The Business Rusch: Third Quarter Blues

The Business Rusch: Third Quarter Blues

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This past week has been an utterly fascinating one for me.  My husband Dean Wesley Smith and Scott William Carter taught a four-day workshop on the New World of Publishing.  Professional writers from all over the spectrum (and all over the world) came to learn not just how to indie publish their work, but also how to maximize what they already knew. So this workshop was essentially a mindmeld with people who had some skills, but lacked others.  It became an interactive, information-sharing workshop that I got to benefit from because of Dean (he acts as a conduit of the practical stuff for good old dyslexic me) and because of all the conversations that went on at dinners (which I participated in).  Even the thirty minutes I sat in on gave me several ideas that I probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

And before you ask, yes, Dean & Scott will teach this at least twice more, once in October and once in 2012.  The class they taught six months ago was different than this one, and I suspect so much will have changed that October’s class will be different as well. (E-mail Dean on his site if you’re interested.)

Being surrounded by talented people gung-ho about their work and the various possibilities of indie publishing excited me. We also talked about the benefits of traditional publishing versus the benefits of indie publishing so I was already thinking about that when I heard from my friend George R.R. Martin on a different e-mail list.

George announced that last week his brand new Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Dance With Dragons, became the bestselling fiction book of 2011.  Not the bestselling fantasy book. The bestselling fiction book.  The distinction is an important one and one that few authors besides J.K. Rowling have achieved.  (In addition, Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George’s book of the same name, got nominated for 13 Emmys that same week.  That’s really outside the purview of this little blog post except that I wanted to say publicly, “Go, George! Yay!”)

George’s U.S. publisher, Bantam Books is—and has been—doing everything right with this series.  George and I were both at BEA the year that Game of Thrones came out, and Bantam made poor George sit in a gigantic throne while doing some of his interviews and signings. The initial hardcover of that novel had an awful cover, and all the book reps complained about it, so Bantam gave the book a new cover.

George’s editor, Anne Groell, patiently (or maybe not so patiently) nurtured him through each book, getting him from novel to novel.  And Bantam did the proper promotion and support when each novel came out (something the very same company was not able to do with my Fey series—partly because I had four different editors on that series before Anne took it over, so there was no consistency in-house).

On George’s series, traditional publishing has worked very well, including all the work the house did this year, with new covers timed and released to coincide with the HBO series.  All of Bantam’s marketing efforts dovetailed with HBO’s efforts, which is exactly how it should be and so rarely is.  (For example, a different publishing company completely dropped the ball on my friend Rob Sawyer’s novel FlashForward, getting the book with the tie-in cover out months after the TV series premiered and the Hollywood publicity had already ended.  Rob saw a bump in sales, but not nearly as good a bump as he would have gotten if his publisher had actually planned ahead.)

I wanted to point out to you how wonderful traditional publishing can be at this megalevel, particularly when everything goes right, as it is for George at the moment.  No indie publisher can hope to match all the time, resources, and money that Bantam has put into A Dance With Dragons this year.  No self-published writer has these deep pockets.  (Although we’ll see what’ll happen if J.K. Rowling decides it’s worth her time to do her print books as well as her e-books.  She’ll have the deep pockets to match [or exceed] her publisher’s.)

Traditional publishing doesn’t just handle the multi-multi-million-dollar books well; it can also handle other bestselling titles well. For example, the book whose release I was looking forward to on July 12 wasn’t George’s (sorry, George), but a hardcover romance.  The only reason I knew that novel was coming out was because of the publicity the traditional publisher had done on the book’s behalf.  I had pre-ordered the book and it had show up, on time, in my mailbox.

In fact, if you’ve heard of an upcoming book and think it sounds interesting, even if you’ve never read anything by the author, then chances are the book is a bestselling (or bestseller-wannabe) from a traditional publisher. When they put their money behind a product and get the books into stores, then the books do well.

It’s the second part that gave me pause this week, however, because as you all know Borders has decided to dissolve.  The remaining stores, all 399 of them, and the remaining employees, 10,700 of them, will be gone by September.  You’ve probably read a dozen articles on this, but in case you haven’t, here are a few more. (The New York Times, Forbes, Washington Post)

Book publishers have suspected that Borders would liquidate for seven months or more.  Some gambled and still sent books into that mess, forcing Borders to pay cash for the books. But others stopped sending books to Borders altogether.  Some publishers have managed to get money out of Borders since January, but most haven’t.

