Observations about the Publishing Industry Part 1

There is much speculation these days about whether the publishing industry will survive. Many seem to fear that since authors can self-publish, publishers will be done away with. Notables in the publishing world—editors, authors, publishers—maintain that the publishing industry will survive because they serve as the gate keepers, allowing talented and skilled writers into their company and keeping the untalented and unskilled out. They point out that bestselling Indie books are usually terrible and that the good Indie books (there must be some, right?) are too hard to find. These assertions are true, so what is the problem? Something must be going wrong since so many writers are turning to self-publishing and because books sales have been dropping for such a long time.

I think there is a blend of problems that has led to the shaky ground the book publishing industry is on. The publishing industry is doing nothing to nurture new writers. The publishing industry has allowed marketers to make the final decisions about book aquisitions. The publishing industry chooses to create “star” writers and pay them millions in advances and advertise the stars’ books heavily while “midlist” authors (all the other authors) are paid about $5k as an advance and scant marketing is given to their books. Further, marketing follows a simple to-do list, without revising their marketing strategies or creating new marketing strategies. Marketing does not work to predict reading trends, they simply react after the fact. For instance, in the US, the No Child Left Behind Act, enraged many teachers who resented having to abide by the laws’ requirement of regular testing of students to determine children were learning and how many children were learning. The rage in these teachers produced a generation who refuse to read. These students did learn to read, but would only read Manga. If you have several years where children are taught to resent reading, then you are going to have a significant drop in book buying when these children grow up which is precisely what happened. Manga sales went up, other books sales went way down. It has been a few years since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, and by now either teachers have become used to the new procedures or new teachers have been hired to replace the old ones. Indeed, at least one principal fired all of his teachers because they did not bring up student scores. Now, unsurprisingly, Young Adult books are taking more and more shelves in bookstores. Teens are reading. Marketing should predict a future increase in all books because these reading teens will surely become reading adults. Way to go teachers!

So let’s look at the next issue. Why are writers self-publishing their books? I think we can safely assume that by and large they self publish because no publishers have accepted their books for publication. This will mean two things: one, that editors are turning down many bad books; and two, marketing, which has the final say in which books are acquired for publication, are turning down good books and choosing bad ones. Some of the bad books have some very good elements and good sections. These are writers with potential left to flounder on their own with their craft. They know they have talent, so they self-publish. Then there are the very good books that marketing nixes while at the same time accepting bad books that they know how to market according to their checklist—pigeon hole the genre, send out x many copies for reviews to these few reviewers, and send out fliers to these bookstore chains. The good books rejected by the publishing industry are then self-published by their authors because these authors want their books published. However, individual authors usually do not have the means to advertise their books sufficiently to be noticed and bring the appropriate revenue for their talent, skill, and work.

This boils down to three basic problems. There is not enough help for beginning writers; publishers need to improve their percentages of good books they choose over the bad ones they choose; and authors of quality Indie books do not have the means to make their books known. Clearly the best means of solving these three problems is through big publishers. Marketing having the final say of whether a book will be chosen for publication or not is a practice which has, I think, been directly responsible for much of the problems publishers face. Marketers are not trained in literature. Editors are. Publishers must return to the practice of head editors making the final decisions on what books are to be published. Next, the publishing practice of creating star authors who are paid one, two, even three million dollars in advances while those slated for “midlist” are paid about $5K for an advance and receive very little marketing of their books must be stopped. Marketing needs to start tracking literacy trends so that they can predict what markets will be broadening (and which shrinking) and hire more sales personal to make presentations about titles and establish more venues for sales. It used to be all sorts of shops would sell books, not just one big chain of bookstores and a few independent bookstores. Drugstores, dollar stores (once called dime stores), specialty shops all sold books. Every business school will tell you that a person who talks to you and puts a book in your hands will drive up more sales than just sending out a flier. A sales force works to bring in revenue.

In addition to making editors in charge of acquisitions and marketing strategizing for future sales and sales personal to sell the books, publishers need to invest in new writers. Publishers can nurture new authors and make money doing so. Since marketing will be predicting reading trends, not just trying to keep abreast of them, marketing will know what types of books will sell well. Publishers should open work-for-hire divisions focused on the genres that sell the best. For these work-for-hire divisions, authors would be contracted to write novels for a set number of years where they must meet deadlines, produce a set number of books, receive a livable salary, and do not receive royalties. The contract can include that another author in the bevy of work-for-hire writers can be assigned to any book to ensure its timely completion. Editors would oversee the writing of the novels; they would edit. At the end of the contracted time, the writer can be let go; the writer can be offered another contract; or the author can opt to turn to royalty paying contracts from whatever publisher wants to take the author on. This would be a very good deal for new authors and publishers because when an author in this work-for-hire bevy writes what proves to be a best seller, the publisher can pay everyone’s salary in the division and the author knows that in a few years either she’ll definitely be re-contracted for the bevy or can go for the royalty contracts.

Only the big publishers have the ability to acquire many titles, market many titles, set a big sales force in motion, and hire large numbers of the best editors. This is why publishing with big publishers will always be the best option for authors–if publishers will return decisions of acquisitions to those trained to make those decisions–editors, and if publishers establish a system for nurturing more new writers until those writers become steady producers of good writing. By hiring more great editors, acquiring more good books, hiring writers with talent, and requiring marketing to strategize and sell effectively, publishing will continue to be a valued and needed industry.

I would like to add that since corporations in the US are allowed to donate money to public schools, it would behoove the publishing giants to do so when cities and towns fall short of the funds they need to keep their excellent grade school reading teachers and middle and high school English teachers. If there are too few good teachers then there will be few book sales for years.


About Cynthia Clay

I was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. I'm an author who likes to write sf, fantasy, updated versions of old myths.
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