What’s Wrong With Publishing?

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #2

Welcome back.

First, what I suppose will become my usual caveat: 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.

At the risk of sounding sycophantic: I have three publishers, three editors, three sets of everyone involved in making sure my books get to you, the reader. They are all tremendous, inspiring, hardworking people, and it would kill me if anything I said herein was construed as denigrating them.

OK, now that that’s out of the way…

Well, no one called me a moron last time, so I guess I’m going to keep plugging along on this. 🙂 One fellow did chime in with some terrific thoughts and insights, so I encourage you to go back to the last entry and read the comments section. I’m going to be talking about a lot of the issues “Joe the Dancing Mule” (is that of the Staten Island Dancing Mules?) brings up in my own sweet time, but he makes several good points. If you want to discuss them, have at it!

As some of you know, for many (many — too many!) years, I worked in the comic book industry on the distribution side. For those not hip to the business lingo, a distributor is basically someone who stands between a producer (i.e. a publisher) and a retailer (i.e. a store like your local bookstore) and facilitates business between them. (Some would say the distributor just adds a needless layer of complexity and skims a percentage of the profits for that, but I’m not here to debate the necessity or lack thereof of distributors today.)

In my years in comics, I saw — I have to be honest here — a lot of really bone-headed, brain-dead business thinking. Oh, I could tell you stories! (But I’m not here to discuss the comic book industry, either.)

What I want to do, though, is talk about some practices in the comic book industry that differ wildly from practices in the book industry. I’m not saying that book publishing should or must adopt these practices; I’m just saying that they’re an alternate way of doing business and are deserving of some firing neurons in your gray matter.

There are no large national chains in the comic book industry. There are some smallish regional chains, but for the most part, the comic book industry is made up of a wide array of small, locally- and individually-owned stores. As a result, it can be difficult to coordinate the sorts of mass promotion that book publishers take for granted. For example, if you want your Latest Big Thriller prominently displayed to the book-reading public, you can leverage your co-op with B&N and/or Borders and you know immediately that your book will be front-and-center at a plethora of bookstores nationwide. That’s without even dipping your toe into the independent bookstore world.

(Sadly, though, there are times when stores take the co-op money and then shrug their shoulders and don’t bother with the promotion. Or shortchange it. Or do it half-assed. So like Twain says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”)

In comics, there’s no single point of communication, so you would have to negotiate with each individual comic book store. Which is a nightmare, of course, so no one does it. What the comic book publishers do instead is speak directly to the end-customer, the comic book reader.

See, for the most part, book publishers don’t think of you, the reader, as their customer. They think of the bookstore as their customer. The lion’s share of their promotional, publicity, marketing, and sales efforts do not go into convincing readers that the Latest Big Thriller is a great book. Their efforts go into convincing the stores that the Latest Big Thriller is a book that will make them lots of money…and then let the stores sell it to you.*

In comics, though, the publishers use a different tactic, a more “grassroots” tactic, if you will. They evangelize their upcoming comics directly to the consumers, counting on consumer enthusiasm to goose the retailers into stocking the comics in question. (Of course, they also do outreach direct to the stores, but the level of direct-to-consumer promotion in the comics industry is well above that in book publishing.)

Comic book publishers ultimately see the reader as their customer. Why is this? Quite simply because they HAVE TO. You see, in the comic book industry, comics are sold non-returnably. This means that when a store orders, say, 30 copies ofSuperman, that store is stuck with 30 copies. If the store sells all 30, then, hey, great! But if the store sells five copies, well… Someone’s eating ramen for a month.

Compare this to the book industry, where books are sold on a returnable basis. Your local bookstore can order 30 copies of, say, my book. But if they only sell five of them, guess what? The store can go, “Oh, well,” and send those unsold 25 copies back to my publisher in return for credit. And my publisher eats the cost of those books, and my royalty statement is a little sadder.