The main financial squeeze that Borders will cause to the publishers on already delivered material has already happened.  In fact, the pinch occurred in the first quarter, when several of my publishers (from short story publishers to novel publishers) delayed payments as they swallowed their losses from Borders.

But the bigger problem with Borders’ liquidation is upcoming. Some of the articles mention this; others do not.

The problem is the decreased shelf space.  Think it through, my reading friends.  Suddenly 399 bookstores are vanishing, with no replacement in sight.  I asked Dean, my math guru, how many book slots were disappearing. A book slot is the place on the shelf that takes books. It’s easiest to see in grocery stores. Those little racks that show books face out hold five copies of a 100K novel or 2-3 copies of a fat novel like George’s (that’s why books that are significantly longer than 100K either have teeny tiny type or a higher price or sometimes both.  You have less room to display the copies).  With Borders disappearing, all of its book slots are going with it.  All of them.

Dean looked at me when I asked the question, frowned, and said, “Are you kidding? I don’t know.  Lots and lots.” Which for my technical former math major husband was both incredibly imprecise and terribly expressive at the same time.

Lots and lots of them.

Here’s the problem beautifully stated on Twitter by Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist: “Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books.  Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you’re an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don’t have price clubs or Target.  You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of the 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K.”

I found this quote in a good analysis piece on NPR’s book blog.  As Rachel Syme, the author of the blog, added, “Granted the reduced print runs for books doesn’t mean fewer books will sell, but Borders closing does have a huge effect on how many physical copies will be out in the world….There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go. The most logical thing to do is to stop printing them.”

All good points.  But the third quarter of 2011 is going to be worse than most traditional publishers realize.  As I said, all of the traditional publishers started to prepare for Borders liquidation in January.  It may not have been a conscious preparation—I’m sure some companies firmly believed that Borders would end up getting purchased, or make some sort of sweetheart deal that would take the company into a reorganization bankruptcy instead of a liquidation bankruptcy. But that didn’t happen.

The third quarter will be bad for one reason no one is considering: the debt limit negotiations.  Right now, Americans are fully aware that their Congress critters are fiddling while Rome is burning.  Retail sales (and other sales) across the board are down while everyone pauses to make sure Rome isn’t going to be leveled.  We remember the downturn in 2008 too clearly to make that mistake again.  Folks are hanging onto their cash right now.

This after the high gas prices in the spring tightened spending as normally disposable income went into fueling the car for the commute to work.

Those things, however, would be a blip on the publishing radar if it weren’t for something that is happening this month that most people in traditional publishing don’t even know about.

Barnes & Noble issued an order from its corporate headquarters that it wants its stores to once again decrease the number of paper books the stores are going to carry.  I got this Facebook message from a Barnes & Noble employee in Minnesota on July 10.

“We were notified at our B&N location this week that in the next couple of weeks we will be receiving a ‘massive returns download.’ To coincide with this outflux of books we will be adding 3 more of the massive toys and games displays, as well as expanding gift and the digital presence.”

This B&N employee isn’t the only person who notified me of this, but he is the one who gave me permission to use the quote, and (I assume) his name. But I’m holding his name back because jobs are hard to come by these days, and I don’t want someone at B&N corporate to jump all over him if he’s not supposed to be talking about this.

I told this to a group of pro writers shortly after he contacted me, and these writers didn’t get it.  They didn’t understand that “a massive outflux” of books will probably include theirs, as well as those of many, many, many bestsellers.

What this means is that in the third quarter, just as traditional publishers are absorbing and dealing with the last of the Borders blow from the winter, they will get hit with a massive number of returns from Barnes & Noble.

For those of you who don’t know about this little quirk in the book industry, a bookseller can return a book for full credit to a major publisher.  Generally, to deal with this quirk, traditional publishers print two books expecting to sell one.  (To understand how this returns system came about see my post “Challenges For Big Publishing”)  Suddenly, in July, both books will get returned—the expected return (book number one) and the planned sale (book number two).

So expected revenue will decrease dramatically, not counting the decreases from the price clubs (Target, Walmart, Costco, etc) because of the tight-fisted consumers this summer.

And, to make matters worse, this one-time outflux of books from B&N includes a decrease in shelf space.  I have no idea how many book slots will be lost, but I can tell you that it’s a significant number of them.  B&N already looks like something other than a bookstore.  Now books will be a peripheral product at best. (See my post “Bookstore Observations” and the comments to understand more on what’s happening here.)

