Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!

Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!

Maybe two months ago, at our weekly professional writers’ lunch, we discussed frontlist and backlist, and how old-fashioned those terms are now. I came home, wrote that on a sticky note for a future blog post, pasted it to my computer, and planned to get to it.

This is that post.

In the meantime, I read part of Carolyn Reidy’s keynote address on September 18 at the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting, as excerpted on the publishing aggregation site, The Passive Voice.  Reidy is president and CEO of Simon & Schuster. Passive Guy, who runs the site, added a snarky comment at the end of the excerpt:

Big Publishing discovers Marketing 101 (sort of).

And he’s right, for as far as it goes. A lot of the stuff that Reidy says in her remarks are Marketing 101 for any other business. But traditional publishing hasn’t had to do real marketing for more than fifty years now, and has no idea how to do it.

The article PG excerpted is “Carolyn Reidy at BISG: ‘The Sales Power of Metadata’” by John Mutter on Shelf Awareness. I urge you to read the entire article. (You have to scroll down Monday, September 21’s articles.) A lot of that basic marketing PG snarfs at is stuff that indie publishers don’t do either—which is rather mind-boggling, considering most indies are only dealing with five to ten books.

As I mentioned last week, for those with five to ten books, basic marketing on each title is easy. It takes little concentration and even less organization. But when you get to where I am—400 short stories, assorted collections, 50 [?] novels, six active series, six more starting up, and so on—even basic marketing is hard.

Reidy is the CEO of Simon and Schuster, which deals with so many books per year that most people can’t imagine it. So I’m going to help you. 🙂 Get ready for your brain to explode:

Simon & Schuster has 12 active imprints for adult fiction. Imprints are book lines, standalone, with their own catalogues and their own voice (in theory). On its website, S&S defines the imprints this way:

The Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group includes a number of publishing units that offer books in several formats. Each unit has its own publisher, editorial group and publicity department. Common sales and business departments support all the units. The managing editorial, art, production, marketing, and subsidiary rights departments have staff members dedicated to the individual imprints.

S&S has 10 active imprints for children’s fiction of one form or another. S&S has two audio imprints.

S&S International lists three major companies (not imprints): S&S UK, S&S Australia, and S&S Canada. These companies publish different books (with some overlap) from the U.S. company. Those three companies have their own imprints. For kicks and giggles, I clicked on the U.S. link for S&S Australia and got this little note:

Simon & Schuster Australia is one of the region’s Top 10 book publishers. We publish and distribute fabulous books in Australia and New Zealand across a broad range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories under our local and international imprints, including Aladdin, Atheneum, Atria, Fireside, Free Press, Howard, Kangaroo Press, Little Simon, Pocket, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Simon Spotlight Entertainment and Touchstone. Simon & Schuster Australia also acts as the local sales and distribution partners for Duncan Baird Publishing (mind, body & spirit, well-being, and cultural reference) and Kyle Cathie (illustrated cooking and lifestyle books).

Now, consider this: In 1939, Simon & Schuster started America’s first paperback publisher, Pocket Books, when S&S was still wet behind the ears. (The company was founded with crossword books in 1924.) It has had corporate ownership of one form or another since 1975.

According to Wikipedia, S&S has at least nine former or inactive imprints. This number is on the low side. I know of a few that aren’t on Wikipedia’s list.

So, think about this: S&S has been publishing fiction and nonfiction books continually since 1939. Some of those books have gone out of print. Some of them have had their rights reverted to the authors. Many of those books were licensed before all the changes in the U.S. copyright laws in the 1970s. Some of those books (very few) have slid into the public domain.

According to S&S’s corporate overview, S&S “publishes approximately 2000 titles annually.” The word “approximately” is theirs, not mine. In 2014, S&S placed 294 titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Individual titles—different books.

Now, let’s pretend that S&S has consistently published 2000 titles per year in the 21st century. (Honestly, it was probably more pre-Recession, but we’re waving our magic wand—and guessing.) Since a few of those S&S books are mine, I can safely tell you that S&S still controls most of the rights to those 21st century books. (S&S is almost impossible to get rights back from and has been that way for almost a decade.)

This means that for the past 15 years, S&S has published 2000 titles per year. Which means it controls the license of roughly 30,000 titles.

Thirty thousand different book titles. And that doesn’t count the titles it still controls from the 1990s or the 1980s or the renewed licenses for books that have been continuously in print from the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, and so on. Or the books it has under contract for 2016, 2017, 2018….

