The Business Rusch: The Biggest News of The Summer

The marvelous Tom Dupree, one of the best people I’ve ever worked with in traditional publishing, wrote a great blog last month.  In it, he claims that the biggest news of the summer so far, maybe even the biggest news of the year, isn’t the fact that Apple lost the anti-trust lawsuit the Justice Department brought against it, or even that Barnes & Noble continues to search for its brand in this brave new world of publishing.

Tom believes—and I agree—that the biggest news in publishing this summer is the merger of Random House and Penguin. He writes:

As of July 1, in the wink of an eye, there were no longer a Big Six of trade publishing, only a Big Five. Later this year, we may well hear of another proposed consolidation; my old compadres at News Corp‘s HarperCollins (who sniffed around Penguin as well, but too late) are rumored to be holding powwows with CBS’s Simon & Schuster. Hachette (used to be Warner) and Macmillan are the only other Bigs, and if a Harper/S&S merger took place, they’d probably have no choice but to get married themselves.

Go read Tom’s blog. All of his analysis, from a guy who’s been through these kinds of mergers not once, not twice, but many times, is spot-on. I’m not going to replicate it here.

Instead, I’m going to focus on the writer’s side of this whole mess—and yes, indie-only people, I will touch on some things of concern to you. Bear with me.

I’m going to start with Random House’s letter to agents, sent the week the merger was announced. The letter was ostensibly written by Random House’s CEO, Markus Dohle, but of course, anyone who has worked in a corporation knows he didn’t write it. A small brain trust went into composing this letter, and trying very hard to put a positive spin on something that might not be positive for the little guys—writers, agents, and readers. However positive the spin, there are a lot of scary word choices in a document that runs a little over 300 words, at least, from a savvy writer’s perspective.

First, let’s deal with something Tom also discusses in his blog. This is from the first paragraph of that lovely little letter:

In this new partnership with Penguin, we will be retaining the distinct identities of both companies’ imprints. You and your clients will benefit from an extraordinary breadth of publishing choices, and editorial talents and experience. Our Random House imprint leadership remains endowed with tremendous autonomy and financial resources to decide which books to publish, and how to publish them. We expect this to continue in our new business.

My response to that paragraph, like Tom’s response to the overall merger, is “yeah, right.” Because we’ve both been through this before—Tom as a person working inside the corporate structure, and me as a writer on the outside of it.

Let me give you just one example.

In 1996, Penguin merged with Putnam to form Penguin Group. When that merger was announced, everyone published by both megacorporations received letters, promising “autonomy” and a wide breadth of publishing choices. The new imprints would not compete against each other, or so we were told.

But, as Tom says, such mergers create “redundancies” which are, unfortunately, people. (That’s why the Brits say when someone loses a job, they’ve been “made redundant.”) Sometimes (often), the bean counters at these places don’t look at what employees actually do, but at their job descriptions. (“We don’t need two senior editors in that department; we only need one.”) That’s how one person ends up doing the job of six.

Anyway, in 1996, we were told that Penguin and Putnam would not compete. In 1998 or 1999, I put The Disappeared, my first Retrieval Artist novel, on the market in the form of a proposal. Several editors were interested; two wanted to pony up money.

They were Laura Anne Gilman, who had started her career with Putnam, and Ginjer Buchanan, who had spent her career with Penguin. Laura Anne was working with New American Library’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, Roc Books.  Ginjer was working for (and still works for) the imprint Ace Books.

Because we were all friends, Ginjer told my agent at the time that she was bowing out of the bidding. “We’re not allowed to bid against each other these days,” she said to my then-agent, “and Laura Anne can pay more money for this.”

So they decided—not me—that I would be a Roc author. I ended up with no auction, which I would have had a few years previously, and only one editor with an offer on the table.

It worked out well; Laura Anne was wonderful to work with. Then she left editing, after many other in-house jobs got consolidated and many other employees were made redundant, and went to work on her own writing career (which is a boon to readers everywhere, imho).

When she left, someone at Penguin Group assigned her authors to other editors. Ginjer Buchanan fought for me and for the Retrieval Artist series. She worked hard to brand the covers—successfully, in this kind of transition—and she kept the series alive in-house probably longer than she should have, given the corporate politics. She had wanted the series in the first place—when she worked for another company—and without changing jobs, somehow, she got it.

Watch. In a few years, similar things will happen at Random Penguin. And all that “autonomy”? It’ll last as long as it takes the giant conglomerate to swallow the merger, let the bean counters “examine” the system for “redundancies” and figure out what can go and what can stay.

