Publishing . . . Huh?

by wjw on May 10, 2008

So this acquaintance of mine, who works for a Government Agency That Shall Not Be Named, was sent to a business seminar. Government departments are all about getting leaner and meaner these days, so Joe (as we shall call him) was sent off to learn about efficiency and just-in-time inventory and, in general, the Tao of Toyota.

As part of the course, Joe was asked to flow-chart a particular business. Since Joe knew a writer, he created a flow chart of the publishing business. He presented it to the class and to his instructors.

And the reaction was, basically, “Huh . . . ?”

The first thing asked was, “Who is the writer’s client, exactly?”

Which is a hard one to answer. Because the author’s ultimate client is the reading public, but the actual client, the one who forks over the money, is the editor.

“So who is the editor responsible to?”

Another hard one to answer. Because the editor is responsible to the publisher, or to the publisher’s stand-in, in the forms of various committees to which the editor is expected to present her plans. But power is also held by the sales force— I wish I had ten thousand dollars, or even ten, for every time I’ve heard an editor say, “I can’t sell this proposal . . . the sales force won’t understand it.”

(Once— exactly once— I heard of an editor who told his sales chief, “Your job is to sell the fucking books that I tell you to fucking sell, and if you don’t fucking sell them, you’re out of a fucking job!” And that editor was John Jarrold, who is English, and maybe they do things differently over there.)

So Joe presented his flow-chart of publishing, with the editor, and the committees, and the sales force, and the art department.

“Who is the art department responsible to?”

Well, very often, they’re responsible to no one. The art department is often a separate fiefdom within the publisher, and they put whatever art they like on a cover, or no art at all, and if the editor and writer don’t like it, they can lump it.

And then there’s the copy-editor— who is freelance, essentially in a fiefdom all his own— and even worse, the distributors.

“Who are the distributors responsible to?”

Well, no one. They buy whatever the hell books they want, based on whatever pitch the sales person gives them plus the computer figures for the writer’s last set of sales, and if they don’t sell the books, they can ship them back to the publisher for a full refund. Or even destroy them, and still get a full refund. They get all the privileges of being a middleman, and none of the risk. None. Zero.

One of the things they teach you at Toyota Camp is that for every step in the process in which something can go wrong— for every committee, or editor, or art director, or copy-editor, or distributor— that stands between the writer and the reading public, the odds of something going totally, hideously, horribly pear-shaped somewhere in the process does not increase arithmatically, but geometrically.

So if there are, say, seven potential roadblocks between the author and the reader, the effective number of roadblocks aren’t seven, but forty-nine. Because friction begets more friction, basically.

(I have to say, as a personal note, that this theory explains the fate of my last seven novels rather well.)

The people at the seminar threw up their hands.

“We don’t see how this business can possibly make money!”

And, of course, most books don’t make money— of if they do, they barely break even. For every huge mega-zillion best-seller, there are ten thousand books that are quietly flushed down the toilet of doom, along with the careers of their authors.

So why doesn’t the industry concentrate on huge mega-zillion bestsellers? Well, they do— that’s why publishers’ ads in, say, the New York Times literary supplement are mostly for authors who are so fabulously popular that they don’t actually need the ads to sell their books. That’s why publishers are shedding their mid-list authors (authors like me, only less lucky) left and right.

But even as mega-zillion bestsellers go, the publishers’ record truly sucks. For every Da Vinci Code, which was turned into a megaseller through clever marketing, there are ten, or fifteen, or a hundred for which a lot of marketing dollars were spent only to produce disappointing sales. And for every Da Vinci Code, there’s a Lovely Bones that became a huge seller through word of mouth— or word of Oprah, or word of book clubs, or (most likely) word of Internet.

I once saw an article in which the books that publishers thought would become bestsellers (based on their marketing push) were compared with a list of actual bestsellers, and the lists were very, very different.

Bestselling authors mostly just sort of happen. It’s sort of like throwing a bunch of books out of a tenth-storey window and hoping that one of them lands in a pot of gold.

