Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Living From Writing I: The Wolf At The Door

October 24, 2011 by Richard Wright in Journal, Writing

Long Tail

Been a nasty, wolfish couple of weeks in the real world. All calming down a bit now, thank goodness. Sometimes you need to make a seismic shift in your world view, and it can take some time for your head to catch up with the facts. Back on track now though.

However, I have a backlog of things to blog about, so prepare for a couple of days worth of World’s Collider, All Hallow’s Read, and more. Today though, let me close a couple of tabs in my browser that got me thinking long and hard, and natter a bit about the wolf crouched outside the door of the publishing industry. I’ve a lot of heavily conflicted thoughts about this, so bear with me over the next couple of posts.

For those of you not in the know, the business of writing and publishing books is in absolute turmoil right now, and authors and publishers are both struggling with some difficult questions about how they can survive in this new world. Most of this is related to the long tail theory of economics that now dominates publishing. That’s a graph of it, above. Basically, the Internet makes everything as available as everything else, 99% of the time. On the web, you have no more trouble getting a copy of my novel Cuckoo than you do Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. That, you would think, is a good thing for the author, but you’d only be half right. Such a vast choice has all sorts of repercussions, for the industry as a whole.

It’s the dream of most writers to be doing what they do full time. That’s an increasingly difficult prospect, unless you’re right at the top of the food chain (and of all the authors with books available, only a tiny amount have the level of fandom that can put them there). One big problem is the advance. To write full time, you need to pay the bills. Advances – that big chunk of cash you get when you sell a book to a paying publisher, and which they hope will be earned back through sales – are diminishing everywhere, and have vanished in some places. More will follow.

To be fair, this is not solely the fault of electronic publishing, though we’ll come to that soon. Advances have been eroding for a while, thanks to the massive power gained by the major distributors. It used to be the case that, to sell a single copy of a book, that book had to be sitting in a book shop somewhere (duh!). The first hurdle for a new author was to leave the hard to find underworld of what was then the small press (who might have websites and a cadre of fans, but were rarely able to get books into stores), and get their books in front of the public. That’s one of the reasons big publishers used to be of high value. With many competing book retail outlets seeking in-demand titles to sell to their customers, publishers held the key to the kingdom. They could set the rules of the game. It was, of course, still possible to be picked up by a big publisher, be well distributed, and have your book flop anyway, but that was the law of the jungle. To have a chance, you needed to be distributed well.

Then the big chains came along (Borders, Waterstone, B&N), and put many smaller competitors out of business. Amazon arose soon after, and stuck the knife in. Suddenly, a small group of massive retailers held almost all of the buying power, and could set the terms. Even the big publishers were caught off guard. Now, to sell even a copy of a book, you had to accede to the terms and conditions of the big retailers. Not being on Amazon was unthinkable, as everybody shops there. That meant that Amazon (and the big high street chains and supermarkerts) could demand a bigger and bigger cut of the cover price (over 60% in many cases). That meant less money going into the banks of publishers. That meant less money being handed out to authors in the form of advances. It had begun. Already, the midlist was feeling the squeeze – everybody from those authors not quite on the bestseller lists, down.

Then electronic publishing came into its own, and the problem worsened considerably for both publishers and authors. A vast number of electronic publishing contracts beget no advance at all. You’re working for royalties only. Sometimes, because of the slightly (yes – only slightly) lower overheads of electronic publishing, the royalty rates look good on paper. 70% of the cover price, instead of less than 10%? Sign me up!

Except everything is as available as everything else, all of the time. Customers have an enormous range of choice these days – more than they can ever read, all at the click of a button, with no need to expend much effort at all. The job of making a book stand out reverts more and more to the author, and becomes a case of marketing over everything else. Well and good, but there and hundred of thousands of authors, all trying to make their book stand out. A handful succeed, but marketing tricks are only novel once (when everybody else spots something that works for one person, and tries it, it loses all power because the customers get bored of it). There might be room for another couple of ‘hits’ to come out of Twitter marketing, for example, but that door is closing if it hasn’t already. Everybody uses Twitter for marketing. It’s almost lost its value for that purpose. It can still help to make people aware that you exist, but that’s different from engendering sales.

