Business Musings: Trainwreck Fall Edition
I adore a good gothic and a somewhat creepy novel (but not too creepy, mind you), so in June, when a reliable friend recommended Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel, I ordered a copy immediately, and read it the moment it arrived. Loved it. It’s in my recommended reading list for July.
As soon as I finished, I ordered a copy for my sister, who also likes this type of book. Immediately, a notice flashed on my screen: she wouldn’t get the book until September. I was stunned. I looked at the publisher, thinking I was dealing with a specialty press, but no. I wasn’t. How odd.
That was my entire reaction: How odd. The book had released in February, so I should have been able to get my hands on a copy quickly. But I couldn’t.
That same thing had happened with a couple of other books I had ordered for my sister back in May. They were backlist for an author I knew my sister hadn’t tried, but would love. It took six weeks for her to get the books, with the shipment getting delayed more than once.
Because so many other things were going on, I hadn’t put my experiences together with something I wrote about at the end of April. Traditional publishing was headed for a trainwreck, and I was worried about it.
Part of the trainwreck was—and is—the closed bookstores. Many are still closed. But a lot of that trainwreck had to do with publisher panic, old systems, supply chains, and more.
When the pandemic hit, everyone thought we would get through the damn thing in a few months. We’d club that virus into submission, and return to normal life—or close to normal—by summer.
Some countries did, more or less, because they followed the science, and did all the right things. They’re still dealing with the expected flare-ups, but they’re doing a hell of a lot better than the U.S. We don’t have flare-ups. We have hot spots. As I write this on Labor Day weekend, the experts are terrified we’re going to have another surge, because our idiot president and his propaganda machine has convinced a good 30% of Americans that the virus is overblown, masks are for suckers, and no one really gets sick. (Which means a lot of those dying are people who choose to believe this guy, and, sadly, the relatives and friends who have become collateral damage.)
The U.S. isn’t going to recover from this thing for a while—a long while, depending (which I will blog about in a future post. You can find it on Patreon already for backers). That means each industry has had to change its plans.
Some industries aren’t very nimble. They can’t just shuffle one thing to accommodate something else. Traditional publishing is like that.
(This is where a handful of my indie-writer readers usually check out. I suggest you don’t, because I’ll be talking to you below. We’re part of an industry and a large part of the industry is mismanaging a crisis, which will have an impact on you. So, breathe, and dive back in.)
With the bookstores closed, some companies moved their biggest spring and summer releases to the fall, hoping that all would be better by then. There was some wiggle room, because traditional publishers had tried to avoid publishing anything important in November since it is a presidential election year. So there were some empty weeks.
But not enough of them. The schedule got shuffled, then reshuffled, then shuffled again. I know some books got canceled entirely, but many have just been moved to the next available slot on the schedule.
That is, they got moved to an available slot on the schedule, if the book is expected to do well. If it was a standard midlist book, it got shoved somewhere random, so that it can be printed, shipped, and sent to bookstores—who ordered their copies pre-pandemic.
Yeah, even if the book doesn’t come out now until fall of 2021, many of those orders remain exactly as they were. Even if the bookstore isn’t selling as many copies in its brick-and-mortar store. Or if the bookstore has shuttered its brick-and-mortar store—or closed entirely.
Here’s what a lot of readers don’t know—consciously anyway. Traditional publishing is built on velocity—that is, how many books sell in a short period of time.
The system that traditional publishing is using was designed post-World War II (or as I said to a friend yesterday, after the World War II generation survived its once-in-a-lifetime crisis). Back then, there were very few bookstores, and those that existed had limited space. Most books were sold in other retail venues—drug stores, department stores, magazine stands, and the like—which again, had limited space. In other words, there was only so much room for books in those places. Rather than keep old inventory on the shelf, retailers who sold books churned them—getting rid of those that were still on the racks after a month or two, and replacing them with new inventory.
This was easy to do, because in the Great Depression, the publishing companies subsidized anyone who sold a book by removing cost of excess inventory. Retailers could return books for full credit within a specific window. Which meant that retailers could make bad decision after bad decision, and not lose a heck of a lot of money.
