Briefly, the Business
Few industries have undergone the explosive change the book business has experienced since the turn of the millennium. We have new printing, graphic, and production technologies. Publishing houses have merged, broken up, and been bought up by both American and foreign conglomerates.
Up until the end of 2008, the fundamental realities of the business had remained the same: buying and selling books was still the same utterly subjective, personal-to-the-point-of-intimate trade it had always been, a world in which ordinary people wield authority totally out of proportion to any reason, based solely on their own taste and ability to pick a winning book—an ability more closely aligned with luck than talent. Agents decided if a project is worth pursuing using the wildly scientific criteria of “Do I like this book?” and “Do I think anyone else will, too?” And despite his best, most informed experienced guesses, any agent worth his salt will still tell you he rejects all but two or three percent of everything he receives, can only put a full-court press behind maybe two-thirds of what he does accept, and will end up selling less than half of those, most for what the industry euphemistically calls “nice deals”; i.e., under $50,000 in advance.
The “Big Boy” acquisition editors employed a similar yardstick: is the book worth it? Is it professionally prepared? Will the author be capable and willing to help market it?—then added some calculations and projections about what has sold in the past and what the editorial chief would like to sell in the future in the economic climate they either hope will remain or improve. Any acquisition editor’s reading pile would reveal wonderful manuscripts he really loved but had to reject simply because trends and budget constraints made publishing two shorter titles more profitable than one large volume. The marketing department often held final sway over the entire process, basing its decisions on spreadsheets, surveys, and statistics that may or may not accurately predict what the reading public will be interested in six months to two years from now—and hoping to be right at least thirty to forty percent of the time.
But all that changed with the economic crisis of 2008, when the five conglomerates that owned the approximately 396 imprints that controlled the bestseller lists and had a stranglehold on shelf space in the three major brick-and-mortar chains (Barnes & Noble, Borders Books, Books-a-Million) began losing ground to smaller, independent, and subsidy presses that were not afraid to plunge into digital media, wrap their profits around “content,” and understand the public’s hunger for fiction—and the approximately 81% of the public’s desire to write and publish their own books. When, at the end of the year, the biggest and oldest names in American publishing began closing divisions, discarding imprints, and laying off editors and other staff by the handfuls, the book industry truly entered a new era.
Where before there were few “rules” to guide the aspiring author, there are now hundreds even fewer guidelines to help the uninitiated traverse an ever-expanding maze of opportunities, some wonderful, some swindles, most in-between. Still, beneath all the change, the book business remains essentially the same, neither mysterious nor objective. It is a game in which new players come up to bat every day, the competition is fierce, and there is no science or empirical evidence of what works and what doesn’t, no continuity beyond the day-to-day tasks of each individual’s specific job. If indeed life offers no absolutes, the book business, both before and after the 2008 industry implosion, remains a perfect microcosm of that reality.
This is an industry in which powerful but nevertheless poorly written books sometimes win national acclaim and international awards. Sentimental volumes so dripping with sweetness as to choke a honey bee have nonetheless captured the hearts and minds of millions upon millions of American readers, crossing all age, race, religion, and gender lines. Complex, intricate texts on esoteric topics that seemingly appeal only to the educated elite have shot to the top of the bestseller charts and stayed there for months. Yet, anyone involved in even the lowest phase of the business knows of half-a-dozen finely crafted, extraordinary manuscripts that will never be accepted by a traditional, royalty-paying publisher.
The business of writing and the business of publishing remain miles apart.
It has always been thus, and despite the changes in publishers’ status, ease of production, and Internet distribution, it remains thus.
Unlike any other arena, being a success in the book business does not necessarily translate to making great gobs of money. Authors of run-away bestsellers often cannot afford to quit their day jobs because all their advance money went to promotion and advertising costs. Genre writers may churn out book after book, but receive just enough compensation to live until the next deadline falls due. Certainly those with the right perspective and concentrated focus can indeed generate fortunes. Dan Poynter, the leading self-publishing expert, holds seminars in his home and travels the world to collect speaking fees and sell his regularly updated books by the case. As in any industry, true entrepreneurs can develop successful, independent writing/publishing concerns that may not necessarily capture the general public’s attention, but can certainly snag a large share of its disposable cash, especially if they avoid or minimize the profit-siphoning arena of brick-and-mortar bookstores.
