“Improving” publishing

When I travel around to conferences, I hear authors ignite spirited discussions about how the system is broken and want to discuss ways to “improve” the system. When I take a survey, virtually all of these authors are unpublished. Ok, I hope no one minds that my Sour Grapes Radar has just been activated. Sounds harsh, right? Well, it is, and here’s why.

I have yet to see anyone in these groups come up with a single idea on how to “improve” the system. I’ve asked repeatedly for ideas, and the replies are all the same – “I don’t know enough about the industry to come up with any ideas.”

Can you appreciate how pedestrian this sounds – from my particular perspective? You don’t know anything about the industry, yet you can insist with great authority that changes must be made? Srsly? There is nothing in this world that’s perfect, and you can’t compare publishing to, say, an oil company, or a restaurant, because publishing runs on a completely different engine.

Do I think there are things wrong with the industry? Heck yah. If I ran my company like the big guys, I’d be out of business in five seconds. Small fries have to work very smart, and that can run contrary to what authors have come to expect. Take advances, for instance. Yes, small fries pay out lesser advances. They pay to the author what they feel they will earn in royalties. There are times when they guess wrong, and the author never earns out. Ooops. Cha-ching! Publisher’s balance sheet eats it. Do I hear any complaints from authors? Crickets.

What other capitalistic business pays out for a product that has no guarantee of selling [I’m being rhetorical, so please don’t answer that]? It’s Russian Roulette, so who takes the hit? The publisher. It defies logic and good business sense. If my book is going to sell, I should be paid royalties on those actual sales, not seeing how much I can suck out of the publisher and risk not earning out. Big deal, you say? Look at it this way: If you fail to earn out, you become a liability, and that news travels like wildfire in this very small world – so best wishes getting another book deal. This is exactly why we do a Bookscan check on previous books. We want to see how well you sold. But I digress. Just suffice it to say that we all know the system is far from perfect.

Dominoes – you fall, and we all fall

This is a business of dominoes, which means nothing in this industry runs independently of each other. Everything is interconnected, so no one entity is to blame.

Domino #1 – Readership: The economy is in the crapper, so fewer books are selling. This hits bookstore budgets right in the dangling participles, so their budgets have shrunk like a conjugated verb. Result: they buy fewer books for their stores.

Domino #2 – Signing Authors: Publishers respond to this by signing fewer authors. This is where new authors believe they are discriminated against. They’re partly right, in that we’re all looking for authors who have a built-in readership. Makes for easier sales. The big guys, especially, are looking for authors who have blockbuster potential. They throw big promo dollars behind that blockbuster in order to create a huge buzz and make bigger sales.

But even in these times, many debut authors are getting book deals. Heck, I just signed two last week. But because things are tight, everyone is looking for the best of the best. With a huge gene pool of writers, we can afford to be very choosy.

Domino #3 – Mr. Promo Plan: For the midlist and lower list titles, it’s harder to capture a genre buyer’s attention because they aren’t getting as much financial support from their publisher – meaning their books don’t have the literary footprint as their blockbuster counterpoint.

Hello, Mr. Promo Plan. The publisher’s sales teams supply genre buyers with the author’s promotion plan, which is another way of saying, “You need to order this book because my author is kicking butt promoting this all over the country.” Big promotion usually means big exposure, which gives way to big demand, and big sales.

Domino #4 – Marketability: This means that publishers, both large and weency, are looking for books they feel are marketable. And here is where the wheat is separated from the chaff: Marketability is in the eye of the beholder. Just like our taste in books, marketability is subjective. What I feel isn’t marketable may strike another editor as insanely marketable. Because they feel this way, they’ll do whatever they can to make it work [oooo, having a Tim Gunn moment]. Many writers in that literary gene pool don’t write marketable books – it’s the plain, hard, cold truth.

