The Business Rusch: Scarcity and Abundance

The Business Rusch: Scarcity and Abundance

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

For nearly two years now, I’ve been trying to find a succinct way to express how publishing is changing. So imagine my pleasure when I found the exact analogy that I wanted in John Seabrook’s New Yorker article, “Streaming Dreams,” about YouTube.

A few years ago, YouTube decided to make some structural changes to reflect the changing marketplace. It wanted to add premium content, including streaming video. To make the transition, it hired Robert Kyncl who had worked for both Hollywood and web-based companies like Netflix.

YouTube hired Kyncl to bridge the Silicon Valley culture of the web with the content-oriented culture of Hollywood.  Of the two cultures, Kyncl said, “Silicon Valley builds its bridges on abundance. Abundant bits of information floating out there, writing great programs to process it, then giving people useful tools to use it. [The entertainment industry] works by withholding content with the purpose of increasing its value.”

He expanded what he meant by comparing television to YouTube. In television, “airtime is a scarce resource, and quality programming scarcer still, and expensive to create.” Programming gets sold to network and cable executives “who make decisions, in part, on their ‘gut.’”

On YouTube, “‘airtime’ is infinite, content costs almost nothing for YouTube to produce, and quantity, not quality, is the bottom line.” Or as one YouTube director said, “YouTube greenlights everything.”

Kyncl’s  job became, in part, to convince broadcast-content owners to go through “an attitudinal shift” from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.

Stop now, step out of the YouTube/traditional television model, and think of publishing.

What has gone on in publishing in the past few years is precisely the YouTube versus television conundrum that Kyncl talks about in this article.

Traditional publishing, like network television, is built on scarcity.  In traditional publishing, “airtime” was shelf space. Only so many brick-and-mortar stores that carried books (of any type) existed. Those stores only had room for a certain amount of shelf space. Only a handful of books could fit face-out on those shelves. Several more could fit spine-out, but it’s harder to sell a book based on its spine than it is to sell a book based on the cover.

Because the shelf space is limited, traditional publishers only kept books with a fantastic sales record in print. The other books had a short shelf life before they were taken out of the stores and eventually out of print.

I called this the produce model, because I couldn’t think of any other way to express what was going on. Traditional publishers treated books like produce that would spoil because, in effect, sales do decline if a book has been out for a long time. (Sales don’t evaporate and in some cases, sales increase. But they will eventually plateau.)

A few years ago, our local independent bookstore got a new owner, a man who owns several used bookstores. He couldn’t bear to strip books of their covers and return them for full credit, so he kept the new books on the shelves for weeks, sometimes months. Readers soon discovered the problem with this model; we had no reason to go into the bookstore weekly to see the new arrivals, because he wouldn’t order new books until he had the shelf space.

Back in the olden days—all of five years ago—the produce model was the only viable model for brick-and-mortar stores with actual shelves.

Amazon had started making inroads in the produce model more than a decade ago, but it wasn’t until the decline in independent bookstores that traditional publishing realized what a force Amazon was.

Amazon had unlimited shelf space—the abundance model, to use Kyncl’s term. If a book existed, that book was probably available on Amazon. Only readers weren’t used to buying over the internet, so they preferred brick-and-mortar stores.

As brick-and-mortar stores became scarce, readers went to Amazon (and Powells.com and Barnes & Noble.com—places that had books on shelves, and with a click of a button, those books were purchased and mailed to the customer). Amazon in particular encouraged this thinking by making its website user friendly, by reducing prices to nearly nothing, and by working very, very, very hard to make the entire experience consumer-friendly.

When our local bookstore disappeared (victim to those policies mentioned above), I started shopping for books online with a lot more regularity. The nearest all-new bookstore was more than an hour away (now it’s two hours away), and I couldn’t get there every week. I tried B&N.com, but my orders got lost, shipped to the wrong address, or never fulfilled (and never refunded).

I turned instead to Amazon and—knock wood—have not had a problem with their ordering system in more than five years of getting books through them. (I like ordering from Powells.com as well, but they lack the selection that Amazon has. Still, that’s my go-to brick-and-mortar bookstore whenever I need to wander the shelves.)

Combining new and  used, like Powell’s and Amazon do, make it possible to order most books, in print or out of print.

Slowly, online book retailers were training the consumer to expect the abundance model.

But the traditional publishers still thought in terms of scarcity.

In fact, their entire business is built on it. The limited shelf space caused other issues. Over the years, traditional publishers had developed an arcane system of selling books. From returns (producing two books to sell one) to the distribution network (not selling directly to bookstores, but selling directly to distributors instead) had created a lot of unnecessary costs. (I explained some of this history in a previous post that you can access here.)

By the middle of the  previous decade, it cost at least $250,000 to publish a mid-list novel with a nice cover and an author advance of $10,000. At least $250,000, and often twice that amount. As in television, the cost of content was prohibitive.

And because traditional publishing, like television, deals in entertainment, success can’t be duplicated. Just because one book about elves becoming werewolves becomes a bestseller doesn’t mean all elven werewolf novels are guaranteed bestsellers. Traditional publishers, like television executives, often made decisions on which project to back based on their gut.

The more in touch a publisher was with readers (and not just that all-important Ivy League demographic, but real readers of all stripes), the more successful the company.  Again, television provides a telling example. Whenever a network like ABC rose to the top for years on end, it was because an executive had a golden gut. That person could make decisions that millions of people agreed with.

That skill is rare and doesn’t always last, particularly when the executive or the publisher gets too wrapped up in the hothouse environment of the studio or the publishing company.

Kyncl had an amusing—and apt—observation about this very thing in describing the cultural bridge he was expected to extend between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.  He told Seabrook that it made no sense at Google to bring “a gut-based decision-making process to a culture that is based on numerically quantifying everything. Ultimately, that kind of decision-making gets rejected, as if it were a foreign body.”

It is, in fact, the ultimate clash between scarcity thinking and abundance thinking. In abundance, you can toss anything into the mix, quantify its sales, and pick winners based on sheer numbers. In scarcity, you have to go with the best of what’s available, and hoping (praying) that you don’t lose too much money on everything else.

Everyone currently working in traditional publishing, from the publishers to the editors to the writers, learned the scarcity attitude. Everyone. That includes me. That includes any unpublished writer who tried to break in before 18 months ago. That includes agents. That includes book reviewers, copy editors, book editors, and the publishing executives.

Our attitudes got formed in a model based on limited shelf space and expensive production costs. On “gut” decisions instead of quantifiable decisions.

On the idea that rarity increases value.

Each book becomes precious. Each book needs time to produce. Each book must be perfect, because its debut on the world stage is brief, and its ability to capture an audience limited.

The very idea of abundance is confusing. How, everyone raised in scarcity wants to know, does anyone find anything? How can something become “big”?

People who come at publishing from the new world of publishing—always-available titles, e-books that might stay in print forever—understand the long tail. They understand that something may not be a hit when it first appears, but word of mouth (or an abundance of page views) will lead to a wider audience. That wider audience will then bring its friends and family to the table, introducing yet another new group of people to the item.

These two attitudes—scarcity thinking and abundance thinking—are greatly different from each other. In scarcity thinking, the bigger the audience, the better. Which means that items have to be geared toward a mass audience because you need to hit a home run one out of one hundred times.

Abundance thinking takes the pressure off each individual item. Instead of trying to appeal to millions with one item, appealing to thousands or even hundreds works just as well provided there are other items available from the same company/individual/provider. The other items don’t have to be similar to the first item (although it’s nice if there’s a grouping). Niche audiences communicate with each other, and slowly bring the fan base to the table.

Speed no longer becomes an issue.

Let me provide another analogy for those of us who were raised in traditional publishing. Most of us are old enough to have family members who survived the Depression. My parents did. In the Depression, my mother often went without meals, was funneled from family member to family member after her parents died, and could remember what it was like to do without damn near everything.

