The Problems with Publishing

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Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch recently shared a must-read post about today’s state of publishing, aptly titled Trainwreck, Fall Edition.

As she explains, she tried in June to order a copy of a book she liked for her sister. However, she wouldn’t get the book until September. Understandably, her reaction was: How odd. The book had released in February, so she should have been able to get her hands on a copy quickly. But she couldn’t.

Then she remembered that the same thing had happened with a couple of other books she had ordered for her sister back in May. They were backlist for an author her sister hadn’t tried and it took six weeks for her to get the books, with the shipment getting delayed more than once.

Putting two and two together, Kristine realized the ugly truth: traditional publishing is headed for a trainwreck.

The trainwreck

Trainwreck | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

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 it in a few months. We’d club that virus into submission, and return to normal life—or close to normal—by summer.

It is increasingly obvious, however, that the U.S. isn’t going to recover from this thing for a while—a long while. 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.

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. 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 the 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.

A fast-moving train

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. 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 the 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 (you 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.

Broken rail

As if this wasn’t bad enough, 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 in the States.

The best way to sell books (as demonstrated by study after study) is word of mouth. But by the time Kristine wanted to give a copy to her 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 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.

What about ebooks?

Ebooks is where traditional publishers have really screwed up. Stelter’s ebook costs $14.99. The ebook Kristine wanted to get her sister 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.

Less lucrative for authors? On what planet? Oh, yeah, right. The traditional publishing planet. Article after article claims that ebooks are a bust, that they don’t make money, and that sales of ebooks are “depressed.”

Yeah, if you overcharge for them.

Maybe read it at the library?

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.

At all.

Are they stupid?

So, are publishers stupid? Don’t they know they’re heading for a freefall?

Well, as The Passive Guy points out, even if the New York top brass was inclined to really innovate and make aggressive changes, the companies that own the large New York publishers – large European media conglomerates plus CBS (Simon & Schuster) are not going to be receptive to innovative changes, particularly if such changes might possibly result in lower short-term profits.

The CEOs of the major New York trade publishers are really middle-management in their business organizations. Cutting ebook prices to potentially goose sales numbers is a non-starter. The people who own the NYC publishers are just as locked into traditional strategies and practices as the NYC underlings Kristine describes.

No room for midlisters

As The Guardian noted, the result of all this is that 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 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’d 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.

Now what?

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 need to continue producing. Consistency is the key for indie writers. Make sure you 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 president is inaugurated.

But do give your readers a respite from all the politics and 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.

Read the full post at Kristine Kathryn Rusch (believe me, it’s worth it)

And if you feel that publishing’s problems are all to do with Amazon, read my post, “How Amazon Destroyed Publishing (or Did It?)

 

About this blog

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NicholasRossisPageThis is the mirror blog of author Nicholas C. Rossis. It is set up in order to provide an easy way for visitors to reblog posts and read them in WordPress Reader.

You can find out the reasoning behind the duplication in this post.

The primary blog is located on nicholasrossis.me and contains information on book marketingwriting; my fantasy series Pearseusmy short stories collections and my award-winning children’s books.

Real-Life Aliens

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What might life on another planet look like? What the British Antarctic Survey came across earlier this year (2021) may shed some light on that age-old question. As Wired reports, the Society wanted to study the history of the floating shelf. Instead, they came across strange creatures that live under a half-mile of solid ice!

But let’s take things from the beginning. The Society started an arduous journey into the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf’s history. To do this, they wanted seafloor sediment, which is locked under a half-mile of ice.

To get to the bottom of it (pun intended), they had to pump 20,000 liters of hot water through a pipe lowered down a borehole. It took them 20 hours to melt through the ice, inch by inch, until they finally pierced through the shelf:

Video: Dr. Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

Unfortunately, when they lowered the collector that would get them the sediment they needed, it came back empty: the place they had dug ended up on a rock.

What was on the rock was a big surprise: life.

