What’s Wrong with Publishing? #6: Oh Yeah???

Welcome back.

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Holy crap. Has it really been that long since I’ve prattled on about What’s Wrong with Publishing?

*double-checks calendar, gulps guiltily* Yep, it sure has.

I meant to have these blogs coming out a couple of times a week, but Real Life and Real Work both conspired against me. But I’m back now, and we’re going to forge ahead as though there never was a hiatus. (These are not the droids you’re looking for, and thank you, George Lucas, for giving the universe such a convenient and useful catchphrase…)

Back when I started this little series, a fellow commented early on. I promised to address his thoughts at a later date and today that later date has come. If you don’t remember my first blog on this topic, go check it out here. You can see the comment there, too, but I’m going to reprint it below in its entirety.

Ready? Here we go!

i think they should publish more books
By: Joe, the Dancing Mule on Tue June 01, 2010, 23:03:11
I’m afraid I must disagree with your prescription, Mr. Lyga.

To the stockade with you!

The scattershot approach at least gives more openings to authors – a tentpole strategy similar to the one you advocate leads to a very conservative mindset, in my opinion. If the publishing house has to make its bones on fewer releases, then there is more pressure to hit the ball out of the park every time. As such, like in movies, television, music, etc, there will be big pushes around the same set of proven stars/themes/products, over and over again. This leads to more superhero movies*, more comedies with guys getting bodily fluids on themselves and getting whacked in the balls, more Dick Wolf shows, and more manufactured pop pablum**.

Well, either you misunderstood what I was saying or — more likely — I didn’t express myself clearly. As I responded in the comments back then, I’m not talking about a drastic scaling back the likes of which you seem to envision, but more along the lines of cutting back enough so that a tentpole isn’t necessary. One of the open secrets of publishing right now is that the Big Books support all the little ones, mainly because the little ones never break out enough to support themselves. With more effort spent on each book, we could come closer to that beautiful world in which each book supports itself…or at least nears that goal.

Basically, I don’t want the number of books to be cut in half or by a third. I have no particular arbitrary figure in mind, honestly. But even if each editor had one less book, s/he could then focus that much more on the others in the pipeline. Would this make editors look for more “blockbusters?” I don’t think so. I think editors would realize that with the added time/resources that they could break out that cherished book that otherwise might not stand a chance.

Right now, the tentpole books are a necessary evil. If more books were breaking even and paying their own way, the pressure to have a tentpole blockbuster would be lessened.

I fully acknowledge that this would require a shift in the way people think about acquiring, editing, and selling books. But that’s why we’re all here.

I think the answer is to go the other way – more opportunities for more authors, and more profits realized to authors.

I’m all about that, too! 🙂

I am not a writer, but it seems to me that the writer has fewer opportunities for ancillary income based on his talents than others. Bands who get screwed by their record label deals can always go on tour (and be screwed by their tour management, but much more gently), actors and directors and such can make commercials and straight-to-dvd schlock, even athletes can make publicity appearances, endorsements and autograph sessions. While I’m sure book signings are wonderful things, they don’t seem to drive much cashola to the author (unless I’m seriously mistaken).

Unless you sign hundreds and hundreds of books per signing, yeah, they don’t drive a lot of cash into the authorial coffers. Signings are really about marketing and publicity, not sales. It’s a way of generating good will with the bookstores and meeting your fans. It’s not really a revenue driver for most authors. And, yeah, there are fewer opportunities for ancillary income for authors, though I suspect creative thinkers will find ways to change that. (For example, I post deleted scenes toBoy Toy on this site for free. Some people have suggested I should have made them available as a cheap e-book.)

The irony, of course, is that the authors who have great ancillary opportunities are the ones who don’t need it. If I put thoseBoy Toy scenes on Kindle for 99 cents, I don’t think I’d make much money. But if, say, J. K. Rowling e-published some material she cut from her books, I bet she’d make…well, much money.

Of course, the plan is simple: (mumble) (mumble) internet (mumble) electronic readers (mumble) profit!

The best plans are always that simple, aren’t they? 🙂

so, anyway, thoughts:

1 – the truly big authors should consider using their power to make the relationship between publishing house and author more equitable. (or like recent experiements by trent reznor and radiohead, cut out the middleman altogether.) the little guys have no power, and so a sort of benevolent cadre of big fish looking out for the little fish is probably the only way the little guy is gonna get a fair(ish) shake.

I think there is a lot of opportunity in this regard, and I’ll be talking about it later in more depth. But, yeah, it would be great to see bigger authors and smaller authors team up to each other’s mutual benefit. Even the biggest author has audiences s/he doesn’t reach, audiences s/he may be able to reach with the help of a smaller, niche or cult author. And the benefits to the smaller author are obvious.

2 – writers are creative people – they should find ways to use new technologies and such for story-telling. I’d like to think the days of the linear reading/text-only experience are coming to an end. Video and audio and non-linear storytelling are the new hotness, IMO. People who can trailblaze this area can fundamentally alter the relationship between reader and writer and show others the way.

I would like to think that the days of the linear reading/text-only experience are NOT coming to an end! There’s something inherently magical about that experience, and there’s a reason it’s endured for so long. I agree that there are lots of exciting possibilities with new technologies, but at the end of the day, there will always be a place for a good book, told in a traditional format, whether it’s printed, beamed, lit from behind, or read aloud. This isn’t a zero-sum game: Embracing new technologies and modes of storytelling does not have to mean abandoning the older methods.

3 – Internet supernerditry, part deux. Authors (like Barry Lyga and barrylyga.com) must continue to push the interactivity between writer and reader.*** This not only bonds the fan to the author, it allows the author to consider alternate methods to reach the fan base.

Agree emphatically. I also think, though, that publishers need to get into this mix, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs. Publishers have resources that authors can’t match and they can make it a lot easier for this to happen. Without rehashing my previous argument: Publishers can help brand their authors to everyone’s benefit.

4 – self-publishing. sure, it’s much-maligned, and given the state of the self-publishing industry of the past, deservedly so. but in the click-to-print era, i think a talented and charismatic author could control a significant portion of the delivery (and monetization) of his work.

This is happening already. The problem, of course, is separating the wheat from the chaff, not to mention getting the word out without the resources of a publisher behind you. (Yeah, I know anyone can promote themselves on the internet, and that’s the problem: Anyone can promote themselves on the internet! And while “the wisdom of crowds” is an attractive ideal, no one has yet proven to me that it’s inherently any better than a gatekeeper system.)

anyway, those are my two rubles.


* – which I enjoy, but it’s still a larger problem overall. the mass death of the truly indie movie house in the last 20 years has been breathtaking and sad.

Oh, I know. There’s a decent little indie theater a few blocks from where I live, and I first took notice of it because I was shocked to see it at all.

** – who or what is a Bieber?

Isn’t it a kind of carpet? Oh, wait — that’s a Berber.

*** – and I have to tell you, on a philosophical level, there’s something difficult for me to contemplate in the democritization of fandom to writership, but this is the world we live in. even a misanthrope such as myself understands this.

Interactivity between author and reader is one thing; democritization is another. I enjoy my contact with my readers, but at the end of the day, they’re my stories and I’m gonna tell ‘em how I want to. As Steve Jobs once said, you can’t give people what they say they want because by the time you do, they’ll have changed their minds. You have to produce the best work you can and hope people will recognize it for what it is.

Thanks for your thoughts, Joe. Next time, I’m going to respond to some more

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