The Business Rusch: Traditional Publishing & Its Suppliers
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
My posts over the past few weeks have elicited quite a few comments, in person, in e-mail and in the comments section, that go like this: “How can traditional publishers treat writers like that? This is clearly a sign of a decaying business.”
Naw. It’s a sign that writers still don’t understand how they fit in the traditional publishing model.
In a post two weeks ago, I talked about the ways that writers’ books get mishandled. I mentioned the American publication of my novel Hitler’s Angel (for the full sad story, click here), and I mentioned several other missteps.
Since I wrote that piece, I read an excellent article in the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair by Keith Gessen, the founder of n + 1, about his long-time friend Chad Harbach, and the amazing publishing success story—before publication—of Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Gessen uses this story to examine publishing today, and he does an excellent job.
In the article, he writes this:
“As for how much money you [the editor] ought really to plunk down on a book, there are some guides you can use. Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales of individual books at about three-quarters of the bookselling cash registers across the country, can tell you how much an author’s last book sold—this is her ‘sales track,’ and it gives you some idea of how well her next book might sell. But it can be the wrong idea. Emma Donoghue had published six novels before her 2010 Room, the two most recent of which ‘BookScan’ at 1,852 and 1,119, respectively, in hardcover in the U.S. Room has sold more than half a million in hardcover and digital and is still going. If it’s the writer’s first book and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (‘comp titles’) and see how many copies they sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.”
Let me repeat that conclusion for those of you who can’t handle big blocks of text on your computer:
“No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.”
Add to it all the missteps he mentions in his article. For example, he briefly mentions two books, one from Houghton-Mifflin and one from Random House, books that received good advances, whose entire publishing team left the company, the books were orphaned, and they tanked, much like the book by Yvonne Thornton that I mentioned in the blog post three weeks ago.
These missteps are common. So common that Gessen continually reminds the reader, “Of course, the story I’ve been telling of The Art of Fielding is not typical.”
The story is not typical in a good way. At some point, everything went right for The Art of Fielding. More common are books—and authors—for whom things go wrong.
So how can a business not just survive but thrive when it treats writers this way?
Simple, really. Publishing companies aren’t in the business of treating writers well or even treating an individual book well. They’re in the business of publishing books.
Gessen writes: “It’s hard for writers to believe, but publishing is a big business. It’s not the oil business or the auto business or even the cell phone business, but total book sales in the United States last year  were $13.9 billion—and twice that if you include textbooks and other educational material….
“The vast majority of publishers’ revenue (100 percent in the case of Little, Brown) is from the sale of books and subsidiary rights to books: for the moment, publishers have no other way to make money. They sell books. They do make money. That’s the point of publishing.”
Note there’s nothing here about coddling authors, nothing about how the missteps hurt the business.
Because the missteps don’t hurt the overall business.
So, in 1997, St. Martin’s Press really screwed up my novel Hitler’s Angel. An editor got fired over that. I lost months of work to some company screw up. This publisher lost enough money on that and the editor’s other mistakes to fire him.
Generally, when a book misses for a publishing company, everyone shrugs and moves on. Because these kinds of losses are built into the bottom line.
Let’s look at it this way: Picture a large grocery store. Now imagine how many products fill the aisles. Every day, when a customer walks into the store, she sees promotions—ads, coupons, front of the store displays, and sometimes, free tastes of merchandise.
Sometimes those promotions work. Often they don’t.
Do you think the grocery store manager cares when a promotion fails? Sure, in a “Well, let’s not do that again” kinda way. The manager has so many other products in the store that he can swallow a bad daily or weekly promotion provided he doesn’t have too many of them.
Usually those bad promotions are offset by the good promotions. Yeah, maybe that artichoke promotion didn’t work, but the Diet Coke promotion brought in dozens of extra customers, hundreds in revenue, and generally brought up the company’s bottom line for the day or the week.
That’s how publishing works. They put time and money behind all of their books. Some books get the front of the store promotions. Some books get advertising. Some books fail. Some books succeed. The company jettisons the failures and goes with the successes.
That’s the only way you can run a business based on taste. The business must have a lot of product to overcome the uncertainty factor.
So yes, I’ve been treated poorly by publishing companies. I’ve been treated well. I’ve had promotions go very well. I’ve had promotions go awry.
