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Archive for December 5th, 2008

View from the Bottom

“They will be blood tonight,” as Indigo Montoya said. The publishing industry is going through some rocky times. Here’s some blogposts about it and quote Douglas Adams while making light.

Getting published for the new author has never really been easy. These days it’s getting harder and harder, or at least it seems so. On the other hand, every year more and more books are published by the big houses, and many of those are by first time authors. The difference is that the pool of authors is much larger these days, and there is a distinct difference in business models in the genre publishing industry than there were only three decades ago. As an example of that, what is a “bestseller” now would have been “poor sales” back in the early 70s. Why this is would take a whole ‘nother post (and I might write that one later).

What I want to talk about is how to get published. The first step is learning how to write, then learn how to tell a story (and those are two different skills). Once you get to that point you have a shot. In the end, and you can ask any editor you like about this, the best way to get published is to write a good story.

So how do you explain why you read some stories and think, “I’m writing better stuff than this?!” You’ve been there, haven’t you? And that’s the kicker. As a new author you have to be better than established authors. That’s right. You’ve got to be able to kick their behinds (in the literate sense). “That’s not fair,” I hear you scream from way over in my corner of the internet.

Who ever said it was fair? Why do established authors get to publish mediocre stuff (not all of it is, but I’ll grant you most BNAs – Big Name Author – have some stinkers out there) and editors won’t by our nubile stories? Established authors bring an audience. Putting a BNA name on the cover is going to sell copies. What have you got?

Publishing is a business. You may not approach writing that way, but you should definitely approach rewriting, editing and submissions that way. Publishing is not a charity or a philanthropy (although it can do both). When an editor buys your story/book they’re not doing it out of the generosity of their hearts, they’re placing a bet that your story will make them money. In some cases this is like playing roulette and betting on a single number.

If you’re a BNA with a defined following, that bet is more like placing the chips on red or black. As the editor, you may not get as much money, but that strategy has a better chance of paying out.

Now, to counter this, many editors want to encourage new talent. There was a big bruhaha last year (I think) when Jeff VanderMeer posted what became a manifesto on his blog site estolling anthology editors to open their submissions up, pledge to publish new names and then called some other editors out for their closed submissions policies. Both sides made compelling arguments. Let me, however, take Jeff’s side and reiterate that new talent is the lifeblood of any business. Until recently, nurturing new talent was considered a good policy to continued fiscal health. The opposite argument can be summed up as “publishing is a business where we intend to profit or at least break even.”

Which can lead us to the myth of the bestseller. If you look into the “alternative publishing” world (aka vanity publishing schemes like Publish America) you’ll see this argument made about how the “traditional publishers” only want bestsellers and so won’t give a new writer a break. This is BS of the highest order. Would publishers love every book to be a bestseller, well, yes they would. It would destroy their businesses within a year though. Bestsellers are great cash cows, but if you’ve ever been around cows you know that too many of them can be dangerous and you end up shoving stuff on both ends until you drop from exhaustion.

Bestsellers, however, give companies cash flow they can use for other experiments. Nobody really knows what will be a bestseller at any given time. So, to cover their bets again, publishers will try a little of everything. If the publishing house has a bestselling author in the stable, they will give a lot of love to that author. Don’t be jealous. That author’s sales are what may give you the chance to be published a little. JK Rowling made Little & Brown and Scholastic barrels full of cash. Stephen King and the late Robert Jordan have also made their publishers boatloads of bills. And all of them have helped those houses publish even more new names. When those BNAs come in with a new book, they soak up a lot of resources that you’d probably want to be focused on your book. Keep in mind that the publisher’s money they’re betting on you comes from what those bestsellers bring to the table.

Editors and publishers, however creative they maybe, are in it for the business. If there’s no cash flow, they can’t experiment to see what can make them money. Fortunately they are also one of the remaining businesses that has the philosophy that some profit can be enough (unlike other businesses that feel if they don’t make at least 18% profit, it isn’t worth it).

Where does the future for publishing lie? Big houses continue to slash midlist authors (the bread and butter types that don’t make a lot of money, but are pretty solid to earn out). Modern ordering and distribution channels seem hell bent on the “death spiral of sales” business model. And the overall market is contracting (although that’s a byproduct of the overall economy and a false business picture based on individual book sales). Professional pay short story markets continue to shrivel up, fewer anthologies may be printed in the coming years, and fewer books will be sold few a few years to come. Online “for the love” markets continue to expand, but few have the editorial chops to help an author.

I don’t have any quick answers here. There are lights at the end of the tunnel though. This post is now long enough and we’ll have to talk about those later.

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