The Business Rusch: Unintended Consequences

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Business Rusch logo webI am completely overwhelmed.

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…

I’m buried.

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.

Really. Honestly.

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.

Expect it.

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.

Thank you!

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“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.

38 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Unintended Consequences

  1. Your comments about the bestseller lists (about how books that make it on the list due to velocity may be actually selling less overall than books that don’t) suggests to me that maybe the publishing industry would be well-served to look at the music industry in terms of recognizing successful works.

    Bestseller lists would seem to be like the Top 40 charts—what’s hot right now, velocity-driven, etc. But the RIAA also certifies albums as Gold, Platinum, Diamond, etc. based on total number of copies sold. Albums can get that certified status years after release as they continue to sell. Both metrics have (or had, at least) value in the music industry.

    Even if it’s not capturing all sales, Bookscan could still certify sales levels that they *do* capture (eg. this book has sold at least 100,000 copies); Amazon could do the same (or perhaps already does, after a fashion, with their algorithms). I wonder if readers would care?…

  2. As an indie author I’m fascinated by this behind-the-scenes peek at traditional publishing. If the biggest names in publishing are suffering from this transition period, I can see why so many so-called mid-listers are becoming indies. Unfortunately, discoverability is an issue for all of us. The only thing that has changed is how we go about trying to become visible.

    Great article, thank you.

  3. I was just looking in an airport store and there wasn’t a single book from an author whose name isn’t well know. Often there are multiple titles from ‘big’ name authors. Of course, that’s print.

    Sadly, most ‘big’ name authors are clueless regarding the reality of the current publishing paradigm. They trust their agents and their publishers to take care of those ‘details’. Except agents have their own agenda and publishers are, relatively, two years behind the power curve of what’s really going on.

    Spare me Scott Turow. He is the definition of hypocritical. He uses his position at President of the misnamed “authors” Guild to lambast Amazon, then shuts the comments section down when it turns against him. He has no control over whether his book sells on Amazon because he is a well paid indentured servant to his publisher, as are all traditionally published authors (although most are not so well paid). They have control over practically nothing.

    The next year will see the smartest and savviest of the ‘big’ names re-examining their options. The problem for some, as they confide to me, is their backlist is being held hostage and a lot of politics are being played, where a big name that indie published would suffer a huge backlash. Perhaps the higher revenue per title and complete control will change the mind of some.

  4. The Kindle revolutionized my reading habits. I used to read only library books and buy zero new books, only occasionally used books. With the free kindle downloads, I can suddenly download more books in a day than I can read in a month. I was forced to become more selective in what I downloaded, let alone read.

    When my income increased enough to buy some new books, and my allergies progressed to the point where I couldn’t read as many used books or library books, both of which often have strong perfume smells on them, I started buying more new books for kindle and in paperback.

    I still can’t afford the highly priced books, including some I really want to read, but maybe I’ll get there someday. These days, I’m far more selective in my reading, but I do buy a lot more books than I used to! 🙂

  5. My switch to ebooks has really changed my buying patterns. Publishers should quit demonizing Amazon. Sure they’re responsible for the rise of ebooks, but it’s too late to go back. The bottom line is that Amazon does a good job selling books. Publishers should just work with them.

    I no longer visit the local B & N to see what’s new. I read blogs, forums, best seller lists, and pay attention to what Amazon recommends. I rely heavily on two websites to help me plan my ebook buying.– and Fictfact sends me an email when one of my favorite authors has a new book, and ereaderiq tells me when I can afford to buy it.

    I disagree with the comment about writing too fast. The only thing that keeps me from immediately buying a book from a favorite author is price. I’ve also noticed that prices seem more fluid. Because of the settlement, there are occasional sales. Amazon will lower the price for a few days, and then it will go back up so it’s not always good to wait.

    Also for those on a budget, the library is an option. My county has a pretty good selection of digital titles. There’s a long wait for the best sellers, but it just gives me a chance to tackle the TBR pile.

  6. Having grown up in small towns, and devoured everything in the libraries, it was a shock to realize that there are now more good stories than I can ever possibly read. With a full ebook reader and a closet full of tbr books, it was only six months ago that this finally sunk it. For decades, this just wasn’t a possiblity. I could always read faster than the big publishers put out books I liked, and the out of print stuff was just gone forever. (Unless I could come up with an excuse to go through Portland and visit the city on the hill: Powells!)

