The Future of Publishing …

2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle

As I wrote last week,1 Gutenberg economics—the costs of putting a book on the press and printing up a bunch of copies—drives the publisher to want to make more copies, in order to keep the per-copy cost low. But the economics of running a bookstore mean it cannot afford to actually stock these all these different books at wholesale without the ability to return unsold books to the publisher. That essentially puts the risks of creating a big inventory of books right back on the publisher.

The 1979 Thor Power Tool ruling2 made holding that inventory much more expensive. As a result, the accounting departments at big publishers eventually sent discouraging words down to their acquisitions departments. The first directive was, try to publish only bestsellers. This quickly drove up the advances of, and started the bidding wars for, authors with a bestselling history.

Picking a Bestseller

Book editors might know about the current market: They can see trends from their own sales figures, from Publishers Weekly, and from what they hear over lunch. They know the kinds of books people are reading and buying right now. What is much harder to see is that kind of potential in any single new book. This doesn’t mean book editors are stupid or can’t see literary quality. Any new book that takes off and soars in the lists must satisfy a complex mix of factors.

First, it must have inherent quality, because readers are intelligent, sensitive, and averse to inept storytelling and dull writing. Second, a bestseller needs originality, because readers are naturally looking for something new and fresh and won’t brag to their friends about a book that’s just same-old, same-old. Third, a besteller must also have familiarity, because readers have basic expectations that must be met. Any book that’s too exotic or strange has a hard time surviving the lag between a reader’s initial intrigue and his or her long-term enthusiasm. It’s also hard to recommend a book to a friend if you can’t quite describe it. And fourth, the bestseller must have a huge factor of luck, because word-of-mouth is most easily generated for books that resonate with some larger event or trend in the outside world.

It’s easy to write a good book. It’s harder to be original. It’s damned hard to be original in a mature genre or field where everybody thinks everything’s already been said. And it’s impossible to predict events and trends a year into the future—which is when this manuscript in the editor’s hands will actually arrive on bookstore shelves, after contract negotiations with the author, rewrites,3 production and printing, and pre-sales marketing to and negotiation with the stores’ purchasing agents.

In all this uncertainty, the wise course is to go with a known quantity, an author with proven—and huge—sales, even if you have to steal him or her from another house. But unfortunately, although bestselling authors may have large followings, few authors have consistently good books. Every author has at least one great idea and great book in his or her heart, three to five pretty good books, and a trailing stream of potboilers and occasional stinkers. It’s a much smaller group of readers who will find something consistently satisfying in the author’s every work,4 although these readers will be the most loyal.

Think back over the great bestsellers of the past, and you’ll find they are really unpredictable. Stephen King began writing horror novels in a market where everyone knew that American horror—the stuff of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft—was long dead. It took guts for an editor to buck that trend and publish King’s first novel. Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, which was a new and essentially technical view of warfare, saw many rejections before it was finally picked up by the Naval Institute Press, not a mainstream fiction publisher. J. K. Rowling saw phenomenal rejection with her Harry Potter series, which turned the worlds of magic and the mundane on their heads, before acceptance at Scholastic, again not a major fiction publisher. It’s a truism that every “overnight success” is about ten years in the making.

In any event, it has been many years since a new author could hope to make a pitch directly to a book editor. Sending a manuscript to a publisher is called “going over the transom” and lands the book in the publisher’s “slush pile”—the cabinet full of unsolicited manuscripts that a book editor with a spare afternoon might look through and occasionally try to read.5 Books languish for months on that pile until someone gets busy, writes the necessary “not for us” letters, and sends the misdirected and misbegotten things back to their authors.

To get to a publisher, you have to first get an agent. Book editors use agents and their tastes and instincts as a first-line buffer against the flood of new manuscripts that would descend on them daily. The agent has become the first filter in the process of finding a publishable manuscript. The reward for this work—which often includes consultation with authors who have both potential and the willingness to reshape their work—is the agent’s right to represent the author and take a cut of his or her royalties. Still, the agent is looking for the same things the editor does: market potential of the current work, and the author’s potential for writing more than one good book. For the author, of course, pitching to an agent, who then must pitch to the publisher, only adds to the number of conflicting tastes and opinions that the work in hand must satisfy. And it piles on the middlemen.

More Bad News from the Accounting Department

Other directives came down from accounting to the desks of the acquisitions editors. All of them turned the publishing business into a needle’s eye through which an author and the book in hand had to thread.

The second directive was, shed the midlist authors, whose books are now more expensive to hold year-over-year. The outcome of this was that established authors with solid followings, although perhaps not stellar sales, now found it harder to get published. Multi-book contract deals also became harder to get, because each book’s sales were now under a magnifying glass. That makes it harder to plan for trilogies, series, and other ways an author sustains the readers’ interest. Fiction publishers like series and related books, but their tolerance in the face of disappointing sales is hair-trigger.