We know about such cases of writer-turned-millionaire because they are newsworthy; that is, they are sufficiently out of the ordinary to demand media attention. Yet when this week’s bestseller drops off the Top-15 list; when the title geared to revolutionize the self-help world has been edged off the market by a newer theory; when the latest marketing craze caves under to yet another technological advance and that highly touted eBook winds up just one more bunch of gigabytes lost in the ether world, most of those authors will go back to their regular nine-to-five jobs while they try to snatch a few hours a day in which to write their next book.
This, too, has always been a book-industry reality.
Subtlety’s Ship Has Sunk
Time was, only those who had a “calling” sat down to tackle the arduous task of writing a book. Their reasons for setting pen to paper were varied and heartfelt:
- To communicate.
- To chronicle their times.
- To preserve their heritage.
- To share a story or advance an idea or prove a point.
- To touch other human beings.
- To have an impact on society.
- To leave their mark in the world.
- To make some money.
The pursuit took time, skill, and dedication. Each page had to be handwritten, scratched out, written over, and rewritten. Those with “natural” talent worked with their agents and editors to fine-tune every word, every idea, every plot twist and turn. Promising writers studied and read and honed their craft for decades before finally getting their first volume published, and accepted that process as the due course of the business. The pure labor involved in generating three hundred and fifty pages of clean manuscript literally took years of writing and copying. It was a solitary, lonely, physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing occupation.
Collectively, those reasons constitute one of the few things about the book business that persists unaltered even in today’s tech-driven, monopoly crumbling world. Just about everything else—including that last item about making some money—has changed. Let’s do a fast rundown so we all start on the same page, to use the current vernacular.
For most of publishing history up to the mid-to-late 1990s, authors had three options: traditional publishing, self publishing, and vanity press.
Today, authors had three options: traditional publishing, self publishing, and vanity press, now euphemistically called subsidy publishing. “Wait!” you cry. “Subsidy publishing is nothing like vanity press!” That’s partially true — but mostly false.
The old-fashioned vanity press would take any manuscript for a set fee (copy editing available for an extra fee), design and produce the book, and add the title to its catalog, which was sent out monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or yearly to booksellers and libraries across the country. The author retained the rights to the book, and received a royalty on all books sold. Booksellers, traditional publishers, and the “literary community” did not consider the author legitimately published. The press would print 3-5,000 books which, if not sold within a certain time, would be shipped at the author’s cost to his or her home. Here are your books! Good luck selling them. Next!
Today’s new, improved subsidy presses take any manuscript for a set fee (copy editing available for an extra fee), design and produce the book, add the title to their catalogs (which are posted on their websites and sent out according to individual company policy), and prints six to twelve copies for the author’s personal use. The book’s digital information is kept on file so the press can print, cover, and bind additional copies as orders come in. Most subsidy presses will also make the title available in one or more of the then-current eBook formats, and, of course, will record the ISBN with Bowker, so the book is automatically be listed on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. There’s your book! Good luck selling it. Next!
Why the change of term from vanity to subsidy? Because subsidy publishing was once a respected and viable alternate route to the big time, so the term carried with it a sense of credibility. Pre-personal computers, most traditional houses had a subsidy department that produced titles for which the publisher was not willing to absorb the entire cost. A Simon & Schuster subsidized book, for example, was edited, designed, and in all other ways exactly like every other S&S title on the shelf, except the author had paid fifty percent of its production costs. Many important books got started in subsidy departments before they proved their worth in the marketplace, and the reading public was none the wiser.
