Business Musings: The Reactive Business Model
As promised, I’m doing a lot of catch-up on the state of the publishing industry at the beginning of 2016. The reading is illuminating. Many things seem similar to the situation at this point last year, and many others seem so wildly different that it’s hard to believe only a year has gone by.
I haven’t had time to read all I want to read, though, nor have I had a chance to let the information sink into my brain. I need a bit of time to cogitate. I have started writing this blog a few times this week, only to feel I needed more information or more time to consider what I’ve been learning.
A lot of my reading comes from blog readers. They send me links or articles that might catch my interest. Last July, when I ended up cramming and then getting buried by several big projects combined with health issues, I started saving the articles to my longtime save-for-later service, Pocket.
I had maybe two dozen articles saved. I’ve been reading through them, and have found a multitude of riches. Many concern the comics industry, which has a lot of things in common with book publishing. I don’t understand all that I’ve read yet, nor have I had a chance to double-check some of the statistics that have come my way.
However, in an article on a podcast that went live last July, I found an interesting concept. It made me stop and consider how the concept (and phrase) applies to some of the things I’ve been discussing on this blog for the past several months.
The article, “Sean Murphy Drops Truth Bombs on Comics’ Ongoing Money Problems And More” by Alexander Lu, appeared on The Beat on July 6, 2015. The article recaps and responds to an interview Sean Gordon Murphy, an award-winning comic book creator who has worked for several companies, and is, at the moment, exclusive with DC. I have yet to listen to the Off-Panel podcast although I do plan to. The recap article itself is so fascinating and chockfull of information that I got lost in that.
Much of what he discusses references things that I don’t usually mention in this blog. Web comics, per-page-pay rates for comic books, various comic imprints. In discussing some of that for comic books, Murphy said this:
Marvel and DC are “reactionary” companies. They jump on board a new idea once it’s been proven by someone else.
I stopped reading and stared at the screen for a few minutes. It wasn’t the idea that was new to me: I’ve known that forever. But the way he put it—“reactionary companies”—caught me.
The word “reactionary” has some serious negative connotations. I don’t know Sean Gordon Murphy, so I’m not sure how many of those connotations he intended. The political side of the word “reactionary,” meaning opponent of progress, a return to the status quo, a close-minded political firebrand who would like to haul everyone back to some mythical “better” historical period…
I’m going to ignore all of those implications to focus entirely on the way he defined the word inside the podcast:
They jump on board a new idea once it’s been proven by someone else.
Instead of calling that “reactionary,” let’s call it “reactive” and move forward from there.
For years now, I’ve been looking for a term to describe something that has increasingly irritated me about this new world of publishing. “Reactive Business Model” might just work.
I’ve been using the phrase “jumping on the bandwagon,” but it’s more than that. It also refers to herd marketing and non-creative thinking in all aspects of business and creation.
Murphy or maybe Lu use the term “reactionary companies” to discuss what’s known in comics as The Big Two. Right now, traditional publishing often gets (incorrectly) referred to as The Big Five. Those companies are both reactive and, in many, many ways, reactionary. They’re not my focus here, although it’ll seem that way for a while.
How The Reactive Business Model Works
Susie Q’s novel becomes a surprise bestseller. The publishing press (whatever it is) examines the bestseller. Someone (or someones) create a narrative that “explains” the success of the bestseller.
Narrative Number One
If most publishing professionals (whoever they are) hate the novel, the narrative becomes this:
Susie Q’s bestseller, The Surprise, sold half a million copies since its pre-Christmas release, making it the largest bestseller in the last half of December. Aggressive marketing combined with a hot topic have made this by-the-numbers novel reach the top of the charts.
The narrative will then examine exactly what the aggressive marketing campaign did, and why it was successful.
Narrative Number Two
If most publishing professionals (and/or critics) love the novel, the narrative becomes this:
The half-million copies of Susie Q’s novel, The Surprise, which appeared a few weeks ago have become a Christmas bonus for Extra Big Publishing House. Stellar writing, a savvy marketing campaign, and a bookstore blitz have provided the publishing industry with one of the biggest bright spots of 2015.
This narrative will continue with an explanation of the savvy marketing campaign, a mention of the bookstore blitz, and an examination of just what it is about The Surprise that makes it the novel of the year.
The Truth Behind The Music…I mean, The Narratives
One thing you must understand about these two narratives (and yes, there are usually only two) is that they are as big a piece of fiction as the book itself.
