Trade Publishing Will Change Or Fade Away. Here’s Why.

This is not a rant on the superiority of self-publishing versus trade publishing. As I’ve said before in comparing the two, neither one is monolithic. It is impossible to call one or the other better. They are different approaches to getting written work into the world, with pros and cons.

Still, I think there’s little doubt that today’s prototypical trade publishing deal is a dead end. Forget about the six-figure advances and full-on press blitzes. Most authors get tiny advances and nonexistent publicity. A mediocre advance isn’t necessarily a problem. If it were the same sum of money, one would rather get paid because she sold to readers who bought, read, and loved the book, than because she sold to a publisher who overpaid and might be upset. The lack of publicity is a problem. Bringing publicity to written work is… what publishers are supposed to do. Moreover, trade publishing becomes a blame culture when a book flops, and the author has the least power and takes the blame, and won’t get another book deal. This doesn’t only happen to bad writers, because there are myriad ways a book launch can go wrong and only a few pertain to the quality of the book. I’ve seen this happen to talented writers as well.

If you’ve had that happen to you, and you’ve given up e-book rights… God help you.

At the high end, book advances have gone way up, even into the seven-figure territory that was once considered an embarrassment (because celebrity books, while they’ll sell enough to justify those advances, are invariably the worst written). This increase in high-end advances is not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a serious author, you’re not as concerned about the advance as where you rank in the season’s lineup, because it determines what you actually care about: how many readers you’ll reach.

In the olden days, a book like Farisa’s Crossing— lead-title material from a first-time author– got a modest advance (often below $25,000, sometimes under $10,000) but massive publicity efforts. If you wrote well, you didn’t even worry about the advance. You knew that if you wrote something good, your publisher would make the right calls, get you the right reviews. If they weren’t prepared to do that, they’d reject you.

Talented writers got rejected– that’s nothing new– but they didn’t get ripped off. You’d gladly take a deal with a $5,000 advance because the publisher had already delivered Charlie Rose and Times Daily, so the advance meant little anyway, as you’d be earning royalties as soon as the book hit the stores.

It’s different now. A few novelists get massive advances and massive publicity. Most– even many talented authors, because authors tend to be poor negotiators and most agents aren’t going to put serious effort behind people without track records– get mediocre advances and mediocre to nonexistent publicity. It’s the latter that’s the problem. The advances matters a lot in 2017, but only as an opening statement about the publisher’s interest in the book. I’d rather have no advance and a publisher that does its job than a six-figure advance and no publicity– this does occasionally happen, when the author does something in the interim to piss an editor off, and it’s a recipe for humiliation. A strong advance on a book that sells poorly (or, worse, is of low quality, should have been rejected, but catches on and gets bad reviews) is a platform for embarrassment.

Advances are backward-looking; writers need to be forward-looking. I’m not afraid to say that I’m good, but I’m not as good as I’ll be 20 years from now. This is a progressive, get-rich-slowly game. The old publishing world wasn’t afraid to build track records over time and set people up to hit big on their fourth book. That doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Three books with four-figure sales don’t lead to serious efforts; that track record leads to oblivion. It doesn’t matter if 25 years pass and the writer becomes a lot better, nor does it matter if trends change; bad sales then make a loser now, as trade publishers see it. You’re better off changing your name, and presenting yourself as a debut, than trying to build off a track record of low or even average sales.

Publishers make advances necessary, because they put so little muscle behind so-called “midlist” authors (a term that, historically speaking, was not pejorative) that the going assumption, today, is that a small advance will come with pathetic publicity efforts. Talented writers, in the past, didn’t demand huge advances because they trusted their publishers. Now, in many cases, the working assumption is that a book without a massive advance– that is, a book that won’t cost the publisher if it fails– will get nothing from the publicity department.

It’s slightly more complex than that, in truth. As an author, I’d probably take a print-only, no-advance deal from a top small press (many small presses don’t offer advances) that showed enthusiasm from the book and convinced me that they could sell copies. I almost certainly wouldn’t take a standard $5,000 deal from a “Big 5”. While Big 5 publishers can do a lot for a book, it isn’t going to happen for a $5,000 book. Traditional publishing draws a lot of soft power from “If you review this book, your kid gets into Harvard” calls at 9:30 pm, but executives aren’t staying after hours to make sausage for the $5,000 books. They save that for the $500,000 books. At a Big 5, six-figure books are career-altering for everyone who works on them; four-figure books aren’t. So which books get the real work?

I do think that there are other solutions to the trust problem than six-figure advances for first-time authors. However, they’re more complex than the current business model allows. Basically, we need a system where authors can set aggressive distribution targets and recover all rights if they aren’t met. I don’t feel entitled to a $200,000 advance (even though I have put over a thousand hours of work into the book). I do consider myself entitled to have my rights back, so I can self-publish or work with someone else, if a publisher isn’t competent enough to sell 100,000 copies of Farisa’s Crossing.

Massive advances generate publicity, envy and resentment– and the latter two of these often make excellent publicity, because while there is such a thing as bad publicity, an emotional enemy often cannot deliver the bad kind very effectively– but they’re an expensive way to market a book. But, let’s look deeper. Why would a publisher throw “a major deal” ($500,000+ advance) at an unknown author, just for the publicity? Usually, massive expenditures for publicity’s sake fail. We learned this in the 1990s with the dot-bombs; the $2 million launch party was failed marketing. We’ll learn it again when the current technology bubble deflates. Business book authors can buy positions on bestseller lists and recoup the losses in their mainline careers, but for a novelist to do that would incinerate money, and publishers need to think the same way. So, why do these expenses happen? There’s a simple reason.