  7. Around August I started putting books on my wishlist instead of preordering them. I’ve still bought most of them as they come out but this lets me keep an eye on my new book flow and avoid flooding myself with to many new books. And now when I have a bit of extra cash I go back over the wishlist and see which ones leap off the page and want to be bought now.

  8. I’ve been saying for a long time that “people can’t keep spending lots of money on books.” A Paperback is now _more_ than the minimum wage, not 1/4 of it. I agree that there is a huge crash coming in movies and publishing. Any other field than movie making would be arrested for being scammers, with the failure rate they have. 1 in 100 make a big splash financially. 30% (SWAG) make their costs. ~60% are complete failures financially.(In spite of DVD sales and various other venues.)
    IMO, many of the “big names” are not really that good. (I read _half_ of a Dan Brown book, and immediately got rid of it. And, I’ll read cereal boxes in desperation.) Turow, is “okay,” but not that great. Nora Roberts is good, and near great, but like Danielle Steele, not _that_ great. (JD Robb is another kettle of words.)
    Many of the “A-list” authors are good journeymen/women, not really masters of their craft. Some are not even “talented amateurs.” They’ve been supported by self selecting, self serving elites, for way to long. Keep preaching to the masses, and maybe some will wake up.

  9. I can’t believe you read the Sandman Slim books! I actually got it as a free friday nookbook back when I had a nook, and tried it out. LOVED it! Haven’t read the others but quickly fell in love with the story and have the others on my radar as soon as I can catch up not only with my work, but my own reading list. Stack on top of that my other passive hobby, video games, and I’m pretty slow reading these days. ;/

  10. New Paretsky?! I didn’t know either. Shoot, I still haven’t read the last Grafton! I’m at least 3 behind on JD Robb! 2 behind on King (I did manage to read the Dan Brown b/c a friend lent it to me immediately upon buying it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have. I thought it was better than some of his others, and the climax wasn’t half-bad).

    I don’t remember the last time I bought a new hardback. They just cost too darn much. Depending on how badly I want said book, I might go ebook, or I might wait for paperback. I do put samples on my Nook so that I won’t forget about things, and every now and again, I poke the icon for info to see if the price has gone down or maybe if it’s in paper. I live in a city of nearly 200,000 and we have no new bookstores here either (We used to have a Borders and a B&N). The used book stores have a tiny bit of new space, but it’s hardly worth looking. The grocery stores don’t sell anything but really crappy MMPB. There’s a few hardbacks at Target, but they’re all NYT bestsellers and Oprah (or similar) Book Club things — and even with the substantial Target markdown, the hardcovers are STILL too much for me to consider. Though they do occasionally get me with the trade paper at 20% off.

    Then you add in all the ebooks you can get for free or cheap or at least pre-ordered (ahem, Kris) and…

    I thought, with an ereader “hey, at least my TBR stack won’t pile up, fall over, and hurt someone”. True. But my poor little reader kept putting up exclamation points telling me it was running out of space and I had to weed stuff out anyway!

    It’s an embarrassment of riches, but it’s still an embarrassment.

    At least everyone knows what to get me for Christmas. I gotta give props to Amazon for the Wish List. Sometimes I buy things in a brick and mortar store, but at least I know what to get. And then there’s the time you realize it’s December 20th and you don’t have anything bought yet, but you do have 2-Day Free Shipping, clickity click.

    Maybe the trad pub people will adopt the Hollywood scheduling method, but that won’t happen till next year at the earliest. I know which movies I’ll be seeing on some days in 2015, a few in 2016, but books? I got no clue.

  11. I noticed a lot of my favorite writers had novels coming out this fall (Dan Simmons, Stephen King, Grisham, Jo Nesbo, Peter Robinson, George Pelecanos, Stephen Donaldson, Elizabeth George, Simon Winchester, Tad Williams, SM Sterling, Archer Mayor, Scott Lynch, and many more). I buy from numerous stores–Barnes & Noble, Amazon, K-Mart, wherever–but always keep a list of up-coming new-releases in my “wish list” on Amazon. I noticed my “wish list” for this fall was HUGE. I knew I was gonna need about $600-$700 of book-buying cash come Sept,Oct, Nov. I even budgeted the extra $$$ into my Germany trip (my Germany/book buying fund i called it). Went to Germany/Austria/Italy in Sept, spent all but about a grand…still almost didn’t have enough for all my books. But I am like you, Kristine, my extra cash is for books…or travel. Cheers.