Yes, yes, as everyone is saying, this will drive more readers to digital and for me, and writers like me, this is a good thing.  But remember that 70% (at least) of all readers want paper books instead of digital books.  Those readers will have fewer and fewer outlets to find those books.

One article I read said this will drive readers to used bookstores.  Sure, it will, but it won’t solve the problem mentioned by Kathleen Schmidt above.  There will be fewer paper books coming from traditional publishers.  This means that there will be fewer paper books traded in at used bookstores.

Instead of 30,000 copies of your favorite midlist writer’s favorite book, the traditional publisher will only print 15,000 (to use Schmidt’s numbers).  That means that there are only 15,000 to spread to all of the used bookstores in the nation when the initial purchaser is done reading.  And we readers all know that we trade in some books, but we keep others.  So in reality, for a really good book, there will be only 8,000 to 5,000 copies available in used bookstores.

Why does this matter? 70% of readers read paper, remember, and they need that gateway drug, some book to introduce those readers to that writer.  With fewer and fewer copies in new bookstores, and fewer and fewer copies in used bookstores, how will the bulk of readers discover an author who is new to them?  Not a new author.  But an author new to the reader.

Let’s go back to Bantam Books, Game of Thrones and my Fey series.  Why did the consistency of editor matter? Because I got orphaned (lost my editor) again between books 3 and 4 of the series.  Book 4 never went back to press when its initial print run sold out.  Once notified of this, an editor would have made sure the book got another printing.  But because no editor knew, there are fewer copies of Book 4 of a five-book series than any other title in that series. What did that mean for Book 5? Lots and lots of potential readers never got to it because they couldn’t find book 4.  How do I know they even wanted book 4?

Because within six months of Book 4’s publication, the five-dollar paperback was selling used for twenty dollars and up.  For a while, Book 4 was selling for $400 online.  That means there’s demand for the book, demand that the publisher wouldn’t fulfill.  Because there were only a small number of copies, each one became precious to the reader and the book became hard to find.

Because the book was hard to find—and it was in the middle of the series—the series died.

Something similar is going to happen to midlist series authors over the next two years.  But it’s also going to happen to all midlist authors who are working through traditional publishers. Some traditional publishers will account the loss of Borders in their calculations for next year’s print runs (something they’re doing now).  But most won’t factor in this massive return and loss of shelf space from B&N, nor will they look at what’s going on in the overall economy.  They will blame the author.

(Think that doesn’t happen? I know of a bestselling author who had to rebuild her career because her book debuted on September 11, 2001.  Her book appeared, but for some reason she was bumped off all media that week (duh) and there were no book reviews.  The book sold one-tenth of what her books usually sold. Her publisher blamed her for writing a crappy book, decreased her advance on the next book, and it took her career three years to recover—for something that came in from the outside, that had nothing to do with her or the quality of her book.  These things happen all the time, just not as dramatically as they happened to her.)

So I was going to write a piece this week about how traditional publishing is getting it right for George and for others like him. But with all the events this week, I find myself wondering if George’s record—being the bestselling fiction title of 2011 might translate into 2012 and 2013 as well.  He might hold the record for a while, not just because his books are good, but because of the flux in the industry.

By 2015, the shake-out will be complete.  We’ll have new (and different) brick and mortar places to buy paper books. We’ll sell a lot of e-books.  We’ll be comfortable in the new normal, whatever that may be.

We will see a lot of change in the industry between now and then. We’re already seeing it.  I didn’t even mention the two smaller publishers I know of who are telling their authors and employees this week that the house is going out of business or the publisher I know that is having such severe financial troubles that I don’t expect that publisher to be in business at this time next year.

Publisher’s Weekly published a list of the top publishing companies in the world in 2010—and, by the way, there were more than fifty of them on that list, not that stupid Big Six thing people always talk about—and in that article, also listed the profits the companies made.  I suspect profits will be down considerably in 2011, and the list PW publishes in 2012 will be quite different than the 2010 list.

Some publishers will survive, and some won’t. And some might vanish because of circumstances outside of publishing altogether. For example, if I were a HarperCollins writer right now, I’d be closely watching the Murdoch scandal. HarperCollins is part of the Murdoch Empire. If that scandal results in a break-up of the Murdoch empire, and HC isn’t making a good profit, HC could get sold off or closed as part of the break-up.  Just sayin’ now’s the time to pay attention.

