Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Publishing, Bookselling and Frustrations of the Business

There is an excellent – if depressing – post from Jim Huang on the current state of publishing. Where I Am, After 20 Years in Bookselling isn’t exactly food for thought: it’s more like the medicine you have to swallow as an author, and maybe a reader.

And in the comment trail there are a string of remarks from well-known authors, adding their agreement, sharing experiences and in some cases asking what authors can do.

It’s that last question that frightens me a bit, to be honest.

I can’t help feeling discouraged. First, as a reader. I love series books. If I hear of a book getting a lot of good word of mouth and that it’s part of a series I might have a whole new set of books to indulge in. I will go out and buy a whole series – as I recently did with Olen Steinhauer. The publisher didn’t get one sale, they got five.

But if the backlist wasn’t in print? Well, I don’t like buying used books. Sorry, I’m fussy that way. And I don’t want to read part of a series, unless I don’t like it and choose to give up on it.

I’ve already talked about the fact that there’s a current trend to do one book deals. That makes it really hard for authors to develop a series, and it’s also hard on readers. I think most people know there’s usually six to twelve months between books (depending on the publisher and format) but I’ve been getting emails since February asking when my next book will be out. (And possibly nobody will ever give up on asking if there will ever be another Lara and Tymen, although I have to say that won’t happen, unless maybe SC’s publisher goes out of business. I’ve let it go.)

I feel and understand the frustration for readers, and I know what it is to be on the other side of the coin. The people I want to make happy are, of course the people who’ve bought and enjoyed my work and want to see more of it. What do you tell them when you don’t have answers?

The thing is, the authors are on the front lines in all of this. We come up with the idea. We write the book. We seek a publisher… and when the book does come out we’re the ones that get the emails or the people coming up to us and asking when the next book will be out or why the series has been cancelled or whatever.

It seems like there’s precious little communication between publishers* and readers. Everyone has their philosophy of how they operate, and it may be completely out of touch with reality, but that’s how they do it. The cycle of frustration for readers plays out differently. I know very few readers who’ve banned publishers. People ban authors, say they won’t read them, but don’t blacklist publishers they won’t touch. So even when a publisher makes a habit of upsetting customers it takes a long time for that to hit the publisher, and they may never connect the bad decisions people were reacting to with their bottom line.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing there are days when the writing is going so well that I get lost in it. I don’t have any delusions about making a living from writing.

But here’s a question I have to throw out to the universe:

I’ve heard of publishers* who don’t believe it’s worthwhile to support author events, and the lack of publisher marketing efforts is a constant complaint amongst authors at conferences. Authors are paying their own way for most of their touring efforts, advertisements, even producing their own ARCs and mailing them out for reviews.

If the publishers don’t think it’s worthwhile to invest money in promoting their product, one can only assume it’s because they don’t think they’ll see a reasonable return. So why then are authors spending the money? Are they not just throwing it out the window?

Or are the publishers wrong?

At the end of it all, the only thing I can do is write the best book possible. Everything else feels like one great big roll of the dice. I worry there will be a day when almost all we find in stores is the same-old, same-old, formulaic stuff that gets churned out. If that happens I’ll feel I’ve lost out on a great love, both as an author and as a reader.

* This is all being said in the great big generic ‘publishers’ way. It is about no one specific publisher exclusively, and there are actually many publishers I think do a great job. I’ve had terrible experiences with marketing departments as a reviewer, and great experiences. I applaud publishers like Orion for investing in authors and nurturing them – my only complaint is Ian Rankin’s website, and we won’t go there. I could launch a whole new rant about the pointlessness of sending authors out on tour when you don’t post their friggin’ itinerary. I mean, hell, it's not like we actually want to see the authors and get our books signed, right? Newsflash: readers aren’t telepathic. Or at least, this one isn’t. But I have pretty much given up on going to signing events.


JamesO said...

The publishing business seems to be constantly on the brink of total collapse, and yet somehow, miraculously, it never does.

I suspect publishers* use it as an excuse not to invest the time and effort necessary in marketing new writers to the point where they can start making a good return. That so many authors are willing to do their own marketing at their own expense (and I realise that this is because they have to) just plays into the publishers hands.

Also if you asked them, most publishers would admit that they haven't got a clue what makes one writer a best seller and another remaindered a month after their expensive launch. In the face of that uncertainty is it any wonder they're unwilling to stump up for author tours?

All of which doesn't fill me with great happiness and optimism as I struggle to be an author:(#

Sandra Ruttan said...

There's a part of me that thinks there should almost be a cap on how much debut authors can get for an advance. (Gasps of horror from writers everywhere, I'm sure.) But there's some merit to it. I would hate to be someone who has a lot of money thrown at them for one book and then can never get a deal again.

While it's true that publishers have no idea what will and will not catch on much of the time, they have some factors they use to consider what they will and will not publish. And there is no denying that authors who have major promotional campaigns put behind them, publicists who actively work to get the book reviewed in multiple sources and carried in chains and supermarkets, are going to do better than the ones the publishers don't focus on at all.

