Monday, January 18, 2010

Hokay, so life begins to assume the vague semblance of normality -- we have arrived on our remote islandd after many misadventures, epics and general chaos. Of course our container is still sitting in Melbourne, and the Ferry has run aground (it was supposed to meet us, but the promises of movers are of a par with those of used car salesmen (and right now those don't rank too high)) but we can haz house and internet. So with the eee and a hairdresser's chair I am back in business(the ex-occupier was a hairdresser - ergo I am voluntarily in a hairdresser's chair. Just don't touch my hair.)

I must admit I hadn't realized just how important place and stability was to my writing. I do now. My admiration for travel journos who write cheerfully through having their tents blow away with the poles exploding is now very deep. But anyway, to fill in on Amanda's normal role - here is a Wall Street Journal article which I found myself in profound irritation if not entire disagreement with. It is true that most Publishers have abandoned the slush pile - which I came out of (thank you Baen Books). I still am not sure if this strategy will save them money at all, but it is a reality that we have to deal with. The other idea contained in the article I found myself laughing at -- that an author needed to deliver an audience to publisher if he wanted to be published. Hello? Why would they want a publisher if they HAVE a large audience? Or am I missing something. The obvious corollary is that... the larger audience you have the less you need publishers and the less profit you will be willing to let them make (rather like if publishers hand slush over to agents, it may save hassle... but not money, as agented work costs publishers and authors more, ergo authors want more from their agents (who in turn take more out of publishers), and if authors or agents become big enough, will cost publishers more.

Ah well... maybe I am missing something. But I do wonder if one of us is not seeing the wood for the trees. Or electronic publishing coming.


Amanda Green said...

Dave, first off, glad you're back to some semblance of normalcy. Like so many others, I've been following the monkey clan's move over on Flinders Freer. Of course, the mental image I now have is of you sitting in the hair dresser's chair, Barbs approaching with scissors and you trying to fight her off ;-p

As for the link, you have a stronger stomach than I do. Either that or your impulse to fling the eee across the room as you read it wasn't as great as mine was. For starters, there are so few publishers who have a slush pile now -- traditional publishers -- that it is almost a non-news item to write about it. But what really got to me was what you pointed out: that a writer needs to be able to deliver an audience in order to get published. I guess publishers really would love that, especially since they spend zilch on promotions unless you happen to be one of the lucky few authors they've anointed to be a best seller. Oooh, I'm grouchy this morning. Guess I'd better find my coffee.

Anonymous said...

I've wondered more than once how Baen justifies paying me. And I'm a brutal and fast weeder of slush, and work cheap. In five years I've recommended about forty books, and two have been purchased. Mind you, some are still languishing in Toni's inbox, but by and large Baen wouldn't have noticed my absence.

And that's the problem with the internet. We're all going to have to figure out how to lift ourselves above the slush pile so readers can find us.

And if we can figure that out, ereading is fast approaching the point where we won't need publishers at all.

Darwin said...

The market will decide what form of e-publishing will ultimately survive. The odds are strongly against traditional publishers making the jump. Baen's vision in terms of Webscriptions and non-DRM exploitation of the market leave it well in the lead in terms of making money from net-distributed prose.

I have my doubts as to whether or not professional fiction writers as a class will exist in 10 years beyond a hand full of over-publicized "names". All could well become "hobby fiction" or "fanfic" and all "revenue" will be ad based. I think that's the world clueless publishers are headed for.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Darwin. Those "names" have to come from somewhere, and that's where the rest of us will be.

It may be cyclical. Most current publishers fold, but new ones spring up from POD starts when there's a clear market for paper copies for some titles or writers that justifies the risk of large, less expensive per unit, print runs.

I have a vague memory of Eric Flint saying there were probably less than five hundred people actually supporting themselves and families on their writing. I don't think he was saying "in SF/F" but he might have been say "USA" not "world". But either way, most of us count as hobby writers, already.

Amanda Green said...

Darwin, I think you're being a bit too pessimistic here. I know there are a number of writers -- true, most of them are romance or romance genre related writers -- who are making more than enough to support themselves through e-publishing. They aren't names in that you won't find them on the NYT best sellers list. But they have found their niche market and it's a large one. It is what I see a lot of authors doing over then decade or so, perhaps not to quite that degree, but still....