Or, I should say, who can go and who can stay.

There are now five behemoth publishers. And several mid-sized publishers, like McSweeney’s or Soho or Kensington or Sourcebooks. But the days of pitting editor against editor to buy a series or having a sales force work hard for your book otherwise some other enterprising company might snatch you away are long gone.

These megacompanies aren’t about books or authors or readers. They’re about profit. And they’re not even about long-term profit. It’s important for these megacompanies to make money every quarter for their stockholders.

Which is why, for example, my Retrieval Artist series eventually ended its run at Roc. Not because the series wasn’t earning money—it was. In fact, it was growing, little bit by little bit. It just wasn’t earning enough money. The bean counters believed that something else in that slot would earn more profit for that quarter.

Not that it would have mattered. Other company policies hindered the series’ growth, particularly the policy of taking the previous books out of print before the next book in the series appeared. You can’t grow a series without giving readers a chance to start from the beginning.

That emphasis on quarterly profits infects all major industries right now. This is why the United States’ financial press doesn’t understand Jeff Bezos. He’s all about long-term profit and building a solid company, not earning extra bucks for the shareholders, until the company no longer functions well.

This emphasis on quarterly profits started infecting the book business in the 1990s, and we’ve seen the results. Smaller books that readers love became unavailable. The blockbuster mentality, which we’ve all seen in the movie industry, began to infect book publishing. It became harder and harder to “grow” a series. Instead, books sold by high concept—one line pitches that could be distilled for a sales force that increasingly wanted “Harry Potter meets Twilight,” so that they could sell the book without reading it.

If the book didn’t do well this quarter, cancel the contract and/or publish the next book “dead” (meaning put no money behind it), and find a book that will sell, preferably by another author. The less the publisher pays the author, the more rights the publisher can acquire, the more the publisher hedges his bets against failure.

Look real hard at the movie industry, because its focus on weekend box office should look familiar. To see the impact this kind of thinking—the short-term thinking—has on creative endeavors, look no farther than this piece in Forbes. The article talks about the dearth of movies made for, by, and about women, but it could easily be about Hispanics or blacks or Asian-Americans. The article could also be about the dearth of westerns (The Lone Ranger was a test of that genre? Really? John Wayne is rolling over in his grave) or the decline of the war movie or the end of the small comedy.

It’s all because the bean counters believe that the public will only see certain kinds of movies, and the public—in this case, is young men between the ages of 18 and 35. In books, the audience is considered older, grayer and more female—women buy the most books, according to studies, so the megacompanies cater to women as well as to male business travelers.

Thinking—of course—that anyone else who buys their products are insignificant. Of the 15,000 titles that Random Penguin will publish in 2014, most of them will have “blockbuster” potential, and will be similar to what has been done before. They’ll also be tweaked and prodded and forced into molds that the books might not have been involved in.

A number of professional traditionally published writers have told me that they’re being told what to write by editors younger than them, that the entire staff of a publishing house (including sales) gets to weigh in on everything from the title to the trajectory of the novel. Writing by committee is a particularly Hollywood way to write—and not that conducive to artistic vision.

A lot of writers are still selling their novels to traditional publishers in the hopes that their novels will become blockbusters. The perception that traditional publishing is the only way to have a large selling book or to make millions on your writing comes from articles like this one, also in Forbes.

Every year, Forbes tallies up the “World’s Top-Earning Authors” and invariably, they’re all traditionally published. Why?  Well, Forbes explains it to you:

FORBES bases its estimates on sales data, published figures and information from industry sources between June 2012 and June 2013.

In other words, the only place Forbes gets its data is through traditional media. If you earn a million dollars on your latest indie published title, well, that’s between you and your banker. Amazon doesn’t give out the sales figures, nor would Kobo or any other e-book publisher—because that’s your proprietary information. They don’t do it with traditionally published books either.

That information is released by the publisher. So if you’re an indie published writer, and you’re making tens of millions, the only way to get on the Forbes list is to broadcast your earnings to every damn media outlet you can find. (Which I would not recommend, by the way, since you’ll discover relatives that you never knew you had.)

This year, E.L. James tops the list. If you read the article, you’ll see that it—like so many other articles on E.L. James—conveniently ignores the fact that she was published indie first. The articles all make it sound like traditional publishers created the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, when, in fact, they simply jumped on a bandwagon.