I have no idea what S&S’s book inventory is, how many rights and titles it still controls, but it’s at least 50,000 titles.

Makes my roughly 500 seem like nothing—and an indie-published writers’ titles seem link a speck of sand on a gigantic swath of beach.

Consider all of those 50,000 book titles. Then realize that the bulk of those titles are merely names on a spreadsheet. Long ago, the acquiring editor was fired, downsized, acquired by another imprint, moved to a different job, or, gosh-golly-gee, dead. Many of the earlier titles (those still in print from the 1950s upward) are controlled by estates. The authors are dead too.

What this means is that no one who controls the rights to these still-in-print book titles knows what’s in the books. Nor does anyone know what awards the books won, whether or not they hit a bestseller list back in the day, or if the author had done something that’s newsworthy to a 2015 audience.

You can post here about how stupid it is for a corporation whose livelihood is based on content doesn’t know the content of the properties it owns—and I will agree with that statement.

However, mentioning that will change nothing. It’s a fact. It is what it is.

No one in these big conglomerates (and the other Big 5 publishers are the same) knows what their backlist is composed of at all.

Now, in that context, consider the following statements from Carolyn Reidy. She was speaking to a traditional publishing audience. In that context (the context of 50,000 titles or more), realize just how revolutionary her comments are.

She said publishers must

“…exercise a deep knowledge of our entire catalogue and determine how our books relate to what’s happening in the world today,” whether that involves an entertainment or media hit or to tie in with a current event. And now it’s a part of S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, she said, to bring up those and a range of other opportunities, whether a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity.

Making these connections applies to the full backlist (which is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it”), and needs to go from monthly and weekly planning to “looking at our lists through a lens of daily opportunities.”

These statements are revolutionary because they change the entire focus in the publishing part of the huge S&S conglomerate. For the past fifty years or more, all of traditional publishing had limitations. Bookstores were small, first in comparison to the chain stores that sprouted up later, and then in comparison to the unlimited virtual shelf space of online competitors.

Shelf space really and truly was limited. Books that didn’t sell had to be pulled off shelves to make room for books that might sell. Books that sold well stayed on the shelves, and books that sold a little stayed on the shelves longer than books that didn’t sell at all.

This need to churn product turned into the velocity model. A big push to get the books onto the shelf and selling immediately so that they would stay on the shelf—for two weeks, a month, maybe three months, but rarely longer than that.

It was a necessary business model for its time that started to fade in the 1990s and has been slowly dying ever since. Well, not so slowly now. 2015 will probably be the year that traditional publishing realizes the velocity model is well and truly dead.

Hence, Carolyn Reidy’s comments. She once tried to prevent this decline in the velocity model, which is one of the reasons she participated in the ebook price fixing that got her corporation slapped by the courts and the U.S. Justice Department. The traditional publishing business has not improved since those fateful conversations with Apple five years ago. In fact, things for big publishers have gotten worse.

And, as those of us who understand big business were trying to say back then, wait. The big publishers will catch a clue that the business has irrevocably changed.

Carolyn Reidy’s statements show that. Now she, and the other Big 5 publishers (and the other traditional publishers—those with 500 books per year instead of 2000), have decided to change the way they do business.

They will have to hire people to examine the history of their inactive books—what we used to call the backlist. Those new employees will have to read the backlist, rebrand it, and figure out how to market it.

Then, those new employees will have to continually update the inventory on a daily basis. If an independent film company wins the Cannes Film Festival with a film made from a thirty-year-old novel that sold 5,000 copies in its lifetime, the new employees at the publishing house that still retains the rights to the novel can update the metadata to reflect that. If some Turkish writer who has had only one book published in translation in the U.S. wins the Nobel Prize for literature for her body of work, those employees at the U.S. house where the English language book is in print can change the metadata that day to reflect the win, while the company works on rebranding that book (and acquiring and translating the rest of her work).

If some community chooses To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe as its Community Reads book, the metadata from its publisher will reflect that. (By the way, when I typed this, I looked up To The Lighthouse to doublecheck the title, and found that it’s still in print from a variety of sellers, all with five- to twenty-five-year-old covers, all of them ugly, even for their day.)

But these are new jobs at the traditional publishing houses and new ways of thinking about publishing and brand new ways—for a traditional publisher—to market books.

The task, when looked at from the perspective of 50,000 titles is overwhelming.