My father’s father had a good job, owned his own house, had relatives who owned a farm, and as a result, my grandmother didn’t have to work and neither did my father.  His parents paid for his college education in the 1930s, and he never went without anything.

My parents had terrible arguments about money. My mother wanted to save it. My father believed in spending it for extras just to make life better.

I have a vivid memory of my mother saving bits of soap and combining those pieces to make a new bar. Of being told to clean my plate because food should never ever go to waste. Of her creative use of leftovers because my father refused to eat reheated meals and my mother refused to throw anything away.

I could go on. Anyone old enough to have Depression-era relatives knows those attitudes, and probably remembers how inexplicable those attitudes seemed in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, when this country had money in abundance.

Those of us raised in those years had our niches. We liked certain things and hated others, wasted a lot of stuff because it wasn’t to our taste, and reveled in minor things that seemed frighteningly unimportant to the Depression generation.

The folks who currently work in traditional publishing are—in this metaphor—the Depression generation. Raised in scarcity, used to operating with limited budgets and limited resources, creative within the confines presented by only so much shelf space.

The incoming indie writers and publishers, along with the online booksellers, live in a world of abundance. They see nothing wrong with hundreds, if not thousands, of titles for sale. As long as the consumer has a good search engine, the ability to sample, the “like” button, a “views” counter, and a sense of her own tastes, she will find the entertainment she wants.

She just might not find it in a “timely” fashion, at least according to old publishing produce models. She might discover a really good book fifteen years after it was first published. Then she might want to read everything that writer has finished.

I’ve noticed this among book bloggers. In the world I grew up in, no reviewer would ever review a title more than six months old. What was the point? The book would be hard to find, and the reviewer would have wasted a lot of wordage (and column inches) on something that would only make his readers angry because they couldn’t find the book in question.

Now, since so many of us have our backlists up, book bloggers review titles as they find the titles. Just this week, bloggers reviewed books I’d written ten, twelve, and fifteen years ago. Other bloggers reviewed some short stories published in magazines five years ago and now available as e-books. In the past, those stories would have been forgotten. Now they’re being read—not by millions of readers, but by hundreds in the past six months alone.

The shift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking has started in traditional publishing. But, like anyone faced with a paradigm shift, traditional publishers are frightened. They know they have to rebuild their entire publishing model.

Fortunately for them, digital books have a high profit margin so they are not taking the financial hit that they expected when this change in publishing began. Still, these publishers don’t know how to think about the changes, can’t quite see what the impact will be, and often react out of the old thinking.

One way that they’re reacting, for example, is attempting to limit writers. By making their writers sign non-compete clauses in contracts, traditional publishers are trying to recreate the scarcity model. Unfortunately, they can’t. They might make one particular writer’s work scarce, but they won’t make other work scarce.

In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake. Consumers who expect everything they want at their virtual fingertips get angry when they can’t get something. We’re seeing that a lot with traditionally published bestsellers. For a while, traditional publishers tried to release the e-books six months after the print books. All that did was anger the consumer, who wanted their e-book now.

Traditional publishers thought scarcity—the lack of an e-book—would drive consumers to the hardcover. Instead, it made the consumers so mad that they actually wrote nasty online reviews of the books in question. Not a nasty review of a book’s content, mind you, but a nasty review of the book’s lack of availability.

Writers raised in traditional publishing make similar mistakes. In the scarcity model, having a publishing contract equals security. Traditional publishing contracts were (are) rare, and were (are) hard to come by, so a writer who had one had achieved something major. Writers who had more than one contract over the years had managed to prove themselves valuable. In a world of limited resources, when a major company spent those resources on a writer, that writer knew she had value.

That’s why writers saw publishing contracts as validation. And, as traditional publishers tossed books out into the produce heap, the writer had to prove her value over and over again. Because every traditional publisher relied on gut instinct as much as numbers (if not more than numbers, since numbers are so unreliable throughout all of traditional publishing), intangibles like a good review in a respected publication (like The New York Times Book Review) added value. Again, a good review in a respected publication was rare, scarce, something that didn’t happen often.

But working off an abundance model, all of those intangibles mean less or nothing at all. In the past, the way that a reader discovered a book was pretty straightforward. The reader went to a bookstore and saw the book on the shelf. Sometimes a review pointed that reader to the book, but mostly it was simply visible in the store, and it was one of the few interesting things available in the finite book shelves.

For years, I used this analogy in my teaching.  Every reader has acted like an editor, I would say. We’ve all done it. We’ve had $20 in our pockets and we’ve gone into an airport bookstore between connecting flights. We look at what’s available on the shelf. Sometimes we see a book we haven’t read by a favorite author and we plunk down our $20 without even looking at the back cover blurb.

But if we’ve read everything by that author, we pick up books by an author whose work we like sometimes and scan the back cover to see if it’s something we might enjoy. If it is, we buy it. If not, we move to the authors we’ve never read before, and we spend even more time on those books. We read the back cover, the opening paragraphs, a few pages out of the middle.

And sometimes we walk out of that airport bookstore with our $20 still in our pockets.

That was the scarcity model. We knew that sometimes we wouldn’t like what we saw, and we’d have to go without.

Now, though, with online bookstores and with e-readers, we can look and sample for free in abundance. No limits on the amount of books before us. We can use any kind of search paradigm we want to find books, whether we do it by genre or author or key word, publication date or positive reviews or page count, and then we can read a bit of the book before buying. We never have to leave that virtual bookstore empty-handed.

We never ever have to go without.

That blows the mind of anyone in traditional publishing.  Even those of us who understand the new paradigm still have our minds blown on a regular basis. We get hit over and over and over again with fact that we now live in a world of unlimited books. There are more books available for my Kindle than I could ever read in a hundred lifetimes.  I don’t even try.

But I know I can find the books I want, and even books that I never heard of, thanks to those algorithms developed by Silicon Valley. People who bought the same book you did bought other books you’ve never heard of. You click on those and you might find one you like. Or you search the top one-hundred sellers in romantic suspense novels featuring dogs in the plot.

You can do those things in a world of abundance. You can’t in a world of scarcity.

All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was—by definition—short-lived.

Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur.

It’s becoming clear, as I read the publishing trade magazines, that some traditional publishers are starting to understand the long tail. They have begun to realize that they can participate in an abundant world.

But they’re still limited by scarcity. Only this time, the scarcity that ties their hands is a scarcity of funds. They might have access to backlist from every midlist author they’ve published in the past twenty years, but they don’t have the employees to upload those books—and they don’t have the unlimited funds it would take to hire those employees.

Still, these publishers can foresee a future when they might have the money, so they’re refusing to revert titles even though the books are no longer in print. Similarly, many agents see potential wealth in getting their authors to relinquish most of their backlist to the agent, often for a pittance. The agents are beginning to run into the scarcity issue as well—they don’t have the resources to publish their clients’ backlist, or don’t have the resources to do it well. But agents are used to farming out jobs they can’t do, and they’re moving on this more quickly than publishers.

Traditionally published writers are at a disadvantage here because in the past, publishers did everything for them. Writers have to learn how to be business people, and from what I’m seeing among the traditionally published, the ability to learn business is also a scarce resource. Writers who knew business usually didn’t thrive in traditional publishing, with its arcane traditions.

Right now, the tension we’re all feeling in publishing comes from these warring scarcity and abundance attitudes. Sometimes those of us in publishing are not even speaking the same language, even though it seems like we are.

We have to step back and see where our attitudes come from. Are we thinking of the limited amount of shelf space, of the handful of slots on the New York Times bestseller list, or are we thinking about making all of our work available for the long term and trusting search engines and algorithms to help readers find us? Are we trusting our gut or are we relying on math? Because, as Kyncl said, trying to reconcile these two attitudes is, at times, like interacting with a foreign body.

The digital landscape is changing entertainment. Not what we consumers want from our entertainment, but how we find it and consume it.

