More Trouble In Publishing

John Thompson’s book Merchants of Culture does a brilliant job of spelling out why publishers are in so much trouble these days, and he does this not by attacking them in any way, but simply by explaining the underlying rules and practices of the industry. Publishers, it turns out, are hemmed in on both sides. Their job is to be the intermediaries between authors and the reading public – except that nowadays, there are agents blocking (or facilitating) their access to authors, and bookstores blocking (or facilitating) their access to readers. Agents and bookstores have become increasingly powerful in the past forty years or so, and they have made publishers play by rules which, on the surface may seem compatible to everyone’s best interests, but which have ended up also raising the stakes of an already risky business.

The most workable solutions to the complicated dance of the book business have been a) consolidation of publishers into huge corporations who have the financial clout to play what is now a very expensive game, or else b) the subversive strategies of the very small publishers, who can find ways to dispense with agents, and work in cooperatives for practices of distribution, and in this way get to publish exactly what they like. There are a truly surprising number of small publishers. In the USA, 93.6% of publishers have revenues of  less than $1 million a year (these statistics are from 2004), 74.6% had revenues of less than $50,000. However, together they account for less than 10% of total book sales. Of course, the businesses accounted for by these figures may be all sorts of ventures, from self-publishers to educational institutions to trade associations. But there are a lot of people out there, doing it for the love of literature and for the good of the counter-culture. They are also having a horrible time of it, if Thompson’s account is anything to go by. Supposing that a small publisher, or even one of the few surviving medium-sized outfits, has a lucky bestseller that raises the profile of the company; they get a cash windfall, but the next thing that happens is that the author leaves them for one of the bigger, richer publishers. Take Charles Frazier, whose first novel, Cold Mountain was an unexpected success, selling more than 1.6 million copies in hardback. His small publisher, Grove Atlantic, was boosted up a level by this triumph. But when it came to Frazier’s second novel, Thirteen Moons, the $5 million advance they scraped together by combining forces with some other publishers, was topped by Random House, who paid $8.25 million for it. And what happened next? Well the novel bombed – do you suppose anyone read it with a cool, appraising eye at any of those publishers?

And the answer is no, because all publishers are on a desperate quest for what are known as ‘big books’. That’s to say bestsellers, books that are sailing on a cloud of buzz and hype (‘Hype is the talking up of books… buzz exists when the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.’) The problem is, as Thompson so lucidly points out, that no book exists as a big book when it is bought. It is the twinkle in a publisher’s eye. It is the ‘one’ that a desperate single woman has dated a handful of times. It is the sure bet on the race track. When authors and books are picked as big books, this conviction is based on what Thompson calls ‘the web of collective belief’ but it is also known as the emperor’s new clothes. There are some factors, considered reliable enough to constitute the necessary element of the hoped-for big book: the track record of the author, comparable books that have sold well, and the author’s ‘platform’, or how well-known the author is. Not that any of these factors is actually really reliable when it comes to successful books. What this means is that competition hots up for books because….well, because the nature of competition is to hot up. The culmination of this madness is the book auction, whereby agents will tout potential big books around the publishers, getting them to up their bids. One anonymous source said ‘If I have a book that there’s a lot of interest in and I could go either way on, I’m probably going to go forward with it because I want to be a player.’ The editor added, ‘Often you’ve been in an auction and you just hope you won’t win. Everybody does it.’ And the outcome of all this frenetic buzzing? Only 30% of so-called big books make the kind of money the publishers are hoping for. 30%!! When advances for big books are counted in millions, then just imagine the amount of money lost.