  12. Another silly trend I’m seeing from NY publishing, at least in genre fiction, is to price pre-orders for e-books at the ‘normal’ (ie. inflated) price, and then, sometimes within days of the book releasing, put it on sale.

    I’ve seen a number of reader rants about this, and it’s another way that traditional publishers are training their readers NOT to buy in advance. In fact, pre-orders are pretty important for velocity because the retailers dump all those sales accumulated over the months into the first day. Big publishers are encouraging readers to wait at least a week or two, since the e-book version will probably see a price drop.

    Whereas a lot of the smart indies are doing the opposite:

    And the fun continues…

  13. Like Adrienne above I use the wishlist features of e-book sites extensively. Any time I run across something that looks good I pop it on the list. When I’m in a buying mood I go straight to the wishlist. No browsing needed, no memory needed. I do miss Fictionwise and their friendly little e-mails “You’ve left book X on your wishlist for 6 months. If you buy it today we’ll cut the price 50%.”

  14. I’d like to point out another problem with velocity measurements:

    Returns. And reserves against returns.

    For example, Our Gracious Hostess quotes the utterly unreliable PW list for a figure of 18,000 units of the current Scott Turow* novel from Nielsen. Leaving aside that not all Nielsen reporting is net of returns in the first place (that’s disclosed to Nielsen, but not in the aggregate figures), keep in mind that Nielsen Bookscan excludes the library market.


    And excludes big-box discount stores like Sam’s Club and its corporate affiliate Wal-Mart; Costco; Target; indeed, any place that sells books that is not a “bookstore.” Nielsen isn’t even internally consistent in how it treats airport bookstores. Gee, do you think any/many of Turow’s books sold through those outlets? Based on the price tags I’ve seen around town and on the last few plane trips I’ve taken, I’d say so.

    Double oops.

    Nor does Bookscan include Amazon.

    Triple oops.

    In scientific terms, this is the equivalent of throwing away the results of four out of nine workstations because the techs at those workstations were girls. The problem is not that the stations from which we’re looking at results are necessarily inaccurate (although the inconsistencies in treating returns call even that into question); it’s that we’re not looking at all of the results before performing a quantitative analysis.

    * I share Our Gracious Hostess’s views of Turow: As an author, I enjoy his works, and think that they’re some of the best alternate history that’s been done in the last forty years. As an Author, and particularly as the President of the Author’s Guild [sic]… not so much.

  15. There’s a thread about publishing too fast on The Passive Voice that suddenly made sense to me when I read this. As a reader, I experienced the same thing.

    There were a bunch of books I normally would have bought that I didn’t because of all the new stuff coming out all at once from trad publishers. It was all one on top of another and I faced some buyer indecision and also that realization that I could afford to wait. As readers shift en masse out of new ereaders to long-tail buying habits, it’s going to have an effect on all publishers, including the indie authors.

  16. Kris, thank you for again for reminding me why I’m an indie and what that really means. I’ve been getting a lot of “you need to build a huge social media platform before you even try to write a book or you’ll never sell a single copy EVER!!!” noise from the world lately and needed a reminder that I’m planning on selling books not bagged lettuce. My business plan projects sales over years not weeks.

  17. Excellent article. It’s not only traditional booksellers, and authors that will be scratching their heads, but librarians too.

    A time is coming, because of the long tail, where readers’ wish lists won’t be lining up with what the NYT or USA Today say are the bestsellers or most requested authors.
    There is coming a brief golden age where indie authors who have built up mailing lists of fans, and can pump out books to satisfy their base, will regularly beat out what traditional considers better known names.

  18. I’ve got more unread books than I can read in two years. Half of them were free, the other half deeply discounted, and the vast majority by favorite authors or recommended by favorite authors. So I’ve finally hit the “I will only buy a book if I am going to read it today” limit.

    I don’t even worry about forgetting a book anymore. If I see something that looks interesting, I add it to my Amazon eBooks wishlist. It’s like having a bookstore stocked specifically for me. I rarely buy books that aren’t deeply discounted — because there’s always *something* that looks fabulous for $3 in my wishlist. I will buy full price books from favorite authors – but it’s really hard to spend $12 on a book when $3 will get me something just as good.

    None of this is good for big publishing.

