Friday, July 13, 2007

The End of the Insanity

My publishing institute course ends tomorrow. I won't say which one it was, but it was in Manhattan and high-profile, so you can make your guesses from there. Now I can get back to what I do best - reject people. I mean, find new talent for the industry. Yeah. That's what I meant. Totally.

I did learn a tremendous amount, some of which I'll be happy to share with you (because it's not physically possible to share it all with you).

1. Editors do edit. In fact, they do a tremendous amount of it. The difference now is that publishing requires them to do their editing alongside acquisitions, pitches to higher management, and some promotion alongside the marketing staff. They're busy people. However, the rumor that they will no longer even look at a manuscript unless it is highly polished and ready for press is not true. Very often in non-fiction (especially memoir) they will get something through an agent that is disorganized but has that spark of brilliance that makes the editor passion enough about it to devote massive time and energy to turning it into a book that makes sense. They are less willing to do this with genre fiction.

2. Publishing is not generally a profitable industry. Yes, most of the titles on the Barnes and Noble shelves are from the big five corporations that have dozens of imprints that used to be independent companies, but just because you hear the words "giant corporation" doesn't mean a tax shelter on an island somewhere to hide the profits from the IRS. Random House recently revealed that most of their line is not profitable. Out of 8, they say, 1 is a bestseller, 1 loses money, and 6 break even or make a small profit (four digits). And this is Random House. Imagine how the small presses that don't have big authors and can't get their books into Barnes and Noble are doing.

3. Most books are mid-list books. Many authors decry being on the mid-list, but it's where most authors are. As you can see from above, most books barely break even. After paying the author an advance, a tremendous amount of money goes into the production of a book, and then the publicity and possibly some marketing, and then the publisher has to sit back and hope to G-d it sells. Almost every major book has returns, too, and I don't mean people returning books to the store, which rarely happens. "Returns" refers to when a big bookseller (B&N, Borders, Books-a-Million) buys 4 thousand copies, sells 3000, returns 1000 to the publisher. Those books usually go to scrap or are resold at cost (1-2 dollars) to the used market. Sometimes they're not resalable because they were damaged in transit, or have stains, or stickers on them, or something like that. Sometimes they're not resalable because hey, they didn't sell the first time. The publishing company expects this and factors it into the equation on the Profits & Losses sheet, along with all the money they have to spend paying to make the book go to print. In our class on P&Ls a guy from Hotlzbrinck came in and showed us a "normal" book for them. It had a solid advance for a first time fiction author ($15,000), sold reasonably well for the run that was done, and after costs, had a $4000 net profit. $4000. Everyone's been paid at the net stage so no one's lost money, but those are not huge profits for a major corporation. It doesn't leave them much room to acquire new material. However, this is a "normal" book. Most books aren't bestsellers - they don't have the audience, they don't get the attention, they aren't good enough to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. At least maybe they'll somehow manage to break even and not ruin the author's career.

4. Numbers 2 and 3 explain why publishing is a low-paying industry, so you have to love books to be involved. The speech we got from most people when discussing their career choices was, "I barely make enough to make ends meet, I work more than 50 hours a week, and I have to worry that every single book I do might be a colossal failure that will ruin my career as an editor, because we have no test markets or focus groups like other consumer market-based industries. That said, I wouldn't want to do anything else in my life." Granted, these were the people who hadn't burned out (the industry has a high burnout rate; it usually occurs in 1-2 years of a new full time employee entering the workforce), but these people care about books. They care about authors. They want to sell these books to as many people as they possibly can and have the books as widely-read as possible. They want to make a mark in literature. They're on your side.

5. P.O.D. is the way of the future, but not in the way that you think. There was a lot of discussion of new technologies which have not changed the industry, but have the potential to do. Audio books ecome more successful as people spend more times in transit with audio devices that can read CDs or collect CD material through a computer, so people aren't hassled by a giant collection of audio tapes. They tried eBooks, only to discover (not very much to their surprise) that people don't actually want to read books on a tiny Palm pilot screen, or an iPod screen, or an iPhone screen. What is attractive about P.O.D. and digital publishing is that it means no returns, something that makes any publisher salivate. However, the idea of waiting 2 weeks for a book (which is about how long it takes at best at the moment) is not attractive to most buyers, and the bookstore experience is still key, but they're getting better at it every day. Eventually we will reach a point where a person can walk into a bookstore, see the 1 copy on the shelf, take it to the desk, and the person behind the desk will pull up the file and print the book out for them in an hour. Does that mean the giant companies won't continue to control the industry? Probably not. The big five are giant because they do their job well and have success in finding good books, packaging them well, and getting them to the right markets. It takes hard work and some talent to do that. Oh, and luck. So, combining all those factors, the self-published author might do well, but he's probably better off if his work is good enough for a company to pay him money to buy it and then market it themselves.