The New Author Fallacy

Many authors decry that publishers are turning away debut authors and churning out crap in their stead. For starters, what one person thinks is crap, others love to pieces, so that’s just an ignorant statement. I’m probably the only person on Earth who hated The Brides of Madison County, but I wouldn’t call it crap. I just didn’t like the story. That ol’ subjectivity thing again. Let me say it right now: the idea that debut authors aren’t being signed is patently false.

Nearly all of my authors are debut authors, and that can be said throughout the world. Agents and editors are signing new authors every day. Just because your manuscript hasn’t sold doesn’t mean no one else’s hasn’t sold either, and no way is the lack of your manuscript not selling indicative of a broken system. What many authors lack is perspective.  I don’t say this to be a twit, but to point out a chink in the logic when it comes to this particular issue.

“I deserve to be published!”: Like I said, everything is interconnected, and you can’t blame just the publisher for the changes taking place. Nor can you blame them for your lack of success. Like everything else in life, things change, they evolve, and it’s the company or author who is unwilling to evolve that will be left behind.

There are no entitlements to having your book published, yet this is the one complaint I hear everywhere I go: “I think authors deserve a chance to be published!” Ah bunk. That’s the tripe vanity and PODs try to sell in order to line their own pockets. It boils down to this; have you found an agent or editor who believes your book has what it takes to compete? To cry foul has that irritating tinge of “I deserve this!” And it truth, maybe you don’t.

But for the love of Twinkies and margaritas, don’t blame publishing for your lack of current achievement. It wastes time and makes you cynical. If you write because it completes you [sorry, Jerry McGuire moment], not because your sole focus is on seeing your name up in lights. That’s ego talking, not necessarily talent.

So if you want to “improve” publishing, have a strong idea of how that can be accomplished. And really, if it could be “fixed” is there any doubt that it wouldn’t? After all, we’re all here to be successful. The truth of the matter is that there are no easy fixes, and authors who imply there are, have little to no idea what they’re talking about.

20 Responses to “Improving” publishing

  1. MelissaA says:

    As a general rule I don’t think publishing is broken. I think there are two things that give writers that impression:

    First, the (lack of) speed. Writers have one project; it’s foremost in their minds. They don’t appreciate how the process of publishing multiple books and evaluating upteen million others slows down the process (particularly when working by committee).

    Second, the money. Writers look at the small percentage they make and come to the conclusion that publishers, then, are making huge profits. Without going on a huge rant, let me suffice to say, they aren’t. Publishing just isn’t a huge profit center.

    I agree with pretty much everything in your post. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think publishing couldn’t stand a little tweaking. I hate, for example, book returns. Stores don’t get to return other merchandise, so why books? It’s a headache for everyone. To change that would drastically change the formulas for printing (which changes cost) and buying. I get that. Doesn’t mean I don’t think that returns are a ridiculous system.

    I’m also not thrilled with how ebooks are developing. The movie and music industries have a sordid history with digital merchandise and have illustrated through painful example what doesn’t work. So what’s publishing doing? Following in their footsteps… because obviously things will be different for them. Stupid.

    I also have my eye on e-book royalties. Different kettle of fish with a different breakdown of expenses, *particularly* if the book is also coming out in print. I want a significantly different royalty structure.

    What are your thoughts on ebooks and how publishers are setting prices and royalty structures, Lynn?

  2. You don’t need me to tell you that you are absolutely right, Lynn. However, you and I can state the plain hard facts over and over again and there is still going to be a bitter and naive minority who will stick their fingers in their ears and sing la-la-la.

  3. I hate, for example, book returns.
    Ahhhhh…me hates book returns. Hates them, I tell you. It nearly killed everyone a couple years back. I know many companies that went out of business due to the massive returns. We pulled our belts in by not publishing anything new for a year. We’re just now coming out of that slump. I’d give up margaritas if we could get rid of the returns system.

    As for e-books, this doesn’t bother me at all. It’s possible I need a brain scan – or a lobotomy – but I see this simply as the industry evolving, and it’s our job to evolve with it. As with anything, there are always growing pains while issues get sorted out, and I see this as one of those times.