We need to accept that these changes have happened. Trying to place a stranglehold on that abundance and return to the culture of scarcity won’t happen, no matter how hard we try. We all need to learn how to survive in a world of abundance.

I’m still astonished at the number of people who come to my website every month. Not everyone comes for the business blog. Most people come for the free fiction on Monday. But a large number of you want to discuss business here.

The more fiction I write, the more money I make. Since I am a fulltime writer and have been for thirty-mumble years now, I have to pay attention to where my money comes from. So if this nonfiction blog ceases to support itself, I will eventually have to stop writing it.

I fund it through donations. So if you liked what you read here, please leave a tip on the way out.

Thanks so much.

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“The Business Rusch: “Scarcity and Abundance” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

 

 

 

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86 Comments

  1. What’s interesting about this, to me (as someone who hasn’t published anything yet and is looking at all the options), is that your analogy is pretty spot-on. My mom has a very scarcity type mentality. She wants to save everything, reuse everything, whereas I don’t see the point, since there’s no lack of goods at the moment. I think self-publishers have the edge in that regard, since they can produce in mass amounts, knowing some of it might not be used soon but that it’s out there and available, at least.

    But what if traditional publishers change their mindset from scarcity to abundance thinking? Would they gain the advantage since they, in essence, have the money, editors, etc., behind them? I’m just curious.

    Anyway, great article as always. I love your business posts!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Elisa. Some traditional publishers are changing their attitudes, but it will take years to change the corporate culture. Also, they need to hire people to do this work for them, and they don’t have the revenue yet. So changes will take a while. This gives more nimble small and regional presses a chance to become big. It also means indie writers will have an advantage for about five years or so, provided they think in the abundance model.

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  2. Kris —

    For the last twenty minutes, I’ve been reading the article over and cheering (out loud, and waking up the lady who’s kind enough to share my domicile). I honestly think you’ve just hit on the biggest deal in the world (I’m not exaggerating). The transition from scarcity to abundance has been happening at a halting pace, worldwide, for the last fifty years–in the last fifteen, it’s seriously started speeding up. As you found from your mother and I’ve seen all through my family (and in myself, as I was VERY poor for many of my growing-up years), dropping someone from a world of scarcity into a world of abundance is like dropping a desert-dweller into the ocean. It changes everything, and it takes a person, or an industry, or a culture, time to adapt–and that adaptation time is usually VERY uncomfortable (marked, for example, by bankruptcies, addictions, upheaval, wars, recessions, etc.). Anyone who’s known a lower-middle-class friend who won the lottery has seen the self-destructive spiral that sudden abundance can induce.

    The good news, though, is that most people, most of the time, do adapt eventually, and all the boats get lifted. I never expected that growing up in Silicon Valley would prepare me to be a writer, but looking back it’s hard to imagine better preparation to be sitting at the helm of a publishing start-up at a time in my life when my teenage self was hoping he’d score his first traditional publishing deals in between teaching high school English. And I tell you, as scary as it is to have responsibility for ALL the jobs in my little empire, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s not just exhilarating, it’s damn lucrative. The books I wrote this year will still pay me a stream of nickels, every month, forty, fifty, or (if I’m very lucky and/or abundance dawns quickly enough in medicine) eighty years from now. And holy shit, is that an amazing thought!

    Thanks for the wonderful break time. Back to work for me.
    -Dan

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dan. Dean said the same thing when he read the post. I’m just happy I finally figured out how to express what I’ve been thinking. Now I have to figure out what it all means. :-) Good analysis on other ways scarcity impacts people.I really like the lottery example.

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  3. Kris, thank you for another inspiring Business Rusch!

    Having a digital background, I grok abundance. However, I agree with Seth Godin, there will soon be 1 million publishers to 300 million readers. Writers are competing with Youtube, Facebook, Hollywood and the entire gaming culture for a moment of daylight. eReaders may increase what *readers* are reading, but Wikipedia crushed Britannica and sadly most (over 50%) US adults don’t read a single book after high school.

    I still have severe revenue doubts, as a writer may not be able to pay a mortgage with 10 novels in the long tail. It’ll take a few small head wins to make ends meet. How can new writers begin to make sense of abundance without 200+ titles to place in the long tail? Is keeping the dreaded day job while writing for 10 years the new path? -Steve

    Reply
    • Steve, I think Wikipedia crushed Britannica because Wikipedia was free. Britannica charged too much for content. If it had actually gone to an ad-based model when it first went online, there would have been no need for Wikipedia. Wikipedia would still have happened, but not become as big as fast. And I chuckled at your last comment: Is keeping the dreaded day job while writing for 10 years the new path? That’s always been the path. Always. I think if you put up a lot of (good) material, you might shorten that to five years now, depending on how much the dreaded day job pays, and what you can live on. I think it’s good news all around.

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    • Eric, I read David’s piece as well, and hadn’t even thought about the connection. But I read it before I read the YouTube piece. Funny how the brain works. Thanks for the link.

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  4. Fantastic, Kris. So much food in here, I’m skipping breakfast. Thank you for all the time and thought you put into these columns. You and Dean are providing the best writers’ education out there!

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    • Thanks, Robin. Carradee, LOL. Exactly.

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  5. Over the past year or two, I’ve commented on more than one blog where folks lament “In a sea of so much content available, how can we possibly find what’s worth reading?”
     
    The question always made me scratch my head and point to search engines. And to sites like FanFiction.net, which make it pretty easy to track down the type of fanfic you want to read, as long as it exists on the site.
     
    Now I get where those folks are coming from. Thanks. :)

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  6. I promised you an update on my “50 things published in a year” experiment, and this post is relevant to that.

    So far – 11 weeks in to 2012, I’ve got 16 “things” up (I count the electronic edition and the print edition of the same title as two different things.) so I guess I’m a little ahead of schedule right now, technically, but I’m going to want to keep it that far ahead, if not farther, as I go forward.

    As I mentioned when I first told you about this: I’m doing zero promotion – for the ebooks I’m doing extremely basic covers. Even though I’ve been a writer since – eesh, a long time (hint: back when the Berlin Wall was still a wall), I never cracked the publishing code: my work appeared in less than a half dozen professional publications. I have a very good reason for this: it is the only time in the future history of my publishing career that I get to start from a clean slate. From this vantage point, I can quantify the impact of marketing by not doing any

    This will give me a 2012 baseline from which I can measure longitudinal success and failure of future marketing schemes – discounts, etc. Now, I don’t ever plan to do that much marketing, but any marketing I do will prove itself vs. the baseline.

    Somehow, in 25+ years of relative failure to consistently crack into professional publication, I never got the memo that I sucked. And now, with the magic of abundance, I can finally quantify how much I suck.

    So far, barely out of the blocks – really – I have a number. 16 things are available. Not all have even filtered through the Smashwords channels. In about six weeks of legitimate availability across a good number of e-channels, about twenty things have sold. Frankly, I was a little irritated that so many got picked up so fast. I honestly hadn’t expected to sell anything at all (not one thing) until June. I could have accepted an accidental purchase or two, but 20? That makes me worried that somehow I accidentally marketed them somehow.

    So I checked. No tweeting, no blogging, no bugging. No one I know asks me how it is going, because I haven’t told a soul. I have a hard time believing that this 20 figure will hold up over time – I mean – seriously, my covers take less than two minutes to make, and no one will confuse them for good design.

    Anyhow, all of this is very premature, but I’d say the early indicator is that – yes – people don’t care if their bridge to abundance has a bad paint job. They just want to get someplace new where they couldn’t before.

    And I do offer that: someplace new. I write really weird stories – stories that I’ve been told by major agencies, publishers and brand managers are “unmarketable.” Not lousy, mind you, most of the ones that I’ve had good correspondence with have tried very hard to steer me into the markets. Frankly, I’ve tried very hard to steer into those markets! Only problem is that I seem to be driving an old Toyota filled with cases of volatile nitro glycerin.

