Publishing advice I won’t ever be asked for… – by Dave Freer


*Yesterday, because of an hilariously stupid comment about US health care over on MGC, I went looking through the old posts for one in which a person of the same nationality as the commenter had written a chapter about HER idea of our health care. In the process I found this post by my friend Dave Freer.
It struck me because of how right he was… 9 years ago. How right he still is, and how impossible most publishing houses find it to consider even ONE of these changes, even in the face of tech change so profound their entire world is up-ended.
Humans are creatures of habit, and habit will not be broken. The images in our heads are “sacred.”  Which explains how many people think communism can now be “done right” or why traditional publishing would rather die than adapt.
This was originally posted at Mad Genius Club September 5 2011– SAH*

Publishing advice I won’t ever be asked for… – by Dave Freer

…which won’t be appreciated (but I would love it if someone listened).

I don’t, per se, hate the legacy publishing industry and wish for its extinction. I do think it’s in troubled and uncertain circumstances right now. There are, just as in the music industry A&R example here  people I like, can identify with, inside it. And there seems a sort of inverse correlation here — the smaller the company is, the more likely the editor is to be doing his or her absolute best, and getting shafted nearly as badly as the writer by the rest of the system.

I think it has blundered down an evolutionary path which it took because there were no major selective pressures to force it to go elsewhere. Like the dinosaurs, getting bigger seemed a more natural course than worrying sudden cold snaps or a shortage of food because an asteroid impact might cause mass volcanism, which might block out the sun and cause years of winter. Some creatures survived that event. Some came to flourish afterwards — with major changes. Before it happened the dinosaurs were the very top end of vertebrate life. Head honchos that got invited to all the fashionable parties… Now the distant descendants are crocodiles and chickens, and no-one knows their ancestors ruled the earth, and if they go fashionable parties it is on the buffet table.

Just so before the advent of e-books (the asteroid), the vast cold-blooded publishers ruled the earth, or at least reading. They fed like… well, dinosaurs, wastefully, destroying the plants, rather than taking the few leaves they needed, but it didn’t matter… well, it was starting to, but bigger was still better. A few nimbler little proto-mammals scampered round the edges making a better living than the behemoths thought plausible out of the scraps they were allowed to access, but still having a rough time.

Then… Amazon’s KDP (principally as a result of the large publishers forcing the agency model on Amazon – to get it back in line, upstart!) caused a major eruption – of self-publishers, some of them mid-list authors with followings, many of them complete newbies, pricing aggressively (which they could afford to do, more so than the behemoths) enough doing well to draw in more ‘Indies’. And more… and thick and fast they came…

Suddenly the behemoths started realising there wasn’t much lunch about. When the news got down to the hind-brain, the little neural knot that controlled the tail, it sure thrashed that about good! That used to work real well on other littler dinosaurs…

Legacy publishing faces some unenviable choices. It still has a substantial paper business, where it controls (almost absolutely) access to retail space (This too is being attacked by Amazon’s CreateSpace, although I don’t think this has been realized yet). But retail space is dropping year by year, and so are paper sales. At the moment paper is still big enough (maybe) to force suppliers and retailers to allow them to retain that monopoly. They have two businesses with entirely different requirements, often in direct conflict in one organisation.

Now, as my fiend Ori pointed out to me once (and I paraphrase) “If you out-source your core competencies, your company will become irrelevant.” For years legacy publishing has been out-sourcing their original competencies – often making this an extra burden for their suppliers to carry, especially the smaller suppliers. They could force the smaller suppliers to do almost anything. Of course the small suppliers often couldn’t do it well, but there were 100 wannabes, so if they failed, legacy publishers simply replaced them with someone who could do publicity, who could write cover copy. The cost of slush trawling was handed to the agents. Proof-reading, covers, even editing, got neglected or farmed out, often (for new or midlist authors) to the cheapest possible. But they retained their absolute core competency: they, and only they, could get an author’s book onto the retailer’s shelf. It actually didn’t matter if you were a best-seller or not, authors had to accept terms – just as the musos did. Between publishing and retail, they could force the author to accept minimum wage. And to thank them publicly for it, to kiss their feet, and wash their dog’s bum if they were told to. That began to change with the Internet (a truly bestselling author – Rowlings or Meyer for example- could actually threaten to print and market herself, and would be able to do so.)  With e-books, Amazon KDP and the other retail outlets (B&N for example, and a list of smaller ones) following suit, that core competency just didn’t exist any more.

