Yesterday on Twitter–I guess for the last couple of days–there’s been a discussion going on regarding agents, and how they’re paid, and how that affects their work. And then it morphed or branched off into a discussion about advances and whether or not writers would accept a no-advance model, and the end result seems to be another one of those discussions where everyone sits around like mummers at a Victorian funeral and tells us The Publishing Sky Is Falling, and it’s The End Of Publishing As We Know It, etc. etc. etc.
And you know, I understand that to an extent. It’s scary. The economy is scary. Hell, everything is scary right now; our ocean is filling with oil and all anybody with the power to do something seems interested in doing is pointing fingers and sitting around talking and whatever. There have been earthquakes and tornados and volcanos and shit all over the world. Am I terrified that the world is ending? Honestly? Kinda, yeah. But then, I’m a bit of a pessimist when it comes to this sort of thing; I’m the only person I know who is terrified of outer space and doesn’t even like seeing pictures of it because it reminds me that the earth is this one small rock floating in nothingness and something could go wrong at any second and we could start plummeting, but there’s nothing to land on so we would just keep plummeting through the darkness forever. That’s not a pleasant thought.
It probably won’t happen, either. But I wonder if I start insisting often enough that it will, and get a bunch of people to also start talking about it and how the earth’s field of gravity is thinning, people will start to believe it.
Because it seems to me that everyone is talking about the demise of publishing, but there’s actually no real evidence that it’s dying. Everyone is claiming that ebooks will be the death of publishing, but I honestly don’t understand that at all; how is providing books in another format for people who like that format killing publishing? (Aside from the issue of piracy, which don’t even get me started on.) Aren’t we hearing about people buying more books now that they’re started reading ebooks?
I know a lot of it is just to get website hits, or because people have a specific axe to grind. And you know, none of us are without bias. I certainly don’t want to see publishing die, because it’s how I make my living. I don’t want to see us all switch to self-publishing, for reasons I’ve stated many times before but will recap quickly:
1. Ease of finding something worth reading (low when trying to go through thousands & thousands of self-published books with no quality control or vetting process)
2. Ease of publishing (sure, right now you can go to Lulu and set up a book for free; it’s what Jim Macdonald did for me with the Strumpet book. But do you really think if publishing fails, and self-publishing becomes the norm, those companies won’t start charging, or charging more?)
To be perfectly honest, my feeling is and has always been that if publishing “dies,” and everyone is self-publishing, you’ll soon have people offering to vet books for other people. You’ll have someone who realizes they can make some money by taking the best books out there and printing them for a cut of the money, and setting up some sort of nationwide distribution, and…lookie there, you’ve just reinvented a publishing house.
When people want a book to read, they want a book to read. They do not want to spend hours hunting around for something readable. (Don’t believe it will take hours, or be difficult? Here’s a site where people can post shirt stories for free, called Bibliofaction. It’s a nice site; it’s a fun idea. And I don’t link to it to pick on or put down any of the stories posted there; I link to it to show you how much there is on just that one site, and what a variety of quality there is too.)
Now I’m veering off into my big self-publishing rant again, and I’ve already covered that, so I don’t want to do it again. What I do want to say is that yes, times are a bit hard right now. Yes, I’m seeing good writers whose series don’t get to go on because sales that would have been good enough three years ago aren’t anymore, or if they do get contracted for more books their advances are lower. It’s awful and it’s sad.
But for every series that doesn’t do so well, there are series that are big hits and make tons of money. I’m tired of seeing that ignored. I’m tired of seeing specious statistics bandied about all the time, like the “95% of published books don’t sell more than 500 copies,” which sounds terrifying until you realize that the people who came up with that statistic were including every single book published, including self-published books, technical manuals, employee guidebooks, specialist textbooks, souvenir books, and whatever else. The idea that most NY published books sell less than 500 copies is simply incorrect.
This study by The Association of American Publishers estimates the publishing industry sold $23.9 BILLION worth of books in 2009. Yes, that’s down almost two percent from 2008 (although apparently in the last seven years overall it’s grown), but when you consider how the economy took a swim in Lake Shitty in early-mid 2008 especially, that’s really not that bad, is it? How much have other industries lost? If we can use this CNN article as any indicator, auto industry sales/profits dropped about 30%. Freddie Mac says home prices fell almost five percent in 2009 (it was a much bigger percentage in ’08).
Yes, it’s a scary time right now. Yes, we’re all watching it and keeping an eye on what’s happening. Yes, advances aren’t as high as they once were–at least so I understand. But we’re still getting deals. We’re still getting advances. Every day.
But that doesn’t mean we all need to start desperately casting around for some other way to earn a living, or start pontificating on how publishing is “broken” and it’s the end for it. It’s not. As long as people want to read books, there will be publishing. Quite frankly, for all the “publishing is dying” talk I hear online, it seems to be pretty limited to online; the average person–the average reader–has no idea this discussion is happening, and they care even less. And why should they? The only thing readers should–or should be expected to–care about is that they get books they want to read when they want to read them and in the format in which they want them, at an affordable price. (Readers are of course welcome to care more about it if they want, but it’s certainly not a requirement, is my point. I don’t want to bore my readers with talk about how my life will end if they don’t buy my books and I’ll end up selling matches on the street and how expensive everything is–like they don’t know that–and how I really need their help or whatever. As I’ve said here before, entertaining readers is my job. Yes, I want and expect to be paid for it, but beyond that they have zero obligation to me, and I certainly don’t expect them to give a shit about my financial situation. Remember how I’d rather not have people buy my books because I nagged them into it? Yeah. I’d rather they not buy them because I guilted them into it, either. I’m fucking lucky I get to write books for a living, and I try not to forget that and act like it’s some kind of burden.)
Whether the agent commission goes up to 20%, as the lovely Victoria Strauss suggests in this post (which also links back to me, making a nifty linky circuit), or whether more agents branch out into different areas of the business, or whatever…I think reports of publishing’s death are greatly exaggerated, and to be perfectly frank I’m tired of hearing about it. I don’t know if that’s me being sensible or being ostrich-like, but I’m tired of constantly feeling like the sword of Damocles dangles over all of our heads. I’m tired of feeling like there are crowds of people rubbing their hands together gleefully and waiting for publishing to fail, for whatever reason; I don’t understand it, as I don’t see why anyone would want to have to wade through slush for hours, but people can certainly do what they like.
I refuse to feel that way anymore. I refuse to listen to alarmists and bone-pickers. Will I keep in mind that things are tough all over? Absolutely. Will I remember how tight money is? Again, absolutely.
And I will use that knowledge to inspire me to write more and better books, to challenge myself more, to not take sales for granted but to remember that I need to push myself to be great, to be outstanding, to put everything I have into my work. I’ll use that knowledge to inspire me to write bigger stories, bigger worlds, bigger characters; to remember that “good enough” isn’t good enough. And so even if I don’t achieve that greatness and never get to be outstanding I at least wasn’t lazy. At least I tried. At least I didn’t forget that what it ultimately comes down to are readers, and what they want, and that my job is to try to give it to them, to impress and entertain them and make them think and feel.
So everyone else can sit around in the doom-and-gloom corner and decide the end is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’ll be over here writing more books.
Because that’s what I do.