November 30, 2008

"The gloom that has fallen over the book publishing industry is different from the mood in, say, home building."

"At least people know we’ll always need houses."


Bissage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bissage said...

If your house is old enough it was built without closets.

Every new house today has a spot for the refrigerator.

If you want built-in bookcases in your new house, you will have to pay extra, and they will go on either side of the wide-screen television, which is on the wall, just above the fake fireplace.

Original George said...

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Monday suspended temporarily acquisitions of new manuscripts.

Like a bread company not buying flour or GM not buying steel.

“There is a freeze-lite,” [a spokesman said] “There is a way in so it is not a hard freeze but for right now, there is a temporary — call it a freeze if you want.”

He added, “Every new manuscript that comes in is going to be subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny and consideration than has previously been the case.”

Translation: Unless you are a doctor with a proposal for a new diet book, a celebrity with an idea, a politician with a memoir whose influence we need, or someone with a track record of strong sales, don't waste your time. Put your stuff on the web. Give it away. Try to build a following on-line. Then talk to us.

I bet we'll start to see name-brand authors like Stephen King create fan clubs like rock bands and Rush Limbaugh. Pay $40 a year and, in return, get a T-shirt and extra crap direct you can't buy through traditional distribution mechanisms, because publishers are really little more than distributors.

Bissage said...

Mrs. Bissage adds: And while you are touring the builder’s model home, those bookcases will contain fake books; old spines glued to cardboard boxes.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

GOSH that's depressing.

MadisonMan said...

One of my facebook friends is an author who has just turned in book #2, and he's of the opinion that the acquisition freeze is happening so the company can spend all its energy on his forthcoming book.

My opinion is that books will continue to be published. Why? Because there's a market for them.

rcocean said...

The article seems to be about the industry of book publishing. Who cares?

Frankly, I'm tired of a bunch of greed-heads trying to make money off peoples love of knowledge. Encyclopedia's can longer charge you extortionate amounts for basic facts. Boo Hoo.

Original George said...

Ah, Madison--

That's the problem....the book publishers typically devote 90 percent of their marketing money on 10 percent of their books. If you're a new or what's called mid-list (so-so selling) author, there's no promotion. It's even worse....the book biz is like Hollywood: Of those 10 percent of new titles, some substantial percentage will be total bombs and never recoup the publishers' investments. The business model is broken. That's why the process is frozen. The next time oil prices shoot up sky-high, people will really stop buying books, because the cost to manufacture and distribute them will rise concomitantly, to use a big word.

Trooper York said...

Online is the way to go. I enjoy military science fiction and alternative history and Baen books has a great webscription service. You can buy a set of five new titles for about $20. Or you can get an advanced readers copy before it is even published. They also have a free library of old titles that you can download at no cost. This is the future of publishing.

Synova said...

If you've read many very old books something will become clear.

They suck.

Even most of the classics suck.

They suck because they were written in long hand on paper with a pen. There are boring sections and continuity errors and changes in tone and self-indulgent diversions.

It's a bit like certain folk or traditional music that doesn't have the concept of phrases or even an end, it's just a twiddle that goes on while the vikings dance until the musicians get tired of that one and just quit and start something else.

We expect more now.

And people deliver more now.

It doesn't take a lifetime of tweaking and editing to produce something as wonderful as the Lord of the Rings, because the writer has the benefit of technology also. He or she can make back-up copies, edit with ease and deliver stories that get to the point or take us on lengthy diversions through interesting places.

It's no longer the case that if you wrote something coherent and entertaining you could get it published with no editing at all. The physical process of producing that manuscript no longer keeps the majority of competition away.

holdfast said...

Trooper - I'm a big fan of Baen too, but they still do paper publishing too. The publishers are resisting, but electronic distribution is the way of the future - you can present a book to the entire world with a lot less overhead - it is the bookstores that will really suffer - savvy publishers will be ok.