The big legacy publishers won the agency battle with Amazon… and forced them into a move which lost the legacy publishers the war, and, possibly, their existence.

The problem of course is that legacy publishers have lost a great deal of the other competencies which are still of value in e-books. And they still have a valuable and powerful stake in paper publishing.

Naturally they want to stay at the top and continue to get invited to all the fashionable parties.

So what could they do, if they were determined, clever, ruthless?  Hmm. That’s a tough one. You can still buy buggy whips. But they’re something of a bespoke item in a niche market. Not dominant. Buggy whip makers almost never get invitations to the fashionable parties.

The short term best option to return to the status quo would be call Amazon and negotiate the terms for surrender. And then hope that Apple, Google, B&N etc are less mighty than Amazon plus legacy publishers. Putting the genie back into vat is going to be tricky. Probably impossible, because authors and readers have tasted the alternative, (and as I’ll explain next week, they won’t take this lying down) but it might, at the most optimistic, hold off the evil hour for five years.

At worst, instead of the big 900 pound gorilla dominating the Internet retail space, they might end up with twenty 600 pound chimpanzees who will, sooner or later, decide that whoever wins access to the prime sources, will win the war, and the possible cost (including a profit margin of 15%) of retail Internet e-books is 16%… if you leave the Legacy Publishers out.

The other option is to abandon territory they can’t defend, and move into dominating niches that they can. To specialize. To build themselves a brand trusted by an ‘assured sale’ group. Like Harlequin does for Romance, as an example. Where people buy on the PUBLISHER’S brand (of e-book), and that brand means people in the market for exactly that product. Where customers who want that product will buy an unknown or even a known author, by many multiples more than they would without the brand.

It’s quite simple: Pick your niche, identify yourself strongly and publicly with it, choose a cover that identifies ONLY your brand, stick to the formula rigidly, and it’s pretty much business as usual in that predictable market.  Authors can suck it up, or try to compete, and fail. BUT… You have come out and clearly say (pick your criteria :-)) ‘this is Shavian socialist/Chinese American/ GLBT/East coast- city-dwelling, fashion-shopping-and-sex fiction… or Democrat/ white/ hetrosexual-with-4-kids/ Flyover country farmer/ shootem-up-and-punchem-inna-mouth-fiction’ or whatever, and combinations of the above for people who are interested in most of the category. You don’t even try to sell outside your captive audience. Now, I’d be among the first to point out that legacy publishers has been publishing niche-tailored, formulaic fiction for at least thirty years now. And that it’s been an unmitigated disaster area, where reading has proportionally declined as a pastime for the literate public. And no, I’m not going to blame movies, TV, the Internet, the cheese monster or a mindwave directed by aliens from Alpha Centauri. It was choosing books which would appeal to (at most) 20% of the population and selling them (and only them) as of general appeal to the other 80%. They sure ‘educated’ those barbaric readers. Yep, educated them right out of buying.

Mostly, the above strategy would work, but cost legacy publishers about 70-95% of their present market share. It’s better than being extinct. But say they really wanted to stay in the game, and not become niche players? Well, that would mean considering BIG changes. I’m fairly certain none of these will appeal or happen…

First and foremost success would require an entire paradigm shift. Forget educating the public. Forget what you, the editor, like. That proved a complete fustercluck when you had absolute control of access to retail. Now it is deader than a fossil Ammonite that’s been dropped in liquid helium, and then boosted into the heart of the sun. You need to go to what your customers–readers (not retailers)– like, and just how you can add value to that. If you can add substantial value, beyond that which others can add, you have a core competency and you’re not going to go extinct. You might actually do far better than in the past, and still go to all the good parties (of course there will be different people there).