The issue really is going to become one of what the standard in e-book formats will be and if/when DRM is finally killed. Until that happens, there won't be as much competition between the e-book resellers such as Amazon and B&N and Fictionwise as there can be. The next issue will be when, not if but when, the professional organizations finally start to recognize e-book publishers as "real" publishers. That's coming and I expect we'll see it happening before the end of DRM, especially considering the furor raised before the last RWA national convention about the lack of programming concerning e-publishing.

The ball truly is in the court of the traditional publishers. If they embrace e-books and quit trying to sacrifice them in some ill-conceived attempt to save hard cover sales, they have a chance of surviving. Do I expect them to do so? Not really. But then, all industries need to adapt, publishing included. What comes out of this latest upheaval will, hopefully, strengthen the industry not only for writers but for the reading public as well.

Darwin said...

Okay, so the majority of us, published or not, are "hobby writers". That's easily accepted given the current climate. I actually don't count as much of a writer at all since all I've done is shorts, so it's not like I have a horse in the race.

My take is that right now we're in a flux zone - chaotic movement of elements, if you want to think of it that way instead of a nice, orderly magnetic flux. The traditional publishers still seem to think they have hold of the throttle and, for good old fashioned money moving, they do.

Point being that things are changing. They're not going to hold the reins for long. It's simply far too easy to utilize the web, e-readers, and POD to bring something to print. Hell, publishers use POD technology to make believe that they had remainders when an author they've discarded suddenly gets a boost in popularity, after all.

It always comes down to the crap-to-signal ratio. Basically, if someone can get a following and building enough excitement on the web right now, they can succeed. Thing is, how? It's all about timing and luck and, quite probably, vicious biting-and-kicking-knockdown-drag-out self-promotion and chutzpah. Guess what a lot of reticent wannabe writers don't have? Yep. Self-confidence. Chutzpah. Whatever you want to call it.

In any case, nothing will happen for anyone if the person in question doesn't rise up themselves and do it. No one will pat you on the head and tell you what a good writer you are and actually mean it. No one will lift up your work. Hell, getting push from the people who pay the damned advances in standard publishing is damned near impossible for mid-listers. Why in the hell would anyone push an internet property?

Out of all this, though, new publisher, like Amanda said, will arise. They're the filters that cut down the crap and raise the signal. Thing is, as they become more important and well known, they'll take bigger and bigger chunks out of any possible revenue stream.

Right now, if someone succeeds online by word of mouth, they get the larger percentage. In the future? Who knows? Odds are, though, we'll end up right back where we are today, with the creators of the content getting a teeny little slice of any potential pie while a horde of unintended guests take the rest.

It's all a guessing game now.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that's where we are right now -- we have "names" on one end of the scale and "n00bs" on the other, and no solid mid-list in between. I think that's why publishing is in so much trouble right now -- they're betting the house on a handful of blockbusters without dependable mid-list to keep the cash flow coming in if one of those blockbusters tanks.

If anything, I believe e-publishing (e-publishing done right: that's the key) could be what it takes to help rebuild and recharge the mid-list. And if the publishers did things right, they could ride the wave all the way to the bank. However, one group I can see that would be hurt if publishers do embrace "e-publishing done right" (something along the lines of the Baen/Webscriptions model) are the big "chain" booksellers. If publishers are able to set up their own effective e-book divisions (like Baen/WS), what need would they have of a third-party like Barnes and Noble to sell their stuff for them?

So, where e-books are concerned, I could easily see the big "chain" stores getting shut out. However, considering their Stupid Inventory Tricks like "buying to the net" were what helped contribute to the collapse of the mid-list in the first place, I shan't shed any tears if they don't get a place at the table.

Amanda Green said...

Darwin, first of all, not only are you selling yourself short, but every other writer of short stories. A person is a writer if he writes, tries to better his craft and puts it out there for readers to find. Period. You may be a good writer or a bad one, but you are still a writer. It doesn't matter if you write short stories or novels or anything in between. However, if you think you need to do something more than shorts to be a writer, then do it.

And I'm not sure traditional publishers believe they still have control. I think the actions we're seeing out of them recently show a panicked belief that they aren't. Or at least that they are quickly losing the control they've held for so long. Their decision to delay e-book releases in an attempt to prop up hard cover sales coupled with pricing of e-books at near cover price levels shows they either don't understand the market or are turning a blind eye to it. Harlequin's decision to go into vanity publishing and then their utter disbelief when organizations like RWA, MWA and SFWA take stands against them point to a corporate disconnect that is almost impossible to understand. Worse, they have CSRs talking to potential customers who call and ask about e-book delays who are telling those customers to basically piss off if they don't like the delay. And why are they taking this stance? Because they are scared to death of the new trends in the market and the loss of control they see with the rise in popularity of e-books.