What publishers are increasingly doing is putting more of their financial eggs in fewer and fewer baskets. This is inevitable when the price paid for a book is huge – the effort generated to market and promote it will be correspondingly large. An intriguing example of the power of marketing to sell a book was Elizabeth Kostova’s vampire chunkster, The Historian. The novel sold at auction for $2.1 million and, when published in 2005 went straight to number one on the New York Times bestseller lists, thanks to the internet and to the chain bookstores, places where it was promoted heavily. And then what happened was that we all read the book – do you remember it? I remember thinking it would be so much better if it were 200 pages shorter and had a decent ending. I don’t know what her second novel sold for, but I’ll bet it was a lot of money, and I’ll bet it bombs. We won’t forget what a trudge The Historian was in a hurry. But that’s another problem – the memories of the book world are both unreasonably short and unreasonably long. Readers remember for a long time when a book has disappointed them, but shoppers only recall a book for six weeks after publication. Apparently that’s the window for marketing these days. Within six weeks of arriving fresh in the bookstores, a book has exhausted its first burst of enthusiasm. If it isn’t selling well within two weeks, the plug is pulled and all marketing ceases. And it will be an awful lot harder for the author of that poorly-selling novel to get another book published in the future.

By the time I’d reached this part of the book, I turned to Mister Litlove and said to him, ‘I give up. It’s hopeless. I am never going to publish a book commercially, ever. I’m not a celebrity, I have no sense of buzz, I hate hype and I don’t ever want to write like anyone else.’

‘Oh but it’s easy to explain how businesses work,’ Mister Litlove replied. ‘In reality, though, they’re in a constant state of chaos. Anything’s possible, really, because the chaos is what predominates.’

I thought this was a very smart remark, because after all, I manage to find enough books to buy that were never hailed as big books, I suspect. Publishers do have to keep splitting the risks they take over a range of books because that’s all you can sensibly do with risks. And at the end of the day, no one can predict what will make a book sell well and/or be a good book (these things not necessarily being the same). However, the web of collective belief, otherwise known as self-fulfilling prophecy, is I think, the cause of most of the trouble in publishing. If publishers are always attempting to mount a bandwagon, always trying to tap into the feeling of the moment, then they are ignoring the core base of their business – the readers. Publishers desperate for big books are always trying to find the book that will tempt the casual reader to part with cash. But the floating voters of the consumer world are, by definition, fickle. That person who buys ‘the’ Christmas book of the year isn’t going to spend lots of money on books for the other 11 months of it.

It makes me think of another entertainment model – the world of computer games. My son used to be a huge fan of World of Warcraft, but for months now he hasn’t played it at all. Apparently a new extension called Wrath of the Lich King came out that intended, as one its main aims, to attract the more casual gamer. ‘What was the matter with it?’ I asked him. ‘It was too simple,’ he said. ‘There wasn’t enough challenge for the serious gamer. It was mediocre.’ The Wrath of the Lich King has done a lot of damage to the audience for World of Warcraft – not that it isn’t still a multi-million pound earner, but many of the people who used to play it are no longer interested, and are playing other games. The rot has set in because the company went for greed – more! more audience! – rather than satisfying their core market.

Publishers can go on chasing their big books, and wasting millions of pounds and dollars on them. But they dumb down the market, and if the trend for dumbing down continues, no good can come of it. Here’s a thought: why don’t publishers divert some of those potentially wasted millions towards the percentage of the market who, like me, are actually heavy book buyers and big readers, and see if they can’t figure out and satisfy our tastes? We’re still pretty numerous, since more people than ever have had a university or college education these days. Mister Litlove and I were thinking there’s potential in having a bookshop that stocks only unusual and quirky books, overlooked books, little gems, brilliant works in translation, the midlist that never got any marketing money directed towards it. You could really cater to your customers tastes, and use the internet to reach a wider audience. What if publishers thought first and foremost about their core, reliable customer base, and satisfied that first? Rather than following around hype and buzz, and ‘vampire novels are selling but upmarket women’s fiction isn’t’ type predictions that mean nothing. You might say to me, ah how naïve, Litlove; the business model is what it is and you can only work inside it. But the business model clearly isn’t working, is it? Otherwise we wouldn’t be hearing such howls of distress from the book world.

