Wednesday 18 April 2012

Problems With Publishers

Publishers are very choosy about which books they consider worth publishing. It’s a very expensive business and so they have every right to choose only those books they believe will find a readership, and make them a profit.

That is certainly a reasonable position to take.

But, after their thorough and exhaustive selection process, of the books they decide are good enough, less than 10% actually make them any money.

It could be that the tastes of the public are so refined and demanding that even if you pick out the best of the best, only a fraction are good enough to make the grade in the eyes of a discerning public.

Or, it  could be that the people choosing the books to be published have no idea what they’re doing.

After all, they are supposed to be experts, experienced and knowledgeable. So why is it so many books fail to find an audience? And more to the point, how do these companies manage to make a profit?

Let’s say you are a book publisher and you have ten books on your slate, and a fixed amount of money to spend on promoting those ten books.

How you promote those books will depend on the genre and the type/size of the market you intend to aim each book at. You won’t spend equal amounts on each book, but since you chose these ten books from many hundreds, you will certainly try to make them all big sellers if possible.

Then something strange happens. One of the books starts getting a lot more attention than the others. This can  be for various reasons. It could just be extremely well written and entertaining. Or it could be about some contentious issue that’s big in the news. Or it could come at just the right time to benefit from some fad the kids are into. Or it might be seen being read by a celebrity. There are lots of reasons, both literary and random, why it might suddenly start getting reviewed and discussed and have movie rights optioned.

And all this will generate free publicity and create a demand for the book.

As the publisher, you now have a decision to make. In terms of pure finance, the smart thing to do is to take your marketing budget and put it all behind this one book. Even though it’s already getting loads of promotion for free, you can capitalise even more by buying up ad space in the newspapers reviewing it and so forth.

It’s just business.

If you spend $100 promoting Book A and you get back $500 in sales, and you spend $100 promoting Book B and you get back $200 in sales, then you should probably put all $200 into promoting Book A and make $1000. Of course that means you put nothing into Book B and nobody even knows it’s been released.

Not only that, but probably best to put the most creative people on that one book, and let the interns have the other nine.

So it’s not just that nine out of ten books fail, it’s that the industry will gladly sacrifice nine books for that one blockbuster.

But if I tell you to choose a hundred books out of a thousand (those thousand all being decently written novels on various subjects), does it really matter which hundred you choose? After all, we’re just going to push them out there, see which ones do well and then back those hardest while allowing the others to fall by the wayside. Don’t you think any one hundred books chosen at random would have a pretty good chance at having four or five winners in it?

There’s nothing wrong with the free market approach (let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks) as opposed to the elitist approach (I know this is a great book and I’m going to convince people they need to read it). 

The difference is, the free market approach doesn’t require the people behind it to have a love of books. They don’t even have to be able to read. It helps if they can identify certain tropes of successful books (big hooks, fast paced openings, likeable characters), but they don’t know why one action thriller sells millions and another sells a couple of dozen. And they don’t care.

Which is why I think no one is very upset about the decline of the big publishers and the difficulty they find themselves in now with internet and digital technology. It’s just business.
If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Considering how many authors I know are doing well with self publishing, I'd say the free market approach is working.

mooderino said...

@Alex-it's working for the new model, the old model, not so much. In fact I'd say it was the self-publishers that are causing all the problems for the traditionalists.

Mina Burrows said...

Very intriguing article with valid points. I'm just glad that now authors AND readers have more options. Great post!

James R Tate said...

I think the big guys have focused so much on the next big thing, they've forgotten what sells to the average reader--a good fun read. Great post, and a subject of great debate. I would still like to find publication with a publishing co. It seems as though you are still thought of as sub-par if a real publisher doesn't pick you up. If you self-publish after that, then that's okay.

Jacqueline Howett said...

Great post. You tell it well! You made some very interesting points. I'm hitting the tweet button now.

Rusty Carl said...

Publishers worked themselves into an icky situation back when my grandparents were kids with there returns policies. Once established, they couldn't undo the practice and so they have to take huge losses on books that don't perform as expected... or to overambitious stores that order 1000 copies of a new book, knowing they will only sell 50, but they need the other copies to help build the awesome display when you walk into the store. They know full well they can return them all and get 100% credit and make the publisher eat that as a loss.

