Monday, June 7, 2010

The best and worst of times.

The best of times, the worst of times...

There have been some fairly gloomy posts lately which may lead some of you to conclude we're a sour, miserable bunch of old bastiches.


There are times when that is true for everyone, and real life intrudes onto the lives of authors too, believe it or not.

There is no getting away from it... we're in turbulent times. There is also no getting away from the fact that it's been steadily getting tougher and less likely that a book will win through just by being a great book that appeals to a lot of readers. The intermediates have gradually done away with pure reader selection, they've gobbled up the margins meaning book buyers pay more, and writers actually get even less. It's been getting harder and harder to get in and then harder to make a living as the bestseller budget gobbled most of the cash (which was very nice if you happened to chosen to be a ‘bestseller' and be pushed but sucked if you were the rest of us... And it didn't do the market any good either.)

On the other hand, this may be the best of times to arrive on the scene. Turbulence is a sign and time of changes. The last 10 years were the worst of times to get into writing... but that's pushed the equation toward where change simply has to happen (it will be argued by the various Uncle Tom's of the status quo, that more more books are being sold now, than hitherto. This gentlefolk is what is meant by lies, damned lies and statistics... 1) it has become easier to do very small press. You can even do it yourself. If you discount titles selling under 1000 copies you will I think discover that the drop in the number of titles is steady. If you discount titles selling under 40K - as the one time noob fiction genre paperback starting point... you will find that actually the drop has been precipitous. 2)It is convenient to these folk not to separate fiction out. Wonder why? 3)The only accurate way of assessing the health of the fiction industry would be proportionate. If in 1930 50% of the English speaking population could read and 50% possibly afford a book and the uptake was 25%... and 2010 90% of the now very very much larger English speaking population could read, 90% possibly afford a book and the uptake was 10%... Your final number of book sales might be larger.... but you have lost a vast amount of ground. And we have.)

So things are at a point where they have to start breaking. Yep, publishing as we know it will still be around maybe even for another ten years. Some companies much longer... but the world of books will be a very different place (for the better, we hope).

And then we added the internet and e-books (the two go hand-in-hand). Which wasn't just the last straw... it was enough to be a paradyme change on its own. As Kate wrote, the internet was alone enough to start the death of intermediates - with Amazon (and others) helping to speed/cause the collapse of the over 500 distributors (I think we're down to 4 ) which exacerbated the problems above and made life very hard for smaller publishers, and indies and sheltered big publishers and big box bookstores so they didn't have to start adapting. The other big effect is to reduce the value of ‘retail access' which, from a very long list that publishers in 1920 offered authors was one of the few things not eroded by technology and outsourcing. And then to this you added the e-book.

Now, in the realm of hard to pin-down figures... this one is very elusive. Charlie Stross on a list I belong to said that figure is supposed to be under 2% - although doubling every year. Another spot talked about 10%. And Sony reckons it'll be 50% in five years. Believe who ever you choose - the undenyable fact is the change is coming rapidly, and will have some substantial effect on....

Not the hardbacks they're trying to price them as...

But paperbacks.

Despite the price differential, hardbacks were really a bit of vanity once. Because cheap paperbacks outsold them a myriad times. Paperbacks and poplarity go together.

So where does this leave us? Remember I said this was the best and worst of times. It leaves us with a fighting chance to adapt and get with the new paradyme pretty quickly and cleverly. Which, may not seem such a bargain - no certainty, no safety. But hell, the way the status quo was going, it was getting harder and harder for new talent to emerge, and harder and harder for anyone but the chosen few to survive. The historical meritocracy of writing still existed but it was definitely getting tougher for the few to make their way up. It happened, though rarely without intervention. That was bad for everyone... except the people running the status quo and the chosen few. Now, for a while anyway, there is a chance in the shake-out to get a foothold. Carpe diem ( A carp a day, nothing like it).

There will be a bunch of new start-ups. There are going to a bunch of failures. Some of the major stakeholders now are like that chappie from penny-go-in are going to desperately fight the tide. Others, like Baen and Amazon will try and run in front of it and shape it and work with it. Some publishers will survive and thrive. Lots won't. The model is changing and we need to make sure it changes in a good way readers and writers and so that middlemen go back to serving both as as the best way to to well (instead of screwing both for their short term benefit).

This is a good time to be here. Some time back Charlie Stross was once again holding forth about what you needed to do to promote your books on the subject of blogging -- and someone asked the question - if bOing bOing started up today, in the sea of blogs... would it have succeeded? Maybe. But it would have been a lot harder work.

