Saturday, June 6, 2009

“What’s The Frequency (Today), Kenneth?”

John Ramsey Miller

As if authors weren’t insecure enough… the sky is falling …again.

“Holy shades of the terror, Danton.” For as long as I’ve been in this game, the publishers, agents and editors have said things have never been worse in publishing, and everybody was always looking back at the “good old days.” Maybe this time they are right. If not worse, certainly our world has changed forever. And it could get worse than it is. The shakeout is not over, but there seems to be a lull in reorganizing and reshuffling at the major houses. At least it appears the wholesale bloodletting has slowed for the moment. The publishing behemoths seem to have reshuffled their cards and, leaning the fat, have resettled on their foundations. Some are acquiring books again in increasing numbers.

I’m not a businessman, but this is what I’ve managed to figure out:
More than usual even, booksellers don’t want to tie up capital in excess inventory. Most bookstores have lots and lots of books on their shelves, and the object is to roll inventory as often as possible. Thousands of books come out. If the author is new to them, and unless the buzz is enormous, they order as few copies as possible. If those sell, they might buy more, but normally they wait to see what the demand is before doing so––ordering as people ask them to. They order their stock based on the past sales of a book by a previously published author. On a clever or lucky buy, they will sell the books before they have to pay for them. Even though they can return books to the publisher for a refund, it’s a pain to lift them up and place them in boxes for shipping them back where they came from. With paperbacks they can just tear off the covers and ship them in envelopes to get credit, or a refund. I’m not sure exactly how the flow of funds between entities works because it’s irrelevant to me. Probably they send each other checks in the mail.

This is how it seems to go. If your book sells five copies, next time the store will order up to five, but probably less than five. If you are lucky, the people who bought the last book liked it enough to buy another book you wrote. But they might order it from Amazon, so the book the seller bought in anticipation of another sale to the same [hopefully loyal as if there were such a thing] customer, gets his feelings hurt and his computer places a black ball by your name.

The good old sink or swim move. A publisher pre-sells your book to the tune of 5,000 copies. They print 10,000 copies, ship the five they’ve sold, and put the other five in a warehouse in Soprano, New Jersey just off the turnpike near a group of storage tanks filled with things like food-grade motor oil. In the good old days the IRS allowed publishers and record companies to write off the (unsold inventory) boxes of books while the pages yellowed and the glue got stiff and lost its ability to hold things together. They do not tell anybody your new book is coming out, or brag about it when it does, (which is the sink-or-swim or natural selection). If it starts selling they will promote it because that makes sense. But the IRS decided this writing off inventory for years was a bad thing (on the order of writing off three-martini lunches) and put a stop to it. Martinis are great business greasers, and I believe that the captains of industry made better decisions while under the influence thanks to the 3ML. The loss of the three-martini lunch write-off did more to kill liquor sales than prohibition, but that is another story.

The way publishing works is the sort of thing you tell a room full of potential authors at your local high school if you want to nip future competitors in the bud. But seriously, authors need to know that no matter how good their books are, there’s slim chance they’ll rise to Dan Brown’s status.

The really dedicated upcoming talent will do as we authors have done and ignore the incoming rounds, forging ahead with laptops open and take our places on the shelves. The truth is, the odds are always stacked against us, and it’s the bean counters who make the decisions about our careers, not the editors and salesmen who actually like us and love our books. Always remember the words of Michael Corleone; “It’s just business.”

What I’m actually saying is that we authors are not selling dreams, which is what we think we are doing when we get into this life, we’re actually supplying a widget for the buying public and our careers depend on how many of them want to dream with us by purchasing our gizmos.

When I spoke to my local high school’s writing class the other day, I asked how many intended to become writers. I told them that when I was their age I didn’t think I’d make my living writing. I told them that life would lead them where it wanted them, and like me, although I didn’t set out to become a storyteller, the stories just began to pile up in my head and I just decided to put them down. I might not have done so had I known the probability of ever being published, but luckily I was ignorant of the astounding odds against me. I told the young people that once they discovered what they loved doing, they might be lucky enough to make a living at it as some of us have. I know the writing side pretty well, but the business side of the industry is impossibly murky. Sure there’s no security, and the work is really hard …if you do it right.


  1. One way to reduce inventory is to cut print runs, which is happening to many authors today. Small press, ebook publishers, and pod are proliferating. Perhaps the business model of publishing is shifting, like the demographic of readers, whose young at heart corps reads downloads on their iPods, Kindles, and cell phones. Writers have to be willing to adapt to this changing environment too, seeking these opportunities when the doors to major NY players close in their face. Remember what they say: When one door closes, another opens.

  2. ". . . but luckily I was ignorant of the astounding odds against me."

    Nice post, John. Ignorance is truly bliss when we first start out on this writing journey. The challenge is to stay original and fresh without becoming cynical as reality sets in.

  3. My first visit to this site but definitely not my last.

    Thanks George

  4. I wish I still enjoyed the same ignorance.

  5. I once marched several miles then stood guard duty for a couple hours on a broken ankle. (Just tighten the boots, it'll get you by.)

    Last year I dislocated my shoulder 4000 feet up on the ski slopes and reset it myself...three times on the way down then continued with my 20th anniversary celebration. (a couple excedrin and a Frangelico Coffee made it tolerable).

    I will get published, even if I am just a head and one finger that still can type.