They could also churn at no cost to them, replacing the old inventory with the new.
That practice created the idea that books were like bananas; they spoiled if they didn’t sell within a few weeks. And, indeed, there are horrid photos from the 1990s of Dumpsters filled with books behind shopping malls, because many publishers allowed retailers to strip the cover off books (and toss the rest of the book away) and still get full credit. Saves shipping costs, doncha know.
Even though it’s a stupid 75-year-old business model, traditional publishing still banks on velocity. And traditional publishing is fairly stupid about velocity. If an author’s sales numbers go down, no matter what the reason (y’know, like closed bookstores and a pandemic), that author will be offered a smaller advance next time—or will be cut loose. It’s brutal and unrealistic, and it’s on the horizon for so many writers.
Here’s what’s happening out there.
On that day [September 3], in a development that has provoked anguish among booksellers, editors, reviewers and readers, almost 600 new books will be published, an increase of about a third from last year. There is such a thing as a crowded market, and then there is this: an avalanche of words that no retailer or media outlet could hope to accommodate. Even Waterstones Piccadilly, the chain’s flagship London store, is feeling the strain…
This is Great Britain, mind you, a much smaller traditional book market than the U.S. The Guardian goes on to note that September 3 was “just the first of a series of similar days throughout the autumn.”
The article focused on the impact at open bookstores, not on the impact to authors themselves, although the article did use its final paragraph to lament what this will do to British publishing’s recent attempts to increase diversity, citing (rightly, I think) that publishers will use this as a cudgel to destroy the careers of newer, more diverse writers.
The paper for the company town, The New York Times, looked at another problem for traditional publishers (and indies as well. More on that below). In addition to the messing up of the schedule, there were supply chain problems and the bankruptcy and auction of the two remaining major web press printers here in the States.
Which meant that capacity for printing books is way, way, way down, and causing an even greater backlog than expected.
What does this do to velocity? Well, many writers’ books are being shuffled away from the original release date because the publishers can’t reserve time at the printer. So those books have lost their publication dates, sometimes more than once.
Worse than that, it cuts any momentum short. Look at my intro above. The best way to sell books (as demonstrated by study after study) is word of mouth. My sister is at the end of a recommendation chain that went from my friend to me to my sister. My sister hasn’t even had a chance to read and recommend yet. By the time I wanted to give a copy to my sister, the book was out of print. The reason for the nearly three-month delay was because there were no copies of the hardcover in the warehouse—and no printing scheduled until September.
That September printing was probably ordered in May, which meant that the May numbers might not reflect the actual interest. The Times noted that one of the hot political books of August, which I had actually forgotten about (because so many hot political books have followed) had a similar problem:
The CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s new book “Hoax,” about the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox, was out of stock on Amazon this week shortly after its August 25 publication date, and showed a ship time of one to two months. Mr. Stelter’s publisher, One Signal, a Simon & Schuster imprint, which initially printed 50,000 copies, has ordered another 100,000 copies.
Two-month delay from August 25 on a political book places that 100,000 copy rerelease at the end of October, a week from the November election. If Trump wins another term, the Stelter’s book might get a second wind.
But if Trump loses, most of those 100,000 copies will either never hit the shelves (remember the glut of books in the fall) or be returned.
This is a disaster for Stelter…and a disaster for traditional publishers too, because they can’t make money on their rapid releases.
Ah, I hear you all now. What about the ebooks?
This is where traditional publishers have—pardon my crudity—fucked themselves blue. Stelter’s ebook costs $14.99. The ebook for the St. James that I mentioned above is $13.99.
Ridiculous, right? But it’s part of traditional publishing think. They want readers to buy the hardcovers, so they’ve priced ebooks unbelievably high, which is causing another problem. From that same New York Times article:
Some worry that the current crunch could reverse the yearlong trend of stable and sometimes rising print sales, sending readers back to digital books, which are less lucrative for publishers and authors, and especially brick and mortar retailers.Sa
Less lucrative for authors? On what planet? Oh, yeah, right. The traditional publishing planet. I’ve seen article after article that talks about how ebooks are a bust, that they don’t make money, and that sales of ebooks are “depressed.”