One local bookseller told me right out the sales people will come around with catalogues and say, "Carry this book, skip this one." And that's from the same publisher, that's the company that's paying that person's wages. And they're cutting off some of their own product. I don't see how authors can do much of anything to counter that, unless they're independently wealthy.

Part of me would suggest that maybe all authors should stop investing their money in their own promotion, but there will never be a consensus on that. There are people who seem to feed off marketing and spend more time on it than writing.

To me, it feels a bit like the donkey and the carrot. So many authors feel that if they just work a little harder they'll get the prize, but it really seems to go nowhere. There are plenty of authors hitting the road, spending their time and money visiting dozens and dozens of bookstores but they aren't outselling other authors who almost never attend conventions or tour. It really makes me wonder who's more foolish. And in part I wonder if reading all this stuff is the root of the problem. If I trusted a publisher to grow me through three or four books I'd put my head down and put my all into it, give it 100% of my attention, but we live with the belief that you have to create your own presence, do your own marketing, etc. You can't afford to put your head down for a few books. You have to make sure the first one sells enough so that there will be a second one. And left on your own you just do the same old, same old everyone else is doing because you don't know any better.

I have a fantastic idea for something to do that could benefit the writing and the promotion of a book, but I already know if I want to ever get a chance to do it I need to get a full time job to pay for it.

You know, your comment reminds me of something a reader said to me, about focus groups. There's something to be said for that idea. Somehow, there has to be more dialogue between readers and publishers.

Pepper Smith said...

No gasps of horror from me. The money could be put to better use promoting their product rather than buying that one night stand.

I've heard so many small press authors talk about how they've spent their entire advance on promotion that it makes me wonder what the point is. I honestly don't expect to make my entire living out of this writing business, but if I'm spending all the money I make off it promoting my product, where does that leave me? Which doesn't mean I won't promote, because I will, but if I have to spend everything I make on promotion, I might as well be giving away my work.

Sigh. There's got to be a better way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree Pepper. I have a great marketing strategy in my brain right now, but can't see how to implement it all. Simply don't have the money, and if I go get a full-time job I'm not sure I want to spend all that money on promotion. I'd like a new washer and dryer, as the ones we have are from the 70s. I kid you not.

And I think it's unfair my husband gives up holidays ever year to send me to conventions. Call me crazy...

Jersey Jack said...

SANDRA SAYS: "I’ve heard of publishers* who don’t believe it’s worthwhile to support author events, and the lack of publisher marketing efforts is a constant complaint amongst authors at conferences. Authors are paying their own way for most of their touring efforts, advertisements, even producing their own ARCs and mailing them out for reviews.

If the publishers don’t think it’s worthwhile to invest money in promoting their product, one can only assume it’s because they don’t think they’ll see a reasonable return. So why then are authors spending the money? Are they not just throwing it out the window?

Or are the publishers wrong?"

Ms. S--Authors and publishers do not share the same interest in promotion. Say a publisher has 50 new authors and knows only five will survive. They can't afford to spend $25,000 each, promoting all the new authors, only to find out 45 aren't popular enough. The author, on the other hand, must do all he can to insure his/her own survival. Spending money on travel, conventions, and book giveaways doesn't guarantee success, of course. But it increases an author's CHANCES. He finds a few, maybe hundreds of readers who otherwise would not have heard of him/her.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't think publishers know 90% will not succeed. I think they doom them to failure.

I'm not suggesting every publisher put every author on the road. Not by a long shot. But there are plenty of authors who have trouble even getting review copies sent out.

It's a topic you could go round the bend on forever. Truth is, Pepper has a point. It isn't much different than giving the work away. Maybe it increases chances, but I know some excellent authors who are burnt out from working full time, trying to write and then doing all their own promotion. Meanwhile James Patterson's going from 4 books a year to what is it? 6? 8? Yippee skippy. As a reader I'm just so gosh darn thrilled there will be more of the same old on the shelves when I can't get your book in stores here, or Kevin Wignall's or countless others.

As I said elsewhere:
While it's true that even publishers don't always know what will catch on, they do have some basis on which they decide what they'll publish and what they won't publish. And that involves what they think will sell. From what I've heard, more and more publicists are involved in selecting books for publication - I heard that from a publicist last year, talking to an author, saying, "That's why I wanted to publish your book." And on the other side of the equation, there are the in house presentations from editors to the publicists, trying to get them excited about promoting the books that are coming out.

Um, you know, whatever happened to doing your JOB? You work for a publisher, you promote their material? How naïve am I? Yet I know from talking to some bookstore owners here that the sales staff will go through the catalogue with them, and tell them what books they have to carry and what books they can skip. It's almost like saying, "We know we only expect to make up 10% of the stock in your store, so these are the big books for us this year that we're behind." Instead of saying, "We only make up 10% of the stock in your store right now, but we have this and this and this and this and it's all fantastic and people will love it and you should be skipping stuff from other publishers and carrying more of our stuff!"

I don't expect to make a cent off my next book. I expect to get a full time job just to pay for some limited promotional efforts. And whether or not it keeps me in the game is anyone's guess. But from my own discussions with authors who think their career is already over I know one thing: quality of writing means little in the equation. Ideally, be lucky and good, but if you can only be one and you really want to have a career, better to be lucky, I think.