Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Doomy Doom Doom of DOOM

There's a famous (or infamous) Australian poem, Said Hanrahan, by John O'Brien, which seems kind of... apt in discussions of the publishing industry. The entire text can be found here, but I'll quote the last two lines:
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan
"Before the year is out"


Sound familiar? A little Chicken-Little-ish? If it doesn't, you probably haven't been listening. For that matter, you probably haven't been listening for at least 100 years...

Some trivia - for his first novel, Charles Dickens ultimately received (pound symbol) 400 - which works out to about $240,000 in modern money, give or take. He was paid per installment, in 20 installments of (pounds) 20 each - which works out to about $12,000 a month over 20 months. For his first novel. By comparison, today a first author is doing very well to earn $5,000 total for a first novel. So clearly the cost of paying authors is not the reason why publishers are "rooned".

Some of the other Doomy Doom Doom of Doom cries include "people don't read any more". Sarah's dissected that one a few times, exposing it for the fowl clucking calumny it is. The equation there is pretty simple. When schools use reading to punish - or worse, to push 'worthy' views - schoolkids get fed a turgid pile of alleged message fiction which is worse than sappy Victorian message fiction. At least that had a happy ending. When editors insist of 'proper' messages, well... if the gatekeeper insists on something that isn't what the consumer wants, the gatekeeper gets it - but the consumer stops buying the product.

There's always the Doomy Doom Doom of Doom falling sky myth of "circumstances beyond our control". Let's see... what's outside publishing control when it comes to books? They can't do anything about the cost of paper. They can't control shipping prices outside a fairly narrow band. They can and do control what they pay authors, which of the umpteen gazillion submissions they buy (this is why they're gatekeepers), what they promote and the like. They can control whether a book gets into a bookstore and how many copies get there. They can control end cap displays (by buying them). And there it ends. They can't control whether or not Joe Browser actually decides to pay for the book.

Oh, yes. They can also control (and do) what data outsiders get to see. It's generally assumed that publicity costs are averaged across all books even though they're incurred by a handful of them - because that particular accounting bucket allows publishers to keep more authors effectively "in their debt" and therefore psychologically if not also financially dependent. When an author needs their publisher more than the publisher needs that author, the publisher holds a lot of power - and we all know about power and what happens when people have it.

Ebooks are the current Doomy Doom Doom of Doom du jour - that's been covered all over the place on this blog. Personally, I think the real reason for the Chicken Little act is the effective disintermediation. An author can sell directly to a reader, and leave out all those intermediaries taking their cut - no bookstore, no distributor, no publisher, no agent... Just the author, the website, and the reader. And the website can give the author accurate numbers of sales, broken down by zip code if the author really wants. The data is there - if you're selling off your own site, you can set up to have it. If you're selling through something like Amazon, you may or may not get all the details, but you can bet your boots the site has it.

The question is... are we following Chicken Little clucking about the falling sky, or are we the fox? Or is the sky really falling and we're all Doomy Doom Doom DOOMED! (Or rooned, said Hanrahan).

17 comments:

MataPam said...

Is it a problem or an opportunity?

I'm opting for opportunity. If the economy was strong, the publishers might have weathered this crisis. But the overall situation has breeched the breakwater and making sinking altogether more likely. Oh, the whole fleet won't go under, and a lot of survivors will get picked up by the publishers still afloat.

So, maybe it's only a two Doom, Doom. We'll see.

Kate Paulk said...

For those of us at the bottom end of the feeding chain, it's an opportunity.

Everyone else... depends on how fast they recognize their chances and if they can use them.

Chris McMahon said...

The relative amounts authors were paid historically always blows me away. Authors used to whinge about getting underpaid in 1970, and they were getting $5k for a new book - probably worth $50k in today's dollars.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris,

Yes! Authors have been getting progressively less and less - for less.

Another one that's interesting, but I haven't got time to check back on... Remember when books would say "Over a million copies sold!"?

It's a long time since I've seen that. Somehow "Over ten thousand copies sold" doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

Stephen Simmons said...

"Yay! We're doomed!"
"No, GIR. That's a BAD thing."
"Awww ..."

The way I see it, it's rainin' soup. I just haven't quite worked out what the right sorta bucket looks like yet ... but I'm leaning toward Amanda's model, which is why I'm sending things to NRP. Why do I say that?

Because humans are hard-wired at a VERY deep level in our hindbrains to NEED stories. Just as surely as a junkie needs smack. We have been ever since we came down out of the trees. In those earliest days, those stories passed on things like how-make-um-fire and how-find-um-not-poison-plants. As we gained knowledge and culture, we progressed to stories for leisure ... but the NEED remained.

And we still produce that handful of artist/entertainers in each generation, call them bards, storytellers, or what-have-you. Yes, the interface that connects the artists to their audience undergoes changes with each passing generation -- today's authors and playwrights don't have the luxury Shakespeare had of being able to edit and adjust the script every day, responding to the feedback he gleaned by observing the audience each night. (No laughs at this joke, re-word it. They fidget and chatter in this passage, add more ACTION ...), but he didn't have word-processing, thumb-drives, or email. It all comes out about even ...

I think the audience is still there, and I don't see it diminishing. It's just a matte of figuring out what the new interface looks like, as I said on Sarah's post yesterday. (But I'm not ready to quit my day job just yet ...)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I agree with Stephen. And right now, I'm running out with kettles, pots, my hat and a bucket. Something will hold this soup!

On the Doom, Doom, Doom. It's a changing of the guard. We just need to be sure to be on the winning side (historically my family sucks at this.)

