Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pour L'Amour Ou Le Sport

As artists, we tend to look suspiciously at profit. In fact, most of the complaints about the current state of publishing hinge on the “bean counters” and what they’re doing to our lofty, artistic field.

This complaint is not necessarily wrong, though perhaps a better quibble would be that bean counters are counting the wrong beans. But never mind that.

The truth is that, when it comes to publishing, the lack of money – or at least the lack of the expectation for any money – is often the root of all evil.

I’ve been doing a series on the coming of ebooks on my blog. The post yesterday set up why ebooks are coming – why they’re getting a foothold in the field at all. (Ebooks have been around for decades. They’ve been a small part of the field. The will much less the financing for developing ebook readers couldn’t be mustered for a long time. Perhaps it’s worth looking into why it has been mustered now. And why ebooks are suddenly a force to reckon with.)

Part of the issue is that since I’ve been published in this field, I’ve been hearing that there is no money in publishing; that if you want to make money you should get a day job; that even editors and publishers don’t make much (and this last seems to be true.)

This mind-set is the root of much trouble: first, the expectation that there is no money in this brings in a certain type of aspiring writer. Now, I’m not going to say writers write better when they do it for money, but wishing to please the readers makes writers strive to be better and more intelligible. It also gets us out of our comfort zone which, us being artists, is rooted in many impulses and personality traits so personal as to be unintelligible to anyone else.

At least my experience is that if I’m working for someone else to read I produce prose I myself enjoy more, say, a year later. Writing for myself seems like a waste of time. I can just think the story.

Beyond all that, it makes writers think of themselves not as professionals but as supplicants – as people with a need, for which they must go – on bended knee – before other people, while they themselves have to work to feed this need. If this doesn’t seem absurd to you as a reader, think of it for the big writers: think “Good thing for Stephen King that his publisher allowed him to publish” or think “Boy, J. K. Rowling sure was lucky that her publisher indulged her fancy.” Or put it another way – suppose your carpenter or your plumber loves his job (as we hope everyone does.) He might do it for the pride of a job well done and because he loves it, but would you say “you should get a full time job to support your plumbing habit”?

So, carpentry and plumbing are not technically artistic fields. (Technically. I had relatives in both fields, and trust me, there’s a lot of art in it.) So... Chefs. Cooking at that level is an art. Surely they must have real jobs to support their cooking art. No? Architects, then. No?

Now, imagine if cooking or architecture were run that way. There would be a chef who does nothing, but cabbage dishes. And his restaurant, which of course doesn’t expect to make money because “there is no money in food service” encourages him to do that. After all, the man does amazing things with cabbage leaf-stuffed cabbage leaf. The restaurant does the best it can for him and tries to guilt, shame and otherwise convince people this is what they should be eating.

If they deploy enough cash, it might succeed to an extent. He might develop a following, as might his fellow who works only in humming bird wings and his other colleague, who is a virtuoso with feta cheese stuffed caviar. However, if these are the only restaurants available, surely the percentage of families who eat out will be MUCH smaller. And what about the family who just wants a quick meal out after a hard day? They’ll be reduced to packing sandwiches. In fact, the field will be wide open for a competitor who gives people what they want. Or perhaps for a family who sells sandwiches out of their living room.

Now, I’m not suggesting that publishing houses or writers are that outre. But I am suggesting that the fact no one even aims for a profit – except aforementioned bean counters – has led to the production becoming unhinged from the demand.

Examples of this are things that become inexplicable editorial fiat – not just the sudden promotion of a type of writing, but the sudden pronouncements from above. In my time I’ve heard it pronounced from above that space opera and cozy mysteries were not things worth writing and should be discouraged. Also, every time I shopped for an agent (far more often than I wish I had) I found the prospects fascinated by my more literary writing. Why? Because I can do it. In fact, it’s fairly easy to me – the hard part was learning to write in an accessible way.

I have it on good and sufficient authority that literary spec fic doesn’t sell. Or at least, it sells no more than a particle of more popular endeavors.

So, what could the problem possibly be? Well... people don’t expect to make money from publishing. So they turn to other rewards – like prestige. Which means, of course, the market and the suppliers become yet more divorced from each other.

I said in my post yesterday that the houses don’t care for 90% of the books they publish. This is not PRECISELY true. At least it’s not precisely true of editors and publishers. It might be true of houses insofar as houses (most of them. Baen, for instance, is an exception. Note that the publisher IS the house and is invested in the house, both emotionally and financially) are large conglomerates with their own goals. Most editors and publishers care PASSIONATELY for the books they work with. But they don’t expect those books to sell – not really. So they don’t care whether they sell. They might not hold it against the writer for not selling (though the marketing department, and definitely the bookstores do) but they also don’t aim to sell from the beginning.