The end result of all this (which I’ve simplified enormously) is*:

  • Those at the top of the food chain, with big fanbases and wide distribution, will be fine for the forseeable future. Neil Gaiman need not worry too much about his next pay cheque.
  • The midlist cannot continue to exist as it has. Advances, where they exist, aren’t enough to live on. More and more sales come from the long tail in the graph above – dribbles of royalty-based sales over longer periods of time. These payments might peak and fall, but their unreliability makes full time writing almost impossible.
  • The newest writers struggle even for advances. They begin life in the long tail, and the idea of making a living from their work is ever more distant.
  • Publishers face the prospect of redundancy. What are they for? Look at what I did with Cuckoo, for example. The book is available in all formats, looks as good as most things on paper or in electronic form, and has been brilliantly reviewed. What’s more, all of the profit comes straight to me, as the publisher. I don’t need to share. There are overheads, to be sure – paying for professional cover designs, professional proof readers, handing over a proportion of sales to retailers, and so forth (and the risks of getting it wrong, looking like a hack, and losing countless potential readers is high), but after a month or so, Cuckoo is close to breaking even, and then I’ll be in the long tail of tiny profits, like everybody else. How would a publisher have brought extra value to that? Marketing budgets go on the big hitters. Nobody else really feels the benefit.
  • Agents… oh, I shudder at the thought. An agent lives off a percentage of the percentage that an author makes from his work. They therefore need a ‘stable’ of in credit authors from which to make a living wage for themselves. Unless they have a big hitter up their sleeve (Stephen King’s agent can probably rest easy for now, though he or she had better keep him happy…), they must be looking at their future in abject horror. What’s more, the economics of this devalue the work that an agent actually does. An agent is there to push the author towards publishers, to negotiate good contracts, and to protect the author from both his own worst excesses, and the industry’s. If you’ve got a big hitter earning you a chunk of change, you can devote the time needed to do that. Without one… well, if your stable of authors is generating less income (thanks to being in competition with everything that there is, all of the time), you need to increase the stable to make up the shortfall, because you have bills to pay too. With a bigger stable, you’ve less time to devote to the least successful authors, and that diminishes the value of seeking an agent at all. Who wants to give away 15% per cent of their shrinking income, if they’re not seeing the benefit of doing so. It’s basic law of diminishing returns stuff.
  • Finally, there is piracy to consider. It’s on the rise, and is easier than ever now that epublishing has a big chunk of the market. The reading public’s preference for books made of paper was the only thing stopping pirates from doing exactly what they’ve done to music and movies. The Kindle, and its competitors, have changed that. It’s both sad and entirely understandable that customers don’t often care if authors get paid, unless they’re close to the industry or the individuals affected. Harsh, but true. And why should they? Books will still be written, by those who love to write them. There will still be new titles. Old titles will still be available, easily, all of the time. There will be no drought of reading matter. If it’s as easy to download a book from an illegal bit torrent as it is from Amazon, without the bank account feeling the strain, why not do that (per the above, I know why not, but the majority of customers will never see the harm they’re doing)? Those small royalties generated over time from epublishing will become smaller still, because if it’s easy not to pay, then customers much prefer that. There are many noble arguments about people discovering artists and authors through piracy, then subsequently paying for other work by them. Against the above economics though, those arguments don’t really hold up for a second. Back in the day, if I had to give away ten paperbacks to get one person to actually buy one back, I would be in a unsustainable position. Obvious really. If you teach people that not paying is fine, why should they ever reverse that opinion? It’s the new starts and midlist writers, who are scrabbling for pennies already, who get most hurt by this.

All pretty grim, isn’t it? Part two of this rambling series of thoughts is here. I don’t have solutions. Some of what is grim here remains grim however you serve it up. Some other things can be addressed with a rethink. That needs to be done though, and soon. These are desperate times for everybody except the readers, who don’t know any different, and probably can’t be told. The old ways are dead. We need to find the new ones, urgently.

In the meantime, you can prevent me from taking a hot bath with a razor blade, by purchasing a copy of Cuckoo.

 

*in my opinion, as I see it, from my own guesswork, etc, etc…

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2 Comments

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