I’ll be honest with you: when I planned a topic for my blog last week that wasn’t US-specific, I was thinking that the hits on my site would drop off. After all, the Thursday Business Blog fell on one of the US’s big federal holidays, Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July). I figured I’d get a quarter of my usual attendance.
Instead, I got about five hundred additional visitors, mostly from Europe, Canada, and Australia. The Americans returned slowly, a few on Friday, some over the weekend, and the rest on Monday. So my numbers were way up over the weekend. For those of you who haven’t looked at all, I suggest you take a peek at the comment section, which has been utterly fascinating.
Starting on Saturday, Dean Wesley Smith and I, along with Scott William Carter, Christina F. York, M.L. Buchman, and Allyson Longueira will be teaching an advance master class. Essentially, it’s a week-long business course in the new world of publishing for already established professionals. We’ll have 35 in attendance, and we’ll also have some nifty guest speakers, from major bookstore owners to representatives from big companies like Kobo. I plan to learn a lot in the hours when I’m not pontificating, and I’m sure I will share some of that information here.
As we’re putting this workshop together, I found myself thinking of the vast world of publishing—not as a writer, but as a participant. That’s different from a writer-centric point of view. Most people who run publishing companies look at the global market; they don’t look at individual books. These publishing professionals hire staff to handle individual books, and even those staff members don’t think about one book only: they think about the list or the imprint or this year’s product.
Publishing professionals have a whole different way of looking at publishing, and it’s rather difficult to keep that in mind when talking books with individual writers. Writers have, for the last sixty years, thought only about the book. Sometimes writers would take as much as five years to write a book, rewriting, writing one word at a time, thinking about each image.
The Boston Globe recently published a fantastic article on the history of revision. In a review of a new book on revision, Craig Fehrman explores how technology impacted the way that people wrote. (J. Roderick Clark had a similar piece in Rosebud a few years ago.)
This focus on revision, on the single work, has left writers staring at the bark on a branch of a tiny tree while the rest of their industry is looking at forests around the globe. No wonder writers don’t understand the changes in publishing; writers haven’t been trained to look at it.
Writers who have business experience, however, or who naturally have a broader worldview understand that they’re in an industry that doesn’t really care about the bark on their particular branch of that tiny tree. The writers understand that, but they don’t really get its implication.
I don’t always get its implications either. Or maybe I choose to ignore them. Because if I actually think about all the bark on all the branches on all the trees in all of the world, I freak out.
I think any sane person does.
I can hold two distinctly different points of view about this at the same time. The first point of view is sheer panic: Why would anyone read my book in this sea of bark? How can they even find my book?
The second point of view is pure joy: Look at all those forests all over the world; every one represents a whole community of people who love to read.
I know, deeply, firmly, and clearly, that readers find books. I also know that it takes time.
I also know, as deeply, firmly, and clearly, that readers must discover those books somehow. That’s why the entire industry talks about discoverability.
I know as well that it doesn’t matter how often you tell a reader about a certain type of novel, say, a serial killer book. If the reader isn’t interested in serial killers, she’ll never pick up the book no matter how often she hears about it.
When I started this blog, fewer than 100 people came to the first few posts. Now, more than 4,000 show up every Thursday from around the world. (And that doesn’t count the thousands who read the post on other days.) I’ve done no advertising, although I do mention the blog’s topic just once on the list serves I’m on, as well as Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter. I have no idea how many people click over from those posts to that week’s blog. I suspect the number differs based on topic.
The amount of promotion I personally can do will make absolutely no difference in this sea of bark worldwide. It really doesn’t matter how much money I spend on advertising as well; if someone’s not interested in coming to the blog this week, they won’t come.
Likewise, if the readers recommend the blog to other readers, then the blog grows slowly. Not everyone returns. Word of mouth is very, very, very powerful.
And so is that sea of bark.