Some of the evils of this are: promoting bestsellers only – because bestsellers are viewed as a freakish occurrence, and if they hit once, think how much more money we could make from them; keeping the book in print only long enough to earn back advance – they don’t understand the effects of the long tail. They accomplished their labor of love, getting the book out and of course “there’s no money in publishing”; encouraging writers to write things that have little chance of attracting the public; not realizing that a book is not just the author’s name and the book doesn’t rise and fall by virtue of who wrote it alone, but that to be marketed a book must have an appealing cover and a modicum of distribution (why bother, when there’s no money in publishing?)

We, writers, aren’t exempt from this either. Since “there’s no money in publishing” we spend a lot of time treating our books like homework. This is particularly visible among beginner writers who tend to treat rejection as a grade. “I did the homework just like they wanted me to, and he gave me an F. The system is mean.” If you think of publishing as a business, you might still wish to write books with little or no market (I have written a couple) but you DO NOT think you’re somehow entitled to publication because you “have done it well enough”. Also, things like the requirement to self promote might STILL make you grind your teeth and groan, but you will be more likely to do it, if you think money will come from it.

There are even bigger issues – like a tendency to treat the field as an opportunity to do social work. Recently, in the big kerffufle over why there are no YA s aimed at boys (And there are precious few) the snooty answer was given that boys were sexist for not reading about girls. Okay – deep breath – if you think that’s reasonable, turn it around. In the fifties, everyone was convinced girls just naturally read less. And if you had complained that there were no books aimed at them, you’d be told they could read books about boys. In YA, especially, the “feel” girls and boys like is very different. They’re still learning about themselves and their genders. Forcing them to read stuff aimed at the other gender will annoy them and discourage them. But of course, that’s okay because – there being no money in publishing – the true goal is to strike one for gender equality or perhaps feminine superiority. We’re going to make those kids feel how oppressed we... er... our mothers were back in the fifties, right?

Look, human beings work for many things – money, security, satisfaction. You remove those and what’s left is one thing: power. Perhaps another – self-indulgence, which is often tied to power.

I’m not saying we should all become utter mercenaries, and work for money only. I don’t think that’s possible, when you are in one of the artistic fields. But I do think that part of the reason there is no money in publishing is that very few people are AIMING to make money.

It’s not ebooks that are stealing the market. The market is turning to ebooks because it’s not being served.

Capitalism. We is doing it wrong. Keeping an eye on the main chance might be a good way to start a better foundation for the new system establishing itself. Remember Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, whatever else they were, were aiming to make money. Perhaps that is why they ushered in the golden era of genre fiction.

Or perhaps I’m nuts. Perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there. What do you think? Would the field be better off if we all tried concertedly to serve the market? Or would that only worsen everything?

Related post at According To Hoyt

26 comments:

MataPam said...

First, figure out what the market really wants. If what's being printed now limits the voting to the sorts of things being published now there's a problem.

I suppose we could look at movies. What makes the most money? Action, adventure, good special effects - and a good story?

Okay, just looked up the top ten grossing films of all times. Ticket inflation ensures that the list is biased toward recent movies. So what are people spending their money on?

Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. Pirates of the Caribbean. The Dark Knight. Jurassic Park. Star Wars. Titanic. The first three on the list had two episodes each on the top 10 list. Oops, and out of date list, I'm sure Avatar out grossed everything. Well, how about the top eleven, then?

Ten things that are arguably spec fic, and a single historical romantic tragedy.

Some YA, some adult. Comic. Noir.
Most had fighting and a pretty fair body count. Even Titanic had the body count, despite the kissing.

I didn't see Titanic, so I can't say whether it had much of a story. The others all did.

What else did they have in common? The Good Guys were good, if often not law abiding? They won, or at least escaped and sailed away. Except for Darth Vader, but we already knew what happened to him. And we knew the ship was going to sink.

There was a lack of moralistic preaching (except in Avatar). Brutal governments were the Bad Guys (Except in Titanic).

The plots were fairly complex. I'd say Jurassic Park was the simplest, and pretty much got by on our fascination with dinosaurs, and feeding the lawyer to the T-rex. Avatar was all about special effects, so not really relevant.

Hmm. Story, action, blood-gore-body counts. Good Guys win.

Right. Got it.

Jason Cordova said...

Pam: I've always been told to not write to the market. But then publishers are only buying what's hot right now, so it's sort of a weird counter balancing act.

Do you try to ride in the wave of creation before it's popular, or or try and ride that descent into the pits of hell while it has one last gasp of popularity?

Wait... did I go off topic again? Sorry, Sarah.

MataPam said...

Well, that's a bit like an architech designing high rise after high rise, even though the market is for single family homes in the suburbs.

Fine if you enjoy it, but to feed the family . . .

I ought to be writing sparkly vampires.

Ick! In fact that deserves and few more !!!

So does the Urban fantasy/Romantic horror mean that young women want books about spakly vampires, or about high risk boyfriends?

