Here's a comprehensive discussion of the state of publishing in 2016, written by the witty and knowledgeable editor, author, and publishing guru Robert L. Bacon, a long-time online friend of mine.
As always, I want to offer a big welcome to the latest subscribers to my Newsletter, and ask each of you to consider ideas for subjects pertaining to writing and the publishing industry that you'd like to have discussed in a future edition. I particularly like it when I can utilize subscriber concepts for material for articles that I generally have accompany each broadcast. The current edition, however, is one of those rare broadcasts when one topic is so dominant that I classify the Newsletter as a "Special Edition" and do not facilitate an article to follow, as I don't want it to dilute the message. I apologize if this sounds invidious (or stupid), but I find current publishing trends important enough to discuss in a way that is unencumbered.
I don't believe many people have registered stronger opposition to Amazon's monopoly status than I, as the firm's reach extends to virtually all aspects of consumer commerce. But I've also pointed out what I consider the positive of what the company has created with respect to entities such as CreateSpace, which I found to be an incredibly "open" environment. Because of the TOC and Index in my book of articles, I've had all sorts of continuity and layout issues, the first with pagination and the second with respect to appearance, as Word didn't convert to a PDF for CreateSpace as I'd hoped. And for anyone who says that a PDF always converts exactly as it appears, I can assure that person that this isn't correct. "Bullets" create all sorts of problems, for example, and I had to resort to boldfacting a star symbol ( * ) in some text or I'd still be approaching another guru to help me. As it ended up, four different experts helped with this project before it reached completion.
This would never had occurred if the TOC and Index had not been components of the book, and this goes to illustrate that I should have started over with the TOC and Index--completely from scratch--instead of playing catch-up. However, in bringing this project to fruition, two customer service experts (and they are indeed experts with respect to CreateSpace) both spent several hours on the phone with me on two separate occasions so I could get everything in order. And they provided a link to an application I'm gong to share with subscribers because I found it exceptional. It is oddly named (in my opinion) smallpdf.com. I say oddly named because what it provides is anything but small, in that the site offers a dozen options which allow the immediate and FREE conversion of a text from Word to a PDF--and back again. And if I can do this, as those who have worked with me on layout issues will attest, anybody can.
I want to finish up this section on CreateSpace by acknowledging that the company's tech support has its detractors. And there are undoubtedly people who could have handled what CreateSpace's techs did for me in a fraction of the time. But I have to go by how people treat me, and the expense involved (yes, one can ask what my time is worth--and I would reply "very little," so this makes that comment nugatory, ha ha), and for this reason I give CreateSpace very high marks. I received a proof, with cover, in four days for around $4.50. To my way of thinking it's very hard to find fault with this. And after a half-dozen "close calls," I've finally approved a proof and ordered 30 copies as a trial run, and as promised I'll be sending autographed copies to folks who were kind enough to post a review of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! on Amazon. I'm sending out the books in the order in which the reviews were submitted, and I'll be verifying addresses, as the postage and packaging is expensive. Postage is especially high when shipping the book overseas, so I want to make certain the addresses are correct. SPECIAL REQUEST: As I've been preparing the mailing list to send out the print copies, I've noticed that the Amazon "name" is not one I can always match up to a subscriber who wrote a review, so if every person who's posted on Amazon will please verify your mailing address, this will expedite the shipping process. So please e-mail me your name and mailing address @ theperfectwrite.com, even if you have already done so. My hope is to have all the autographed copies in the mail by the end of the month.
As it ended up, the book cost me $4.49 per copy to have it printed, and when I order 30 copies at a time, the shipping cost, including carton, to me is just $18, hence my total cost is $5.09. which is right at the $5 fee I had desired from the outset. I'm not placing the print version on Amazon yet, so while the book will have an ISBN, it will not be priced. I plan, however, to list it at $18 for print, and I've raised the digital version to $7.99, a modification I announced some time ago but have just now implemented because I wanted this price increase to coincide with the release of the printed book. I really like the new cover (and since a number of people were not particularly fond of the digital cover, this should bring about a smile), and I once again want to offer my most heartfelt appreciation to Sheryl Dunn for designing it. Sheryl also put together some neat graphics and font modifications, but I wasn't able to use most of her efforts in this initial print addition because of my less than stellar layout skills, but I will incorporate her concepts when I do the next update.