    What I’ve discovered so far in the early stages of this experiment is that “unmarketable” is not the same thing as “unsellable.”

    There may be no market for the stories I write, but now, under the new way of doing things…there are buyers.

    I’ll update you again, but not for a while. I’ve got to get further ahead on the publication calendar.

    Reply
    • Paul, thanks for the update. It’s great information. I particularly like your point: What I’ve discovered so far in the early stages of this experiment is that “unmarketable” is not the same thing as “unsellable.” Niiiiice.

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  7. Thanks so much for this new take on the situation. I wouldn’t have thought to explain it this way, but it makes perfect sense. My parents grew up in the depression and I find myself constantly at war with scarcity and abundance in my own life, since I’ve been trying to move into an abundance paradigm for decades. So what a mess it must be for those in traditional publishing who’ve only been attempting the shift for a few years. It explains a lot.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Linda.

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  8. You know the abundance idea has been around for a long time in one group of consumers: those who are into libraries and used books. Sure, you had to hunt for that book you wanted, and sometimes you had to read the book in a special collection section of a library — but mostly, for us, books never went out of print, and only the very coolest books (collectibles) were expensive.

    I don’t have any evidence, because publishers and the industry don’t study us, but I suspect that those of us who are intensive library and used book users are beginning to pour into the new book market again because of that abundance you’re talking about.

    Reply
    • Yes and no on libraries and used bookstores, Camille. Books first had to be traditionally published to get into them. I remember being heartbroken when I learned that libraries routinely cull their collections. So unlike Amazon or Abe or the online sellers, not every book is in a library or available from that library. Or in a used bookstore. This change is even bigger than that. However, you are right that library and used bookstore customers have a leg up in understanding abundance. :-) I love me our local used bookstores for precisely that reason.

      Reply
  9. Most of us are old enough to have family members who survived the Depression. My parents did.

    Love the Depression analogy.

    My parents survived the Depression, too. My father and his family were actually poorer, with 8 mouths to feed (6 kids) and a father who was an alcoholic (trying to hold onto any job was next to impossible). My father and one of his brothers would go down to the railyard and filch railroad ties – just so they could burn them for heat. (Couldn’t afford coal, which was the way to heat at that time.)

    My mother was fortunate in that her father had a slew of steady jobs, including one for a railroad that used those same railyards I mentioned. :-) And her mother took in piecemeal sewing assignments and did laundry…so they did okay during the Depression.

    You’re right about the scarcity model = the Depression = the traditional publishing industry. My mother was always very thrifty and is still that way (my father died a number of years ago).

    As long as the consumer has a good search engine, the ability to sample, the “like” button, a “views” counter, and a sense of her own tastes, she will find the entertainment she wants.

    Right – this is what I like about the current climate. If a find a certain book I like, after sampling, I can buy it right away. No need to wait for a physical book to come to me in the mail, which could take days or weeks (although I still do that, on occasion).

    Another great post. Thanks, Kris. (And I’m glad to hear the estate stuff is finally over. You and Dean are such wonderful people.)

    Reply
    • Thanks, Nancy, for the comments and the kind words about me & Dean. :-)

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  10. A very nice way of explaining things. Distribution reigned in traditional publishing. Now discoverability rules.

    As a traditionally published author I experienced the vagaries of the system for over 20 years. Always staying one contract ahead, but never feeling that publishers had a vested interest in me beyond the immediate numbers.

    I believe the term “self-publishing” for indie authors is a false term. You can’t do it yourself if you have more than a few titles. I got the rights back to over 40 titles and formed my own publishing company.

    What I find interesting is I sell more eBooks in one day than a Big 6 can sell of one of my NY Times bestselling titles in eBook in 6 months.

    I believe the Big 6 are ignoring the gold mine of the long tail because they are still working off the scarcity model as you explain it. In essence, they are trying to make an out-of-date business model work in a system that has already moved far past it.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bob. You’re right about the term “self-publishing” although I believe any writer can start out that way–hiring help, of course (copy editors, etc). (I need to blog about this at some point. Again.) Eventually, they will end up with enough money to put together a publishing company of their own and have all that work in-house. But it’s something they can build toward.

      I’m more concerned with your statement: What I find interesting is I sell more eBooks in one day than a Big 6 can sell of one of my NY Times bestselling titles in eBook in 6 months.

      I work with a lot of traditional publishers, and I can tell you that some accurately report e-book revenues and some underestimate by as much as 90%. If you’re with one of those companies–and it sounds like you are–then those e-book numbers are not accurate. What I’ve found (and what many other authors have found) is that with the houses that correctly report e-book revenues, my indie pubbed titles sell at the same level as the traditionally pubbed titles. So you might have a problem with the traditional publisher. (I blogged about this a year or so ago. Here’s the link. http://kriswrites.com/2011/04/20/the-business-rusch-royalty-statements-update/ I have a lot more information now, most of it confidential, so I can’t use it. But suffice to say that there is a significant problem with the way that several of the so-called Big Six Publishers report their e-book revenues, and that problem hurts writers published with them.

      Reply
  11. I almost always agree with everything you write in the Business Rusch, and refer lots of folks here to read it, but I’m not quite sure I agree here.

    You have a point, of course, and I can see your reasoning. But I think that publishers are less about scarcity of shelf space than about scarcity of inputs and readers.

    Let me explain. There are literally millions of manuscripts floating around the US in any given year. But the vast majority of them aren’t going to please many readers to any great degree, even if you can convince many to read them.

    The number of editors who can identify why a manuscript works (or doesn’t work) for a given market segment, and then make constructive suggestions about how to fix large problems is tiny.

    Resources to support the copyediting, line editing (and the deeper edits above), design and such are all scarce. And they all come down to money, sooner or later.

    Talented designers who can put together a cover or online thumbnail that meets all the relevant needs, AND WHICH SELLS, are scarce.

    And readers are getting more scarce by the minute, as an ever-increasing number of other things compete for their (shrinking) leisure time.

    Will the abundance mentality succeed in coming up with a way for readers to find books that they’ll love that’s as effective and fun as browsing bookstore shelves? I’m dubious, but maybe. Until that issue resolves itself, marketing channels that work will also be a scarce resource for publishers.

    In short, I don’t know that publishers are focused on trying to keep their books “scarce” but that they’re trying to figure out an economic model that will allow for a profitable production of high-quality books in the brave new world to come, and that the scarcities above are going to guarantee that that production remains expensive, and therefore that high-quality books are scarce, or, must at least be more expensive than a lot of the indie ebooks have been.

    The overall implications are confusing, and I think I’m not alone in saying that my crystal ball is a little cloudy at the moment.

    The only thing I’ve been able to tell my clients is that they need to set up an infrastructure that is flexible and adaptable because the industry could change radically in a very short time. And that they need to keep their permanent, fixed overhead very, very low.

    In that sense, I guess I have been advising them to prepare for the low turnover, long-tail future that you describe as abundance thinking. But I don’t think that that will be the future of the book business, or not that alone. I think that, like the music and video industries, we’ll have a mixed ecology of masses of inexpensive long-tail offerings, with a much smaller number of higher quality, higher priced offerings.

    I also note that video and music performers and producers, writers and directors can make money from live performances, which is very rarely the case with books. That could mean that the days of making a living from mid-list books are coming to an end.

    And last, but not least, I know you’re aware that trade books, which include fiction, are less than half of the total revenue for publishers. What the public thinks of, when they think of book publishing at all, is the tip of the iceberg. And most of the changes that you are discussing will change the rest of the industry in profoundly different ways than they change the fiction, and the trade non-fiction portions.

    In any case, a thought-provoking essay, from someone who sees more sides of the business than most.

    Reply
    • Marion, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with half of your post, and the other half has a lot of myths. Let me deal with the myths first.