Okay, we want edgy dangerous romance? ::Sigh:: See yesterday's post. My mechanical ploting is not helping me write a titilating Urban fantasy. Which I am actually attempting.

sukshema (my verification word) Yeah, it sure does!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

I'm sorry, my dear. You're thinking like a publisher. The obsession with the big-big thing is a trait of people who think there is no money in publishing save for flukes. So they look at the flukes -- i.e., what sold BIG and everyone wants the same. So, for years we had DaVinci Code clones, for instance.

BUT what they fail to take into account is how much went to make that book sell. Take the Code -- 100k copies were bought by a millionaire who loved the book and given away for free in NYC and London. Of course none of the clones got that treatment, so they didn't become mega successes. (I also want to bet you either Monkey's books or mine -- any of them! -- given that treatment would have sold pretty well, even if perhaps not as well. OTOH perhaps better, at least Dave's.)

And that's part of what you're NOT looking at. The top grossing movies -- like the top grossing books -- have backup, promotion and distribution.

Look, you probably heard of Big Fish. Sure, everyone did. I don't know how it grossed, but it was EVERYWHERE. It wasn't till years later, word of mouth, I heard of Second Hand Lions which, of its kind is a massively better and more entertaining movie. However, it got almost no distribution, so few people have even heard of it.

What you're looking at as a sample is sort of that -- the winners, which often are winners because they were given a huge boost at the beginning. It tells you nothing.

So, how do we found what the market wants? First, we assume the market exists in the form of readers who want to read consistently, not The Big, Big Thing once a decade. And then we clear up all obstacles to knowing how things actually do. Comparing apples to apples -- books or movies that had the same level of promotion-distribution -- instead of no-promo to promoted-to-exhaustion would be a good start. And then we could get cute and do what other markets do -- consumer surveys. "how many books do you buy a week?" "Who is your favorite writer?" "If your reading has slowed down, why has it?" etc.

Real market-based marketing and planning would do away with the obsession with the "great hot thing" among others... From the readers I know, there's room for many "hot things" not just one.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jason,

One of the odd things is that writing to market CAN get you published -- I mean, publishers LOOK for it. OTOH, a) you must hit the trend early or publishers will say they have too many of these. b) if you aren't also passionate about it, it won't fly.

OTOH if you write too far off market, they'll either say "Uh?" and not buy it, buy it and not know what to do with it, or aggregate it to the nearest trend and tell you they have too many of those, which is how they behaved with Sword and Blood, where they tell me it's a very odd mashup. This is sort of like telling you a frog is a very weird fish. Also, they have too many mashups and mashups don't do well. (Um... okay, but it's not... Oh, never mind.) In collective, these three reactions are called "Sarah's career."

MataPam said...

Certainly promotion has a lot to do with short term sales, but I see a lot of "Chick Flicks" and socially responsible movies pushed, that just die after the first weekend.

Do Spec fic movies get more promotion than Michael Moore's "works?" Can Star Wars still draw crowds after more than thirty years, because of _advertizing_?


I think one reason we keep seeing remakes of fomerly popular movies and TV series is that moviemakers want to tap into the fan base, but have trouble figuring out how to start from cold.

A bit like us.

I think there's a difference between writing to market, writing clones, and keeping in mind what types of stories have long histories of success.

Chris L said...

Hi Sarah,

First, I agree that it's a ridiculous situation where you can be a popular and successful writer, but not be able to make a living from the profession.

If publishers and editors aren't making money either, then the problems are even more serious. I recently bought a book by one of you Mad Geniuses. In the US the book costs $7.99. In Oz it costs $17.99 and the Oz dollar is 1:1 with the USD right now!

In terms of base-level market research, sure, if it works. But I think Pam is right in that not all the big hits got there on promotion alone. Harry Potter was not a big hit off the bat. The first print run was only 500 copies and they went to libraries and schools. The second book also had a small run first up. The series gathered momentum for the third and by the fourth it was crazy. I don't even know how something can get that big.

Point being, it may be a freakish occurance, but it sure wasn't planned that way.

Forgetting that for a moment (and setting e-books aside for the sake of this argument), even if you do the research and write the book, where is the money going to come from if no one in the chain is making any?

Or have I missed the point?

MataPam said...

I think that chain between writers and readers is creating a missmatch between what readers want and what is delivered. When the ultimate consumer stops buying, everyone hurts.

With e-books, a lot of that chain can be either dumped altogether, or gotten under the writers' control, as in hiring proofreaders, or buying the cover art themselves.

But that also takes "What the market wants" out of the editors hands and dumps it on the writer.

If we get it right, _and_ market it well, _and_ put out a professional looking high quality e-book, the readers will buy and we will make money.

So now we're just snarling about how to tell heavy promotion from a good understanding of what the market, ie readers, want.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah,

My daughter and all her friends are talented, dedicated musicians.