    1. Oh, I feel you, sister, on the piles of unread books.

      As for prices, I’m seeing something similar to what happened with HMV. They responded to massively falling sales by slashing prices. Which I suppose could make sense but, from the ground level, all they did was train people to expect unrealistic prices.

      We’re talking things like copies of “Blood Meridian” for €2 a piece, and all – *cough* – someone did was stockpile them and sell them to college English majors for €5 each, instead of the €10 they would’ve paid – there was no research whatsoever on what people were willing to pay. They tried to shift from (IIRC) 2 DVDS for €12 to 2 for €14. It lasted about 3 days before they shifted it back.

      AsTONishingly, they’re still in deep trouble. Something similar will happen with Big Publishing, and all the usual suspects will learn all the wrong “lessons”. (No one reads, blame Amazon, whhhhyyyy do writers have to “earn” money anyway…)

  19. I think that you are exactly right that we are seeing chaos in the traditional publishing industry, but I have more doubts than you about the reaction of the publishers to the changes that are happening.

    One thing to take into account is that the publishers are now part of large media companies that have a long history of working via the blockbuster method. It is from their movie and music divisions that many of the worst practices have been making their way into traditional publishing. There is a belief, supported by the success that they have been able to create for blockbusters in the past and in other media, that their promotion can ensure blockbuster status for, let’s be kind, less than worthy work. That these books need that promotion to be successful justifies their large marketing budgets and the attention that they are paid at the traditional publisher. Modest, mid-list writers that generate a small but reliable profit don’t “move the needle” to make a noticeable difference on the profit/loss sheet.

    Similar to the movie studio near abandonment of smaller movies, traditional publishers need those blockbuster sales to make a difference in their quarterly profit/loss sheets. In the case of movie studios, they let the smaller productions move to lesser studios or even the independent productions confident that, should they hear about a production that is getting buzz, they can work out a distribution deal with that production and make a good profit with minimal risk.

    The smaller publishers are much better off than the smaller movie studios; they have the same access to the distributors as the large publishers. Where the difference appears is at the marketing level where they can’t match or even seriously compete with the marketing dollars of the “bigs”. But the small publisher’s advantage is that they are accustomed to the slow but steady sales that keep them going from year to year.

    1. I’ve often thought about the similarities between the growth of the blockbuster movie model and the blockbuster book model. Used to be that Hollywood (particularly the low end, with producers like Roger Corman) could make a movie, try it out in a few cinemas, recut it there were parts the audience didn’t like, and slowly build it into a success. Today it’s one weekend and a lot of advertising, then you’re out of the cinemas to make space for the next one… if that happened to be a bad weekend for reasons outside your control, you’re toast.

      Blockbuster books are now in a similar position, though perhaps not quite so bad. Indie books can still find an audience over a few years, if need be.

  20. “Or maybe I’m just indulging in a bit of wish-fulfillment.” I think you said it there.

    Could you give an overview of the publishing house year? You mentioned in a previous post that publishers typically close in August. They plan for their big Fall season – which is like Sweeps Week in television – in May (?). If someone is submitting traditionally do they have a better chance of being read during some months than others or is that an all year thing? April is when they share their financial information from the big fall season. In publishing you are only a rock star in the fall?
    I live near Random House and I know they have to keep their press running all the time (something about it costing more money to stop and start than to keep it running). I know they will print small runnings from out of the house in order to keep the press going – it used to be a way for people to get books done cheaply if you knew who to talk to. I don’t know if this is true of all presses. So I would think they have to plan their year making sure the presses don’t stop.

    I know you’ve written a lot of posts about different aspects of the year, but I have a hard time assimulating the information. Do you think you could do a month by month breakdown or maybe a season by season?

    1. Gah! I meant to say thank you for even considering my request (I heard a crash in the next room and hit the post button prematurely – kittens were being overly enthusiastic on my countertops).
      I know you’ve a lot on your plate and I appreciate all you do.
      Thanks so much.

  21. “Publishers are breaking us of that habit because we can’t absorb the tsunami of material by favorite writers. We just can’t.”

    Meanwhile, DWS is publishing, what, a novel a month plus nearly a half dozen short stories? There seems to be a contradiction here.

    “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.)”

    Doesn’t mean he’s wrong. While the amount being spent on books is increasing, the wider variety of books can only diminish his slice of the pie. And Amazon isn’t going to help him anyway, so why not speak the truth? Isn’t that what artists are supposed to do?

