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October 19, 2006

Conventional unwisdom on publishing
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM *

The Wall Street Journal has run a long prominent story about Henry Holt’s expensive acquisition of, and inadequate success with, Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder. Short version: big advance, big marketing budget, major push, not enough sales. Lots of sales, mind you, but nowhere near as many as they were aiming for.

These things happen. It’s why a project like that is called a gamble.

But enough about The Interpretation of Murder. What irritated me about the story was having the Wall Street Journal trot out the completely bogus standard paragraph about the state of publishing:

Much like Hollywood, book publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest. A publisher has to find a title with huge potential and single it out for special attention. If the book gets traction, the upside is limitless. If it fails, there’s a long way to fall. When a book doesn’t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant. With 172,000 books published last year, shelf space is limited.
I think they’ve got that paragraph set up as a macro—and they’re not the only publication that uses it.

I’ve been hearing the “publishing is becoming a winner-take-all sweepstakes” riff since I started working in the industry. It’s not true, and it’s not becoming true. I suspect it’s generated by lazy news departments that can’t be bothered to take notice of books that aren’t blockbusters, and from this conclude that blockbusters are all that matters in publishing.

Bestsellers aren’t the whole of publishing. Every year, we publish a great many okaysellers. You guys buy them because they look interesting, or because a friend has recommended them, or because you liked another book by that author. Marketing push only goes so far.

A quick test: raise your hand if you only buy bestsellers. No? Okay, raise your hand if the majority of your book purchases are current bestsellers. Right. Now raise your hand if your bookbuying decisions are based on marketing buzz. If you still aren’t raising your hand, you’re a normal book-buying reader, and the Wall Street Journal is chin-deep in hogwash on this point.

And while I’m on the subject, that “172,000 books published last year” is neither reliable nor pertinent if you’re talking about bookstore shelf space. “All books published” includes books you’ll never see in a bookstore at all, like manuals for operating and maintaining equipment, industry trade guides, and family genealogies.

Even if you limit the number to “trade books”—i.e., books that get bookstore distribution—the number is hard to pin down. A lot of university press and regional press titles get distributed to a handful of bookstores. Are they trade books? Those authors and those publishers would say yes, and I can’t see any good reason to contradict them, at least not to their faces. Still, there’s a big difference between books offered for sale at a handful of bookstores, and books offered for sale at bookstores everywhere.

If you’re talking about new titles that would come through a large urban bookstore in a single year, one rough but reliable estimate I’ve been given (by a source that declined to be named) is that it’s about 10,000 titles. Jim Macdonald once did a rough shelf count of a B&N superstore and came up with an estimate of 100,000 and 120,000 titles total, old and new books combined.

Almost none of them are bestsellers. They’re all in print, and many will remain so for a long time, while the front-of-the-store pyramids of red-hot bestsellers come and go. And next year, and the year after that? Same pattern. The Wall Street Journal really needs to get out more.

And an addendum.

Comments on Conventional unwisdom on publishing:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 05:49 PM:

Hmmm... I very seldom buy new books, never mind new releases - and the last new books I bought certainly weren't new york times best sellers...

#2 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 05:53 PM:

No link to the WSJ story?

Anyway, it sounds like that Journal journo has never heard of The Long Tail, the latest hot buzz concept in the marketing of, well, everything.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 05:54 PM:

I've been watching this for a while now, and doing my own estimates.

Amazon -- the 900 pound gorilla on-line bookseller -- isn't making that much difference in what people are buying. You know those 120,000 titles that are on the shelves at B&N? 95% of Amazon's sales are from among those exact same titles. The other 3.5 million titles that Amazon lists have to duke it out for the other 5% of Amazon's book sales. There are some weird cases -- The Turner Diaries has good Amazon numbers even though it isn't shelved in a whole lot of physical stores. Still, the general observation holds.

#4 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 05:57 PM:

I've never heard of this book. They must have put all their money into TV/radio ads ... and I don't watch or listen. (I suspect a lot of those heavily-advertised books, based on the ads I did hear on radio, weren't worth that much.)

Teresa, I'm looking forward to Eifelheim. I don't know right this minute if I'll buy it, but it's on the list of 'to-be-watched-for' books that I keep in the back of my mind, having read the bits that were in Analog some years back.

#5 ::: MoXmas ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:14 PM:

I was working at Harper Collins when they slashed away at their midlist. (1996 or so.) I remember that being trumpeted in much the same way, as the end of the world for the "writing middle class".

They even had a big "semi-miss" blockbuster at Harper Collins during that period: the Patrick Robinson book "USS Seawolf". I think the book did awfully well, actually, but Harper Collins wanted Robinson to be the next Tom Clancy, and I don't think it did THAT well.


#6 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:16 PM:

A quick test: raise your hand if you only buy bestsellers.

Um, we might have a slightly nonstandard sampling here.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:31 PM:

Avram, I read the WSJ story in hardcopy.

#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:33 PM:

Everything is a nonstandard sampling.

P J Evans, I don't think they put much of it into TV or radio ads.

Avram: No link to the WSJ piece, because it's behind their paywall.

#9 ::: Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:35 PM:

If you still aren�t raising your hand, you�re a normal book-buying reader
Now granted, an awful lot of my book purchases at the moment are things like Sartre, Hegel and Husserl, thanks to school, but even for my "fun" purchases, I almost never buy off any list other than "store employee recommends". (And now that I don't have a relationship with any local bookstore employees, I don't even do that.)

I chase down books based on leads, browsing, recommendations, offhand comments... the latest set of books I bought "for fun" were Val McDermind's "Wire in the Blood" series, which I'd never heard of here, even though I absolutely adore fluffy forensic mysteries like that. I found 'em thru BBC America's series by the same name.

Offhand, I can't think of anyone I know, either, that buys only off the bestseller list. The only time that ever happens to me is when I buy something that's been features on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, and shoots onto the bestselling list because of that.

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:43 PM:

Teresa, I bought 1491 last night. Just so you know.

Patrick, I don't see the newspaper ads either, if they're using those. (May explain why I haven't heard of this one.) But I raid my big-chain bookstore pretty close to every week, and I see people reading on the train, so I do know what's out there as far as bestsellers go.

#11 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:46 PM:

Teresa, thank you, as always, for deconstructing a "story" that was on its way to making my whole day shitty.


#12 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:48 PM:

See they have this Press Release from a reliable company called Publish America that gives them these stats. And *they* haven't been able to sell their book yet, so it must be true.

#13 ::: Glen Blankenship ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:53 PM:

If it's any comfort, that WSJ macro-paragraph is wrong about 'Hollywood', too.

#14 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 06:56 PM:

JDM: So... the short tail?

#15 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 07:33 PM:

Avram writes in #2:

Anyway, it sounds like that Journal journo has never heard of The Long Tail, the latest hot buzz concept in the marketing of, well, everything.

Well, everything that costs very little to keep on the retail shelf. Books, records, software. There's not a Long Tail in automobiles, I believe.

#16 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 07:39 PM:

Teresa, if a reporter called you tonight and said they needed an 80-word explanation of the current state of publishing by tomorrow for a story going to print, what would it be?

#17 ::: Kieran ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 07:41 PM:

A lot of university press ... titles get distributed to a handful of bookstores. Are they trade books? Those authors and those publishers would say yes, and I can't see any good reason to contradict them, at least not to their faces.

Ow, I flinch. I wince. If you prick us, do we not bleed, etc. :-)

#18 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 07:51 PM:

Well, I sure hope I don't see any derogatory remarks on this thread about "manuals for operating and maintaining equipment," or their authors. Otherwise, I shall be forced to unleash my legions of readers who now know how to operate self-shielded intraoperative radiation therapy machines. Fly, my pretty ones, fly!