I lived and worked as a graphic artist and all my friends at that point were talented, dedicated artists.

Now all my friends are talented, dedicated writers.

All the creative fields struggle to make a living.

I'm sure if I was a film maker, I'd see the same thing. (Although films require a budget and a big team of people. Actually, with the improvement in tech there are Indy films made on really small budgets coming out on the internet. My husband's been downloading them and some are really good. So it does apply to film as well).

Within all these creative fields there are a small selection of individuals who have been blessed by the gods of their genre, not with more talent or dedication, but with the luck to have been in the right place at the right time, with the right book/song/artwork/film.

They are the ones who make bucket loads of money.

It hinges on distribution of the product and hitting a meme. A collective thought/need/drive that appeals to a large percentage of people, even if they weren't aware of it before it became popular. Human beings are funny creatures.

Orbit didn't expect sparkly vampires to do well. But the story answered a need in certain readers. It gathered momentum and then it hit critical mass. (This another fascinating phenomenon).

Back before we saw painters as 'artists' they were craftsmen and they were supported by the church or patrons, who made them paint what they wanted.

I don't have the answers. I agree that it is ridiculous for professionals to be expected to produce books/music/art for next to nothing.

I also think it is ridiculous how a very small percentage of the creative population make the majority of the money.

Honestly, if I were JK Rowling/ Stephanie Meyers/Dan Brown I would be embarrassed to have made so much money. Not because what I wrote was bad or undeserving, but because it was no more deserving that many other fellow writers' efforts.

I don't really have a point. Just putting my thoughts down.

It's lucky my self worth as a person is not tied up in the profit I make as a writer. LOL

Stephen Simmons said...

I make up stories and characters because I can't NOT make them up. It's who and what I am. But you can be darned sure I'm not going to all the trouble of writing them down, and re-writing, and fiddling with plot-lines and details and dialogue-diction just for fun. No, I'm doing it with a sincere hope that at least some of that time and skull-sweat is going to turn into perceived value in someone else's hands, resulting in them being willing to put some shekels into mine.

So, what to write? All I can do is write the stories that no one other than me CAN write. I can try to be a second-best Zelazny (I can't do Tolkein, I know my limits), or the first-best ME. But I'm striving to produce those stories in a form that I hope will be appealing to prospective readers ...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

To an extent you missed the point. I was talking ONLY of US publishing. Harry Potter besides getting VERY lucky, came out in England first. By the time it crossed the pond it did so because people were buying it in the thousands from England. Word of mouth had spread and the debut of Amazon helped. This meant that publishers here knew it had "potential" and pushed. Had she been published in the US first and had a 500 printrun, the book would have died on the vine. I wish I were joking, but I'm not. You see, lately there are no reprints in the US -- or very rare ones. You have to sell out very fast to be reprinted -- otherwise the market just starves, and all the used books go up to ridiculous amounts. Look on Amazon US and it's not rare to find a used paperback for 100k, for a series that died at second or third book... for lack of sales.

Pam is right and wrong. She's right in that no amount of promotion can make a bar of soap taste like a lollypop. She's wrong in that what hits the top ten is from an already culled field. It might or might not reflect viewer taste. I'm sorry, for some horrible reason the only analogy that occurs to me is a sperm wash, where -- prior to insemination -- the sperm is culled of slow swimmers, to increase the chances of pregnancy. Normally if you analyzed the swimmers that made it first, you'd be able to come up with the reasons they're so fast (at least I hope so.) But suppose the farmer is aiming for female calves only. Normally male producing spermtozoa are faster. So if you remove all of those to begin with, and have only female-producing ones, and then try to deduce things, you're not going to see the full picture. Of course, in moves -- or books -- you're not talking two choices but a multitude.

Take Avatar for instance -- with few exceptions, the people who went to see it came out dazzled by the tech used to produce it, not necessarilly the story line. Are we to take away from it that the story line is unimportant? Well... no. Just that tech break throughs, especially in SF/F movies will make it a blockbuster. As Star Wars was. And right now people watch Star Wars because it's part of our culture, so no promotion is needed. It remains, IMHO a fairytale in space, but no one asked my opinion. It did have great tech for its time.

THAT promotion can't make soap taste like chocolate is obvious if you look at the falling rates of readership and movie going in the US. It's a clear case of audience/proveyor mismatch.

OTOH movies are TRULY a bad analogy for books, because they depend a lot more on who plays in them, etc. They also have MASSIVE secondary markets that books don't NATURALLY have. Books that tank in the US often become blockbusters in Europe.

As for costs of books in OZ -- these are not unusual and are not going to the publishers. They are tariffs and taxes leveled to protect a country from foreign culture. I suffered under the same in Portugal.