Today’s subsidy/vanity “publishers” are little more than book manufacturers who know how to put together an appealing product, and manipulate digital files to offer those appealing products in multiple formats. As book manufacturers, they produce high-quality, good-looking volumes that an author can proudly display and distribute to family and friends. Some firms even euphemistically call themselves author-services publishers and self-publishing services. It’s all about how the publisher makes its money, a harsh but undeniable reality.
A subsidy press’ function is to produce, not to sell books. The subsidy press revenue stream comes from authors buying their services, not from booksellers or consumers buying their products.
For most of publishing history up to the mid-to-late 1990s, publishers had two choices: web printing and sheet-fed printing. Both required large, expensive equipment, elaborate typesetting keylining, half-tones, color separations, page proofs and negatives stripped to layout the sig, or signature, for plate-making. Colored pages were run on a four-cylinder or unit press with each cylinder printing one of the process colors. The entire procedure took weeks, if not months.
Today, hi-speed web, sheet-fed, and laser printers turn out print-on-demand (POD) and digital short-run copies off files uploaded over the Internet in any of a variety of formats, from plain MS Word *.doc files to specifically tweaked Adobe *.pdf files to fully designed Quark Express *qxt files. The procedure has been streamlined down to a few days at best, a week at the most.
“POD” is one of the more manipulated and consequently misunderstood terms of the millennium’s first decade. Many authors think it means “publish on demand,” and thus believe it lends an aura of credibility to their subsidy press output. It does not. POD means print on demand, and refers strictly to the process of printing a book’s pages on high-speed lasers and binding them with glue—all in small quantities rather than in the l,000 or more quantities demanded by web or sheet-fed print runs. Today, almost all book manufacturers and printers offer both traditional large-quantity printing, digital small-run printing, and POD printing.
For most of publishing history up to the mid-to-late 1990s, books were … books. America’s traditional publishers put out 40,000–70,000 titles per year. Most were produced by the major houses in New York, the rest by smaller houses, or independent publishers.2 The only differences other than content between volumes were their design, size, binding, and covers. It was that simple. Every so often an extraordinary title was translated into a film or made-for-TV movie, but if you wanted the full story, you read the book.
Today, oy vey! Welcome to Plethora City! Now we have eBooks, text-to-speech books, books on tape, books as audio files, books on CDs, books as downloadable PDFs, books as manuals, books as comics (a.k.a. graphic novels), books direct to film, books direct to DVD, books as springboards to multiple-revenue-stream operations—and, yes, we still have those regular, old-fashioned, take-to-the-bathroom, dog-ear-the-page books. In practical terms, today’s books are divided into types—hard copy, digital, audio, and audiovisual—with sub-categories for current and future new formats.3
Traditional publishers now collectively produce a little under 200,000 books per year, while self-publishing and subsidy enterprises apparently produce a little over that number. According to R.R. Bowker, the sole supplier of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), “400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States” in 2007.4 If the traditional houses top out around 198,000 titles, that translates to over 200,000 titles—over 200,000 individual authors!—assigned an ISBN by a subsidy press or bought by a self-publisher in the United States alone.
Who can read all those books? If not for digital media, who would even list all those books? Yet according to the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer people every year are reading books!5 This naturally begs the question: are the hundreds of thousands of people paying subsidy presses and producing their all-but-free eBooks reading anything other than their own words? Does the current proliferation of inexpensive titles represent literary progress, valid freedom of expression, or simply rampant narcissism?
Thankfully, only historians of the future need make that determination. For the time being, technology has opened the floodgates for anyone and everyone to enjoy the delight of seeing their words in a beautifully produced, perfectly bound soft- or (for an extra fee) hard-cover volume. And if the purpose of technology is to even the playing field, it has done its job in this particular field well. In perhaps the most salient change in the book industry since Guttenberg invented his press, writers and authors today can enjoy both financial and critical success with multiple titles and/or literary projects without ever seeing a contract from one of the major publishing houses.
