Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Publishing Then and Now

My apologies to my regular readers; I've been hammering out "money-writing", my commitment to my magazines, content studios and clients. If I don't, I can't pay the bills and keep my Internet going. I'm sure you know the feeling and apprehension. I'm currently waiting on AutoZone and BrakeMasters to get back to me with some massive projects, so I have some time to slide in here.

Publishing Then and Now. What a difference. I'm one of the dinosaurs from the old school. That means I started out with an IBM Selectric and suffered hard copy submissions in the very beginning. Shorty after I graduated to a basic X-T computer that had the Q & A word-processing program. If we were lucky we were allowed to send 5.5-inch floppy disks to the editors, but it mostly remained hard mail subs via the information gleaned in the Writers Yearbook, the writer's bible of the day. It was very expensive to send a full manuscript with enough postage for return. Short stories weren't too bad, although the cost added up if you knocked them out pretty regularly. We wrote for copies back then, submitting to the small press who took a shine to newbie writers. That's how I started anyway. I fondly remember Ourborous, Space and Time, Doppelganger, Pandora, Alpha Adventures, Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories and so many others that are gone now, lingering only in my memory. We probably had the Big 60 back then, not the Big 6, or is it the Big 4 or 5 now?

Back in the day, oh, about 25 years ago, I started almost the same year that James D. McDonald did, and Ann Crispin was a rising star. The good things I remember: there was such a thing as a small publisher for fiction and nonfiction that paid advances in the thousands. There were even mid-sized publishers like Crown and Zebra that paid handsomely. They had actual publicity departments back then, and if you wrote popular non-fiction titles you were assured to land on dozens of radio programs and even major TV network news and variety programs. It was very common to have medium to large print runs in the thousands and you most assuredly landed in every library and bookstore in the country--I did. Waldens and B. Dalton were two of the heavy-weight hitters in the retail sector. Trade format was called Quality Trade Paperback, and of course, we had mass-market paperback distribution. There was no digital--you were print--take it or leave it. I think narrated books were manufactured on tape cassette, if you had that in your contract. Chances are you sold through too, earning some nice royalty checks, at least high triple digit figures. And if you were good enough you landed in your favorite organization--mine was the Science Fiction Writers of America, before they took on the fantasy crowd.

That was then. What's happened now?

I didn't write or publish from about 1992 to 2005. A very long hiatus. I entered the Internet age with high expectations, in awe of the wonderful writing/editing programs, ease of email submissions, ease of research and instant communication. I had no idea what print-on-demand was but found out the hard way that just about anybody could set up a publishing house and use POD tech to print writer's material. I won't go into the gory details of what happened to me, but after three years I felt I was no longer in the real publishing industry. POD, it seemed to me other than being useful for reprinting back-list and out-of-print titles, was a terrible bane on the industry. I still feel that way today--it ruined it. There were no more advances, precise editing, publicity departments and all the other long-gone amenities, except within the very large NYC houses.

I saw the e-book digital revolution in its rise and monumental climb in the retail market. In 2009 I saw the first mass exodus to self-publishing via Amazon and the rush of thousands of writers who preferred or had no other option than to self-publish. Since then hundreds of thousands of self-published books have brought a suffocating glut to the market. I saw lines drawn in the sand between traditional and self-published authors and heard cries of foul, shouts of independence and victory, mumblings about gatekeepers, declarations of rotten writing and published slush, and insistence that the printed book was here to stay. I witnessed Borders and hundreds of independent bookstores tank--the mortar softening and crumbling the bricks that showcased the greatest writers in the world. 

I can't really express how I think of the industry today other than to say I long for the old days, the dinosaur days when things were not as complicated and tainted by so much chicanery, pomp, greed and deceit. Oh, there's still great writing and publishing opportunities out there, if you consider selling 75 to 150 books and pulling meager royalties for it an accomplishment. Or you could beat the odds and land a large commercial deal. Landing that big commercial deal today seems dependent upon what kind of genre and writing you're into--for me, it's not the Twilight or 50 shades tomes that have risen from obscurity. I guess I've never felt so out of touch in my writing life as I do today. I'm not a real good romance writer/reader and I'm not likely to read or write a book that features six-pack abs on the cover, although they have done that to me. But the readers rule, you know, and I can't change that.