The answer is really easy: readers like stories by authors that appeal to them. They identify them largely by author, secondarily by sub-genre, thirdly by cover. Oh and they really don’t like feeling ripped off or exploited. In this they really are no different to anyone else. So: authors names are possibly valuable property.  Historically, the legacy publishers editors picked authors, controlled their access to readers and readers access to them, and if authors wanted to be published… they swam through any sh1t and put up with any extra demands that publishing or retail wanted. If there was a saving to be made, well, the authors could carry that cost, or if there was extra work to be done… you know who did it. If it didn’t work, it was always the author’s fault. I hate belabouring this point, but it is key to the way publishing can survive. It’s not a gatekeeper anymore, and it has to add more value than the author can get by walking through the open gate themselves. Look at what they get without you, and start that point, not the point of what you used to offer. Oh AND you have to persuade the buyer that he’s not being ripped off, especially not by the author.

They get 70% of the cover price without you. And they get quarterly settlement. They get complete sales transparency, day-to-day. They can do as a good a job of getting a book to the shelf as most publishers do right now for as little as $2500, without calling on friends or doing it themselves (when that figure drops to zero, although quality may suffer). That is what the services the legacy publishing house are worth, excluding paper sales. For a new to midlist author those are worth 3-10K advances… at the moment.

Therefore: To compete, as a legacy publisher, you need to match that, either in cash or kind or push up the volume of sales, to earn the author more. The down-side of legacy publishing is it has, well, legacy expenses. No, a publisher’s net profit isn’t very high. It’s just carrying a lot of historical overheads which are meaningless in this paradigm. It has NY premises. It has a legal department, it has an accounting department, it has a marketing department. It has an administration centre where they dealt with orders and returns. It has an HR department. In the stuffy little office with no windows has an editor who actually edits (and does the post and blurbs and…), and in a plush corner offices it has editors who acquire, edit a tiny bit (too busy) run meetings and play business and office politics, meet the CEO, talk to marketing and Accounting.  Proof-reading and actual cover layout and art are out-sourced. There are secretaries, expense accounts, and, um, a vast debt to service, to pay the really big advances to keep the best-sellers… Or the bestsellers might go elsewhere. Those costs are carried by everyone, equally. No wonder a book costs 100K or some fantastical sum to bring out.

Most of that has to go. Legacy publishing can only afford to keep the bits that add value to author for readers, for the author’s benefit. The job can be done from an office in upstate Texas. From an office the size of a postage stamp, or a mailbox, because…

1) The legal department is worthless. Hire an IP layer to draw up very simple clear contract just to avoid confusion. The author doesn’t need a contract with you any more. Why should he sign an evil one?  Yes I know. They’ve written contracts that screwed generations of authors for you. Made you millions and millions.  They’re busy writing contracts right now to bind the author and e-rights until the heat death of the universe, let alone the sun. Which is about as dumb-ass as you can get. Throw them–and the lawyers–away. Screw an author — just one, and word will get out, now that there are alternatives. And then the legacy publisher will find itself competing hard with Publish America for clients. And losing.

2) Fire the accounting department. Yes, I know, their creative accounting in the opaque morass that is royalty records has kept the chair under the acquiring editor-in-chief’s butt. He’s going too, so it doesn’t matter. The labyrinthine payments and returns system, running up 16 months after the fact is very difficult to handle. But it’s also useless.  You need to match and equal Amazon in transparency and speed. Authors want to be able to log in and see what sold ten seconds ago, not ten months -because that’s what they get, as a KDP customer.  Basically, that means you HAVE to computerise and automate. And this where you have an advantage over Newstartup e-publishers, because you have the resources to pay for the programming. [Weirdly, publishers won’t take the accounting software when it’s offered for free. Not traditional and established publishers, at least. Trust me on this. It’s been tried. It’s almost like… they don’t want to know – SAH]