Someone else I want to praise is Kimberly Hitchens, the founder of Booknook.biz. I've discussed her work before, and while she specializes in digital content, I believe that anyone planning a book layout would be wise to contact Ms. Hitchens to assess if her services might save an enormous amount of time and aggravation. I don't get a dime for recommending Booknook.biz, and I do so solely because of my confidence in her expertise and the way she and her staff worked with me on the e-book version of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! She also spent considerable time assisting me with the print copy, and any miscues in it are solely because my diddling, as there was a lot of last-minute tweaking that can always create problems. In the "final," I found a few spacing issues between words, but that's about it. Not making any excuses, but this is really hard to remedy when using a justified-text format and then having to manually hyphenate words at the end of lines so the text looks its most appealing overall. Professional typesetters have software for this that I of course don't possess, but I'm very proud of the way the book ended up, and I will fix anything missed when I add articles to what will be presented as the third edition. One thing I will do is set up each article separately and not have any headers follow at the end of a previous topic. I structured the current version this way so it wouldn't end up at 400 pages, as at 308 pages I believe it's bulbous enough already. But aesthetics will win out the next time around.
I've often remarked how it disappoints me that I have to dedicate so much space in virtually every broadcast to industry lawsuits. And while I continue not in any way to consider myself a moral compass of any sort for writers, if I don't report on some of what I consider to be vital legal actions and decisions surrounding the book-publishing trade, I'd be ignoring a major aspect of what authors at all levels must contend with. A decision was recently handed down concerning Writer Beware and America Star Books (formerly PublishAmerica, which has been very quiet of late from the perspective of public complaints against the outfit and its subordinate entities). The result of the lawsuit brought by PublishAmerica against Writer Beware was that both parties reached a settlement that includes refrain from discussing the terms of the arrangement. So, once again, nothing was accomplished that the rank-and-file PA author can utilize.
Writer Beware has done a lot of good, particularly early on, at protecting writers from scams, but I noticed a trend many years ago, primarily on the part of Victoria Strauss, one of the original co-founders of WB, to appear to accept writers' complaints as fact and then run with them on her site. I know of an incident involving her assailing an agent on the West Coast that was blatantly false. The agent's author and I discussed this in detail, and I was able to verify she (the agent) was telling the truth. Yet when confronted with the facts by the agent who was maligned, Ms. Strauss refused to admit she erred in her assessment. Her forced denial, as I viewed it, became what I deemed an unacceptable pattern. Hence, a half-dozen years ago I quit looking at anything coming from Writer Beware.
I'm routinely suggesting that subscribers pay attention to publishing trends; meaning, what genres are hot and which might not be sizzling away. I write Thrillers, so I'm hardly happy about what I'm reporting, but during the last business week in March (March 28-April 1) just a single book in the Thriller category was listed as signed by a Big 5 house. Yet during this same period 43 Children's books found a home. Granted, the Children's category takes in YA, Middle Grade, and Picture Books (and perhaps New Adult, but since no NA material was cited, this mention is academic), but if this doesn't point to the trend I've been discussing of late I don't know what does. Recognizing what's selling is important because this underscores potential as much as anything writers have available to analyze. For example, I don't believe I saw one Memoir signed in the past month, which is why I continue to mention the lack of opportunity for material in this genre. There's also been a downturn in digital--but not necessarily in the Children's subsets.
I said a million years ago that I can't see youngsters (little kids) not wanting to touch a book, especially if it has foldouts and other eye-catching graphics. Yes, much can be done with today's fabulous electronic media, but if a person has the chance to touch a gold bar or look at it, which would most people desire? I'd always wanted to run my fingers over a Van Gogh, just for the sensation of touching a painting by this master of masters. Silly me, huh?
