You know with your average avalanche, just before it happens, nothing much seems to be amiss. Maybe a little slip here or there, but generally those tens or hundreds of thousands of tons of snow or rock or mud that will move in a chaos of destruction look as mobile as the mountains themselves (yes I know, they move. All things are relative, including my relations).
There are, of course, signs that it is possible, and others that it is probable and immenent. People make judgement calls on these little signs... sometimes they get wrong and nothing happens, and sometimes they get it wrong and lives and property are destroyed forever.
And in the world of publishing, I am seeing little landslips, hints of a possible chaos under that appearance of stability with the advent of e-books. Of course some of them we've been seeing for years, and some of them we've been calling for years. There has been a fair amount of mockery from the senior figures in publishing and their well-established authors (one of whom I found was actually mocking in public and readying his backlist in private). Still... there have been a few temblors which say to me the face of the publishing mountainside is about to change fast. I have a feeling a few vast edifices will survive, but I think the medium-small - authors, publishers, booksellers, agents - who stay on the slope will be swept away. Of course the prime culprits who have made the slope so unstable with their activities are the megaliths who will -- at least some of them, in some form -- survive -- but that's the way of things. The best we can do is to behave wisely ourselves.
So: what are these temblors?:
Well, the Bookscan data which Amazon made available to all authors is one such. This may of course be pure generosity from Amazon, and kind support to authors to refine their efforts at self-promotion. Or it could be a serious shot across the bows of publishing. I don't, honestly, think there is an author alive who does not at least HOPE is publisher has been cooking the books - and that they are selling a lot better than the publisher claims. Many are quietly certain they've been screwed, but too afraid of losing the work they do have to say a public word. If I've heard one story about authors signing (or getting fan letters from), more readers than they have apparently sold copies to... I've heard twenty. Maybe all of them are wrong. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Self deception. In which case Amazon will have done us all a vast favor, which, logic then states, publishers ought to have done years ago. Otherwise the department of creative sales accounting - shifting sales from one book into another, to justify the advance / promotional spend has just been changed into the department of re-alignment and great care... Anyway, whether this paranoia turns out justified or not (and I suspect a few true and some false, and some just plain sloppy accounting involved) the Bookscan data exposes one thing: It has always been that Publishers control access to retail space and without them, we authors are helpless. That - and the physical cost of the product and distributing it, justifies the fact that publishing, distribution and retail get 92% of a midlist paperback's cover price and the author 8%. What I am seeing is just what I get for that. Sales of DRAGON'S RING in Florida (to pick on one example)... zero, zero, zero week after week. The book is selling elsewhere - although there is no direct relationship with population or any other factor that I can discern. Some lower population areas are outselling New York... where I see what is hard to interpret as anything but, ‘stocked very few, mostly sold out and not restocked'. Florida - to pick on Florida again - is a market of 18 million -- just a little smaller than Australia (where I personally know I've sold at least eleven copies -without it being in a single shop). Let's run some wild guesses here. Assuming that 5000 copies is more-or-less what one might expect to sell (I'm being conservative here, my worst figures have run at well more than that- but for a noob that's quite good, these days) -- and as my distribution is widely distributed (I don't just sell in NY, or the Deep South or to Hawaii) then, at about 1 copy for every 60 000 people (A bit ridiculous, but that's what the publishers would rate a newbies appeal at, it appears), Florida should reflect around 300 sales... not zero. Even leaving out the non-restocking problem in NY... it's pretty obvious that the distribution to retail (handled by one of the US's largest publishers and their distributors) is shall we say, underwhelming.
I can turn around and say that even if those figures reflects my real popularity, then I'm losing at least 30% to non-distribution and more to non-restocking. A lot of authors are going to be looking at their figures and getting quite angry, I think. Historically, they would have had Hobson's choice. Now... I think a lot are going to be saying ‘just what do we lose not having a publisher and just going straight to e-book sales online?' Of course one does lose(sometimes with editing and proofing and even marketing), but it is not, as was historically thought, everything. Actually, you might do better in Florida. You could hardly do worse. And you won't be getting 8%, but as much as 70%. So I think we can say authors are unstable ground.
Secondly: signs of it are everywhere: retail is taking a pounding. In recessionary conditions cheap entertainment flourishes... except it is NOT for bookstores. We could talk about why, but the point is, they aren't. Borders we know about, and that has knock ons throughout the industry. They must owe many medium-small publishers a fortune, which they in turn owe their suppliers. One has to wonder if they can survive that level of non/late payment. And that's just one large group. Many independents and even the Gargantuas are not booming. What publishing has a stranglehold on is access to this retail space. It's a stranglehold on a shrinking resource. So I think we can say brick-and-mortar are unstable ground too.
Finally there is the sudden desire by publishing houses who have sneered for 10 years at the Baen business model -- which was to create a brand identity for the publisher -- to abruptly start to imitate Baen. Historically publishers ‘farmed' the marque of the author, and no reader had any idea who the publisher was. As the author -at least at the bottom and midlist - had little or no choice but to be loyal to their master, there was no need for the expense and effort of a company run chat-forum (like Baen's Bar) and as for e-book sales to the public (shudder) who did they think they were? Suddenly, the publishers are attempting to do Baen's Bars -- because in the electronic marketplace readers search by author name, not publisher. Expect direct e-book sales next. More little landslips...
Three months ago, when I had once again been paid (late) by check, and not as agreed by electronic transfer - meaning a further 6 week delay, I spoke to Eric Flint - my co-author - about other ways of raising money, such as Kindle books. He was, as always, supportive and said why didn't I give it a try? Suggested I talk to Mike Resnick about his experience. Now, Eric is far more successful than I am, and a canny fellow. He is also far more involved in the regular machinery and politics of publishing than I am. Back then (quite recently really) he was not really thinking about doing it himself. Three days ago he contacted me and suggested we put our joint shorts into a collection, and he's doing his own too. Now this joint collection includes the RATS BATS & VATS prequel - A 30K Novella GENIE OUT OF THE VAT and a Novelette set the sequel to that universe CRAWLSPACE. RATS BATS & VATS sold fairly well and has a sold fan base. The prequel just hasn't been available to most people, as it came out in a rather obscure collection. CRAWLSPACE - in JBU 6 - even less so. So I think they have a market. I expected to try to expand them and sell them as books, and Eric and I had talked about it (and it could still happen). But it shows changing perceptions.
So I think things are heading for interesting times soon. I'm thinking of myself and my writing career. These are my list of what I think of as precautionary: 1)I am not signing any long term deals. 2)I am readying e-copies of all my work. 3) Any new contracts will be as much as possible upfront -because that is good practice anyway, but also that's good in uncertain times. 4) I am trying to build my own web presence up. 5) I want to get my website selling - or at least linking to selling my own work.
Any more ideas? Or am I being chicken little?