Authors Can Be Stupid: Entitlement? Really?

This post was written by Michael A. Stackpole. It originally appeared on his Stormwolf website on 2/5/10, is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission, and is the third installment in his series on common myths and distractions in authorship and publishing. The first installment is here and the second is here.

My post yesterday, Authors Can Be Stupid: Please Feed The Authors, can seem to have been rather unsympathetic to authors who are caught in the Amazon-Macmillan fight. They could very well be in a difficult position, and panic can be expected. I have no idea what percentage of sales go out through Amazon, but it’s very clear that Amazon is one of the most visible book retailers. Some authors haunt the website, watching a book’s ratings rise and fall with the avidity of a doctor watching a critical patient’s heart monitor.

Any author, however, who believes that his career is going to be ruined by something Amazon does, is just kidding himself. Authors have never been in control of their careers. Here are some realities to consider:

1) The single thing which determines how well your book sells has nothing to do with your prose. Though we are all told from birth “never judge a book by its cover,” this is exactly what book buyers do. And by book buyers I don’t mean just the retail customer, I mean the buyers for the large book chains. If they do not like your cover, they don’t buy your book. And authors, with very few exceptions, have zero input on what will go on the cover. (I have had covers presented to me before a book is finished, requiring me to add a scene to the book so the cover is relevant.)

2) A second huge factor in book sales is promotion. I don’t mean ads and book tours, since most authors in SF&F get neither in any useful sense, but I mean in placement and special discounts for purchasing. In bookstores you’ll see books on wall racks or aisle end-caps. Publishers buy placement in stores (same as shelf space is sold in grocery stores). And a special discount for a particular book can inspire bookstores to stock more of them. Ask yourself which is better: having two books stocked in a store and selling both of them, or having eight stocked in and selling four? Most folks point to the 100% sell-through, but since virtually all mass market books are sold on a returnable basis, selling half the books stocked in, but a larger number, is better. The books that don’t sell are sent back, so it’s just sales volume that counts.

3) Every writer knows that the quality of writing has little to do with sales. There is not a single person reading this who hasn’t wondered why a book of inferior writing quality sells more than a stunningly well-written book. Think about it. Is Dan Brown really the best writer of 2009? (I’m happy for his success, but I could name a dozen writers who are head and shoulders better than he is. Why aren’t they selling so well?)

4) Why did Dan Brown make it? Why are Stephanie Meyer’s books so popular? One huge factor in a writer’s success is luck. You, the writer, catch a break somehow. The right editor gets behind your book. President Reagan says he’s reading it. Teen girls fall in love with your hero. Someone who is in a position to promote your book (*cough* Oprah *cough*) decides she likes your book. You get tapped to write a series of novels in a very popular tie-in line. You can’t script these things, they just happen.

5) You tap a fad. There are more writers than I care to count who have made good money off the supernatural romance fad. Great for them. But many of them have come away with the impression that turning out a financially successful novel is just a matter of writing to a formula.

Fads die. Bubbles pop. I’ve been in the game long enough to watch the Techno-thriller bubble burst. I remember authors who were on top of the world, making big bucks, who suddenly couldn’t sell a word after the cyberpunk and horror bubbles burst. The expressions on their faces resembled those on the faces of disaster victims. Their worlds had collapsed, and they had collapsed because publishers had pumped out so much material to feed the fad, that they glutted the market with lower quality work, and readers revolted. They stopped buying.

6) Calamities can destroy a book. A hurricane rips apart a warehouse. Truckers go on strike. A flood, an earthquake destroys a stock of books. (Publishers will get insurance on all the destroyed books, but the authors won’t get a cent, and the chances of their books being reprinted are zero, since the books never had the sales numbers (due to a lack of distribution) to support reprinting.)

Sometimes the economy crashes.

And some times book chain stores get overextended, can’t afford their stock, and close stores. (Curiously enough, no one has complained that Borders closed so many B. Dalton outlets lately, and yet that action likewise cost authors lots of sales.)

Notice a key point here. The decision to judge books harshly for a lack of sales despite extenuating circumstances has nothing to do with retailers. If a publisher believes in a book, they can push it (see point 2 above). Authors who have had their first book caught in the Amazon-MacMillan fight will be hurt only if their publisher decides to do nothing to spur sales on those books. And while I would like to hope that Macmillan would step up to do that, I don’t think they will. They never promote small books anyway because they expect them to fail.

Two years ago the New York Times printed an article which contained a number of revelations. The one that has stuck with me the most is this: 5% of a publisher’s line makes 100% of its profit. In other words, 19 out of 20 books lose money or break even. So, sales failure is expected, not the anomaly. Books sinking without a trace, regardless of Amazon sales figures, are the norm.

And consider this: what other business expects to lose money on 95% of what they turn out?

Or, to turn it around, if Walmart only made a profit on 5% of its product line, how radically would they shift the mix of things they stock in their stores?

7) You have to remember, authors are adults who have entered into a business agreement with publishers. In theory they go into it with open eyes, but the fact is that most don’t. The joy and excitement of selling a book blinds most authors to the market realities. Most writers buy into the Hollywood image of writers living on easy street, having long walks in the park with their editors, enjoying fancy and elegant meals in New York and otherwise just loving life.

Even though they should know better, they willfully ignore reality. Once your book is out of your hands, its fate is decided by other people. They give you a crappy cover, you’re screwed. They decide that your book will be the second or third book in the list for that month, you’ll never make it into grocery stores, drugstores and airports. They don’t offer a special discount, you have two copies in the chains and maybe a week to get sales traction. Bookstores may want you to come and do a signing, but unless you have a budget for a tour, publishers will tell the store that “the author doesn’t want to go on tour.” (Without ever asking the author…)

The simple fact is that none of us, no writer, is entitled to a career. We are all a single sales disaster away from working with the phrase, “Would you like fries with that?” Whether it is the downturn in the economy, your editor leaving your publisher, your publisher cutting the division that publishes your books, a retailer (for whatever reason) deciding not to carry your book, no writer should ever have the expectation of a career.

We have never been in control of our own fate.

Until now.

Make no mistake about it: the fight over ebooks is a fight by publishers to stay relevant. I’ve already pointed out that they are defending a grossly inefficient business model. Authors now have direct access to their audience and by going direct (even charging less than the publishers) authors can make money faster than the publishers will allow. Authors have plenty of content which they can sell digitally, and can generate more, faster. When you can make more off a $2 short story than you can off an $8 paperback set in the same world, and not have to wait 6-9 months for a publisher to send you your cut, you can take control of your own economy.

Are digital sales to the point where they can supplant traditional publishing income? For some authors they are. Digital readers are proliferating, and the J. K. Rowling demographic is very comfortable with reading off a screen. They’re reading more. And if your work is not available digitally, you don’t exist to them.

It’s time for writers to stop lamenting how the inefficiencies of the old system treat them badly, and to embrace the future. If writers don’t take control of their future, they doom themselves to the obscurity that will swallow the current business model whole.

©2010 Michael A. Stackpole

Michael A. Stackpole is a New York times Bestselling author with over forty novels published including I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron. He was the first author to have work available in Apple’s Appstore. He has lectured extensively on writing careers in the Post-paper Era and is working on strategies for authors to profit during the trying time of transition.