Yeah, if you overcharge for them. In my August Recommended Reading List, I actively told ebook readers to go to the library rather than pay $16.99 for an ebook. And this is for an author I like. I hope she gets another book deal. I’m worried that she won’t, though, because of this kind of idiocy.
Wait, now. The problem gets even worse. Because, for the past decade, traditional publishers have been dithering over how to sell ebooks to libraries. Many traditional publishers charge a ridiculous price for ebooks to a library, limit the number of downloads, and force the library to reorder the ebook after that number of downloads.
Some publishers even refused to allow their books into libraries until months after publication, a practice many eventually abandoned. But it left a bad taste in the mouths of librarians, who stopped ordering all but the biggest blockbusters from those publishers and, instead, went to indie booksellers for midlist and genre books.
So, if the reader can’t get the novel that caught their attention this week by ordering it online, and if the reader won’t pay over $10 for an ebook, and if the reader can’t get the book from their library, what does the reader do?
The reader moves on to a different writer, another book, something new and different. Sales—and fans—aren’t allowed to build.
When I retweeted The New York Times article, an indie writer noted that he’s been having trouble getting his paper books to his fans on time as well. We have too with WMG Publishing. We’ve had a lot of delays for the paper version of our titles due to that printing backlog. We are nimble, though, as is he, and we’re getting our books to our people.
And as I said to him, our entire career does not rest on the speed with which our books sell. Our readers will most likely wait for our paper books and/or our readers will order the very affordable and reasonably priced ebook. Our books are in libraries.
There’s a slowdown on delivery of our paper books, but it’s not a career-ending crisis, as it is for so many traditionally published writers.
Because, you see, their problem gets even worse.
As The Guardian noted, the blockbusters will make it into the retail stores. But those midlisters won’t. There just isn’t room. And with overpriced ebooks and no library access, there’s no way to discover these writers.
So many writers have gone to traditional publishing because those writers believe traditional is better at getting books into stores (really?) and is better at promotion. Let’s ignore the first part, shall we, and assume that some poor traditionally published writer was actually slated to get promotion on their book.
First, as The Guardian notes, there’s not enough room in the literary press to cover all 600 books that were released on September 3. There isn’t enough room to cover the books that will be released after September 3.
And if you were lucky enough to get a rave review from a reputable publication? Well, you better hope your publication date remained the same. Because review copies were mailed months in advance, and the review was written months in advance and published to time with your original release.
The Times quotes Sasha Issenberg whose book The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage was slated to release in June for Pride Month. He got a stellar review in Publisher’s Weekly. Only his book got pushed to early September, then late September, and now won’t come out until June of 2021.
Will the bookstores that ordered the book even open the boxes when it arrives? Remember the order at all? Will the bookstore even be in existence when the book arrives? Will readers remember that they wanted the book in June of 2020? Will the publishing company redo their promotional efforts for the book?
Oh, wait. I can answer that last one. No, they won’t. They’ll expect Issenberg to do it, and maybe he might be able to finagle some interviews and additional reviews on his own, the way an indie writer would do things. But his book is going to tank, unless someone does an intervention. And believe me, there will be a lot of other things that will have grabbed our attention by Pride Month 2021, and none of them will be his book.
And let me add something from personal experience. Book ordering systems are notoriously out of date. They’re also automated.
I had a book delayed a year due to an editor who never put the book into production, but still did all the promotion stuff. So the book was sent for reviews, and got orders….and then it was never printed.
It wasn’t until it came time to ship the book that the publisher realized the dumb editor’s mistake. So, the publisher delayed the book and rescheduled it…for a year later.
When the book was actually published, there were no orders. It had been so long delayed that in some companies the original order expired. In others, the computer automatically marked the book as returned because it sold no copies to readers.
The book sold almost no copies in its initial “release” because the book did not exist. But it got branded as a terrible seller, and there was no reorder from any place except a handful of very small independent bookstores. That isn’t my lowest selling traditional book (that title belongs to a tie-in to a Madonna movie), but it’s damn close, for reasons that most traditionally published writers are going to experience in the next year.