In that keynote address, Reidy went on to speculate that the plateauing of ebook sales at Simon & Schuster “occurred in part because in early digital days, readers buying a new book from an author would buy their backlist, too, something that’s apparently not happening at the same rate.”

She is truly speculating here, and she misses part of the big picture, which Data Guy and Hugh Howey have dealt with in the Authors Earnings Reports last month (yes, I’ll get to those in a future blog post Real Soon Now). Those of us who work as hybrid or indie writers know that the “shadow industry” as the Authors Earnings Report calls it has continued to grow, while traditionally published books have slipped in sales—mostly due to ridiculous pricing.

(For example, Little, Brown and Company’s $12.99 ebook edition for Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On actively discouraged me from assigning the entire book at the last minute to my students at last week’s mystery workshop. Instead, I waited until they all arrived, gave them my hardback copy of the book, and had them read only one story in it. [I would have had them read at least three if they could have had the ebook edition one week ahead.] Not only did that ridiculous price lose 12 or more sales for the book, it also discouraged these avid mystery readers from sampling more of Rankin’s work, which probably resulted in a missed opportunity for even more sales.)

Reidy is right about one thing: In the early days of the ebook revolution, readers were picking up backlist at an astonishing rate. What Reidy misunderstands is that those backlist sales pointed to a huge problem in traditional publishing.

Readers were hungry for those backlist books, so the readers snatched them up, even in badly scanned editions with typos on every page. Readers generally don’t care if a book was published last week or five years ago. Readers only care about writers who are new to them.

Readers are the original binge consumers. Readers find a writer whose work they like and read everything the writer has done.

Nowadays, everything by that writer can remain in print—if the writer is indie or hybrid.

But not if the writer is traditionally published.

Because there’s another whole set of employees that traditional publishers need to hire. The traditional publishers need to beef up their legal department, and have many employees finding and reading old contracts, to see if the publishing company still has the rights to the book, the rights to reprint, the rights to reprint in an ebook, the rights to reprint in paper…

It’s a mess.

And every contract is different, even contracts with the same author. The manpower involved in implementing the tasks in Reidy’s keynote address is astonishing.

Think of it this way. Simon & Schuster is a gigantic cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, heading from the UK to the East Coast of the U.S. Suddenly, that ship gets orders to head to Australia. The ship has to plot a new route, figure out the difficulties of doing that, refuel, stock up on new supplies, and at some point, begin to move in that new direction.

The cruise ship won’t get to Australia on the same day it would have arrived in New York. That ship will take much, much longer to get to Australia.

It’s exceedingly hard to move a ship of that size.

But indie publishers are anything from a cigarette boat to a top-of-the-line yacht. The top-of-the-line yacht will have more trouble changing its direction as well (having some of those cruise-ship problems on a smaller scale), but the top-of-the-line yacht is built to travel the ocean. A cigarette boat is not.

We all have our issues. But we all need to stop thinking in the terms “frontlist” and “backlist.” I love Reidy’s phrase: backlist is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it.

But she doesn’t take it far enough. She’s only starting on this understanding.

Because a reader will get frustrated—deeply frustrated—if that book she’s heard about doesn’t come in the format she wants. That format might be paper. It might be a Kindle ebook. It might be a Kobo ebook. It might be audio.

Our Sunday professional writers lunch came up with a different way of thinking about back- and frontlist.

Accessibility.

If a title isn’t accessible, it’s not going to get read. Not in this modern world. So the inaccessible title is the backlist—or out of print—title. And that will determine a reader’s purchasing decisions.

In other words, in the case of discoverability, all accessible books are created equal. They are new to the reader, and the reader can buy them at will.

But inaccessible books become forgotten books. Readers will try to get them, and then, after a few continual failures (including prices so high on rare book sites as to be unaffordable), the reader will move on to another book.

The days when readers would haunt used bookstores, trying to find that one copy of a missing book in a series are gone. Now, if a writer’s books aren’t all in print, the reader writes to the writer, demanding to know why. Explaining arcane contract terms simply won’t satisfy the reader, who just wants the book.

What does all of this mean?

A bunch of things to all writers.

First, the traditional publishers will implement that course correction. They will change the direction of that cruise ship. Their entire business depends on it. It will take years, but eventually, all of their “backlist” will become accessible.

Therefore, in the future, readers will expect accessibility even more than they do now.

Also, as traditional publishers change course, it will become even harder than it is now for a writer to get her rights reverted to a book. Right now, it’s hard, but not quite impossible. In a few years, it’ll be impossible. That asset (and that’s what a book is in business) has just become even more valuable to the publisher.