So in comics, the publishers have to be more aware of the reader because if readers don’t buy their comics, the stores — wallowing in vast unsold piles of their stock — will stop buying them. In book publishing, though, unsold books just go back to the publisher and become credit in the store’s coffers to use to buy the next book, which may sell better.

Now, neither system is perfect. Far from it. The bookstore model certainly allows greater risk protection, greater experimentation, and greater diversity at the bookstore level. If you know you can return an unsold book, you might be a little more willing to take a chance on this Barry Lyga guy, secure in the knowledge that if his particular combination of words doesn’t sell to the masses, you won’t take quite as big a hit as you might otherwise. But the comics model, I think, gives the publishers more work, yes, but also a little more input into what’s “big” and what isn’t. It also means they have more direct communication with the reader, which means a better insight (though still flawed) into what sells.

I would like to see book publishing take a page (har-har) from the comic book world and be a little more aggressive in speaking directly to and with the end-reader. This is already happening, to a degree, as the Internet has facilitated and — in many cases — necessitated greater communication between those particular groups. But I would really like it if children’s publishers could somehow come together to make a concerted effort to talk to kids where and how they live.**

We’re already seeing publisher Facebook pages and fan clubs, which is a nice start, but in book publishing (unlike in comics) no one knows or cares who a publisher is. Quick — name the publisher of your favorite book! Odds are (unless you’re working in the industry) you can’t do it without looking it up. A Publisher X Facebook page is great, but if readers don’t know their favorite book is with Publisher X, then how much help is it to you, your authors, and your customers?

What is needed is a way to get cool stuff into kids’ hands, stuff that will make them want to go out and buy the books. You can’t do that with the pens and bookmarks and postcards that you give to bookstores. You need fun, creative book excerpts, innovative text messaging, viral video. In short, you need the sorts of things that authors and publishers both have been trying to execute (to more or less success, depending) for years now.

But many of those efforts are underfunded and are of the “Oh, yeah, and we can also…” variety. They’re the also-rans of marketing. I think they need to be more front-and-center, more aggressive. Grabbing readers’ attention and driving them into stores to buy books.

Ideally, there would be some sort of effort across publishers. Now, why would competitors join forces to do this? Hell, it happens all the time. Every industry on the planet (except comics…hmm…) has some sort of industry-wide trade organization whose sole goal in life is to promote that industry to the public at large. I’m talking about a specific organization that would promote books — reading — to kids. Possibly in conjunction with some sort of anti-obesity campaign: “Feed your mind, not your belly.” Something like that.***

Whew! I’m beat, and this has gone on pretty long. Next time, I think I’ll talk about Free Comic Book Day and its possible implications for the book industry. In the meantime, please add to the conversation below. I want to learn from you guys!



*I suppose I need to add here — lest someone pounce on me for suggesting otherwise — that of COURSE book publishers love, adore, want, need, and cherish their readers. Of COURSE they do. But their primary sales focus is getting books onto shelves, then getting them into hands. The two notions are in no way mutually exclusive.

**Again, to forestall pouncing: I’m not saying that authors and/or local stores should NOT be doing these things. I’m just saying that publishers should get in there, too.

***Yes, indeed, I am aware of the various literacy organizations out there. I think they have a major role to play in all of this and have a wealth of experience to bring to bear.

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #1

So, as I indicated a little while ago, I’m going to post some blog entries on the publishing biz — where it is, what’s wrong with it, what’s right with it, where it’s going, and where I think it should go.

This endeavor is fraught with peril for me. It’s a touchy subject and people have strong feelings about it; often, those feelings take the form of blog comments and blog responses that say things like, “Barry Lyga is a moron. Does he really believe blah blah blah?”

For this reason, I want to say upfront that these entries are not manifestoes, no matter how strongly I may word something. They’re just…ruminations. They’re me spitballing. Because sometimes we don’t know what we’re really thinking until we type it or say it out loud. This blog is my opportunity to do that.