If you’re a traditionally published author, expect a disappointing royalty statement for the six months covering the third quarter of 2011.  Expect to hear doom and gloom from your traditional publishers.  But remember, things are changing—and they’re changing for everyone. If your publisher blames you for the decline, look at that statement with a jaundiced eye.  Realize that everyone will sell fewer copies through traditional venues in this quarter.

It’s a tough summer, but we’ll get through it.  In the meantime, a lot of good books just hit the stands.  If you’re worried about your favorite author making it through this quarter, buy her books.  And give some away as gifts.

Because really, that’s what it comes down to—book sales.  If we can afford it, we need to buy the books from our favorite authors—and keep looking for new authors to read.  Just because you can’t buy the books through your usual outlets any more doesn’t mean you should give up reading.  It just means you might have to change your habits.

Borders and B&N are forcing us out of box stores. So go to the independent stores. Order online.  There’s a bunch of new ways to find books.  We readers just have to be a bit more proactive now than we were in the past—and that’s probably a good thing.

The observant among you probably noticed that I hadn’t had a little italicized section for the last few weeks. I was experimenting. I wondered if people would continue to donate if I didn’t point out the donate button.  And while a few folks continued to donate (thank you!), the donations dropped off significantly.  So I’m back to remind you that I make my living as a fiction writer, and each Business Rusch post I write takes time away from my fiction writing.  So please, if you’re getting something out of the blog, help fund my nonfiction habit.  Thanks so much.


“The Business Rusch: Third Quarter Blues” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

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43 Comments

  1. Fascinating post. Even though I get up early to write before work, I stayed up late just to read your Business Rusch update, and was well rewarded. :)

    The big question I have, however, is what are your predictions for the fourth quarter? Will the changes at Borders and B&N lead to a huge spike in ebook and ereader sales? What will the effect of this be for indie published writers, and how can we best position ourselves to prepare for the holiday season (besides write more books, which is kind of obvious)?

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    • Joe, I’m going to think about the fourth quarter and reserve my answer until the debt talks end. Because any answer will depend on what happens in the next two weeks. I might even see a post coming….:-)

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  2. Another great post, Kris. I follow politics as steadfastly as I do publishing news, so my concerns echo yours. I also wonder whether Barnes & Noble will be “encouraged” by publishers to expand their Romance sections in stores, as they were pitifully small the last time I checked.

    In fact, when I lived in Boston, there were literally NO stores in an entire half of the city that sold romance, used or new, probably out of some perceived stigma attached to “those trashy formulaic books.” The Harvard Bookstore infamously refuses to sell or buy back romances or westerns. Their Sci-Fi/Fantasy section finally appeared in the new section, receiving all of one half row of shelf space. Don’t get me wrong: they have an expresso machine, started an eco-friendly delivery system, and have a great used section. But the bias against genre fiction is only going to be more visible with the fall of Borders.

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    • S.V., I hadn’t even thought about the genre stigma. Although some of the independent stores that are doing the best are romance stores new/used. And I know some sf stores remain as do some mysteries. Maybe we can start going back to some genre indies! That would be fun as well.

      Marcel, I wasn’t even familiar with the link you provided. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

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  3. Off-topic, sort of – have you looked at something like http://flattr.com/ ? It might help with the donations (I don’t know, I’ve never used it as a blogger). I think some people (I am one of them) are worried that they have to keep track of yet another budget when it comes to donations; plus, donating small amounts (sub-$3) is difficult.

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  4. Kris: Great analysis. I love George’s work, too, but I have to wonder if a great deal of his success this year didn’t come from the fact that his HBO series kicked off and was viewed by a huge number of fans, taking him well outside the traditional fantasy readership.

    Having said that, I thought the cover on his first book in the series wasn’t just bad, it was criminally bad, and it crippled an otherwise great series.

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    • Thanks for the note, Dave. I do think some of the big success George had this summer is the show, but readers have had months to read the first volumes, so if readers thought they were awful, his sales wouldn’t have been through the roof. And as I said, Bantam really capitalized on the show, reissuing all of George’s backlist with new covers tied to the show, and getting books in stores. So I think Bantam did well here.

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  5. It’s the second part that gave me pause this week, however, because as you all know Borders has decided to dissolve. The remaining stores, all 399 of them, and the remaining employees, 10,700 of them, will be gone by September.

    Yeah, I read this, and it’s so very sad. There are 2 within driving distance of where I live (altho there was a Walden Books at the mall that was even closer; that shut down about 2 years ago). I did love going into those stores, usually with books I already ordered online, but I’d always cruise through the fantasy section for any other books that struck my fancy (and usually came away with one or two more to pay for, lol).