    1. Dean is writing on the pulp model, not the blockbuster model. The pulp model thrives in this environment. It’s really designed to be purchased and read whenever the reader feels like that flavor of writing. Binge reading is common, so is saving up a stack for later.

      The blockbuster (or tentpole) model really depends on careful scheduling and no competition from other blockbusters. It’s an event. People can only go to so many parties in one weekend, and if all the parties are held on the same weekend, each party gets lower attendance.

      1. I’m glad you shared this. I’ve been wondering at all this hand-wringing from certain indie and trad authors and you just named it: they’re operating on the blockbuster model which is WHY they keep dealing with competition. The pulp model doesn’t care about the competition because it isn’t affected by it.

  22. There are some authors who seem to understand the need to engage fans better than others. Brandon Sanderson and James Dashner made a bet about whose YA series debut novel would sell better in its opening week. The loser would have to use a picture of Justin Bieber as his twitter and facebook portrait. They made sure to talk about it a lot in social media, using it as an occasion to explain a bit about velocity. But it was also fun, and probably helped both their sales.

  23. My technique for remembering books-to-buy: I grab the e-book sample and put it in the samples directory. So I have a reminder ready to hand when I’m looking for something new.

  24. I saw this coming a while back. TV’s done pretty much the same thing, and they’re still not learning much either. They used to focus on letting a series build over a season, so a series could grow. A show like MASH, which won so many awards, would not have survived past 13 episodes today because it didn’t get good ratings. Now the networks focus on the instant hits, and if it isn’t one, it’s gone. Syndication blew some of the rules, video took out some of them, and the internet is blowing the rest — and the networks are still trying to do things the same way.

    I think one of my biggest gripes is pricing of eBooks. I see far too many ebooks priced too high, like close to the cost of a matching hardback or, in some cases, higher than the paper book. It’s hard for me to believe that the publishers can’t figure out that their customers look at the cost and weigh in what they’re getting. Published writers have told me it doesn’t matter — it’s all the costs behind the scenes. But the reader doesn’t know all that. All they see is that they’re getting a book or an electronic file, and they cost the same. The result is that if there’s a glut of books out, I may hold off on buying the ebook for one until later, when the price comes down, and buy one that’s a little cheaper. Because that means I can get more books! I’m sure I’m not the only one doing this.

    1. I have to admit, too, I also weigh the cost of ebooks against the fact that I am licensing that book (leasing it?) not actually owning something more permanently. Like with ITunes, where things have mysteriously disappeared off my computer when I haven’t backed them up, there’s a feeling that ebooks may or may not be my “permanent” possession. Frankly, that weighs into how much I’m willing to pay for them, too, even though I *do* back them up. I know this is mostly psychological, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t impact what I perceive as fair pricing.

      1. I wouldn’t call it mostly psychological. You only retain any book with unbroken DRM as long as a) your vendor stays afloat, and b) your vendor continues to allow unlimited downloads to your new devices — which is another way of saying your vendor puts the interests of its customers above those of its suppliers, and is powerful enough to make its terms stick.

        I’ve been using computers since the early 1980s. I’ve got my share of software licenses that are dead because the companies that created them are dead.

        I’ve also seen companies age and shift attitude and focus.

        I trust Amazon as long as Mr. Bezos is in charge. I don’t trust any of their competitors to stay afloat. And some day Amazon’s likely to start acting like an established company instead of a hungry one.

      2. To be a little more precise: I don’t expect Apple to fold either. But the iBookstore has always looked like an afterthought, and I wouldn’t be shocked if, some decade, they simply dropped it. I’ve seen companies do things like that, too.

    2. Re: MASH

      It only survived that first year because the wife of the boss of the network was a fan and persuaded him to re-commission, even though viewing figures were bad. It was after that that it found an audience.

      Now back to your discussion about books…

  25. Holy Toledo! It’s like the solution to an Agatha Christie mystery: it should have been obvious this would happen, but I just never thought about all the other ways publishers collude, and how not being able to do that would affect the distribution of books.

    It’s one of those unexpected blows that could really accelerate change or collapse.

    Some readers may be changing their “buy it now” habits after this… but a lot of us changed earlier, when the publishers put the prices of ebooks up so high. I am now trained to wait for sales. Or just to forget to look for favorite author’s books.

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