The Business Rusch: Quality
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Last week, I finally figured out how to describe the changes going on in the publishing industry. My post, “Scarcity and Abundance,” went viral. If you haven’t read it, please do so, just so that I don’t have to redefine my terms again.
As usual with a viral post, I got a lot of push-back. Only this time, the push-back didn’t come from the people I call “thudding writers” and whom Barry Eisler calls writers of high dudgeon—folks who spend most of their time screaming on other people’s blogs rather than doing anything constructive.
This time, I got a lot of push-back from traditionally published writers, mostly in e-mail. Others—editors, agents, nonfiction bloggers —in the publishing industry blogged or wrote articles about my piece. While most of them agreed with the premise that traditional publishing is based on the scarcity model and the new world of publishing is based on the abundance model, they pushed back on this: Quality.
These people believe that only traditional publishing can guarantee that the reader will get a quality product. They say that traditional publishing has a much high quality control standard than independent publishers/writers.
In the comments on those blogs, a lot of reader rejected those ideas, pointing at celebrity books (particularly Snooki’s) and claiming that quality control no longer exists.
Honestly, celebrity books are an easy target. I challenge anyone who throws stones at traditional publishing to open their reading histories and prove that they are pure—that they’ve never read a celebrity book. Those things sell because we read them, even if it is in the privacy of our bedroom with the lights on low so that our spouse can’t see the cover. (Thank heavens for e-readers, huh, folks? Because now we really can hide what we read. But that’s another post for another time.)
Let’s ignore the celebrity books for a moment, and have this discussion of quality. Because on the one hand, it shows a complete lack of knowledge of the traditional publishing industry (mostly on the part of those traditionally published writers) and on the other, it shows a complete lack of understanding of any part of the United States outside of New York City (on the part of those employed in one way or another by the traditional publishing industry).
Let’s take the writers first.
As I said last week, those of us who got our start in the old scarcity model (and that’s all of us up until about 18 months ago) have some built-in assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the folks in traditional publishing know what they’re doing.
When we writers scale that mountain of slush and finally break through, selling our first article or our first novel, we believe we have finally achieved quality. We’ve finally become good. It’s a dangerous assumption for a writer because if our career tanks, does that mean that we’re no longer good writers? Even if our career tanked because some bonehead in a traditional publishing house screwed up the marketing of our novels?
It’s insidious, and that attitude alone has destroyed more writers than I care to think about.
Besides, it’s a fallacy.
The fallacy is this: Readers believe that all traditionally published books are good.
Writers who spout that nonsense have lost touch with their inner reader. Because we’ve all read a truly crappy traditionally published novel, one that we find offensively bad.
Fair-minded writers used to push off the idea that traditional publishers made a mistake by publishing a certain (crappy) book by saying that “it comes down to taste.” But sometimes, it came down to both parties (writer and editor) tossing up their hands, giving up on the book, and publishing it anyway. And sometimes it came down to a deadline and that book had to be in the pipeline because money had already been spent on its production.
There are a million reasons that crappy books got—and get—published by traditional publishers.
But let’s ignore that argument as well as the celebrity book argument, and look at the core of the traditionally published writer’s point. These traditionally published writers claim that because traditional publishers limit the number of books they publish, only the best books get through.
That means, according to the traditionally published writer, that readers don’t have to wade through a mountain of crap to get to the really good books.
Let’s ignore the self-serving part of that argument (My book is automatically excellent because a traditional publisher bought it), and give the traditionally published writer part of the point. Let’s assume that all traditionally published books are of extremely high quality.
Where the traditionally published writer goes wrong, and why I say he doesn’t understand the very business he’s working in is this: The crap might be gone from that mountain, but the mountain remains.
In 2010, Bowker, the company that issues the tracking numbers for books published traditionally in the United States (the ISBN), issued 288,355 ISBNs. That means this: In 2010, 288,355 individual titles got published in the United States. And that doesn’t count a lot of e-books, particularly those on Amazon which used Amazon’s tracking system instead. Nor does it count books published by small and regional presses that didn’t need a tracking number because the book wasn’t going into a commercial outlet.
So of the titles Bowker could count in the United States only, nearly 290,000 books appeared.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t read 290,000 books in one year. Fortunately, traditional publishers break up those titles by type (trade [aka commercial books], textbook, etc). Those titles get broken down even farther by genre (romance, mystery, business, history, etc). Because so many books are being published, the breakdowns have gotten even more baroque. Each genre has subgenres (romantic suspense, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, etc).