As for no one making money -- our chain bookstores are dying, after killing the independent distro. Our publishers say they're dying. I don't get the "no one is making money" either. Maybe it's a front for something deep and dark? I favor Alien invasion. Has anyone taken a good look at the publishing district lately? Are those buildings motherships?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

Yes, to an extent. But writers, unless they band together simply CAN'T do the sort of market research large corporations can and SHOULD be doing. Only they ASSUME there's no money. Which was rather the point of this article.
Though you must admit it's rich to a) say there's no money in publishing. b) complain ebooks are stealing YOUR money. Uh?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

The idea of being embarrassed by making so much money is so alien to me, I think I have brain all over the wall, after my head exploded.

I'm not saying creative fields don't struggle. I'm saying they do because of the wrong mind set.

In a way the bean counters were looking at it right "why aren't we making money." They came up with all the wrong answers because they don't understand the individual nature of books and treat them as "generic product 1".

Look, as a reader I'm beyond frustrated because I don't find the books I want before they go out of print. Reaching your audience shouldn't be a matter of luck. That it is, means the system is cluster... messed. Sorry, but it's the truth. And starting with the assumption we CAN make money should be a good beginning.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

NEVER EVER EVER tell an editor that you'd write for free, anyway. EVER. Toni Weisskopf has ordered me not to do that, and I don't see why YOU should.

OTOH your last paragraph is correct. You try to make your work the best it can be, while still being you, to appeal to readers.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, trying to correlate how movies are promoted and how that then turns into long term sales with the promotion of books really is comparing apples to oranges. I'm sorry, but it is.

The truth of the matter is that promotion of a book has to occur on two levels for it to have any chance to succeed. The first level is promotion to the distributor and to the buyers for the book stores. If you can't get it on the shelves, it doesn't matter how good the book is -- it simply won't find its way into the readers' hands.

The second level is promotion aimed at the buying public. Think about how many books are published each year; not just by the big houses, but by the small and micro presses as well as self-published. Think about the number of titles in any given book store. If a potential reader doesn't know about the book, the odds are they won't pick it up and buy it (yes, good placement in the store, an interesting cover or a recommendation from a store employee will help, but those are few and far between.).

Also, in my opinion, you have to remember that going to the movies represents a different form of entertainment than books do. People make an event out of going to see a movie -- or at least they used to. On demand movies have changed that to a large degree. It was a chance to get out of the house and be entertained. It was visual and you had the benefit of having crowd reaction. Movies do, generally speaking, appeal to people on a different level than books do. They also, I'm sorry to say, appeal in many cases to a different set of consumers than books do. Think of it this way -- movies bring instant gratification because of the short span of our time they consume as compared to books.

Promotion is the bane of every writer's life and the one thing, if done properly, that can help raise that writer over the cusp into the realm of being able to write for a living. Think about it, if some editor hadn't decided Dan Brown was the next big thing in mysteries or John Grisham in legal thrillers, would they ever have sold as many books as they did? My money says "no". Readers bought into the hype and spent on the books. After all, if a publisher is spending so much money to promote a book, it has to be good. Right?

Amanda Green said...

Pam, as for your comment about promotion working for short term but how movies that have been heavily promoted die at the box office, again, apples and oranges. Movies will die at the box office, no matter how good they are, if they get bad reviews. Word of mouth will kill a movie faster than just about anything. That's especially true now that we have the internet.

I call apples and oranges again when you try to use this analogy for books because it just doesn't work. People pay attention to movie reviews. They ask their friends what they thought about this movie or that. It really isn't the same with books. Most people never read book reviews. Few people any longer actually talk about books unless it is for school or a book club. Not saying that's how it should be but, like it or not, that's how it is.

Take, for example, Dan Brown. He had, iirc, published four books before The Da Vinci Code. That book got massive promotion and took off. That promotion then had the ripple effect of causing sales unlike Brown had experienced with his earlier books as well. And that promotion continued bringing in sales long after.

There's another author who lingered in the mid-list for years here in the States even though he was a best seller in the UK -- Terry Pratchett. Then, after about 10 years, he finally got some push here. His books took off, not just the new ones, but the ones written prior to the promotion as well.

And, yes, readers will buy e-books that are well-written, well-edited and have good cover art... IF they know the e-book is there. And that is a very big IF. Honestly, e-books are more dependent on promotion than hard copy books. Why? Because there's no physical store or library where they can go to browse. Because, on the whole, there aren't lists of best selling e-books. The Sunday paper doesn't talk about that new e-book from the new author.

It's important to realize that digital publishing puts even more of the onus on the author to promote and that becomes a double-edged sword. You have to promote to get word out about your book. But, if you promote in the wrong way, you can end up annoying your potential readers, causing them to determine never to read anything by you (for ex, by posting too much too often on facebook or by letting too much of your personal politics bleed over into your writing blog or facebook posts). Then there's the alternative where you wind up ticking off your publisher by something you did in promoting your book. That's why it is so important to make sure you work together with your publisher when planning out your promotional efforts.

