The Business Rusch: Unintended Consequences
Not because I just finished teaching a week-long workshop. Not because one of my novels decided to become triplets. Not because it’s about to become November.
Because I have too much to read.
Seriously. I preorder a lot of books, and pick up the rest from my favorite local bookseller. One week before the workshop, I put a spending freeze on my book purchases. Not because I’ve spent too much (although I always do), but because I’m behind.
Far, far behind.
On current novels.
I preorder my favorite authors’ latest works, and read those books as soon as I possibly can. As of this moment, I have eight titles by my most favorite writers sitting on my to-read stack. These books started arriving at the end of August, and then dumped on my doorstep in the past two weeks.
Some of the biggest bestsellers I generally pick up at the stupid local grocery store chain that continually cuts the size of its book department. I do that in a misguided attempt to have the chain continue to carry books. I did not shop on workshop Sunday like I usually do, but there are two novels by big bestsellers that came out that week that I would have purchased at the store, but didn’t, and probably won’t.
On the Friday of the workshop, I scanned the Washington Post during breakfast only to discover that Pat Conroy’s once-every-five-years-whether-he-needs-to-or-not book just came out. That day’s Los Angeles Times told me that Richard Kadrey started a YA version of his Sandman Slim series.
This October has been a reader’s paradise—um, nightmare—for me. New Grisham, new Turow (yes, I read Turow; just because I disagree with him doesn’t mean I dislike his fiction), new Simon Winchester, new Paretsky, all the new Best American books, new Nora Roberts, and…and…and…
Fortunately, I don’t have to buy everything right now. I developed a new purchasing strategy. If I’m going to forget the book exists, I buy immediately. (This goes for much nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction. Let’s not discuss Dallas: 1963, which showed up this morning, or Command and Control, which showed up two weeks ago, or Engineers of Victory, which has been sitting on top of my to-read pile since Labor Day.)
Everything else can wait. If I’m going to remember that I want to read the book that came out in October in, say, January, then I’ll buy that book after I finish the new Stephen King, and the new Elizabeth George, and the new Jeffrey Deaver, and…and…
I don’t have an unlimited book budget, but I do spend most of my entertainment dollars on books. I buy more than the average reader does.
I may have a larger-than-average book budget, but the one thing I’m very short on is time. Like many people, I have only an hour or two per night set aside for reading. It feels wasteful to my frugal Midwestern soul to buy a book right now that I can’t read until January, especially when the book will still be available in January.
The impulse to buy all books now—including bestsellers—comes from that produce model we were all raised in. Because brick-and-mortar bookstores have limited shelf space, books only remain on the shelf for a short period of time.
In those days, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, became my version of heaven because the bookstore had so much shelf space that I could pretty much find any book I wanted when I wanted it, as long as that book was still in print.
I was an early adapter to ordering books on Amazon for that same reason: if I wanted a book, Amazon often had it. No muss. No fuss. Of course, I live in a book town that has no bookstore that sells entirely new books. We have two new/used, but the new takes up very little shelf space. If you’re a big reader in my 7,000-person town, you get half your books online or through special order by necessity.
I’m still snatching up fiction titles when I see them because I was trained to do that. Buy the new non-bestseller now, because the next time I would be in a small bookstore, the book would have been long gone.
Now, however, I can wait years if I want to. (I don’t want to.) That concept still hasn’t reached into my brain. Although, I’m pretty sure this fall will engrain new purchasing patterns in my head.
And it’s all the fault of traditional publishing. And maybe Apple. And maybe the United States Justice Department.
That lawsuit had some unintended consequences that will continue to reverberate throughout the next year or two.
Since its inception, traditional publishing was a gentleman’s business, and it played by very clubby rules. One didn’t poach another house’s authors (unless, of course, the author wanted to leave. Even then, the author’s editor might make a friendly phone call [or have a drink in a nearby bar] with another editor from another house in hopes of finding the author a happy new home). One didn’t discuss money (it was gauche). One took care of one’s friends (and we were all friends—unless we were vicious enemies).
And one thought of the good of the club when scheduling events, always.
Events in traditional publishing are Event Novels. Until 2012/2013, it was common practice for the editors in chief of traditional publishing houses to have a polite, if off-the-record, discussion with cohorts at other publishing houses. The editors would scatter their Event Books throughout the fall season—which is the big season in publishing.
Think of it the way that Hollywood thinks of blockbuster movies. Studios don’t want to schedule a tent-pole film against another—an Avengers, for example, will not open against the new Hobbit movies. James Bond always owns his weekend.
Studios don’t phone each other up. They work off the number of available screens and early announced release dates. Blockbuster release dates often get announced years in advance. Studios with lesser films or films that have a smaller audience can then decide: Should that rom-com go against the Avengers or wait for a different weekend? Should the studio counterprogram or assume that the tent-pole movie will suck up all the cash in moviegoers’ pockets?
Book publishers have had that same attitude too, but they don’t announce their lists that early. They announce the fall lists in January, sometimes even in March, of the same year. And all of the book publishers announce at roughly the same time.