Not to Tell Life Its Business but…

When Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey watched the footage, he noticed a kind of film on the rock, likely a layer of bacteria known as a microbial mat. An alien-like sponge and other stalked animals dangled from the rock, while stouter, cylindrical sponges hugged the surface. The rock was also lined with wispy filaments, perhaps a component of the bacterial mats, or perhaps a peculiar animal known as a hydroid.

Life under the ice | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books
At bottom left, you can see stalked animals. Top right are sponges. Illustration: Dr. Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey/Wired

The rock they had accidentally discovered is 160 miles from daylight—that is, the nearest edge of the shelf, where ice ends and the open ocean begins. It’s hundreds of miles from the nearest location that might be a source of food—a spot that would have enough sunlight to fuel an ecosystem, and be in the right position relative to the rock for known currents to supply these creatures with sustenance.

Not to tell life its business, but it’s got no right being here.

Killer Sponges

We can say for certain that these animals are living in total darkness, which is fine—plenty of deep-sea critters do the same. But animals that live sessile (read: stuck in place) existences on the deep seafloor must rely on a fairly steady supply of food in the form of “marine snow.” Every living thing swimming in the water column above must one day die, and when they do, they sink to the depths. As the corpses descend and decompose, other creatures pick at them and fling off particles, tiny morsels that accumulate even on the deepest of seafloors. (When a whale dies and sinks, by the way, it’s epically known as a “whale fall.”)

This works in most parts around Antarctica, where the waters are incredibly productive. Tiny critters known as plankton feed all kinds of fish, which feed large marine mammals like seals. All this activity produces detritus—and dead animals—that one day become marine snow.

However, the Antarctic critters on this particular rock don’t live under a bustling water column. They live under a half-mile of solid ice. And they can’t roam away from their rock in search of food. “The worst thing in a place where there’s not much food, and it’s very sporadic, is to be something that’s glued to the spot,” says Griffiths. So how on Earth could they be getting sustenance?

Since the researchers couldn’t collect specimens, they can’t yet say what exactly these sponges and other critters could be eating. Some sponges filter organic detritus from the water, whereas others are carnivorous, feasting on tiny animals. “That would be sort of your headline of the year,” says Christopher Mah, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Killer Sponges, Living in the Dark, Cold Recesses of Antarctica, Where No Life Can Survive.”

It does appear that sedimentation around the rock isn’t very heavy, meaning the animals aren’t in danger of being buried. “It’s kind of a Goldilocks-type thing going on,” says Griffiths of the rock’s apparently fortuitous location, “where it’s got just enough food coming in, and it’s got nothing that wants to eat them—as far as we can tell—and it’s not getting buried by too much sediment.” 

A Tennis Court under the Sea

Right now, we have more questions than answers. Because Griffiths and his colleagues don’t have specimens, they can’t say how old these animals are. Antarctic sponges have been known to live for thousands of years, so it’s possible that this is a truly ancient ecosystem. Perhaps the rock was seeded with life long ago, but currents have also refreshed it with additional life over the millennia.

The researchers also can’t say whether this rock is an aberration, or if such ecosystems are actually common under the ice. Maybe the geologists didn’t just get extremely lucky when they dropped their camera onto the rock—maybe these animal communities are a regular feature of the seafloor beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves. There’d certainly be a lot of room for such ecosystems: These floating ice shelves stretch for 560,000 square miles. Yet, through previous boreholes, scientists have only explored an area underneath them equal to the size of a tennis court. So it may well be that they’re out there in numbers, and we just haven’t found them yet.

And we may be running out of time to do so. This rock may be locked away under a half-mile of ice, but that ice is increasingly imperiled on a warming planet. “There is a potential that some of these big ice shelves in the future could collapse,” says Griffiths, “and we could lose a unique ecosystem.”

However, don’t despair: the chances we may find something similar in Europa are pretty good as far as I’m concerned!

Read the full article on Wired and, if this got you inspired, happy writing!