markets to survive “at least in some form.” I heard that they were hiring more employees and were healthier than ever, partly through the ability to bring out their massive backlist in ebook at practically no expense. You might make a dollar a book per year, but if you have half a million books that you have the rights to, well!
I was shocked, but it made perfect sense. I had never thought of it that way, is all.
Two or three years later I was hearing from friends that trad publishing, at least in our field, having lost the ability to “push” new books the way they used to was tottering so badly and had so many lawsuits against each of the companies that editors were afraid of coming to work one morning and finding the entrance padlocked by either creditors or the IRS.
I thought that was weird, but as no one mentioned the only publishing house I was interested in, which so far as anyone knows has never played shell games with its accounting, I went back to doing work for that house (Baen for the uninitiated) and indie stuff and ignoring what was going on.
Several things have intruded in my conscience recently. Over the last month, about half a dozen people have told me they don’t expect that traditional publishing, other than Baen is long for this world, and in the groups where I lurk unnoticed, as I have for years, people talk of how tiny their advances are. Let’s just say the objection to Baen was always that they didn’t have as big pockets as the other houses, but these days my own decidedly mid-lister advances are looking remarkably plump. As for the other houses, what I heard a couple of years ago seems to apply “If you were getting advances of more than 100k, up to the millions, you’re now making 50k a book. If you were making 50k, you’re making 10k. If you were making 10k you’re unemployed.)
Other things I’ve noticed, STRICTLY as a consumer, is that since they won their victory to be able to price the way they want against Amazon (Phyrrus would be proud) they’ve also been talking about how ebook sales are falling straight down. This is not the experience of any indie I know. What I think they’ve done is price themselves out of the market.
Then there is the fact that they no longer own those “millions” of properties that were making a dollar each a year. Most authors I know with long backlists are, after considerable strife, getting their stuff back. The series I’m currently reading (historical mystery) suffers a sharp divide around book 11, where it goes from being on KULL and reasonably priced to being $14 per book, the likes of which, no matter how much I enjoy the series, I WILL NOT pay.
At the same time the author has started an indie series, in the same time and place with a different detective. I’m seeing this an awful lot, particularly for historical mysteries.
Science fiction, weirdly, is being slower about its authors establishing dual careers, and I think I know why. Most (not nearly all) of the people still working in the field are prestige-and-favor clients, who do it for … well, prestige, while their real work is as university professors or whatever. The midlisters who write to sell have already fled to either Baen (a lot of them) or to indie. And us at Baen feel fat and sassy enough not to try to do dual (okay, except me. I’m crazy. Also indie pays me 50% again more. I’m not leaving Baen unless they fire me, but you know, I like money.)
This morning it occurred to me this all fits perfectly well into the picture of “lingering death”, including the reports that “I’m not dead, I think I’ll go for a walk.”
The systemic weaknesses of traditional publishing (except for Baen) including the lack of a strong editorial choice that respects the fan base, bloated workforce and prestigious address expenses are ultimately not survivable, not in the days when anyone can start a publisher in their garage or publish themselves for that matter.
The atmosphere of cap-in-hand that still surrounds editors and publishers for the big houses, driven by supplicants who want to be traditionally published for prestige and credits-as-a-professor prevent their seeing that the iceberg is in fact dead ahead.
So instead of veering off, they’re rearranging the deck chairs and saying they feel quite well and will go for a walk (if you pardon mixing the images.)
What does this mean? Does this affect me at all, when I’m mostly indie and baen?
Oh, it does affect me. The toppling of the traditional part of the field will have huge repercussions in cons and workshops and also in what comes after in terms of publicity and what success means for a writer. Not all of these consequences (perhaps not most of them) are good even for me. When a huge building topples, it always affects things in ways that are hard to predict, and not all of those are known knowns. Most of them are unknown unknowns.
It seems at this point, however long traditional publishing as a model we know lingers, it WILL topple. Probably suddenly and terribly.
Kris and Dean were right, in the same way that the candle industry didn’t disappear. It subsists in the scented candles, candles for candlelit dinners, etc. And the publishing industry will probably survive as bespoke goods for the fans extraordinarily successful writers. But I think its passing from the world as anything else is not far off.
No matter what happens, the process always drags, until everything collapses suddenly. And it will still hit us as unexpected.
And we still don’t know what will happen. We don’t even know what questions to ask, to estimate how far the ripples of the collapse will go.
Which is another reason to push out some indie (honestly, life is settling at last, though still a mess. I’m looking at Christmas for “mostly settled”) and to dip into other genres and to stay flexible.
The way to survive is to move and think in new ways. It’s hard but it’s doable.
Hold on to the sides of the boat. The water is about to get rough. But the storm in this as in everything else is survivable.
Work and think.