I kind of like the double meaning of the word “bark” here. Yes, it’s “the outer layer of a tree” as my dictionary so inelegantly puts it, but it’s also the sound a dog makes. A sea of bark can be a whole lot of wood product or a whole lot of noise, depending on your point of view.
The thing is the publishing industry has always been a sea of bark. The difference is that writers are just beginning to notice. And it’s making them panic.
Writing feels so personal, especially in traditional publishing. Your editor helps with your book. Your publicist helps with your book. Your publishing company produces your book. Your book will have its own release date, its little moment in the sun.
And then it’s all over, until you write another book, which will feel very personal, and will seem to get personal treatment. Writers can get lost in their book (singular), rewriting it, tweeting it, promoting it, thinking about it, and spending years on it.
Their publisher, however, spends a fraction of a second on that book, spread out over all the other work that gets done in that company in the space of a year. Yes, some people spend hours on it, but they’re spending time on dozens of other books for this year, plus next year’s books, and books for the year after that.
Even the most myopic writer knows that.
But the numbers never really go into a writer’s brain, because traditional publishing feels so personal.
Most writers never read publishing blogs or industry trade magazines. Sure, they read review columns and the occasional how-to-write blog, but they don’t look at the overall industry.
If they did, they might get that global view. That global view struck me hard when I was reading about the merger of Random House and Penguin into a new company that a friend of mine, a Penguin author, insists should be called Random Penguin instead of the duller and weirder Penguin Random House.
In the formal announcement, made at the beginning of the month, lurked this tidbit:
PRH will “employ more than 10,000 people worldwide across almost 250 imprints, and will generate annual revenues of approximately €3 billion (£2.5 billion, $3.9 billion).” According to Publishers Lunch, the new company will publish over 15,000 titles a year.
Lots of employees, lots of revenue. But look closer. There are also lots of published books. 15,000 titles per year. If the other members of the so-called “Big Five” (now down from six after the merger) also publish that many titles in a year, then we’re looking at 60,000 titles per year out of these major publishers. And that doesn’t count “smaller” publishers like Harlequin or books published by Japanese publishers or Chinese publishers or other publishers not affiliated with the big European/American conglomerates.
A sea of bark indeed. A sea of books. And recently, Mike Shatzkin noted that in ebook publishing, a “new” publisher is giving traditional publishers a run for their money. He called this new publisher Anybody Press. He cited Bowker (who handles the ISBN numbers in the United States) which listed 12% of all ebooks were now self-published. That made Anybody Press as big as the now Big Five. And growing.
Especially since Bowker’s numbers are low. Not every self-published title has an ISBN. Amazon doesn’t require one, for example, so self-published authors using Kindle Select only might not have an ISBN at all.
The number of books available, then, is growing, growing, growing.
But it’s always been large.
Just because Random Penguin is publishing 15,000 books in its various imprints in the next year doesn’t mean that’s a bigger number of published books than before. It’s just the number in those combined companies. I don’t have the figures, but I suspect traditional published titles have decreased since I’ve come into the business, just because the number of traditional publishers has decreased.
In other words, while writers slaved over their words and the manuscripts that took them five years to finish, publishers put out 60,000 plus titles every year (or more). Writers just didn’t notice.
Now that many writers have poked their heads out of their offices, they’ve started to notice the vast sea of books, and have begun to worry about things that only publishers worried about previously. Discoverability. Overnight sales. Rising above the pack.
A writer can now Google her book’s topic and/or title and discover dozens, if not hundreds, of titles just like it. A self-published writer can look at her actual sales figures in real time, knowing how many copies of each e-book she sold every single day. A traditionally published writer can watch her Amazon rankings and see (in theory) how well her book is doing.
And go quietly crazy. Because none of this stuff shows anything.
In a new publishing world that requires patience to build that word of mouth, everything conspires against patience. Every time I log onto Twitter, I see some writer whose book is discounted or hitting the New York Times bestseller list or getting a good review.