Second, once traditional publishers complete their course correction, an advantage that hybrid and indie writers have had since the beginning of this revolution will disappear.

In the beginning, lo these five years ago, writers who controlled their own backlist put that backlist out. Books that had been inaccessible became available in lovely editions (not the crap traditional publishers were putting out back then), and readers flocked to those older titles.

Readers will continue to read the older titles, but readers don’t care who publishes anything. They only care about the writer as a brand (like Raisin Bran), the series (also a brand), and the book itself. The brand is what sells the books, not the fact that it was packaged by JoeWriter or Simon & Schuster.

So, indies will no longer be the primary source of backlist titles. That will have no effect on indie sales—again, readers don’t care—but that divide between traditional and indie will close up a bit.

The divide will remain in the one area that savvy writers already understand: the older titles will pay the writer more if the writer publishes the book than if some conglomerate does. But readers won’t give a rat’s ass at all.

They just want the book when they want it.

Third, the velocity model will cease to be the only model in traditional publishing. That’s already happening. I looked at my BookBub emails last week, and I was startled to see books published by William Morrow, Bantam Books, Harlequin, HarperCollins, and other Big 5 imprints on Bookbub’s daily deals list.

I’ve been a Bookbub subscriber almost from the beginning, and way back when, every book advertised through Bookbub was indie or self-published. Last week, only about one-third were. I have no idea how that reflects across all of Bookbub’s offerings over the entire year, but the presence of so many traditional publishers shows me that this sea-change I’m talking about—the decline of the velocity model—is already well underway.

That means competition for post-publication ad space will go up. It also means that traditional publishers will not just concentrate their efforts and their dollars on those first few weeks after publication.

It will remain to be seen whether or not they’ll continue to promote books that sell poorly out of the gate. But they will change their behavior to be a lot more like indies.

In a nutshell, this means that the business we know as publishing is changing. It’s finally starting to reflect the way the modern world works. It has taken traditional publishers five years to realize that they can’t bring back the days when they were the only players in town. So they’ll start playing the new game.

With millions of dollars and entire companies behind them, they’ll play the game in a different way than indies will. But traditional publishers will also trod the paths that indies forged. As those Bookbub ads show, traditional publishers already are.

What do indies do? Keep collecting our 70% instead of 25% of net revenues. (25% of net revenues often comes out to pennies on the dollar, which is another blog post.) This change will affect readers more than it will affect us.

But it also means that hybrid writers have to be exceedingly careful. When a writer licenses a book to a traditional publisher, the writer is going to have to realize that the license will be for the life of the copyright, unless the writer has clout to get a better deal or unless the writer is hybrid only outside of the U.S.

If a writer goes to traditional for short-term discoverability and ad boost, then the writer better be prepared to get paid a small fraction for that book for the life of the book.

A writer’s choices are no different than they were last year. Indie, hybrid or traditional. But the traditional/hybrid path has become a lot more rigid, and will become even more rigid as traditional publishers hire those new employees, learn how to properly use metadata, and eventually hire people who actually know business and marketing to consumers, not just to bookstores.

Indies—your job also remains the same. You need to get your work in front of readers. But you need to get it in front of all readers. Leaving your work in one store only [cough: Amazon] becomes an even worse business decision than it was a year ago.

Traditional publishers can make deals with big stores like Amazon that allow the traditional publishers to participate in special deals without requiring the trad pubs to have the exclusivity that indies are required to have. So, if a traditionally published book is in Kindle Unlimited, that book is also available on Barnes & Noble. No self-published author can do that.

Again, it comes down to accessibility. As the traditional publishers make their books available on all platforms, in lovely editions, at all times, so too should indie publishers.

Because if the buzz word is now going to be accessibility, then readers will get mad at books that aren’t accessible—in the right format for that reader.

This attitude will only grow stronger as time goes on. Be prepared for it.

Make your published books accessible on all platforms now. Train your readers to find your stuff everywhere. Keep your readers happy.

Because that’ll be the key to success in the next five years—for all writers and publishers, not just a select few.

I hope these blogs make you happy. I know they give me the time to think about trends in publishing, which I appreciate. I also appreciate the support for the blog, in the shares, likes, and comments both personal and private. I also appreciate the donations, which keep me blogging.

Thanks so much for the support.

Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Tawng




32 responses to “Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!”

