The Suicidal Casino Mentality Of Print Publishing

This week I was informed by yet another writer that he’s being dropped by his publisher.

In every single case, it has never been a matter of the writer not earning-out — that’s industry-ese for making a profit — it’s always been a matter of the writer not making “enough” money.

What the hell is “enough” money, exactly?

Publishers love to whine about how they have to — allegedly! — prostitute themselves by publishing shallow and crappy books that are the equivalent to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster films.

The worst book I have ever read — and I read all of it too!

They whine about how spreading their legs like that allows them to do what they’d really rather — allegedly! — do: publish real writers. The (potentially!) big-selling crap, they say, subsidizes all the real writers whose books don’t make any money.

And yet here is one publisher dropping such a real writer.

And that writer is making them money.

Just not “enough” money.

So what the hell is really going on here?

None of these are beginner writers, either. They have each had more than five books published. All of which earned out and made profits.

So what the hell is really going on here?

I think I know.

Print publishing has given up.

It’s doing a silent surrender, sloughing off writers and books, while attempting to parasitically hold onto a writer’s property as a long-term bet. (None of the writers have been granted rights reversions.)

Unable — unwilling! — to adapt to the digital future, behind the scenes the upper echelons are planning for a day when they will do some massive layoffs, shrinking considerably from their present size.

Somewhere out there is a mad bastard of a consultant who has hammered home to them the Hollywood Model.

The sales pitch probably went something like this: “Look at the movie studios. How many films do they put out a year? That is your future too. You concentrate your limited resources on a core set of blockbuster bets — and when you see something someone else has done, you do what today’s studios do — you do what they call a “pickup.” You license the rights. And you can get them for a song. The downside is small with a big upside for you.”

The trouble with this is that it’s inevitably doomed to failure.

What such a shyster consultant leaves out is the massive money spent by Hollywood on marketing, marketing, marketing. And not only that, movies have stars.

In the book world, the writer is the star. And the director. And the … writer.

And a self-published writer doesn’t need a publisher to come along later for any “pickup.”

Books aren’t like movies, where large corporations have a stranglehold on distribution and viewing outlets.

Hell, in extremis, a writer can turn to Smashwords — which can get a book into the Sony eBook Store, the Apple iBookstore, and even the Kindle Store.

And when that writer’s solitary hard work has struck gold, why the hell would he want to share it with someone who hates writers? With someone who, in fact, either rejected or dropped him?

Until recently, book publishing did not pimp writers. It pimped books.

It was probably Stephen King who was the first writer to be pushed as a brand name (hence his reason for writing under a pseudonym).

Now we’ve seen it with Clancy, Grisham, and the AntiChrist of writing, James Patterson.

Hell, even J.K. Rowling wasn’t pimped as J.K. Rowling. It was Harry Potter that was the brand.

The theme park in Florida isn’t named for Rowling!

Still, that’s a lot of power to invest in a few “blockbuster” hands.

And the marketing of these branded people is nothing like the money spent on movies. A blockbuster’s marketing budget can approach half of the movie’s budget itself. Try that with a blockbuster book and you wind up with something that’d be a rounding error for a movie’s marketing budget.

The entire scheme rests on nothing. It’s all a Sethworld-like delusion.

It’s nothing more than a cheap appeal to the vanity of Suits who measure output solely by money without any regard for the thing that produces that money.

Let me make something clear for those who seem to have missed the damned point of some of my past posts. When I said publishers are information engines, that was stripping them down to their naked function, to get to the heart of things. Technologists in publishing should be a handmaiden to — not the overlords of — print publishing.

Because publishing is about publishing, dammit, not discrete and contextless information. It’s about stories. As I said once before: Books sell dreams.

A book is not a damned Google search result. It’s the information behind that search result.

And for that matter, print publishers, do you ever see Google saying, “No, we won’t crawl your site for our search engine because you never got ‘enough’ hits”? Google understands that more equals more. It understands the economics of crowds.

A book is not a movie, either.

And a digital book is not a movie, either.

Print publishing needs writers. It needs every single writer whose books have turned a profit, no matter whether or not it’s deemed “enough” profit.

You editors who are being instructed to drop writers, I’ve got news for you: you’re being asked to slowly slit your own throats.

Fight back, dammit, before your job is dropped next!


