I really didn’t feel like writing a post today, but I seem to have misplaced all my guest posts. (Yeah, if you sent and it hasn’t run, send again.) Which leaves me with…
Well, yesterday this was doing the rounds of our circles: Sales, Earnings Fell at PRH in 2016.
First of all, what doesn’t this mean? It doesn’t mean Random Penguin is in serious trouble. Not yet. It doesn’t mean the entire edifice of traditional publishing is going away, either.
Look, at this point, just like Hollywood is mostly supported by foreign releases of the movies that don’t do too well here, traditional publishing is owned and propped up by European media houses who, if I read the situation right, don’t even understand how obsolete they’re becoming on this side of the pond.
(It’s a thing. Americans took to the internet — and ebooks, and all the subsequent stuff — like Americans. I don’t fully get why we behave so differently from the rest of the world. Portugal is one of the more wired countries in Europe, and yet there aren’t any political blogs that compete with the media narrative — my mom wants one, d*mn it — and there aren’t any aggregators with the kind of instapundit pull. And definitely books published by “non official” publishers don’t have the same appeal. I think it is because at the heart of it, the rest of the world are classists, trained from an early age to respect authority. I sometimes find myself explaining interactions in old books or movies to my kids or husband, and realizing I understand a lot of it at an instinctive level just because I grew up in Europe. It never took with me of course, which is why I’m here, but it “takes” with the vast majority of people. Obviously.)
Anyway, I think the European overlords of publishing houses have no fricking clue what is going on with reading here. Note that all the official publications still lie about it. And the trend is masked with things like the adult coloring book thing, which has kept Barnes and Noble afloat for the last 10 years or so. We went in before Christmas, looking for something for Robert. We found it. It was a book of Drawing prompts.
In fact, the part of Barnes and Noble that is still books is mostly what I would call “novelty books” — drawing prompts, writing prompts, ten things you can do to make your house smell better this afternoon, and adult coloring books. A LOT of adult coloring books. By comparison the fiction section, let alone the science fiction section, was almost impossible to find and paltry.
Which is okay. I mean for years I went to Barnes and Noble and the only thing I bought were the sort of Barnes and Noble Published books like “ten tales of knights and dragons.” Only of course, now that’s not such a good business, because all that stuff is on the net. And their fiction still disappoints me, which is why I started buying from Amazon the year it started up, when it sold only books. Because books were published that I wanted to read, they just didn’t get SHELVED at my Barnes and Noble. Which is why now that the coloring book thing is receding, B & N posted a loss (I think 16%) OVER CHRISTMAS.
But hold on to that “Books were being published. They just weren’t shelving them in my Barnes and Noble so I could buy them.”
Because that’s what this post is about. Reality and the limits of manipulating it.
Barnes and Noble isn’t going away tomorrow, there are fifty shades of bankruptcy in the west before you even have to face you shat the bed and should change approaches. They’re not close to that yet, or if they are they think they can fix it with more cowbe– toys. And “lifetsyle” gifts like mugs and reading lights (not needed since I got the backlit kindle. Never mind.) Yes, I believe they will eventually go the way of Borders, and it will be sudden and terrible when it happens, but I don’t think we’re close to it yet. On the other hand I could be optimistic. I’ve been so in the past.
The publishers are even less going away tomorrow, because frankly, the non-fiction side is still very profitable and besides they get money from Europe. Mind you some of their lines might disappear with an earthshattering kaboom very suddenly, and I’ve heard rumors that better connected people than I expect it “in the next five years.” Could be. Could not be. I don’t know. Indie has moved both faster and slower than I expected. The establishment has certain resources, including money to weather slow periods (which they don’t seem to realize is now permanent) and a lot of magazines and papers willing to do its bidding so it seems like it will recover TOMORROW.
Which is the other point of the post. We’ll get to that.
First let me take you to a time far away, where there were no mega bookstores. No Borders, no Barnes and Noble, none of the others, either. The biggest ones were two or three branches of a bookstore in a big city.
These businesses were managed the way such things are managed. You hired people who like books. You eventually promoted them to managers. And then you had managers who liked books.
To communicate with these people who loved books, you had book reps who loved books. I met some of these before the great layoff. These people read the books and pushed them at the bookstores with attention to “Well, old Joe who has a bookstore at the back of his feed store in rural Colorado has done pretty well for science fiction in the past. So, this book I just read which knocked my socks off will interest him.”
The system worked pretty well. Look, no one was going to get massively rich from running a bookstore. And writers still worked on a hit or miss basis. But there was always the possibility of a surprise bestseller. You might not appeal amazingly to your publisher, and you might stand outside the narrative they’re pushing, but if you’re a fan and you love the genre you’re writing in, well, some rep or even a bookstore owner might read it, love it, and handsell it to everyone, and word of mouth spreads… So, in a way writers could sell to the public bypassing gatekeepers.