      First, if you look at census information for the last fifty years, you’ll see that the number of people who read has increased dramatically and continues to increase. I wrote about this way back when I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor Books, gave me even more information that confirmed all of this–and that was 15 years ago. With the exception of one report, that came out of a census study of 1,000 people in the Appalachian Mountains and mistakenly extrapolated to all of America, the census studies of readers have shown a dramatic increase with each and every decade. I suspect this number will grow further as books become more available through e-readers and such, because most people in rural communities don’t have access to books or a bookstore. Also, marketing studies of people who own e-readers/tablets consistently show that reading and book purchasing increases significantly when someone gets one of those devices and the increase continues over the next year.

      Second, you espouse a myth that editors are scarce, copy editors are scarce, designers are scarce. Well, if you only look at those trained in traditional publishing methods, you’re correct. But every local newspaper has a copy editor and a designer, all universities have courses in these things with thousands of students pouring through each year, and so on. Editors are merely extremely good readers, and we all know people like that. So yes, if you’re only talking NY-trained folk, they’re scarce. But out here in the real world, they’re everywhere. I personally know six copy editors in my town of 7,000 people, none of whom ever worked in traditional publishing, all of whom are employed. And speaking as someone who won major awards for her editing–before I was 37–let me simply say that traditional editors never get training in their work. They either sink or swim. There are thousands of talented readers out there who would be as good or better than editors working in traditional publishing.

      Now, let me agree with you on this: The only thing I’ve been able to tell my clients is that they need to set up an infrastructure that is flexible and adaptable because the industry could change radically in a very short time. And that they need to keep their permanent, fixed overhead very, very low. That’s exactly right.

      Everything you wrote from that point on, I completely agree with. I think we will look a lot more like music and video. And there are writers who perform. Neil Gaiman is one. Harlan Ellison used to. Charles Dickens did. There are Speakers Bureaus for writers. Most writers are introverts, so they won’t do this. But if they keep their overhead low–as you suggest–and plan for the longterm, they will make more money in this new world and get their work to an audience that might like it which might never have happened in the old days of five years ago.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Reply
  12. @SL Clark — what makes you think midlist authors with 10+ books are making enough money from them to meet the mortgage now? All the authors I personally know are either partly/fully supported by a spouse, or working another job to make ends meet. (In one case, I’m praying the recent ebook-publishing of the backlist will enable said author to go part-time in the hopefully near future! Because then said author would write more stuff!!)

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  13. I get this.

    I think it helps explain the battles over DRM, too.

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    • DeAnna, it also explains why so many newspapers failed on the web. They tried to make people pay for content and made the content scarce.

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  14. Kris, Britannica didn’t like *linking* to resources. They wanted their entry to be “the one and only” answer to any subject. Instead of curiosity, they chose authority. Huge mistake in cultural thinking.
    http://www.thedominoproject.com/2012/03/will-you-miss-the-encyclopedia.html

    As for the long tail, to reach a solid monthly mid-list income (paying the mortgage), my calculations say 150-200 titles are needed. Five years seems optimistic, but our grandchildren will be happy. ;-)

    @ABeth in the dark ages, 10-20 titles at $35-50k advance each would be enough. Those same titles today in the long tail will take a decade to bring in that much, but keep earning throughout copyright. Wanting revenues today is a drag and understanding the future is why we’re pushing forward. -Steve

    Reply
    • Thanks for the clarification on Britannica, Steve. Again, though, on mid list, you’re operating under some serious misconceptions. Most midlist authors never got $35-50K advances, even in the good old days. Try $10-20K. Most midlisters wrote 4 books per year. Remember advances are paid in at least two installments–signing and acceptance. If the book isn’t accepted, it doesn’t get that second half and even has to repay the first half. Finally, these days, most midlist titles get paid for in three or four installments–signing, acceptance, publication or signing, acceptance, publication of hardcover, publication of paperback. So that money gets spread way out.

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  15. You, know, that’s a great way to look at this issue. I think a lot of authors forget about the long run and since ebooks can have “shelf space” for, presumably, forever, if we’ve put out a good product we needn’t worry too much about that book finding an audience and we should juts work on writing the next book.

    I think it’s taken me all the nine months that I’ve been self publishing for this to finally sink in. Great advice, as always Kris!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Victoria. It took you less time to figure it out than it took me. :-) Nice.

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  16. Kris, I think everyone who’s trying to understand publishing should be reading your blog!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Steve M.

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  17. Wow, our work for hire writers got just over $10k / project, and I heard NY paid better. Thanks for making that clear. The sad focus remains extreme IP grab and reduce costs, even the Onion wants to scrap their NY editorial offices, consolidate in Chicago.

    Thanks again, as you’re consistently light years ahead of NY, maybe because you’re on the Left Coast? ;-)

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  18. Haha, Kris! Thank you for explaining to me what’s going wrong with my reading experience lately.

    I’d been thinking to myself, “Gee, it’s so hard to find a good book to read these days. Maybe it’s true that there actually is a lot more dreck to wade through.”

    Nope. I got pickier. Abundance has made me want exactly what I want NOW and not be satisfied until I find it.

    A few years ago, when I wanted a book, I’d go wander through a library or bookstore and pick the least objectionable titles–unless I was going specifically for a new release or the next in a series or something.

    Now, my search for books is far more precise. For instance, recently, I’ve been searching desperately for a portal fantasy for adults with no more than two main viewpoint characters. And angrily decrying my inability to find it, because I KNOW it exists somewhere. I KNOW it. Whereas just five or ten years ago, I would have already given up, now I simply won’t.

    If anything, what we need now are better search engines, better tagging, better perimeters. And I’m sure they’ll be here before we know it.

    So you’re responsible for an epiphany for me today. I’ve realized it’s not harder to find a good book. It’s actually that my definition of a good book has gotten far narrower. Thanks so much. You are brilliantly spot-on, as always.

    Reply
    • Thanks, V.J. You gave me an epiphany in return. So that’s why I’m floating from book to book, all of which I like. I’m overwhelmed by abundance, since I’m so used to scarcity. :-) Thanks.

      Reply
  19. …and so he was enlightened.

    What a great article! I get it now! Plenty left to learn, but I have a framework to bulk up.

    Reply
    • Thanks, David B. & T.L.

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  20. Thank you for taking the time to write this essay. It finally crystallized for me why publishers act the way they do. I couldn’t figure out their logic, but you’ve managed to explain how they see their decisions as logical (and I didn’t think *that* was possible :P ).

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  21. Hi Kris ! :)

    Your analogy is spot on. It’s Youtube vs Hollywood. Facebook vs. Skull & Bones. Internet p*rn vs Stringfellows.

    But there are a couple of issues that bother me. I agree these tech-driven changes are happening, and you’re the best explainer of them our there. I’m yet to be convinced that these changes are a good thing for writers and readers.

    1) Problem for writers: All the abundance models require inputs that are FREE, or nearly so. That’s why Wikipedia crushed Britannica. Is ebook publishing really going to be the exception in the long term?

    2) Problem for readers: V.J. Chambers noted above that we need better algorithms, better SOMETHING to help readers find their way through the abundance. I agree. I call this the curator deficit. Maybe some people have hours to spend browsing through the dreck in search of gems. I don’t. So what filters do I employ? No search paradigm is going to direct me to that holy grail of reading: the good book that I didn’t even know I was looking for. So I resort to traditional publishers’ marques and bestseller lists. (Some people have suggested recommendations from friends as an alternate filter, but none of my friends share my taste in books. I don’t think I am alone in this either. Reading is a solitary pursuit.) Many if not most readers don’t WANT to be burdened by excessive choice. They want the Book of the Month Club.

    So, I accept the ongoing changes, but especially as a reader, I’m more than slightly underwhelmed. I know I’ve stated these concerns before and elsewhere, but I figure you’ll agree that if something is bothering you, you should speak up :)

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  22. Kris, thanks again. Following your example, let me start with my qualifications to say what I’m going to say:
    1. I don’t have to ask my parents about the Depression. I grew up in it.