So: What do you see coming? And how do we best ride out the turbulence?

I see all sort of exciting new things. Changes in length is a biggy for me. How long will e-books be? And would you advance buy a series? (Not advance pay, but book a copy)


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I have no idea what is going tohappen.

But I'm watching e-books with interest. I just signed a contract with my print publisher for e-books.

What I'm looking for is an e-book reader which will double as something I can write on. It should be around the size of a hard cover, slim and light. It needs a big screen, with the facility to take photos and watch movies.

It is almost the iPad.

I want to be able to call up any number of books to read on the train and I want to be able to write my own books in the spare moments I have. A lap top is too big to use in a crowded train. Some people do, but it is too cramped.

Anonymous said...

How to ride out the turbulence? Try everything, so you have a toehold in whatever ends up working'

You who are traditionally published need to hang on to that, which presents a problem.

Being barely published, I have more freedom to act outrageously because I'm not dependent on the potential income my manuscripts represent. You guys are risking the future income you expect and depend on.

So do you concentrate on a writer's co-op that tries to guarantee the readers good stories? Or Kindle? Or a POD/self publisher like You've got to have a heck of a lot of unsold material or recovered backlist to do it all.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I was listening to a industry panel a few months ago, where they were saying that as novelists, we must be prepared to work as writers i.e. we can make a living but might need to do other less glamorous work to make ends meet.

Well maybe we need to be a little flexible in the 'new age'. We might need to not only write novels, and short and novellas -- but microshorts and flash that get read on mobiles, write the micro-script for a ebook comic that get read in 2min on a palm reader. Maybe we need to broaden the way the work, to expand ourselves as the niches expand.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - if we KNEW what was going to happen life would be easier to plan. I do think Publishers are going to be very very 'grabby'in the next while about e-rights and you need to watch (or make your agent watch) reversion time and terms.

I believe e-readers are agoing to go through a period of diversification, and I suspect there'll be one for you to love. I also think price will come down further.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - exactly. And try as many avenes as you can. Some will catch.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, I'm sorry but that is pure BS, except at the entry level, briefly.
Try this - "well what about you doing part time publishing/distro/retail and getting a second job to support you in that?" And watch the fish-mouths with various "CAAAAAANNNNN'Ts do THAT!" In any system, be it engineering or whatever... the higher the level of ability required the more your have to protect that level... except in publishing. Entering retail, distribution and indeed all the aspects of publishing take no more qualification and skill than being a wannabe writer. The published writer has however done something which is actually beyond the skill level of all the rest of the chain. ie. He could do their job, and they can't do his (enough editors have thought they could... It's got a long history of failures) So if anyone needs to be a part-timer getting in help off the street - it is NOT the most skilled person on the chain.
If that is situation - then the system is broken. You are never going to get the best results by doing it that way.

But I do agree Novellas may be a coming thing, and flexibility may be the right way to go. I believe in it.

Synova said...

I think...

Being an author is glamorous.

Writing isn't.


Synova said...

It seems like older novels were often published with line drawings and other illustrations and that went out of style, probably because they were expensive. For a while technology probably made it even harder to stick illustrations in the text but we're way past that now. Dynamic text wrapping and the ability to store and transfer images might make illustrations an excellent value-added element of new publishing.

Kate said...

It certainly is interesting times. Which, as Dickens observed, usually manage to bring out the best and the worst.

I think ultimately what will settle out will be mostly ebooks replacing paperbacks and textbooks, with hardbacks and coffee-table style books remaining as "prestige" editions.

On the plus side, I suspect that someone will fill the 'default supplier' role for ebooks - right now it's looking like Amazon, but who knows? Possibly that will shift when some kind of format standardization and non-DRM standards fall out (for the older folks, ebooks are still in VHS vs Betamax. For the younger, it's the high-def/high-density DVD wars).

On the minus, we don't know yet if the default is going to be mostly open or mostly closed (if anyone is interested, there is some nasty licensing attached to any kind of video format derived from MPEG4 - as I understand it, every single video on youtube is considered "commercial" because there are ads, therefore everyone with anything on youtube is in violation of the license. The group who owns the format has very kindly agreed not to enforce the license - for now). Obviously mostly open is better - it allows more people to develop readers and ways to read the things.