#19 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 08:30 PM:

This whole thing raises an interesting question - what's the correlation between heavy retail book buyers (say 20+ titles per year) and buyers of best-sellers.

A data point of one - I probably buy three or four books a month, but only buy one or two bestsellers all year. The rest tend to be new releases just out in trade or paperback, or back-catalog items of authors I've just discovered.

How typical am I?

#20 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 08:45 PM:

I never buy bestsellers because the library I work at gets them all and I can check them out (and since I catalog them, I get first pick of the few that look interesting). No one ever takes libraries into consideration...

However, this is good news for those of us who are trying to sell their first novel and know it's too much of an oddball to ever be a blockbuster. There's hope yet.

#21 ::: K ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 08:46 PM:

the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant.

Maybe by "large chains" they mean large convenience store chains, the ones where they only have a narrow rack for the top 20 books.

#22 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 08:49 PM:

It's possible that people who are not readers buy books as gifts for other people (books still being relatively cheap without seeming cheap) who also are not readers, and hence, if they're lucky, they choose the top picks off the bestseller list or Oprah. If they and you are unlucky, they buy you a Thomas Kinkade calendar.

Barnes & Noble's ground floor (when the store is multi-floor) is set up for this kind of consumer.

#23 ::: kr ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:23 PM:

Nonstandard public here (timidly raising my hand and mindful of the Japanese proverb that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down").

I read a mix of best sellers and friend-recommended titles. I will try an author I don't know off the best seller list because my taste tends to run pretty much along the lines of most people in the country. (Eh, and yes, I also tend to check out what Amazon recommends to me based on my buying habits.)

I always buy hardback (new) if available because I believe that artists should be rewarded with the highest royalty (and I'm assuming that the royalties per copy are higher on hardback -- let me know if I'm wrong). I think $30 for six or seven or ten hours of good, solid trance-state reading is a steal in comparision to the cost of six hours of any other kind of entertainment. (And I get a nice souvenir for playing.)

That all being said, the WSJ is being rather naive and overly simplistic in its portrayal of the business (ack -- I think they are going to revoke my MBA for writing that). They certainly don't seem to understand its economics. In their defense, perhaps they are referring to the problem that arises when a publisher sinks an exorbitant amount into marketing -- that (as you know, Bob) is a fixed cost that needs to be amoritized over the entire publication run.

And I think, perhaps by "back room," they are referring to that part of a book store that is full of books -- the part beyond the $40,000 Pyramids in front. Perhaps the writer has never ventured there as (I hear) it can be a scary place, full of books that might have things like facts in them.


#24 ::: tom s. ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:23 PM:

Sorry, but I'm not convinced by the arguments here.

We know that a lot of medium-list books remain - but this is an issue of change, not absolute numbers, and nowhere do you address the issue of change. Nothing you say suggests that the distribution of books being sold is broadening, and nothing argues against the contention that it is narrowing.

I grant that the paragraph from the WSJ is just an assertion and has nothing to back it up either, but one unsubstantiated assertion does not cancel out another.

(And I say this as someone with a book published recently by a small publisher in which I quote this very weblog. I just don't agree with your argument in this case.)

#25 ::: Cynthia ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:25 PM:

There's no point in ever buying a best seller new. If you wait until yard sale season, you'll be able to pick up a copy for under a buck, guaranteed. Trust me, you judge the Di Vinci code much less harshly when you only paid a dime for it.

And, of course,this method frees up all kinds of money to buy the books I can't count on finding secondhand.

#26 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:36 PM:

you judge the Di Vinci code much less harshly when you only paid a dime for it.

My movie rating system is based on dollar amounts. "evening price" means you'd buy a ticket after 8 pm and feel like you got your money's worth. "matinee" means you'd buy the cheaper tickets, and maybe not bet the quality of your entire evening on the quality of this one movie, and feel satisfied. Then there's "rental" and "free on cable" which are like 2 and 1 stars.

These four ranks get modifiers such as "including $3 for popcorn and $4 for a drink" for movie theater shows. Another one is "Buy the DVD".

I've been quite satisfied with mediocre movies that I rented. But if I'm paying insane prices for tickets, parking, and snacks, the expectations bar is much higher.

#27 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:37 PM:
That all being said, the WSJ is being rather naive and overly simplistic in its portrayal of the business (ack -- I think they are going to revoke my MBA for writing that). They certainly don't seem to understand its economics.
Isn't this true of its business coverage in general? It has certainly been true any time the WSJ had an article on any business area I actually knew moderately well at that time. Frex: Credit card processors and terminals, the computer software industry, the open source "movement", Internet service providers...

In my experience, most of the WSJ is pure fluffy, while blockheadedly insistent that it has the Hardheaded Truth. Much like the neocons who pepper its pages, come to think of it.

#28 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:42 PM:

Doesn't the whole publisher has to find a title with huge potential meme fall right into the hands on the scammers, shills and less-than-ethical "Traditional Publishers": they who prey on the fears and hopes of new writers and push this "OTHER publishers will only accept the bestsellers, but WE will publish YOU!!! (for money)"

Scammers can rejoice, and add yet another "example" to show prospective clients.

#29 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 09:52 PM:

Wait, isn't this discussion incomplete without the traditional retelling of the myth of Thor, God of Power Tools, slaying the Midlist Serpent?

#30 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 10:02 PM:

Trust me, you judge the Di Vinci code much less harshly when you only paid a dime for it.

I got my copy free and I still hated it.

#31 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 10:14 PM:

Jim Macdonald once did a rough shelf count of a B&N superstore and came up with an estimate of 100,000 and 120,000 titles total, old and new books combined.

Woah, I just saw that bit and pictured someone being ordered to count all the grains of sand on the beach. Then right after that, I imagined myself behind Jim rattling off random numbers until he loses count.


#32 ::: Joe ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 10:33 PM:

Wait, isn't this discussion incomplete without the traditional retelling of the myth of Thor, God of Power Tools, slaying the Midlist Serpent?

I've been told that one in all seriousness. I take it that's not true then? That the midlists are as strong as ever?

(This is a serious question.)

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 10:47 PM:

Larry @ 19

Gee, you buy books like I do. I walk around the new-book tables by the front door of my friendly big-chain mall store, but generally - not always - those are books I won't be buying. Once or twice a year, because some of the buyers know the good stuff when it's run by them (right now they have The Sharing Knife on the table).

#34 ::: kr ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 10:51 PM:


Just make sure JDM's not toting anything that's been modified when you do that.

#35 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:25 PM:

Keith @ 20: I hate checking books out from the library. They're always in bad shape and have "things" in them. My 1979 SFBC copy of Titan was in much better shape than the library's copies (for our book group last Saturday). Fortunately, I have most of the books we read.

The only book I've checked out that was in fairly good condition was 1491 and that was non-fiction.

#36 ::: Jack Ruttan ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:29 PM:

So, are all the stories about midlist writers going hungry simply legends, or another problem altogether?

#37 ::: BG ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:29 PM:

I'm still not clear on this... what proportion of sales and profits come from the few bestsellers? Is it more than 50% of the profits, or a tiny proportion?

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:35 PM:

Modified? JDM doesn't need "modified". Just ask him what make and model he's got propped up behind the front door at home.

Crashing now ...

#39 ::: Ken Wissoker ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:38 PM:

I'm a university press publisher (Duke), and I'm with the WSJ (for maybe the only time). A lot of the public space for reviews in the new york times -- or even in publisher's weekly -- and in chain bookstores that was available to us through the mid-nineties is now gone. As a much less influential publisher at that time, we had NYT books of the year. Look at last year's books of the year list -- all trade publishers. It is a common place in the industry that for real trade, 2% of the books make the money to support the rest -- and thus get 98% of the marketing muscle. Then there is too much at stake with those books for ad-dependent media to ignore them. I'm grateful to be at a non-profit where the point is how smart someone's intervention is, rather than a place where even the okay sellers have to sell about four times as many as the equivalent okay sellers of 1985. Trade publishers are judged by how many of those blockbusters they can bring in. That doesn't mean there aren't okay sellers, but they aren't the point, the blockbusters are.