It is an old-fashioned search engine, y’all, designed for the non-digital age.
But I digress.
Look again at that 288,325 book number, and realize that it’s country-specific. Then go to Wikipedia page titled “Books published per country per year,” and look at the breakdown. (The page is well footnoted, so you can judge the accuracy of the information yourself.) The arithmetic is too much for me to double-check, but whoever compiled the page came up with 1,882,944 titles published worldwide.
Let’s only consider the titles in English. As I scanned for countries in which English is the dominant language, I noted that some were missing. I assume that Canada and Australia got lumped into the United Kingdom total. And that doesn’t count English language titles published in countries like Germany (not imported, but published directly).
So let’s only go with the United States and the United Kingdom’s numbers and assume that’s how many titles got published in English in the last few years. Because the Wikipedia page gives the numbers for the US in 2010 and the numbers for the UK in 2005, I’ll move to the worldometer page which gives us US and UK publishing numbers in 2005. (I’m leaving out India, because I only have 2004 numbers which are 18,752. So I’m ignoring nearly 20,000 titles.)
The 2005 numbers are probably better anyway because they predate the rise of indie publishing.
In 2005, the United States published 172,000 new titles. The United Kingdom published…wait for it…206,000 new titles. (How much you want to bet that 288,325 number from five years later in the U.S. includes a lot of indie writers?)
For the year 2005, I see that 378,000 new titles got published in the English language. Before the indie-published books descended on the industry.
So, how was it easier back then to find one quality book among 378,000 titles? What was the difference? Some publishing mojo that I’m not familiar with?
Because it seems to me that 378,000 titles is more than anyone wants to filter through in one year. And that doesn’t count the 300,000 from the year before or the 400,000 (guessing) from last year.
Readers don’t get to those quality books in the year the book got published. They get to those books when they find that book—in a library, on a used bookstore shelf or because of an e-reader algorithm that states “people who bought this book also bought that book.”
Sorry, traditionally published writers. I feel your pain. I really do. We all want to believe that our books, published with great difficulty through traditional methods, are guaranteed to be good because they went through that gauntlet. We also want to believe that readers will find our books easily because traditional publishers will make it easy to reach into that mountain of titles and find the book specifically meets some reader’s needs.
But it ain’t so, and it never was so. And if you believe it’s easier to find a book because it’s traditionally published, because traditional publishers make it easy to find “good” books, then you need to study the industry you work in. Specifically, you should start reading things like Publishers Marketplace and other publishing trade journals so you get a sense of just how large the traditional publishing side of the industry is.
Since some of you will ask rather than figure this out for yourself, how do readers rise above that mountain of crap (um, I mean quality) to find the book they want? The way they always have—word of mouth, then by author, by the cover, and so on. (I linked to the studies on how people by books in my post on Promotion which you can find here.)
I’d love to see someone do a new study and see how the algorithms from online companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble help readers find books these days. I’ll wager—based strictly on anecdotal evidence—that Amazon’s “if you liked x, you’ll love y” algorithm has introduced a lot of readers to a lot of writers.
The traditionally published writers approached me mostly in e-mail. The folks who make their living in jobs other than writing in (or around) the traditional publishing industry made some comments on last week’s blog or they blogged about it themselves.
The gist of the argument is this: Only traditional publishing companies can publish a quality product. Traditional publishers’ editors, copy editors, graphic designers, and sales staff are all trained professionals who greatly improve any product they get their hands on.
First, let me say—and this is important—that all writers need a second eye to go over their material, whether that material is nonfiction, fiction, a blog or a short story. Textbooks in particular need an expert or two or three to look over the manuscript and make certain that no egregious errors exist. Some nonfiction books, particularly about living people or current events, need lawyers to examine the content for liability.
The question on the table is not whether writers need a second eye or some kind of assistance in publishing their book.
The question is whether or not traditionally trained New York publishing professionals guarantee that they will greatly improve the product—more than anyone else could.
Let’s take it one by one.
Editors. I am an editor. I haven’t practiced that trade for some years now, but in my tenure as editor at Pulphouse Publishing and at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I got nominated for the top editing awards in the business. I won both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo award for my editing. I co-edited books with Betsy Mitchell when she was at Bantam Books. I was routinely counted as one of the top editors in the science fiction and fantasy field.
Did I receive any training? Hell, no. I was a history major in college. I never majored in English, never took a publishing course. I did edit the college literary magazine my freshman year, but that was a case of the blind leading the blind, since our advisor never advised.
How did I learn how to edit? By reading. By being opinionated.