Sanity check for publishers
Business wisdom from blue corduroy…


8 responses to “The Suicidal Casino Mentality Of Print Publishing

  1. First, great post. This was a magnum opus for the week, past couple of weeks. Glad you called me in on it.

    It occurred to me today when I was reading something somewhere about the godforsaken music industry and how pathetic they are. In light of yesterday’s SDNY decision holding that Limewire infringed copyrights everywhere, and also in consideration of Law & Order being ixnayed by NBC after 20 years of being, well THE SECOND LONGEST RUNNING SHOW (meaning there is some modicum of success attached to it), AND the advertising industry succumbing to digital (and finding there is a lack of talent to support the new growth in this area) that it’s the entire entertainment business model which is being deconstructed.

    We are deconstructing it. (I love how wordpress underlines deconstructing as if it’s a misspelling. That’s classic.)

    So Mike, as much as you love to pick on print publishing–and I’m with you there–it’s television and music as well which are undergoing this fundamental soul-searching process.

    Eh, it’s change. Everyone gets their panties in a bunch when change is on the horizon. Now that change is kicking down the front door, traditionalists are huddled behind the couch throwing water balloons at us.

    Get ’em.


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  3. Publishing is an interesting and unique business that walks a fine line between art and commerce. If you are expecting to make a career out of writing then you need to be writing to the commerce side of publishing.

    I am sure it seems that publishers are callous and uncaring but as large publicly traded companies they have an obligation to turn a profit. Right or wrong that is the situation. The amount of costs associated with publishing a book that these publishers track go beyond a simple P&L. In order minimize the bleeding revenue loss of the the last few years most have had massive layoffs. Less people to edit, market, write press releases, set up title files, sort the slush pile, fix paper jams in the copier, sell to retailers etc. Less people mean less books. Do you cut based on artistic merit or sales potential? It’s an easy answer in New York.

    The economy the digital book market has changed the sales pattern for mid-list authors. Though eBooks are still a small percent of overall book sales eBook readers are significantly made up of the most avid readers. Those are the hardcover book buyers. The cheap retail price of eBooks and siphoning off of hardcover purchasers significantly hurt cash flow and make hardcover publishing less profitable. Computers also present the challenge of publishers having to deal with very sophisticated POS sales reporting. An author is only as good his previous book’s Bookscan numbers. Retailers run trend reports and buy based on projected turn and $s per square foot targets. For every book there is another that could sell more in that same shelf space.

    Publishers invest in multiple books from an author with the goal of building that authors audience. They are always looking for the next King or Rowling. But authors also are judged on backlist sales and if annual backlist sales drop below profitable reprint quantities then that is sign author audience is shrinking not growing.

    Though they seem greedy and callous the big publishers are adapting (quite painfully) to a new bookselling model and landscape. This is not a sudden change to the Hollywood blockbuster model. Blockbusters have have always been the model and driven the business since the late 50’s. Steven King was not the first author to be marketed as a brand, Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann where star icons and names above the title decades before King.

    While it may seem unfair if you are an author that has been dropped by a publisher I think it is important to remember that this is not a salaried job. The publisher does not see it as dropping an author they see it as passing on a title they don’t feel meets their needs and goals.

    It is an entertainment industry and the key to ongoing success is marketability. Publishing is a volume based business so rather than Hollywood I would instead think Television. Shows are canceled all the time. Pilots are green-lit and fail daily sometimes simply based on a star’s Q rating.

    A publisher passes on a profitable writer’s next book because there is another writer that they think will be more profitable to allocate their resources to. And in the end some dreams are just more marketable than others.

  4. >>>If you are expecting to make a career out of writing then you need to be writing to the commerce side of publishing.

    Riiiight. Like Van Gogh should have done, what, fucking portraits of the Burghers?

    >>>I am sure it seems that publishers are callous and uncaring but as large publicly traded companies they have an obligation to turn a profit.

    This is where I stop reading. Whenever someone brings up that, the person has NOTHING to say.

  5. They are nothing but parasitic shits who have fed off the sacred blood of creators for too long. The ride is over. Time for them to lose everything and starve to death in a cardboard box on the street. No sympathy.

  6. Vicki Gundrum

    This post is one of those just-in-time reads for me. People in the industry are showing interest in my first book–but know what? I don’t feel powerless. Maybe it’s time for Smashwords, maybe even with a publishing offer I should do-it-myself. I’m not in the fantasy world of writing for riches. Stress is my enemy, and I want to write and publish. Your posts are helping me understand my options. Thanks.

  7. If they’re offering money, grab the money but try to keep e-rights. You can always write again.

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