In traditional publishing, the narratives are designed to make the publisher’s effort paramount and the writer’s completely unimportant. Because of all of us who are writing at the moment grew up in a traditional publishing world, we’ve absorbed these narratives from the moment we decided to become writers—maybe even from the moment we became readers.
Look again at this sentence: In traditional publishing, the narratives are designed to make the publisher’s effort paramount and the writer’s completely unimportant.
Most of us, as writers, believe deep down that a publisher can make a bestseller. A writer can’t write one.
Why do we believe it? Because of Narrative Number One. If traditional publishing can’t figure out why a book everyone in the know hated sold well, then clearly, the book sold well because of the ads or the cover or the push that a select portion of the sales force gave it.
The book couldn’t have sold well because it was a good story. Because people outside of the literary bubble enjoyed the read.
And if crappy books sell well, then that simply proves the point: the only thing that will make a book sell is the proper marketing.
Before my comments light up with lists of crappy books that sell well, remember this: One reader’s crappy book is another reader’s favorite. At a certain level—and that level is often publication—we’re only discussing taste, not quality. There is no quantitative measure for the quality of a book.
(Doubt me? Think about one classic novel you had to read in school—a novel you hated. [We all have at least one.] Realize that classic novel hasn’t gone out of print since the day it was published [and for some of these books that’s more than 100 years]. That means that a lot of people have loved the book over the years. You don’t—and it’s not because of your terrible teacher or because of the gray wad of gum stuck to page 32. It’s because that book, that classic, isn’t to your taste. So…refrain, please, from imposing that taste on the rest of us.)
Because traditional publishing gave up innovative marketing decades ago, they’ve developed a response to the surprise bestseller. First, the narrative. And then an analysis of the narrative. Finally, they act on that narrative.
Here’s what I mean by acting on the narrative.
Narrative Number One
So why did Susie Q’s craptastic book sell well? The narrative claims it’s all about the marketing. The marketing worked for The Surprise in (ahem) surprising ways. The cover was perfect—not too schlocky, a little different from the usual craptastic fare. The book debuted at San Diego Comic-Con where fans of the craptastic thrive.
Or maybe the book didn’t debut at all. Booksellers in the Midwest hand-sold it, and we all know that people in the Midwest have no taste, no discerning palate. They live in flyover country, for gods sake, communities everyone important tries to escape from.
Or maybe the book thrived in an ebook version first. That means it wasn’t about the cover or the hand-selling. It was all about the price. The book was priced higher than its competitors or lower than its competitors. Or maybe it was a Kindle Daily Deal (paid for by the publisher) or maybe the author herself did a successful Goodreads promotion. Maybe she’s on Wattpad and gave away the first three chapters there.
Or maybe she’s a heck of a promoter. Maybe she has her own YouTube channel. Maybe she spends every waking hour on Twitter. Maybe she gives speeches to three libraries a week.
Whatever it is—whatever they can blame the success on besides the book—they do.
And then what happens?
Every publisher on the planet looks at their upcoming list of books (never ever at the backlist) and tries to see which book is the most similar to The Surprise. Maybe, they have an entire list of books that fit into that genre.
Whatever they find, they decide to do whatever it was that the narrative claims made The Surprise such a success.
All of these publishing houses copy the cover. Not the art, not exactly. But the fonts, the structure of the cover (where the pull quote goes—if there’s a pull quote at all), maybe even the color palate, will be the same. The back cover copy will suggest the back cover copy of The Surprise. There might even be a pull quote from a famous author (also in the publishing house’s stable) that says, “If you liked The Surprise, you’ll love This Pale Imitation.”
All of the publishing houses will use the exact same marketing campaign that The Surprise used and God forbid if the narrative claims that the reason for the book’s success was because the author spoke to a dozen book clubs or did a blog tour. Because then the author is going to have to do those things.
Never once does anyone say, “Write a book like The Surprise.” Because “everyone” knows The Surprise sucked. So the traditional publishers mimic The Surprise’s success with “better” books.
Narrative Number Two
The only difference between the response to Narrative Number One and the response to Narrative Number Two is what happens with the editor and the writer.
All of the publishing houses will look at their upcoming lists and see if any books are “good enough” to mimic the success of The Surprise. Because the publishers are looking at “quality,” there won’t be an entire genre rebrand.
(This explains why publishers did not rebrand all of their science fiction lines after the success of The Martian. Because, y’know, The Martian is a good book with great voice and a sense of humor and “everyone” knows that science fiction is a crappy genre without voice or a sense of humor. (sigh) [bitter much, Rusch?])
Instead of the genre rebrand, a handful of already-turned-in books will get the same treatment as The Surprise. Maybe no already in-house book will get that treatment.