  1. Rob Cornell says:

    Wow. I get his weird feeling Carolyn Reidy may be reading your blog. 🙂

  2. Dan Wood says:

    Bookbub currently does a 50/50 split between indie and trad pub, although that might not be true for any given day
    http://insights.bookbub.com/how-bookbub-selection-process-works/ You’ll find that in the comments and they say it from time to time during their Twitter chat.

    Really great post.

  3. C.E. Petit says:

    So long as commercial publishers are subsidiaries of publicly traded firms, they must follow accounting rules imposed as one-size-fits-all on all publicly traded companies. Imagine, for a moment, that one was never allowed to modify any language in any boilerplate publishing contract… and that understates matters, because the equivalent of that “contract” is imposed by CPAs who have NEVER understood the distinction between “individual product goodwill” and “firm consolidated goodwill,” and in particular that it’s NOT a continuous, linear relationship… by definition.

    In this particular instance, the “fault” (if that’s the right word) belongs to the late William O. Douglas, from his tenure as a corporations and securities law professor at Columbia, followed by chairmanship of the brand-spanking new Securities & Exchange Commission, followed by some remarkably obtuse corporate-law decisions on the Supreme Court. In the interest of making corporate disclosures standard and meaningful to investors, so that investors could meaningfully compare diverse investments (was Ford or Standard Oil of California a better investment in 1935?), he set the stage for uniform accounting rules that reduced everything to an amount certain based on arithmetic aggregation. Of course, Douglas had never heard of statistical thermodynamics (admittedly, it was just getting its start then) or Paul Dirac (ditto) or Leo Szilard (double ditto, plus the relevant stuff is a decade later), so he couldn’t see the pitfalls.

    This is all a roundabout way of saying that corporation- and securities-law pressures will inhibit, and probably prevent, the largest commercial publishers from changing their management focus, their internal incentives, or their behavior in the foreseeable future… no matter what Ms Reidy proclaims (and presuming — against all of the evidence presented in US v. Apple et al., let alone the stuff that’s not in the public files — one believes her good intentions in the first place). Context matters, people; that’s what Our Gracious Hostess is advocating, and it’s what virtually every keynote speech given at BISG in the last decade or more has tried to ignore.

    • I think good intentions have nothing to do with it. I think she needs to make money for her company, and the old ways are failing. If they cease working, then new ways have to come in or the corporation dies. There’s too much inertia for the corporation to die. She works for a multimedia company that has weathered the television shift of the 1990s. There’s precedent there. And also, many of the changes she’s arguing for S&S has slowly implemented over the past seven years. So she’s not really talking out of her hat here… (And I don’t see her as a role model, btw, just one desperate corporate player.)

  4. Ms. Rusch where would/do you place Baen Books in this? While S&S certainly publishes the paper editions for Baen under contract Baen controls their own ebooks and is certainly an independent publisher in all other facets of their business. Baen is also quite successful at republishing their backlist where it is available. Do you count them as an adjunct of the big five? Or as an independent publisher who happens to use one of the big five very shrewdly?

  5. Terrific article. Perhaps a real signal of publishing industry intent will be the hiring of key people from the CPG industry – they know brand management and they know consumers.

  6. Good post, Kris. Lots to think about here.

    But put me in the group that is skeptical about what major publishers are going to be able to do with (at least the great majority) of what I’ll call their “inventory,” for lack of a better term (and yeah, we need a better term). They can’t (and don’t have the resources or employees) to even properly market or the vast majority of their CURRENT books. How can they possibly chew backwards through decades of increasingly undocumented titles, contracts, and authors? I just don’t believe that they can.

    Now, they WILL continue to crank down on retaining rights to all those books. But I don’t think they’ll ever treat them like a concentrated resource, like you might a gas pipeline or a power plant. Instead, they’ll treat them a mine site, digging for the occasional rich vein, or accidently kicking over a nugget or diamond or two. Most of it is just tailings, sitting in a big, ugly, pile, taking up space. Or just dirt left for potential later digging.

    It’s like the Nigerian scam. If you send out a few million emails, if one in a thousand responds, you have a fortune. Same if you control tens or hundreds of thousands of book titles. If one in a hundred turns out to have value, through very little action of your own, then you’re golden.

    Of course, some titles and authors will be filtered out for special consideration: the once best-sellers, the major award winners, the authors with celebrity or accomplishments or reputations beyond their literary ones. But the rest will go in the pile, perhaps to be eternally ignored, or perhaps to get on the most minimal, clerical-level, attention.

