Publishing – The Big "Thing" and how America reacts to it.

Here’s how America works. It seems to be the same in every industry, and every walk of life, and we are in a particularly good seat at the moment to watch the entire process unfold yet again.  Someone invents something, makes something, or something that already existed somehow gains new traction and becomes a “thing”.  The minute this happens, the gears start turning.  While the originator of “the thing,” and the first few copy-cats out the door will do well, eventually people wanting to capitalize on “the thing” have to branch out.  Suddenly there will be services to help you do what the originators did.  There will be books about why it is successful, and how to emulate that success – mostly be people who have not done so, and  – if they COULD do so – would BE doing so.  Marketing schemes will rise.  Consultants on how to do that marketing will rise.  Analysts will roll out the adding machines and we’re off to the races.  Half of what we spend our money on (and this is a conservative guess) could cost a lot less by simply cutting away the layers of industry that have been built around the original “things” – and the greed of the long string of leeches living off of them.  This, of course, is a habit it’s hard to break.  People have to work, and in among all the leeches, there are genuinely helpful, knowledgeable people trying to help.  None of that is the point.

The point of this post is that Publishing – as an industry – is a perfect example of old school exclusivity, and a somewhat crumbling tower of layers it is going to have to shed to carry on very far into the future.  In the old school model, it’s hard as hell to get a book published.  They liked it that way (still like it that way) because it makes them seem somehow god-like and important.  It gives them the leverage to control people and “things” that they could not otherwise.  The same is true of agents.  Somehow it has reached the point where authors vie desperately for the attention of these folks – writing what they are told, when they are told and absolutely terrified of doing anything else.  The rulers of the industry would like you to believe that all of this is based on the quality of the work- that the agents and editors choosing the books being published are the cream of the crop from all possible sources – that they have magical powers that make their judgment calls the cornerstones of literature.  Let’s be frank – those cornerstones support Fifty Shades of Crap and enough books NOT written by the celebrities whose names grace the covers to carpet a very large city.  Maybe a country.  There may have been a time when publishing was largely based on quality – but it is currently based on cash.

Marketing rules publishing.  Hype rules marketing.  You are more likely to see a pop-up picture book from Stephen King than a well-distributed book by a talented newcomer.  Self-publishing and independent publishing is on the rise, but in many cases the sames rules are applying.  Someone creates a “thing” and a million people rush to copy it.  Ten of those million manage to do something that makes them money, the rest either rush off after the next thing, or branch out into the new surrounding industries.  Those who succeed become gurus – despite the fact that becoming a “thing” is not something that they could recreate, or teach.  Consultants build empires.  Editing services by people with absolutely no credentials to BE editors are around every virtual corner.  Services asking you to pay ridiculous amounts of money so your book can be “published” run by people who know absolutely that you have no more chance of success with them than you do without them, but that their dog will get Kibble if they convince you otherwise. A lot of these “publishing services” are run by respected agents and others whose place in the new schema is on rocky ground.  These are people you would hope would be working in the best interests of their clients, but history says no.  They are working in the interest of cash.

There is a great blending, as well. Agents – once very important, integral parts of the process, are mostly another blockage in the system these days.  They have very limited outlets for work they can sell.  If they are successful, they have clients they rely on, and the rest get little time, little consideration, and a lot of delay.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard authors say they’ve written dozens of proposals and sets of sample chapters that never got past an agent until they nearly quit writing in frustration.  The odds are that agent is hedging bets by stringing them along, but is really hoping to get off the phone so they can talk to a successful client. It’s business.  Another thing to remember is that, in most cases, agents are not editors.  Editors, these days, have very little chance of buying something new that they really want – unless the deal is very much banked in their favor, or the product in question either is, or appears as if it might be “a thing.”  Don’t count on this old standard route to get you where you want to be as a writer.  Remember – despite what the Internet seems to believe – that not everyone can write.  If you are good at it – you have a talent – a gift.  Don’t sign that gift over to people who have no intention of helping you nourish it…and don’t spend all your time dashing after gurus.  Study the market – study the new paradigm.  Ask questions.  There has never been a better time for talented writers, as artists, to stand up and change things.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to get through those old barriers, agents are now picking new clients from the self-published authors on the bestsellers lists – which obviously means less time for all of those people who made use of the services that helped them write their novels, edit their novels, write query letters for their novels – and submitted them in tight packages following said agent’s posted guidelines.  Yeah, it’s like that. All that money wasted – all those services that really aren’t.  Do you really need an entire book to show you how to write a query letter?  Is there really anyone out there who can so influence your book / project / talent with their “proven formula” for ANYTHING that is more than another crutch to hold you up while the slow-moving wheels of publishing grind on past your efforts without a sideways or backward glance?  Probably not.  Still, I have a whole shelf of books on formatting and writing.  It’s what we do.

Distributors – instead of being a convenient way for publishers to reach booksellers, they are now set up to make it more difficult for any but their chosen clients, or those who bow down to ridiculous demands, to get a product out there.  They bully stores by only offering good deals in return for exclusivity.  The bully publishers by demanding things like returns – knowing full well that just a couple of over-ordered titles could put a smaller business OUT of business. 

And it’s all crumbling. As it crumbles, keep your eyes open.  If something is a “service” now that was not there before, and it’s associated with “publishing” but really doesn’t seem to be… remember it’s how America works.  A thousand businesses wills pop up for every new “thing” and they will prey on the 999,990 who don’t manage to immediately copy the “thing” for profit.  The few that DO make it will be held up and pointed at to prove that ANYONE can do it – and there will be no articles written about the other 999,990 – it’s bad for too many businesses. 

