Escaping Stockholm: Second in a series of publishing industry essays by author Judith Tarr, about whom the following is all perfectly true:
Judith Tarr hates writing bios of herself. She would rather write historical fantasy or historical novels or epic fantasy or the (rather) odd alternate history, or short stories on just about any subject that catches her fancy.
She has been a World Fantasy Award nominee for her Alexander the Great novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and won the Crawford Award for her Hound and the Falcon trilogy. She also writes as Caitlin Brennan (The Mountain’s Call and sequels) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose and sequels).
When she is not working on her latest novel or story, she is breeding, raising, and training Lipizzan horses on her farm near Tucson, Arizona. Her horses are Space Aliens, her stallion is a Pooka, and they frequently appear in song, story, blog (she is dancinghorse on livejournal), facebook, and twitter.
…Bestseller numbers ain’t what they used to be, by a long shot.) But mostly? It’s a sweatshop.
Today’s writers in midcareer, say ten years along, grew up as writers during the heyday of the Nineties and the turn of the Millennium. That was when the hardcover/trade paper/mass market model ruled. You got an agent who took care of you and helped you come up with book projects and presented them to editors, who bought them and shepherded them through production. You ended up with a book to hold in your hands, and mostly it was done for you, though you might do a book tour or attend some conventions to help the book sell. Your job was to keep writing new books and selling them on proposal (if you were established enough), so that agent and publisher could do their thing.
And that, if you wanted to make real money and be respected for it, was really the only game in town. Self-publishing was vanity press, ick. Small presses that paid no or minimal advances weren’t much better, unless you were literary or an academic. Ebooks hadn’t happened yet. Backlist, past the first year or two, was dead unless you hit it big, and then your publisher might bring out a boxed set or an omnibus. But mostly it bloomed and died—which was a real problem if your trilogy or series took too long to come out or ran into trouble with distribution or sales, so that the early volumes were gone by the time the last one was available.
In one way it was lovely. Agent worried about money. Publisher worried about production and promo and distribution. Author worried about getting the next book written.
In another way, as the economy tanked and distributors and bookstores collapsed, it created a serious problem, because authors raised under that system, or raised to think they would be pursuing their careers under it, were horribly unprepared for what the publishing world had turned into. They were raised in a kind of learned helplessness—with Mommy or Daddy Agent worrying about the business end, and King Publisher handling everything once the book left the author’s desk. Many authors were the literary equivalent of the prince who can’t put on his own shoes.
It created a crippling dependence. Agents would tell authors what to write, how to write it, and when—“because that’s what I can sell.” And authors would be afraid to argue because they needed an agent to get their books onto editors’ desks (publishers having shifted the job of slush reader into the agents), and agents were inundated with submissions, and what if Agent doesn’t like me or fires me? What if I can’t get another agent? How will I ever sell again?
And meanwhile publishers were doing all the production, the packaging, the distribution—but not the promo. Gradually, they had shifted that onto the authors. Authors were feverishly printing bookmarks, holding contests, even hiring publicists at more than the amount of their advances, to promote their books. And oh, the anguish if a publication date was moved or a book was (or still is) seen on a bookshelf before that date. Total, total freakout on publication day. What if it doesn’t sell? What if it misses the golden sale period by a day? What if the other books in the series aren’t out at the same time? What do I do? What can I do? What if it fails? How will I ever sell a book again?
In 1983, a publication date was just a guideline. We might have a party, because, hey, book is out. But we didn’t freak out over it. Trade books, as opposed to category romances which were time-critical (as they were effectively periodicals), had weeks and months to prove themselves. It was a great shock when in the Nineties paperbacks started having a shelf life of a few weeks, then a month, then a few days. That had not been the way it was at all.
It changed things for authors in dangerous and pernicious ways, and not just because their books suddenly had to hit it big immediately instead of being given time to find their audience. It changed the way authors related to their publishers. It robbed them of any real time, or power, to get their books out there and under readers’ noses. It also placed many of them in the position of feeling as if the agent were their boss instead of their employee, and turned that whole relationship on its head.