Which of course means they (publishers) have to churn out as many Harry Potters and Twighlights ans they can in hopes of recouping the costs of all those other books that they're sitting on. It's an ugly cycle.

dolorah said...

"So it’s not just that nine out of ten books fail, it’s that the industry will gladly sacrifice nine books for that one blockbuster."

That sounds like an astute statement. Business is business; the market is oversaturated with myopic decisions.


Unknown said...

I'm waiting for all the "Snooky" fans to get bored. That's when people will start seeking out what they miss about entertainment. The drama and sensationalism of "new age" stuff will get boring, then people will start searching for substance.


Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm fascinated with the rapidly changing world of publishing, but it's hard to keep up. I'm doing my best.

Anonymous said...

Oh, my gosh, I love this! I just wrote my own blog post about how I was mistreated when I had a contract to publish and how losing that contract actually became a blessing. I had no idea it was this brutal. It all makes more sense now about why they treated me the way they did. Thank you so much for sharing this insightful blog post! Fabulous...

Crystal Lee

Precy Larkins said...

Interesting post. I've never really thought about it from the publisher's point of view. And yeah, ebooks and indie or self-publishing has really changed the book business. It'll be interesting to see what'll happen in the future.

Fairview said...

great insight. I remember walking into Borders and seeing a wall of Twilight books. And I remember thinking to myself boy, these books must be really good since they're devoting an entire wall to marketing this thing.

And then I walked into another chain bookstore and they had the book as their book of the month club reading selection.

And I remember thinking boy, I hope one day to have a book worthy of this kind of marketing campaign.

I'm thinking self-publishing is the way to go, but how to market to a mass audience is a dilemma.

Rebecca Bloomer said...

Sometimes I think the slow publication timeline is also an issue for publishers. Between 'picking up' a book and actually getting it to publication, there can be years! By then people's tastes have changed. What would have made them money two years ago is now beyond people's tolerance levels etc. There are a lot of elements working against big publishers nowadays and it makes them less and less attractive to authors.

mooderino said...

@mina-more optios are definitely better for writers.

@Tate-you can see why they did it, that's where the big bucks were They just seem reluctant to let go of the old system.


@Rusty-it's no tlike they didn't have the opportunity to invest in digitl from the start. Bad business practice wil bite you in the ass.

@Donna-I think they have the right to do what they please, but they have no one to balme but themsleves when it all goes pear shaped.

@Diane-you might be waiting a long time. There's always a new snooki round the corner.

mooderino said...

@Patricia-I don't think anyone knows what going to happen at this point. Your guess is as good as anybody's.

@crystal-you're welcome.

@cherie-a few more years of chaos I would predict.

@Fairview-other than killing someone famous I'm not sure access to a mass audience is going to be very hard.

@Rebecca-I think a lot of the traditional ways of doing things will be forced to change.

Annalisa Crawford said...

It never occurred to me to submit my work to a big publisher - I have always focused on small presses. My novella is digital-only, but I have a publisher for it - I liked the idea that someone impartial loved my story enough to think other people would like it too.

I think the problem with self-publishing, if that's the way everything will go, is how will we discern what's truly brilliant against the okay-stuff-well-marketed? I want literature to remain an amazing source of entertainment - however the process alters.

mooderino said...

@annalisa-I think we have that same problem with published books, they all claim to be brilliant and rarely are. In the end you have to find them for yourself.

Carol Ervin said...

You said, "The difference is, the free market approach doesn’t require the people behind it to have a love of books. They don’t even have to be able to read. It helps if they can identify certain tropes of successful books (big hooks, fast paced openings, likeable characters), but they don’t know why one action thriller sells millions and another sells a couple of dozen. And they don’t care."

I say, "Amen."

Sarah McCabe said...