#40 ::: tom s. ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2006, 11:59 PM:

"It is a common place in the industry that for real trade, 2% of the books make the money to support the rest"

- any idea if that number has changed much in recent years, and if so in which direction?

#41 ::: Mike Gorski ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 12:18 AM:

Come on, you can write that you read it "in hardcopy" and offer no link "because it's behind their paywall" - but that's just unfriendly to your readers. You don't even offer the date or author of the article in your post.

You can find it here: from the Monday, October 16th WSJ by Jeffrey Trachtenberg.

The article is not an analysis of publishing stats. It's a story of one book that tried to make it big and didn't.

You tee off on the only paragraph that's over the top in the article. But the real gist of the article is about how publishers perceive that they need to find blockbusters, but it's a risky game to play. In the end, it's a story about the danger of blockbusters and the power of the long tail. It ends with this paragraph:

"On Sept. 20, when the bad news about Mr. Rubenfeld's book was coming over the transom, Venezuelan President Hugo Ch�vez gave a speech to the United Nations. He held up a copy of Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and praised the book, which shot up the Amazon best-seller list, prompting the printing of an additional 50,000 copies to meet demand. Mr. Chomsky's publisher: Henry Holt & Co."

That's the same Henry Holt & Co. that tried to publish the blockbuster piece of fiction that the article is about. And the Chomsky book was originally published back in 2003.

Don't cherry pick paragraphs that you vigorously disagree with when the full article is nothing close to the how you paint it.

#42 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 12:52 AM:

I've taken a long, hard look at the book publishing industry ever since I took a course in it at U. Kans. (Lawrence, Flint Hall was still the center of activity when I was there.)

One of the very best things the book publishing professor did was to give us a standard industry contract (It was real near the time of Pocket Books slave-contract controversy). the assignment he made was to read it and 1) highlight the things that the writer needed to fulfill in the contract and 2) highlight differently the things the publisher was obligated to fulfill.

It was a very enlightening class.

#43 ::: Michelle Sagara ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 12:58 AM:

So, are all the stories about midlist writers going hungry simply legends, or another problem altogether?

I think its another problem altogether, or beside the point. The point is that the vast majority of books published are midlist, still. The fact that publishers seek blockbusters has a lot to do with a lot of different things (not the least of which is job and eminence), but in plain numbers, most of the published books are not, in fact, blockbusters.

#44 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:00 AM:

Mike, we're unusual people. We're readers. We'll read the whople damn article. But a lot of people will stop after a couple of paragraphs, thinking they've got the whole story, and the rest is mere corroborative detail.

So the journalist doesn't quite lie, he puts the whole story in print, but the bit he puts at the beginning is what matters.

#45 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:32 AM:

Blessed be this thread, for it has reminded me that Tor will soon (well, November 28) be reissuing Avram Davidson's Adventures In Unhistory.

That is all.

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:47 AM:

I buy books because they interest me. This means I look at all sorts of non-fiction (just bought, "In the Company of Crows and Ravens" which is about the nature of them, and us, and possible co-evolutionary traits. The possibility that they are learning to play with balls, co-operatively; as play, from us, warms the cockles of my heart).

I buy fiction because I like the author, or the blurbs, or it's been reccomended.

If it's an author I know/like/know is struggling/midlist, I buy it new, and if not, I'll wait for the remainder on the hardcover.

Some, like Grisham, I'll get at the library. Back when I was part of the day to day running of my folks used-book store, well I had different criteria for getting books.

#47 ::: Dave Rickey ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 04:21 AM:

There was a brief window in the 80's when it looked like it might become true, when most book sales were via supermarket racks, airport gift stores, and a "real bookstore" was becoming defined by a shopping mall chain store that might stock 500-750 titles it bought in lots of a few thousand, minimum. Several writers in different genres were talking about how the "midlist" authors were getting crowded out of the market by MBA-wielding managers at the publishers that had become parts of major media conglomerates.

What changed was Borders, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, big box retailers that stocked 10,000 titles per store or more. Then Amazon blew it all wide open.

For those small publishers that are getting squeezed out of the press: Ignore them. Go straight to the online communities that actually care about your books. Embrace Amazon's "Inside the Book" and affiliate programs.


#48 ::: John Dallman ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 05:39 AM:

The WSJ has a major vested interest in bestsellers. Those both get lots of advertising, and create financial news, things that feed the WSJ's maw. Mistaking your own marketing department's desires for actual truth has been an easy trap for journalists for a long time; it leads to career advancement.

#49 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 05:51 AM:

#44 Dave Bell: So the journalist doesn't quite lie, he puts the whole story in print, but the bit he puts at the beginning is what matters.

I've seen this happening more and more, recently. The title and first few paragraphs of one piece would say something, then 95% of the remaining text would basically negate the initial assertions, sometimes even vigorously. And not just on US papers, but worldwide.

I don't know if this is the journos way to route around editorial censure (after all, many news editors nowadays are probably too busy being cozy to the establishment, they can't spend much time actually reading all they print), just another way to cover (sell) their asses, or some sort of collateral effect of misguided "he said/she said" indoctrination.

#50 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 05:51 AM:

Is Patrick willing to put up a digest of his Viable Paradise talk on the current state of the industry as a counterpoint?

The question back at #37 is also a very good one. How much of the rest of Bantam/Spectrum does A Song of Fire and Ice support? How much of Touchstone (and corporate predecessors) has The Road Less Traveled carried down the path since 1978? Just how grateful should HarperCollins (and predecessors, natch) be to the professor of Anglo-Saxon from Oxford?

The answer isn't likely to be straightforward, but it's still worth asking.

Also worth asking, I think, is what a graph of the sales of a publisher's books roughly looks like. Title vs sales, from top seller to last place, what is the shape of the drop-off? Done well, it would probably be worth many thousands of words in laying the WSJ's thesis to rest.

#51 ::: Emil ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 08:47 AM:

Doug - it's pretty much what you might expect. Where I work, a handful of top-selling titles subsidize a much bigger handful of underperforming titles. The rest of the books come in on forecast (meaning they're earning their keep themselves.) Our bestsellers, typically, are by authors who were in the latter two categories for a good few years building sales and reputation (Dan Brown didn't come out of nowhere, I suspect.)

#52 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:17 AM:

Hm, pondering this some more, I think what would be informative is some statistics (and damned lies) that approximately represent buying patterns of the population.

Who buys mainstream. Who buys genre. Who buys whatever. This may require just a little too much data mining to approach Big Brother, so maybe not worth it.

The other angle would be some representation of book sales. number of books in mainstream this year. number that made huge sales. number that made profit. number that lost money. Repeat for various standard genres.

The conservation of energy tells me that the one main point that the WSJ reporter misunderstood is that you can't stay in business if all your books are losing money. Which means that publishers are staying in business by some means. The reporter seems to be saying that publishers make money on the skyrocketing sales on one superhit, and use that to subsidize publishing all the other books which lose money. From a business model, this seems insanely unlikely. Profit by lottery is not a good approach to doing business.

Rather, I would think that its more like the notion that publishers make small profits on many books, which reduces the risk of having all your profits in one book basket, and then a few good sellers help them take risks on more edgey books, which may or may not make a profit.

I don't know how to write that up in an 80-100 word narative that could be spoon fed to reporters doing articles on the publishing industry, though.