Trooper York said...

Oh I know Holdfast; I am one of those idiots who have to hold a book in his hands. So I print out these books and have bunches of loose sheets floating around unbound held together with those big clamps you use in the office. It drives my wife crazy.

I end buying it online and then in the bookstore too! It is like the days when you would buy the vinyl record and then went and bought the cd.

I just like the subscription service like they do with the Grantville Gazette where you just pay and can log on and get new product. That’s way cool.

Synova said...

Baen seems to do pretty good with the revenue split on its e-books. I couldn't say what the big names get, but the numbers I heard were decent. OTOH, the numbers I've heard for the tiny e-book publishers that do print-on-demand as well as electronic, were pitiful, hardly more than royalties for paper books. And the hopeful authors don't know better. And they should. If they aren't getting near 50% of sales they're getting ripped off. Yes, the publisher has overhead, but nothing like printing and distributing. (Something like lulu is self-published POD so the author pays... that's different.)

Matt Eckert said...

The Baen books are targeted at fans who know the authors or at least love the genre and are willing to give new authors a chance. It is an audience of regular people not snot nosed literary pretentious pussies.

There is a minimal audience for the pretentious drivel that is the output of most of these publishers.

That is why they fail. If they market to their audience and keep their costs down they should do fine. Of course those people are worthless scumbags who won't spend any money anyway. Just complain about the "lack of quality literature."

Phony douche bags the lot of them.

Matt Eckert said...

I love Baen books and read them on the computer all the time. I love Honor Harrington. That is great reading.

Theo Boehm said...

My wife is a book editor, who spent a dozen years at Houghton Mifflin as a senior development editor and a few years more with D.C. Heath and an obscure division of Thompson you probably never heard of.

She has gone freelance for the past 9 years because, well, the publishers essentially got rid of their in-house editorial staff. Why? They cost too much. They had to pay benefits, etc. Publishers can get the same work out of my wife at the kitchen table for half the cost of her in one of their cubicles.

The editors who are left in-house are essentially harried traffic cops, who wouldn't think of looking at copy, much less editing it. Editing? What's that? The dirty little secret is that most of the people left in-house don't have a clue about the subject matter they are responsible for, not to mention about how to efficiently produce a good book. The higher managers don't either, except they have the usual repertoire of B-school marketing and cost-cutting measures memorized and ready to deploy, like so many trained monkeys. Ah, yes, the 'business model.'

My wife does reference and textbooks, and she also does a fair bit of French editing of all kinds, so she doesn't have much to do with 'trade' books. But the issues are very similar, except trade is frothier and even crazier than textbooks, if such a thing is possible.

As others have mentioned upthread, the costs to publishers have increased substantially, mostly in printing and distribution. The response has been to get rid of competent editorial and production people, and keep the frisky ignoramuses and broken business models. Things will NOT be the same in 10 years. They won't be the same in 5, or maybe even next month.

Yes, a lot has moved to the internet, but, as both Trooper and the NYT article pointed out, people still want to have physical books in their hands. Printing them out yourself is one answer, but that always will be expensive and flaky, so I think the future both for trade and textbooks will be more print on demand, especially as that technology improves and POD books become better physical objects, able to compete with traditional printing and binding.

One little historical note: In the 18th century and before, printers would often sell the loose pages of a book, because the major expense was in the binding, and there were plenty of people like Trooper, but in tricorns and wigs, who wanted to read, but didn't want to deal with the expense of a bound volume. If you really liked the book and wanted to keep it, you could have it decently bound later.

In an odd way, publishing is returning to something like its 18th century past, with many small printer/publishers making many small runs of books and selling them themselves or through a low-cost network of small booksellers, and, of course now on the internet.

There may be no lack of people in this world, but the days of both the 'masses' and the mass market are over in many areas, publishing not the least of them.

Trooper York said...