I go to book blogger sites, like I’ve been doing this month because my traditional publisher requires it, and I see dozens of writers plugging their latest work. I get e-mails from various online retailers trumpeting the latest $2.99 ebook deal or a discounted copy of my (theoretically) favorite author.
Overwhelmed doesn’t begin to cover how this stuff makes me feel.
Add to that planning this workshop and I’ve been nearly paralyzed by the global view.
Until I heard myself talking to a young writer. I reminded him that no one cares more about his writing than he does. He needed to keep that in mind when he made plans for publishing his book.
I leaned back and thought about that same thing for me.
Whenever I dumped my novels into traditional publishing, promises got broken, expectations got dashed, and things got lost in the translation. Publishers tried, but failed at most of the things they did for me. Sometimes I had a good cover. Sometimes I had sales force support. Sometimes I got good reviews. But rarely did I get them all on the same book. And all of those little details, the things that would help books build on each other, got lost.
Only one of my series from a traditional publisher had covers that were “branded”—covers that looked similar from book to book so that a reader could see the new cover from across the store. None of my novels ever got the promised advertising support (even when it was in the contract) and not a one had a person on the sales force who knew my name or knew that I had published with the company before.
I was a solid midlist writer who was subject to the whims of traditional publishing. I had troubles, not because people in the publishing houses hated me or my work—often they loved me and my work—but because my work would get lost in the vast sea of bark. My book was but one of 15,000 titles that year, forgotten almost as soon as it was published.
Now, in this new world of publishing, I can handle my own books. I can brand the books, pay for advertising myself if I want to, set up my own book tour if I feel it’s necessary. Hell, I could hire someone to tweet about my books all day long if I thought it would be profitable and not annoying. (I know, I know, it’s truly stupid to do that. But the point is that I could if I felt I needed to.) I can investigate foreign sales like I did last week. I can make sure each book has an audio edition. I can change covers if the first one isn’t working, revise blurbs, write series books that only interest me and the handful of True Fans.
Yeah, the sea of bark still exists, but now I’m not focused on a single branch in a single tree in a forest I might not revisit. Instead, I’m creating a small grove of trees in my own forest. Most readers worldwide will never see that grove. But those readers who do find the grove through one route or another might like it enough to stay or to return. They might recommend it to friends, who’ll recommend to friends, who’ll tell even more friends.
On the scale of 15,000 books per year, I’m not even a blip. Looked at from the view of the world’s forests, my grove wouldn’t be visible on a satellite map. But it’s there and it’s actually being tended, instead of ignored like my little trees had been in the past.
If I think about that, the fact that I’m developing my own little corner of the world, instead of thinking about how big the world actually is, I’m content. Because I know I can experiment in my little grove, try new things, change what’s there, and continue to grow what works, without interference from people who are trying to cultivate 15,000 trees per year.
I’m less worried about discoverability than I am about quality. I’d rather have a handful of happy return visitors who occasionally bring a friend than letting millions of visitors know that the grove exists.
Yeah, I’m stretching the metaphor to the breaking point, but here’s the truth of it.
There’s always been a sea of bark. Writers have just started to realize it.
Instead of feeling small, feel empowered. You can set up your own little grove and someone from halfway around the world can find it with the click of a button.
Did I expect to have more than 4,000 visitors on the Fourth of July back in 2009 when I started this blog? No. I didn’t even expect to have 100 visitors by the year 2013. I didn’t think I’d still be writing the blog. I only started it to have outside pressure to finish my Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I finished that in 2010, and I’m still here. Learning, growing, seeing a brain trust develop in the comments section.
I’ll have things to share over the summer as whatever we discover in the next week pans out. But I do know that next week’s workshop wouldn’t have even existed without these blogs. And I wouldn’t be thinking about groves and seas of bark if it weren’t for the global perspective the blog has given me.
Yeah, it’s a big world. Yeah, I find that intimidating—and freeing, all at the same time.
“The Business Rusch: “The Global View” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.