What will happen is that editors will get a mandate to find books “just like” The Surprise. And if the editors can’t find those books, then the editors better force their writers to manufacture them.
If The Surprise succeeded because it had an unreliable narrator or two (see Gone Girl), then the Just Like books need an unreliable narrator or two. If The Surprise succeeded because it had a twist every fifty pages, then the Just Like books need a twist every twenty pages.
Those books, once they’re in-house, will get the same treatment as the books rebranded because of Narrative Number One. These new books, which have been manipulated by the editor and sales force to be as close to The Surprise as possible, will also be marketed like The Surprise.
When I talk result here, what I mean is the result in the marketplace. The results are both complicated and predictable, but here goes.
Narrative Number One
Remember, the only difference between the response to Narrative Number One and Narrative Number Two are the books chosen to mimic The Surprise’s sudden success.
In Narrative Number One, the editors/publishers/sales force pick already completed novels to market like The Surprise. Some of these already completed books will sell very well—because their authors wanted to write these books. These books are the result of some kind of auctorial vision, bought because they’re good, and then rebranded before they appear on the marketing shelves to go with the demands of the day.
The marketing for The Surprise might not work for these books, but if the marketing does work—if the books get a bigger print run or if they get some marketing dollars behind them—these books will often sell very well.
You see this sort of thing clearly in hindsight. Books that appear within six months of the big bestseller (whatever it is) and then succeed are in-house books. Often, if those authors are prolific, they end up with strong careers of their own, and become part of the wave of books that create a new movement within a genre.
The books chosen to be marketed the same way without the editorial and sales force tampering have a shot at actual success. The rebranding might be beneficial and it might force the publishing house to look at the books in a whole new way.
Narrative Number Two
I want to simply write here if your book is altered to be more like someone else’s book then you’re screwed. But you might end up lucky.
Generally speaking, however, the books that are Just Like The Success (only better) and written to be Just Like The Success have all of the elements and none of the life of The Surprise.
This was clearly evident when Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code hit the bestseller list. The only books like The DaVinci Code in publishing houses were…um…other Dan Brown books. All the other publishers had thought books like The DaVinci Code were unmarketable, and didn’t buy any. The only similar books that traditional publishers had were historical novels. They weren’t thrillers with a historical angle, and certainly not thrillers set outside of the United States (in the mistaken assumption that U.S. readers hated reading about other countries).
Lots of writers tried to mimic The DaVinci Code and lots of writers failed miserably. All The DaVinci Code managed to do was convince traditional publishers that thrillers set outside of the United States actually had a market.
Narrative Number Two never works well. And what I mean by that is this: Remember that my blog is designed for the career writer. If you want a one-shot novel that might sell better than anything else you’ve written, then writing a pale imitation of something else will bring in some needed cash. It will not make a career. It won’t even start a career—although it can end one under that name—and not just with traditional publishers.
With readers too.
Oh, wait! What word did I just use? What is this mythical “reader” of whom you speak, Kris? Do such creatures even exist?
What’s Missing in The Model
Yep, that’s right. What’s missing from these narratives are three major things:
- Giving Credit Where Credit is Due—To The Writer. The Surprise took off because it told a good story with either clean, clear prose or it told a good story with lovely prose or it told a good story that hit a cultural nerve. Note all three of those “or”s mean that good old Susie Q didn’t just do her job, she did her job spectacularly well—and should be trusted to do her job again without interference.
- Acknowledging That Readers Are Intelligent. If a majority of readers like a book, it’s not because those readers are manipulated into buying the book and maybe reading it. It’s because the readers like the book and recommend it to other readers. That word-of-mouth thing is real and important. Readers in the Midwest are as smart, if not smarter, than the literary crowd, because readers in the Midwest (and elsewhere outside the snobbish center of publishing) read for enjoyment, and couldn’t care one whit about whether or not the book was slated for success or to die a slow ugly death.
- Respect. Readers get no respect in those narratives. Bookstores rarely get any respect. And writers get no respect at all. The narratives are all about what the publisher did to manipulate success when really, the only thing the publisher did was publish the book at all. Sometimes the publisher published the book well, and sometimes the book succeeded despite the publisher’s best efforts to kill it.
Those narratives? They’re false. They’re an attempt to control the uncontrollable, to analyze, without any business savvy at all, what another company did right when in reality, that company did nothing different.
If The Surprise got a midlist level advance, then it was published as a midlist book and broke out. If The Surprise got a small bestseller advance, then it was published as a low-level bestseller and performed above expectations.