This didn’t make the gatekeepers happy for several reasons, the first being that after several mergers the houses behaved like normal corporations (which could be titled “death by bureaucracy”) and so an editor got incentives to accurately forecast how a book would sell. Yes, your career could, justly, be ruined by giving millions to an author who no longer has a book in him and who writes something pathetically poor, but it could also be ruined because that book you bought for $5k had a runaway bestseller run with a hundred reprints, because it threw all the schedule out, and why didn’t you foresee this?
The second was ideological. Yes, I know, but look at this: The ‘Postmodern’ Intellectual Roots of Today’s Campus Mobs. The problem is most NYC editors and under editors, and yay onto the lowest copy editor are exquisitely well educated in the liberal arts, through which in these days runs a strain of believing that narrative creates reality. They were told (I was too, and this was 30 years ago) it’s all narrative. So changing narrative changes reality.
Join to it the aesthetic considerations that have proliferated since WWI, the belief that art, particularly writing, must be “to bring about equality and justice” and that this is its marker of quality, now that we’ve discarded “classical allusions.” (Neither is a marker of quality. The quality is ALWAYS ludic. If you fail to entertain people today, you won’t be one of the great writers of tomorrow.)
Houses wanted to make sure the right things sold, in the right amounts, partly because their severely underpaid employees viewed their job as a way to “educated the public” or “bring about a better world.”
So they were dissatisfied with this system of small bookstores that could — and did — create unexpected bestsellers.
Fortunately for the publishers, a new system emerged.
Barnes and Noble and Borders and the other megastores were helped in their rise by massive discounts from the publishers. They could do that, because the megastores took orders from publishers, publishers could completely predict (control) what sold, by laydown and display, and the volume and lack of wastage allowed them to save money.
So they connived with the megastores in killing indie bookstores. And the megabookstores deluded themselves that the secret to their success was this computer program that “predicted” how much a book would sell. They — like most people who put faith in a computers as computers — didn’t realize this was highly manipulable by laydown from the publishers. For instance if you started a trilogy and the publisher only pushed two books per bookstore, you’d sell one, maybe (chances are the other one would be stolen, or misshelved or whatever, and at any rate it might not be found) then for the next book, the bookstore orders one. And for the third they don’t take any. Never mind.
What happened in practicality is that the bookstores filled with books no one wanted to read. Mostly it filled with whatever the crazy trend of the moment was. For instance, this historical/hardboiled and cozy mystery reader, in one trip to the store, found herself facing shelf after shelf of what could only be termed “Sex in the city” mysteries. All single women and shoes and a lot of sex. I MIGHT have bought one or two of those (though I was never big on the series) but faced with ONLY that, I screamed, ran and went to Amazon to buy the latest of the historical mystery series I was following.
Which is the point.
Even without Amazon, they probably would be on a spiral down, though maybe slower, because reading addicts got to read.
The telling line in that article about Randy Penguin is “the lack of a major bestseller.”
You see traditional publishing had got really good at manufacturing those, from above. The whole system above was called “the push model” and it worked for REALLY BIG BOOKS.
If Dan Brown’s book was everywhere, people bought it, if nothing else out of a feeling they wanted to belong.
That kind of mega bestseller supported them, and they could afford to buy a ton of smaller books that practically didn’t get distributed. They didn’t need to be, after all. They were filler. The pay out came from the big bestseller. Which could be manipulated to succeed with enough publicity.
The system failed them — incidentally with the last Dan Brown — and there was much whining that the push model didn’t work.
The problem is they can’t retool without hiring a bunch of reps who actually read and push what they enjoy, and not what managers say. And that’s not a model they can implement with a huge corporation, which has to CONTROL things top down.
Which is how big corporations are like big governments: both need a measure of control from the top down to survive, and both hit the inefficiencies of the command and control as opposed to the free market model.
The thing is that reality is not the push model; it’s not command and control.
At the end of everything, no matter how much you push a product, no matter how much you pretend all books are widgets and it’s just the matter of pushing one to make it a bestseller, no matter how much you tell yourself that reality can be shaped by narratives… In the end, reality kicks back.
I.e. you can push and you can market, but in the end, if the readers don’t like your product, you’re hosed.
Sometimes the dogs just don’t like the food.
Look at this sad tale, and consider it is but a miniature representation of what is going on in society at large.
When a large segment of the population or the self proclaimed elite insists on ignoring reality, they are on a road to nowhere, with a really interesting tour of various historical horrors along the way.
And all we can do is build under, build around, build over, so we can take the weight when the structure falls.
Be not afraid.