As for how you build a following in the electronic world, you work at it. You see what worked for some and not for others. You decide if you are going to follow the DRM method or not. And you decide if you're going to self-publish or go with a credible e-book publisher. That's just for starters.

It won't be easy. But, honestly, I have a feeling it's easier to build a following online if you work at it now than it is to build a following of hard copy readers, especially for a new or mid-list author. Publishing houses aren't spending PR dollars like they used to. When you try to get an agent, one of the stock questions now is "what will you do to promote your book?". It is the way of life for writers these days, whether we want to admit it or not.

My biggest concern is how to separate the good from the bad. The one bad thing that comes from the ease of self-publishing online is that anyone can do it and copy editing and proofing is often sadly lacking. Of course, I've seen the same thing in dead tree books as well. This is one of the reasons I think we'll see the strengthening of legitimate e-book publishers. At least I hope so.

Okay, time to step off my soapbox and get back to work.

Darwin said...

Amanda, it's not whether they actually have control or not, it's whether in their delusions of relevance they believe they have control.

The whole thing is crashing down. It's only a matter of time before something new arises from the ashes.

And I never said that short story writers aren't writers. I said that as a person who only has shorts in his trunk, I don't have a horse in the publishing race. Short stories, regardless of craft or merit, are not market significant. They're "every once in a while" pizza money or advertising. They're not a living.

It always feels good to sell one, but I would never in my wildest dementia plan my mortgage payments on short stories.

Kate said...

Ookay. Either I fried something from too much testing (I'm on break - another hour before I can escape), or Darwin and Amanda, you're agreeing on the fundamentals but you're talking past each other.

What I'm getting from Dar is that short stories aren't something anyone can live on, and publishers are trying to keep the illusion of control. Oh, yeah, and betting on the end result of the current situation is a mug's game.

What I'm getting from Amanda is basically the same thing, with a more optimistic view of what online access can potentially do.

For what it's worth, when I'm not buried and my eyes aren't crossing while I try to sort through the comments, I think a good story if available and given reasonably decent publicity will still sell.

I don't think the "screw the author" model is ever going to be truly viable again no matter how epubs emerge. Why? Because AUTHORS can set up their own epublishers. If, for instance, PTerry got together with Heinlein (yeah, he's dead, but that doesn't stop people these days) to found an ebook press, their fans would certainly be ready to trust their judgment on what made a good story.

Plus, short stories just might come back from the dead as publicity material if not necessarily paying propositions. People will download free stuff and try it - you lure them in with those, build the following that way, and you'll have people willing to hand over the $$$ to buy your book. It's a slow build market approach, but it can work.

Incoherent ramble over, for now.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think short stories have a huge potential emarket in downloads to any small device that can be read by a (non-driving!) commuter. All those strap hangers need something to look at after all.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Correct. Also, this form of distribution gets around one of the downsides of the magazines. "Why should I pay $7 for the only story I like in the magazine?" It simply didn't use to be feasible to print only one story. Couldn't be. But all of a sudden, a short story for $1 or even $1.50 is perfectly viable. And in the end if you're going to commute -- or go the dentist, or... -- you can easily buy seven stories you like, instead of a magazine picked by someone else. I know Kate and I have been getting nice -- if not amazing, royalties from our stories that are available for individual download (though they came out as part of an anthology)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Absolutely correct on "if I had a large audience, why would I let you take 90% of the money to publish me?" Right now, this is still sort of viable. You can monetize the audience by getting an advance, instead of waiting for the trickle-in; also paper-publishing will still get you a larger audience than what you reached on your own.

OTOH -- the scales are tipping -- when most publishing is electronic, publishers lose their edge. And if they've become known as a perstige thing for people with an audience... well... they lose. Certainly, they can't command what they do.

This is one of the reasons they're losing to small presses. I can go to a small press, with my audience, and dictate terms.

Interestingly, to throw into the mix a data point that might mean nothing: I've had one book published small press. For various reasons, I couldn't publicize/promote. It has sold as much as many of my first-in-series books, and more than some others. Small press. No bookstore placement. Unknown name. You do the math.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


A point of order from someone who's been there and might yet -- if not lucky -- be there again: if it's a hobby for you, it will ALWAYS be a hobby.