No one knows what sells books.

That’s right. No one’s good at selling books. Most publishers aren’t. If they were, the industry would be different from what it is. Authors wouldn’t have to fight to get appropriate publicity and promotion out of their publishers, because the publishers would know how to spend $1 to make $2; the fact that they don’t is the reason why so few authors get the goodies. Most self-publishing authors aren’t good at it either; there are millions of self-published books, and most only sell a few copies. I won’t claim, for my part, to know how to sell books either. It’s a rather easy observation, from the state of the publishing industry, that no one knows what’s going on. It’s rather hard to know what is going on, and I suspect that anyone who’s figured it out is keeping quiet, like a trader who discovered a workable arbitrage.

No one knows what sells books.

The king-makers in trade publishing are finding it harder to make kings. Books can get six- or seven-figure advances, favorable reviews, and still flop. On the other side, J. K. Rowling got a print run of only 500 for the first Harry Potter book, but achieved world-changing success. It’s not that the trade publishers are bad at predicting what’ll sell; it’s that everyone is bad at it. They’re bad at it; I’d probably be worse. I’ll admit that.

This works to the advantage of self-publishing authors, to the detriment of traditionally published authors, and perhaps to the detriment of trade publishing outright. Why? Simply put, it’s the number of tries you get.

That is, in a nutshell, why self-publishing isn’t going away any time soon. It offers more tries.

If we’re all playing a game that we can agree no one is good at, but that presumably has some cause-and-effect elements (it’s chaotic, but not completely random) that can be learned, then the players who can iterate more stand to win more often, and might develop some skill in it. A quant or an applied mathematician might refer to it as a multi-armed bandit problem, with the additional caveat that there’s some hard-to-predict time behavior to it. One book might soar after a 10,000 e-copy giveaway; another might cannibalize its own sales potential. A romance novel will probably get more lift from bus ads than epic fantasy. These aren’t set in stone rules; they’re true now, of certain types of books, and will evolve.

A trade-published book has to plan its publicity before the book’s even launched. It has to generate “book buzz” that is at best uncorrelated with the quality of what’s on the pages. Why is that? After its launch, the book has eight weeks to sell through, or the bookstores get impatient and shut it down. Readers get some element of say, but only if they can put that cycle of finding the book, reading it, recommending it all of their friends, and their friends buying it, in fifty-six days. “Word of mouth” is a fuzz term that publishers use for the gaps in their knowledge and for chaotic elements of the process, but it’s often mundane issues of distribution, or subtle trends in cover art appeal, or various other things unrelated to the book’s quality (e.g., that Uber got bad publicity, and high-income people are seeing bus ads again) that make or break the first 56 days. That’s just not enough time for the quality of the book (especially, given the profound impact that Manhattan king-making has over short-term sales) to dominate in terms of results.

If a trade-published book disappoints early on, there are two ways to handle it. One would be to give it more publicity so it can achieve a critical mass of readers and discussion and reverse course. The other would be to cut losses, pull out, and let it rot on a back list somewhere. It requires an intelligence that few people have to know which is the right approach. These days, they often take the latter approach. A bad opening week leads to disinvestment and, even if it’s not the author’s fault, the author eats the blame and will probably never get another book deal.

An author’s career is defined, first, by the amount of publicity given to the debut novel, and, second, by events preceding and in the 8 weeks following the novel’s launch. Bad roll of the dice? Bad author, the industry decides, and she won’t get another book deal.

For a contrast, if a self-published book sells poorly in the first 8 weeks, what happens to it? Nothing. No one notices. If the author’s first attempts at publicity don’t pan out, she can try something else. It’s not a one-shot-then-everything’s-over game. Authors can keep playing. That gives the iteratively-playing self-publishers an advantage. Sure, some people who bet big on one moment (one agent, one publisher, a six-figure deal and an October launch and let’s hope there’s not a recession) will win; but sustainable winning streaks require experience with wins and losses over time.

I don’t expect traditional publishing to die completely, and I certainly wouldn’t want for that to happen, because it does a lot of good things. There’s a lot of value for the reader in curation and quality control, and while the self-publishing ecosystem (whose best work now rivals that of traditional publishing) is inventing its own mechanisms for quality validation, there will always be prestige and stability that people see in the traditional mechanisms. Also, traditional publishing, for all the slamming it takes, will put effort into great books that will never sell well. A biography of an obscure 19th-century doctor is unlikely to sell more than 2,000 copies, and would not justify the massive editorial efforts that biographies require on its royalties; these are cases where trade publishers do a great job.

Moreover, most promising writers will try traditional publishing at first– to see if they can land “superagents”, then land the lead title deals that can make careers very quickly– even if self-publishing becomes the way in for 70-to-90 percent of the top talent (which it likely will) in fiction. There will be stubborn writers who can’t bring themselves to overcome stage fright without the support of a six-figure trade deal, no matter how rare those become. The would-be literary hotshots will go back into investment banking when they realize that an Ivy League degree no longer suffices to get big-ticket book deals at 22. Good riddance.

There’s also a lot of corruption in the system. Many awards and top-shelf reviews are unavailable to self-publishing authors. I’m sure there are massive bribes paid every year to keep this the case.

Trade publishing won’t die, but if it wants to retain its current level of importance, it’s going to have to develop a mind for the new game… and in the new game, iteration and learning just might beat king-making and favor-trading.

In the long run, I have to bet that a process of iteration and refinement (self-publishing) will beat out a game where most players only get one or two shots– especially in a chaotic climate where no one really knows what’s going on… including me. All I can do is write a good book. I’m cutting myself off here, because I should get back to that.

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