Sunday, December 18, 2005

The word you're looking for is _farkakt._

As much as anyone, I think publishing is a desperately inefficient system, most probably because it is often not nearly a profitable-enough system wherein publishers can invest in the kind of training and systems required to make it more efficient. After all, I’d like to think that it’s inefficiency that causes two divisions of a major publisher to constantly commit breaches of contract on issues like cover copy approval and cover consultation, and not arrogance (“What are they gonna do? Sue?”) or incompetence. Or that causes the subsidiary rights department of a major toy/publishing company to note in its records that the royalty statement wasn’t received from the Spanish publisher, but then not go ask the Spanish publisher where it is.

As a good friend of mine, another literary agent who has withdrawn from the business, once said, “the problem with publishing is that it’s not really scalable.” You can’t really mass-produce anything in publishing. I can invent the Mach 3 Razor once and sell the same design for ten years. But you can’t do that in publishing. Every single book is its own product. Every single book requires its own special treatment. Gilette can spend a billion dollars designing one razor, then sell it year, after year. Publishing creates hundreds (thousands?) of new products every month and each one needs its own marketing and promotion. Not an easy task.

Publishing, it occurs to me, is like teaching schoolchildren, and it’s about as defective as the educational system. Every book has its own special needs, its own parent(s), its own success or failure. Sure you can put thirty kids in the same room and try to teach them the same thing. Or you can put publish thirty books in the same month and try to get the same performance out of each one. You will succeed in neither case. The closest the publishing industry has come is genre romance and genre westerns, but in a country of 260 million, we’re talking about net sales of perhaps 10,000 books per month in certain romance or western slots. This is not “mass” publishing. It’s micro-publishing. I suspect if you took a class of Harvard MBA students and asked them to evaluate the trade publishing industry, they’d say it’s a terrible idea. The economies of scale suck. The overhead is too high. The royalty structure too generous. Academic and professional publishing are a little better. Authors get paid royalties on net income; schools use the same textbooks year after year, thus ensuring continuing sales, if not expanding markets. But the razor business it ain’t.

According to Publishers Marketplace, Random House CEO Peter Olson, in his year-end letter, said, “our lowest-ever overall return percentage rate.” (Spokesman Stuart Applebaum says they aren’t ready to announce the returns number, but says “We're beyond the Holy Grail of under 30 percent.”) Wow! That means that only thirty of every one hundred books shipped was returned to the publisher. If you were selling cars and thirty of every one hundred was sent back, how quickly would you go out of business? If you were selling coats and thirty of every one hundred came back, would you still do business with that designer? And yet that the fact that only thirty of every one hundred books is being returned to Random House is being trumpeted as a success on the order of finding the Holy Grail. Does that make sense?

My grandfather, a drygoods peddler who started working around the age of fifteen and stopped, well, the day he died, had a word for a business like publishing: farkakt.


At a mystery writers' conference, I asked a room of over more than one-hundred people how many had bought a mystery in the last month. Only a handful of people raised their hands. If mystery writers aren't buying mystery books, how can they hope to find someone to publish their own?

As we go into the final stretch of gift buying for Xmas and Hanukkah, I have two words for authors hoping to get published: Buy Books! Because if authors themselves aren't buying books, who do they think is?

Z

8 comments:

mapletree7 said...

You can’t really mass-produce anything in publishing. I can invent the Mach 3 Razor once and sell the same design for ten years. But you can’t do that in publishing. Every single book is its own product. Every single book requires its own special treatment.

Aren't category romances and westerns really mass-produced? What about series mysteries and powerhouses like Nora Roberts?

Andrew Zack said...

I addressed the categories like romance and westerns specifically. When you are netting 10,000 copies sold in a market of 260,000,000 Americans, it's hardly "mass production."

Laura said...

The publishing business needs to retool. Until the publishing business makes a paradigm shift and relearns how to market books and authors the news isn't going to get better.

What is forgotten in the overall quest of making money is the fact that writers are individuals...writing is an art form...writers are artists, each manuscript will be different. The expectation and marketing is all wrong, advancing 6 figures is a risky practice...tho' it's nice for the writer. As a writer, I have gone into this with the healthy understanding that I will not quit my day job even after I'm finally published, I'd like to see the advance money go toward making a nice product and a proper marketing campaign to sell it. I know that my books will only appeal to a fraction of the reading population...I'm fine with that. It's a matter of taste...everybody has their own. Once in a while, a writer creates a book that strikes a chord, and becomes a best seller, which is nice, but to expect that every manuscript is going to do that is unrealistic. Some of the best sellers I've read are terrible, causing me to go to the nearest wall to bang my head...but I go back to my computer screen and continue where I left off...

jason evans said...

I asked a room of over more than one-hundred people how many had bought a mystery in the last month. Only a handful of people raised their hands. If mystery writers aren't buying mystery books, how can they hope to find someone to publish their own?

Amen, Andy. I've been buying far more books lately. I got lazy there for a while. Also, I stopped lending books. Now, I just badger other people until they buy a copy for themselves! No royalties/profits on loaned books.

I said...

I asked a room of over more than one-hundred people how many had bought a mystery in the last month. Only a handful of people raised their hands. If mystery writers aren't buying mystery books, how can they hope to find someone to publish their own?

I have a tough time imagining a novelist who doesn't love novels. I think that's why we begin writing (it was certainly the reason for me)--we want to reproduce for ourselves the magic we've found in books.

But now that I am a novelist, I very rarely read novels--because I'm too busy reading nonfiction. A novelist, I think, needs an enormously wide knowledge base and should be interested in everything--you never know when you're going to come across that little fact that's going to add that perfect touch of autheniticity, or bring a character to life and really make them leap off the page.

SRHowen said...

Hi Andy,

After going through the blog account creation I forgot what I wanted to say. Oh yeah . . .

I am often surprised by writers who say, I don't read books. I can always tell by the way they punctuate things and by the way they format things like paragraphs ect--I can't imagine being a writer without being a reader.

I own some 4000 plus books, see I can't give one away either no matter how poorly written.

Writers must read to write.

Shawn (what happened to the anonymous posting?)

Andrew Zack said...

Hi Shawn:

I turned off anonymous posting after seeing a nasty post here. If someone wants to be nasty, they are welcome to put their name on it.

Best,
Andy

serenity said...

I am often surprised by writers who say, I don't read books.

I learned how to write by reading. I can't imagine any other way I might've done it.

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