Yes, the vast majority of writers are "hobbyists." Yes, sometimes, once in 200 years or so the benevolent fairies of publishing swoop down and take someone from hobby to "professional" (the only one I can think of is Jorge Luis Borges, and only from what I know. The true story might be different.) But the vast majority of writers either are hobbyists by choice, or lack some quality to become professionals -- not necessarily artistic: drive, resiliency, capacity to work a lot for no remuneration in beginning, etc. -- or simply lack ambition. (Three short stories and they're "pros" so they can call themselves pros and not have to deal with possible failure at larger goals.)

The pathway to publication will doubtlessly change. Technology has guaranteed that. But in ALL the arts, you do have to do what all those (bad) investment clubs of the eighties advised "Fake it till you make it." If you work at it like a job, there's no guarantee you'll succeed. But if you treat it like a hobby, I can guarantee it will always be that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Da Monkey

Please email me. Please?

Chris McMahon said...

It is frightening to think of how few writers actually manage to support themselves through writing.

To a certain extent its all academic - it doesn't stop us!

Ori Pomerantz said...

It looks like publishers tried to improve their profits by transferring a lot of the value they used to provide to other parts of the value chain. Basically, outsourcing parts of their business. I suspect they forgot that you can outsource yourself into irrelevancy.

Part of the problem is that managers tend to take a short term view of things. They care how the company will do next quarter. They don't care how it will do ten years from now, when they're probably working for somebody else. Maybe some of their compensation needs to be tied to long term profits to change this.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda it did irritate me considerably - because it struck me as wanting to have their cake and eat it, which never works. The deal was we wrote, they sold. Which makes sense as it was each to his strength.

Dave Freer said...

matapam slush wading is murder - but the question I have always wanted to ask is: "Is handing access to publishing over to agents (outsourcing to a second party whose best interests are served by getting the better of you in any author/publisher deal) really a clever move?" Effectively Baen have outsourced to you-but your interests run parallel to theirs.

And as you point out - publishing will have to either ride the tiger or be eaten by it.

Dave Freer said...

Well, Dar, I'd agree we're in a time of changes. But I suspect that some effective financial way of the supporting creators -- which WAS the purpose of copyright (not any of the other abuses it has been put to. Copyright does not exist to keep retailers, distributors or even publishers functioning.) has to take shape - as full time creators simply have more time to devote to this slow learning and developing process. If you want quality and lots of it, you need full-timers (just as part time hobbyist engineers would not be as effective at volume or quality as full-timers.

Dave Freer said...

matapam - you're right -- we need new seedstock and it has to develop and learn. That WAS the purpose of short fiction - and why I hope e-readers make that come back to life (Short fiction Magazines - even the 'big ones' now have circulation under many medium midlisters.

As to numbers - if I am right roughly 1 person per 500 000 -1 000 000 makes some kind of living out or major contribution to a living out of full time sf/fantasy writing - setting the bar for living or major contribution quite low. It's a very hard line to choose. Yet it is possible.

Dave Freer said...

Bob you are so right - one of the points I have been making for years is that as publishers work to capacity - and the capacity cannot all be filled with bestsellers - the costs are equally split so actually the midlisters and noobs subsidise bestsellers (who incur considerable financing costs carried by the company and split among the capacity)- which is not the way it is usually portrayed. Try the maths sometime with fixed costs and capacity - 'bestsellers' only can actually run a company at a loss if the capacity is not filled. The issue of course is that you need noobs and midlisters, but there are a large supply of volunteers for both slots, You do need as many bestsellers as you can get - but they are rare -- hence publishers take resources from ' abundant' to use on rare.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I reckon shorts may well come back to life -as matapam suggests, and anyway, I like writing them and they're good training - and may your brain unfry. ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, agreed. It makes no sense, if an author is as good at self-publicising as say Cory Doctrow is, that they'll accept less than the lion's share of profits. So it becomes a case of if you're moderately good at it it's still worth it. And it's a case of a break point -- as you gather a larger audience, they become less valuable and have to spend more and more to remain valuable at all. Interesting where it'll go.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - if we fail to believe we will be the ones, fail to try, we sure as hell won't support ourselves like that. BTW - I sent you a skype message have a look will you.

Dave Freer said...

Ori - exactly. Outsource oneself to irrelevancy. I am afraid this a real consequence of short term management -as you say. It looks good... today.