3)Fire the marketing department. Try not to enjoy it too much. There is a need for marketing but it is of a type so foreign to those who promoted the product that didn’t need to be sold for readers to buy it, and ignored the product that needed help, that they’re worthless. The kid off the street has more skills and experience than they do in this new world. He understands facebook, twitter, flashmobs, the blogosphere. You need a social marketing arm, not a sell-best-sellers-that-don’t-need-any-selling-to-bookstores marketer.

4) Admin, with no returns and merely e-placement of books needs to exist… but a lot less people can do the job.  And it needs an attitude transplant.

5)A company with 10 employees instead of 500 probably doesn’t need HR. Yeah, I know. It’s easier to prise limpets off with your toes. Everybody goes before HR. But they have to.

6) The editor in the inner office can work at home, and really, their work has to add that much in value that they’re worth having. And yes, actually the new author or midlister will expect serious input. Or they’ll walk. And talk. And there goes your company.  Every crash will now be a publisher/editor crash, which brings me to the last and worst job.

7)Acquisitions. The editor in corner office probably may as well go, because this is a very different job. It means back to the slush, back to picking up jewels out of the muck. Only it needs a very special kind of jewel. Ones where a bit of polish (not too much, time is money) and facet-work by the editor, will multiply its value. And he’ll probably be reading 99 cent slush on line to find it. No corner office looking onto Central Park needed. The massive deals and the advances will be gone. And no doubt their recipients will threaten to walk. Well. They can. They won’t get much more of a deal than the new Legacy Publisher needs to offer anyway – Which- for bestsellers, will be 70% of cover price. Yes. Every cent they get from Amazon. The New Legacy Publisher will of course also sell through its own website, and that will be 30% gross.

Of course, despite all these losses the legacy publisher needs some new staff. A social media marketer, a proof reader, a good cover/layout staff, and someone to do formats and do visual checks on them. And the staff need a new ethic, where they start taking care of the cents, especially where these cents belong to the guy who’ll walk, and complain, loud and angry… because suddenly it becomes necessary for staff to listen to customers and suppliers. And these are not bookstores and agents. A couple of examples here. A popular series I co-authored… when the last hardcover came out, the previous paperback was out of print. Normally that sells around 2K So we authors lost $1200, the publisher about $7000 in turnover, and our records are weaker than need be. I’ve just discovered SLOW TRAIN (via Amazon) was reprinted about 5 months ago. No one told me, so I told no-one. So that was probably another 500 sales wasted. I usually find out when a book is released by looking it up on Amazon. It’s been years since I had copies or even cover flats in time to promote before release. Almost all of these problems are quick to fix, translate directly into money (far more for the publisher than me) and would often take about 30 seconds of e-mail time. If they’re going to survive and flourish this sort of thing is an easy start. Take care of cents and the dollars mount up.

The author who gets her work taken on will get: everything she’d get going direct, less ( depending on her sales profile) a percentage. Not a very big percentage, or she’ll walk. She’ll also get a cover, social media marketing, editing and proofs.

And one more thing. Remember that bit about the public needing to feel they’re not being ripped off?

She’ll get public transparency. When the agency model kerfluffle came up, the publishers were powerless. Their books were simply delisted from Amazon.

And their authors rode to the rescue. The public love their authors. When the authors told them that Amazon were the bad guys, the customers went ballistic. They want their books. They demanded them, threatened Amazon with boycott. Amazon caved. Publishers chortled in their glee… and put e-book prices up and Hardback prices up.

And the boards were full of “GREEDY AUTHORS!”

And not a single solitary word in their defence was said by their publishers. Not anywhere. The legacy publishers were perfectly happy, despite just having been rescued by their authors, to let them carry the can.  Which was short-sighted, greedy and outright stupid. They sold their author’s long term credibility and help for… a few more months of gouging. Why shouldn’t they do so? There are lots more authors.