So, until last year, they would have “informal” discussions, designating September 24 Stephen King week, and October 22 John Grisham week, and so on. No one would schedule a tent-pole book—a blockbuster, if you will—against another tent-pole. Unless those tent-poles were in radically different genres. Sure, a romance publisher might release a sweet contemporary romance blockbuster on September 24, under the assumption that romance book-buying dollars are different than horror book-buying dollars. In other words, the romance reader wouldn’t be buying the King, and the King reader wouldn’t be buying romance. (Obviously, the people in these brain trusts never met me. But I digress…)
The blockbusters got stretched out throughout the season. Sometimes, books by authors whose sales were good enough to hit the New York Times list in a less competitive year, but not good enough to go against King or Grisham or J.K. Rowling, would get moved to a different season—spring, maybe.
Store shelves are like movie theater screens. There are only so many prime positions in a brick-and-mortar store. If that prime position is being occupied by a major bestseller, than a bestseller with lower numbers will get shunted to a different part of the store, and frankly, that would hurt sales.
Better to move the lower-selling bestseller to a different season.
Some book hits Number One on the New York Times bestseller list every week. Sometimes a book hogs the number one spot for months, like Harry Potter did a decade ago (which was why the Times and its little bestseller list friends invented the Children’s/Young Adult list, so that the hogging would end). The Da Vinci Code did that in 2003, roaming around the top 15 bestselling hardcover novels for two-plus years before dropping off. The Da Vinci Code was a surprise bestseller; it was initially published in April (Spring List) and no one expected it to continue to sell into the fall of 2003, let alone the spring of 2004, and the fall of 2004, and the spring of 2005. It finally dropped out in the fall of 2005—because fall is a very competitive season for bestsellers in the best of times.
All other Dan Brown novels got different placement. Dan Brown’s Inferno came out in May, in a month that’s not competitive at all, so that it could have a long reign on the bestseller list. (His numbers have gone way down since the initial Da Vinci Code days; that kind of success is rarely repeatable.)
Staggering the competitive books is both a gentleman’s concept (“Well, old boy, if you claim September 24 for your man King, then I’ll take October 22 for my lad Grisham.”) and smart business. Your book gets more attention if it’s not competing against a book by a novelist who can suck all the dollars out of a bookstore (not to mention hog the great shelf space and have all the limited reviewer spots).
It also enabled the all-important velocity to work the way it was supposed to. As I’ve mentioned many times before, bestseller lists are built on two factors—time and sales. The faster a book sells, the higher it climbs on a list. If a book sells consistently, even if it builds, it probably won’t hit a list.
Velocity in book publishing means how fast a book sells in a given week. If a book sells 5,000 copies in its first week of release, and only another 1,000 in the next six months, that book might still hit several bestseller lists. If the book sells 6,000 copies in its first month, 6,000 in its second month, and continues to do so for twelve months, it might not make any lists at all, because it will have no velocity even though the book has sold more copies than books on the “bestseller” list.
Got that? In traditional publishing, velocity is everything.
That’s why traditional publishers and traditional tastemakers/list makers went insane when indie published titles started hitting the lists. A lot of indie writers are adept at letting their fan base know that the next book in a series is out. That book sells to every true fan, and knocks some “worthy” traditional book off the list—because the indie book has a natural fan-built velocity.
That shake-up has been happening for the past 18 months, and traditional publishing isn’t sure what to do about it.
However, this mess in the fall of 2013 is of traditional publishing’s own making.
I saw it coming as I was preordering books in the spring. All of my favorite traditionally published writers were publishing books in the fall, including writers like Jeffrey Deaver who had already published a book in the spring. I started bitching about it, but I didn’t think it through.
Dean Wesley Smith was the one who reminded me that the Apple lawsuit had blown the gentlemanly habits of traditional publishers to smithereens. Publishers had to start behaving like real businesses—only they’re so dumb about it that they haven’t thought this through either.
Here’s the other thing you need to know about bestseller lists. To hit a list in the busy fall season, a book has to sell many more copies than it would have to sell in, say, January. Maybe ten or twenty times more.
In other words, there’s no magic number for hitting the list. It’s a comparative thing. Did this book sell more copies than its competitors that week? That’s the only data point which is important for making the list.
So even if, say, Jeffrey Deaver’s new fall book sells more copies than his spring book (and he made the list for that book), he might not do as well on the fall list. Because of all the competition.
On Sunday, I asked one of our local booksellers, Sheldon McArthur of North by Northwest Books to bring three novels to the weekly lunch. I asked for Grisham’s newest (screw the damn grocery store), Turow’s newest, and Sara Paretsky’s newest. Shelly told me he only had the Grisham in stock, because no one had asked for a copy of Turow or Paretsky. He would have to special order those for me.
Books tend to hit the lists during the first week or two of release. Paretsky, a New York Times bestseller, is not a #1 New York Times bestseller. Her fall career has been snake-bit since one of her novels debuted on September 11, 2001. It doesn’t surprise me to see that she’s nowhere near #1 in her week of release, but I just scanned three of the lists—Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, and USA Today, and Paretsky’s not on them at all. She didn’t make the top 25 fiction hardcovers from the Times, and she wasn’t in the top 50 on USA Today. (Although, scanning through that list, I was surprised to find a new Anne Rice novel—lost in all the hype for everyone else).