My biggest gripe with trad publishers at this point is that they seem to have totally lost sight of what readers, their customers, actually want. People invested in the trad pub industry keep griping about Amazon's "predatory" tactics driving them out of business and seem to either overlook or not even realize that the three main things Amazon does that are hurting the industry are three things readers want: the widest selection possible, low prices and an efficient and fun shopping experience. In my opinion, if they can't give me, as a reader, what I want and especially since they don't even seem to want to try, then death to them!

Laura Pauling said...

I think there are still plenty, I mean plenty of authors, hoping for a traditional contract. It all depends on who you talk to. ;)

mooderino said...

@Carol-Praise be, sister!

@Sarah-they just really like money, they can't help it.

@Laura-certainly, and those that get chosen still have an excellent shot at the brass ring. But everyone else has a chance too.

Anonymous said...

A lot depends on the publisher you have chosen to work with. A motivated & hungry team, that has worked hard for their connections can do wonders. If you are lucky enough to get an offer to work with a publisher. You need to find out what they have done for others, as well as what you can do for them. Big publishers are happy to be approached with safe bullshit, celebrity, cookery & memoir shit. and leave other submissions to fight for survival.

My Publisher, Cutting Edge Press has folk like Paul Swallow, who has done his time, 2o years with the likes of Harper Collins. And got bored. My book, Malice in Blunderland is very rude, offensive and about as non-pc as you can get. Major publishers wouldn't touch it.

Yet, Cutting Edge got so much interest, we had to publish a month before the 'Official' publish date. On the day of the 'Official' launch, we had all but sold out on Amazon and similar. Also, on the day of the launch I signed the film rights. A first for a debut author. Traditional can be very good. But it's better to say no to a deal if it's BS than say yes. There are some fantastic Indy publishers with vast connections and still a love for words over profit.

mooderino said...

@jonny-hopefully the indy publishers who do like books and occasionally read a couple will be alright after the dust settles. They certainly believe in their writers.

Ben said...

Great post, Mood. Gets the writers to step outside themselves for a moment and tries to understands a publisher's reasoning.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great post Moody. The times...they are a changin'. I guess Bob Dylan said it best.

Linda King said...

Really interesting blog posts. Thanks for following me - I have followed you too! Nice to 'meet' you :-) LindaK

mooderino said...

@Ben-cheers, always nice to have you drop by.

@Michael-although not always the most harmoniously. Man had a weird voice.

@Linda-Hi, thanks very much for the follow.

Lydia Kang said...

At the end of the day, it's just business. Sad that the creative process and business have to interact in such a way. I get it though.

StratPlayerCJF said...

It's fascinating to watch the revolution of the publishing industry. It's undergoing a huge shift in paradigm, the same as has been going on for the music industry.

No longer is the product "a book," any more than the music industry still sells "CDs," The shift is the realization that those are simply mechanical means of delivering the real product -- a story or a song.

Things will continue to change, but as long as people want to read and experience story-telling, writers will still have an outlet. Only how the 'product' (the story) gets to them will change.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I think if you took a more long term view you would want to develop all your authors, rather than the short term smash and grab approach they tend to take.

@Chris-often it's the packaging you can make your profit from, especially if it's fancy looking.

Tara Tyler said...

argh! money, money, money!
oh well. back to editing my future best seller!

mooderino said...

@tara-good luck. I have it on good authority the next big thing will be hunchbacks swinging from bell towers.

A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer said...

Very interesting post! And I totally agree with those who said that publishers sometimes seem to focus so much on the next big thing that they forget the "meat and potatoes". Not every book can be huge, but the mid-list books are the ones which consistently bring in money.

Stina said...

So true. I know someone who is doing very well with her self published novel (though I've noticed it's done nothing for the sales of her other self pubbed books). If it had made it to the traditional publishers, would it have been as successful? Who knows. Maybe. Maybe not. We'll never know. She might not have promoted it as much, and it might not have taken off the way it did. There are so many unknown variables. But it's obvious she did, in her case, the smart thing being self pubbed.

mooderino said...

@AK-I think they're following the big money so gathering up the loose change is beneath them.

@Stina-What she has is control. Whether she makes the most of it or not is up to her, but it'll make all the difference in the long run.

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