As for what is hot and what's not, what has long term appeal and what doesn't, well, that's up in the air. There are editors who are tired of sparkly vampires and have been looking for something different. There are others who are tired of the undead porn. Others are tired of the Tolkien rip-offs. So, what's the answer? Figure out what the underlying reason is for a trend's success and then apply it to whatever you're writing. Not all UF has romance in it. In fact, in those UF books with romance, the romance is understated. UF is the old mystery or suspense novel. Paranormal romance is the "lady porn" as a male friend of mine calls it.

Most of all, no matter what the genre or sub-genre you're writing in, do something to make it your own because clones of the so-called best sellers rarely do well.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I think you and I are going to have to agree to disagree, at least where the sparkly vampires, etc., are concerned. There was more push given to them than to other books coming out, especially books by new authors. At least that's how it was here. As for Rowling, no one expected Harry Potter to do anything. But when it did relatively well for the small British publisher, it was snatched up and promoted like mad.

I guess my point is that publishers used to do more promotion for every author. Now they promote their favorites, leaving the mid-listers twisting in the wind.

Is it fair? Absolutely not. That's why authors have to take it upon themselves to promote the hell out of their books. It is the only way they have a chance of getting their name out there in front of the readers. And, let's face it, name recognition is the name of the game.

Kate said...

Okay... After reading through the comments here, I can only say, jeez, what are they putting in the food?

Seriously, embarrassed to make boatloads of money? Hell no. Say thank you to the deity of choice for your good fortune, and pay it forward.

It's like the kind of nonsense about artists and musicians needing to starve for their art. No, they never needed to starve - and before anyone says it affected their art for the worse, is anyone seriously going to argue that J. S. Bach's hundreds of "work" pieces written for his employer (aka patron) aren't excellent works of music in their own right?

Yeah, that's what I thought. Musicians and artists have always worked with related fields where they could hone their skills for pay while they did the unpaid stuff in their spare time. Mozart did it. More than a few poets did it. Shakespeare did it.

And if Shakespeare could cheerfully work in a related field while doing everything he could to appeal to his audience and make his work "commercial", why in the name of all that's holy (or unholy, come to think of it), why is it so terrible for we lesser lights to be "commercial"?

As for figuring out what people want to read, forget bloody movies. Movies have gone through a tighter sieve than books have, and appeal to a different audience and different sensory spectrum. There's some overlap, but mostly, people who adore movies are not people who read compulsively.

No, you go to your local second-hand bookstore (or better, book exchange), and you ask them what people ask for. Or better, you watch. You look at what goes out the door as fast as it comes in. What people choose to read. What people choose to re-read. You ask people what they'd want to read. You take the answers with the standard heaping serving of salt, and you sift a lot, and you see trends.

Then you take a look at subgroups. Romance readers, SF readers, people who cruise the entire store picking out whatever. Sometimes you're going to hit a niche, sometimes you're going to cross all the boundaries and make everyone happy. It's always damn near impossible to tell which beforehand - not least because even if you do tap into the zeitgeist when you write it, it's going to be two years or more before it's published, and by then things may have changed.

So ultimately, you use the market research to filter out the things you think are neat but you know from experience will just gross-out almost anyone who'd read it. Save that for your practice pieces - and you do have practice pieces, right? Because if you don't, you're doing yourself a disservice. (Yes, you can end up selling said practice pieces - but it's always a good idea to have something on the string where you can experiment without having to wonder what anyone else will think because you know no-one else is ever going to see it).

Now, can we please start putting our brains into gear before we engage our typing fingers? And actually think a little about this instead of just spouting received wisdom all over the place? My snarkometer just broke and I need aspirin because my ability to tolerate people who know better failing to use their perfectly good thinking equipment is... oh, somewhere below zero.

End rant. I shall now attempt to be a little less bitchy while I compose a post for tomorrow.

MataPam said...

The question was how to get the money back in publishing.

Write to the market, however you wish to determine _that_?

Copy the latest flash-in-the-pan fad?

Study other sorts of entertainment, and start trying game tie-ins and Youtube trailers?

Promote all books that make the editors' cut?

Unfortunately, at this point the limited selection, brief availablity, lack of support from the publisher, lack of push and all the ills we're bitching about have so distorted what is available that asking people what they read is bound to be badly skewed by the current mess. They can't read what's not there.

So, starting from where we are now, how do you get the money back in publishing?

Larger print runs and more promotion of the midlist would be a good place to start.

So long as the midlist is what people want, and will get people back to reading new books instead of rereading old favorites, playing a game, watching a movie, or surfing the internet. Which again depends on publishers who know more about books than the bean counters.

