You can't go two feet at a con or even on the Internet without tripping over a discussion about the changes in publishing. People jabber about how everything's changed, how nothing has, how e-books will take over, how they've plateaued. Self-publishing, hybrid publishing, indie publishing, traditional publishing-everyone is hocking a sure-fire way to jump over the traditional slush pile into a bestselling career, and everyone else can shoot that sure-fire method down without looking up from their coffee cups. Everyone is frantic to claim their spot in the morphing little mollusk that is publishing fiction in the twenty-first century, seeking the yellow brick road to not only success, but safety.
The Attention Deficit
The sad truth of entertainment promotion is that the options are always expanding and audiences' attention spans are always shrinking.
The problem isn't that we haven't found the right magic bullet or corners to cut, it's that we're having the wrong conversations. We're all staring at the ends of our noses instead of gazing out at the horizon-probably because the scene between it and us makes Dante's Inferno look like a playground. We're taking the wrong roads, because where we're going, there are no roads.
The playing field has changed.
For the first time in the history of mass-market publishing there isn't either one way to publish or an old way being consumed by a new way-there truly are multiple avenues to present books to consumers. We are not kicking the Big Five (neé Six) off the stage to put on a fresh new act. We are reinventing the concept of performance.
The 21st century audience is spoiled for choice. Consumers must dig through a glut of options: thousands of channels, thousands of books a year, thousands of movies that never find distribution. Since we no longer live in a world in which you can see everything, audiences must choose. The only way for any book/movie/album/game to make money is for it to command significant attention, and since every creative professional is trying to find their audience, the babble is deafening.
For this and related reasons, entertainment is the industry in which promotion is the most critical and the most powerful. Since entertainment asks audiences to pay attention (for a price), and savvy promotion creates an audience by manufacturing perceptions, entertainment promo has quickly evolved as part of the task of every entertainer: actors, musicians, and yes, writers.
The global audience has evolved as well. The explosion of the Internet and the global market has thrown open the gates. As a genre author, you compete for entertainment dollars in an aggressive and fragmented industry which is mutating daily. Your job, and it is your job, is to help your audience find you. And the only way to do that is to bring your A-game to everything you do
The Mythical Golden Age
The golden heyday of lavish publicity junkets and red carpet arrivals in genre fiction is a pleasant delusion.
From 1936 on, Margaret Mitchell and her family sold, promoted, and licensed Gone with the Wind and all its ancillaries for all of her life and theirs with little to no support from Madison Avenue or Hollywood. In 1966, Jacqueline Susann famously spent millions to organize elaborate cross-country book tours, signing piles of hardcovers so they could not be returned and pulped.* For decades, George R.R. Martin cultivated a successful career as a TV writer before HBO made the deal which turned Game of Thrones into a pop-culture reference. In other words, those authors did the work because it was their job.**
If you scan writing blogs and author loops for even a few moments, you'll stumble over roving packs of disgruntled neophyte authors outraged that their publishers and agents don't do more to promote them. This crew is perpetually exasperated that writers have to do all this other stuff besides writing. That kind of myopic grousing is a big cowbell around their necks that broadcasts that they are energy vampires and amateurs. They may mean well, they may even find some success, but not for lack of trying. Wasting energy to complain about the basics of one's job betrays a deep ignorance of the industry and basic professionalism.
For the record, authors have always had to promote their work and publishers have rarely done much to make that task easier. What gripers (mis)remember from the history of pop-lit is actually audience word-of-mouth. J.K. Rowling's fans created her success. V.C. Andrews', Stephen King's and Anne Rice's fans ditto. Publishers do occasionally give folks a leg up, much in the same way lighting sometimes strikes an umbrella. Collecting umbrellas and standing in the rain won't improve your odds by much.
Don't believe us? Consider blockbuster bombs like Catwoman and After Earth and their ilk. Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars to convince people to see overproduced bombs to no avail. Can crappy movies turn a profit? Sure, but the final arbiter of popular success is by definition the audience. And as Carol Burnett always said, "The audience is never wrong about what they like." You cannot convince people to be passionate about a book that left them cold.
People want guaranteed entertainment. Publishers tie themselves in knots trying to stack decks and minimize risk, but ultimately the only thing that can make a reader feel something is the book in their hand. Hype is the feeblest substitute for enthusiasm.