#53 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:51 AM:

The reporter seems to be saying that publishers make money on the skyrocketing sales on one superhit, and use that to subsidize publishing all the other books which lose money. From a business model, this seems insanely unlikely. Profit by lottery is not a good approach to doing business.

This is the standard model in pharmaceuticals, an insanely profitable and successful business sector.

#54 ::: John O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:54 AM:

I think the point is that more and more of the profits for trade publishers come from fewer and fewer books. Is that true?

#55 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 10:15 AM:

At least in part, the WSJ's—and, for that matter, most of the "news sources" on the publishing industry—misimpression on "profitability" comes from two things:

(1) Too many believe the old canard that a book isn't showing a profit until it earns out its advance. That's simply not true; for trade nonfiction, the true profit point is usually with sales generating royalties of around 75% of the advance. Different categories have differing profitability points; for example, although I don't have a big enough sample to be statistically valid, celebrity autobiographies and memoirs seem to have a true breakeven at around 60% of the advance. Thus, many "disappointments" are nonetheless profitable for the publisher, regardless of the whinging (which seems calculated more to keep authors from demanding a bigger share and keep antitrust regulators from caring about industry consolidation than anything else).

(2) The rest of the problem is the magic of accounting. (Dark magic, worthy of Sauron, but that's for another time.) For example, most cost/sales (too often called "profit/loss") projections actually count a lot of overhead expenses twice, and allocate overhead on a per capita and not a pro rata basis. That is, the overhead gets allocated equally to Stephen King's novel and Joe Neopro's novel. This figure then becomes psychologically set in stone, and used both internally and (when revealed) externally as truth… when, under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, that calculation can be made accurately only retrospectively.

And there's my problem. I'm expecting GAAP to apply to an industry that refuses to follow it. How silly of me.

* * *

Statistically, startup publishers fail at approximately the same rate as any other startup business, measured over a five-year period. (Admittedly, there is a statistically significant difference, but it's quite small in actual terms.) That tells me that things can't be quite as dire as the publishing-oriented press would have us believe.

#56 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 10:19 AM:

Greg and Alex at 52 and 53--

Some years ago, I took a course on the music industry (Who Killed Classical Music?) and that was the model we were taught. It makes sense if you put more emphasis on the enjoyment part of the job; someone wants to distribute a good, but unprofitable thing, and has to distribute a not-as-good but wildly profitable one as a side effect. It was presented as a reason Real Artists shouldn't be angry at Michael Jackson and Britney Spears for getting all the publicity.

#57 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 10:22 AM:

This is the standard model in pharmaceuticals,

Hm, that seems to be skewing the comparison a bit. If you don't buy a book, you won't die. If some company has a cure for cancer, and you've got cancer, you don't really have much choice. You know if you cure or treat something that you'll have customers. plus you'll have some hard data as to the numbers of poeple who have the disease in question, so you can figure how many customers you'll have. So, that lottery is kind of fixed, predictable, and quantifiable to some degree. I'd say pharmeceuticals is more like Blackjack where you get to count cards and hedge your bets.

I don't think publishing can predict the rocket performers like that, and I think a number of big sellers were complete surprises that no one would have predicted.

#58 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 10:34 AM:

I took a course on the music industry ... and that was the model we were taught.

I think the thing you're missing is that the narrative can give the reality. If everyone tells everyone else that music is a lottery, then how do you think everyone will relate to music as a business?

It was presented as a reason Real Artists shouldn't be angry at Michael Jackson and Britney Spears for getting all the publicity.

Right, so was the model presented to explain how reality works, or was it presented so that it justify how a company does business?

#59 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 11:53 AM:

55 is very helpful; am on deadline but hope to comment more later.

#60 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 12:16 PM:

If some company has a cure for cancer, and you've got cancer, you don't really have much choice.

I don't want to derail the conversation too much, but I think there are broader points about business models that can be made.

You seem to misunderstand the pharma business. Pharma companies invest millions of dollars to develop drug candidates. Out of a few dozen candidates, they must choose a few to spend tens, or even hundreds of millions (and years), developing them. Then they go through human trials and FDA approvals (and millions more are spent). Then they hit the market... and maybe one out of ten becomes a blockbuster and makes a billion dollars a year for twenty years.

Fewer than 5% of the original candidates make it to market, much less become blockbusters. It's impossible to tell, up front, which ones will succeed. So you invest in a lot of choices, and you try really hard to become smarter about guessing, but it's unquestionably a lottery process, and the big winners cover the vast majority of drug developments that never make a dime.

Overall, it is a hugely successful business, although like anywhere else, technological and economic factors threaten to change this story radically.

#61 ::: Mac ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:21 PM:

"When a book doesn�t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. When a book doesn't sell right away, copies are returned to the publisher, who eats the cost.

That the WSJ reporter got such a fundamental fact of the publishing industry completely wrong makes me wonder if he or she has the slightest clue about the industry.

#62 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:26 PM:

I worked at a land fill for a couple of years, in the office. We had a nice big bag of books in the closet, many minus front covers, that served as reading material for slow days. They were returns. Sort of.

#63 ::: badducky ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 01:56 PM:

Can anyone show me this mystical back room of a bookstore where we have all these lost books?

I've set foot backstage in at least three different bookstores, and I saw only four small-ish crates of damaged goods, bric-a-brac stored to replenish the bric-a-brac for sale at the register, and a few dozen empty boxes.

#64 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 02:00 PM:

Delighted that you wrote about this Teresa. I thought of you (and C.E. Petit) as soon as I glanced at the cover of the WSJ, and was even revemoved to buy a copy. I wanted to blog about this one, but since I've never bothered to build an audience, I had to hope that someone sensible would take charge of this.

For those who keep score, this article has been BoingBoinged, and now mentioned over on Techdirt, in "Must Some Movies Fail Miserably Just So Others Can Be A Hit?"

in #49 ::: Giacomo quoted
#44 Dave Bell: So the journalist doesn't quite lie, he puts the whole story in print, but the bit he puts at the beginning is what matters.
and then Giacomo said:
I've seen this happening more and more, recently. The title and first few paragraphs of one piece would say something, then 95% of the remaining text would basically negate the initial assertions, sometimes even vigorously. And not just on US papers, but worldwide.

The first practice, known as inverted pyramid style supposedly originated with war correspondents during the U.S. Civil war. Lengthy, flowery missives that didn't start with the key facts tended to be cut short - literally - when tramsitted via telegraph. (This is likely apocryphal, but this is the creation-myth taught to young journalists to emphasize the importance of the style.) If anything, its a cheap way to get novice writers to get to the point without having to actually train them to write well* - and hints at a wired world in 19th century cities where skimming lots of text quickly was part daily life. Not unlike frenetically skimming blog posts as they roll by in an RSS reader, methinks.

If I had one bit of advice to newspapers who can't seem to get traction with consumers 18-35, I would suggest ditching the inverse pyramid style for something resembling modern blog posts. If you write as though you don't intend for people to read all of it, chances are, we won't read any of it. One of the things that makes the blogoshpere so entertaining is the crystal certainty of each writer that what they write is significant. (If only to their cats.) Probably the other innovation would be tidying up the layout - which would mean making ads easier to ignore - and will therefore never happen.**

Giacomo, the second practice, writing one thing, but meaning another, seems to just be an inevitable outcome of the style. Hidden messages to your base and whatnot. An easy way to pander to multiple audiences.


*the real reason is that you need to be able to cut any article short to make room for an extra ad about five minutes before the presses roll, but don't tell the reporters that.
**People no longer seem to look for ads for information about stuff in their world anymore - the internet changed all that. When all you had to work with that was current was a newspaper, advertising was much more useful for getting a sense of what was available or culturally important.