The trouble is there are lots more people prepared to nick things from greedy gougers than there are from battlers. The Robin Hood syndrome lives on.  So publishers, rather than admit that, well, authors got the smallest share, and were often struggling stay afloat, let them take the blame for truly exploitative pricing… making ‘piracy’ Okay by a lot of people. Because to admit they took in excess of 90%, would make publishers and retailers look bad, and to show gratitude to those gullible readers and authors for the rescue would have meant giving more to the authors, and have meant keeping prices low.

So now… self-published authors have every incentive to keep their prices low, and to be open about what they earn and what they spend. Because if they earn well, people think they’re rewarding the good guys. If they don’t look greedy, the readers are more likely to chip in…

And the legacy publishers are in direct competition. Which leaves no space for the historical squirming, ducking, diving and secrecy and letting authors carry the can, that typified publishing.

There is still good money to be made — as publishers can and should retail directly from their own websites (offering perks, ARCs and freebies with the books) and charging perhaps as much as 15% for newbies off Amazon rates for providing services which take the hassle out of it for authors, letting the author write and not waste time on publicity or admin or covers and finding good proof-readers and editors.

It would end up leaner, and a lot more profitable. And very very different. Kind of like jacking up the radiator cap and the hood ornament, and replacing the entire rest of the vehicle, but still calling it the same make of automobile.

However, I’ll bet the legal department and HR and accounting stay… and the real editor gets the push.

Or what do you think?

71 thoughts on “Publishing advice I won’t ever be asked for… – by Dave Freer

  1. And everyone ignored Cassandra. Poor girl! Dave (and Sarah) know their industry well enough to see ways it *could have* survived that pesky asteroid strike. Too bad they were ignored.
    Well, too bad for the Publishers. It’s now the age of Independents.

  2. There are few cases where a legacy company has survived and thrived in a major industry transition. It wasn’t Bethlehem Steel and US Steel who pioneered mini-mill steelmaking, it was scrappy guys (play on words) like Nucor. The late Clay Christensen has written about this phenomenon extensively. One of his points is that the new paradigm initially shows up in a form the causes the incumbents to think it can be treated as a minor thing. Nucor was initially making things like rebar, not sheet steel. The first transistor radios were portables aimed at teenagers, not expensive home sets. And so on.

    1. Publishing was already in the process of committing suicide. The people they’d promoted were not suited to see the situation for what it was.
      Alas, Jim Baen died before that change.

      1. Jim, either personally himself or with the help of advisors, established Baen as a pioneer with e-books, and Webscriptions, and eARCs, and a host of other innovations in publishing. And that legacy has kept them strong in a rather broad niche market.
        Sadly since his passing the company has been infested with those longing for the days of traditional publishing, a return to the glory days of rule by the gatekeepers. So that Baen legacy might keep them afloat just a tad longer, but conversely they lack the big pocket parent companies keeping the major trad pub outfits operating in spite of their flagrant abuse of common sense business practices.

        1. “So that Baen legacy might keep them afloat just a tad longer,”

          Actually, it will probably kill them faster. They were built on a fan base tired of dealing with the woke. The woke will never forgive them, and their fan base is going to leave them because they are now the woke that base fled. Who’s left?

          1. So long as Baen publishes their legacy authors, the writers Jim “brought into” the field, they will cruise along at a certain level. If (when?) Weber, Drake, Ringo, Correia and others (including Flint who, for all his socialist schtick, hasn’t forgotten the need to tell a story entertainingly) stop selling through Baen the ship will sink like a stone.

      1. Had a crusty old English teacher who would talk about “earth mothers of both sexes.”

        Can’t imagine why it’s coming to mind.

        1. My husband used to work in campus security at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. We described him as “watching over the young ladies of both sexes.” So sue me.