Successful authors inspire enthusiasm, delivering consistent bang for buck for their fans, their publishers, and their genres. Their books become "auto-buys" because they have connected with their audience in a meaningful way and continued to deliver exceptional entertainment.
Books are not physical objects. The printing, the binding, the shipping are all part of delivering a book to a reader but they are ancillary. A book is a collection of words crafted by one mind to entertain and educate another. One of the weird, fabulous facts about e-publishing is that with e-books, books have been reduced almost to their true state: a shared idea.
Unlike other industries, entertainment only sells intangibles. While printed books, burned DVDs, and electronic equipment provide media for the transmission of entertainment… they are not the product. Entertainment, by definition, provides a way to spend time which provides pleasure to the consumer. It sells software (ideas and images), not hardware (tools and toys), constantly monetizing enjoyable experiences, which are easily distributed but essentially subjective and intangible. Audiences pay to spend their time better. Popular entertainment distributes escapism and pleasurable certainty to wary consumers.
Because of this, entertainment is entirely in the business of commanding and maintaining attention from its audience. Artists actively seek and direct attention. We ask audiences to pay attention to us, with their money and time, with their recommendations and their reviews. We want to deserve their attention and to find the right kinds of attention.
Entertainment evolves. At the dawn of Hollywood, a film could become a success because it had sound or was shot in color. Today, the average ten year-old with access to Final Cut Pro can create a movie more sophisticated than anything possible during the twentieth century. Back in the novel's nineteenth-century glory days, a book could become a sensation by flirting with scandal or exploring taboo. Today, Amazon's virtual shelves sag under tentacle porn and incest sagas that barely merit an eye roll.
One of Damon's favorite books on business is Game Over by David Sheff, a history of the rise and fall of Nintendo as they took over the video game industry between the 1960s and the 1990s. The book is a dazzling snapshot of the business of entertainment, but moreover, it provides some real wisdom that applies directly to authors trying to compete in today's market. On the surface, Sheff's book covers the meteoric ascent of a playing card manufacturer which evolved into one of the premiere entertainment companies on Earth. Beneath the fascinating specifics, Sheff also lays out a persuasive argument for the shift of the global economy, from manufacturing economy, to service economy, to software/experience economy.
The publishing industry, and by extension anyone who produces entertainment content for an audience, produces software. We sell ideas. For all of modern history, books required printing, warehousing, and distribution but the advent of e-books and online vendors have stripped genre fiction down to its roots: shared ideas that reinvent existing narrative patterns.
The fiction market follows the same rules as every other market in the world. It obeys the same laws of economics, but making sense of it requires a grasp of the actual product being bought and sold. Sheff's observations about Nintendo apply perfectly to challenges of the modern genre fiction:
- The money is in the software. The real profits in the world are the sale and transfer of intellectual property: movies, games, books, apps, designs, brands. These items can be reproduced infinitely, require no storage or brick-and-mortar vendors, and command an audience limited only by your ability to create a market.
- Hardware is only a medium of transfer. Every game system has been sold at a loss, sometimes terrible. ALL of Microsoft's gaming systems were sold at prices far beneath their production costs because investing in them generated gigantic software profits. Pharmaceuticals are a great example: the real profit in drugs is the sale of chemical and biological research to an audience captive to varying degrees.
- Sell early and often. Hardware is a one-time purchase, but the inevitability of human boredom guarantees that consumers never stop hunting for something new and improved. Subscription and incremental purchase provide the most stable profits. Better to sell a thousand items for a dollar than one item for a thousand dollars. You'd rather create a thousand customers who can then buy more intellectual property from you.
The vestigial infrastructure of old-school publishing has already shuttered Borders and other companies. Back in 1994, Jeff Bezos looked crazy and B.Dalton and Waldenbooks were nationwide marketplace mainstays. Amazon leapt to the forefront of retail by:
- betting on the software (recommendations, ease of access, infinite shelf space, expanding products).
- eschewing the permanent costs of brick-mortar locations and taking a loss on its hardware (the Kindle, the used book marketplace).
- lowering prices and cultivating customer loyalty to encourage repeat business and respond quickly to market forces.
Amazon didn't just follow market forces; it has become a market force in its own right altering the way not just books but everything is sold. Don't believe us? Go visit your local B.Dalton or Waldenbooks and talk to them about their profit potential.
The Fall of the House of Publisher
Once upon a time, publishing was a pyramid.