And it was, still, the only game in town. There wasn’t much choice if an author wanted to keep her books and her career alive. She had to do what she had to do, and that was write more and more and more for less and less and less, and spend more and more and more time promoting and pushing and praying. It was a classic abusive relationship, workplace edition.
But while this was going down, and authors and imprints were going down with it, something else was happening. The world was changing. Ebooks started happening. And their share of the market kept growing. And growing.
Before anyone says, “Oh, but that’s slowing down, or it’s tiny in proportion to overall sales, or or or,” let me state categorically that publishing is not dead, it’s not dying, and books (in whatever form) are not going away. Ebooks are a symptom, not a cause, and they’re only one of many reasons why things have changed so much in the business. What is dead is the publishing world that I grew up in. The one I described above. That one.
And that’s the world all too many working authors are still living in. Or trying to.
Agents and publishers have a vested interest in keeping them that way. Agents because their main source of income comes from publishers, and publishers because they need authors in order to have books to publish. Obedient authors. Compliant authors. Authors who maximize profits while minimizing expense. They really would prefer that those authors be instant bestsellers. No slow starters, please, or books that need time to find their niche.
A few agents have tried to ride the ebook wave by offering backlist publishing services—setting up clients’ backlist for sale in digital form. A few publishers have done the same, and a smaller subset of those have experimented with digital imprints. They’re doing something about that particular change in the world, though with varying degrees of success, either ethical or financial. What none of them has done so far is really succeed at it, or even show much understanding of it.
Now here’s the thing. I’m not talking about new authors here. They represent a different set of issues, and they get massive amounts of bandwidth everywhere else. I’m talking about (and to) established authors with a backlist and a readership that will come back for more. Some of these authors have been let go already due to lack of sales, or have had to sidestep or take cuts in advances to keep going. Some have soared to bestsellerdom (a much shorter flight than it used to be, but it’s still notable). Many have reached or are reaching a crossroads. A tipping point.
And they don’t know it. Or if they know it, they’re in some form of denial.
“I signed all my backlist over to my agent to make into ebooks. I know it’s a probable conflict of interest for the agency, and the terms are pretty crappy, but I just don’t have time to do all that and I don’t know how and I just want to write the six books I have on deadline in the next three weeks and and and.”
“There’s this ms. I submitted five years ago and the editor never got back to me on it, and every time I ask her she says she’ll get back to me tomorrow/next week/next month/the tenth of never, and I don’t know, should I tell her she can’t have the exclusive on it any more or or or?”
“My agent hasn’t sold a book for me in ages. I’ve sold a few at conventions and in conversations with editors, and she’s handled the contracts, but is she really doing her job? I need her, I really really need her, you have to have an agent, but but but.”
“I want to write this totally different book from anything I’ve done before, and I think it could really put me on the map, but my agent/my editor/my publisher says no, I have to write another one exactly like the one I did before. They really know the market and they know what will sell, right? I guess I’ll just forget about the idea and write Endless Annal of Quest Chronicles Volume LXVII, even though sales have dropped and the advance is half what I got for the first one and it’s been falling like that years now. Because if Different Book tanks, that goes in the computers and will kill the sales of my next book and I can’t afford that and and.”
“I have to have a contract. I can’t go on my own. I don’t have time/energy/expertise/skills/distribution/promo reach. I need an agent. I have to have a publisher. There is no other way.”
“I have to write six books this year. And revise eight more. And write fifteen short works. And freelance. Because I can’t afford the bills otherwise. Nobody can afford to pay me more because advances are falling across the board because bookstores are closing and distributors are imploding and sales are dropping and and and.”
There is a grain of truth in much of that. The problem is that in every statement, the author is missing a key point.
This is no longer the only game in town.
The grand finale will be posted tomorrow!