So once you get a bestselling author— however you get him— you want to keep him, so you pay him more and more and hope his books earn it all back, eventually, and then some. Which is a strategy that sometimes works, or at any rate works often enough to keep publishers in business.

I won’t go into how the folks at Toyota Camp assumed that writers all have personal assistants to do things like answer email, run manuscripts to the post office, arrange signings, keep the web page up to date, make coffee, keep the office tidy, furnish the author with healthful snacks, and so on. They were astonished that authors, unless they are very successful indeed, have to do this all themselves— or not, as is often the case.

This explains author’s burnout, by the way. Most authors in the SF genre have a writing life of about ten years, after which they do something more rational with their lives, like get a job teaching writing in a Midwest liberal arts school. (Oh yeah, there’s a job with a future!)

So, to conclude, how do we apply the Tao of Toyota to publishing? Obviously, we need to reduce the number of roadblocks between the author and the reading public. An obvious way to do this is to make the books available electronically— reader pays a few bucks for a download, author’s bank account goes ching!, reader and author are happy. Except that this doesn’t seem to actually work— even Stephen King couldn’t make a go out of directly selling his work on the Internet.

I don’t have an answer, so I’m going to leave it to you.

I’m going to be out of town for a week. It’s hard to say whether or not I’ll be on the Internet or not during that time.

So during my absence I leave you with this challenge.

Publishing is broke. Come up with some ideas to fix it.

Thank you.

Thai May 11, 2008 at 1:46 am

You describe a classic fractal business. Have you ever read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness or The Black Swan? Or perhaps Benoit Mandelbrot’s The Misbehavior of Markets?

(FYI– my hobby is financial reading (I read quite a bit on finance) even though I do not actually invest at all myself. I know it’s odd– but hey we all have hobbies that make no sense at all).

Anyway, in the world of fractal analysis of investing, the publishing industry is often used as the classic example of fractal risk-reward characteristics. And by the way, fractal investment characteristics are terrible investments.

As a SF author (whom I have still yet to read, except for your blog) you probably know WAY more about fractals then I do. But in case you don’t, or in case you do but have not thought about how fractals describe the world of investing/economics/careers/etc…, you might search the internet/read up a little on them (any of the above books are great- though Mandelbrot’s is specifically about fractals) and we can chat a little more on the issue if you want.

… Now that I think on this, I remember seeing a review of a book by a popular business author named Chris Anderson titled The Long Tail. I think the book is intended for people like you who are trying to make a living in a classically fractal industry. I can’t recommend it however as I never read it and I don;t remember the review anymore.

dubjay May 11, 2008 at 4:23 am

I’m familiar with fractals, and the long tail, and somewhat with economics, but fractal economics is a new one for me.

I’m not surprised that the metaphor has wandered out of physics into the dismal science.

The problem with the long tail is that I think I =already= sell more than those long tail guys. My problem is getting up out of the middle ranks before the midlist completely breaks off and sinks.

Dave Bishop May 11, 2008 at 8:30 am

I’m not convinced that the business of Publishing can be fixed by business ‘gurus’. I have long suspected that business ‘gurus’ are at the roots of a lot of problems in the Western world – they are the CAUSE of many of the problems, and have few viable solutions available (just important sounding ‘gobbledegook’).

Thai May 11, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Dubjay, the thing about fractals and fat tails (what Anderson calls Long Tails) is that risk is ‘infintitely scalable’. Translated: improving an author’s circulation from 1000 people/year to 2000 people/year is just as hard and or unlikely as improving it from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 people/year.

Dave, my apologies, I may have misunderstood Dubjay, I thought his question was more related to how to make a living in such an environment. He even suggested teaching. Becoming a successful author and making a living are two completely different things in my mind. Highly fractal businesses are the ultimate example of ‘totally random luck’. No one can predict ever in fractal businesses with much certainty, it is just a mathematical fact. So ‘fixing’ a business is impossible.