I have labeled today's Newsletter as a "Special Edition" because of the space I'm devoting to publishing as it appears to have shaken out of late. What's occurred cannot guarantee future activity--good or bad--but some issues seem to be evident, and here are my observations:
First and foremost, for all that has been reported to have changed in the book business of late, I find that most everything--as it pertains to a debut author's material being signed--is virtually no different from when I first began writing seriously more than 20 years ago. It was extremely hard for a previously unpublished writer to break into the business then, and it's extremely hard now. Fifteen years ago I was told by an agent who had enjoyed a fine career placing fiction that he had now given up on the category, as it was impossible to place novels except by franchise writers. And some of this agent's clients' books had been made into movies. Comments like this could have made me give up on ever writing another novel, but I chose to continue in my insane ways and wrote five more works of fiction.
Before I go any further, I want to mention that a number of subscribers have asked me to clarify some of the terminology I use, as they aren't familiar with certain industry-specific words and phrases. With this in mind, I ask the indulgence of those of you who are more seasoned as I discuss the phrase "franchise writer." This is someone whose name alone will sell enough books to guarantee bestseller status and also whose gravitas as a writer can have a significant impact on a publisher's balance sheet. Robert Ludlum is the best example I can cite at present, since he passed away in 2001 yet his name is ascribed to a continuing series of books written by a bevy of authors. According to a figure I've read and to my knowledge hasn't been refuted, a book under his name has guaranteed sales of 300,000 copies--his fan base remaining that loyal. The granddaddy of all the franchise writers of course is James Patterson, and when was the last book he wrote under his own name? He'd been accused of using ghost writers for so long that I believe this is what forced him to ultimately acknowledge his "co-writers." Every book under his name is not only a bestseller, but it will lead The New York Times list, his following is this strong.
Substantial reader allegiance can be attributed to a list of "living" writers who include household names such as Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, J.K. Rowling, Nelson DeMille, John Grisham, Dan Brown, etc. If a legitimate count could be arrived at, I imagine that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 writers exist whose name alone assures massive sales. So if a person infers from my remark that 100 authors pretty much control the industry, I'm of the opinion that this statistic isn't far from the truth. And it's their sales that allow writers to enter the market, which creates the first problem, since four or five debut novels reportedly sell between 1,200 to 2,000 print copies, which does not come close to covering the administrative costs, printing, distribution, marketing (if there is any), and the author's advance (however meager this might be in today's literary climate). It's the franchise writers who make the mainstream publishing industry work, as without them no new author could break through.
By "mainstream publishers," I'm referring to the Big 5 publishers, which currently consist of Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and HarperCollins. Penguin/Random House is owned by Pearson which is owned by Bertelsmann, a German media giant. Hachette is owned by French media giant Lagardere. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS. Macmillan is owned by a German conglomerate with a name too long for me to write correctly. HarperCollins is owned by News Corp., which encompasses Fox and all the other outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch. Does anyone see a pattern in all of this? Independent publisher Kensington maintains about a dozen imprints, but even when all the independent publishers are added in with Kensington, it's fair to state that 90-plus percent of the industry is controlled by the five ginormous outfits. And some industry pundits indicate that more consolidation among these five is in the offing.
In the realm of "imprints," (an imprint being the name under which a publishing enterprise operates independently in various ways), Penguin/Random House controls more than 250 of these entities, many of which are gigantic names such as Knopf Doubleday, Penguin, and Crown. Hachette's imprints include Little, Brown and Company, as well as Grand Central. Simon & Schuster's holdings include Pocket Books, Scribner, and Atria. Macmillan has, among many others, Henry Holt and Company, Tor/Forge, and St. Martin's. HarperCollins's imprints include William Morrow, Avon, and Newmarket Press. With what has to be an inordinate number of corporate types looking at the bottom lines of these firms, including mom-and-pop investors as well, is there any reason to doubt that it's hard for a "new" author to break in? To put this in perspective, imagine taking a product idea to Johnson & Johnson and having it make it into production. Understand this and it's not hard to fathom why becoming published for the first time is such a difficult endeavor, and why it requires tremendous fortitude to pull it off, which brings me to the next point.