    I like e-books. I read almost exclusively from my Kindle because I can enlarge the font, stash author submissions on there, and read about a bajillion books. As for the royalty structure, we’ve been watching the trends on this. Our current structure is 50-50 on net.

    As for pricing, we’re also watching the trends. I don’t know if people will buy an e-book for a few dollars less than the physical book. The long time standard has been that e-books were significantly less, so I’m loath to mess with that. On the other hand, if the bigger retail prices become the norm, then what choice does the consumer have other than to pay the price?

    It’s in a state of flux right now, but I see no reason to think it’s a bad thing. It’s simply a new thing, and I, for one, love change.

  4. Kim Nelson says:

    Bravo, Lynn!
    I write because I am a writer. I cannot not write. The fact that, on three different occasions, a publisher took the huge risk and produced my books is icing on the cake. Fledgling writers would benefit from recalling that most of the greats made their livings in other fields while writing in their spare time; or, as I have also done, authors wrote for periodicals to make a living and worked on their real stuff in the off hours. It’s not the system. It’s a writer’s life.

  5. Oh, Kim, your book is so achingly good that anyone who’s read it knows that writing is like breathing for you. What you did ‘way back was catch my attention. You presented me with a thoughtful proposal, fabulous comp titles, and, quite simply, wrote a brilliant book that is now in its third printing.

    You didn’t blather on about broken publishing and try to blame “the system” because you’re a professional. Regardless of publishing’s deficiencies, you worked within the system. And that is what makes a brilliant writer.

  6. Kate says:

    @MelissaA – I agree with most everything you said here. Royalty structures and digital domain agreements really need to be rethought, and returns are another area that need to be addressed. Why not make the PoD trend work for publishers, by printing to demand instead of generating huge stocks of books that may or may not sell, then having to deal with a stack of returns that’s just going to get pulped and eat into your balance sheet? Seems to me that this is an area where smaller publishers, being more nimble, can excel.

    As for the royalties, well…I have a feeling profit-sharing, rather than advances and straight, small royalties, is the wave of the future. Especially in digital. Assuming we can keep from making the mistakes the music industry did.

  7. Why not make the PoD trend work for publishers, by printing to demand instead of generating huge stocks of books that may or may not sell, then having to deal with a stack of returns that’s just going to get pulped and eat into your balance sheet?

    Kate, this has been the big difference between POD and commercial trade publishing. In theory it’s a great idea. However, when I have a PO for 5,000 units to Barnes and Noble, those books don’t get printed up in five minutes. Many times it takes several weeks. In the meantime, your buyer is impatiently awaiting his order. If you’re known for taking too much time to get your product to market, buyers will avoid you like the plague.

  8. […] the question was asked, I thought I would take a break from my script this morning and articulate a few changes I could […]

  9. Steve says:


    I take your point – I think – but I still wonder if you aren’t being a tad unfair to the critics of the publishing system – especially since you actually appear to agree, at least generally, with the dominant criticisms of the industry.

    What you stop just short of is to accuse these folks of being whiners. Sure, nobody likes a whiner. But that’s a different issue. It’s a visceral response to a perceived attitude – not a rational rebuttal to criticism.

    I think their point that they lack expertise to suggest a reorganization strategy is a strong one. If the guys and gals who’ve been in the biz for years and make megabucks can’t come up with a workable fix, why demand such expertise of an aspiring writer?

    If my car breaks down, I probably can’t tell the mechanic what to fix. But I surely know I can’t drive it and that this is a real problem – not a case of personal pique.

    Just being contrary,


  10. CreativeA says:

    “I’m probably the only person on Earth who hated The Brides of Madison County, but I wouldn’t call it crap.”

    Possibly, did you mean “Bridges” rather than “Brides”?