Please do chime in — I’d love to turn this into a thoughtful, polite discussion. Even if I am a moron. 🙂

I want to start with a story. It’s a story about a book, and I heard it last week at Book Expo America (BEA). In the interests of full disclosure: This is not one of my books. This is not a book published by anyone who publishes me, nor is it written by anyone I know. It’s a story I heard, and it’s true:

The book in question was published by a house that really, truly believed in it, as we like to think all books are. The folks who published it loved the book dearly and wanted to see it succeed. But, sadly, when the book launched, it did not do well. It faded and sank, like so many books do.

The people who published it were displeased by this turn of events. They got together to talk about what they could do and they decided they should re-launch the book to give it another chance. Which they did.

Sadly, the book once again did not take wing and fly.

As you can imagine, everyone at the publishing house was pretty frustrated by now. (Since this story came down to me via an editor, I can’t say how the author felt, though I imagine he/she wasn’t too happy, either…) So, they called another meeting and they all got together and they all realized that they still believed in this book a lot. So they decided to re-launch it yet again. A third launch.

This time, it took. The book went wild. The author ended up on national television. Huzzah!

A happy story. I like happy stories. But this one makes me sad. Why?

Here’s why: Because it makes me think of all the deserving books that never got a second much less a third chance.

In publishing, you generally get one bite at the apple. Your book comes out and everyone holds their breath and crosses their fingers. When the paperback hits (a year or more later, usually), you have a potential second bite at the apple, but honestly, there’s usually very little fanfare for the paperback. Unless you’re already a big shot.

So what about the little guy? The new author with a great book who gets thrown out into the wilds of the bookshelves? That guy gets his one shot and he sinks or he swims, and no one is there with a life preserver.

I don’t want this to sound like a rant against publishing or against the people who work at publishing houses. I personally love publishing and I have yet to meet anyone in the business who is not unfailingly enthusiastic, devoted, and passionate about their authors and their books. This is not about the people in publishing.

It’s about the simple facts of publishing.

The industry is changing, whether we want it to or not. In coming blog posts, I’m going to talk about the ways in which the business is changing and the ways in which I think it should change. But right now I just want to talk about what’s wrong. I’m not trying to be negative, but the first step in any process is diagnosing potential problems.

I think it’s terrible that books get one shot. That you get one bite at the apple. If you’re lucky enough to win an award a year after publication, you get a second chance, but how many awards are there?

I have a friend who — several years ago — wrote a wonderful debut novel. Barnes & Noble wouldn’t touch it. It had very low sales. Then, months after publication, it won a very prestigious award. Suddenly, everyone was talking about it and reading it. B&N changed its mind and threw a lot of support behind it. And now he’s had a great, thriving career, giving some amazing books to the world.

What if he’d never won that award? What if he’d never had that second chance?

Oh, BTW: That book I spoke about before, the one that hit the ball out of the park on the third at-bat? That book was from a very small house that mustered its meager resources three times in order to make that book big. It’s possible. It can happen. It does happen. It needs to happen more often.

I know publishers are overworked, underappreciated, overanxious, underfunded, and just generally exhausted. But I think (and I guess this is where I generate some controversy…) that maybe too many books are being published. We’re throwing scores of books at the market, just to see what catches fire, when what we should be doing is cherrypicking the stuff we love the most and giving it every possible chance to succeed. As the example I cited at the beginning of this piece indicates, it ispossible. Publishers publish a lot of books because they don’t know which ones will succeed, so they have to take a shotgun approach. But the people at the publishing house above didn’t do that. They knew that their book was terrific, that it deserved a huge audience, and moreover that it could have a huge audience. And they plugged away at it until it happened.

I’d like to see more of that. In the coming entries, I’m going to talk about how I think the changing market is an opportunity to make smaller books into bigger books, to give new authors a better shot at the brass ring, and generally to make everyone in publishing — writers, readers, and everyone between — happier.

And then I’ll bring peace to the Middle East. 😉

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)