Several bloggers have answered comments on the AAR forums about blogging recently. In doing so, some have noticed a recent snippiness and touchiness in the reading community, from readers and from writers. I was hanging around at Wendy’s blog recently, something I do a lot, and she’s noticed something similar, too. Mrs. Giggles has spotted it.
Actions and consequences…
I heard a program on the radio this morning, “Whistleblowers” about Paul Moore and how he warned the bank HBOS about its risky strategies and its target-based culture, and how it and banks like it pushed consumers into taking too many risks. It was all about selling, he said and they didn’t look at the long term consequences, and the unbalanced risk it introduced.
Sound familiar? It should.
It’s happening in the book business, and it’s not all down to the recession. Before 2009, signs of strain were already showing. Historically, books have always followed the newspaper model of distribution – copies were distributed to suppliers, bookstores for the main part, and those that didn’t sell were returned. That meant that you could drop into your local bookstore and be confident of finding the book you wanted. It also meant a bucketload of returns. Then Anderson News, one of the biggest distributors went under.
Two things were happening. The supermarkets were buying books in bulk, undercutting traditional retailers and doing their own distribution. And the newspaper industry was failing. It would have made sense to try to do away with the “sale or return” system, but it was too convenient to the companies involved – the accounting and financing of the publishers would have had to be restructured, and that can’t be done quickly, and it was a good thing for the supermarkets, who wouldn’t have surplus stock to sell or dispose of.
Sell or die…
At the publishing houses, there were a number of fine editors who had a lot of control over the books the house took and what was done with them. It gave each house a distinct identity, and its authors were given relative artistic freedom. Now, no decision is made independent of the marketing and finance departments. The question was no longer asked, “Is this book good for us?” but “Can we sell enough copies?”
A carefully balanced portfolio of bestsellers, middle ground authors and risky chances that could take off in a big way or could bomb spectacularly, was abandoned for the best seller model. Big authors, controversial themes, with big money put behind them. Middle ground authors, career authors with reputations but no huge sales were dropped. I’ve met a few, and while being resilient and determined to weather the storm, there’s a core of unhappiness and cynicism that just wasn’t there before. Existing authors are sometimes desperately chasing targets, because if their current book doesn’t sell up to target, they’re dropped. No second chances.
The publishing business has gone from brutal to savage, from relatively civilised to a jungle culture. If you don’t sell, you’re gone. No benefit of the doubt, no “see what your next title does,” no “this will be a slow burner.” Without that attitude, we wouldn’t have had The Lord of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or even Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, all series that became massive sellers, but had relatively slow starts.
Wait, we don’t get them, do we? Not any more. A series has to start with a huge bang and go on to sell and sell, otherwise it’s gone. A writer with a three-book contract will see her books cut off after the second, even the first, leaving the readers hungry for the last ones, and increasingly determined not to buy a series until it’s all out. So sales at first are low, and more get cut. A self fulfilling prophecy.
Big publishers are struggling to stay afloat. If it weren’t for cash reserves and the massive profits they stand to make by selling e-books and not passing on savings to authors or readers, they’d probably go under. Midlist authors are going to the e-publishers, giving up or trying for the big one. Or writing for Harlequin, which is taking serious note of the market and going from strength to strength.
Ahead of the curve…
Harlequin always had the drop on other publishers with its direct mail order service, which didn’t depend on distributors or returns. It had a regular audience and after slipping behind in the late 1990’s, turned its lines around and rejuvenated or dropped them. And Harlequin has an established, successful e-bookstore.
You’d expect me to say e-publishing is where the future is because I write for e-publishers. Well that’s not why I do it. I’ve had chances to write for others, but the offer or the money wasn’t quite right. I promised myself I’d do this to make myself happy, not to go for the big bucks or the huge sales. As it happens, I think I’ve fallen into the right part of the industry. Right for me, right for the future.
No, I don’t think we’ll see the end of the paper book. It’s a transition. But the sale-or-return culture, plus increasing costs in distribution and production, plus increasing pressure from ecologists has all pushed producers of print to think again. It’s been coming for a long time, from the day when Rupert Murdoch pushed the print unions to breaking point and then smashed them, from the day when Anderson’s closed its doors, to when Wal-Mart became indispensable to many people and one-stop shopping became important.
Make a fast splash…
So, back to the point of the article. Writers and readers getting snippy. Of course there’s no one reason. Writers are being pressured to write the big one, the big series, the High Concept book, something that is different but stays the same. Nobody’s telling them to, it’s just the way “the market” is going. Fewer authors, higher sales per unit. Splashy, lots of action, lots of sex.
For some writers, that’s exactly what they want to do. Others don’t, their metier runs to a different kind of book and they’re getting short shrift now. The chase for the next big thing has resulted in markets rising and falling ever faster. Right now it’s urban fantasy, next it’s steampunk, but if you aren’t already in there and working hard, either close to publication or accepted, then forget it, because for the writer, that’s over. The publishers have all the authors they want in that genre and you’re going to have to look for something else, something with a platform, a high concept, a distinct genre.
This is making writers edgy. They’re putting out books faster, and each book is getting a little less theirs, a little more of a product. Less love is going into creating it. Editors are all about buying the next book and spotting the next trend, not nurturing the writers they’ve already bought. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way the market is going.
Readers can only buy what is in the bookstores. If you love paranormal but you hate the market leaders, you’ll look for something else, pick up the next book with a great cover and blurb. Maybe you’ll find something. But rarely a book with great depth, something that speaks to your soul. It’s always been like that, there have always been splashy, dramatic books, and good luck to them. We all need one of those to read from time to time. But readers want more, they want different, and it’s getting harder to find. It’s not the reader’s concern to analyse and decide what they want. Why should they? But if they don’t find what they want, they’ll move on to videos, video games, other genres.
So writers, edgy with the increased pressures and with writing more books are snipping at readers, and readers, dissatisfied but not quite knowing why, are snipping back.
There are always exceptions, always a great book, always an author who ploughs her own furrow, but it’s the general trends, not individual greatness or otherwise that is driving the market. Always the Pareto rule, the 80:20 ratio that goes into the marketing and finance departments. There’s a reason for the saying “the exception proves the rule.”
Plus it’s the change of the season, and that always brings a bit of disturbance. So maybe it’s just the weather.