Even though I’m a very prolific writer, I have a small amount of product compared to every major publishing house I’ve worked with. In fact, if you compare my entire product line with one month of theirs, I still come up short.
I am the publishing house’s supplier. I give them product so that they can market it, nothing more.
It’s no different than the relationship the local orchard has with a grocery store. The orchard provides apples that the store puts out for sale. The store might even do some promotion. It gives the orchard a bit of retail space, which costs the store money. In return, the store hopes to make a few pennies off the sale of each apple. But the store has more than one variety of apple, from more than one supplier.
If our local orchard’s apples don’t sell or don’t sell enough to pay for their retail footprint, then the store no longer orders from the orchard. The fact that the store has pulled out of the local apple business might devastate the orchard, but the store will be there the next year. In fact, the store will find another source of apples or maybe it’ll fill that little bit of retail space with locally grown cherries.
It’s a loss to the store, sure, but it’s a shruggable loss. A small one. An oops. Not something devastating.
Devastating occurs when everything in the produce section is old or spoiled, the shelves in the rest of the store have expired merchandise, and the meat is gray. That’s a total system failure, and it rarely happens in the large grocery stores, because they have ordering systems, revenue tracking systems, and stocking systems that prevent it.
Writers usually only have one book on the stands at a time. And if the traditional publisher mistreats that one book, for whatever reason—a bad hire, a terrible cover, a failure in shipping—then the writer is devastated. Some writers have quit the business because of it.
Before the advent of indie-publishing, a lot of writers couldn’t sell another book after a devastating loss on an earlier book. (Those writers apparently were too egotistical or too dumb to change their bylines.) One mistake, and a writer lost a year or more revenue.
One mistake and a traditional publisher doesn’t even notice.
So, writers: If you want to stay in traditional publishing, stop viewing the world in a writer-centric way. Expect things to go wrong. Plan for it. Try to prevent it by paying attention. Sometimes your editor gets fired and no one takes his place, which means no one in house is shepherding that book. Sometimes the line gets cut, so there no longer is money to promote your book. Watch the trades so you know what’s happening as or before it happens. Don’t be surprised like so many writers are.
When things go right, compliment everyone. When you find a copy editor you like, get her name and request her next time. When you get extra support from the sales force, say thank you. And then smile to yourself, because things are going well for you. Enjoy it.
Because there are a lot of people working on your traditionally published book. Many things can go wrong when there are so many hands in the pie. You can’t supervise from afar, but you can watch.
And you can write the next book.
Because really, the secret to publishing—whether you’re a writer or a publishing house, whether you’re in traditional publishing or independent publishing—is to have a lot of product. Diversify, diversify, diversify.
Don’t put all of your hopes on one book. Don’t even put them all on one genre. Write a lot. Always improve, and always look toward the next project.
That’s what traditional publishing houses do. No matter how poorly they treat individual writers, the houses have managed to be around and make money for decades. Traditional publishing is going to survive this change because they understand how important it is to have a lot of product.
You need to have the same understanding.
And step back. Stop contemplating your navel. Viewing the world from your writerly poor-poor-pitiful-me perspective is part of the problem. The moment you put a book on the market—whether it’s in the mail to a traditional publishing house or posted through Kindle’s Direct Publishing program—you’ve entered an international business. You’re on an international stage.
Recognize that and behave accordingly.
Yep, traditional publishing will treat you badly at one point or another. If you stay in the business long enough, traditional publishing will also treat you well.
Take your fragile ego out of the equation and realize that once your book is out there, you’re no longer a sensitive artist. You are a supplier, like thousands of other suppliers.
You have your own business to run. The more you treat it like a business, the more you focus on the international aspect of it all, the better off you’ll be.
No matter what route to publication that you chose.
I chose to write this blog every week on publishing instead of writing some words of fiction. My fiction sells all over the world. And now, thanks to the power of the internet, folks from all over the world also read this blog. Just because it’s on my website doesn’t mean it’s a little local publication.
I provide a lot of free content on this website, but I don’t look at the blogs as freebies. That’s because this blog is something I would not do if it weren’t for you readers commenting, sharing stories and links and e-mails, and of course, donating to keep it alive.
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“The Business Rusch: Traditional Publishing & Its Suppliers” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.