So I would never suggest a book on ‘how to do’ or ‘what to do’ for your specific industy of publishing (I know nothing about it), I thought the book was more general as to how one looks at ‘structure’ or theory’ of industries that operate under fat tail probabilities-fractal structures to make a living. If it is not, my apologies.

PAolo May 11, 2008 at 11:05 pm

One of the common misconceptions in economy, is people thinking that they have some sort of ancestral right to make money in the same way that their predecessors did. This explains a lot of history, from the Luddite revolt to the music industry seppuku in the era of the Internet.

Leaving aside what is “right” or “good”, transformations in the mode of production generally make change inevitable. Let’s look at it from an historical point of view: the Stephen King mentioned by Williams is an historical anomaly. In fact, every rich writer is. This mode of production of authors (in the sense that “authors” are as much of a “product” as their books) is a very recent phenomenon. We had wildly popular authors for the last two hundred years or so: a very small fraction of human history. The same is true of other forms of art, like music or painting. Michelangelo did not produce 3×3 colored copies of the Sistine Chapel fresco and Mozart had to be supported by rich people. Yet their works are definitely more memorable than many current commercial artists.

The book industry in the modern sense goes hand in hand with the concept of copyright, and Mr Dickens wanting to be paid for his books being republished in the US. Again, I’m not saying this is “wrong”: just that times are changing. For the largest part of history, stories were told, and quite successfully. Poems and novels were written by people who held other jobs, or were sponsored by the equivalent of charity (given ancient economic systems, this usually meant a really rich guy, lest often a really rich woman). Even more than that: the exclusive idea of intellectual property was so alien, that entire sagas flourished with multiple authors and common characters. Think about the Iliad and the Odyssey, and all the lost sagas of the return of the heroes home. Or the traditional character of the Chanson de Roland, taken over by Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and why not, Virginia Woolf, together with millions of marionette representations throughout the piazzas of Southern Italy for centuries (the Pupi tradition).

Guess what: all this is back: it’s called fanfic. It’s some anonymous writer in China writing a Harry Potter novel, it’s in the tired recycling of old characters and stories we see in Hollywood production. It’s back in the fact that anyone of us can instantly be a “writer” by “publishing” something to the world wide web.

To me this means one very simple thing: the system not only is broken, but it’s unfixable. Yes, we love it, we dreamed of it growing up. But it was just a “bleep” in history. As soon as digital publication is popularized beyond the still restricted club of the internet (that is, as soon as it moves completely off the exclusive domain of the personal computer) the market will be flooded with free reading stuff. The same happened with music. Why do we see all these old glories touring around, well in their retirement age? They are part of a historical cohort when fame without limits was possible. We won’t see today’s hot bands doing that in 40 years, they will be long gone and forgotten and replaced by the kids of they day and their all-in-one myspace-equivalent page/label/publisher/shop.

Publishing houses, art departments, they belong to the age of the dinosaurs. Yes people will still become famous, still make money, especially with strong promotion behind. Ultimately it will be a much more level field, but it will also be harder, as we are competing against many many more writers. But if we really love doing this, we’ll still be doing it anyway, and it will always be worthwhile.

Thai May 12, 2008 at 1:46 am

Dubjay, if you read into paolo’s posting, you will see the fractal structure of what he is saying (whether he sees it himself or not I am unsure)

What he is ‘prophesizing’ is ‘the fat tail’

S.M. Stirling May 14, 2008 at 4:54 am

Paolo: in summation — that’s complete horseshit.

The publishing industry does one thing that’s crucially important and which cannot be done by anyone else: it filters.

It filters out the drek. You think the stuff that gets published is bad?

You should see the stuff that pours into the publisher’s offices. Hundreds of thousands of really, really awful novels.

Lots and lots and lots of people think they can write. They can’t. They never will be able to write. They don’t have the potential, just as I don’t have the potential to be a basketball star.

Bad as many of them are, the books that end up on the stands are on average almost infinitely better than the ones that don’t.

You pay the publisher to filter out the garbage for you, because nobody would have the time to do it on their own.