It's my belief that editors should do whatever is in their power to get a client's book in front of a bona fide agent or publisher. But it's very hard on a editor if a writer believes after just a dozen rejections that it's time to toss in the towel. J.K. Rowling sent out a a dozen queries for her mystery and wasn't signed until her Robert Galbraith pseudonym was disclosed by a publisher's wife at a cocktail party (infuriating Ms. Rowling). It was bandied about for years that Robert Pirsig's classic, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, required 137 queries before he landed an agent. I sent out more than 50 queries before I found my first agent back in the early '90s. I sent out more than 70 queries before a book of mine was signed by another agent 12 years later. I'm mentioning this because I'm seeing more and more instances of writers, and certainly not solely my own clients, who are sending out a handful of queries and calling it a day. I understand the frustration, especially when all sorts of advice is given that can be easily misconstrued. But if a writer is going to spend what quite often amounts to a year or two to craft a story, why wouldn't at least the same amount of time be spent trying to get it published by a mainstream imprint? It's my opinion that authors owe this to themselves, but we are a society that routinely demands immediate gratification--which in and of itself contributes mightily to the problem.
So the question that looms is this: What is the true story about self-publishing? I can only answer this by saying that--like most of what goes on this business--ten people will provide ten different answers. However, it's obvious by the enormous success of writers such as Amanda Hocking and Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James (Erika Leonard) that self-publishing is no longer the death knell for an author's credibility with a mainstream house. And writers such as John Locke and Hugh Howey (more on him later) have clearly demonstrated that people can thrive in a self-publishing environment--and in some instances solely in this setting. But there are issues that any writer who chooses this route must understand, and I'm now going to elaborate on them.
Personal elements must be considered for any writer who chooses to self-publish and is expecting to sell books. Very few mainstream-published authors beyond those at the franchise level (the mystical top 100) can quit their day jobs. Hence, what are the chances a self-published author can make money writing? I cited an author in a recent Newsletter who must depend on donations to keep her at the keyboard. I don't believe I'm out of line to suggest that most folks would have a hard time earning enough--by begging--to support a life as a writer. This goes to the next point; which is how many writers are also outstanding salespeople and marketers, as both skills are mandatory to glean even a modicum of sales? Every self-published writer I have as a client who has sold books in quality numbers has demonstrated excellent sales skills or marketing acumen or both, and to a person each author has exhibited an abundance of good old-fashioned persistence. If we polled 100 people who self-published a book, how many would exemplify the traits I've outlined? In many personal situations, financial, health, family obligations, and a myriad of other issues can cause a writer with the best of intentions to veer off track. To another point, how many writers have a blog with 400,000 acolytes hanging on every word, which brings me to Hugh Howey.
Mr. Howey, of WOOL fame, seems to believe that anyone can successfully self-publish by following a few basic guidelines. And by following his own pattern for success, he relatively quickly turned his $.99 book sections via Amazon into a $50,000-a-month income. I say: Try it. It will soon become obvious that without a huge blog following, as Mr. Howey developed, after friends and family run their course, the sales figures will likely become di minimis. Although John Green is mainstream published, as I wrote in a recent Newsletter, with the two million people following the blog he and his brother facilitate, he could write a book on the various configurations of bird droppings and he'd sell hundreds of thousands of copies. What I just wrote is not meant to denigrate work by either of these authors, but it's my opinion that their true respective genius is in marketing and not necessarily in letters.
Self-publishing should not be viewed as a panacea for debut writers who aren't yet able to find a mainstream publisher, but the category is also no longer the kiss of death for an author's ever landing a "big house." However, it must be clearly understood that after the first go-round with friends and family--almost all sales will be the generated by the author's personal efforts. Anyone unprepared or unable for whatever reason to follow through on the marketing side of things will likely have little or no sales results after the initial burst of F&F activity. The expense to the writer was why I fought self-publishing for so many years but relented when digital became a reality, and with print on demand via the likes of CreateSpace and Lightning Source offering paperbacks for less than five bucks for a single copy, I now have fewer concerns than ever that a personally published book is a bad thing.
The 800-pound gorilla in the past involved the vanity presses and weaving through all their machinations--and a minimum print run that required a writer to spend several thousand dollars, usually at least three and sometimes as much as seven or more; hence my sour remark that many a poor soul would eventually have to pay someone to haul away boxes and boxes of unsold books. Now, however, print on demand has made this a nonissue (or it should be), and a writer's financial exposure for the physical book is now limited to layout and the cost of the cover design if outside assistance for either is desired (both fees can be quite modest).
