Publishing's crises (incompletely) explained

Boris Kachka's long feature on NY publishing's crisis in New York Magazine is a sad but important read. But Kachka puts a lot of emphasis on greed and foolishness and media and bookstore consolidation, while ignoring the largest contraction in book-sales since the heyday: sales through non-bookstore venues like Wal-Mart and the local grocery store.

Historically, these outlets have sold more books than bookstores, and were a vital induction system that coaxed people who didn't (yet) love books into the bookstores. When these chains went national, they demanded national distributors to stock them from coast-to-coast. The result: a huge shift in the way these shelves are stocked: once stocked by local distributors who chose from a very wide range of titles and hand-picked the right books for each little grocery store and pharmacy, now they are supplied by a national database totalling somewhere around 100 titles. The consolidated distributors demand gigantic discounts from publishers -- and even so, they go bankrupt with dismal regularity, often with FBI arrests of top execs for corruption.

So yes, there was a lot of foolishness in book-publishing, yes, some writers got stupid advances, yes, mergers and acquisitions have left many publishers without a coherent vision or command structure. But when 51 percent of your sales disappears and is replaced by a lottery system where a couple dozen titles get nationwide distribution to non-bookstore customers and everything else is pushed into a ditch, surely that must count for something.

The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Of course, back in the boom nineties, the corporations themselves were pumping up the expectations of midlist writers. Consider Dale Peck. His first novel, Martin and John, came out in 1993 to excellent reviews, and by his third book, in 1998, he was, by his own account, wildly overpaid. Books, he says, “were like Internet stocks, getting enormous advances without demonstrating any moneymaking whatsoever.” Having rarely sold more than 10,000 copies, he took up with superagent Andrew Wylie, developed a reputation for being a “diva,” and pretty soon couldn’t sell a book to save his life. Until he started specializing in genre fiction–first children’s books, then horror. Last year, Peck sold Body Surfing, a thriller about demons exiting people through sexual release. He’s now splitting $3 million with Heroes writer Tim Kring to produce a trilogy of conspiracy thrillers.

Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. “When you get $100,000 for a novel,” he says, “you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

The End (single-page view, may expire), The End (obnoxiously split into nine separate pages) (via Beyond the Beyond)



  1. Ah yes, the modern beatnik must be able to at least afford his $2500 a month apartment. Haven’t you thought of that?!

  2. So, what I get from this is…
    Genre is not only more enjoyable than literary fiction, but also more profitable.

  3. Pour me another one of those hemlock fizzes, would you, honey? I feel a headache coming on.

    This long, detailed article pairs well with the 5-part “Publisher Imprint Report Card” at Sarah Weinman’s blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

    They are non-sequential:
    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4
    Part 5

    A gaping blind spot in both of these visions of the future of publishing is Cory’s publish-for the Web-and-prosper model. I would be interested in what each of these NY publishing insiders thinks of it. If they do.

  4. I noticed it’s impossible to get a comic book (IRL) without going to an Android’s Dungeon. I think that’s why Marvel/DC are so movie happy is that more people are more likely to go pick up a movie for the kids at walmart.

  5. Pretty much the same thing happened to the comic book industry. I, along with most of my fiends, first bought and fell in love with comic books in my local convenience stores. But then things changed, Diamond struck exclusive distribution deals with the big publishers and the industry shifted. Now monthly (non-trade paper back) comics are pretty much found only at comic shops and the industry insiders are decrying the lack of young readers. Kids can ride their bikes to the local 7-11 a whole lot easier than to the nearest comic shop. It’s an access issue that the industries are using to strangle themselves.

  6. Re:#1: That’s an excellent point, Barnaby. Although you were being facetious, another economic shift has hit all the writers I know– you’ve got to work full time just to get by. Unless you’ve got family underwriting, which is sweet but no guarantee of talent, there’s no way in the modern economy you can get by on part-time.

    Youngsters don’t have to worry about this too much, but making a career as a writer can mean many, many years of low or unpaid work before the book deal comes along, if ever it does (and even then, good luck living off a modern advance). Ancillary costs rise as you age– a twenty year old can get by without health insurance, but a thirty year old is getting onto thin ice, and a forty year old is stupid not to have it, and this goes double if you’ve got a spouse or a kid.

    Talking to older writers who’ve made the leap to a full-time career or academia, I often feel quite vexed. They’ll talk about struggling along on a part-time job at the diner, living in a hovel and spending all their spare time at work. But housing, food and transportation costs are really up– and wages are really, really down. This is made worse if you’re looking to live somewhere, like a big city, where you might possibly find a market for your work.

    Thus, if you are a writer who wants time to develop your skills or your career, you must work full time; the Wallace Stevens model of authorship.

    All this happens on top of the market forces on the book industry that the New York magazine article depicted, plus the evaporation of the grocery store market that Cory spoke of in his post: basically the American literary market moving to the Hollywood blockbuster model. This undercuts the payments that authors get, if and when they get signed for a book.

    One way of cutting the Gordian knot is to get your MFA and teach. Colleges still offer benefits, and job security if you make tenure, but not every good writer is a good teacher, and not every writer’s work survives the brutality of the writing workshop. The result has been a flood of MFA-esque literature onto the market. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “academic” isn’t what we usually associate with great literature.

    If we want American literature to remain great, we need to move publishing back to a “many small gambles” model, and re-establish a social safety net that’s been shredded almost past repair.