I do understand that the lack of promotion, small print runs, not reprinting has damaged the industry from top to bottom. And I do realize that promotion is going to be important in rebuilding traditional publishing and in establishing all the micro e-presses that are coming out.

But you've got to have the books the readers want to read, want the sequel to, and want more by the same author, or all the push is going to die, especially for e-books, on the vine of the internet.

And figureing out what that is, despite all the unequal promotion, print runs and all seems like the place to start.

I am not arguing that it's the place to stop, I do realize the push and promotion has to be there, too.

Kate said...

Pam,

How to get money into publishing in general?

Let's start by not assuming there's no money there, and treating readers like... oh, how about valued customers? You know, people you want coming back.

Case in point: Baen didn't go chasing this fad or that fad (I can't speak to what they're doing now, because what's being published now is the result of decisions anything up to 3 years ago). They don't copy the latest blockbuster. They sometimes publish something that sucks more than your neighborhood black hole.

What they started doing was publishing books Jim Baen thought were good and would be popular. Jim's tastes turned Baen into a brand. Treating book buyers as valued customers created brand loyalty.

Now, please, before I break something here, what is so bloody difficult about ANY of that? And what is so frigging difficult about the "treat customers as if they matter" matter part?

Many years ago books would come with a little backleaf that INVITED readers to send questions or comments about the books they'd just bought TO THE PUBLISHER. How long since you last saw one of those?

There's a starting point. Not using "commercial" as an insult is another one. And not acting like a bunch of spoiled children wailing because we can't have it all our own way won't hurt, either.

And yes, some of it we can control. Some we can't. Do something about what you can control, if you can't control it and can't get through to someone who can, do what you can to work around it.

Amanda Green said...

Okay, trying this again. We'll see if the third time's the charm, or if Blogger eats my comment again

Pam,

I think we're talking in circles here, but I'll try to respond.

1. Write to the market -- I hate to say it, but that is our job as writers. The issue is figuring out what the market is. It is also understanding that the market today is influenced by decisions made three years ago. It is also evolving. We find out what the "market" is by reading blogs by readers, not necessarily reviewers, by doing as Kate suggested up thread and sitting in bookstores and libraries and seeing what is going out the door, that sort of thing.

2. Copy the latest flash in the pan fad? Absolutely not. That fad, as noted above, was begun at least 3 years ago and is fading, or at least transmuting. So figure out which and go with that.

3. Study other sorts of entertainment, and start trying game tie-ins and Youtube trailers? In my opinion, no. That is already being done and it is a limited life at best. It also means that the book product is dependent upon the media tie-in. If that TV series dies, or the game or movie bombs, the book will die as well. There are enough hazards for us to navigate as is.

4. Promote all books that make the editors' cut? Yes. Not necessarily all to the same level, but every book should get some promotion, even if it is simply sending out ARCs for reviews to get word of mouth going.

While larger print runs would be nice, as would the promotion of mid-list authors, it isn't going to happen under the current business model most print publishers operate under. That business model is the first thing that has to change. Until it does, there will be no additional money coming into publishing. This is especially true when one of the major big box bookstore chains is now asking these very same publishers to hold off on asking for payments.

And, whether the publishers want to admit it or not, the mid-list authors are who have carried them all these years. These authors have been the work horses for them. They can be relied upon to sell at least "X" number of books per title. They are the ones whose books are being asked for day in and day out, the authors who consistently put out a product that is in demand. They may not be as flashy as the best sellers, but they produce and bring in sales year in and year out.

And yes, figuring out what the reader wants is the key. That is where Kate's advice -- from and author's perspective -- is excellent. You look at what goes out the door and you talk to readers. But, as an author, you also have to understand that the system is skewed by promotion.

More importantly, without promotion, a reader won't know your book is there, even it is exactly what they want to read.

I guess what I'm saying is that the day has come where you can't rely on a publisher, no matter how large the house or what their publication format, to promote your work and drive your sales. You can't rely on sales by following whatever you see the trend as being at this time. You have to learn to anticipate the trend, put your own spin on it and then you have to perfect the art of promotion. That is the only way to get ahead in the business right now.

Dave Freer said...

Ok, I just have to post something on this because it's a hobby-horse.

1)Bookscan (or any total sales figure) are garbage for comparing books, without statistical correction for a)Laydown, b)returns/sellthrough c)re-order status (many books are not reorder d)Sales over time corrected for visibility and promotion e)Cover quality and appeal to target market f)expenditure on marketing and visibility g)the public profile of the author. Run those corrections and you will actually know if Fred Nurk's 'How to pick your nose in Church' is more or popular with readers than Harry Potter. (You can probably establish too just where and to whom Fred's book will sell.) At this point you can say how books compare in popularity with readers, and where to put your money. But this would disempower editors and remove agenda-driven buying from the equation.