#65 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 02:03 PM:

#60: Alex, you're describing a calculated risk. A lottery is pure chance, and when you sit down and pencil out the numbers, you realize the odds are stacked greatly against you. The WSJ article

book publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest. A publisher has to find a title with huge potential and single it out for special attention. If the book gets traction, the upside is limitless. If it fails, there?s a long way to fall.

is talking about a lottery more than a calculated risk. If it were really a lottery in publishing, you'd see publishers come and go as each bought a ticket and lost, and some lucky randomly selected publisher happened to find a wonka bar with the golden ticket.

It is not a "winner take all" business. Because no matter what massive bestseller publisher A comes out with, publisher B could still profitably sell copies of some genre book, could still stay in business even though they're not the "winner" in terms of sales.

And if the book fails, there isn't "a long way to fall". You lose what you invested. It isn't like buying a stock on margin, where you put in a thousand bucks and if the stock drops like a rock you could owe ten grand. Maybe there could be ways of doing it that way, but I don't think that's generally how it's done. (I know of an example in engineering where contract obligations and penalties on a failed project turned into a liability, but I've seen that happen once in fifteen years.)

Reading the WSJ blurb makes it sound like publishing is a random lottery, where you either win big or go out of business, and it makes it sound like a bottomless pit where you could put in a thousand dollars and lose everything you own, and I don't think that maps to reality.

#66 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 02:29 PM:

I don't know what the WSJ meant when they said publishing was becoming a "winner-takes-all" business. But let's assume for a moment that they were referring to Robert Frank and Phil Cook's brilliant economics/public policy analysis The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much .

In fact, best-seller publishing (not publishing in general) falls neatly into Frank & Cook's analysis: there are a finite number of slots available on the NYT bestseller list (52*15, roughly, for fiction). Once a book is on that list, it wins big in that it gains the free marketing from being on the list, the validation of "NYT BEST SELLER" on the cover, the presence in grocery stores and airport bookstores, etc. So it's worth it to invest a lot of extra attention/money to get on that list. The problem is that it's worth it for your competitors, too, and so they up the ante. It's a classic arms race, with -- and this is the important part -- a fixed payoff. These dynamics, Frank and Cook persuasively argue, lead to increasing returns to the major players and consolidation (but decreasing profitability overall).

Please note that this is really an entirely separate business model than general publishing of the sort that 99% of books fall into.

Greg, I think you're taking the "lottery" metaphor too literally. Real lotteries, yes, the probability times the payoff means that it's always a losing bet. That's not what people generally mean that a business model is a lottery business: they mean that products have a very small chance of winning but the payoff is enormous. The expected value of that bet might well be more than the cost of the bet, and that's certainly true in pharma. But to have a sustainable business, you need to have enough scale to hedge your bets and maintain a portfolio. And, yes, everything you can do to shift the odds even a few points in your favor shows up big-time at the bottom line.

#67 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 02:55 PM:

Alex, at the risk of triggering a second-stage tangent, I'd like to point out that your "how pharma works" summary neglects to include marketing, mass-market advertising, and federally-funded research.

Maybe the film industry would be a better analog, with blockbusters and staples that can keep a film studio afloat through lean years. (Hollywood accounting plays a role, too.)

#68 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 03:08 PM:

I don't think they meant the winner-take-all society as described in teh book. If they did, it seems awfully sloppy. One could conceivably argue that most consumer product businesses are falling deeper and deeper into that set of economics, at which point, the reporting is telling us nothing.

The amount of emotive tags versus hard facts is one telling reason I think they were intending a "lottery" metaphor rather than a firm, reality-based economic analysis.

Much like Hollywood,

The first sign that we've left reality.

book publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest.

Perhaps this was meant to be a reference to the "winner-takes-all" economic analysis, but no mention made of what it means other than the lay-person's term. sloppy reporting at best. inaccurate metaphor at worst.

A publisher has to find a title with huge potential and single it out for special attention.

No, they don't have to do this. It is not a requirement. This is sloppy reporting or just plain misinformation.

If the book gets traction, the upside is limitless.

What reality based analysis would say the income from anything is "limitless". This sounds less like fact based reporting and more like sloppy metaphors about apple "pie in the sky".

If it fails, there?s a long way to fall.

No, there isn't a "long way to fall". You lose what you already invested up to this point. There are other economic endeavors where you can potentially lose more than you invest, but publishing isn't one of them. "long way to fall" is yet another sloppy metaphor, not any sort of economic analysis.

When a book doesn?t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant.

One of the first non-metaphorical sentence here (except for a reference to "sweeping" books), but it's factually wrong. unsold books go back to the publisher from whence they came.

With 172,000 books published last year, shelf space is limited.

This has already been pointed out to be grossly inaccurate.

We can argue what the reporter's intentions were, but based simply on the gross inaccuracies of the few facts he reported and based on metaphors being the preferred method of communication rather than facts (and bad or inappropriate metaphors at that), I don't think this reporter deserves the the benefit of the doubt.

You can give it to him if you want, but I decline.

#69 ::: Martyn Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 03:29 PM:

#38 - Ken 'trade publishers are judged . . .' judged by whom is the question. First you have the multi-national, multi-business corporations who have bought them all, and then you have the suits in the City who shuffle OPM around said corporations. These people only understand the bottom line. They may read Dan Brown on the train in to work, but once they step into those marble halls they leave their souls at the door (been there, done that, escaped) The stuff that fires our souls is against their religion. THEY love the blockbuster because it talks numbers they understand. The stuff that moves us frightens them. When it comes to fear, these guys make lemmings look determined.

Will the bookstore go the way of the record shop? Discuss - endlessly.

'Lazy newsrooms' What is tautologous in that? Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Responsibility, what's that?

#70 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 03:40 PM:

Does the 80-20 rule apply to publishing? (Who knew it had a real name attached to it? Certainly not me.)

#71 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 04:11 PM:

badducky: Re the "mystical backroom"

Back when I was working at B. Dalton's (since subsumed by B&N, IIRC) we did pulls every couple of weeks.

We got a list from the corporate office, and we started removing books from the shelves. In receiving we'd strip the covers, and the hallway would be lined with boxes of coverless books, sad and lonely.

We'd take a copy of what we wanted, and the rest went out the door at close of day; straight into the dumpster.

#72 ::: Shephard ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 04:18 PM:

Thank you for writing this.
As a writer, this changes my perspective. And I needed to change that perspective.

#73 ::: aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 05:22 PM:

Avram: WSJ stories are behind a pay firewall, so it's not clear that a link would be useful in any event.

James Macdonald: I find that Amazon has changed my purchasing behavior in that it's now possible to buy obscure academic history titles which wouldn't be carried in my local bookstore. But these are obscure for a reason, and the number of us buying them probably isn't large enough to influence the big picture.

#74 ::: Will A ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 06:58 PM:

Bit of a tangent, but is anyone else curious about the kinds of "things" Marilee finds in library books (#35) ?

#75 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 07:19 PM:

"Things" I wear gloves to remove. Maybe each time a book goes out, it should have some kleenex attached.

#76 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:35 PM:

What's odd is that Dow Jones publishes books as well as the WSJ, and there have to be people on staff who know the business. If they get something about their own industry wrong, I doubt the rest of the WSJ's industry reporting. And these are the people who financial decision makers rely on--as fucked-up as the rest of the MSM. Oy vey.

#77 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:54 PM:

BTW, it appears that the WSJ (and perhaps Dow Jones) is a packager, rather than a publisher of books. Me bad.

#78 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 09:57 PM:

Randolph (76-77), the problem with your statements is that you're assuming that there exists some monolithic set of procedures, assumptions, etc. called "the publishing industry." I'm afraid not.

