Monday, 25 June 2012

The Book Report: Thoughts On The Book Biz

If you want to find a business that is sometimes even more dysfunctional than Hollywood you need not look any further than publishing. A classic story about how the book business is run involves Stephen King going to meet his editor in New York. 
At the time King had exploded onto pop culture and was the #1 selling author in the world, literally moving millions of units in both hardcover and paperback, and was literally at least half of his publisher's profit margin. However, when he got to the publisher's office, literally no one outside of his editor had a clue who he was.

That's the equivalent of the people running Universal not knowing the identity of Stephen Spielberg while E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial ran rampant at the box office.

It happened because King, while commercially successful, was not a "darling" of the narrowly confined New York literary/critical social circle, and was to the people running the company at that time, just a name on a financial ledger that they didn't pay any attention to. King moved onto another publisher as soon as he could, and the publisher that ignored him suddenly had to pay attention to a massive dip in their ledgers.

Now that you know how the industry treated the biggest selling author in the world at the time, you can imagine how they treat new authors. From my own experience in dealing with agents and publishers I've dealt with a few egregiously unprofessional people who treat new authors with mind-boggling contempt, while the majority try to do their best, they are more often than not shackled by things beyond their control.

Now while the contemptuous unprofessional people are a taint on the industry, I can understand why the majority of agents and publishers are wary of signing new authors. 
New writers are extremely risky. 
The majority of the manuscripts that agents represent are rejected by publishers, and that means that their time, effort, and even money, is wasted with nothing to show for it.

And for publishers, they have author advances, editorial, marketing, printing, distribution costs, and general company overhead to deal with. For every J.K. Rowling that become global phenomena that sell in the tens of millions there are hundreds, if not thousands of titles whose greatest achievement is the amount of dust they gather on bookstore shelves.

So you get publishers and agents chasing fads, pissing away millions on book deals for "celebrities" that usually fail to earn back their advance, and stick with a small number of "elite" authors, even though their sales tend to go down over time while their advances go up.
But the rub lies in the fact that some of the biggest publishing phenoms haven't been of the past decade haven't been the literary lions, or the celebrity tell-all, but complete unknowns exploding onto the scene from out of nowhere, selling of millions of copies, and sparking legions of imitators.

So you have an industry that needs new writers to provide the new blood and new ideas that win readers, but the risks in finding these new writers is just too much for some agents and publishers to bear.

But things are not all hopelessness.

There is a way for publishers to find new writers, and agents to find new clients, and it's through the e-book.

The e-book doesn't have the heavy manufacturing and distribution costs hanging over it like printed books. Infinite copies can be shipped via the inter-webs anywhere in the world at a cost per copy that are too tiny to calculate.

Some publishers are starting e-book imprints that specialize in short fiction and/or novellas in different genres. Some are even opening the door for new writers, which is a position I applaud. It allows them to get to know the work and style of new writers, and hopefully find the next Stephen King or JK Rowling in an environment that has relatively low risk and the potential for high reward.

Now if only we can get them to stop wasting money on overpriced celebrity book deals they might start making sense.

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