    And I hadn’t thought about all of those slots disappearing. Good grief! I feel so sorry for those authors who secured a traditional deal and their first book is coming out NOW. Talk about terrible timing.

    It’s all just so sad.

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  6. You ask, “how will the bulk of readers discover an author who is new to them?” I’m a college student right now, so I don’t have a lot of time for extracurricular reading; however, I look for new authors at the public library.

    As the amount of spending money shrinks for the average American, I’m pretty sure that library usage is going to go up. Authors are going to have to make sure that they’re ready to take advantage of this. Readers will go out and buy the books they’ve read if they like them enough.

    Some insight into my purchasing habits:

    I gambled at the nearest Border’s closing near me, and spent money on a book that was the third in a series. I got the first in the series from the library. It took me 170 pages to get interested. If I hadn’t spent money on the third book, I would have put the book down. Mind you, this is from an author that has written a book I own and love. I’m still irritated that the author didn’t live up to the expectations I’d garnered from the book I already owned.

    I own over 200 paperbacks. Some of them I have read more than 15 times. They’re old friends, and sometimes I sit down and visit with them again. I don’t have money for hardcover except in rare circumstances. I have at least two authors that I’ve bought over 20 novels because their work was good and available.

    I don’t know how typical I am, but I would bet there are other readers out there who won’t gamble with the little pocket money that they have anymore. There isn’t any money to waste on a book you’re just going to sell back to Half Price Books, or donate to somewhere because you just don’t love it.

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    • Thanks, Nancy & Darlene.

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    • Really, really good point, Sarah. I hadn’t thought of increased library use, and books get there through different channels, which are important. I think some readers will go to libraries, but the current economic climate is causing libraries to close all over this country right now, particularly in rural areas that need them the most. So we’re still in a bind. It’s going to be a tough few years.

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  7. The Big Six applies to Engish Language fiction. Most of the other publishers listed at the top of the PW list publish textbooks, technical books, and niche nonfiction. I’ve published with two of them (Pearsons and Wiley) and my experiences suggests that one reason for their profitability is that they publish in niches that expect to pay $25-40 a copy for their books which are in many cases tax deductible. Nonfiction stays on the shelves of specialty bookstores (and B&N) for far longer than fiction. It wasn’t until I started publishing fiction with a Big Six publisher that I realized how lucky I’d been to hew out a career in nonfiction in the past–even though most people have little respect for writers whose books are technical or business publications and consider only novelists to be “real writers.”

    The truth that rarely gets mentioned in discussions of writing online is that most people making real incomes from writing write nonfiction.

    Also, while you make a cogent argument for the changes that will hit used book sales now that shelf space is shrinking and the impact on download sales, most of those used book multi-hundred dollar prices we see online result from errors coding input by vendors who use mass uploads. They cheer up authors but almost always result from a misplaced decimal point or a misapplied pricing algorithm. I’ve seen hundred dollar prices listed for old books of mine that were simultaneously selling from other vendors for $2 or $3.

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    • Sigh, Jenny. The Big Six is an incorrect label, and many of those companies on the PW list publish English language fiction. In fact, some of the so-called “Big Six” aren’t even listed on that list. So the Big Six a myth. If you want to believe the myth in the face of evidence to the contrary, that’s your right. But the rest of you, do realize the term is incorrect.

      Then you spouted yet another myth, that fiction writers can’t make money. Which is just wrong. Go read my husband’s Killing the Sacred Cows blog on this topic: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=607.

      And no, on my Fey 4 the decimal point wasn’t missing. The book repeatedly sold for hundreds of dollars on E-Bay, on Abe, and in other places. Hell, two friends of mine (E-Bay sellers) sold copies at that price. So I wasn’t “excited” about a blip. I understand blips. But for years, before WMG started reissuing the books, people were buying and selling Fey 4 for $50-$400.

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  8. Just correcting the web site link in the above message.

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    • Thanks for the numbers, Doug. Much appreciated.

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  9. I liked a comment I read on a blog by Jennifer Povey (http://jenniferrpovey.blogspot.com/2011/07/losses.html):

    “We do not need places to buy books.

    Amazon has that covered. Barnes & Noble is primarily doing better than Borders because their web site can almost compete with Amazon.

    We need places to experience books.”

    I can’t help thinking that if Amazon et al were to take up the slack, the publishing runs would rebound to what they are now. So I see the loss as partially short term due to reorientation, but with a longer term loss in having fewer places to experience books. Libraries and indie bookstores are the obvious successors, but they’re both chancy in the current economic climate. Who knows after that?