Hey Theo, can your wife get to work on some of those dirty French lady books like Anaïs Nin used to write? That was some good spanking material there.

Thank you, your friend Trooper.

Theo Boehm said...

Sorry, Trooper. My wife doesn't do those kind of French books ;->

Anyway, it sounds like what you want are translations, and my wife resolutely refuses to do translations.

She just finished editing a French translation of some of the work of Mary Baker Eddy, however, if you want something in French written by a lady.

She says the people were absolutely lovely, and the work was engaging and interesting. She would gladly do more for the Christian Scientists if they need her.

Reminds me of the music publisher I once knew. Most of his work was hymnals and religious music. I asked him why, seeing as he was a jazz guy. He said that the work was steady and well-paid, and the people were super nice, unlike anywhere else in the music world.

I'm wondering if religious publishing is generally like this? I think you do have to be a Protestant, though. My wife has done work for the Catholic Church, and it was as harried and low-budget as anything in the commercial world. Although she could feel good about sharing her talents for the benefit of the Church, she is not above doing work for other denominations if they pay her and remain super nice, as they all have done so far.

My wife says she would work for 15% less if the people are super nice.

Being super nice is, as yet, a cost-cutting method untried by big publishers. The just don't teach that sort of thing in business school.

Celia Hayes said...

Well... that is why other frustrated writers like me (I do historical novels about the American frontier) are turning increasingly to POD, to subsidy publishing - just to get our books out there. I helped found a writers' collective, the Independent Authors' Guild - sort of like indy movie makers, like indy musicians... we are indy authors. Most of us have books - some of them are terrific, many of them are at least adequate... but every one of our members has done the traditional publishing merry-go-round, or even the hopeless task of trying to get an agent who will (might-maybe-cross-your-fingers-and-hope) get a book in front of someone at a traditional publishing house. We all have given up those options as a waste of energy, done our books by forming our own publishing company, or going with a POD house and putting that energy into marketing our books on our own. The old publishing model is crumbling and falling - the new way is just starting to find a way...
Kind of like the way bloggers began to find a way around the old way of reporting news.

Check out . Not every book listed there is the next Ulysses, or even the next Gone With The Wind - but they are all written and promoted by writers who are looking ahead to the next paradigm.

Freeman Hunt said...

Last time I printed out a free book, I didn't use my printer. I uploaded it to Kinkos and had it spiral bound between cardstock covers. Worked great and was pretty cheap.

Celia Hayes said...

That's about there the future is going - if an experimental item like the Espresso Book Machine takes hold. (there's a nice youtube video about it going the rounds)
Basically, one can pick out an electronic file for a book that you like the looks of, and it can be printed and bound as a paperback book for you in minutes.
Indy authors have a lot of hopes for it because it bypasses one of the big hurdles for making our books available at a competitive price. So much of the cost of a book is taken up by the printing, warehousing, distribution and shipping costs - something like the Espresso, or even just taking a file to Kinkos - eliminates that obstacle right there.
All there is left is the reviewing and marketing - and most authors have to do that for themselves anyway.

save_the_rustbelt said...

With the exception of some niches (detective and thriller, science fiction) most recent fiction is unreadable - good grief.

And do publishers still use editors? Thomas Friedman writes a great 200 page book in 400 pages. Same with Malcolm Gladwell.

Regrettably 98% of my reading is non-fiction and work related, so I dedicate my 2% to classics, or the occasional heaving bosom novel.

Want to seel books? Sell good books.

Theo Boehm said...

Freeman:  That's exactly what a lot of professors do with customized 'course packets,' essentially do-it-yourself textbooks.  Those, of course, are one of the reasons my wife does less and less textbook work.  But who can blame an enterprising professor trying to save his or her students money, when 4-color monstrosities of college textbooks can cost upwards of $100?

Printing at Kinko's and spiral binding is essentially low-rent POD, which is perfectly OK for course packets and materials you just want bound in a tolerably good way to keep and use yourself.