The third directive was, choose only new authors whose books have bestseller potential. This has driven a sameness in product—think of the number of vampire books now flooding the young adult category—as editors chase last year’s success. The pressure to guarantee a bestseller has also worked against authors with the sort of individual style and quirkiness that readers may eventually come to love.6 And at the same time that new authors are pressured to make a big name for themselves, the accountants have ordered book editors to shorten the decision time to remaindering a book, in order to avoid piling up inventory costs. If a book can’t make its sales target by the end of the taxable year, it will quickly disappear.

Consider also that publishers really don’t market books anymore. They will advertise to the booksellers, but to reach the readers themselves, authors are on their own. The watchword is “Marketing of your book will be review driven,” meaning that favorable book reviews will promote you—or not. Authors are expected to schedule their own appearances at conventions and book signings, arrange readings, and print and send their own postcards. Building a reputation this way takes time. You have to let word of mouth do its work. But if the book is going to disappear from the store shelves in three or four weeks, then go to remainder soon after that, there’s no time for word of mouth to spread. And if you don’t get a chance at a second book … well, never mind.

Consider that publishers—and the agents who ride ahead of them—now often recommend that authors write a book so that it will show obvious potential to be made into a movie.7 Authors are encouraged to pattern their characters after currently popular stars, adopt a plot structure that easily translates into a three-act movie script, and finish with a happy ending “in which the hero and the villain go mano-a-mano above Reichenbach Falls.”8 This increases the homogenization of popular culture and limits an author’s style and creativity—exactly the qualities he or she needs to set his or her work apart. Ironically, selling a movie concept is even harder than selling a book deal, because of the comparatively much greater investment in production costs. So the likelihood of a book becoming a bestseller because it reads like the movie it might one day be made into is … well, circular.

Consider that publishers and agents now urge fiction authors to create their own “franchise” as a way of selling more books. Think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond: The hero always lives to fight another day, in a new book with the same essential plot but different setting and villain. That limits a lot of potential new story lines and the possibilities for character growth and development, which serious readers expect. But, ironically, the publisher will watch the sales of that first novel with a deadly stare. If sales don’t reach expectation, there won’t be a second book. Even a two-book contract can be abrogated.

Publishing is a slow-moving business. The effects of Thor Power Tool didn’t really begin to take hold until the mid to late 1980s. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that publishers began actively cauterizing their midlists and cancelling book contracts that they finally figured out were uneconomic. Authors with 20 and 30 books to their credit and a legion of happy readers were shut out. Suddenly, the only people making agented sales were the big names—think Stephen King and J. K. Rowling—and first-time novelists with bestseller potential, most of whom were about to take a short ride over a waterfall.

1. See Gutenberg Economics in Various Art Forms.

2. See Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s discussion How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.

3. The lead time necessary to produce a book is one of the reasons editors, at least in fiction, won’t consider a manuscript based on sample chapters and an outline anymore. They want to see the full execution before committing to it. For authors, this means the end of writing up the bare bones of an idea, pitching it, and then obtaining at least part of the advance in order to live while writing the book. You now have to put your full effort into a finished book on spec—and then if that doesn’t sell, go write something else. Writing a first—or even a second or third—novel has become the purchase price of a ticket in a huge national lottery.

4. In this context I always think of the heartfelt refrain from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides: “Oh, mama, do it again!”

5. Early in my career, as a book editor, I read tons of slush. You quickly identify authors who in desperation have sent their books to the wrong house (e.g., novels to an academic publisher) and those who for all the paper in the world can’t get to what they mean to say. They all get polite “not for us” replies. Once in a hundred manuscripts you discover a book that is almost on target and with a little structural work could be really quite good. The editor would like to take the author in hand and offer these suggestions, but then a senior editor wisely asks, “Say they did all that rewriting, would you still publish the book?” “Well, no, it’s not really for our market, but it would be a better book.” “If they do the work, they’ll expect you to publish it. Let them go with a polite ‘not for us’ reply.” Reading slush is like looking for diamonds on the forest floor—not hopeless but heartbreaking.

6. You wouldn’t believe the number of fantasy authors who, after the initial success of the Harry Potter books—a quirky series if there ever was one—were told to write books about boy wizards with glasses. The only thing most publishers know about bestsellers is what was successful last year.

7. I’ve actually had a potential agent suggest this. The cinematization of novels is no doubt driven by the fact that most of the major book publishers are now owned by conglomerates that also own major movie studios. The dream is to co-market the book and the movie and so reduce advertising costs. This arrangement also drives the plethora of media tie-in novels—the Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Files etc. books—that, at least in science fiction, has slowly taken over bookstore shelves.

8. The rules for what will make an acceptable movie script are much stricter than for genre fiction. To see how precise the format is, down to the page counts devoted to each act, read Syd Field’s books, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter’s Workbook.