    2. Yes, we learned how to live with scarcity—even today, I cannot leave a lost penny laying on the street.

    3. But there were at least two different styles of surviving in scarcity:
    First, there was the “waste not a penny” style, which was what most people did. (the hedgehog)
    Second, there was the “be creative, and keep trying new things” style. (the fox)

    Through my writing career, I’ve been a fox. (and the fox strategy by definition includes the hedgehog style when that’s the clever choice, but not by default.

    So, does it work? I’m doing fine in this “new” environment. I could pay the mortgage with my ebook earnings, but I don’t have a mortgage on either of my houses.

    Reply
    • Jerry (Gerald), I love your fox/hedgehog analogy. Clearly my mother was a hedgehog. I’ve always been a fox (okay, that sounds weird). I got out of college in the previous great recession–the one in the early 1980s, when no one had jobs, etc. I did what you did. I always tried new things. Still do. Hmmm. How fun. Thanks for the insight.

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  23. Thanks Kris for another thoughtful piece.

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    • Thanks, Conrad. Laer, yep, a lot of writers keep the (dreaded) day job even with financial success for just those reasons.

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  24. Thank you so much, Kris, for the thought provoking entry. What’s funny, is that I learned a lesson first hand about how readers are operating. Just this week I published the final book in my trilogy, and when I posted about it on facebook, people sounded off, indicating they would now buy them all now that they are available. They didn’t want to wait for the books one at a time. I immediately thought about what you and Dean have been saying.

    So thank you again. (here and on paypal *gin*)

    Reply
    • Glad to help, Ramon. And congrats on getting the final book of the trilogy out!

      Reply
  25. Not relevant to your main point, but for me and some of my friends who are writers the “dreaded day job” has given us a huge amount of MATERIAL for our writing. Especially material about people and how the world works. (I’m a bit luckier than most because I worked in aerospace for decades. I know astronauts and scientists and genius engineers, have worked on cutting-edge science and technical projects once sci fi. When I write SF I know first-hand what I write about.)
    BEYOND MATERIAL I and many others learned how to organize our thoughts, order our priorities, think creatively about problems, and work hard and long but know also when to relax. I could never have finished the several books I have and begun to put them up at Amazon and B&N without those skills of character and thought.

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  26. I’d like to respond to the commenter above who thinks big publishers are trying to figure out how to compete on quality. If they were producing quality products, it might save them, or leave them a niche market for buyers looking for long lasting products to collect or reread years later, not just a quick read and discard.
    The problem is that big publishers AREN’T producing quality that matches their increasing prices. I’m not talking about ebooks, here, although they seem quite poor at pricing and quality producing those. Those pricey hard-covers ought to be amazing quality with the speed the prices are rising. (In Canada, the standard price for a regular size hard cover has gone from $22 three years ago to $31 last year.) The price has gone up, but quality has gone down. The editing is frequently almost as poorly done as that for the ebooks, unless it’s a book by a major bestseller. Even that isn’t always a guarantee. The quality of the binding and paper has gone down as well. I have books from 1920s that I read and reread (not always gently) as a child that are still holding together. A hardcover printed 2 years ago and read 4 times has had its binding split, due to poor construction not mistreatment. That book was treated quite well, and had its spine properly cracked as I was taught to by a library technician. I don’t see any evidence of them trying to produce quality products, merely to squeeze as much money out of customers while investing as little money in that product as possible. I’m just a reader, not in the publishing business, but it’s my perception of their products as being worth far less than the price currently asked for them the puclishers have to overcome. And I see very few efforts to overcome that.

    Reply
    • Rachel, Paul, and Mercy, thanks for addressing Felicity’s concerns. Good answers all. (And Rachel, I’ve been noticing that about paper books too, and it really irritates me.)

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  27. Wow. I was on a publishing panel at SXSW earlier this week, and I wish I’d read this first. You distilled so much into this very cogent, right on, insightful piece.

    Wow. And just…YES.

    Earlier this year, I began forming a coalition of traditionally pubbed authors who are embracing a hybridized career that combines traditional and indie publishing. You’re so right about traditional authors being trained in a certain way of thinking. There are some who will never break free, I’m afraid, but there are many who were craving change and are thrilled to escape the old midlist caste system.

    Trying to assimilate all the info to steer that organization and help my authors (while tending to my own fiction orchard and continuing my nonfiction projects with Big 6 houses) has been incredibly challenging. The above is by far the most helpful think piece I’ve come across.

    Wow.

    So I flipped you forty bucks on paypal. I hope everyone does. This clearly took a lot of thought and the excellent writing is worthy of a major magazine.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the donation and the kind words, Joni. Please e-mail me a bit about what you’re doing. It sounds fascinating. (I’ve already bopped over to your website.) My husband Dean and I are doing some of the same things.

      I’m keeping one foot in traditional as well, and so are several other writers. I don’t know how long that will last: my contract negotiations have gotten even tougher than they were before. But I’m enjoying both traditional and indie at the moment. Again, thanks.

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  28. Felicity –

    1) Is a non-starter – a myth if you will. I don’t give anything away for free, and, just out of the gate, I’ve made more regular money than I ever did under the traditional “money-driven” system. Free simply isn’t an issue. Do you really think Kris is making her money off free stuff?

    2) Searching for unknown books is easy. As a reader, I can now search by keyword or by purchase of other people who like the people I like. The algorithms – whatever there problems are – are vastly superior already to the old way: alphabetical by author name, divided loosely by category. Now, if I like a Neil Gaiman book, I’ll find a ton of authors I’d never heard of, including a bunch that the Big 6 have never heard of either…

    I know I used to search for books by “genre” but that was such a rough category that I often missed great things I would have liked.

    Finding what you like is easier than ever, even if there are more books than ever. Trust me: I like really weird junk that nobody likes or can categorize (The Time Machine Did It, by John Swartzwelder, for example. Or Spiritual Embezzlement Made Easy by M.E. Brines) – stuff so weird that even weird peoples’ eyes glaze over when I talk about them, and it isn’t like I spend even an hour a month searching for these things, they flow naturally to me based on my own purchases, the purchases of others, and my normal process of discovery. There won’t ever be a perfect mechanism for a book search that is natively non-mechanistic.

    I hope I don’t sound like a jerk, but although I understand your two concerns, I don’t think they are practical concerns from a business perspective. The masses are asses, but they aren’t the only market anymore. The long tail doesn’t mean there’s less money to be had for writers, or more confusion for readers – just less money for the gatekeepers and handlers who don’t figure out how to adapt their gates and handles!

    In fact, the current environment increases the odds of the serendipitous discovery to which you allude.

    Ah crap. I read through this and do sound like a jerk. Good thing I actually am I jerk, I suppose. That way I don’t have to change what I wrote.

    Reply
  29. Felicity, I’ll agree that finding the books you want to read may be harder that it used to be because of all those choices. However, there are still plenty of services for readers who want to be spoon-fed their books. I belong to a book club and I find a lot of new authors that way. But I also listen to podcasts and interviews, and I find new authors that way, and I have lots of friends who read, and some read some of the books I like to read. And I still wander into a bookstore on occasion, but bookstores are dangerous places and I only go in when I have money to burn, which isn’t often these days.

    My point is that it doesn’t matter where you find your books. There will always be curators for those that want them. And good for them. Other people will find a few book review sites that seem to have book like they like to read, or they’ll find that book club–online or offline–that fills their need for reading material. Meanwhile, there will be other people happy to search for exactly what they want.

    It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’d hazard there is no way it could be one or the other.