    Best case is, some intern/temp/monkey will be assigned to do a cursory pass on an inventory book. They probably won’t read it. They won’t have time. But they may research for old blurbs, or ad copy, or reviews to tell them what the book is about and what it’s like. They MIGHT even write a new catalog summary for it, but probably now. But they may assign it to some categories, attach some key words, assign some automatic web searches to the title, author, and possibly people or characters referenced in the books. And then the robots and algorithms (yes, I’m making the bold assumption that publishers will catch up to what Amazon was doing last century) will do their work. And maybe an individual author or book will be flagged. Or probably not.

    And if it does, it MIGHT result in a repackaging, and a press release or two, and maybe some featuring in promotions. All of which will probably be reflexive, off-target, and poorly executed, because of resources again. And the book will go back to the pile, until (and if) the robots flag it again someday. But if it can pay off often enough, the publisher doesn’t care. As with so many things in publishing, it’s STILL not about individual books or authors. It’s about the aggregate.

    Generally, the only ones really paying attention to individual titles are the creators (or sometimes, their estates), and if the publishers were smart, they’d find a way to leverage that, effectively crowdsource all the labor of mining their inventory by the people who know where the nuggets (and the stinkers) are buried. But that means relinquishing control, and incentivizing by sharing income, in a way that runs completely contrary to corporate culture. It means looking at indie continuations of authors and series that they dropped as adding to the value of their holdings, rather than as new competition. So that’s something that will likely be long in coming, if it ever happens.

    • Felix J.Torres says:

      One thing tradpub can affordably do with their midlister backlist is what Hollywood dies: bulk licensing to subscription services at a fixed rate and bookkeep it as deep discount. As in $5M a year for a grab-bag of 10000 titles. Maybe with a nominal checkout payout of a buck or less. They could sift the titles and do different bundles; old bestsellers, active authors, inactive authors, etc and charge different rates.
      Lots of things they can do once they get past their special snowflake mentality and start charging their backlist distributors for bulk access rather than a la carte “pay per view”.

  7. Suzan Harden says:

    This is the point I’ve feared as an indie–when the trad publishers realize how much value they have in their thousands of backlist books. If we think we have problems with discoverability now, wait until they start pumping those into the ebook jungle.

    On the other hand, the reader in me is looking forward to seeing some old favorites that I read 30-40 years ago that are no longer available.

  8. Dane Tyler says:

    You know, up until the last couple of paragraphs, this really frightened me. I could see you leading toward the conclusion trad-pubs would overpower and drive out indies while trodding those paths those indies forged. Thank goodness there’s a bright spot.

    But I wonder if there’s hope for indies to dissuade Amazon from bullying them into exclusivity the way they do now. It would be nice to have the same accessibility as the Big Five for indies too. Nevertheless, I see the need to be agile and keep up with as many platforms and services as possible.

    Another great, enlightening article, Kris. Thank you for making it cough accessible to us learners.

    • I’m hoping for the same change from Amazon, Dane. It’s not in their best interest to do so, though.

    • Unstable + lucrative = opportunity. To use the boat analogy, a cruise liner costs a bundle to build and operate. A yacht is expensive and must be cared for. A powerboat is cheap, and when it stops being useful, you buy a different boat. That’s the opportunism of the Amazon seller. I don’t know any indie who thinks that Amazon is forever. The best sellers report paying down debt, socking their cash away, and keeping an eye on the door.

  9. Chris says:

    I’m an indie author and would love to make sure I’m covering all my bases.

    Question: Is the metadata you and Carolyn Reid referred to associated with the ISBN or something else?

  10. Vera Soroka says:

    Very good post! I think traditional publisher will have to start paying their authors more money or they will be left with only their back list to make money off of. Traditional writers are wising up and trying the indie publishing. One writer that I’m a huge fan of just recently left her publisher and went solo. How she got her rights back, I don’t know but she did. There will be more of this as time goes unless they change those contracts.
    I have to get busy and get my what I call back list out of stuff that I have written but published yet. My goal is to build a body of work out their and start submitting to some magazines. I see that as good opportunity for discoverability. Every writer now is going to have to learn business and how to freelance.

  11. tony says:

    This is interesting. All these new employees needed for the research have to be paid. And their work has long term benefit to the corporation, but no (or little) short term benefit. Do you think the conglomerates will support them long enough to see the results? Do you believe the focus on quarter to quarter results will (can) be modified long enough for their effort to succeed?
    As always, a good read, and thought provoking.
    Thanks for sharing!
    PS: Editing a comment is annoying, because striking a key throws the screen back to the top of the page, and you write (I want to say) “into the dark,” to use DWS’ favorite phrase! I’ll get over it, I suppose.