In those golden olden days up to the mid-to-late 1990s, booksellers were individuals or stores that bought books at a discount and sold them to consumers at a small but reasonable profit. You might pick up a book or two at the grocery store or a specialty shop, but if you wanted a broad selection, you headed for the local bookstore.
Today, volume booksellers could go out of business if it didn’t also sell everything else under the sun a consumer might want, including gardening tools, food supplements, blank journals, CDs and DVDs, coffee, chocolate and caramel goodies, and high-tech sound systems for the home, office, and too-expensive-to-run SUVs. Brick-and-mortar warehouse chains sell books by the tableful. On the web, you’d be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t offer at least one book, report, or manual; the most successful sell their titles in multiple formats. A broad selection is no longer the problem; now we deal with making a selection from the ever-increasing array of available titles.
Remember the days before the World Wide Web (which is what that almost passé www stands for? That’s when a publisher’s most important and effective marketing component was word of mouth, and they spread it through reviews by revered columnists in esteemed publications, ads placed in major newspapers, and authors crisscrossing the country to do local signings and speaking engagements. Publicity stunts generated extra attention for special titles, and trade shows got the word out to independent and chain booksellers and brokers.
Word of mouth is still the most important marketing card in the deck, but today that word is spread through Amazon reviews, site-to-site links, Google and AdWords, email newsletters, reviewer blogs, and various other online chatter. Publishers still send out hard-copy review galleys, but more people read Amazon’s consumer opinions. And while select books still warrant print ads, postcards to targeted databases, multi-media appearances, blogging, and a popular URL are now de rigueur for any author who wants to be noticed in the crowd.
Until the technology explosion that began with the introduction of personal computers, content ruled the book world. Books might contain a typo here and there, but published text tended to be well structured, articulate, and to a purpose, whether information or entertainment. While not a hard-and-fast rule, people attempting to get a manuscript published were, primarily, writers who felt either a calling to the art or a compulsion to impart something vitally important for the greater good. Even when the large publishing houses began phasing out in-house content-and-line editing as too expensive, there were still only approximately forty-five ghostwriters in the entire country, as determined by an informal survey conducted by Dick Coté, an East-coast ghost. Simply put, most authors were writers.
Nowadays, book authors generally fall into one of three categories:
- Those who, as before, feel a calling to the art or a compulsion to impart something vitally important for the greater good;
- Those with an urge to share their stories, personal histories, or cultivated ideas; and
- Those who seek to use their published work as a springboard to other products.
The first group comprises writers who either are or are attempting to become published authors; they study the craft of writing, and therefore know the difference between rewriting, substantive/content editing, passive, static, and active voice correction, and copy editing. They understand the submission process and so research literary agents and publishers, labor over query letters, send out clean, professional-looking packages, and expect to persevere through copious rejections. We have no way to accurately judge how many such manuscripts circulate through literary agents’ and acquisition editors’ hands every year, but various insiders estimate the number between three and six million—too many of which are submitted by authors in category number two.
In previous generations, the second, by far largest group of writers would have passed down their lore and memories to their children and grandchildren as part of the family’s oral heritage. These aspiring authors often have a smattering of knowledge about the book business, perhaps gleaned from speakers at their writers’ group or subsidy-press website, but are uninterested in expending the time and effort necessary to master the skills of writing or acquire the savvy of the business. They represent the active segment of the over eighty percent of Americans who believe they “have a book in them,” thanks to the ease of technology and the glut of media assuring them they surely must. They rely on writers’ critique groups, their own judgment, and supportive family and friends for guidance, and either expect to or eventually acquiesce to subsidy publishing to achieve exactly what they want: written documentation of their memories, dreams, experiences, opinions, and heartfelt beliefs. For this group of aspiring authors, subsidy press is a gift from heaven.