For us, the best thing we can do is keep writing and keep trying to get our writing into as many people's hands as possible, irrespective of format or method. Ebooks, shorts, flash, whatever.

Dave Freer said...

Heh, Synova, I think we think it is glam...

Seriously as a book lover I can think of few professions I aspire to and respect more... and most writers love books (well a lot do - although I keep meeting idjits who say they want to be authors, but don't ever read. So they 'write' like their favorite movies.)

Amanda Green said...

Unlike some of the doomsayers, I don't think paperbacks will die as quickly as some are predicting. Why? Simply because there are still folks who don't buy hardcovers for various reasons -- cost, storage, weight of the book, etc. -- and who also don't buy e-books. Let's face it, publishers want to preserve hardcovers because the profit margin on them is, supposedly, greater than for paperbacks. But that doesn't mean the public will agree with that as the "default" in years to come.

As for length of e-books, who knows? Right now, it depends on which e-publisher you submit to. Some look for 60k words. Others still go along with the standard hard copy guidelines of 100k - 120k. I think that is more to allow their authors to try to sell the print rights to a traditional publisher or to garner more print-on-demand orders.

All I know is that, as a reader, I look at the length of an e-book before purchasing. Even though I know approximately how many kbs a standard length novel is, most folks don't. I appreciate it when the e-publisher tells me how any pages the e-books is as well as how much space it will take up on my Kindle. Also, I'm more likely to pay the higher prices for a longer e-book (although my tipping point is still $9.99 and it had better be a book I've really been looking for or I won't pay that much)than I am for a novella.

Oh well, we have interesting times ahead of us.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - you're right. I loved those. And there is no reason - except cost - not to do it again.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, you are 100% right on that. If you HAVE an audience, you command. You are the brand, not your publisher, or retailer. Sooner or later they're going to figure that and try and take long term rights on that brand. I'm agreeable... for a reasonable sum.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, I agree that it's more of a shift in proportions than 'destroy'. I firmly believe also that POD will get cheaper and more widespread.

My take on a novella - I'd be happy to sell it a lot cheaper. Novellas in pre-established unverses in particular take nothing like the time and effort of novels. And I think with declining attention spans and book bloat they could be good things. Long enough to get into, short enough to finish quickly.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, exactly my thoughts on the novella. I'm seeing more and more of them appearing as short term promotional offers from authors before a new book in an established universe comes out and then sold as part of a package for the new book later on. In my opinion, that's a great way to keep interest going in your universe by spanning the gap between book releases. I wish more authors did it -- no, let me rephrase that. I wish more publishers recognized the value of such novellas at a reasonable price.

Brendan said...

One thing I would urge all authors to do regardless of the size or shape of the material they are producing is, is to have a DONATE NOW button on their web page.

Who can tell how a person will find your work or what they have paid for it(if anything), but if they like you and your work enough chances are they may click on the link and send a little your way just from the gratitude of what you give them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I meant to answer this yesterday, but I was high as a kite on fever and didn't think you needed an answer that read "Green Jello vulcano penguins." So...

As most of you know by now (G) I read Future Shock at an impersonable age. Might have been first serious non fiction I read. So it informed my way of seeing the world. I still see no reason to doubt him.

I am by instinct a "wave rider" I try to run in front and shape it, even though it's much bigger than me. In this case I'm reminding myself that yes, traditional publishing is still viable (And Baen very viable, though I'd appreciate it if they concentrated a little more on electronic distribution -- I'm so tired of getting emails telling me that DST doesn't have an electronic form. Yes, I know, but not everyone knows to look in the baen site. Yes, I DO know I need to put a link from MY site.)and that most of it will probably survive in some form.

However, my view is like Pam's, and I'm going to try all forms -- electronic, via company publication, electronic on my own (more on that later), and hopefully (well for now, at least for another year according to contracts) traditional as well.

Right now I'm doing via company what has been rejected everywhere/there's no market for. On my own I'm considering doing short stories. Well, think about it -- short stories, electronic, sell for about 99c. A novel sells for $5. I CAN write a short story a weekend. Used to, when we had a group. That's where most of my published shorts came from. I'm thinking of putting them up on Amazon for 99c a story or "subscribe and save" $20 per year. New ones, I mean, though there might be two or three old ones in the mix. Then at end of year "publish" an ominibus for the year for $5.99

And of course, I intend to continue my series. Plus I just sent my agent what -- if I've not gone insane -- is not only the best thing I've ever written, but the best thing I've ever written by magnitudes. And I have at least two series, and almost for sure an historical non-series that will be going on.