Obviously, not everyone is going to go to the expense of a Lulu-published book for material off the web, but there is something to be said for the experience of handling and reading a "real" book as opposed to a temporary binding. This technology is evolving, so it looks like even the current POD publishing strategies are changing quickly, so who knows where it all is going, as Celia Hayes says.

save_the_rustbelt: Publishers USED to have real, live in-house editors. Most of them currently support the antidepressant pharmaceutical industry. My wife still edits, but mostly reference and textbooks, where they just can't get rid of them completely, dammit.

BTW, best of luck to Celia Hayes. The Independent Authors' Guild is interesting, and I like what I've seen so far.
(No extra charge for the live link ;-)

Theo Boehm said...

Also, did I mention the mob having gotten into the used textbook market?

Another reason for anyone connected with the traditional publishing industry to consider a career change to food service.

Synova said...

but there is something to be said for the experience of handling and reading a "real" book as opposed to a temporary binding.

I'm optimistic about publishing the old fashioned way (or at least the Baen, new fashioned way) because for all the complaining there are new books bought from new authors all the time.

My main problem with this ambition is that I can't get through the middle and to the end (even if what I do get written is pretty good - and I have enough imput from published and talented writers to say this is not just the opinion of my mother!)

Still, being published is sort of an abstract, might-never-happen, event. It's hard to envision that end... after all, I can just "tell" my cool story and fun ending to my husband and friends if they're the only ones who will ever read it anyway. Right? So why write it all down?

I've decided to give myself a goal that doesn't depend on a slim chance of publication. I've decided that I'll get a book to hold and keep on my shelf, even if no one buys it. At the moment that's Lulu, and I think it's a good plan.

Celia Hayes said...

Go with Lulu, Synova - or iUniverse, or Booklocker or any of the others, although Lulu's services probably fit best what your needs are.

Still and all, I think the next step for many of writers who have done a couple of rounds with a POD subsidy publisher is to set up as a publisher themselves, and contract the Lightning Source (the major printer for POD books in the US)- thereby cutting out the middle-man. Organize the editing (my upcoming release, "The Adelsverein Trilogy" was edited by a couple of IAG friends, in exchange for me doing feedback and editing for their books), get an ISBN, put the manuscript into the required format and design the cover. It's a bit of work, of course but there are all sorts of resources available that weren't there five years ago, never mind ten years ago. I would estimate that at least 10% of the IAG have created their own little micro-publisher to do their own books. Those of us who are planning to write more books in future will probably do the same, or club together with other indy authors.

Mainstream publishing has done it to themselves, by preferring to bank on sure things, celebrity authors and blockbusting best sellers that are just exactly like the last fifty block-busting best sellers. Admittedly, part of their problem is that there are a lot of hopeful writers out there these days, and the piles of manuscripts to go through are about as tall as the Alps. But there are plenty of excellent writers out there who have pretty much given up on mainstream publishing, who would have stuck it out trying for a deal ten years ago. They don't have to wait any more; now they can move on, and get their book out there, even if just to a small audience.

Kirk Parker said...


"It doesn't take a lifetime of tweaking and editing to produce something as wonderful as the Lord of the Rings, because the writer has the benefit of technology ... "

Oh, yeah? Name one!


"Also, did I mention the mob having gotten into the used textbook market?"

Wow! Have you got a link to something on that?

Theo Boehm said...

Kirk: Sorry not to have responded sooner. These threads die faster than the moths that showed up in my porch light the other night between spells of 25° weather. It warmed up again, so here I am.

Anyway, the story of the mob's involvement in the used textbook business is probably not on the web, so I can't give you a link. It was told to me by a vice-president in the college textbook division of one of the major publishers. Wild horses could not drag anything more out of me, except to say that the mob is in all sorts of unexpected businesses.

Think about that the next time you buy a part for your car or breathe particularly foul-smelling diesel fumes.