We have hit the clusterfuck part of our trainwreck. Some lucky traditional writers will survive it. Luck and a good newsletter will help them. An existing fanbase might keep them afloat…if the fans hear about the book and if the fans can still afford to buy a $15-20 book and if the book is at all available during its velocity window.
But newly published traditional writers? They’re screwed. They really are.
A handful of them will be resilient enough—and smart enough—to learn how to indie publish their next books. But most of these traditional writers won’t be that resilient. Their dreams are going to die a horrid, horrid death.
I empathize…up to a point. If they want to learn how to publish books, point them to our Publishing 101 class, and then stay out of their way. They’ve had years of warning to stay away from traditional publishing, and they didn’t listen. They’re probably not going to listen now. You know the rules about drowning victims, right? Send them a lifeline. Don’t get close enough to let them grab you and pull you down.
After I published the first Trainwreck piece, I heard from indie writers who panicked. They asked if they should stay away from the crowded fall schedule. I said no.
Because the real business model for publishing in the 21st century is this: readers will discover books over years, not weeks. Put your book out there. Yeah, maybe some reader won’t find it until 2022. That’s okay. Then they get to read your entire backlist.
Indie writers aren’t dependent on velocity. To have a successful career, we need widespread availability. We need to be in all the possible markets we can. We want our readers to find reasonably priced ebooks from all the major vendors. We want our paper editions to be available too, not just to readers, but to retailers, should they want the books.
We need to continue producing. Consistency is the key for indie writers. Making sure we have a release every six months or a year at minimum. Along with a good static webpage at minimum.
Will promotion be a good idea this fall? Some, sure, just to rise above the noise. But here in the States—and maybe worldwide—the month before the election will be a serious distraction. So, if you have a limited promotions budget, I’d wait until early 2021 for anything super expensive. Maybe even wait until February of 2021, after the new (or current [shudder]) president is inaugurated.
Because the entire world will be focused on what kind of future the United States is facing. All of us have a stake in what happens in November so we will all be letting some of that shouting in.
Why compete with that if you have a tiny advertising budget?
But do give your readers a respite from all the noise. Keep your publishing schedule going. Keep your ebook prices low. If your books are similar to an overpriced and underpublished bestseller, then make note of that in your social media postings and maybe in the key words (or whatever that’ll be called next month).
Because I can guarantee this. Readers who want a certain type of book Right Now will try to order their favorite writer’s book, and won’t be able to get it. They’ll balk at the ebook price. They’ll be unable to get the book at the library.
They’re going to want something to read. They’ll be amenable to trying something new but similar.
And that just might be you.
I’ll probably do another traditional publishing trainwreck blog closer to the end of the year (unless something startling happens). Because this’ll continue.
My crystal ball is a bit cloudy. I didn’t expect (well, the pandemic, but who did) that hardcover sales would increase over the summer, but there’s a lot of blockbuster political books out there. And one reason paper book sales increased was the fact that movie theaters, concert venues and many sports remain shuttered. Books are good cheap entertainment—even cheaper, if someone wants to read books not published in New York (or London).
I’m sure there are other things I’m not seeing on the horizon. But that clusterfuck I saw last spring? It’s here, and it’s bad.
I’m sorry to see it trickle down to some of my favorite writers, with their books being unavailable. I’m a non-traditional reader with disposable income. I just order the book and let it arrive when it does. Then I’m happily surprised.
But most readers can’t afford to do that.
I shudder to think what the traditional publishing landscape will look like a year from now. I’m sad in advance for all the writers with destroyed careers and broken dreams.
2020 sucks, and it sucks worse for those who still believed in the World War II way of doing things in the 21st century.
We’re going to see a lot of changes in the publishing industry. Many are long overdue. Some will be very painful.
I’m hoping some will be useful to indie writers as well as traditional publishers. We’ll see. We’ll probably have more clarity in December.
Or so I keep telling myself.
Even though December is a long ways away.
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“Business Musings: Trainwreck Fall Edition,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / grandfailure