Turow is a #1 New York Times bestseller, whose latest novel appeared at #8 on the USA Today List—not bad in sales numbers, really, but not #1 by any stretch. His book is #4 on the PW list, with 18,000 units sold in that first week—not bad, but nowhere near Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, which sold 29,000 copies in the same week—four weeks after its debut. (In other words, its weekly velocity is down.) Turow’s not on the Times list, but it’s always a bit delayed in its reporting. If you want to know this week’s numbers, take a look next week.
What does all this number stuff mean?
Chaos. Pure chaos.
Publishers weren’t prepared for this mess. At least two of the big five didn’t compare lists within house. In other words, two of the biggest companies are pitting their own blockbusters against each other in the same week. (Damn those summer mergers.)
Critics got as overwhelmed as everyone else, so a lot of these big titles aren’t getting reviewed. There are only so many big ad spots available, particularly in those front-of-the-store displays (yes, they’re paid for advertising), so some of the middling sellers didn’t get the usual display slots.
Booksellers are completely overwhelmed. They have limited shelf space. Sheldon was waiting for readers to ask for some titles before ordering them, when he would have ordered them automatically in the past. (Oh, and he sold the Grisham before bringing it to lunch—so he had to special order that too. Seems he made the right choice as to which big blockbuster to stock in his store.)
In other words, a lot of books that should have been highly visible are not.
And traditional writers are clueless about what’s going on in the industry. Those who are used to their comfy slots on the top of the lists have already felt a shake-up. Their sales numbers have been going down steadily as bookstores closed and indie writers started competing for publishing dollars. (Readers have only so much time and so much money—if there’s a wider availability of titles, then the sales will spread out over those titles, rather than all going to the best of the small pond.)
Now, these traditional writers are going to look at their expected #1 berth or their usual place on the New York Times list, and their names won’t be there. At all. And they won’t know why.
So they’ll guess at the wrong reasons. Scott Turow, who is clearly no businessman, already went on one of the morning talk shows last week and blamed Amazon for declining book sales—even as Amazon is selling his books. (Get a clue, Scott.) He’ll probably blame his poorer-than-usual showing on Amazon itself, rather than publishers who must now act like real business people, subject to the same anti-trust laws as everyone else.
And many many many traditional writers will suffer because of this. Their advances will decline, because their latest novel did not hit #1 on the New York Times list or didn’t hit the list at all. Traditional publishers are good at blaming authors for the publishers’ stupidity, especially when there’s money at stake.
But here’s the biggest change of all.
I’m not the only person who is putting off buying books she would usually buy in the week of release. Every hardcore reader I’ve spoken to has delayed at least one purchase in these last few weeks. We have known—intellectually—that we could wait to buy a book now, that the book will remain on a virtual bookshelf somewhere until we’re ready to read that book. But most of us never acted on that knowledge, continuing the old “buy immediately” habit.
Publishers are breaking us of that habit because we can’t absorb the tsunami of material by favorite writers. We just can’t.
I’m telling you all of this now, not just because I’m overwhelmed, but because I want to impress a few things on you.
First, watch what’s going on. It’s only going to get worse as we move through the holiday buying season. We’ll find out which traditionally published writer has the most I-must-buy-it-now fans. We’ll see a few surprise bestsellers, and we’ll see some writers never hit lists at all.
Second, expect a lot of bitching from big name writers between April and June of 2014. That’s when royalty statements for this period start hitting. Writers will see that their sales numbers are down, and those writers will panic. Expect a lot of blame, some canceled contracts, and some writers who believe that the End Times have finally arrived.
Third, expect a lot change in reader habits. This is only the beginning. Traditional publishing needs discoverability so that books can sell fast enough to hit a bestseller list. Traditional publishers aren’t used to growing a book over time. Yet a lot of indie writers (with patience) understand that’s how books actually sell. There will be a lot of hand-wringing. There will also be a lot of articles on how to “find” readers. But readers will continue to buy books—at greater volume than before—but not the same books at the same time.
Fourth, expect a lot of weirdness in fall of 2014 as publishers try to figure out how to run their businesses outside of the gentleman’s club model. It’ll be interesting.
Maybe, just maybe, someone will actually track book sales over months rather than book sales over weeks. Maybe, just maybe, someone will start tracking non-traditional sales venues like truck stops and Omnilit and Smashwords. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get an accurate measure of book sales.
Or maybe I’m just indulging in a bit of wish-fulfillment.
A whole bunch of factors have come together to explode the traditional publishing paradigm this fall. We’re watching a slow-motion bomb going off.
There will be fallout.
I certainly do.
I’m grateful to all of you who continue to come to this blog week after week. I’m the only one who notices the velocity here. I don’t strive to have every eyeball hit the digital page five minutes after the blog goes up, but I do appreciate how many of you find me during the week (and beyond!). Thank you.
Because this blog is a small but time-consuming part of my business, the blog does need to fund itself. So please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Unintended Consequences” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.