So... In my mom's parlance when referring to my habits: I'm setting off the fireworks, running to catch the spent canes AND standing with the public to applaud.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


When I was looking for an agent seven? years ago I got three offers. One of them was the incomparable Lucienne, whom I took. The other one was a beginning agent (no, not yours) whom I loved on a personal level having met her before, but... beginner. The other one was a top-of-the-pyramid agent, one of those people who can command massive advances. HOWEVER he also keeps a stable of "worthy" authors. It immediately became clear that's where he saw me. He told me he saw me writing a book every two years or so. I should go back to teaching at college for the regular money.
That is when he became a firm "no". IF I wanted to teach at a college, I'd not be writing. I want to write, and I want to make at least what I did as an adjunct lecturer (so far so good. It was a community college.) The thing is while teaching I don't write. And if I do, it's far from my best work. I think "dilletant" writers do not produce their best.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

THREE series, not two. (Athena descending on the diner is enough to make my blood run cold.) Clearly I haven't had enough coffee yet.

And btw, this SHOULDN'T be intended to diss anyone who has a day job. I've had one at various times, Dan has one, Lucienne -- thank heavens! -- has one.

We're not all J.K. Rowling who got a grant.

BUT this shouldn't under any circumstances be the "normal" or expected. We should live in expectation of living from writing.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer: Chris, I'm sorry but that is pure BS, except at the entry level, briefly.

Try this - "well what about you doing part time publishing/distro/retail and getting a second job to support you in that?" And watch the fish-mouths with various "CAAAAAANNNNN'Ts do THAT!".

Ori: Except that, ahem, you do have a second job. You live in a rural area, where the cost of living is low, and in return you do a lot of the work that urbanites outsource.

Is there any real difference between spending a day fishing, and spending that day doing some other job, taking that money to Wal*Mart, and buying fish?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


The problem is not so much that we HAVE to do something else as that they want us to expect it and not demand more. That's where the system is ill onto death.

Trust me, even when it's "death through overworking" even when all the work is writing -- I came close to this two years ago, and there's books I'm afraid of opening. The fact that I was homeschooling the boy was a contributing factor, but no man or beast should be required to write over six (researched, original) books a year. -- you don't get your best product. You just don't. I don't know if the fact that I think DST and this book I just finished are the best I've ever written has to do with the fact I dramatically slowed down these last two years.
No, it's not that a "slow written book is better." I still write fast. Have to or I never do anything. It's more that a writer who can concentrate on the book writes better. And at least for me concentrating on the book includes LONG intervals of solitude, while I "dream the book" or walk around thinking about it.

Synova said...

I'd view fishing time as writing time because the mind is free. (I should probably try to figure out how to make doing dishes into writing time).

There are second jobs and then there are second jobs.

Although, from my observation from the outside in, many of the authors who seem to be "making it" appear to be fairly aggressive about pursuing all the little writing things that might make a few dollars here or there. There have been a notice or two online for the local life-style newspaper for contributors. I tried to talk myself into the child-rearing column but I'm too worried someone would take my advice and it would turn out to be bad advice, and I'd be more willing to try for for the other if I already had a second job and the financial freedom to spend several hours at an event, write a couple paragraphs and get back enough money for gas... probably... I haven't actually checked the pay. I'm just assuming it sucks.

Anonymous said...

A long the lines of things we've considered. Looks like someone else will test the waters first.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah, you're right. That comment wouldn't have thrown me off if it came from you, Eric Flint, or Tom Kratman. Dave Freer is a special case, precisely because he's doing it.

It's stupid of the industry to treat authors, the brand names that actually brings in the money, as commodities. But arguably it's also senseless of new authors to get into the field at this point unless they have something going for them. If Dave Freer has a hard time, then somebody with my limited talent and four young kids should concentrate on more doable goals.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Or maybe it's all about to get better. We are on the cusp of something.

And, by the way, most of my heavier-writing years were when the kids were little. If you intend to ever do this for a living do NOT -- I repeat -- wait till they're teens. You only THINK it will get easier.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I gave up on the idea of writing fiction for a living, at least until the kids can pay their own expenses. For now, I work very hard on ensuring the technical training documents I write are nonfiction.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Kevin J. Anderson was a tech writer, before being a professional novelist. I was sitting next to him at a signing line when someone brought him one of his old manuals to sign. (G) The look on his face was priceless.