    Also, regarding your comment about free, I think there are plenty of examples out there of how willing people are to pay for the content they want. When it became possible to download individual songs and pay a reasonable price for them, piracy went down. Heck, most of the people I know who used to pirate stuff no longer do, and it’s because of abundence: they have so many options available that they simply don’t need to. It’s less work to buy a legit copy than to pirate whatever they’re interested in. The only stuff I still hear about being pirated is because of DRM. (This is all anecdotal, of course.) Also, and again no data to support this, but I think people are happy to support content creators, especially when they know most of the money is going to the creator and not some big company somewhere. Look at some of the success stories at Kickstarter for examples.

    In short, there are more choices out there for those who want them, and ways to trim down the choices for those who want that, and it has never been easier to procure books than it is right now, which is good for authors and for readers. And it has never been easier to support your favorite content creators either, and people want to support them.

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  30. Great piece–I found you on Dean’s site this a.m. I love his posts as well.
    Speakers Bureaus for writers?! How can I find one? I am a newbie novelist–my first is being submitted.

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    • Rajathi, some of the speakers bureaus are with writers organizations, like RWA or MWA. Others exist independently, and are generally for speakers in high demand. (Bestsellers along with politicians, etc.) YOu just need to Google them. Or see if your favorite author lists a speaker’s organization that you can hire him through. That’ll lead you to the organizations quicker than I can. Good luck with your book.

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  31. Thanks so much for putting these pieces together. I’ve been thinking about abundance and scarcity in other contexts, applying them to traditional publishing makes so much sense.

    The other thing this got me thinking about is that while our search options have gotten better, a lot of people remain ignorant about how to make the most out of Google. Here’s a link to an infographic on how to increase your “google-fu” as it were. Though I knew most of these tricks already, (like using ~ to narrow your search) it even helped me. (It isn’t just about using Google, it’s focused on students, but it might apply to writers doing research as well.)

    http://www.geeksaresexy.net/2012/02/29/google-the-right-way-infographic/

    Thanks again for such a great post.

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    • Thanks, Leah, and thanks for the great link.

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  32. It’s not just writers but also translators. Witness their constant chatter over how few books are translated into English.

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    • Kerry, yes. And also, writers will probably start seeking translators for their work as it becomes easier to publish in foreign markets. I know I wish my Spanish was better so that I could translate my novels into that language, to take advantage of Kindle’s presence in Spain–and also the ever-growing number of Spanish speakers around the globe.

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  33. There’s another aspect to the “long tail” argument, another dimension, so to speak. What you’ve been discussing is the long tail in time, where keeping the product available means that sales will continue to occur, and the aggregate is of value.

    There are also “tails of the distribution”. Think about the so-called “Gaussian” distribution, which is used as an approximation by almost everybody. There’s a hump in the middle, and it trails off at the ends, going almost flat. The nearly-flat part is the “tail”.

    What most people miss is that, for the Gaussian distribution, the situation is reversed from normal: it’s the smooth continuous line that’s the approximation; the real function comes in steps. Under the line are individual items, and stacks of those are what hold the curve up. If you thought of the area under the curve as being filled with ball bearings, you wouldn’t be too far off.

    That’s important because the space under the curve at any point depends on the population, the number of ball bearings. If you shove more balls in there, the curve moves up — but it moves as a unit without changing its shape, and that leaves more space under the “tail” for a ball to be.

    What does that mean to writers? Writers aren’t ball bearings…

    Well, you can think of how far it is to the midpoint of the curve as “how weird you are”. If you’re really weird, you’re out on the tail of the distribution, and there’s no room under the curve for you. You get no sales. But if the population increases, the curve moves up — and maybe leaves room for you to fit under there.

    With traditional publishing the population of book buyers, and therefore the space under the curve, is very small. There are, after all, only a few dozen editors who buy books for tradpub — I’m guessing well under 200, all told, and possibly fewer — and that’s a tight enough space that there’s nearly no room for oddballs under the tails of the curve.

    But with indie publishing the space under the curve is filled with readers, and there are lots of those. The curve gets shoved up, and there’s room out in the weird zones for writers to live. “One in a million” is a little less than 5 sigma out (the mathematical measure for “weird”), but if your book is 4.6 sigma west of strange there are still over 300 people in the U.S. alone who might like it. If there really are only 200 buying editors, 2.6 sigma off the norm means there are only 0.9 editor(s) who might accept it, and nine tenths of an editor can’t buy much. There isn’t room under the tail.

    Given the number of people (including me) who note that they’re doing fairly well as indie when tradpub wouldn’t buy them because they were too far off the norm, I think the “long tail” of the distribution is just as important as the one in time, if not more so.

    Regards,
    Ric

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ric. I actually followed that, which meant that your mathematical descriptions were clear, because I can be a real idiot when it comes to math. :-) I agree. I think you’re exactly right about the other side of the long tail.

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  34. Interesting perspective. I’ve never thought of the market in terms of scarcity and abundance, in fact, I would have thought the abundance was a drawback. But you’re right about modern internet marketing, it’s a numbers game of page-hits and algorythms. While the big successes capture the imagination, in my opinion, the results are cumulative over time. That’s why I keep harping on my own life-span! But the more books we write, and interestingly enough, the longer we have them on the virtual shelf, the more chances we have to make a sale.

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    • Thanks, Louis.

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  35. If only 1 person in a million would like a story enough to pay for it, that’s still 6,000 people across the world. In a scarcity model, it is simply financial suicide for a big publisher to try to serve those 6,000 people. But in a scarcity model, it takes very little effort for an author to make that story available for those 6,000 people to find it. (And frankly, I’d like to think my appeal is a LITTLE better than 1 in a million…)

    Will they find it? Who knows? There are no guarantees. But that’s where having a larger catalog helps, so your works can promote each other.

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    • Martin, I think in the second part of your comment, you mean “abundance model.” If so, I agree wholeheartedly.

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  36. Oops! That’s what I get for commenting while short of sleep. Yes, the abundance model is what I meant.

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  37. All raise hands, voting for continued scarcity…

    OK, all raise hands, voting for abundance….

    Humph. Abundance carries the day. Quite a nailbiter.

    Kris, great post. I grew up in the midwest where there was, at most, a Waldenbooks-style bookstore with a few titles down at the shopping mall. For millions of us, there never was a cherished Ye Olde Bookstore in the first place. Amazon and the internet created access that had never existed, except at the public library. (Now THOSE I’m going to miss.)

    Regarding the Britannica issue, the late Randy Pausch wrote an article (for the World Book, not Britannica) and was surprised to find they did no fact checking of his work. He concluded that Wikipedia was fine, never mind free. The relevant passage from his best-seller THE LAST LECTURE is quoted in this blog: http://movingtofreedom.org/2008/06/21/randy-pausch-on-the-world-book-encyclopedia-and-wikipedia/

    The internet didn’t just make it possible for authors to reach a wider audience; in a phenomenon which I think is equally as good for readers (although not as well-recognized) it’s making it possible for the FANS of late authors who are in the public domain to distribute their work to a new audience. Right now I am reading various works by a great mystery author named R. Austin Freeman. He died in 1943. His books are on those texts-in-public-domain sites created by volunteers. It’s just wonderful. I read them on my tablet, or download recordings done by volunteers at librivox.org. (Thanks for your great narration of “The Eye of Osiris,” J. M. Smallheer!) (http://librivox.org/the-eye-of-osiris-by-r-austin-freeman/)

    Obviously, this doesn’t put money in anybody’s pocket. But it whets my appetite for other writing that I’ll pay for. Got any Edwardian-Age mysteries at WMG publishing, Kris? :)

    Reply
    • Great points all, Eric. Thanks for even more insight into Britannica and the Randy Pausch link. That’s a sign of the way things were when nepotism was in charge. We know so-n-so knows more about this than anyone, so we’ll get him to write an essay. We don’t need to fact-check it…

      And as for Edwardian Age mystery writers, check out American Susan Gaspell. She’s long dead, and quite contemporary. “A Jury of Her Peers,” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

      (And yeah, I downloaded a couple Wilkie Collins a few weeks ago. I own paper copies that are so badly done that I have never been able to read them. Now I can finally read “Woman in White.”)