    • As I mentioned downstream to another commenter, I think this will end up being a going-forward change in the Big 5, not a looking at the past change. I suspect the only books that were previously published that will get this kind of attention are the ones that already hit the radar somehow.

    • camilleregan says:

      Tangentially, I would LOVE to have that job. If they keep phasing out copy editors I might need it.

  12. Stephen Gradijan says:

    From paragraph 6(/?):

    As I mentioned last week, for those with five to ten books, basic marketing on each title is easy. It takes little concentration and even less organization. But when you get to where I am—400 short stories, assorted collections, 50 [?] novels

    I am pretty sure you have a lot more than the 400 and 50!!!

  13. Fantastic post and lots of food for thought here!

  14. Ferran says:

    Sorry… it got long.

    50 novels? This means I’m catching up! Yay!

    There’s at least a big group in indie that thinks that traditional mistakes are only so if TradPub makes them. They can get pretty vocal about it.

    “You can post here about how stupid it is [to not] know the content of the properties it owns”

    As long as they had a decent idea of the value. Then, at least, someone who specialized in a specific content (say 1920’s novels) could buy / license that from them and use it well.

    “Then, those new employees will have to continually update the inventory on a daily basis. If an independent film company wins the Cannes Film Festival with a film made from a thirty-year-old novel […]”

    Yes. But. That requires that the ebook be easy to find, buy & download. And, preferably, that the print book does, too. And 500 copies in some dusty storehouse in Oklahoma doesn’t count. A fast printing distributed 5 weeks from now, doesn’t either. I still see too little PoD. In fact, bought several books from Amazon last July; one of them took them almost two months to locate, and is expected sometime in a month. Seven of them have been in transit since then. Yes, amazon overseas shipping has gone down the drain. Still… Two months to locate a book in print? And this is amazon.

    “The task, when looked at from the perspective of 50,000 titles is overwhelming.”

    Color me crying. What’s the point in having 21 thousand employees (CBS) if you can’t have a bunch of them for dealing with that. Sorry, not sorry. At your current books-to-employee ratio, how many books could WMG deal with if you were 21000 people? Yes, yes, “inefficiencies of scale”. My read end. If it really worked that way, companies would not try to grow and merge and grow some more.

    “Not only did that ridiculous price lose 12 or more sales for the book, it also discouraged these avid mystery readers from sampling more of Rankin’s work, which probably resulted in a missed opportunity for even more sales”

    I might accept that selling books is somehow significant, but, surely, you’re not implying that reader’s… gasp… network. Yes? Or that writers can read!?

    “Because there’s another whole set of employees that traditional publishers need to hire. The traditional publishers need to beef up their legal department, and have many employees finding and reading old contracts, to see if the publishing company still has the rights to the book,”

    Dollars to doughnuts they’ll publish first and check later.

    “It’s exceedingly hard to move a ship of that size.”

    Sure. But is it the Endeavour, the Bounty or the Titanic?

    “Explaining arcane contract terms simply won’t satisfy the reader”

    It’s worse than that. Explaining contract terms creates, by itself, a chasm between the publisher (and, often, the writer), who is “up there” and “knows what this is about” and the customer. “Sorry to bother your pretty little head, but corporate realities…” “Sorry to bother your ugly little brain, but I don’t give a damn, and it just proves you’re not as good as you see in that mirror you use so much; ‘bye.”

    “First, the traditional publishers will implement that course correction.”

    Unless they get to near to the reefs and it becomes salvage.

    “That asset has just become even more valuable to the publisher.”

    NO! It’s has become more VALUED. It already was valuable. They’re just starting to realize how much. Now, let’s see if their assets change in valuation, because I can see all kinds of possible cheats, there. More towards shareholders than writers, though.

    “So, indies will no longer be the primary source of backlist titles. […] That divide between traditional and indie will close up a bit.”

    Not as much if indies keep writing. If they keep to NY schedules… they’re fried. If they write at a good pace, they’ll generate backlist much faster.

    “I’ve been a Bookbub subscriber almost from the beginning, and way back when, every book advertised through Bookbub was indie or self-published. Last week, only about one-third were.”

    Have Bookbub rates kept? How many indies have decided promotion isn’t worth it? I’ve seen a bunch, from the outside.