Is the publishing industry broken? It's never really been broken, only suffered the normal growing pains that any other industry has sustained over its long past. It's changed. Dramatically. Anyone in the world can publish now and this is what will eventually impede or destroy the careers of many serious writers. Publishers who make it through this transition will survive and even prosper. Readers will never, ever have it any better as far as selection and low prices. But we writers will be lost in an ocean of books that will sink to unfathomable depths, and that's only because the market will be so polluted, diluted and vast, that no one will be able to find us. We can't even be found on the most popular social media sites since the glut there is just as crowded, misused and insensitive to our pleas. 

I have never in my accumulative 12 years in the business seen a sales stoppage of all my titles that lasted for six months. I'm seeing that now. I'm seeing woefully few print sales for just about all of my writing peers, including myself. Caveat: I'm small press--even good small press. Without distribution you're shot. And the only houses that can furnish distribution are those brand name publishers, most of them out of NYC. 

My campaign strategy over the past few years has been to decline every single contract that I've been offered that didn't meet with my expectations. The total is now 14 publishers. I won't settle anymore. I'm not in this for the ego boost. I'm not in this to hold a book in my hand--I've held lots of them already. If you don't have distribution and offer an advance, you're history. My agent knows this too, and she's agog trying to sell four of my completed books and we're not even getting a wink. On top of this, I foresee (which is already happening) the top name brand publishers going on the hunt for the most popular, best-selling self-published books. Their slush piles, even from agents, are not the place to find the next big thing as they might have been. They have only to target and contract the self-published superstars and let their marketing and publicity departments take vacations. There will be exceptions, of course. Hell, I can't blame them--this is a money-making business. The publishers and readers will win. I'm sorry, but I see us writers languishing more and more as time flitters by. Unless something is done.

Not venting. Sadly reflecting. Hoping and wishing.

Is there a bright spot in all of this? Yep, I think I see one. Although we might not transit back to the old dinosaur days, we're going to recover and see a resurgence in the quality of the written word--a time when the gatekeepers are called back from their divots under the rocks, to really examine and analyse the dregs that have washed up on the shore as a result of this self-publishing tsunami. The readers will be the ones who start the new wave and their calls will be heard loud and clear: "Will somebody please do something about this crap that's awash in the market? Where in the hell are the editors? Where's the quality control?" These questions are being raised in earnest right now. We'll have an answer or two but I'm not sure what form it will take.

How will this revolutionary wave start? It's already started. You can sell millions of self-published books for a few dollars and get away with it for a few years before the readers get wise and find that they're missing the bulls eye as far as quality more than they're discovering it. Instead of saving money on what appears to be great bargains they're spending more to find a diamond in the coal pile. Spend $10 on 10 books to find two or three winners, and you're still losing. The odds have got to be better. A publisher's name MUST stand behind their product. It's either that, or the present or next generation of readers are going to become so disenchanted that the last recreational resource they'll turn to is reading a book. Then the game industry will laugh even louder on their way to the bank.

I made this prediction many moons ago. The self-publishing bubble is going to burst. I give a year to 18 months. Then will come a point of stagnation. That's when the real publishers will have to be ready to strike with a hot iron and revamp the industry and take over their lost rank and file. They're already starting to introduce digital-only imprints. Now, if they'll just get their fuckin' prices down they'll win back the lion's share. It's that simple.

Am I slamming self-publishing? No. It's not their fault. Besides, I'd have to slam myself.     



  1. Excellent post, Chris. It's a jungle out there!

  2. Thanks HS. It is a jungle out there.

  3. Like you I began my writing career in the dinosaur age using a manual typewriter, couldn't afford a fancy new electric one. Writing and submitting, collecting rejections like recipes, as I sought out the editor who would take a liking to my work.
    For me the electronic age is opening doors as the major publishers create electronic imprints that are seeking manuscript lengths more in line with the novellas I write.
    But I agree with you on the quality of the writing in self pubbed work. With a few exceptions it's like no one really cares about story anymore. Throw together some scenes, slap a cover on it, and publish it.

  4. Yeah, Richard. I keep seeing the mantra pop up--"Write another book, and another and another and another." Most of them are shorts or novellas at cut-rate prices. Nothing wrong with that, but it has loaded down our marketplace with an infinity of material that we have to wade through to get to the nuggets.

    I do like seeing all these major e-books imprints popping out of the woodwork. I've subbed to all of them. It's more opportunity for all of genre writers.