Things I’d like to see when the smoke clears:

  • Authors publishing the books that move / inspire them instead of what an agent/editor says they should write.
  • Editors and (if they make the cut) agents who respond promptly and remember that they work for the writer.
  • A distribution system that allows indepe
    ndent publishers and sellers to interact fairly.
  • More transparency on the financial side of the industry.
  • A more cooperative world where – rather than huge advances, what authors want is steady, sustained income and impact – and where publishers don’t try to squeeze the majority of the profit out of those who created it.

I’m a dreamer, I know…but maybe that will be a “thing”.



  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the market.

    In a past life I was a publishing industry technologist for a large newspaper corporation and before that I paid for college by writing.

    I’ve watched more than one paper dinosaur bleed out due to intransigence and inability to adapt to lower profit margins.

    I’ve watched the tide come in and go out in publishing, but what we have now is a true sea change.

    I think we’re headed into the same low rent district that music fell into after iTunes and the same mistakes are being made by the dinosaurs of the old era that we saw in the music, newspaper, magazine markets and presently see in television as I write.

    The big houses will protect their interests in their stars, but will see little future profit to be had from newcomers.

    They will seek to maximize the proceeds from what they’ve got rather than adapting to a future they can’t comprehend. They will wind up burning their houses to heat the furniture for Wall Street and never make the leap.

    Print media is in decline. Books are just the last into the wood chipper. The world has changed for huge institutions, but in many ways the playing field has been cleared of the impediments and barriers to entry erected by those institutions to protect unwarranted profit margins.

    Books will not go away, but as the middlemen cease to make profits and margins shrink the present royalties and cover prices that have held over from a bygone era fuelled by the artificial scarcity you noted that publishers have worked to create will also go away.

    Authors will still make money by writing well, we always have, but we will not make the kind of money that is available in the market during this transition while the major publishers still manage to prop up the retail price of books.

    We are on the cusp of a new age of Penny Dreadfulls and Zap Fiction (Pulp Fiction consisting of electrons) driven by merely competent or even prolific bad writers.

    “Oh my”, he said sardonically, meaning, I believe, in the tone or voice of a sardine, while twinkling his beautiful eyes with that certain wry cynicism that arises from the unwarranted success of the worst book written since Jacqueline Suzanne first put eyebrow pencil to pink paper and taught the world that American housewives’ really dull and limited fantasies could be turned into cold hard cash–some things never seem to change.

    Fifty shades of writers who do not understand the value and obsessive nature of art to the unartistic and uncreative. The people who can just barely imagine the thing but who can’t comprehend how it is made will always pay a premium price to the artist provided the market is not diluted to the point of unsustainability.

    War and Peace for free or $2 for “144.359 Shades of Puce.” Bad authors who value fame over fortune will drive the price down to that level fairly soon.

    But to an author $1 from the sale of a book is still far more than the traditional publishing houses were ever willing to part with.

    I do not see any way for us to avoid diminished profitability for authors published or distributed through major venues as prices are driven down by those who would in fact trade all of our fortunes for individual fame.

    On the upside of that equation is that prices will never fall to a level where an author would make less than a tree killing publishing house was ever willing to pay in terms of royalties.

    Right now where we are being hurt is in one-click to sale–one month, one quarter to payment.

    There is no reason an author should not be paid right this instant when a book is downloaded–that is where the distributors are damaging the writers.

    I think that when a retailer sells an instantly deliverable product that retailer should in fact pay for it at that time and we need to enact a law that sees to this so authors are not providing float to major corporations for months for completed sales transactions.

    The distributor gets paid, the government gets their taxes if taxes are due, but the author must wait for the fruits of his labor until the distributor gets around to feeling like making payment. With a physical product that might be returned that makes sense, with an ebook, not so much.

    When we lose the financial support, and yes the exploitation, of traditional publishing we are more vulnerable to the economy and cash flow issues. No advance is one thing, but waiting for weeks or months to be paid by an organization that has already derived a profit from selling our work is in all senses of the word unconscionable.

    We are writing in a state of transition and during that transition there will be a short window of opportunity in which an author will be able to make as much with 100,000 copies of an ebook as he or she would with 1,000,000 sales of a paper book.

    Then the moment of the high tide in royalties will pass and authors will be left sitting on the beach like so many garage band musicians with fewer opportunities to make it to the next level using large corporate sponsors because, as with the music industry, most of those sponsors will have ceased to be.

    There will always be a market for creativity because people who can’t create can still imagine, just as people who can’t play loud bad saxophone can still dance.

    The price of admission will be lower and the take at the door will suffer as prices collapse to the $2 price of all things delivered electronically, but even at that price the author will still make more that he did a decade ago because the middlemen and the pernicious publishers with their vile avarice and twisted egos will have perished and no longer get a cut.

    I believe it will be far easier to make a living as a good writer in the future, but far more difficult to make an overnight killing as a best selling author.

    Sell good writing for sustenance and use any surplus to buy lottery tickets and life will be much the same as it always has been under the regime of the big publishers–though your odds of winning will be appreciably increased.

  2. There is a learning curve on both sides. The authors and those publishing in the new world are going to have to learn to police themselves and find ways to bring the quality that people expect, in the long run. They just won’t be dependent on grazing herds of greedy dinosaurs to market for them. Thanks for stopping by, and great comment-post.


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