    Anyway, to comment on the actual post, I pretty much agree with what’s been said here. If anything in the publishing industry should change, I think it’s the way everything is done in extremes and en masse. Maybe this is just my personal observation? It seems like the industry is trying so hard to make sales that they are writing/acquiring/publishing as many books as they can, as fast as they can. It’s not really maximizing the return. If things were a bit more focused, I think individual books might do better.

    Of course that also means the industry would have to be more selective. Wouldn’t exactly help the aspiring author’s issue.

    Interesting topic though, nice to see all the pieces compared together.

  11. Cat says:

    I would not presume to tell you how to do your job anymore than you would presume to tell me how to catch mice.

  12. Gary Smailes says:

    Great post, it is encouraging to see a publisher talking about these issues.
    I do not believe the publishing model is broken. In fact the model to sell printed books to book shops works very well indeed.
    Bookshops have a limited amount of shelf space and therefore wish to stock only the books that will sell (bestsellers). This means that books that fail to sell well (by the definition of bookshops) are not stocked and are subsequently replaced. However, since the book industry has a very primitive model in determining which books will sell well, signing on new books is a bit of a guessing game. This means that any publisher wishing to survive must sign on a number of books KNOWING that some will sell very well, but most (80%) will sell less than a thousand (500?) books per year.
    The problem arises in the fact that most writers don’t realise that the reality of the system is that they will NOT produce a bestseller and, will therefore, sell only a limited number of books and make very little money. The very system means that it is the writer, not the publishers, who is taking the biggest risk. Yes, the publisher may lose some money, but the writer is risking their career as a writer.
    However, the new model is developing.
    The growth of books delivered in digital format and the rise of amazon removes the importance of the physical bookshelf (see Chris Anderson’s Long Tail). In turn, this removes the emphasis on the need for bestsellers. This means that publishers will focus less on format of books (print v ebook) and focus more on content and the delivery to the reader.

  13. Rik says:

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t get the publishing business model.

    – The bookshop sale-or-return policy is a flat-out refusal to bear any risks in the merchandising of a book, and the publisher has to go along with it because otherwise they’re denied access to shelf space. I think that speaks volumes about how much bookshops value and trust the quality of the product they sell.

    – Publishers buying premium display space is more understandable: it’s part of the promotional budget. But is the current system for ‘renting’ that space (on a per-book rather than per-publisher basis?) the most efficient method for customers, bookshops and publishers alike? Again, the risk is with the publisher as the bookshop is getting the rent, with booksales an added (no risk) bonus, whereas publishers have to sell more books to cover the cost of the rent.

    – In the UK we also have supermarkets selling books at ridiculously low prices – a phenomenon that’s just starting in the US, I believe. I hate to think what agreements are being made between publishers and retailers which result in books being sold in the supermarkets for less than a fiver. Good for customers, yes. Good for anyone else involved in the publishing business model? No idea, but colour me cynical on this one.

    – Let’s go online. Amazon is, in my not so humble opinion (formed after self-publishing my poetry book), a whole heap of bad faith and monopolist practices; their 50% off deals and bullying insistence that books cannot be sold cheaper at other online outlets – such as a publisher’s own website – is … evil. I look forward to seeing how the Scottish booksellers’ complaint to the OFT against Amazon plays out. Many other online sellers use the Amazon databases, so the impression of online shopping diversity is mostly smoke-and-mirror stuff. And what sort of level playing field permits a single company to have the power to remove buy buttons from a whole swathe of their goods, and to recall bought-and-paid-for products instantly from their customers’ own hard drives, at the flick of an executive’s decision-making switch? I’m sorry, but Amazon, in my idiolect, is just another word for anti-competitive practices.