  7. That’s an excellent point – and while the power of Wal-Mart and Costco have been mentioned before, I’ve never seen anyone explain exactly why it’s a problem. Thanks.

  8. In the entire article, not once did they mention the customer. Who are they putting out the books for? What do they want to read? Where do they want to buy them?

    The readers are obviously not interested in the junk the publishers WANT to put out. Most chain book outlets, such as Wall Mart, Drug stores and airport ‘news’ stands have about 20 to 50 titles TOTAL in stock.

    The NY publishing world is totally out of touch with reality.

  9. This is exactly why I get annoyed with the course work in my MFA program. You get the professors who want you to read a lot of ‘art is dead’ theory (as in, ‘don’t publish because no one wants to see it,’) or you get the ‘genre is a dirty word’ professors. The false inflation of the market for literary fiction produced by MFAers for more MFAers creates the sense that MFa programs ought not be responsive to trends in writing. I disintguish the MFA inflationary market from the rest of the literary fiction market for the simple reason that the rest of the world and a lot of the MFA students wouldn’t buy these books without an authority figure standing over them forcing them to read the books.

    It troubles me because I do like good literary fiction, and I read a lot of genre that would have benefitted from the sort of classic principles of writing that are taught in MFA programs, but you cannot use anything which might be confused with genre in the workshop process, and there are times when I’ve had to read works in my classes that would, in any other market, have been punished for the elements missing from them (and in a thoroughly uninteresting kind of way; less on purpose than because the author was too darn cool to bother.) I don’t want to homogenize lit fiction and genre fiction, but there is a troubling (for me) discrepancy between good fiction (fiction that is interesting and troubling and well-written and intelligent) and fiction that has not been as carefully polished or is more or less unaware of audience (which goes for both MFA market literature and genre fiction.)

    Moreover, as someone who is going to have to sell some serious copy to get a job, I want training in vulgar things like genre for the simple fact that I’d like to be able to pay back my student loans. (I want to leeeeeeive!) I realize this makes me a terrible person and a lousy artist, but there you have it. I need a job.

  10. Has the publishing world ever been in touch with reality? Has Wall Street, Congress, Big Oil, the IT industry, the art world or anyone else? You could say that as a general complaint about almost anything.

    Besides, of course the fiction publishing world is out of touch with reality….its their bread and butter. It’s the nature of fiction…..I’d be dissappointed if they WERE in touch. :)

  11. Here is how you calculate an appropriate advance:

    Use market data (Bookscan, author’s previous sales, sales of comparable books, your house’s track record with similar books) to project sales of the book under consideration.

    Multiply that number by the price.

    Multiply that number by the book’s royalty rate.

    The result is the earned royalty.

    If this was for a hardcover book you plan on putting out as a paperback later, do the same for the latter. Add the earned royalties.

    Finally, if you expect to make some subrights sales (translation rights, serials, book club, etc.), add the author’s percentage of this income.

    The total is the appropriate advance for the book because that’s what it will be earning the author. Paying anything much more than this number, is pure folly.

    The trouble is, too many editors/publishers want to pay grandiose advances to show they can, thus attracting more agents and bolstering their own egos.

  12. BBEN46@12

    I was wondering the same thing… I feel bad publishers and bookstores and writers are having a hard time… but I wonder if more attention paid to the consumer might help the struggling industry. First of all, are there any readers out there like me that think a hardcover book price is just too steep? They are like 25 bucks! I hate it when I read a scintillating review in the NYTimes (nearly every day) and then think, oh, well, hopefully I’ll remember to look for that in paperback. And even then, you are still paying around 15 bucks a book. It’s too expensive.

    I’d also buy more books if I knew better what would fit my taste. I’d actually appreciate some directed marketing to help steer me to my next great read. I love rating the books I read on GoodReads, but there is no feature there that says, based on your reviews of these books we think you will like this. If I knew it was something I’d really enjoy, I’d be more willing to pay the price.

  13. I wonder about writers who live in $2500/month apartments when their novel writing is their only source of income. I’m sure that the computer works just as well in a city where the rent is $700/month. John Scalzi lives in rural Ohio partly for this reason. If the publishers in New York City need you to physically visit them, there’s this wonderful new invention called the aeroplane.

  14. Re: #19– Jardine, Scalzi went to U. of Chicago and studied under Saul Bellow. That’s a very serious hookup for a young writer, and while I doubt Saul was the one who pitched Old Man’s War to Tor, running in that circle is nothing to sneeze at, and it represents a very significant investment of money. Writers laboring in obscurity can produce great work, but will never make a living at it– you’ve got to go to places where other writers, publishers and influential people gather, and that’s not rural Ohio. Once you know the right people, you can move where you like.

  15. I used to buy my comic books at the local grocery store. That’s not possible anymore, even with the bookstore-inside-the-grocery store model.

    If eBooks insist on the same DRM protections as media content, then eBooks will suffer the same fate. eBooks aren’t the answer to a broken business model. There are better ways to figure out what people will want at the neighborhood bookstores, but the Wall-Mart model isn’t it.

    The transition to “open textbooks” is already starting to happen with college textbooks, but for the reason of them being overpriced. The publishers stopped adding value, and once you realize you can implement a peer-review system over the internet, there’s not much reason to keep the old system any more.

    The future may either be ad-supported, or belong to subscriptions (for digital works), but you can only afford a limited number of those.

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