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    • Big Ed, I’m hoping indie bookstores come back, with regional and genre voices. People want to hold books and wander among piles of books. We just need new (old?) ways to do it.

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  10. I’m going to miss Borders. Even in its decline, it was still my favorite local bookstore. Louisa and Jennifer and I have been meeting there for years. I can’t tell you how many new-to-me authors I’ve found browsing those bookshelves.

    As for George’s books — hubby, my boss, and my boss’s wife are all reading the Song of Ice and Fire Books. I think that’s a first, except maybe with Jim Butcher’s Dresden books. While they all started reading because of the HBO show, they’ve gone on from reading Games of Thrones to the next books in the series because of the quality of George’s writing and in part because there’s this void between seasons 1 and 2 of the HBO series. Since there are four more books in the saga available _right now_, all those viewers used to spending Sunday nights with the Lannisters and the Starks have a way to stay connected with that world. What better time to release the fifth book in the series. Awesome job of capitalizing on the success of the HBO show by his publisher. I bet the HBO show will benefit in turn by the influx of new readers to the series who can’t wait to see how what they’ve read will translate to the screen.

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    • I miss Borders already. When it stopped getting most of the new books, I stopped going. And now I don’t have an all-new bookstore within 3 hours of my house. It’s weird. And I feel the lack. Very neat that folks are reading George’s books. I think your observation about them is spot-on. Thanks.

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  11. No matter how bad things get, I try to make room to buy a few new books and as many used books as I can afford. Considering how libraries and bookstores are collapsing everywhere you look it makes me think I have to do it myself. I rarely keep the books I read anymore, because I would much rather keep it moving on to someone who needs it.

    The two agreements that come with that is that it has to go to someone who will read it – and who will make sure they keep sending it along to other people. I sent three Alastair Reynolds books on not long ago, and even though I would like to reread them, I hope that someone has grown to love his work too. It seems more important to change a life than keep books I read.

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    • Good points, Ryan. I love your conditions. Perfect, imho.

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  12. Yikes! As well as doing self epublishing, I have a traditional book contract with Penguin Berkley Prime Crime, already turned in 2 mysteries and have a 3rd due in a couple of months. What do do? Feels kind of like flying blind these days; you might land somewhere wonderful or crash into a mountainside.

    It’s all so confusing. I hope the big companies figure out how to market and sell print effectively online, and I hope it becomes easier for indie authors to make their books known. For a new author, it seems nearly impossible to figure out what to do next. But thanks so much for all the information, Kris!

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    • Yeah, Pamela, I have seven books coming out of traditional publishers in the next year. I feel your pain. But eventually the bean counters will figure out that things are Different now. Fortunately one of my traditional publishers understands the e-markets. So that should carry the slack. But it will be an interesting few months. Like you I’m glad I’m also doing indie books.

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  13. How many books does a midlist writer’s publisher send to a bookstore of her or his books? If 400 stores are closing and the publisher only sends 5 books, that’s 2,000 “slots” disappearing. Or does the publisher send a lot more? I’ve no idea and am asking out of curiosity not snarkyism. lol

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    • Lyn, chain bookstores used to say that the average order for a midlist book was 5 copies. But that’s not entirely right because average would imply that they would order fewer than five on some books. The baseline order was five, but to sell five the company usually ordered 8-10 per store, and more for the larger stores (the mega-chain stores). So figuring five as a baseline, your math is correct per title. Which means that the number of lost slots per title is probably higher than that.

      So 2K slots are disappearing from Borders alone per title. Plus the losses at B&N. Wow.

      And now you’ve succeeded in scaring me. Math does that to me sometimes. (sigh)

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  14. When publishers tell authors it’s the author’s fault, there is no reason to conclude publishers believe this. They could easily be using that as an excuse to cut future payments to the author. “I don’t care what you tell him. Tell him anything. Just get him out of here before lunch.”

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    • Exactly, Terrence. Except in the bad old days, which 2001 was, the author had no way to verify if the fault was theirs or not without conducting a large audit and further pissing off the publisher. This has changed for the better with indie publishing–now there are options. And that’s a good thing.

      Reply
  15. Kris, thanks for another interesting post.

    I am very happy for Mr. Martin for his success. I frequented the Kansas City convention for many years, where he appeared regularly, and he was always an affable and utterly approachable person. My friends and I marveled, in fact, that (far) lesser known writers would be snotty with fans, while he (and his lovely companion Paris, of course) would talk with people in the lobby, in the con rooms, etcetera.