As a specific example, consider Dow-Jones Irwin, which publishes both WSJ and financial/business books (it also packages some books, but it does indeed have a book-publishing operation in Homewood, Illinois, just south of Chicago). An editor in the books division knows nothing at all about what our Gracious Hosts go through in getting blurbs, in cover design, in convention placement… the list goes on. And the less said about the non-editorial differences between trade fiction and trade/professional serious nonfiction, the better. (I've been there and done that; so, for that matter, has the lovely TNH.)

Instead, the "publishing industry" is an accretion of niches sharing a common package for words, underpaying the authors, and whinging about both profits and the poor taste of the American bookbuying public. Beyond those four commonalities, there really aren't any aspects that are universal, and darned few that one can claim even as applicable to a majority.

#79 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 10:53 PM:

I do get nearly all my books from the library. (I work there, and also, if I had more books I would need more bookcases, and if I had more bookcases I would need a bigger apartment, and being a librarian doesn't pay well enough for that).

I have borrowed over a hundred library books in the past year. Contents include bookmarks, bills, highly personal correspondance, school assignments, rather personal photos, etc.--We usually manage to catch any really icky stuff before it goes out on the shelves.

I do sort of marvel at people who are willing to read the same copy of an erotic romance that's already been checked out two dozen times. That is where I would draw the "You don't know where that's been" line.

#80 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2006, 11:00 PM:

Ken@39: a place where even the okay sellers have to sell about four times as many as the equivalent okay sellers of 1985.

From what I've read, the average paperback is selling significantly less than it did 20 years ago; total numbers are up because the market has grown vastly (even allowing for the reported collapse in horror, which I never realized was booming).

Alex@53: a blockbuster drug makes orders of magnitude more money than a blockbuster book, does not need to be translated to sell worldwide, and wrings large amounts of money out of 3rd parties. When insurance firms start rating books for health purposes, maybe publishing will go the same way. Also, your subsequent description sounds very different: WSJ claims that publishers bet the farm on single books and die when those bets fail, while pharma companies do the equivalent of dropping a chip on every space of a table where you know there's a hidden jackpot, if only because something will be a little bit better than some current product.

#81 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 12:56 AM:

This is one of my favorite topics, because it is really the blind men and the elephant. When we see the WSJ type of articles that wring their hands over the state of publishing, they are really focusing about the state of a particular type of publishing. If publishing success were merely about who wins the most $$--which the WSJ article implies--then most publishers (meaning, all, big and small, commercial and academic) simply would not exist. These sweeping generalizations are irritating not because they are wrong, but because they are wrong about the wrong things.

I think when you get the mainstream press talking about success, it is likely defined as whether your grandmother, boss, close friend and your dog have heard about it. And if it is something that all those individuals like, we are really talking lowest common denominator territory. You can talk about the quality of that all you like, but the reality is something that hits such disparate buttons is rare. By rare, I mean the books that have this kind of "success" almost never have anything in common--Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, Mitch Albom. Your Grishams, Kings, and Steeles (again nothing in common) are successful because they are very good at pushing the same button again and again, so the author gets bought first, not the book (personal bias: I included Rowling in the former category rather than the latter because I think she is really writing one big book with a canny marketing campaign).

Meanwhile, out in the wilderness, tons of authors are selling tons of books that dont bubble up into mainstream consciousness (another definition of success). Ask the next ten people you meet who Neil Gaiman, Lois Bujold Masters, Robert Jordan, Ray Feist, Anne MacCaffrey or Terry Pratchett are and I bet you will get blank stares. You might get a glimmer of recognition for a Joe Haldeman or a Dan Simmons. And, yet, you can bet that each of these authors are enormously important to their publishers.

The other point I think gets lost is, calling something bestseller, midlist or backlist are not definitions of books. They are observed results. If that could be predicted, then why would *any* publisher bother with any but bestsellers if all they cared about was wild financial success (as if they could predict that anyway)? A knowledgeable publisher will publish a book knowing out of the gate it will not hit the NYT list. Why? Because they are hoping it will succeed by a standard of success that has nothing to do with the NYT. Calling something like that midlist is just lingo.

So, four paragraphs of ramble to make the point that the WSJ is assuming there is only one standard of success and one explanation for why publishers do what they do. Pfiffle.

#82 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 09:24 AM:

piece a' trivia, but may be of some significance.

Jed Rubenfeld is a law prof at Yale. A few doors down from his office there's a law prof named Stephen Carter.

Stephen Carter's book "The Emperor of Ocean Park" was also a surprise debut mystery novel by a Yale law prof.

It sold a boatload of copies.

I'm thinking somebody tried to generalize on the wrong variables.

#83 ::: Janet Bellinger ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 09:30 AM:

I rarely buy a book and if I do it will be by one of my few favourite authors eg. Alice Munro. I get all the rest at the library, hardcovers because I don't like having to hold onto paperbacks. I borrow the library books, always from the new acquisition section, on the basis of whether or not the author has won any significant literary prizes or shortlisted for say the Booker Prize. I also read the comments by literary voices such as one of the authors I know and respect eg. Alice Munro, Michael Odantje. First of all though, the cover and title have to get my attention, draw me in somehow, so the artistic integrity of the cover is very important to me. Art first, comments and prizes second then I look at the first few paragraphs. If they don't interest me, I won't borrow the book no matter how lovely the cover is or praiseworthy the comments.

Janet Bellinger

#84 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 10:13 AM:

total novice query:
Say I write a book, a publisher agrees to publish it, they give me an advance of 1 million dollars.

Then the book goes to sale, sells three copies, and the publisher takes in $100. That's over five years. It's not a success.

Question: what happens to my advance? Do I have to give it back?

I mean, it's always described as an "advance on sales", as though it is really just a loan from the publisher to the author, to be paid back when the direct revenue stream kicks in. So if it doesn't kick in, then it's still a loan, and still has to be paid back.

On the other hand, I would think it would be awkward for publishers to try to recover advances from authors, esp. when the authors can always claim a) that the publisher took a gamble on sales, and did so with eyes open, and b) that my book really would have sold ten gazillion copies if only it had been promoted properly.

My curiosity is purely idle. I have written and published several books, but all in the academic market, where money is a joke. (You publish to get tenure, get promoted, etc., but even successful academic books sell in the hundreds of copies, and royalty checks are in the tens of dollars, if you get any at all. Advances aren't part of the game).

#85 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 11:25 AM:

kid bitzer, the author doesn't have to pay back the advance. If I understand correctly, it's an "advance" on royalties, and until the author's calculated royalties exceed the advance, they don't get any (more) royalties. Once it does, IIUC that's called "earning out" its advance.

You don't have to pay it back, but if the advance is too big, it doesn't earn out, and that often (not always) means the book was unprofitable for the publisher, and that may mean they're more reluctant to take a chance on your next book.

If I ever get off my ass and write a book, I'll try to get the smallest advance possible! (Obviously I'm joking, and that's equally wrong.)

#86 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 12:02 PM:

kid bitzer #84: [..] what happens to my advance? Do I have to give it back?

A friend and I were working on a book for a technical publisher a few years back. Over the course of summer as we were working on it, the publisher was acquired by another company, underwent a re-organization, and several projects in progress, including ours, were cancelled.

We were allowed to keep the advance. In fact, they had no objection if we wanted to take the work to another publisher (I believe both these points had been touched upon in our contract).

#87 ::: MaryP ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 12:34 PM:

The half million spent on promotion alone is staggering though. Most authors I know would be ecstatic to receive a fraction (and I mean a TINY fraction) of that to promote their books.
Somehow, the conclusion of the article was reassuring though that "despite everything we do, we just don't know." That magic still has to happen between reader and book.

#88 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 01:43 PM:

kid bitzer @ #87:

There's a nomenclature at work I think. Yes, advances "earn out" on sales, so they act like loans in a way. But another way to understand it is the advance is the cost to the publisher of the author's participation. At the earn out point, everything's gravy, so everybody earns more.