When I quit F&SF to focus completely on my writing career, I got dozens of phone calls from major New York publishing houses offering me an editing position. I still have head hunters call me when a major editing position opens. At the last conference I attended, I got two editing job offers.
Believe me when I tell you that my editorial training is not unique. Yes, many editors got apprenticeships at major publishing companies through East Coast universities, but those apprenticeships consisted of opening mail, getting coffee, and breathing the rarified air of a publishing house.
It has always been thus. Read books on the history of publishing, if you don’t believe me. Ian and Betty Ballantine helped start Bantam Books in 1945, and later started Ballantine Books in their apartment. Neither of them went to school for editing. Ian Ballantine’s training was in economics (and not from some measly little school either, but from the London School of Economics).
Judy-Lynn del Rey, considered one of the most clear-eyed editors in the sf field, got her start by making connections at science-fiction conventions. She was a fan first (which showed up in her book choices) and used her sf connections to get into the business where she then learned all of it from the ground up.
But let’s talk about the act of editing. Some editors do it and some editors don’t. Most modern editors believe that line-editing—going over sentences for consistency—is what editing is all about. That’s the easy job, folks. It’s harder to look at a piece of fiction and see what’s missing or whether the structure needs changing. (See my recommendation of Robert Crais’s most recent novel to see what I mean.)
And it’s even harder to tell a writer to start the book again—which most modern editors will not do.
Editing isn’t a dying art. It’s a rarely practiced art. Over the past twenty years, many of my traditionally published books got a quick read from their editors and no revision request at all. Not a touch-up, not a word. My indie published sf novels will have more editing on them than they ever would have gotten from the editors in a traditional publishing house.
And that’s not unusual. While I’ve encountered some excellent book editors over the years, mostly I’ve encountered nice, overworked people who were happy to have a professional writer on board, someone they didn’t have to pay a lot of attention to.
And frankly, that’s just sad. It also shows that at least on the editing side of things, traditional publishing does little to increase the quality of a book’s content.
Copy Editors, Proof Readers, And Graphic Designers: If I were a professional in any of these categories, I would get royally pissed off every time I heard someone in traditional publishing say that there are no good copy editors, proof readers, or graphic designers outside of New York.
Every community has copy editors, working at the local paper, on the local television news, or in dozens of other places. Every community has graphic designers doing everything from creating logos for businesses to designing ads to designing covers—yes, covers—for publications from regional magazines to newspapers to tourist brochures.
To say that these people aren’t professional, aren’t worth hiring to go over a book, is to insult thousands if not tens of thousands of very good, high quality professionals who often bring a lot more to the table than many of the people who work in traditional publishing.
And yes, a lot of these people “undercharge” by New York standards. Why? Because they don’t have to pay New York rents. Not because they’re undercutting “professionals” and not because they’re offering a cut-rate service. But because they’re charging the going rate for communities outside of one of the top ten most expensive cities in the nation.
This is where I get off saying that traditional publishing professionals don’t understand anything outside of New York. Because if those people did understand the world outside of their little hothouse environment, they might understand how it’s possible for a company like Lucky Bat Books to have skilled copy editors and designers no New York publishing professional has ever heard of.
Writers who want to indie publish should find out who these people are in their community, and hire them to make sure that each book is the best it can be.
Sales staff. From marketing to publicity to actual sales to bookstores, somehow traditional publishing believes they—and only they—understand how to sell books.
And that’s just silly. Because book sales have narrowed to the point of ridiculousness. As I wrote about a few weeks ago in a post called “The Book Trade,” most people on a publisher’s sales staff market to people in the book trade. (Please see that post for a longer analysis.) They learn the box, and they think deeply inside of it. They don’t do any actual sales any more. They only sell to their friends.
As for the people in promotions and marketing, they are (for the most part) the people who have moved up from fetching coffee. They now answer the phones and e-mail book bloggers. Sure, some publicists stay with the company long enough to get seniority, but honestly, if you’re a good publicist, then you should work for a firm specializing in publicity because that’s where the real money is. (And those firms aren’t all that good at actual promotion either.)
I can do everything that the traditional publishing companies I’ve worked with have done on sales over the past 20+ years—and I can do it better if I so chose (and I probably will chose in the next two or three years). I care, for one thing. For another, I’m not just going to market to the book trade.
So what do traditional publishing companies have that indie publishers don’t?
It isn’t quality. Nor is it a limited number of products, special in their scarcity.
It’s money. Traditional publishers have oodles and oodles of money to spend on some products. Not all products. Just a limited handful.