    When the Borders in my area liquidated, I went in there in search of bargains. They had their Kobo reader on sale for $70. I wouldn’t touch it, for reasons your readers don’t need spelled out. I ended up getting the more expensive Kindle. It’s great. It makes out-of-copyright books (not all, but more and more every day) easier to get, and free. I browse online much like I browse in bookstores. (Yes, I’ll admit physical bookstores are a lot more fun.)

    I think authors are at the point that customers of long distance were in 20 years ago. Note that I am comparing *authors* with phone customers, not *readers* with customers. Here’s why:

    As recently as 1995, I worked at a college newspaper where our office phone line was “hard locked” to prevent long distance calls; you simply couldn’t do it, even in an emergency. No more than a few years later, when I was teaching at (another) college, most of my students had unlimited long distance on their cell phones. Authors are in terrible straits right now, as you have described in detail. But that 70% of readers who prefer paper will steadily whittle down, and the e-readers will get better and cheaper. I think that in another few years, most writers won’t worry about how much shelf space is available.

    Reply
    • Eric, I think you’re right about shelf space. The problem is what Felicity mentions above. The browsing factor. Right now, it’s hard to browse online. And I just bought a paper book that I was looking forward to. When it arrived in the mail, I was disappointed because it was so thin. If I had known (realized–I knew the page count) I would have just gotten the e-book. So that comparison is hard to make too.

      I remember hard locks. Wow. The things that slip your mind. You’re right about the comparison. I heard on the news last night that the iPad has penetrated 16% of households in the US in one year. It took 9 years for cell phones to do that, and 9 years for color TVs to do the same. The cool thing about iPads is the various bookstores, which means that more and more readers have new devices where they can easily get something to read. So there is an upside. I just wanted to focus on traditional publishing this week, and I think I picked a bad week to do it–no matter how great I feel about George’s success. (And yes, he’s an extremely fan-friendly guy. He’s a fan himself, so he loves spending time talking about fannish things.)

      Reply
  16. Kris, it was lovely to see you in Oregon the other day. Wish we’d had longer to talk! Instead, I’m making my first (long!) comment on your blog.

    This post is fantastic, as usual, and so right. I gobbled up A DANCE WITH DRAGONS on my flight home from Oregon. (Yes, it was a long flight.) George RR Martin more than deserves his bestseller stature, and kudos to Bantam for getting the books into the stores, as you say.

    I bought ADWD at the Powells bookstore in Portland airport. I was also looking for two other new releases. They weren’t in stock, so I didn’t buy them. Instead I impulse-bought a mass-market paperback from a revolving rack: Joseph Finder’s KILLER INSTINCT. Wow, that was a great book! I now have a new author on my auto-buy list, who I never would have discovered without going to the bookstore.

    With every bookstore closure, the discoverability problem is going to get worse. One function of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, as my little anecdote above is meant to illustrate, is as a gatekeeper or curator, if you will, of the wide world of books. Studies have proved that a narrower selection actually encourages purchases, as it liberates us as customers from the paralysis of too much choice. Instead of just trusting that readers will find their way to good books “somehow,” I think we need online curators of quality. I know some people have been bouncing around the idea of author collectives that would create joint websites / online bookstores, if not actually joint publishing enterprises (the latter would be a step too far, IMO). This is one discoverability solution that could actually work, especially in genre fiction. But it will take trusted, respected names with major trad-publishing credentials to lead these author collectives. What a shame you and Dean are already so busy… :D

    Anyway, great post, keep them coming! And I second Marcel, the guy who suggested Flattr. YES to micropayments.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the post, Felicity. Glad to know you made it home okay. (What a long flight!)

      I do a recommended reading list on my blog, but that’s not the same as vetting new books. I just post what’s new to me. Although I’m seeing a lot of other bloggers do that, and I think it’s valuable. That will help. We’re just in such flux that the new system hasn’t developed yet.

      Reply
  17. I was one of those who hunted for the elusive 4th installment of the series, having written Kris who set me on the right trail.

    Fortunately, I paid less than $50 for a used paperback, but it was worth it.

    I am less optimistic than Ms. Rusch as the MBA bean-counter non-readers infiltrate the ecology of the mega-conglomerates.

    I read science texts, romance, westerns, juveniles, YA, SF, mysteries, and tea bag labels [especially those handed to me by Lisa Scottoline with her protagonist-forming motto from Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s hot water.”]