On the pay for authors -- and has anyone noticed the sales decrease in tandem with the pay to authors. It's like this -- if you can afford to live from writing and live from one or two books a year, you're going to be a great craftsman and give it your all.

Mind you, freaks of nature like me might still do 2 to 4 books a year, but I'd have the ability to pay a housekeeper and perhaps get more takeout, which would result in less stress and better writing.

Dave Freer said...

Well, the publishers do control get into the bookstore... and between publisher and bookstore control re-order. And that pair alone is de-facto a strangle-hold.
I don't think paper books are going to die entirely, and I don't think bookstores or publishers will either. But losing that stranglehold is going to change the game, a lot.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, Dave, it might actually be a market that responds to demand... for a change.

I'm so tired of my fans reporting something like this "I went to the bookstore and they didn't carry your books. So I went up tot he counter and told them what they were missing. They told me they could special order it. I said, okay, and will they put some on the shelf. They said no, on the shelf they must only have the books their customers want. I told them I'm a customer and I want your books. They said, no, they need to have what their customers want. I said 'eff you' and ordered from Amazon." I've been privy to an exchange like this, on an author I like and it was my husband doing the talking. After that, we didn't bother with that bookstore. I don't know if they don't REALIZE or do but lie about "what the customer wants." What is actually going on the shelves is "What the publisher pushes." Maybe they think it's the same thing?

Kate Paulk said...

Stephen,

No arguments from me, there. I'm looking for ways to catch the soup myself, being entirely too cussed independent and not-PC to be "acceptable" to the establishment.

Mind you, there's a certain amount of perverse amusement watching the establishment flap and scream about how the End of the World is at hand.

Kate Paulk said...

Sarah,

Oh, yeah. "Gee, we're losing sales. It must be those authors. Let's cut their money and make them work harder."

Waaay back in the 1980s, I remember calculating that the (then) alleged standard advance of 10,000 was enough to live on for a year, if you were careful. And single.

Now? The poverty line would look really luxurious from there.

Kate Paulk said...

Dave,

Exactly. The thing with strangleholds is they tend to strangle things. Funny how Borders is taking its last few gasps, right along with the industry itself, isn't it?

Kate Paulk said...

Sarah,

Here's the thing. The REAL "customer" of the chain bookstores is not the person buying books. They're just a necessary inconvenience to keep stock moving. The actual "customer" is the publisher and/or distributor - the one who pays for all those fancy end-cap displays and sweet-talks the chain buyers into taking the books the publishers/distributors want them to take.

Now, we're all sensible, intelligent folk here (albeit Mad Geniuses as well) and we know that's got it totally bass-ackwards. But then these poor dears are only MBAs. You can't expect them to know anything about real life.

Oh dear. I think my sarcasmometer just broke.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah - the logic goes something like this. "We got very little stock of Fred's book, because the publisher wasn't prepared to pay our various forms of Bakshish, so we sold very few, and we never re-ordered. So the numbers are very low. Therefore, as the numbers are very low, readers don't like it, and we'll take less/no stock next time. This will make the numbers low, showing readers don't like it...

Mike said...

Just out of intrigue -- one of the increasingly evident "publications" in our local bookstore (which is a chunk of the local supermarket, and apparently does plenty of business) is a DVD and fairly thin magazine in a jacket. For example, they are publishing Bewitched right now, about 6 episodes a month, in this format. Cost? About 800 yen a month (say $6-8). I'm not saying that DVDs are replacing books, but I have been wondering whether something like the Baen CDs could be packaged this way and sold through the bookstore distribution channels. Of course, with the bookstore distribution channels falling apart, it may not be worth the effort. Still, it looks like yet another way to bridge the electronic/paper divide...

Kate Paulk said...

Dave,

That's exactly the sort of thing I meant when I said that publishers have become the "customers" of the big chain bookstores.

When they say "Customers don't want it" they mean "Publishers don't want it" - at least, they don't want it enough to pay the bookstores to sell lots of it.

Kate Paulk said...

Mike,

That's an interesting prospect - and a way to get ebooks into more marketplaces.

I'd love to see something along the lines of a "preview kiosk" - or several - in stores, where you load up a book you're interested in buying, and can read a few pages on-screen - say three chapters worth. Next door, you've got a variety of DVDs, media cards (SD cards, USB drives, whatever) labeled with the format they're in (Kindle-compatible, Nook-compatible etc), organized by title. And of course, with a bunch of "bonus books" - by a variety of different authors who write similar content or similar themes. Like... If you're headlining a Heinlein title, you include DarkShip Thieves by this unknown named Hoyt (runs and hides).

Mike said...

One way to do this would be to tie it into the ebook readers that they are selling. E.g., I could see a B&N having a set of Nooks set up as "sample readers" (hopefully I have the right store with the right reader) along with easy ways to then purchase your preferred ebooks on various media. That would help people (a) try out the readers and (b) see what they could be reading. Using their own readers as displays would give them a vested interest in it.

Or perhaps get the electronics shops to set up something along those lines -- I noticed that one of the consumer electronics shops here has recently converted a chunk of their store to games, DVDs, and other electronic media. Probably gives them a faster turnover type of merchandise, too.

I keep thinking that there are LOTS of ways for all this to play out, and that we haven't really seen all the possibilities. Heck, suppose Mister Donut (which provides free Wifi here) hung a server off that and put up free media, or even let you purchase stuff (pay at the counter, I'll take a donut, coffee, and an ebook?). Doom? Boom!