    1. “To compile her research, Larson conducted interviews with book authors, publishing executives and industry analysts. She also drew heavily on the data from the most recent Authors Guild’s Authors Income Survey. ”

      That’s a rather incestuous sampling methodology. Seems cherry-picked for showing a decrease in income for Trad-only.

    2. Wait, this is based on the Author’s Guild Income Survey? Aren’t they the ones who wanted you to give them all the information off your tax returns for the past five years or something like that? Or am mixing them up with someone else?

  3. Seems like this is what Baen was doing with their free library for a while. Also seems to have died off. Not much there now except an annual short story compendium. Got me into quite a few authors in its heyday.

    1. It needed a very innovative thinker to keep up with the technology changes in the field.
      I am convinced if Jim Baen were alive he’d have found a way to make money in this fast change.
      Alas, he died too soon.

  4. Is this a Blast From The Past or a Guest Post?

    How am I to know what I is being readings?

    You are being cruel to poor easily confoozed wallabies.

      1. SNL was never as good as it thought it was. I kept getting people raving about it in the ’70’s, and whenever I followed it up I ran into a bunch of smug Lefty cultural references that were about as funny Nasty Nip jokes from the WWII era. And even the good parts haven’t aged well.

        Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In was another vastly overrated comedy show. Mostly empty ‘hip’ness. But it at least produced ONE routine that deserves to stand with classics like ‘Who’s On First?’ or Jack Benny being held up (‘Your money or your life! (pause) I’m thinking…’); Ernestine the Operator.

        1. Perhaps you are correct cspschofield, It could be dog awful sometimes. But every once and awhile it rose above that, Julia Child, Enjoying oddball guests (e.g. Frank Zappa), John Belushi’s samurai, Rosanne Rosanadanna, Mr Robinson’s neighboorhood. It was not perfect, but still fun.

          1. Unlike Monty Python, which was also over-hyped to me by schoolmates, I never saw SNL as “good, but not my cuppa” , it just struck me as a poor trade for some sleeping time, on the whole. Python simply struck me as weird to no special purpose until I got the opportunity to watch some BBC unfiltered by having to cross the Atlantic. Then I realized that a lot of what had struck me as oddly deadpan surrealism was actually pretty spot-on satire of certain institutional tics of the BBC.

            SNL, to the extent I could watch it at all, came across as a collection of artificial hipness.


            I’m often off at 45 degrees from the general consensus regarding humor. The only Pink Panther film I ever really liked was THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, and MUCH more for Herbert Lom than Sellers. OTOH, one of my favorite Blake Edwards films is THE GREAT RACE, which many people think is overlong and limps.

            1. It may be that seeing the SNL live in late High School and early college has more effect on me than on others. Probably doesn’t hurt that freshman year (79-80)we’d go to some of the fraternity parties early in the evening and return with pizza just in time for SNL. Our (somewhat, ok maybe MORE than somewhat) inebriated state probably enhanced our enjoyment :-). As for Return of the Pink Panther, it was VERY funny And Herbert Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfus stole the scene whenever he showed up. Having been a Green Hornet fan I also enjoted the Homage to Kato.

        2. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In has the distinction of having given us the Shortest Joke Ever, only 3 syllables long:
          “You too?”

  5. “[a traditional publisher] has a marketing department.”

    It does? You could have fooled me. I have almost never seen a book from trad pub “marketed” in any sense. I find out about ones I want to read by looking at the author’s website, seeing “available for pre-order” on the Amazon page, or randomly stumbling across it on one of my semi-annual trips to the bookstore toy store with a couple of book shelves in the back.

      1. Aha extremely advanced stealth marketing. What do you want to bet its someones child, significant other, cousin, side piece etc?

        1. No. It’s what Dave says in the post. For some reason the publishers spend their WHOLE MONEY promoting bestsellers. Who’d have sold anyway.
          To an extent it makes sense. “hitting” is a crapshoot. So it’s “safer” to make something that’s going big BIGGER than to promo everyone.
          Or it was.
          But you know, a certain low level promo used to be given…. say, in the seventies. To give you a chance at starting some movement upward. But somehow that ossified to “only promote bestsellers”
          Even though if they’re niche, like sf/f, at some point you’ve reached a level where publicity brings ALMOST no returns.
          But… why should THAT part of what publishers do make sense when nothing else does?