My third and final post on this book next week will be about the future of publishing, as Thompson sees it.

18 thoughts on “More Trouble In Publishing

  1. Searing as ever, Litlove. Trouble is that far from chasing readers like us, most big publishers take us for granted. These days they are chasing – deep breath here – the people who don’t usually buy books. The supermarkets are hugely powerful book buyers, actually dictate a large part of the market, and it has to be said, generate vital income from mega-sellers. Hence £5million (yes!) for that literary colossus Wayne Rooney. The rep for my last publisher told me the biggest crowd-puller at bookshop signings was Katie Price aka Jordan, when you couldn’t move in Waterstone’s for young girls and prams.

  2. Such a wise post, Litlove. I agree with you. Someone is going to try that sooner or later and then, with any luck, it’ll become a trend. I’m reading The Secret Garden now with younger d. I read a chapter aloud, and she reads one or more to herself, depending on how eager she is to get on with it. She loves it. I’m finding it so hard to find good books for her, books that are gentle-ish, because that’s what she likes. There are so many carbon copies of kids’ books that are written in a gabby, bratty manner, which is fine for sauce, but not the main meal.

  3. I don’t think the big publishers are taking us for granted. I think they are ignoring us. The would rather sell 5 million of one dumb-downed book than 200,000 of twenty-five little gems. Also the marketing department trumps the editors. So if an editor wants a book and marketing says no, the editor who knows literature is over-ruled. It’s awful to be an author in that equation! When do you think the big publishers will finally listen to sense such as yours? Obviously they haven’t for years and years. Regarding the supermarkets–to turn it into an analogy– supermarkets sell thousands of different items in their stores and so do well. Stores that just chocolate chip cookies, or the new fad, cup cakes do a bright business for a time and then snuff. The grocery stores keep doing well with their huge variety. The big publishers might want to pay attention to that since they have been trying to push just chocolate chip cookies on us for years.

  4. All true. All very sobering/depressing for any writer. We are all “midlist” until….we’re not! My new book, out next week, has been getting tremendous media attention for which we are all thrilled. Now, will buyers rush out to buy it? In huge numbers? Fast?

    I wonder how many readers who have not yet gone this route even know that those coveted “front tables” in the bookstores — where sometimes decades-old books are displayed (?) — are bought and paid for with “co-op” funds? Like stocking shampoo or cereal in a supermarket and paying shelf fees. So no matter how much an author may want that visibility, the decision is way beyond us.

    That six week pressure to selllselllsellsell is very unpleasant for writers as it means all our time is spent on promotion and interviews to drive media to drive (we hope) massive sales. Then the ugly truth….books like (ugh) “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (super provocative) dominate the conversation and become bestsellers while smarter and quieter books, and writers, watch in dismay and perhaps envy.

    Bookwriting and selling and promotion is essentially, for many, an expensive hobby. Writers, as I have been doing, are also expected to foot all associated marketing and promotion costs, from creating and maintaining a website to writing blog posts unpaid wherever possible.

  5. I love Mr. Litlove’s comment about chaos prevailing. Sad when that’s the major source of reassurance, but there you go. I suppose one can always trust in entropy to some degree.

    Seriously though, great post.

  6. The question of chaos is fascinating. A few months ago, I met with the owner of a small Indian publishing house specializing in quality children’s books. I asked about the riskiness of publishing (relatively) high-priced non-commercial fiction in a market flooded with cheap Disney rip-offs, and the proprietor replied that the Indian publishing industry was so chaotic that no-one knew what the rules (if any) were. So books that would be seen as risky in more regimented markets found shelf space here, as the bookstore buyers saw it all as a gamble anyway-there wasn’t (yet) a bunch of industry experts deciding that something couldn’t or wouldn’t sell. Of course, such chaos brings with it a whole set of issues, but I was struck by the notion that it engendered more variety for the reader. I’m very curious to see if Thompson covers the developing world’s markets while discussing the future of publishing. Eagerly waiting for your next post!