That bandwagon did move 70 million copies in the United States in the first eight months of traditional publication, and E.L. James earned $95 million. But—the books made so much money for Random House that they then gave out $5000 bonuses to every employee in the company to share the wealth.

And now, because traditional publishers look on books as produce, articles are complaining about the fact that publishing revenues are down this year, partly because the Fifty Shades phenomenon skewed last year’s numbers.

I’ll be honest. James probably  would not have earned $95 million in one year if she had continued to indie publish her books. But I can guarantee you that she won’t earn $95 million off those three books five years from now either.

However, had she continued to write and sell her erotica novels just like she’d been doing, making a few million here and a few million there, she would still be making millions every year, and the amount would be growing—into her pocket—not into the pockets of a megacompany that, even now, is looking for “The next Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I suspect she’s happy with what occurred—hell, I would be happy with what occurred—but we all know that Fifty Shades is an outlier, partly because traditional publishing had no clue that erotica sold well in e-book format. (Duh.) Now there are already more erotica books from traditional publishers, so the choice has increased, and the sales are mimicking sales in other genres—some books sell more; some sell less.

The point, though, is that Fifty Shades did not come to Random House through the slush. No editor “discovered” the book. Fifty Shades was an already existing indie success. Someone at Random House saw the sales figures and decided to woo E.L. James. The courtship was successful, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the irony, and it appears in the Forbes article about the bestselling authors. It comes from Michael Pietsch, who just became CEO of Hachette Book Group this year. He was a superstar editor, once upon a time, in a different era, discovering all kinds bestselling writers. He arrived at Little, Brown in 1991—which is now a long, long time ago in a land faraway. I tell you this, because he doesn’t seem to understand how the business model he’s running is different from the business model he started in, at least from this quote:

While the big books are bigger than ever thanks to the dynamics of book retailing and the frictionless e-book purchasing environment, the most important ingredients of a blockbuster never change, says Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group. “I think it’s the surprise and originality that lead to the giant scale,” says Pietsch, whose roster of writers includes Patterson. “That’s why there are all these delicious stories of the book that was rejected by 96 publishers – because people are looking at what worked in the past.”

I’m not even sure there are 96 publishers to legitimately reject a novel of a particular genre any more. But even if there were, the traditional publishing system as it now stands does not publish books that have an original voice or books that surprise.

Those books will now come out of the small presses and from indie published writers, like E.L. James. The indie writers will create the waves of the future, partly because they don’t have to maintain those quarterly profits for large shareholders who care only about stock prices and not about books.

It will be up to the indie writers, then, to make the right choice when traditional publishers come calling. Sometimes that “right choice” is to go with the traditional publisher, but if that’s the case, the indie writer needs to learn how to negotiate a traditional publishing contract—and to walk away if traditional publishers don’t offer anything other than “I can make you a bestseller” (which most indies approached by traditional publishers already are) or “I can get you into bookstores” (which is already happening thanks to changes in publishing) or “I can make you rich” (which indie writers are already becoming, without traditional publishers).

Think of it this way: Yes, E.L. James made $95 million last year, but her publisher made significantly more. So much, in fact, that they gave $26,715,000 in bonuses to their 5,343 employees, something that they had never done before. That’s nearly $27 million dollars that did not go to stockholders. Nor did it go to presidents and CEOs, who often get part of their salary in bonuses. This was extra.

And yeah, it’s nice when the janitors get an extra $5000. But if E.L. James had kept the rights to her books, put some of its earnings into hiring someone to help her get the books to bookstores, maybe she could given that $27 million to the charity or charities of her choice. Or helped the homeless in her hometown. Or funded a scholarship for needy kids.

Of course, she wouldn’t be on the Forbes list. People who make a lot of money indie don’t talk about it much, because when they do, some wag wants them to “prove” their numbers by revealing the sales. Some writers, like Amanda Hocking, do. Others decline.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about money. It’s about creativity and control. If you want to be creative, original, and surprising as a writer, then publish indie. If you want to forge your own path to bestsellerdom, publish indie. Indie allows for creativity and control.

You’ll have no control in traditional publishing. But a lot of writers do find they can be creative within the confines set by their traditional publisher. It’s just not possible to be solitary in that environment any longer. Just like it’s not possible to produce a blockbuster film without input at every single stage.

When you go traditional now, particularly if you go to the Big Five, realize this is not the publishing industry you grew up in. Think of it like you’d think of joining a team to put out a blockbuster movie. Cover your backside and make sure you’re ready to be a team player.