Publishing of the twentieth century was not exactly a pyramid scheme, but it was definitely a kissing cousin. It wasn't a scam, but more of a calm acceptance that a great deal of published work would make no money and a few would make the kind of money which would hold up the publishing houses. Many, many people never were published at all, and of the few who received contrast, a great mass made up the base of the pyramid, never coming anywhere close enough to make enough money to live on. These books at the base also rarely even broke even. The cost to produce, edit, cover, distribute, and pay an author was never met. This is how the system of advances came about, and how agents appeared to negotiate them. It was considered as late as the 2000s to be a failed deal if one earned out one's advance-the agent should have asked for more money, if that happened. By the same token, of course, falling too short of earning out was also a failure and could result in no more contracts being offered.
Everything about twentieth-century publishing was about measured risk, and the players became very good at reading the tells of the authors, the audience, and the economy. Agents were the first gatekeeper, signing authors and nurturing works they knew editors would purchase. Editors purchased what they knew the house could market. Authors, via organizations, study of published work by a house, and connections with published authors and with agents or editors, learned to produce what the industry required.
We likely need another few decades before we can see a clear picture of what exactly went wrong, but there's no denying multiple factors are to blame for the cracking and slow crumbling of the publishing pyramid. The consolidation of publishing houses in the 1990s, while making a stronger, safer business model, killed a great deal of the creativity and breathing room for editors and authors, which meant more readers felt they were reading the same book over and over or not finding enough variety. More and more authors were trying to become published at the same time it became harder to cross the threshold.
Into this sea of discontent and corporate lockdown came the Internet. Digital publishers emerged, following the traditional model in only the skeletal sense. These publishers were the first explorers into the wild west of new publishing, setting up saloons and gaming halls where there were no laws, no rules, no conventions-and readers came to them in droves. Not the numbers New York knew, no. But they came enough to create a new model. The greatest success in these initial digital-only books were in erotic romance. Romance readers, always voracious and adventurous, were willing to download stories on their computers and read them that way. Some even printed them out themselves. Over the first decade of the century, more and more digital houses appeared, as did new ways to read the electronic books. The first readers were clunky, and loading them was awkward, but readers hungry for as much story as possible (as soon as they wanted it) took the plunge. Then Amazon appeared with its reader-friendly kindle and customer friendly website…and the great pyramid of New York took its biggest hit of all.
There was room, of course, for New York to absorb this new model, and in some ways now it has tried, but for a long time it resisted change and did its best to stop the sea-change, which is one of the biggest reasons their pyramid will never stand. It is no longer a behemoth of architecture but more of a fragmented wreck resembling more of a pine tree than a monolith. The reason for this is simple: New York lost its midlist.
The Extinction of the Midlist Author
The midlist is the group of authors in the center of the publishing pyramid, making anything from just enough money to live on to very nice but not exactly build-a-mansion level of income. These books did make money, and these authors rose out of that clunky, unprofitable base to become the sustaining force of the entire publishing game. But as a country/culture's economy is only as strong as its middle class, so is publishing-and since the dawn of the twenty-first century, the midlist has been in steep decline.
The greatest death-knell to the midlist as the support system of traditional publishing came not because of the great recession, however, because books actually did very well during that time. As electronic readers and flexible independent publishers rose in influence and Amazon and other online distributors facilitated their revolution, New York made their greatest plays to resist change. Instead of moving with the tide, they clamped down, and it was their midlist which suffered the most. Less money. Less support. Meanwhile, independent houses and self-publishing support systems promised them better support, more money. Not very much marketing, no-but New York wasn't offering that either, not anymore. There was less and less reason to stay in traditional publishing-and the best part was, authors didn't have to choose. They could get their feet wet in traditional publishing and then move into independent and make real money. The real money which, for one hundred years, was the only reason the publishing game worked at all.
The wide base of the publishing pyramid is still there, but it is not a sturdy foundation, more a vast field of rubble and rock. There is no gentle slope to an elegant point, but more a ragged, unsteady pillar which one more earthquake could take down. In fact, the great height of income has come down. The pyramid point is much lower and more difficult to climb to. The system of maintaining the industry is broken, and as humans are wont to do, the industry is more interested in attempting to prop up the dead past than properly focusing on how to move into the actual future.