    – Where do we start with authors and risk? Authors like to see their books on Amazon almost as much as they like to see them on real bookshelves. But how much risk is bourne by authors? On the financial side of the equation, not much. Yes, they spend years writing and honing their novels and self-help books, and an interminable time pursuading agents and publishers to believe enough in their work to risk hard cash on the success of the project, but once the contract is signed the financial risk is mostly gone. Publishers pay out an advance on royalties even before the book is finalised – which just seems absurd to me. I understand the argument that authors need the advance so that they can concentrate on finalising the product and also start work on future products, but let’s be honest here: when it comes to publishers and authors it’s a buyer’s market; I’m genuinely suprised that any publisher offers an advance on royalties these days. The one risk that authors do bear, that their books sell well enough to justify continued investment in them, is one that many authors seem to believe is the responsibility of their agents and publishers. Authors really need to wake up to the fact that their platform – their brand – is first and foremost their responsibility.

    – Which brings us to publishers. I actually feel sorry for the smaller publishers where the burdens of the risks being forced on them from both sides of the supply chain must be – at times – intolerable. But not too sorry: these are the folks who are best placed to quickly adopt and adapt to the revolutions we’re currently witnessing in the business of delivering books to customers. Disruptive technologies – such as eBooks – can, and will, bring about the demise of the current publishing business model (note: I’m not suggesting eBooks will replace hardcopy books; both formats have a future). But the publishers who replace today’s lumbering corporate-publishing-giants will be the ones who find a better way to redistribute the risks across the business model.

    Are you up to the challenge, Lynn?

  14. Hmmm. I’ll admit I’ve often noted what I see as a lack of quality in the publishing industry. You’re right that taste is usually very subjective, but quality? I think less so. I think Twilight is pretty terrible: badly written, wooden characters and prose, misogyny, etc. But when I say that and then look at how popular it is, it makes me think to ask what it did right, and what it was good at. I’m left to speculate that what it really did well was engage its audience.

    This thread already touched upon what would have been my first suggestion for improving the publishing industry: stop taking returns. I’m pretty sure no other industry accepts returnable merchandise. EMI doesn’t let Best Buy return crates of CDs.

    I’d start there. And I’d go on for quite a while, I think.

  15. Voidwalker says:

    Can you elaborate, maybe in a post all by itself, on the difference between marketting and promotion that a real publishing house takes on with the author, vs. say vanity publishers?

    I guess I wonder just how much of the promotion, marketing and advertising is expected of the author after the novel has been picked up by a publishing house?

  16. Wow, see what happens when I leave town for a few days? Ok, I’ll try to get my comments in:

    Steve: What you stop just short of is to accuse these folks of being whiners.

    Yes, I do stop short of calling them whiners, but only just barely. If I know little about an industry AND I’m trying to immerse myself in it, then I don’t feel at all qualified to cast aspersions or make suggestions on how to make it more efficient. To me, that’s just hubris. Sorry, but that’s how I see it.

    In my experience, I’ve noticed that those who are the loudest about the “unfairness” of the industry are those who will probably never be published because their writing is substandard – only they don’t know it.

    CreativeA: Possibly, did you mean “Bridges” rather than “Brides”?

    Ach, gimme a break, willya? I write these posts late at night with one eye closed due to exhaustion, so please don’t copyedit me.

    It seems like the industry is trying so hard to make sales that they are writing/acquiring/publishing as many books as they can, as fast as they can. It’s not really maximizing the return. If things were a bit more focused, I think individual books might do better.

    This has always been the case, and I don’t see this changing. We need a large front list in order to appeal to all types of audiences. If we nurture only one book, we’re putting all our eggs in one basket. Few can afford to do this. What if it bombs?

    Gary: The very system means that it is the writer, not the publishers, who is taking the biggest risk. Yes, the publisher may lose some money, but the writer is risking their career as a writer.

    I guess one needs to define risk, which are obviously different depending on what side of the editing desk one sits. Financial risk will put a publisher out of business, or many editors out of a job. A writer always has other stories in their hearts. And yes, I speak as a novelist myself.

    Rik: – The bookshop sale-or-return policy is a flat-out refusal to bear any risks in the merchandising of a book, and the publisher has to go along with it because otherwise they’re denied access to shelf space. I think that speaks volumes about how much bookshops value and trust the quality of the product they sell.