Because the numbers that the Big Five need to sustain their shareholders will not come from the midlist. And the ground-breaking novels that become bestsellers will be indie writers who seize some kind of traditional publishing dream. So you’ll be playing in someone else’s sandbox.

There are a lot of folks in the film industry who do great things in someone else’s sandbox. There’s nothing wrong with that. But those folks know what they’re getting into.

And right now, many writers do not.

Hell, you can see from Pietsch’s comments that he doesn’t even understand all the changes in his industry.

Publishing is in a new era. The biggest news of the summer merely confirmed it. It’s time for everyone in the industry to admit this isn’t your grandparents’ industry any more. It isn’t even your older siblings’ industry. It’s a brave new world, and we all need to accept it.

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“The Business Rusch: The Biggest News of the Summer” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




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42 Comments

  1. “Someone at S&S saw the sales figures and decided to woe E.L. James. The courtship was successful, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

    I think you mean “woo” not “woe” but please don’t change it. That is the best Freudian typo ever!

    On a more serious note, GREAT article, as usual. I always learn so much from your Thursday posts.

    Reply
    • Sadly, I fixed it before you mentioned it, Margaret. And yeah, very Freudian, I think. :-) Thank you!

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  2. I had the same reaction to that first para of the Random Penguin letter as you did. After experiencing it several times from the shoe that bought out the other company, when the shoe landed on the other foot, I knew all the nice words were just that: nice words.

    At some point, whether it’s 2 months, 5 months, a year from now, a group of wonks are going to be told to root out the redundancies (as you said), no matter if that means the person who survives will have tons more work (which always happens). When people are tasked with this kind of stuff, they’re not looking at human beings; they’re looking at data – something inanimate.

    So those people in both companies who’ve put in several years will not be looked at as anything more than a piece of wood that needs to either be stuck back in the woodpile or in the blazing fire outside.

    Welcome to big business.

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    • Speaking as a capitalist… In all seriousness, people acquire and merge companies in order to increase profit or invest in something strategic, or both. Nothing wrong with that.

      One of the primary gains in a merger is the opportunity to identify redundancy and cut costs in the joined venture. Rather than weeping over cuts that cripple the humanist mission of the enterprise, you might notice that the primary victims of a purge tend to be in admin positions — don’t need 2 CFOs, 2 Comptrollers, 2 HR departments, 2 legal teams, and so forth. Only after those are gone does a more selective purge of non-admin people become attractive.

      We may may mourn the inept cutting of some of these positions, but the motive isn’t evil and I doubt it’s personal. That cutting is part of the financial basis for the merger in the first place — economy of scale on the production side.

      They may do it badly, but people do many things badly. Bashing it in principle is like bashing Amazon. The place to bash is on the strategic vision front — that’s where the mistakes originate. If they cut wrongly, then their strategy fails, a much more expensive decision.

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      • I’m not bashing it in principle, Karen. I’m looking at it from the writers’ perspective, which is not good. If I were looking at it from the perspective of a shareholder, I’d be thrilled. I own 5 businesses, and have invested in several. I understand all the positions. But, as I said here, this is from the writers’ perspective, and from the writers’ perspective, opportunities have just gone away.

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        • There’s also the fact that organizations get stupider as they get larger. So dumb decisions that hurt authors will be more likely — and there’ll be less competition to offer choice of slavemaster.

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      • I worked for one of the companies that was cobbled together by Forstmann Little (the LBO firm) back in the 1980s to oversee the other firms FL had bought. It was easy for me to see, years after the fact, the waste, ineptness, etc., that led to those firms bleeding a lot of money.

        Nothing wrong with companies wanting to make money, cut waste, all that. I guess I just wanted to point out the human factor in all this. Not talking so much about upper management. Talking more about administrative assistants and others in supporting capacity. I was fortunate when I was downsized (twice) in that I received some compensensation. That’s not always the case.

        Anyway, maybe I have a more jaundiced eye toward big business because of those (many) years spent at that Forstmann Little overseer company. :-)

        And I’ve never bashed Amazon, even before I started uploading my stories. They do things right, especially customer service wise.

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  3. Great article.

    Sidebar question – have you had any experience with rights reversion for a traditionally published book that has been released in ebook format? For example, dealing with Amazon so that either the book is pulled or you get paid directly?

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    • I’m not sure I understand your question, Steven. E-mail me directly and we can deal with this.