Yet it is not the case that a new, healthy, functional system has risen up in its place. The Wild West is still going strong, but it is still lawless and confusing. Also, it is completely and utterly overrun. Because independent publishers and self-publishing schemes are new, they must complete their initial boom-and-bust phase before they settle down into whatever new normal they will be, and while there has been some bleeding off of dead weight, the great explosion that will get rid of the detritus has not yet occurred. It may also not happen in the same way the dot-com rise and fall happened either, nor any other economic evening-out. There are too many factors at play to know exactly what will happen.
The Defeat of the Gatekeepers
Unless the new system breaks in a meaningful way, the "easy money" lure of publishing one's own work will forever beckon and further saturate an already bloated market. Like running a small business, publishing a novel is a dream many people harbor, a fantasy which for most people is better left as an imagined rather than an attempted future. Even if the market could bear the weight of so many people living their dreams of running a coffee shop or publishing a novel, the truth is neither venture is as simple as hanging out a shingle or posting an e-book to Kindle Direct.
The Internet means more people have small businesses via eBay and Etsy, but few of those will ever turn a real profit, and most will fade away as quickly as they appeared. The same is already beginning to be true with books, and it will become more so over time. Yet the comparison with small businesses and novels falls apart, because most small businesses of the world are not run on the Internet, or anchor themselves with a brick-and-mortar store. The brick-and-mortar anchors for publishing are falling faster and faster every day, and we are all largely competing in the same online shops, whether we contracted out of New York or put our novel up on a dare. Add to this that the biggest online retailer is also a publisher twice over-Montlake, Amazon's in-house publication arm, and Kindle Direct, its self-publishing machine-and we have, essentially a mess.
For most of human history, entertainment, and by extension publishing, has operated from a "scarcity" model. A few experts create a few products that many people want to experience. High demand endows that entertainment with high value, allowing gatekeepers like publishers and vendors to make the rules by restricting access. From a position of scarcity, you gamble repeatedly with your best shot, minimize your risks, and hope you hit the jackpot. How can producers jigger the odds and appeal to the widest possible audience?
Since the explosion of digital film and e-publishing, modern entertainment has been overwhelmed by abundance. Anyone can get a book into the readers' hands in a wide range of formats from digital to paper. Search engines drive the market and indie publishers have sprung up in every kitchen and basement with a Wi-Fi connection. In an abundance system, getting things to market is the easy part but the churning ocean of choices threatens to capsize every project. How can customers sort through all the dross and find what they want?
The important takeaway? Everyone working in mass-market publishing at every level from authors to vendors grew up coping with scarcity. They believe every title needs to hook as many people as possible. The new self-pub and indie-pub systems operate from a position of abundance. Giant hits are a pleasant bonus, but risks and overhead can stay so much lower that the gates are thrown open; any viable project may not recoup for years and only will when it reaches its niche.
Whatever we might hate or love about the publishing industry of the twentieth century, the one thing that cannot be disputed is its power to filter. The dynamism unleashed by tearing down those gatekeepers has stopped being interesting and begun to suffocate the market. Had Amazon stayed out of publishing or Borders and Barnes & Noble been more nimble on their feet, things might have been different-but fate is a joker, and it's important to remember had events unfolded otherwise, the great unleashing of publishing might not have occurred.
The vacuum of power and chaos of choice cannot stand. Perhaps we never go back to the pyramid and the single arena of play, but eventually some kind of order and system must be achieved. Readers like choice, but not too much. Authors like freedom, but they love stability and paychecks. In 2012, scientist Kathleen D. Vohs completed a study which revealed that chaos provokes extreme creativity, but order elicits generosity and healthy choices.*** Human beings thrive in systems, and we must find one.
Unfortunately, as citizens of the genre fiction empire cannot elect a representative or have a big meeting to decide these new rules. We must wrestle our way to the new dawn of publishing, an industry which can sustain itself. It will, eventually, have gatekeepers again. Where and how and what they will be are utterly unknown.
This mess is the arena in which anyone attempting to publish a book must exist in. The rules of the game change by the hour. The game pieces morph in our hands. The field beneath our feet shifts, cracks apart, rises up, crumbles away. Publishing in this moment is not a place for dreamers and gentle souls. Publishing is more dangerous, unstable, and cutthroat than ever. It's an unforgiving, terrifying, utterly unstable game.
But it is also in a way it has never been before, wide-open. Anything could happen. Anything. And if you're willing to suit up and take the field, to take the knocks and weep into the dirt, some of that anything might be yours if you're willing to play.
*For ample evidence please see: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F. Brown, Jr. & John Wiley and Lovely Me The Life of Jacqueline Susann by Barbara Seaman