Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Year the Publishing Industry Committed Suicide—with a Little Help from Its Friends


Times have been tough for most of us lately. But the publishing industry seems to have chosen 2009 as the year to shoot itself in the foot. And the arm. And the leg….

First came reports that certain houses were cutting out Advance Readers Copies/Editions for all but all but a few lucky Chosen Ones. Publishers have always had a love-hate relationship with ARCs. On the one hand, they can be a good way to get a buzz going for a book. On the other hand, they’re expensive to produce and lately they have a nasty way of ending up on eBay, thus cutting into an author’s sales. So why not phase them out? Well, the main reason is because without ARCs, reviewers can’t review a book (most really don’t want to deal with PDF files). And without reviews, no one is going to know a book is out there. And if no one knows a book is out there, guys, how can you expect anyone to buy it?

Oh, look; our sales are tanking even worse!

So what did publishers do? They looked at their falling sales, got spooked, and came up with the bright idea to postpone the release of many their “big” books to the fall, by which time they assumed the economy would be better. It would have been bad enough if just one house had done this, but great minds—and not so great ones—tend to think alike. Result? Lots and lots of books—both “beach books” and literary fiction—that were supposed to come last summer were all dumped on the market this fall, along with all the “big” books that are normally released in the fall. As a result, more books were competing for fewer buyers, and everyone’s sales tanked. Clever, guys; very, very clever.

Then came the news that the grand dame of romance, Harlequin Mills and Boon, has decided to open up a vanity press division. Why is this an issue? Because writers’ organizations really, really hate vanity presses; they simply do not recognize them as legitimate publishing houses. So everyone from Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America to Science Fiction Writers of America and Fantasy Writers of America have reacted by announcing that any author whose book is published by Harlequin (that includes Mira, which has been trying to position itself as a big league publisher of mysteries and thrillers) is no longer eligible for any of those organizations’ awards. Ouch.

Obviously, the biggest impact of this decision will be felt by RWA. Harlequin’s sales make up something like fifty percent of all romance sales, and I suspect that Harlequin authors and those wanting to become Harlequin authors make up more than 50% of RWA’s members. The entrants to certain categories of the RITA come entirely from HM&B, and HM&B contributes heftily to RWA’s national convention every year. Basically, HM&B and the writers’ organizations are in a pissing contest. Who will win? I don’t know. But all I gotta say is: Great timing, guys!

And then Walmart decided they wanted to corner the market for online book orders. How? By selling the top ten bestselling hardcovers at a huge loss, for $9. In order to complete, matched’s prices, followed by Kmart. So readers now have a choice between paying $9 for a bestseller or $25 for a midlist author. Way to slaughter the midlist, guys—along with any remaining bricks-and-mortar bookstores. The most famous beneficiary of this scheme was probably Sarah Palin, whose $30 book was selling for less than a third its cover price…and don’t get me started on the millions Harper Collins is spending to hire a $4000/hour private jet for a month to ferry this “author” and her 15-plus entourage on the book tour to end all book tours. Literally.

It just keeps getting worse. Across the country, more and more hard-pressed newspapers have been eliminating their book sections and book reviews, making it harder and harder for authors to get their books reviewed anywhere except online. In September, Publishers Weekly announced that they would now only review one mass market original per house a month. And then, today, comes the news that Nielsen Business Media has “made the decision to cease operations” at Kirkus Reviews (as well as Editor & Publisher.)

For those of you not familiar with Kirkus, it was perhaps the most respected forum for book reviews, largely because they were tough. As Ron Charles at the Washington Post Book World tweeted, "Worst news in a long time: Kirkus shutting down. For me, they were the last reliable source of negative reviews." In other words, if a book got a good review from Kirkus, it meant something. Now, that’s gone.

So just how bad are things in the publishing industry? According to insiders, the sales of virtually all NYT bestselling authors—across the board--are down between 15-30%. Once, if an author’s sales were staying flat, it was considered the kiss of death for his career. Now, with most people’s sales tanking, if a writer’s sales are staying flat, that’s good.

Or as they say in New York these days, "Flat is the new up."


Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, I knew about a couple of these things but not all. Maybe ignorence is bliss. The future doesn't look so bright. I guess I can take off my shades.

Anonymous said...

yes. thank you for this thoughts )

orannia said...

YIKES! Thank you Candy - I didn't most of this... Is it just me or are publishers blindly reacting instead of thinking proactively?

cs harris said...

Charles, I could have kept going but I was depressing myself and running on way too long.

Anon at 9:34, it's a sorry tale, all right.

Orannia, I've often thought they really don't understand their own business.

Lainey said...

Bleak, grim, depressing.
These developments effectively kill opportunities for the new authors I'm always looking for and make it very difficult for the midlist authors I'm already following.

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...


Yeah. What she said.

cs harris said...

Lainey, you've nailed the worst aspect of all this: the ones who pay are the new and midlist authors. The past twenty years have seen an increasing tendency to concentrate more and more shelf space and advertising on a few "name" authors--most of whom I have no interest in reading.

Barbara, I keep looking for the silver lining. Haven't spotted it yet.

Steve Malley said...

I remember a time when comics was in a similar bind-- a couple of times, actually. Being a smaller industry (just two big houses and a couple of medium ones, and one single distributor-- yup, just one), the effects of greed and stupidity are greatly amplified.

Things changed, but things went on.

I guess the silver lining, such as it is, lies in the space created for new opportunities. What they'll be I don't know. Whether *any* of today's major houses will be around to enjoy them, I again don't know.

People love a good story, and the novel is a powerful art form. It may end up as ubiquitous as video games or as small and dedicated as opera, but I do believe these growing pains will pass...

Lainey said...

The NYT "name" authors have run out of steam. No creativity left, no more fire in the belly to tell a story. I've also given up on some RWA mainstays.

We'll soon find out if the Wireless Reader Devices can save the day. Would love to see a resurgence of small, independent bookstores if all the big brick-and-mortar chains disappear.

Kate S said...

Now I'm thoroughly depressed.

cs harris said...

Steve, we are definitely in the throes of change. My worry is that all forms of entertainment--moves, books, TV, seem to be trending toward an increasing emphasis on the blockbuster.

Lainey, I think too many big authors learn that they make the same amount of money no matter the quality of the product. Somewhere along the way they lose the love of writing that motivated them in the first place.

Kate S, sorry!

Joanne said...

that's an interesting thought - the trend toward blockbuster. i wonder if it's because there's such a lack of shared experiences these days.