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    • @Steven. If you have rights back, you can send a DMCA takedown notice to Amazon.

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  4. You have the most glorious Freudian slip:

    “Someone at S&S saw the sales figures and decided to woe E.L. James.”

    So it was intentional to ruin her???

    Absolutely lovely the way your subconscious works.

    Reply
    • Thanks, ABE. And apparently, I was set on blaming S&S, even though I was looking at the articles about Random House as I wrote it. The subconscience was working overtime last night, rather maliciously, I think. :-)

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  5. Reading the beginning of this post reminded me of my own experiences with mergers and acquisitions in other industries, particularly with a mail order clothing business. This company had done its own share of acquisitions, but the owner believed in keeping the acquired brands separate so they would maintain the distinctive qualities that made them successful. So, while backend functions like accounting and IT and warehousing were consolidated, design and marketing remained in their original locations. There was a group in California, one in Arizona, one in the Mid-Atlantic region. (There may have been another one, but it’s too long ago for me to clearly remember.)

    Along comes mega-retailer with an offer the management group couldn’t refuse, that purportedly wanted to buy the company for our catalog and web sales expertise. Well, you know what happened. After “due diligence,” it was determined that all those designers and marketing people were “redundant” and it would be much more efficient to consolidate those functions. The result? Not only did the clothing lines start to look alike, the different brands started carrying the exact same items. It was all a homogenized look rather than the things that had made those brands distinctive and appealing to their respective customers. A company that was profitable bled red ink.

    Oh, and those back office functions? They soon became redundant, too, because mega-retailer decided to run the catalog/web business exactly the same as they ran retail stores. That’s when I became redundant.

    To bring this around to publishing, this week a writer I know personally (we were in the same critique group years ago) posted to a list we’re both on. She said “it’s not about the money” and she’s “grateful for a contract for anything” and she has to “plow back a large chunk of what’s left (of the advance) into promoting.” And her last release made the NYT MMP list! More evidence that the writer isn’t the one making the money off a book’s success.

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    • Exactly, Elise. And sadly, your friend’s story is too common. (sigh) Thanks for the comment.

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    • God I hate it when authors say things like that they are “grateful”. Traditionally published authors become furious when “indies” talk about Stockholm syndrome but what else can you call it. In what other industry are providers of valuable products GRATEFUL that their product gives a large corporation profits?!

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  6. Like always, I really enjoyed your Business Rusch post. However, I suspect you meant that someone at S&S decided to “woo” E.L. James, not “woe” her. It makes for a rather evocative image, but I suspect not how you meant to write it.

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  7. I had a look at the letter from Markus Doyle, & I think you stopped your analysis too soon on it, Kristine.

    As you pointed out, at the end of the first paragraph his intended audience–veteran writers, agents, & the occasional curious book reader–is skeptical at his promises. Which means they suspect the opposite will happen when it comes to what this merger will produce. They will offer an even deeper backlist. They will make “investments in enhancing the supply chain and our marketing support for physical retail”. They will better support their “transition in the digital space”. Last comes this promise: “we will be even better positioned to support our authors’ intellectual property and copyrights.”

    And just when you think I’m being cynical about all of this for the simple act of cynicism–something I admit I have been guilty of in the past–we read this statement: “Random House and Penguin remain competitors, and my colleagues and I remain focused on getting the most out of our terrific fall lists, while also working on the plans for our winter and spring title campaigns.”

    The rest of your column explains what this statement means far better than I could.

    Thank God for alternatives.

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  8. The dearth of movies about women reminds me of an article I read in Glamour where someone had looked at actors’ race in the top movies a few years ago. The chances of a seeing an Asian actor was 3 percent, the same chance as viewing an extraterrestrial (I think it was the same study cited here: http://www.racebending.com/v3/general/actors-of-color-in-hollywood/).

    That was when I consciously realized why, for the past few years, almost all of my protagonists are people of colour. I wrote some white protags, to prove that I could, but it’s not difficult to find Caucasian representation anywhere in Western or even world-wide media. I want to speak for everyone else. I’m not interested in traditional publishing dictating my point of view.

    As a side note, The Medical Post, which has been very, very good to me, often runs cartoons or other art with my articles, and I asked repeatedly for them to make me an Asian woman. I don’t have to ask anymore, but the art can sometimes be funny, like when they made my red-haired husband Asian, too.