If you’re one of the lucky authors on whom a traditional publishing company has decided to spend some its hard-earned cash, congratulations. You’ll get some worthless things, like book tours, and you’ll get some valuable things, like a simultaneous release of book in all possible markets, from brick-and-mortar to e-book.
But if you’re a midlist writer, forget it. You can duplicate everything your traditional publisher does if you’re willing to do the work. You need an excellent first reader (or a group of first readers) to help you with editorial content. You need to hire a copy editor. Do not stint on that or your readers will be angry with you. You need to design a kick-ass cover. If you can’t do it, hire an artist or a graphic designer. Or offer your book as an experiment at the local community college and see what a class of budding graphic designers comes up with.
Traditional publishing does bring professionalism to the table, but that professionalism is not unique. Nor is it only found in New York (or London or Barcelona or Milan). Traditional publishing brings an attitude to the table—a rubber-stamped, we’re-the-old guard attitude. Traditional publishing also brings a lot of money to the table—on some projects. But if you’re offered a $5,000 advance for a book (or hell, a $50,000 advance) that will be released in trade paperback or hardcover only, then I can guarantee that traditional publishing won’t be tossing its oodles of money at you. Only the folks who get six-figure advances—and usually mid-six figure advances—see oodles of money devoted to their work.
Everyone else gets a version of the same treatment—a good or bad editor (depending), a good or bad copy editor (depending), a good or bad cover (depending), and a lot of crossed fingers. The traditional publisher will market you to the book trade, and if your sales are better than expected, you’ll get nicer treatment the next time. If you eventually break out, then you might see oodles of money spent on your next book. But most writers never break out because traditional publishers find it easier to start a new writer than develop an established one.
As for finding quality in abundance, let me ask you traditionally published writers who now know that you have lived in a world with mountains of books for a lot longer than you ever realized, how did you discover your favorite writers? Hmmm?
Things are no different now than they were back when you started reading.
Well, that’s not true. Because things are different. The world has better search engines. It’s not just about commercial fiction and textbooks any longer. Or genres or subgenres. All online bookstores have algorithms that help you find a book you want. Some of those algorithms are better than others.
Plus places like bookfinder.com will let you know where any book you want can be found for sale (if it is for sale) on the web. And you can order those 206,000 titles from the United Kingdom if you want, where you would have had trouble putting your hands on those books in 2005.
From where I sit, it’s a lot easier to find quality books now than it ever was before.
And from where I sit, it’s a lot easier to publish a quality book than it ever was before.
A number of bloggers complained that I didn’t discuss quality in last week’s blog. I was rather stunned by that. Because I assume that all business people—and that includes writers—will produce the best product they possible can, releasing to market only when it’s ready to go.
And as for quality, who decides that? Not me, not you, and certainly not traditional publishers.
Readers decide if a book is quality or not. Readers, who plunk down their hard-earned dollars, that large percentage of their tiny entertainment budget. If they read a book and recommend it to friends, then those readers are the best advertising in the world. And if those readers like a book, they’ll read another book by the same author, plunking down those hard-earned dollars again.
Readers don’t care who published a book. Readers only care that the book gives them a few hours of solid entertainment, worth the money and the time the reader spent on that book.
Are Amanda Hocking’s books better because St. Martins Press published them? No. They got a better copy editor, because the person Amanda Hocking hired to copy edit her indie volumes didn’t know the difference between a comma and a space. The St. Martins books also have nicer covers.
But are they better books? Hell, no. They’re the same books.
And they would have been the same books had she hired a new copy editor and a better cover designer, and redid the books herself.
Readers find quality books in the mountains of crap, and have done so for more than a hundred years. The arrival of indie publishing on the scene will not change how readers find their books. It will only change how some authors publish their books.
And that’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all.
I published hundreds of articles in traditional magazines and newspapers over the years, wrote columns for national magazines, and had a career in journalism. I never thought I’d be a blogger, let alone a “champion of indie publishing” as several people called me this week.
I still publish traditionally. And I publish indie. I think the fact that I do both is the reason I can write this blog.
However, I make my living as a fiction writer, and the day that this weekly column ceases to pay for itself is the week that I quit showing up for our weekly date. I am a working writer, after all, and one rule of working writers is that we get paid for our work. If you feel like you’ve received some value from this post, please leave a tip on the way out.
I do need to thank all of you who have donated in the past, and those of you who comment, send me links, or e-mail me. I appreciate all of it.
Thanks for the support.
“The Business Rusch: “Quality” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.