  7. You’re finding a lot of interesting things in this book.

    Does Thompson talk at all about the wave of authors selling thousands of copies of self-published super-cheap ebooks? I guess that would be too recent – I only started seeing stories about it this winter. I’m thinking of the Amanda Hocking phenomenon. This business must be changing so quickly.

    I love that your post has a “World of Warcraft” tag.

  8. Such an interesting post. This book has been off and on my list a few times in the past year, but I may have to give in and get it.

    It’s an interesting thing about that whole “big book” idea. I was just in my local indie bookstore yesterday and learned, much to my surprise, that they cannot even sell the mega-best-selling James Patterson at half price. His books are supposed to be guaranteed big books, but they aren’t even going to bother to stock them anymore. Instead, they seem to be relying on customer suggestions. They’ve given away review copies that the staff don’t have time to read and only ask in return that the customers who take them let them know whether they think the books are worth having in the store. It’s a tiny little shop, so they have to be selective about what gets shelf space. I think their hope is to end up being the kind of store you describe, bringing in the “big books” if customers want them, but otherwise showing off local authors and midlist options.

  9. Very interesting, and I agree with every word.

    Only 30% of so-called big books make the kind of money the publishers are hoping for. 30%!! When advances for big books are counted in millions, then just imagine the amount of money lost.

    I read things like this and think, “Yes, imagine; these people should lose their jobs!” I have so little sympathy for the publishing houses as they struggle when, as you so well point out, they don’t cater at all to the core market of book buyers. Shifts like this hurt a lot of people, of course, but the business model simply must change.

    And your description of a bookshop that would cater to core book buyers reminds me of a beloved indie here in Chicago.

  10. Oh, my, does that bookstore you describe at the end of your post sound appealing! I would travel quite a long distance to visit it, let me tell you. I hope somebody out there reads this and runs with the idea!

  11. I’m loving these posts, must dig out this book from my own stacks. I remember hearing someone say that publishers can make more money by playing to the casual readers likelihood to buy one book a year than they can expect to make off all the book buyers who buy all year round. We’re a smaller market, even though our annual book spend is larger than the average persons and we don’t come close to comparing to that of the money to be made off of millions of trillions of people just buying one book. It sounds crazy and you really have to have that one book, but that’s why publishers chase the blockbusters because there’s so much cash to be made so quickly if they do get it right – the potential for cash from the alreday dedicated book market is so much less, that it looks like a good gamble to make (and dedicated readers may also buy the blockbusters so they can scoop some of our cash up as well).

    I agree with you though, that they could do so much good and earn money by pleasing their existing customer base. Really they’re ignoring a core principle of marketing and sales theory, which says it’s easier to keep selling to customers you’ve alreday hooked than to generate new ones. But how to communicate that to them in terms of money? It seem to me we’d needs a pretty sustained, radical move in favour of the small presses and a rejection of the big blockbusters. Can you see it happening?

  12. Very precise.
    The simplification of mainstream (not to mention midcult) fiction in indeed the twisted son of superficial “market-widening” approaches.
    I hope they will eventually discover, that even the non-heavy reader is more prone to reading complex/challenging stuff that they suppose.

  13. Deborah – well you’re quite right and Thompson would agree with you. Makes me wince about Wayne Rooney, though.

    Lilian – it does seem that superheroes, magic and quite aggressive behaviour have become the norm in certain areas of children’s lit. Have you and your daughter read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster? That book is a delight. As a child I also used to love the Malcolm Saville adventure stories, although they are probably hard to come by now.

    Rosy – bless you! And hugs to you, too.