    Melissa

    Reply
    • Thank you, Melissa. You’re exactly right. I wrote about this in another column last night (for a different publication). It makes me angry, the lack of diversity in our entertainment. I’m so glad we can indie publish now!

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    • On a related note, I’ve picked up a number of indie books lately that have gay male/female protags, too, (some of them mixed race and/or non-white in other ways)…and their being gay WASN’T WHAT THE BOOK WAS ABOUT, but just part of the characterization. I actually find this kind of stuff one of the more exciting aspects of indie publishing, in that the characters coming out of it should be a lot more interesting and diverse…and more reflective of reality. I’m kind of looking forward to the first big blockbuster that does something in this regard that NY decided “no one would want to read in the midwest.” I think you’re going to see some of the head-scratching and confusion you got whenever an indie film surprised hollywood despite its low budget.

      Reply
      • I live in South Africa where the publishers and movie makers seem to think every book and movie has to be about race and the struggle against Apartheid.

        Yet which are the books that become bestsellers, and which movies go to export? The ones that aren’t actually about politics but about people and their stories!

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      • I get the idea that having gay characters -at least minor characters- is almost required anymore, though probably not in romance. Maybe this isn’t so much with including other races which may be that some of the “how dare you write about someone you’re not” attitude of yesteryear hangs on still.

        But the “what the book was about” part, it does seem to me that making a book “about” being gay or an ethnic minority is limiting your audience on purpose. A mystery is about a murder and human nature, a romance is about falling in love, science fiction is about what-if, fantasy is about adventure… and if the people involved in those things are homosexual or ethnic or aliens the story hasn’t gone off and marginalized itself. (Take romance… there are mainstream black authors and white authors who write romances with black couples or mixed race couples and they’re sold straight with various category lines… and then there are special (dare I say) segregated categories sold separately… why?)

        No doubt indie does make a huge difference with this because no one is deciding what “those people” won’t buy.

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  9. So we have Ginjer to thank for the RA covers? Now, I’ve always thought well of her since that time in the early 90′s she bought me a stiff drink after a hard day ;) but that was absolutely an amazing bit of branding. You could tell from across the room that it was an RA book, and they were detailed and fun to look at up close too.

    Pietsch uses the words “surprise and originality” in the same sentence as Patterson? Snort. Yeah, right, Mikey.

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  10. If an indie author was to become insanely rich without others knowing exactly her gains, she would have to become ranked #1 at Kindle and Kobo and Apple stores, etc, and to be strong enough to resist the pressure by medias, publishers and other authors to disclose her numbers. It would be easier with a pen name, but if she had written other things under her real name, you could still recognize her by her style.

    If she’s not number one on e-stores, you can always examine other authors rankings, how much they have sold, and determine a range of gains (like, if she’s ranked #4, the numbers of #3 and #5).

    That’s for ebooks. For physical books, I’m not sure indie authors could rival with trad published figures. Not in 2013 or 2014.

    As Hugh Howey said it once, the big story in this ebook revolution is not about E.L. James, it’s about unknown authors making 50 bucks a month, and midlist authors making a living where it was impossible for them to do so without self-publishing.

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  11. The two biggest lies in any merger or acquisition: “Nothing’s gonna change” and “Nobody’s gonna lose their job.” The point of these two lies is to placate the troops. Some of the people in the acquired company are worth keeping; some should be cut; and new management can’t yet tell who is whom. But the thorny bit is this: the people you probably want to keep are the high competence people who would have the easiest time finding new work. If you scare everyone into looking for work, the ones you lose will be exactly the ones you want to keep! And you’ll be left only with the people you would probably prefer to cut. So management hopes to put everyone at ease about their jobs for long enough to figure out who to cut and who to keep.

    In my career, I’ve usually seen a wave of cuts about a year after the acquisition. It might be faster in some industries.

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    • Amen, Martin! After 30 years in banking I can say you have hit the nail on the head. Of course the smart, competent people know what’s really going on and start looking for work anyway.

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  12. Whenever I hear merger, I immediately rewrite everything the ‘feel good’ PR speech says, replacing “will” with “will not”, “will not” with “will”. Saves a lot of time and frustration, when OMG, the company reneges.

    I remember many years back talking with a creator at Malibu Comics. He was so excited because Marvel had bought them out. He had been promised his characters would reach a wider audience. A few years later, Malibu was gutted. The computer coloring department was ingested into Marvel, and all Malibu original titles cancelled. (Wow. Looked that up, just for jollies, and rumor is Marvel is holding the Malibu characters captive. Sickening. http://www.bleedingcool.com/2012/05/25/marvel-and-malibu-whats-five-percent-between-friends/)

    The only people a major corporation cares about are shareholders. Not the CEO. Not the VP. Not the janitor. It’s the shareholders.