    “But they will change their behavior to be a lot more like indies.”

    Thing is, unless they really learn about economies of scale, they risk being inefficient indies. Slow ones, without effective branding or PR channels. If they do it as indies… what’s the advantage for a new writer? Why should he choose them and give a bite of his royalties for, basically, forever more when… they’re like indies?

    “It has taken traditional publishers five years to realize”

    Sorry. “To realize” or to start doing so? S&S (which is CBS/media), sure. And Shatzkin. Who else? Correct me if I’m wrong, because I get lost in the soup of initialisms, but CBS is conservative, kind of apart of the rest.

    “If a writer goes to traditional for short-term discoverability and ad boost, then the writer better be prepared to get paid a small fraction for that book for the life of the book.”

    Sorry, I though you said we were talking about what was new.

    “But the traditional/hybrid path has become a lot more rigid”

    Not what I associate with survival. Among others, and I repeat myself, why would writers approach traditionals under those conditions?

    “[Indies:] Leaving your work in one store only [cough: Amazon] becomes an even worse business decision than it was a year ago.”

    Ssshhh… you’ll upset the natives.

    “Traditional publishers can make deals with big stores”

    I’m waiting for the day enough indies/small presses create some sort of association to manage such. Or maybe people like Draft2Digital.

    “No self-published author can do that.”

    Wrong, sorry. Some indies have received offers, for example, for KDP Select without exclusivity.

    “This attitude will only grow stronger as time goes on. Be prepared for it.”

    Oh, I am. Then, I’m a reader. I’ve discarded several writers these past… 18 months? Precisely because of that. Mind you, some writers were a tad obnoxious.

    Take care.

    • Good points all, Ferran. I like this correction you made to my post: It has become more VALUED. It already was valuable. They’re just starting to realize how much. Exactly.

      And yeah, I’ve done without some hard-to-get books as well. Only books, though. Not the writers. (Not yet.)

  15. antarespress says:

    Reidy spoke sweet words, but they amount to vaporware. S&S cannot do what she said they must. None of the Manhattan Manuscript Mafia (3M) can.

    As you said, the 3M and Company acquire thousands of titles every year. Their current corporate structures support the velocity model. To ‘know’ their backlist content, they need to hire thousands of readers, copywriters, cover artists, and lawyers. They cannot afford that.

    Reidy and the 3M will make a show of effort in that direction, but the momentum of the current structure will defeat them. The number of 3M backlist titles that will become visible will be a negligible fraction of their inventory.

    You declared it is difficult for you to manage your own titles. No ‘editor’ at a 3M company can devote all his effort to one writer. Therefore, the 3M cannot give a writer’s works the attention they need to succeed in the new environment.

    An example: Early this week, I got a notion to buy and read Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal. Checked it out on Amazon. Kindle price, $12.99. Notion extinguished by the price. Instead, I will check out the copy at my local library. Forsyth just lost a sale because his 40 year-old book is overpriced (for me).

    Is the book accessible? Yes. Is it visible? Kind of. Is it competitively priced? No.

    Who chose that price? How much thought did he give the price? The content is great. I know. I read it before. Somebody failed that book. Was it Forsyth? No. He no longer controls what happens to The Day of the Jackal. He no longer pilots that boat. (If his publisher owes him a fiduciary duty, then his publisher is in breach.)

    The 3M are piloting container ships in stormy seas. Each container holds the collection of a writer’s works. Sometimes — especially in stormy seas — a container is lost overboard. Sometimes the ship sinks and all the cargo goes down with it. And helm hard over and the inboard prop all back, it still takes 3 nautical miles to execute a turn.

    I assume Reidy is sincere. But absent a miracle, she and her ship will still end up on the rocks.

    • I suspect that for the Big 5, this will be a going-forward thing. They’ll change practices on books in the pipeline and future books, not on any past books except the really, really big ones.

      • Always an intriguing and informative stop in my feed list, and this week is no different.

        I wonder, though, if the big publishers will ever do the hiring necessary to tackle the tasks you outline above. It seems to me that for executives at large corporations, adding full-time headcount is about the scariest thing they can do. More likely, they’ll bury a combination of interns, freelancers, and contractors under unreasonable goals and churn through warm bodies without ever building up the institutional knowledge they’ll need to do it right.

        I could be wrong. But I doubt it. Big companies—especially ones that have been around a long time and are part of even bigger companies—really hate having new employees on the books.

Leave a Reply