    The bean-counter culture does not. More than one individual example — the Australia case from a few years ago rears prominently in my mind — has, sans conscious irony, asked publishers, “Why can’t you just print the bestsellers?”

    Incidentally, while I’m here in comment mode and awaiting the next book in the series, may I say to you, Kris, wit feeling however inapropos, in re Smokey Dalton, “You **ARE** The Man!”

    :>)

    JJB

    Reply
    • Thanks, JJB. I love that Eleanor Roosevelt quote. Perfect. And you’re right about bean-counter culture. (Not bean counterculture, which is a different thing–ooh, I’m writing Grayson right now. Can you tell?) Bean-counter culture has infected publishing in the last 15 years, which is why so many successful series/authors got cut for not being bestsellers, even though the books were growing and selling. Strange stuff.

      And thanks for the compliment on Smokey (and the Fey!). Next books coming. I promise. :-)

      Reply
  18. I usually don’t read long blog posts (squinting at the computer is no fun) but this one grabbed my attention and held it all the way through. Your insights into the pain points of traditional publishing are fascinating.

    Yep, definitely a revolution going on!

    Cyndi

    Reply
    • Thanks for the read, Cyndi. :-)

      Reply
  19. Based on what I’ve heard from people who work at Barnes & Noble, the upcoming reductions shouldn’t affect fiction much. They’re cutting way back on slow moving stock like photography/art books and cultural studies. They’re cutting way way way back on dvd’s and cd’s, office supplies. And they’re adding scented candles and such.

    Reply
    • Scented candles. Goooood. Those of us who are allergic to perfume won’t be able to shop there. (sigh) I never look at books as just fiction. Because I also write nonfiction, the nonfiction slots are important to me too. We’ll see what happens here. They already cut fiction to the bone. They probably didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Office supplies at B&N? I never saw any, but then I only had eyes for books.

      Thanks for the report, David. We can only watch and hope for the best, imho.

      Reply
  20. Kris, I hate to say it, but you sound like my Mom. ;)

    Like you, she is mourning the loss of “searching the stacks” in a bookstore. Looking for new gems, new writers. It’s the feel – the smells – the experience that is being missed, I think, more than anything else.

    In other words, it’s not that people *can’t* find new writers in online bookstores. Of course they can; it happens every day. It’s that the experience of doing so is not what those readers are used to.

    I’m not really sure that matters anymore, though. Borders is closing. B&N is slashing stores, and slashing shelf space for books in their remaining stores. The ABA is reporting serious losses are the national average for all indie bookstores. Honestly? I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning of the end for brick and mortar book sales.

    Like music, books will still be available in some stores – a few racks of books, like there are a few racks of CDs in many stores today. But the day of dedicated stores full of books is a thing of the past, I think. Much as music has moved online for sales, books are about to make that transition as well.

    Books, print and ebook alike, will increasingly be sold from online stores like Amazon and B&N.com. If you have a couple hundred thousand dollars to invest and want a good business, make an online bookstore – I think several new competitors will spring up in the next 2-3 years to fill this space.

    And we’ll mourn the loss of the old bookstore experience. Me too, really. But we’ll still buy books. It’s just the manner in which we do so that will change. The new way is certainly different; but it’s not worse.

    Reply
    • You’re exactly right, Kevin. We will buy books. We will buy books differently. Honestly, I never liked music stores. They were too overwhelming and I couldn’t find anything and the clerks were all snobs. (Really. Even in Tower Records, which assaulted you with music you hated from the moment you came in the door.) I still stopped in music stores, and bought my weekly LPs/CDs. But I hated the experience. So I was happy to purchase music online–and still am. In fact, I love it.

      Conversely, I love bookstores. Love, love, love them. Even when the clerks are snobs. So I’ll miss the bookstore experience, but I’ll continue to buy books. I already sense my patterns changing. The minute I find out about a book I want, I preorder it. That’s new. I used to wait. So the change will probably work for me–and for other bookstore lovers–but we’ll still miss the stores. Like I still miss my grandmother’s baking.

      And yep, doesn’t surprise me that I sound like your mom. I’m probably her age (or older). :-)

      Reply
  21. Speaking of vetting and gatekeeping, I am so glad to have you and Dean funneling all the important publishing news our way. I was so busy watching Borders I never even heard about B&N! I am truly thankful for all the news and insight you bring to this blog!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Cindie. :-)

      Reply

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