    Like your earlier post, I’m letting go of my ‘dream’ of being recognized by the traditional publishing. It’s hard and it hurts, but the reality is a writer is just a contract employee, which means a writer has less value/influence with regard to the company than the janitor which they have to supply benefits as well as salary.

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    • Though these days, the janitor is probably contracted out and doesn’t get benefits either.

      They don’t really even care about the shareholders’ true interest either; long-term value isn’t important. It’s about keeping the Wall Street financial types happy quarter to quarter, making sure those guys get their bonuses.

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  13. Thank you for the kind words, Kris. They are particularly treasured since they came from you.

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  14. This is perhaps the best article I’ve read on the current state of the publishing industry.

    Since I work in the movie business I completely agree with your analogy between the ‘tentpole’ blockbuster movies and bestseller books. And what’s even more scary is all the talk there’s been this summer about how Hollywood is on the point of implosion – those pricy tentpoles are no longer able to hold up the roof. Steven Spielberg & George Lucas pretty much agreed on this in a recent talk at UCLA.

    In the same way, I think a few outlying bestsellers are not going to be enough to prop up the big publishing houses.

    Midlist authors aren’t going anywhere. They’re still going to keep on writing books. Readers aren’t going anywhere. The two will still find a way to connect, with or without publishers.

    So watch this space…

    Reply
  15. Yup.

    The only things I’d add are these: a) Corporate dreams of and the focus on blockbusters have only intensified as a result of the merger, but they were always there and increasingly so, and writers are expected to be on board with that notion. You know this when you read a contract for a two-book series, only the second isn’t named even though it’s got a title–and that’s because if you don’t hit with the first, they don’t want to be stuck doing the second. (Or, as you say, they’ll publish it DOA, and move on. Or–the second option–elect not to take that book at all and demand something else. In which case, I’ll put out the second book myself.)
    b) I know your post focused on writers (and, by extension, on agents who will have fewer places to pitch and so i) will go out of business, ii) take on only the authors they think will be blockbusters and punt them when they’re not, or iii) become somewhat de facto employees of these companies, cherry-picking promising writers for specific companies/imprints. I can see it.
    c) Speaking ONLY of traditional publishing now–not indies–the consumer loses out, big time. In any situation where there’s less competition, there’s less choice, and lack of choice (fewer imprints with distinctive identities and visions because Ballantine puts out a specific kind of book and Ace another, etc.–just examples, mind you) means more repetition, a dearth of originality, and greater homogeneity. Just look at the movies.

    Not my grandmother’s world of publishing? Hell, it’s not even close to what I worked so hard to understand fifteen years ago–and I’ve only just gotten started in it. Hard to watch and makes me crazy-anxious.

    Reply
  16. Loving these posts, Kris. A book that I thought of while reading your post is “Rescuing Capitalism from Corporatism: Greed and the American Corporate Culture” by John David Rose. It’s a self-published book that I bought on Amazon several years ago (big surprise there:). One of Rose’s arguments is that visionaries tend to start corporations, people like Henry Ford who have a burning desire to bring a particular product to the masses. The profit is secondary to visionaries. Their focus remains on the product and making it better. According to Rose, the problem with corporations is that they outlast the reign of the visionaries who start them. Once the visionary leaves, focus on the product leaches away into a short-sighted, narrow-minded concern with the bottom line.

    Reply
    • Well said, Karen,

      A little company known as Apple comes to mind.

      Reply
  17. I think it depends on where you are in your career as to whether or not you have any control in traditional publisher relationships. I’m working with two of them–Harlequin and Berkley (now part of Penguin Random House)–and have all kinds of control over everything from my deadlines to my covers to the editing to well, everything. Both relationships are extremely collaborative or I wouldn’t be in them. I’m a relatively new NYT bestseller, and this treatment was occurring before I hit the big lists. It seems to me that the publishers I’m working with are starting to realize that a lot of authors truly know what they’re doing and truly know how to sell books. I see an effort toward partnership vs. dictatorship, and I’m not the only author who is being treated this way. I don’t “need” traditional publishing. My self-pubs make more money than I ever dreamed I’d make in a lifetime, but I want something that traditional publishers still do better than I can do on my own: print distribution. Until I can get my own books into wide distribution, I’ll continue to work with publishers.

