Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New York Publishing: worms in the big apple

First, let me apologize profusely for the Christian propaganda appearing in the Google ads on this page. Not my design, guys! The engine is just zeroing in on the discussion of Sarah Palin and her end-of-days aspirations. (Apparently, Jesus has his tickets booked, and as soon as her fundamental group have eliminated the unbelievers from the entire world ... he'll be back.)

If the Google ads get any more bloody evangelical, I'll be dropping them, because they're getting borderline ... non-Christian visitors (from the GLBTI community or not) to this blog to NOT need to be visually hammered with "experience Life in Jesus Christ," and "how should Christians respond to homosexuality within the family?" (Personally, I admit to being fascinated by the one that keeps showing up, "Was Jesus a Lunatic?" The only problem is, the landing page seems to be down. One might hope that they got so bombed with traffic after the ad started to circulate, they crashed a server. That would be solid reason for the landing page being unreachable.)

But --

This is a gay books blog, damnit! I've only made a handful of political posts, because I was so motivated by the news which found its way to my desk in the last few days, and which I covered in two or three journal entries --

Everything that can be said by me on that subject has been said! If you're here looking for the slime on Palin and McCain, I'll give you the links right here ... and then I'm going to talk about PUBLISHING for the remainder of this post!!

For the update on the impeding Apocalypse, go here:

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/president-sarah-palin-commander-in.html - "President Sarah Palin: commander-in-chief at the end of days"

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/not-gay-think-youre-safe-wrong-jewish.html -
"Not gay? Think you're safe? Wrong. Jewish, Pagan ... Sarah Palin is hunting for your hide."

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/palin-and-mccain-advocating-new-aids.html -
"Palin and McCain: advocating a new AIDS epidemic."

and for my commentary on the Californian gay marriage rights issue:

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/gay-wedding-bells-can-be-expensive.html -
"Gay wedding bells can be expensive."

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/see-what-youre-up-against.html -
"See what you're up against?"

and for gay rights seen as a sub-set of the wider field of human rights:

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/here-comes-damocles-with-his-chainsaw.html -
"Here comes Damocles with his chainsaw"

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/in-landscape-of-spring.html -
"In the landscape of spring."

And now, on to other topics which are just as aggravating in their own way, but have nothing whatever to do with politics. Don't know about you guys, but I could use a break.

Right. Now:


The word brings to mind images of great newspaper presses, trucks speeding in every direction, carrying shrink-wrapped bundles of brand-new paperbacks ... of agents shmoozing and oiling their way through New York book parties, of writers signing six-figure contracts, and a little while later, signing the actual books, beautiful great hardcover things, while being mobbed at B&N or Borders, and appearing on TV to promote whatever they just wrote.

Well, some of the above images are about publishing, but most are about marketing; and most of those marketing images date from the last two decades (stretch back to 1980 if you have to; but don't go back further), the quarter-century or so of the Age of Corporate Takeovers.

In this era the small publishers, which were the backbone of the industry right back to Caxton and Guttenberg, were inhaled, absorbed, digested, by big publishers. In turn, the big publishers were incorporated into the giant combines ... which were inevitably bought up by multinationals which have nothing much to do with publishing.

The small publisher is almost gone: out-competed by super-predators who can afford to throw zillions of dollars at publicity for a lousy book. Also, books are getting more and more expensive to make. (Yes, the price of gasolene has a lot to do with book prices. Transportation of product. Duh.)

A critical threshold is reached. On one side of it you have a retail price where the publishing house can pay its running costs and keep an editing staff in New York apartments ... on the other side of the line is the price readers can actually afford to pay. Exceed that price, and books stand on the shelves, they don't go through the checkouts.

Somewhere in the middle is the product (books) which have become so expensive, they're going back for pulping by the tons. They find their way onto sale tables, while readers are trawling book exchanges, looking for a decent read at a price they can afford -- or buying "used" on the Internet. Fact: Amazon.com (seen as the boogieman of the publishing world) is the planet's biggest Second Hand Book store. Why pay the $40 shelf price for a hardcover, when you can buy it used, like new, at Amazon, for $6?!

And trampled underfoot are the writers who used to be more or less complacent of their job security. With publishers closing and amalgamating everywhere, paperback royalties at (!) 7.5%, printruns getting smaller as publishers struggle to contain losses ... writers who stand around with their hands in their pockets waiting for a traditional publisher to do it all for them, pay them an advance once can actually live on, and give the nod to their next book -- well, kindly stated, they're an endangered species.

Let's look at "working" writers in the niche end of the market. Run the numbers yourself. Say, a paperback costs US$8 (what *do* they cost in the States these days?), earns you .60c (7.5%), and sells 75% of a 10,000 copy printrun. (They pulped 25%). So, you make $4500. If you're paying a mortgage and buying a car, you need to sell ten or fifteen such books per year ... but your publisher can take a maximum of two. You have a major problem. You're out there looking for a job, and your writing, which used to be your trade, has become your hobby.