I want to finish this section by discussing what I started with, and this is mainstream publishing and what I hope I covered clearly as some of the pitfalls. I read a piece not long ago that was attributed to Esther Newberg, one of the true industry giants, who plies her trade at ICM, a billion-dollar literary and talent agency on the West Coast. Anyone unfamiliar with Ms. Newberg and ICM can get a full report on the Internet, as a tome of material is available. What caught my attention in the Esther Newberg article was her comment that the big bookstores don't help new writers, as books are kept on the shelf for a week or so and shipped back if not sold. This caused me to recall an incident when I was trying to help a client via a Barnes & Noble in South Florida a couple of years ago. I knew the person at the store responsible for ordering books carried by B&N distributors, so I asked if she'd stock a book by a client of mine, as I was planning to showcase the novel in an upcoming Newsletter. She agreed to bring in a few copies but made it clear that if there wasn't activity within a week--the books would be returned. One lousy week! So I e-mailed her the day my Newsletter was broadcast. A while later I asked for the sales figures but I was told they were proprietary. I wanted to know because a couple of people told me they'd visited the B&N to buy the book but it was unavailable at that time. They both told me they purchased later through Amazon, but who's going to be this persistent if not prompted in some way--in this case to support a client of mine.
Since bar codes can also be used for inventory control, it's easy--unless a slow-selling title (book) is misfiled, ha ha--for it to be snatched up and placed on the "out" cart. I used to hear back in the dark ages that a book had 90 days to prove its market, but what I've just reported certainly flies in the face of this. I'm of the opinion that if a debut author's book doesn't take off within a couple or weeks of its release, by month's end the book and the author will be toast. And without marketing, what are the chances the book will attract an audience? Someone said to me once that book covers sell. This is true, but aren't most books displayed "spine out" in a bookstore? A few years ago one of the chains experimented with "cover placement," but this requires more space to display a title and I don't see much of this (there's a formal name for this sort of positioning in advertising lingo but I forget what it's called).
So what conclusion(s) can anyone draw from what I just wrote? It's that things on the mainstream side really haven't changed. A small bloc of established authors control the market, and someone trying to break in has a tough row to hoe. But the self-publishing side of the equation is now a free-for-all, as the barriers to entry are essentially nonexistent. Anyone who's computer savvy can hook up with a POD entity and have a book done digitally for no cost whatsoever (other than time) and on the print side for five bucks or so for an average-sized book (80,000-100,000 words), with the freight and packaging costing almost as much.
I continue to suggest that my clients pursue a mainstream publisher via an agent as the first option, as a dozen or more debut works are listed in Publishers Marketplace and elsewhere each week. Hence,"new" authors do get signed, but it's also important to understand that just because a writer is agented, this does not mean that his or her book(s) will ever receive an offer from a publisher. Agents never disclose how many properties they hold onto or just how many books they took on but weren't published in a given year, but please believe that every book signed is not sold. Then add to the equation that just one out of four or five books by new authors is considered successful. So it's a tough business, but so is making a hit record or painting something that will sell; anything for that matter in the world of creative arts. But we all do what we do because we feel that we can make a legitimate contribution. This is the premise behind what I do, and I hope that every Newsletter subscriber maintains the same degree of confidence. It's truly what it's all about.
As subscribers to my Newsletter are aware, most everything I've compiled for this presentation was disseminated in previous editions. However, I've recently received requests for clarification or further discussion of the various components, so I decided to offer everything in one "paper." My desire is certainly not to dissuade anyone from writing. To the contrary, my goal is to suggest that--while the business has never been easy--options now exist which are no longer considered undesirable. Today, any writer can see his or her name in print or in a digital format without having to spend what for many people is a substantial sum of money. Yet with all this being said, success, if this is to be measured in books purchased, will still require a great many things to fall into place, and in all instances require--now more so than ever because of the sheer volume of people participating--the author's sales efforts and marketing know-how to make it all come together.
Robert L. (Rob) Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®
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