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 When I take a survey, virtually all of these authors are unpublished.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.