That’s the real key: The Surprise rose above its expectations—which means that the initial publisher of that book screwed up. If the book was really that good, it should have been published to expectations. It should have had a bigger push from the get-go. But it didn’t. It was a true surprise.
If publishers could actually see what makes a long-term, major bestseller, then the publishers would do that every single time.
So…that phrase, which I’ve modified, is humorous but true. The Reactive Business Model is the attempt to react to someone’s else’s success without understanding the success.
To use a sports analogy, it’s like trying to become National Basketball Association Champions by copying, play for play, each and every game last year’s champions won. Not by having good players, not by building a team, not by learning how to play the game in new and surprising ways. But by replicating what had come before.
And if there isn’t a good team in place, it’s just as futile. (To stretch just a little farther, the good teams are often in place in Narrative Number One.)
Why This Blog Is About Indie Publishing
I just spent all my time talking about traditional publishing. Why the heck did I say this blog was about indie publishing before I went into this long analysis?
Because the Reactive Business Model has overtaken indie writers. I’ve tried to say that in other ways (most recently in “Gamblers and Artists”) but I think this is the clearest way I can say it.
When you react to other people’s success, you’re trying to reverse-engineer a bolt of lightning. You might be able to get a flash of light in the darkness, but you’ll never ever recreate that sizzling moment of surprise—the very thing that gets readers interested in the first place.
The reason that Reactive Business Model has worked so well in publishing’s past is because the gatekeepers kept the doors tightly sealed against new and innovative material. Occasionally something slipped through, but generally speaking, that Reactive Business Model took over publishing twenty years ago and never really let go. You could say that the Reactive Business Model was starting to encroach on traditional publishing in the 1970s, and you might not be wrong. But there were enough markets back then to make it impossible for traditional publishers to march in lockstep.
So, back then, when readers couldn’t find anything exciting to pass the time, they’d default to stuff they might like. They kept doing that until they got sick of that stuff and moved to something else.
That Reactive Business Model does not belong in indie publishing. Writers don’t have to imitate other writers to succeed. The most successful indie writers have been those to whom the traditional publishing doors were closed. Even the hybrid writers did well with books that were rejected by traditional publishers—not because the hybrid writers already had a platform (God, I hate that word) but because those excellent writers knew how to tell a good story and they finally got the chance to tell a story that they really, really loved, a story unique to them.
Indies have been burning out and leaving the business. One of the commenters I got on last week’s blog mentions why he quit writing—and it was all market-driven. Other bloggers (some mentioned in last week’s blog) also mentioned the pressures of marketing.
More and more indie writers will leave the business if their business plan is based on the Reactive Business Model.
Traditional publishers have forgotten that they used to partner with writers. Writers created the material and publishers published it to the best of their abilities. Because traditional publishers are owned by large corporate entities, the pursuit of profit has become the mantra, and if an imprint isn’t profitable in the short term (five years or so), it gets absorbed, replaced, or dissolved.
Indie writers don’t have to follow that model—and shouldn’t. They need to go back to the old model.
What is that?
Start by being creative. Write what you want to write. Don’t think about marketing until the project—whatever it is—is done.
Then consider how to market the project. Be creative in the marketing too. Don’t just imitate what was done before.
Sure, try some of that, but also, look at your project and figure out what makes it unique. Market the uniqueness to the readers somehow.
If you can’t figure out most of what makes marketing work, then put an excellent cover on the project, write a spectacular blurb, put the right tags on it, price it high enough so that you have the room to discount if and when you want to but not too high to turn off the bulk of your readers (see the pricing posts), and then…
Write the next project.
If you’re lucky enough to have something that has the same spirit and is in the same genre as The Surprise, then by all means, rebrand that book. Make it clear to readers that the existing book is like The Surprise.
Don’t act like traditional publishers and manipulate your next book to be like someone else’s success.
Look at your backlist—your existing books—to see if you’ve already written something similar. If so, go ahead, experiment with marketing and see if what worked for The Surprise works for you. It might, since you have already written that book—without knowing that The Surprise existed at all.
Move forward in your career. Don’t look back.
Following the Reactive Business Model is by definition looking backwards.
This is 2016. Let’s look forward to the rest of this year and to 2017. Let’s create new successes from our own creativity instead of mining someone else’s.
Let’s fulfill the promise of indie publishing and be the writers we were meant to be.
2016 is, I think, the year of the courageous writer. So be courageous. Believe in yourself. Step into the future—and have fun.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: The Reactive Business Model,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/PixelsAway.