Business Musings: Tidbits (Planning for 2019 Part 5)
So much happened in 2018 that will have an impact on 2019 that I will not be able to get to all of it in this short series. I wanted to highlight sales (did that) and the changes in libraries and bookstores (did that too). I ended up spending more time than planned on audio. But if I did that kind of deep dive into every new thing in 2018, I’d be writing about it until the middle of 2019. So I’m going to bring a few things to your attention in this post that will factor into the next few posts.
Those next few posts will look at macro trends—where I think we’re going on some issues, patterns that I’m seeing (along with a few warnings). We’re at a fascinating place in the years-long disruption that has hit publishing, and I think we need to take stock of what that place means for us.
To understand what I mean by that, please read the first post in this short series. I will refer back to it throughout the series, so if nothing else, make sure you read that one.
Ready? Here we go.
Mergers, Closings, and Absorptions
Mostly, these are occurring in traditional publishing right now. We’re at that moment in the disruption of publishing where both the indie publishers and the traditional publishers are flatlining on sales growth, and that makes all business owners nervous.
Some indies are leaving because the sales are flattening. Others are doubling down on what they’ve always done, which is sales through Amazon only. I wrote a blog post in December about why that isn’t a good idea.
Other indies are actually absorbing other indies, either bringing in their talents to write in the more successful writers’ universe or acquiring their catalogue to beef up a small publishing company. I’ve only seen one company do that right (at least among the ones I’m privy to), and that company is run by a long-term writer who knows business.
One indie writer proudly told me he doesn’t need contracts for his writers. They have a handshake agreement because they’re all friends.
To say that I cringed is an understatement. And he didn’t listen when Dean and I both told him to get contracts. They had a general agreement, he said. They had the Amazon Terms of Service to protect them, he said.
He’ll be out of business in five years, I say. With lawsuits up the wazoo. (Not to mention this: what the hell is going on with the writers who signed on with him? Or rather, didn’t sign on since there was nothing to sign? AAAAAAAAKKKKKKKK!)
So longer-term indies, who’ve been in the business since the Kindle burst on the scene ten years ago, are acting like traditional publishers in the search for ways to beef up their business models.
Traditional publishers, though, are showing all the signs of panic listed I mentioned in my very first blog post.
We’ve been seeing a lot of change in traditional publishing this past year. Publishers Weekly did a long recap of all of the changes at the Big Five houses, detailing “realignments” at Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and McMillan, as well as Randy Penguin (Penguin Random House). For example, Randy Penguin has been consolidating everything since its new CEO came on board in April.
The big news in the fall was that Randy Penguin will merge the Crown Publishing Group with the Random House Publishing Group, all under Gina Centrello. Not even Publishers Weekly believes that these two groups will remain separate entities any more. When they reported the news, they added this:
At least for the moment, the two groups will retain their existing names …
PW also noted in that same paragraph, the one that begins with “At least for the moment,” that the change will make no difference for the two other adult publishing divisions or the two children’s divisions. No one believes for a minute that those changes aren’t coming.
Centrello’s proposed changes for Crown and Random House sent a chill through me. In her previous position at Randy Penguin, she got rid of many genre imprints, and refused to renew contracts on successful New York Times bestsellers whose series were growing (just not at the rate the company mandated). I’m sure contracts won’t be renewed in Crown either, and the consolidation will continue. (See the sales part of this series for reasons why.)
There have been so many mergers and changes in the Big 5 that I can’t keep track of them all. I was trying to figure out who owned Harlequin when I visited a Walmart the other day, and I couldn’t remember. Turns out HarperCollins owns Harlequin. HarperCollins pays so much attention to Harlequin that the facts page on HarperCollins website isn’t filled out and says simply, “Hello World!”
What does this all mean for writers who are or want to be traditionally published? It means their dream of being built into a bestseller probably won’t happen, if it hasn’t happened already. It means that the editor who loves their work will retire or will quit or will be downsized, the imprint that they wanted to be published in will go away, and they still won’t have control of their copyright. (More on that in an upcoming post.)
It’s a dangerous time to try to become traditionally published.
Worse, because many of the medium-sized publishers that got their start when the big publishers were going blockbuster novels only are now going away.
Medium-sized publishers with only marginal capitalization disappeared earlier, but now, those that had successful businesses for a while are shutting their doors. It’s the disruption.
These publishers, however, have a track record, and more importantly, they have lots of good writers under contract. Many of these publishers had awful contracts that (at least ten years ago, when I saw them) were among the first to grab as much of a copyright as possible. So these places still have strong backlists.
Writers all over the mystery field celebrated in late December when Sourcebooks acquired Poisoned Pen. Poisoned Pen will now become the name of Sourcebooks’ new mystery line. Barbara Peters will remain (for the moment) as editor in chief of the line.
There’s a fascinating detail in Publisher’s Weekly’s announcement of the acquisition of Poisoned Pen. PW says,
Sourcebooks has acquired the “majority” of the Poisoned Pen Press list—about 550 titles—which will be transferred to Sourcebooks.
The majority. That means the majority of the writers with Poisoned Pen signed a contract that I have seen repeatedly, one I would have never signed. One that, along with the tiny advances Poisoned Pen paid, kept me away from the company.