          1. Our hostess said “It’s what Dave says in the post. For some reason the publishers spend their WHOLE MONEY promoting bestsellers. Who’d have sold anyway.” Ok so somehow I missed that bit. Now I’m certain that nepotism is involved and its someones pet idiot. Because spending your advertising (other than Hey its available) for say the next Stephen King novel is INSANE. The incremental $ produced by the advertising is effectively 0. Clearly these folks have never even thought about basic economics. No wonder they’re tanking. It’s like making money is NOT their purpose apparently that is to crass and plebeian a goal. Clearly I am showing my blue collar roots as more money seems like a good thing to me.

              1. Wow, can we get one of them to jump off a bridge as accepted practice :-). I was joking about the Dems being lemmings in another post, but man that seems like they really are And yes I know lemming don’t actually run off cliffs that was an aberration caused be folks (Disney i think ) filming and harassing the little rodents cross rodential harassment as it were.

          2. To an extent it makes sense.

            By spending money promoting titles sure to be best sellers they are practicing the philosophy of rainmakers everywhen: claiming credit for what follows. The publisher is generally happy to credit the marketing rather than the writer for a book becoming a best seller; that justifies the publisher’s outrageous rake off.

            We’re seeing a version of the strategy in the political mud-wrestle about the coronavirus: by declaring Trump isn’t spending enough (and from just which ass did Schumer pull that $8.5 billion?) they have placed markers for criticizing him if the problem blows up … and if Trump’s efforts result in staving off disaster we can be sure nothing will be said of the criticisms (beyond a few “He was lucky” snarks.)

            1. From a middle management perspective it beats having to explain why you spent so much on pushing losers.

              Never underestimate the desire for arse coverage.

    1. They do market. Selectively, of course… they just don’t market MUCH to the public. They market – expensively, to large booksellers (brick and mortar) (I know of one campaign for a ‘new Dahling’ that a publishing company spent a fortune transporting this woman (and her partner) to have dinners in various European and American cities with booksellers and critics.) and she vanished almost without a trace – because the story really had little appeal to readers.

  6. In 1995 I got a job making roughly five times more money than I’d ever seen before. I paid off every bill we had, put some in the bank, and took a thousand dollars as “fun money.”

    I went booking!

    So I hit Waldenbooks, and B.Dalton, and a couple of independent shops, there being no online booksellers then. And I walked down the aisles, examined every title, and saw… the same old grey goo, public domain “classic” reprints, and schlock I’d seen for… well… years. Bear in mind I had cash money burning a hole in my pocket, and anything threatening to be even vaguely readable would have been purchased.

    I left each store empty-handed. And returned home with all my money.

    Looking at my bookshelves later, I realized I had *very* little on them published after 1990. And here in 2020, things look much the same for SF, and about 50/50 for detective/mystery, which I began to move to in… 1995, when there was no more new SF to be had.

    The rot set in *long* ago.

      1. We don’t even do that anymore. Why bother taking the trip to be disappointed by Barnes & Noble when we can be disappointed by browsing Amazon at home (if we’re looking at trad) or pick up some decent indie work?

          1. Of course, driving 45 minutes to the nearest B&N only to find that they don’t have the book you wanted but can order it is Bad.

            So why not order it from Amazon? 😀

            Note, I’m mainly an ebook reader now but gave up on B&N for the above reason. 😦

    1. I used not to be able to visit a bookstore, particularly the SF&F section without wanting to take home most of it. I’d spend too much time figuring out which ONE book to buy. And used bookstores-!

      And then… It got easier. The last book I purchased from that era was Brown Girl in the Ring.