Okay .. now look at it from the publisher's perspective. Let's consider a fairly major house, which publishes 60 titles per year, with printruns of 10,000 each. That's 600,000 books, from which you'd expect 25% of the retail price to return to the publisher. That's $2 per copy off the price of a paperback. Maximum income is $1.2 million ... if the whole printrun was sold, and if a lot of those books were not subject to massive discounting in the distribution trade (they are).

The fact is, 25% of all books that are cranked out by the New York publishing industry get pulped, and of those that are sold, tons land on the sale tables, and tons more are pushed through to chain stores that demand heavy discounts. The truth is, this hypothetical publisher will be lucky to see a half million as the business's annual return. Uh ... what's payroll? How many hundred grand a year editors can you support on a half million income? Oh, yeah, and what about paying the writers? Cover artists? Outsourced proofreaders?

Somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Maybe it's the price of printing. Maybe it's the fact that folks who work for big town publishers pay $4000 a month for rent on an apartment, and they need the high wages, if they're not going to starve to death. Maybe it's the distributors who needed a higher and higher cut out of the retail price, as the cost of gasoline and diesel shot skywards after the 1960s?

Whatever went wrong, don't blame it on the ordinary working writer, the loon who beats his/her brains out to produce the very best book possible, editing and proofing for weeks after writing is finished, and then sweating over the galleys ... all to earn a paycheck so small, a lot of people would wonder why they bothered.

Now, some of the rot certainly set in when the bestselling authors started to earn so much money, they themselves began to say they were overpaid. But if their books were selling in the millions, and they were getting 15% royalties off $40 hardcovers, there's nothing outrageous about these numbers. See it this way: one bestseller (like The Da Vinci Code) can prop up a major publisher for years, allowing it to survive multiple failures of other, lesser, books. Fair enough.

Hmm. So you can't lay the blame at the feet of people like Dan Brown and Daniel Steele and Wilbur Smith. They got paid in geometric proportion to the copies going out the door.

But around the same time as all this was happening at the writing and editing levels, the multinational conglomerates got hold of the publishing industry by absorbing it osmotically. Marketing experts don't know a whole hell of a lot about books, or writing. They might know what sells (in other words, they can tell you which megatrend is showing good returns right now, driven by which blockbuster movie that came out just last month). But could they tell a good book from a rotten one?

When's the last time you bought a book and found it badly written? You might not be an editor yourself, but you can spot loads of editorial changes that should have been made ... and the narrative goes off the rails a couple of times ... it didn't end properly ... it contradicted itself in a few places.

Uh huh. You probably just discovered a book that was selected by the Marketing Division. They have a megatrend they're following. Forget the fact this is a rotten book by a first-time writer ... the subject matter is spot-on. The book auction starts to roll and they can wind up paying down millions for this piece of, uh, well, sorry. Krudd.

A certain percentage of the time, they'll be right, and readers don't actually care how bad it is. It's just sufficiently like the latest movie phenomenon to sell a ton of copies. It's the surprise hit of the summer season, everyone gets bankable. But some of the time, the Marketing Division is sorta-kinda wrong. This is why books pile up on the sale tables, and 25% go through the pulping machines and are reincarnated as newspapers.

The waste factor of pulping a huge percentage of your product drives the price up. The marketing bills -- to pump books which have been chosen for their subject matter and apparent marketability, rather than their quality -- are high, and getting higher. Independent bookstores have become increasingly more rare as they're forced out by discount chainstores and on-line bargain bazaars like Amazon. This leaves the chainstores in command of pricing. And in order to offer those whopping in-store discounts, their buyers demand discounts from the publisher. Ouch! Those discounts eat into every dollar, including the writer's royalty.

Today's publishing industry is like a snake devouring its own tail. It's on the last lap -- everyone knows it can't last much longer, but the committee is still out on the question of what comes next.

The future of publishing is a monstrous question -- and I've already rattled on so long, today, that I'm out of time! So I'll pick up these threads, tomorrow, right where I'm leaving them to dangle today. In Part II (!) I'll be talking about POD, ebooks, how the hell one markets books without recourse to a bookstore or a publicist (or an advertising budget!), and where Nostrakeeganus sees the industry going in the next five or ten years.

In the meantime, if you want the whole sordid tale, in detail, see this:
http://nymag.com/news/media/50279/ - "The End: The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world. By Boris Kachka Published Sep 14, 2008"

See you tomorrow.

Ciao for now,

1 comment:

GDad said...


Being gay is, unfortunately, a political stand at this point in history. I'm tired of being a wedge issue, but there you go.

That printing press doohickey looks absolutely wonderfully post-steampunk. I love it! My partner, GPop, and I will be celebrating his dad's 70th this weekend. His dad worked for years at a big Midwestern (American) newspaper for years as an editor. I'm sure he saw machines like that.

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