Again, that copyright thing. Note that the writers who signed the bad contract have no say in where their book ends up. They may have signed with a small press called Poisoned Pen, but now they’re being published by Sourcebooks.
I wish those writers luck. My experience at Sourcebooks was the worst I have ever had in publishing. I delineate it on my Patreon page for my supporters, as part of the introduction to some omnibuses that will appear in 2019.
If you’re thinking these kinds of acquisitions, absorptions and changes are becoming more common, you’re right.
And the closings are becoming common too, leaving writers flatfooted. Quarto Group is doing a major restructuring, without giving any details and Skyhorse Press says it’s reducing its title output by 25% (!).
About a week before the Poisoned Pen news, Llewellyn Worldwide announced it was closing its Midnight Ink imprint, which published some of the major mystery writers in the business. That news was so terribly mishandled that most writers for the line heard about it when the press release came out. Writers are now orphaned; their books will still be published through August, but if a company is shuttering a line, you can bank on the fact that those books will be published “dead,” meaning no promotion, not even the usual handling of the distribution or anything.
In the very good Forbes article on this particular closing, Forbes interviewed one writer who had been through this same thing with at least four other publishers. With indie publishing possible these days, I have to wonder why writers keep putting themselves through this.
It will become more common in the next few years for small and medium-sized publishers to shut down, particularly as the economy is slowing down as well.
There is no safe place in traditional publishing for writers any more. And the risks are great. Again, I’ll deal with that in the upcoming post on copyright and intellectual property.
Since we’re talking about traditional publishing at the moment, let me say a few things about diversity.
I feel weird placing it in this blog post titled “Tidbits” because traditional publishing’s sudden emphasis on diversity isn’t a small thing. It’s a big deal.
One of the reasons writers of color and LGBTQ writers have a large indie publishing presence is because traditional publishing has been actively hostile to the books they write.
At the moment, traditional publishing is less hostile, but still sees diverse authors and diverse narratives as something along the lines of a fad.
This is the third time in my lifetime that traditional publishers have “discovered” and promoted writers of color. The first time was in the 1970s. The second time was in the 1990s. The 1990s made headway in publishing gay and lesbian voices as well.
Unfortunately, those publishing programs were mishandled (treated as “other”) and abandoned. I’m seeing a lot of the same trends in traditional right now. There’s the acquisitions (by mostly white editors), followed by some cringing promotions, and strange treatment on the part of publishers.
The difference this time is that some houses are actively trying to hire non-white editors as well as editors who understand the LGBTQ community. Maybe this one will stick.
I don’t know. I’m not holding my breath. It’s up to the readers, though. You need to vote for these books with your dollars, even when the books are expensive (by indie standards).
As I mentioned above, indie publishing is all about different and diverse voices. One reason so many authors took off as the indie publishing movement started was because readers could (finally!) find books about themselves, rather than being handed the same old same old over and over again.
So if you’re a writer who is going to traditional publishing because it has finally discovered diversity, do remember the part of this post about mergers and closings, look at the copyright post when it hits, and then think about whether or not you want your book in a culture that doesn’t understand you, which will hold your copyright forever, and might close the doors underneath you.
Or maybe, just maybe, you might want to learn how to publish on your own. Your book will remain in print, and if you learn how to promote and take advantage of the opportunities around you, your book will get more attention as well.
Lurking in my peripheral vision is the video marketplace, which is more varied than the audio market that we discussed last time . For nearly a decade now, video has been very accessible. Writers are using it to great effect.
Some writers read their own work on YouTube. Others are funding small video shows, YouTube (or some other venue) only, and monetizing those shows with ad revenue or Patreon.
WMG does video lectures and workshops online through Teachable. The production values are deliberately very basic. Our concern in those is the information, not the quality of the video.
But there are so many opportunities here that I have shied away from exploring it too much while my energy level was low. I suspect I’ll have more to say on this topic when I do this wrap-up next year. You see, I’ve got plans…
Another department that I’ve wanted to have at WMG Publishing since we started the business is a translation department. Translation is costly and time-consuming, and you really really do need the right people in place. Consider proofreading alone. It’s not possible on a limited staff.
Kobo Writing Life announced in November that it will provide translations as part of its service. It has partnered with Language + Literary Translations to offer a special discount to KWL participants.
I don’t know enough about this to know if it will work or not, if it’s worthwhile or not, and if it’s even cost effective. Translations are hugely expensive, and take a lot of time to earn back the money invested.
I think we’re in early days here, and it’ll take a while for both services to figure out what they’re doing. I know this has been in the works for some time now, so some of the bugs have been worked out. Still, I would wait and talk to writers who’ve already participated before jumping in.
The fact that Kobo thinks a translation service is important, however, does mean that things are changing on the indie front. It might become easier in the next few years to get books translated.
This is worth following, just to see what will happen next.
I’m skipping so many new things here that I feel a bit uncomfortable. But there’s only so much time, and already this series has expanded by one extra blog post. So I’m going to leave this here.
If you have ideas for things that writers should watch in 2019, please mention them in the comments.
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“Business Musings: Tidbits (Planning for 2019 Part 5)0,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.