  7. Interesting points and the decline continues. The referenced post from AMG is interesting in that it ‘seems’ to pander the party line against Amazon.

  8. > …creative accounting in the opaque morass …labyrinthine payments and returns system, running up 16 months after the fact…

    …and they claim not to know how many books they printed, or how many were sold, or where they were sold, or where the unsold copies might be. And on that firm foundation, they pick a royalty number out of the air.

    I think I’ve said this before, but this has the odor of money laundering about it.

    And then there’s the payoff/bribe odor, emanating from the incredible advances and claimed sales figures for various biographies of pols and unindicted criminals…

    I don’t think “printing books” is their real business any more.

    1. They clearly hired the same accountants used by Hollywood. Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock were more honest in their accounting than either Hollywood or publishers accounting firms.

    2. “And then there’s the payoff/bribe odor, emanating from the incredible advances and claimed sales figures for various biographies of pols and unindicted criminals…”

      Those may be on their way out. Starting in 2008, Barack Obama proved it was possible to funnel significant amounts of untraceable cash through on-line campaign donation sites, and our enforcement mechanisms were toothless even when it was freaking obvious. Set up your bots to buy the on-line gift cards, use the amounts with false names and addresses, and 1/3 billion appears like magic.

      Now we have GoFundMe and Paypal, so that various “witnesses” and “whistleblowers” can be paid in those same small untraceable amounts. Blaisey-Ford and Comey come to mind. No need for the pretense of literary talent or a political campaign; just bribery for perjury straight up.

  9. 6) The editor in the inner office can work at home, and really, their work has to add that much in value that they’re worth having. And yes, actually the new author or midlister will expect serious input. Or they’ll walk. And talk. And there goes your company. Every crash will now be a publisher/editor crash, which brings me to the last and worst job.

    For a little while, I was in a fanfic group; I eventually quit when I realized I was doing that job and neither being paid nor enjoying it. 😀

    That would be a seriously impressive move as far as protecting the environment goes, although they’d have to be on a salary rather than paid hourly. (home interruptions happen)

      1. I’m not sure of the legality for that one these days. I know that Amazon’s Turk thing lost a LOT of jobs like that at one point.

        1. When I worked piecemeal, it was with the caveat that the earnings still had to beat minimum wage for the time taken… but that was a bit over five years ago. Certainly part of a hard push against piecework.

          I hate the restrictions, and hate everything that forces everyone into *one* ideal of working, and damn whatever might actually fit a life. A doll manufacturer in my MiL’s hometown used to have odd jobbers whi would stitch the pieces together at home at however much for finished unit; that was kiboshed, now it’s all done in China. So I guess it’s all okay if you do everything, from design and materials sorting to finishing and shipping, yourself–no one cares how much a business owner makes–but heaven forfend you do a bit of gentle outsourcing on someone else’s gig.

          …hfff. It is *so frustrating* that everything that doesn’t fit a specific ideal of How Things Must Be Done must be destroyed. But I guess that at least I don’t live in California.

            1. Good grief. I had no idea. Pardon my saying so but that’s just bloody stupid. The proof reader offered that rate and I accepted. It worked for her, plainly. What can you do? I mean, plainly I am not trying to rip them off, but equally plainly I can’t pay for as many hours as they feel they’d like to spin the job out to. (As my proof reader lives in NZ and I live in Australia I hope this does not apply)

  10. Part of the problem is that the legacy publishers live their lives in an echo chamber. Another part is that they have a lot of unnecessary expenses—NYC is one of the most expensive metros in the country, just for starters.

  11. A wonderful piece and one that is already enabling many authors and readers to say “I told you so.” But Dave is right that most people in the legacy industry simply won’t listen.

    What will, eventually, make them listen is for some “corporate vulture” to come along and notice that one of these publishers has assets that are worth more than the present value of its income stream — so he buys it up and liquidates it. This is not a new idea: it happened to Street & Smith during the pulp era. But a market with this type of “dinosaurs” in it is ripe for it to happen again.

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