Another way to understand it is, a publisher pays an editor X amount of money to provide his/her skills. That amount varies depending on the perceived skill of the editor just like the advance varies based on the perceived earning power of a book. When a book doesn't succeed, the publisher doesn't turn to the editor and deduct a prorata share of his/her salary to make up for the "lost" editorial time spent on the book.

I don't mean to make it sound like the author is just another employee of the publisher. It's more of an accounting analogy I'm trying to make. The only times a publisher tries to recoup an advance from an author other than through sales is 1) the author has misrepresented something and violated the terms of their warranty or 2) the author wants out of their contract and, if the publisher is willing, the author will try to place the book elsewhere with a new advance at the new publisher which flows through to the old publisher to pay off the original advance (i.e., the old publisher shouldn't be penalized money for letting a saleable author go)

#89 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 02:56 PM:

Mark, there's a dark and dangerous third instance in which publishers try to force restitution of the advance: The publisher exercises its discretion to reject the manuscript for a previously contracted book. This is dark and dangerous because the publisher all too often (admittedly, that would be once… but I've got documentation of a lot more than that, just in speculative fiction, and TNH and PNH can probably guess one of them) won't say that the real reason it's rejecting the the manuscript is that the publisher now thinks it seriously overpaid on the advance and is trying to cut its losses. In this instance, an (often inexperienced) editor might be directed to write a memo pointing out several ways the book isn't perfect, then point to late delivery of the manuscript and say "It's your fault, author, now pay up!" It's sort of curious that this most often seems to happen to manuscripts delivered just a few days after the delivery date...

At which point the author and his agent are left trying to sell the book elsewhere for essentially nothing, because there's no way that they'll get more than 50-60% of the advance they had gotten the first time around. (Or, at least, I've never seen an instance of more than 60%.)

All of that said, I suspect that most, and perhaps even the vast majority, of rejections of contracted manuscripts are objectively valid, between "the manuscript is years late" and "the manuscript isn't as attractive as a pile of iguana poop." My point is just that there are other reasons than those that Mark mentioned that might require return of the advance.

And that's before getting into the murky field of preferential payments in bankruptcy...

#90 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 11:44 PM:

C.E. Petit #89:

Yes, you are correct, that is a third instance. I used to work for a major publisher and I am trying to recall if we ever did that to someone. It's the slipperiest part of a contract--"acceptability"--because it is a subjective issue. Certainly a publisher could use that tactic, but if done too often to the wrong authors and agents, I'd venture they'd start seeing a lot more demands for a first proceeds clause. That situation also is part of the reason publisher's like to stagger advances so that the bulk of the money is paid very late in the process (e.g., on pub), so they won't have to chase down a lot of cash if the ms is truly unacceptable.

I am not being naive...I'm sure it happens. The philosophy where I worked tho was essentially to cut the author loose and let him/her keep the on signing payment. For "smaller" authors in particular that portion of payment was often quite small, so it was cheaper to just let it go.

#91 ::: Martyn Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 06:26 AM:

#9 Kelly

You discovered Wire in the Blood on BBC America. Funny, that, seeing as they are produced over here by Robson Green's production company for ITV. Who cares? The books are way better than the tv shows.

#92 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 09:11 AM:

Okay, just another datapoint in the "book buying habits" series. I tend to stop in at bookstores whenever I can - and I'm not too picky about the type of bookstore. When I was attending university in Canbrrra, I regularly spent about $100 at a time on books at the Uni bookstore, generally as a way of filling in time between classes. Working in Perth, I would stop in at the Angus & Robertson bookshop and have a look at what they had that was interesting. Sometimes I'd buy something.

This is another point: lots of times, I might go into a bookshop, and buy nothing at all. Maybe they don't have what I'm after. Maybe they do, but it's too expensive at the moment (I'm waiting for Laurel K Hamilton's last "Anita Blake" book to come out in the bargain bins, as I don't want to pay the better part of $20 for the sort of soft porn I can find for free on LiveJournal!). Maybe it's just that everything they've got that I like, I've already purchased.

I tend to avoid bestsellers. Most of the time, they're in a genre I'm not interested in (particularly around the time of the Miles Franklin award over here, when the ones which get the table display are from the "literary fiction" genre, which I can't stand - a result of too much study of English Lit in high school). Occasionally, there's what I'd consider a "good" book (eg anything by Pratchett) in the bestseller display - but by the time it's there, I've already purchased it, read it about five times, and I'm now looking for something else. Oddly enough, the one place where I tend to find reasonable books is in the "remainders" trays - if that's the technical publishing-type name for the big piles of books which go at 5 for $20 or thereabouts.

I think the appeal of such trays for me is that if I make the wrong choice, I've only paid about $4 for the book - it's not such a nuisance as if I'd paid $20 for the book. My last such foray netted me at least three books I'll keep (two of which I already had before - one new find) and another author name to keep an eye out for. I'll also keep an eye on what people around me are reading, and compare my likes against theirs. But generally these days, if I'm making an impulse purchase, it's much more likely to be in the non-fiction section of the shop, rather than the fiction section.

To be honest, the biggest influence the Internet has had on my book buying is that it's slowed down the number of copies of Extruded Fantasy Product that I purchase. I can get it free on LiveJournal, so why pay for it in the shops?

#93 ::: Daniel Klein ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 09:11 AM:

I just realized that about 95% of the books I've bought "for fun" in the last year or so were either books I've seen mentioned on this blog (or found by following other links from this blog) or books that Neil Gaiman mentioned on HIS blog. Didn't regret one purchase either.

#94 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 09:57 AM:

REVEALED: what really drives the publishing world?

Endorsements from Making Light!

#95 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 12:43 PM:

Meg Thornton:

I'm waiting for Laurel K Hamilton's last "Anita Blake" book to come out in the bargain bins, as I don't want to pay the better part of $20 for the sort of soft porn I can find for free on LiveJournal!

Having broken myself of the "Anita Blake" habit (I found the Blake books written well enough to read when eating lunch or dinner but not to keep, then decided the sexual content was giving me an urge to shower after each book--not the sex scenes themselves, but the sense of a desperate author going "how far out can I get this time") and the female coroner habit (in my opinion Dr. Kay jumped the shark long, long ago), I'm sort of horrified at the idea of Anita Blake, LiveJournal Blogger. This is so wrong on so many levels that I'm reminded of the pro-anorexia community on LiveJournal, or the website for Anne Frank fan fiction...

#96 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 01:51 PM:

There is, of course, "Anita Blake's Blog," a sort of anti-fanfic abouthow ridiculous the Anita Blake thing has become.

#97 ::: Raven sees Teresa's word "go viral" ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 03:28 PM:

"Okayseller" spreads, and Teresa gets properly blamed for it.

#98 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 04:04 PM:

Five days from casual use to red hot neologism! Whooo!

Let's start a petition to get "okayseller" into the OED! I hear new word inventors get a pension from the Queen of four shillings tuppence per annum.

#99 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 04:15 PM:

kid bitzer #94 REVEALED: what really drives the publishing world? Endorsements from Making Light!

Works for me. My “if you can only buy one book this year” purchase was Spin. I recently picked up a copy of Tim Eldred's Grease Monkey in an ongoing “work in exchange for store credit” deal I have with a local comic book shop.

#100 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 05:44 PM:

I know of one instance where a publisher demanded the advance to be returned. This was before publication but after initial acceptance. It was pretty tough on the author. (It was non-fiction with a highly reputable semi-academic press.)

#101 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 01:59 PM:


First there was this post.