      Reply
  38. Wilkie Collins? I haven’t read him in years. Now I’ve got to go dig him off Gutenberg and start reading him again, dammit… ;-)

    Truly, though, The Moonstone is a stunning way to accidentally kickstart an entire genre. Anyone who hasn’t read it is missing out!
    -Dan

    Reply
    • Dan, I agree.

      Reply
  39. Very interesting. I translated a part of your post blog with my personal thoughts on my blog.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Alan. Good post. Fascinating look at the way things are happening as ebooks come to France. I appreciate the mention.

      Reply
  40. In a similar vein to the scarity/abundance model, I’ve read a number of stories over the past year about premium cable channels being reluctant or simply unwilling to license streaming video to companies like Netflix, fearing that the ready availability of their product on Netflix (and othetr streaming services) will undermine their own existence, i.e. who’ll pay the high fees to have cable TV -and- premium channels rather than the low cost of subscribing to streaming video on Netflix? (I, for example, haven’t had a cable subscription (or TV reception) in more than 6 years; I prefer the lower fees and greater convenience of Netflix and Hulu.) Most recently, I read (though the source is questionable, so anyone with better info, please jump in) that for similar reasons, HBO has decided not even to sell its DVDs to Netflix–which can still get them, but which will have to pay more for them due to having to acquire them from a middleman hereafter.

    So the digital age is having this effect on multiple industries.

    Reply
    • Exactly, Laura. It’s having a huge impact on everything.

      Reply
  41. “And readers are getting more scarce by the minute, as an ever-increasing number of other things compete for their (shrinking) leisure time.”

    Kris has already commented on this, but I’ve been away for a few days and just wanted to add my $0.02.

    As a reader, the number of books I bought had significantly declined over the last few years until I discovered e-books. Not because I stopped wanting to read books, but because…

    …the super-smart editors working for the publishers had decided there was no longer a market for the kind of books I wanted to read. The last two e-books I bought were self-published for precisely that reason, NYC editors rejected them but they’ve been bumbling along around 10,000 on the Amazon ranks for several weeks since the writer released them. Not best-sellers but better than many and over time they should make a decent amount of money.

    Reply
    • Me, too, Edward. I honestly thought I was beginning to lose interest in reading. Turns out I was losing interest in reading the same thing over and over and over again. I’ve been reading a lot more, and much of it indie or harder to find than necessary (back in the old days, that is).

      Reply
  42. In France, I have the feeling we are not many bloggers to dare speak about traditionnal publishing the way you, your husband Dean and Joe Konrath or John Locke does. There is an omerta in the business (silence law). For the moment.

    In addition to the scarcity, I think in France, the traditionnal business is also defined by the saturation of the market. Numerous books are written by ghost writers (some says one third of all the published books) who work for traditionnal publishers. They are occupying space on bookshelves in a way I feel is artificial, or strained, in order to put out of competition lesser publishers.

    However even with the old model, self-published like me had the mean to resist : since march 2010, I sold more than 1200 books (paper) of my novel Le Souffle d’Aoles, 98% of which in autograph meetings (in commercial centers or cultural commercial centers like your Barnes & Noble).

    I sell between 60 and 120 books (paper) by month, but now, even if the ebook is still in the beginning in France (Amazon started its french Kindle store in october, 2011), for me ebooks sales tend to outsell paper ones (I think I reached more than 100 ebooks in february, though I do not have my Kobo numbers for the moment).

    You may wonder why I chose an english pseudo : it’s because I was used picking english writers rather than french ones in science-fiction, fantastic and fantasy shelves. They are far more numerous. I wanted to fit in with the crowd in order not to be rejected from the start.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Alan. I think the changes we see here in the US are just beginning there. The shake-up will be tremendous, since yours is a very literary culture. Everyone–it seems to me (the outsider)–reads. I suspect you’ll have a lot more opportunities than you even have now. Again, thanks for the update, and the link to your fascinating blog.

      Reply
  43. The publishing world is being pulled by its horns into the 21 century whether it likes it or not.

    But this is surely a good thing for publishers? With the digital age there is no longer the print costs, distrubution costs or storage costs associated with a printed book.

    So now publishers can publish more books at far less costs.

    I would have thought that would have been a good thing for both publishers and authors too.

    Reply
    • Their business isn’t set up that way, Nigel. Plus they have contracts–ten-year or more contracts–for companies inside of the old model (like printers). So they can’t move quickly even if they want to. They either have to breach the contracts and pay the penalties, which are significant, or they have to wait until the contracts expire. I explain more about this here: http://kriswrites.com/2010/11/04/the-business-rusch-challenges-for-big-publishing-changing-times-part-three/. Large businesses like publishing companies are quite complex, and aren’t as nimble as individual businesses, like writers.

      Reply
    • Thanks, Susan. :-)

      Reply
  44. Just found this. I’ve never donated to a blog before, but I’m donating to this one. Your scarcity/abundance concept made sense out of chaos for me, someone who is rooted in traditional publishing. Not that I’m not still worried about it all, but at least I know =why= I’m worried now!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Justine. I appreciate the comment and the donation! For nearly a year, I’d been trying to figure out how to frame what I had figured out, but it wasn’t until I read that New Yorker article that all became clear. It was (and still does) bother me as well, but I’m slowly turning my creaky brain to the abundance model. The reader in me is thrilled beyond belief. I just put together my own romance anthology for a class I’m teaching in June, using mostly single-title romance short stories, which I couldn’t have done two years ago. (And I had a great time reading to find what I wanted!) It’s a marvelous, scary new world. But a wonderful one.

      Reply
  45. Those of us who have worked in both software and hardware manufacturing had already seen the abundance/scarcity dichotomy. We may not have understood it totally from the Publishing perspective, but we could see how it was likely to play out, because we could see how it was playing out in the software business (check Microsoft’s stock price over the last ten years).

    It is interesting watching the panic going on. It really is. I’m not talking publishing, and I can’t talk about what I did see because the Non-Disclosure Agreement is still in effect, but it was totally freaking hilarious. People were running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming THE SKY IS FALLING. I can’t tell you what happened, but we did end up making money. It came down to defining what the product actually was…

    What the Publishers are going to want is price supports. That’s because they have that $250,000.00 cost to produce a book, and most independents have a cost of $0.00 to produce a book. The Publishers don’t think that this is fair.

    We saw the same thing play out in Music, where the RIAA member companies screamed that they couldn’t produce an album for less than some ungodly figure (I forget what it was now) and the Indies were producing them for less than a $1,000.00.

    The MPAA is complaining that they can’t produce good movies for less than 50 million dollars. The new Independent movie Iron Sky was produced for about 7 Million Euros. Compare that to John Carter, which cost 225 Million Dollars. I leave to you to decide which one is more likely to make a profit…

    We live in interesting times.

    Wayne

    Reply
    • Thanks, Wayne. We do live in interesting times… :-)

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Saturday Links and Open Floor | madgeniusclub - [...] Rusch has a great post on “Scarcity and Abundance” and how publishers are still trying to operate under the …
  2. Writer Wednesday « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator) - [...] I shall open this post with Kris Rusch analysis of the publishing world in her excellent post about Scarcity …
  3. The Business Rusch | Kyrin's Insight - [...] of good information for writers and readers. Today, I want to call your attention to two articles: Scarcity and …
  4. Ebooks: Scarcity, abundance and economy « Tech Catcher - [...] recently revived subject by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Scarcity and Abundance, examines the ebook industry in terms of the shift …
  5. C is for “CrackleSauce!” Links That Rocked My March… | Jenny Hansen's Blog - [...] the above post, Bob references a fantastic post by Kristine Rusch on Scarcity and Abundance. Another author [...]

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