There’s just too much of it; it needs (badly) paid professionals who have been trained in the institutional culture of publishing and embody its institutional memory.

This is what the industry does rather well. Everything that it does badly is linked to shoving physical books around. Fostering and finding the -content- is done very efficiently.

Next, creators need to be paid or they won’t create.

Try reading fanfic.

Nobody but obsessives does, and the reason is… as above… it’s almost uniformly awful _as writing_.

Writing fiction takes time and effort. It’s _work_, and even at the most elementary level it’s highly skilled work.

Writing a novel takes most of a year — and that’s for the unusually prolific. George R.R. Martin takes four or five years to write a novel.

That’s four or five years of _continuous effort_, working far harder than most 9-to-5 types, and more hours per day, too.

It’s not something you can really do in your spare time, unless you want most writers to stop doing it and the remainder to suffer a drop in productivity of something like 15x.

You don’t pay for work, you don’t get the results. It’s as simple as that. What you get for nothing is generally worth exactly that.

The only cost that digital distribution can eliminate is the cost of cutting down trees and putting print on them and shipping the pulp around.

That’s about half the total. The rest pays for the services of the author, and then editors and the copyeditors and the rest.

No tickee, no washee, as the man at the laundry said.

It’s “no accident” that scientific/technological progress (and large quantities of worthwhile fiction) are both closely linked to the rise of effective patent and copyright law. Before then, both happened seldom and essentially by accident.

Elementary captialism 101.

In point of fact, most digitally distributed music is now paid for. P2P is a minor subset.

Books will be too; the Kindle is probably the way things will go, although eventually everything will be done with the same piece of hardware.

S.M. Stirling May 14, 2008 at 5:02 am

The thing to remember about books is that they are not mass-produced goods.

The physical repositories of the text are mass-produced, and can be copied.

But the “book itself” — the arrangement of words — is a one-off handicraft item, produced by a single worker from start to finish.

It can’t be mechanized or significantly speeded up and technology makes little difference to the actual writing process; I know people who write their manuscripts in longhand, and they’re just as fast as people who do it on computer.

A good deal of the problems of the publishing industry are due to the fact that MBA types just cannot accept this — in fact, with a lot of them it never occurs to them that books are not a product like soap powder or shoes.

In turn, this is due to the spread of a management model that assumes all businesses can be managed alike.

That’s true for many; not true for publishing fiction.

Foxessa May 14, 2008 at 5:43 pm

[ So once you get a bestselling author— however you get him— you want to keep him, so you pay him more and more and hope his books earn it all back, eventually, and then some. ]

Well, not necessarily. The publishers who are actually doing a bit better than breaking even on the actual sale of their books to readers, as opposed to all the other ways of merchandising that may come out of a book like television series sales and so on, do have ceilings on what they will pay as an advance and break point percentages and so on, even to their best sellers.

Which explains the seemingly puzzling jumps to another publisher by a best selling writer like, o, for example, Jacqueline Carey.

Love, C.

Steve Bodio May 15, 2008 at 10:44 pm

The best explanation of the publishing “business” I have seen yet– sending it to my agent and linking it on my blog.

Steve Stirling’s comment that a book is NOT a mass- produced object is right on the mark too. Business managers who cannot understand this are very much part of the problem.

And I write my first drafts longhand BTW.

dubjay May 19, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Steve Bodio! Wow! Whatchoo been doing these last fifteen years, bro?

Steve Bodio May 20, 2008 at 5:04 pm

I have been writing more than I have published, but having some fun– going to Central Asia (Mongolia, Kazakhstan) and doing things like flying eagles there and bringing back dogs. My last book (Eagle Dreams) is about Mongolia; my next, after another trip, will be about Kazakhstan among other things.

I also have a blog, Stephen Bodio’s Querencia, with a couple of friends– who have been posting more than I have recently because I am in the throes of writing sample chapters for the new book.

Email is ebodio at gilanet dot com.

Thai June 2, 2008 at 1:02 am

I saw this and was suddenly reminded of this post- enjoy!

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