    Well, I agree with you that the return policy (that publishers instituted way back, thankyouverymuch) sucks stale Twinkie cream. However, bookstores have shrinking budgets with which to buy books for each upcoming season. When they’re presented with thousands of books for each season, there is no way they can know if those books are going to sell because they can’t read them all. It’s all risk. If they bring in thousands of units of a title that no one likes, they lose money.

  17. Joel Derfner says:

    I agree with almost everything you say, Ms. Price, but I’m going to have to side (respectfully) with Steve on the issue of focus. The number of books published has more than doubled in the last decade–more than quadrupled if you count self-publishing–and so publishers have less and less money per book to market what they produce. (I say this as an author who would love it if my publisher spent more money marketing my books but who understands that such a thing simply isn’t possible under the current model.) Jon Karp, editor-in-chief of Twelve (a company which publishes exactly twelve books a year; since its inception, more than half of its books have become New York Times bestsellers) has written eloquently and, I think, intelligently about this here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/408569-This_Is_Your_Wake_up_Call_12_Steps_to_Better_Book_Publishing.php . Obviously not every publisher can retrench so drastically, but it seems to me like an idea worth thinking about. Of course, that wouldn’t pacify the bearers of sour grapes.

  18. Hi Joel, thanks for your comments. Jon’s article is thoughtful, but at the end, its foundations are conjecture and opinion.

    With a new sheriff in town, there are many who might like Bushy’s speeches, or want to read a book that will get you the love you want. Who are we to judge what’s an empty vessel and what’s worthy of publication? Publishers bought those books for a reason – even if it personally eludes me.

    There have always been what many think are stupid books, and that opinion is unlikely to change because we don’t all think alike.

    And where would you draw the line? Ok, we take out Bushy’s book, the love book, the cannibal book…then what? Do we then decide that historical fiction is next? What about vampire stories? Or even more daring, banning Stephanie Meyers altogether?

    I employ a laissez-faire attitude and feel that while we’re still under the illusion of being a free nation, I prefer to let the marketplace do the talking. I also prescribe the laws of Darwinism. If I don’t produce something people want to read, then maybe I’m not fit for this business.

    Rather than attacking the publisher, I’m more of a mind to look askance at the reading public and wonder about their tastes in books.

  19. Joel Derfner says:

    You’re absolutely right that there have always been what many think are stupid books (see for example the reviews of my last). But the answer to “who are we to judge what’s worthy of publication?” in this particular case is–you’re the publisher.

    I guess I’m just thinking of editors I know at some of the big houses who’ve talked to me about being under enormous pressure to acquire as many books as possible and about acquiring things therefore that they would have preferred not to acquire. If the reason a publisher acquired what you or I might think of as a bad book was, “I got excited about it,” then I think that’s great. But if it’s, “I had an unspoken quota to meet,” then I think that’s less great.

    Of course, it’s also entirely possible that I’m taking far too optimistic a view of the reading public. Or that I’m drunk. (Oh, God, would that it were so. . . .)

  20. Gracious! I forgot about the quotas. Editors with the large publisher need to maintain a certain the number of publications per year in order to keep up their bookstore shelf presence. An ugly industry secret.

    However, that gets tempered by the all-consuming, all-seeing, all-knowing submission committee. Editors have to justify why they want to buy a book. If the P&L doesn’t factor out, then guhbye contract offer.

    I’m far from admitting that things are close to being perfect. However, these editors are buying things they believe will sell. It might very well be crap on a hot dog bun, but if that’s what the reading public wants, then that’s what publishers will provide. This is why I look askance at the reading public’s taste. If people stopped buying vampire goat-herder romance YA, then the publishing industry would react in kind.

    That’s why there is such an upsurge of indie trade presses. We aren’t handcuffed like the big guys,and we can buy books that we’re passionate about AND we feel have a large enough audience in order to keep the lights on.

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