The third group comprises marketing-oriented entrepreneur for whom 21st Century technology provides a plethora of opportunities only remotely connected with writing and publishing a book. They tend to write plain-language text and rely on editors to “clean it up” and “fill it out” to the number of words or pages most popular for similar titles. Their marketing plans are often more fully developed than their books, but they often impart valuable information to niche audiences, making the most of what technology, strategic alliances, and their particular piece of the truth has to offer to build multiple revenue streams as “thought leaders” and “marketing experts.” Serious entrepreneurs tend to self-publish; dilettantes lean toward subsidy presses.
The current book industry provides room for all of the above. It may be a “buyer beware” environment, but such a wide-open marketplace allows anyone with an idea, a dream, a cache of experience, a desire to touch people, a need to sound off, or a fervent conviction of any sort, a manner of expression that, though it may not be read through the years much less the decades or centuries, nevertheless provides one of the deepest forms of cathartic release and emotional satisfaction available to the harried 21st Century individual. No longer must one’s words, beliefs, and memories cease to exist with the deaths of those within one’s personal circle of influence; they can now live on in a beautifully constructed, full-color covered, perfect-bound volume—available, on demand, for generations to come.
Does that mean subsidy presses are part of today’s book business? Absolutely—in fact, they constitute one of the most thriving, lucrative elements of the current book industry. POD subsidy publishers fulfill literary and personal dreams in a manner nothing else in history ever has.
Does that mean subsidy-press titles deserve the same consideration as traditionally published titles in the marketplace, the reviewer’s inbox, or the media producer’s lineup? Absolutely not—and for one simple reason: editorial accountability.
“Editorial accountability” is a new term, coined for the new problem that arose when anyone could simply write and publish a book, regardless of gift, skill, training, money, or lack thereof. Aspiring writers who feel they’ve sweated blood filling 250 pages with words too seldom realize that those pages merely constitute a first draft, which must now be restructured, revised, and rewritten. And no: a thumbs-up from a writers’ critique group does not warranty the work. Grammar still counts. Slinky flow is obligatory in nonfiction. A sequence of events does not substitute for plot, and no two fictional characters should ever perceive any given situation with the exact same perspective or move through the story with identical agendas. Made-up words don’t cut the mustard in genre romance and four pages of digressive material—fascinating though they may be on their own—do not belong in a self-help title, now more often referred to as a “business” book.
All these issues, which in years past were weeded out and dealt with by a publisher’s staff editors, must today be uncovered and corrected prior to print by the author, especially the self-publishing or subsidy press author. For an extra fee, most subsidy presses will provide editors to at least copy edit the manuscript, but the service is optional. Most presses do not care if the manuscript reads well or not; remember: they make their money from the authors who buy their publishing services, not from selling the books they publish.
A Book’s Life
So much for the more obvious book-industry changes since the last edition of this title. A great deal more of the business remains exactly the same as it always was, or has experienced only minimal modification. One aspect that has and will continue to remain the same throughout all technological updates and expanding service markets is the eight phases a manuscript goes through on its way from idea to income:
- Submission (Vendor Determination)
- Author Promotion
- Sales (Fulfillment)
Subsidy-published books do not, of course, go through a Submission phase as much as a Vendor Determination phase, but all authors, whether the intend to self-publish, traditionally publish, or subsidy publish would be wise to complete the analyses and research necessary for submission to a traditional publisher, as those steps aid in determining market and distribution plans as well as promotional and press-kit copy.
1 Excerpt, This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept through Sales, 5th Edition, Claudia Suzanne; WC Publishing, Fall, 2009.
2 Independent publishers are small houses that focus on a specific niche market. Often, when they become successful enough, they are bought out by one of the six conglomerates that now control the traditional-publishing industry. Collectively, those conglomerates represent almost 400 imprints, many of which began life as independent presses.
3 The quickest way to ensure any book’s obsolescence is to focus on the technology of the day; ergo, just be advised that ghostwriters need to stay up with today’s ever-changing tech and its value (or lack thereof) to their clients.
4 Rachel Donadio, “You’re an Author? Me Too!,” New York Times, April 27, 2008, Book Review section.
5 Donadio, “You’re an Author? Me Too!.”