In response to it, Eirik posted this comment:

Nice term, okaysellers. Sort of like "midlist author", but with an economic twist. Most of my books have been okaysellers, which is probably why I still find it easy to sell book ideas to publishers. I wasn't able to locate the link to my statement about publishers and numbers either, but I've said it often enough and stand by it.

As an okayseller I see the result in the binary marketing approach of many publishers: they work from the premise that a book will either break through in the mass market or be ignored - if it doesn't get full exposure in mainstream media it might as well have none. Niche markets are hardly ever discussed outside textbook publishing, and the lack of hard numbers (even basics such as who buys what kind of books) would make it almost impossible to target specific groups anyway.

Here's the comment I would have posted, if I didn't get an error message every time I hit Preview or Post:
The company I work for discusses niche marketing all the time, and we pay close attention to all the numbers we can get.

Any publisher who took the attitude that "if [a book] doesn't get full exposure in mainstream media, it might as well have none," would quickly go out of business. There is no mass taste. The illusion that such a thing existed, back when, was a function of limited product lines, limited distribution, and (as a consequence) limited customer choice.

When I was born, there were fewer than 600 dedicated bookstores in this country, and most of them were in university towns and big cities. There were far fewer titles published every year. Now, people are buying and reading more books per capita than ever before. They're keeping the habit of reading later in life than they used to. And they're reading a much wider range of books. Bestsellers alone can't satisfy their wants and needs.

You know why bestsellers are important? The per-unit cost of a book drops off steeply as you print more copies. When you have a bestseller, not only do you sell scads of copies; you make more profit on each one of them. A few bestsellers can be the making of a major publishing house.

Nevertheless, the business of publishing does not consist of finding and publishing bestsellers. To illustrate: there's a funny thing that happens when some big conglomerate acquires a publishing house. Their bean counters go over the house's accounts and observe that while most titles make a modest profit at best, a very few bestsellers are very profitable indeed. At that point, they ask whether it wouldn't make more sense to only publish the bestsellers, and skip the rest. And then the publisher has to explain that no, it would not make more sense. In fact, it wouldn't work at all. You can't expect to have every plant in your garden be at its peak of bloom all the time.

But beyond that: how many books can you name that almost everyone likes?

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Perfect Storm
Huckleberry Finn
Bridge of Birds
The Killer Angels
Anything Can Happen
and arguably
Different Seasons
Nine Princes in Amber
The Last Unicorn
That's not enough to keep an industry going, or readers supplied with reading. (And yes, of course your own list will vary.)

Compare that assortment with old bestseller lists. They don't match up. For instance, The Da Vinci Code sold like crazy for a long time, but plenty of readers flat-out despise it. The same can be said of The Bridges of Madison County, The Godfather, The Celestine Prophecy, or the Harry Potter books. If you'd read them in manuscript, there's no way you could have correctly predicted reader reactions to those books in every case. They speak to too different a set of audiences.

You find out whether a book is a bestseller by publishing it. You can say it should have been a bestseller, or would have been one if the circumstances had been right; but you can never know.

And one other thing about that handful of bestsellers. Every one of them exists in a continuum of other books like them. Those other books -- okaysellers all -- serve the tastes of the readers who buy the bestsellers, and teach them the reading conventions they'll use to read the bestsellers. In a very real sense, the bestsellers couldn't exist without them.

#102 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 02:29 PM:

Hm, I see the problem. THe reporter has room for a 100 word blurb about the state of the publishing industry. A hundred words is an awful few words to describe the real state of teh industry. So, the reporter has to make a choice: punt the idea of summarizing the industry in an insanely small space, print a limited but accurate representation of some aspects of the industry, or print a highly emotive and metaphoric shpeel that completely misrepresents the industry but makes it sound like life and death.

If it bleeds, it leads.

#103 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 07:52 PM:

Teresa--Your 1st link in #101 doesn't work.

#104 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 12:50 AM:

What's a "dedicated bookstore"? I'd estimate that in the late 1960's there were around 100 bookstores in New York City.

#105 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 07:04 AM:

Robert, it works for me. If you can't get through that way, it links to

#106 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 05:38 PM:

A "dedicated bookstore" is a store that exists for the purpose of selling books.

New York City is not the whole country, nor is it typical of the whole country. (Neither is the Boston area; we had a good number of bookstores, too.) Prior to the 1970s, there were whole states that had one or two bookstores each, in the city where the state university was located.

And that is why Book of the Month Club and similar operations were a good business model. There wasn't any other practical way to get, or often even find out about, books that the local library didn't purchase with its limited budget.

#107 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 11:34 PM:

Do, say, "Barnes and Noble book and CD store and Cafe" count?

In any case, if New York City had 100 bookstores, it's hard to believe that the entire US had only 600.

#108 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2006, 10:03 AM:

I've never seen a B&N that didn't have minimum five times the square footage devoted to books of any bookstore I saw outside of Harvard Square prior to the first big Lauriat's in downtown Boston in the late seventies. (Exception: The Strand, in, um, what's that tiny little town? New York!) Yes, they devote some space to a cafe and some space to CDs, but books are not an afterthought. It's their core business.

Same with Borders.

Even in Massachusetts, outside of the Boston/Cambridge area, bookstores were few in number, and small. The arrival of Waldenbooks, which brought a bookstore to every mall, and then B. Dalton's, which got all the malls Walden's hadn't, was like water in the desert.

Outside of the relatively densely populated northeast, bookstores were really scarce. New York is not typical. New England is not typical. In the nineteen sixties, this "not typical" meant that NYC, Boston/Cambridge, and to a lesser extent the northeast generally, had a disproprotionate share of the bookstores in the country. NYC had a seriously disproportionate share. There really were whole states that had no bookstores except the one that served the main college town.

Or turn it around. Why was selling books by mail such a solid business model, if the average book reader could make a 10-to-30-minute trip to their local bookstore, and LOOK at the book before buying it?

#109 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2006, 01:18 PM:

Wow. I guess, then, even when there were only Anna Blum's Books, Browsers, and Pat's Bookery (the last in a mall built in 1965) in the Olympia area, we were already more bookstore-dense than average? Cool.

By the way, the Anna Blum's of which I speak was actually owned by Anna Blum, an emigre who'd grown up in the same shtetl as Marc Chagall; there are various bookstores up and down the west coast named after her, but she only owned the one in Oly.

#110 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2006, 01:37 PM:

I remember when White Plains, NY, got its first bookstore (1969). And that's a bare 40 miles from Times Square.

#111 ::: Nicholas Borelli ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2006, 09:39 PM:

70% of what you sell doesn't make a profit. So how many "okaysellers" are there? In print means remaindered in most cases.

#112 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2006, 09:51 PM:

Doesn't make a profit, or doesn't earn out?

There's a difference, and it's an important one.

#113 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2006, 09:35 AM:

Nicholas (#113):

I see over at your blog that you say:

This feminization phenomenon is hurting the book business. It's not profitable. Most books don't sell well enough. 70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance. 70 percent of the books published do not make a profit. (Source: �Some Startling Statistics� by Robyn Jackson) A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies. A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies. (Source: Ibid.) L�Amour sold 225 Million books.

The link you give is over to a place where someone is quoting a swodge of statistics from Dan Poynter. Dan is a self-publishing enthusiast, who really doesn't know what he's talking about as far as commercial publishing goes. He's also engaged in special pleading. Nor are his statistics given in any kind of context.

I see that faux-statistic that 70% of books don't earn out, therefore 70% of books don't make a profit all over the place, and it's equally false all over the place. Publishers start making a profit on their books long before that book earns out.

#114 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2006, 12:32 AM:

Borelli thinks his work doesn't sell because it's targeted at men. Well, I read the excerpt on his site and I think there's a different reason for that, one that Borelli doesn't want to admit to himself.

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