2)If you are in an industry where your raw product (a book) costs are 16% of the sale price (6% for new authors, 10% for paper, printing etc is now being quoted by publishers wanting to keep the price of e-books high) and no one else is making a VAST profit... you need to examine where the money is going. And this means two things a)your historical overheads need to be examined b)You need to break down your expenses by book (not by lumping office expenses, or interest payments (on advances)) and find where your actual profit eating expenses are.
On a) for instance, not paying NY premises and NY survival salaries, would immediately bump the profit of most publishers vastly. A lousy salary in NY is a good salary in Ohio. On b)you would find 95% of expenses (staff,promotion, office space, interest payments) are actually attributible to 5% of the books. Accounted like that many of these books would not be profitable. In other words you're plowing vast amounts in for dimishing returns. For instance spending $10 000 000 on promoting Stephanie Meyer, is about $9 999 000 wasted. All the retailers will take it, and all the fans will buy it. And they'll tell everyone. I am not suggesting giving up on these efforts but working out where the expense/return-on-investment curve meet and applying that to all your books instead.

3)There are what? conservatively 200 000 000 English speaking readers or potential readers out there, who could probably reasonably read a book a month (averaging) and afford it. At $7 a paperback (let alone the extortion in Australia). That's leaving aside hardbacks and non-fiction $1 68 000 000 000 gross. Assuming you still are willing to accept 10% as fair remumeration for authors... that leaves 168 000 million to be divided up among authors. The point is better targetting could sell more and pay a fairly large number of niches a reasonable income without affecting the possible amount Stephen King or Sephanie Meyer or Janet Evanovich could spend in their lifetimes. There is no need for authors to be taking second jobs.
4)With proper targetting in an e- book environment and 200 million possible customers buying 12 books year there are a hell of a lot of niches. Given that $5-6 is probably a potentially acceptable price point, and that the author ought to realise around 50% of that... and that even through current the broken distribution system and poor linkage to readers I can sell 10 000-25 000 copies... and I could write 2 good books a year, there really is no reason for any moderately competant author to need a day job. I hope I can do this.

MataPam said...

Dave, I think you, Sarah and Roweena have figured out the "What SF Readers Want" part. For you who are published, the transition is most likely to dance around how to raise awareness so current fans can find you and new readers be enticed to give it a try.

For those of us still two steps behind, we're so busy worrying if _anyone_ will like our stuff that we tend to lose sight of the need to promote our own stuff. It always seems to be at least one step ahead, and thus causes less of our angst.

So far. Several of us will be finding ourselves frantically copying you and trying anything else that occurs to us.

Kate Paulk said...

Pam,

Dave, I think you, Sarah and Roweena have figured out the "What SF Readers Want" part.

I'm sorry, but that is just so wrong it's mind-boggling. "SF Readers" aren't a homogeneous group. Obviously, Sarah, Dave and Rowena have worked out what some readers want and are appealing to at least a small fraction of them. There are a lot more SF readers out there - some of whom would adore Dave's work, hate Sarah's and think Rowena's was the best thing since sliced bread, others could take or leave any of them, and so on. But it's impossible to know if those people exist, much less how to find them, with the current information system.

Which is pretty much how I read Dave's comment.

Dave Freer said...

Kate that's what I was trying to say: Predictive marketing relies on good statistics. Accurate matches of niches mean more 'loved' books being with the right people. On the other hand I do understand where MataPam is coming from - new authors have little but their self-faith to reassure them that is what people want to read. That's why an old-style publisher was so important to psyche of writers no matter if they also controlled access to retail space. The thing is: actually that doesn't go away. The part to remember (and I don't rememeber the source of this) - 1:4 authors editors buy make it past the 3 book hurdle (so they were wrong 75% of the time) and 1:4 of those becomes a bestseller - which is what they're trying to buy. So they get it right - which as these do affect each other... means there is a 1:16 chance they got it right - or rather a 93.5% they got it wrong. Not as much of an imprimature of quality as we like to delude ourselves, is it!? And no I don't believe I am reaching 'MY' audience yet. Look, Shadow of the Lion has sold some more 70K copies. Assuming the 4 people read each book stat is true, then at least quarter of a million people have read it. I do have a small core audience of maybe 500 people who will buy anything I write, and seek it out. Those - out of that quarter million - are MY audience. There are probably another 20 000 who enjoyed my work enough to buy it on happening on it, but not to search for it. Probably half of those would like to know if there was a new book by me out. Now - is 500 the maximum of people I make a real connection with? My own feeling is that taking 200 million as the English language market, and sf/fantasty as mere 5% of that, and my audience as the relative proportion of that - my hard appeal readers should be around 20 000, and the 19 500 don't know I am alive because of bad targetting. Before you think that vain that means I think I really really appeal to 0.01% of the audience. I could live on reliably selling 20K of books with a bit of 'we quite like him' as gravy. I can't on 500 books.

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