    Cynthia – I might have to write another post about books and supermarkets. It seems that, certainly in the UK, it’s the huge margins the supermarkets demand that are really doing damage to the industry. But publishers can’t refuse because they need to shift the quantity of books necessary to hit the bestseller list, and of course the bestseller list is at the heart of the web of collective belief. It really is a mess right now.

    broadsideblog – well you are absolutely spot on in the issues you raise. Marketing is hugely expensive because of the cost of that prime table space, and if your book isn’t in line for that sort of promotion (and let’s face it, few books are) the onus is all on the author to do the legwork. But it’s wonderful news about your book and I have my fingers crossed for you. I do think that word of mouth is the real power that sets a book on its way – not in the first six weeks, but over the course of its lifetime.

    Emily – lol! Yes, entropy is a force to be reckoned with. Probably why procrastination never causes as much trouble as it should! 🙂

    Niranjana – alas, Thompson’s book only covers the UK and the USA – and he does apologise for that. But his argument is that other markets work by a different logic – as indeed your own experience suggests – and that to go into proper detail on the differences would be too complicated (plus, I expect his travel expenses only went so far!). But it is very interesting to hear how the Indian market functions and I’d love to know what goes on in Asia too.

    Amateur Reader – the most recent data he has with regard to ebooks comes from the end of 2008 (bumping into that difficult problem of lead times for publishing in areas experiencing rapid change). But in all honesty I’m in the middle of that chapter, so he may yet say more on self-publishing. It is a very interesting book, though, and a real eye-opener. Incidentally, I’ve been trying to leave comments on your site but cannot, alas. I wanted to comment on your readings of Hugo and Gide – in both instances to cheer and agree!

    Teresa – wow what an intriguing bookshop. I’d love to hear how they get on over the next months and years. When I worked in Cambridge Waterstones there were lots of books we wouldn’t stock – Danielle Steele and Barbara Taylor Bradford, because the demographic was more into Joseph Heller and Milan Kundera. But that was almost 20 years ago and I think those bestselling ladies are on the shelves now. I’d love to know how much they sell, though.

    Caroline – I know! It seems barely time to get things going at all.

    nicole – how wonderful to have that kind of bookshop nearby. Although I do have Heffers, which is owned by Blackwells, a much smaller firm located in university cities with really lovely stock. I must say my mind boggled at the figures involved in this book. To think of losing millions of dollars/pounds on 70% of your books is… well, how can that be right? It is just gambling by another name.

    Dorothy – something for you and the Hobgoblin to consider nearer your retirement? 😉

    Jodie – oh boy, I’m sure you’re right, because someone must once have worked out the figures. Although I still think the business model is based on gambling, which cannot be a good thing in the long-term. I think it all depends on what happens with the supermarkets. That’s where all the bestsellers spring from these days, but the margins are punishing. If big publishers collapse because of them, and this is very likely, then suddenly the spotlight will fall again on smaller publishers, who won’t have got into this tangle with supermarket pricing. It will downsize the whole industry, but possibly good will come of it. Maybe. Perhaps.

    sarmizegtusah – now that’s also a good point. People are often smarter than big corporations think, and interested in a broader range of things, too.

  14. nicole’s magical bookstore is the Seminary Co-op, which was a crucial part of my own literary education. It is in some ways hard to believe that it exists, but it has an unusual audience.

    Dorothy – try to visit Chicago before the end of the year. The store is finally moving out of their enormous, maze-like basement book cave to what I assume will be a more conventional store, one without bats and protruding steam pipes (ow, my head!) and Grues and so on.

    litlove – how strange and disappointing about the comments. Blogspot has been tinkering with their code, and I’ll bet that caught your good work somehow. Please try again someday – I’m sure they’ll get it all fixed eventually. Thank you for the encouragement here, though.

  15. Oh totally agree. It’s such a huge gamble it’s almost scary, because what if you chase the big book and it flops? Do all the big publishers have enough money to absorb those big advances and bids without having to cut somewhere else.

  16. The big book trap. If I were an author and a publisher were trying to make my first book into a big book I’d run away screaming I think, terrfied I would never be able to publish again should the big book not turn out to be very big after all. I like your bookstore idea. Let me know when the grand opening is and I’ll fly over just so I can be there 🙂

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