    Reply
    • I’ve always had control over my deadlines and the editing. Generally had control over the covers in traditional publishing. Editorial has always been collaborative–if you have a good editorial team. (Usually bestsellers do, or they can ask for the team to be fired.)

      It’s the other stuff that I (and most other writers, including bestsellers) never had control of, mostly having to do with distribution and promised promotion that never happened. Being sent on book tour and not having any books in any warehouses (from Ingrams to Baker & Taylor) so that there are no books to sign; a refusal to drop-ship books from the company itself, etc. Promised promotion (which is contractually agreed to) that has not happened. I could go on and on. I was at a booksigning yesterday with several major NYT bestsellers and we spent all our time discussing the things that had gone wrong on the distribution end–exchanging horror story after horror story.

      I’ve had big bestsellers and smaller books, and always the problem has been on the distribution/sales end, never in editorial. There are ways to get your books to bookstores without traditional publishers, Marie, and without a lot of fight. But as long as things are working well for you in traditional (and you haven’t sold them your e-rights), then you should be fine as a hybrid writer.

      Reply
      • Unfortunately, I don’t have time to convince bookstores to stock my indie books (although a few are without convincing) so that’s why I’m relying on the old-fashioned way for now on the paper side. I did sell them my e-rights because I don’t think this was the last good idea I’ll ever have, so I’m fine with “taking one for the team” on this series. I’m making enough on my Fatal series with Harlequin that I could live off that alone–very comfortably and pay for college for the kids, too. I’ll make as much or more off the series with Berkley–and all of that is BEFORE you figure in the self-pub income. So I’m fine with mixing it up and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Do I expect it to be perfect? Nope, but it’s working for me for now, and my business is growing exponentially. As long as everything is moving in the right direction, I’m fine with shaking things up a bit and taking a few risks.

        Reply
        • Technically, you don’t have to convince them to take your books now, Marie. Indie titles, priced right, are now being carried in Ingrams and B&T without penalty so bookstores can order them if they want. (This just happened in the spring.) If you have an order form on your website with proper discounts, they can also order the books. The only diffence is that indie published POD titles aren’t in mass market form yet, which does have a negative impact on romance readers. It’s a trade off.

          And I completely agree about taking risks and mixing things up a bit. It’s the best way to learn how this new world is working. :-)

          Reply
  18. Might push the Hollywood blockbuster analogy a little more at another time.

    Hollywood as a geographic center of production is dying – that is the sets aren’t in Hollywood and the pictures aren’t taken (trying to avoid using filmed though I’m not sure why) in Hollywood. A consequence is a fractured industry appealing to diverse market with only the most visible to us being discussed here. Bollywood anyone?

    The last Green Hornet and Kato movie had a poor opening in the U.S. of A. but in its alternate and more to the point actually originally intended alternate identity as Kato and the Green Hornet was quite successful – though not visible here – on the Asian and World market.

    Similarly there is some opening for distribution in other places and other languages. Jerry Pournelle was the world’s most widely read computer columnist because he was published (as a computer columnist) by McGraw Hill and McGraw Hill had many foreign editions. It may be Amazon in its many foreign incarnations Amazon.De and Amazon.Fr will open international markets to indie or maybe already has. In the meantime there may be flash openings as there was an opening for Russian language SF distribution in Israel a few years ago because everybody who might read in Hebrew could and did read more SF in English but recent Russian emigres could not at the time read well in either Hebrew or English. I remember my mother’s suspicions at all the Pan and Penguin not for sale in the U.S. of A for copyright reasons as banned in Boston.

    Seems likely but I’m asking that multinational publishers might do well at multinational publishing?

    Reply
    • Wouldn’t it be nice if multinationals were good at multinational publishing. But they aren’t. They buy world rights and generally fail to sell them and/or execute the rights themselves. With the exception of Harlequin, which has always been good at this. I really don’t know why. It’s stupid, imho.

      We can sell our books most everywhere now, if we’re in all platforms. Amazon is only in a few countries, but iBookstore is in dozens. Kobo is in 190–and I find my books selling in all kinds of interesting places that I’m sure my titles never reached before, like Namibia. And I haven’t even gotten to doing books in translation, even though that’s on a list for the future. I can only imagine how well Spanish language titles would do.

      Like you, I’m pretty shocked at publishing’s narrow worldview. I suspect (hope?) that will change in the next decade.

      Reply

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