All the Sense Publishing Doesn’t Make

When I took that USC Business of the Business course, our final project was a business plan. It included all the sections necessary for reasons of profession and information: executive summary, financials, market survey et al..

I’m not going to pretend I can make that interesting.

It was the first business plan I ever conceived, and I tried hard but had difficulty with the course overall, which translated to difficulty with the final project. I knew how to query; I got requests for partials and polite rejections all the time. I’m reasonably good at pitching when I’m not so nervous my heart flutters. When it came time to name competition, I had trouble; I’m a writer, and don’t tend to think in terms of competition. Are Meyer and Brown competition? Part of me hopes so, because I’m about a thousand times better than either, but sometimes the market seems not to care about quality.

That’s a digression.

Part of what was hard for me was thinking of my writing so specifically as a product. Comparing my books to others. For me, it doesn’t; I write them because nobody else did and I wanted to read them.

That’s not what a business plan wants to hear.

***

What a business plan wants to hear is how viable a model any given venture may be.

My first business plan concerned itself with Exciting Entertainment, which I envision as a sort of new media production company. It is whatever I make it. So far, I’ve made it two great novels, a well-received collection, and a somewhat sporadic Internet presence closely followed by those who do at all. I still envision it that way, to some degree, but my personal and professional goals have changed somewhat, I think. I’m quite certain my publishing goals have.

My second focused on Exciting Consulting, which is one-stop author services to which I bring all the experience I have as an editor, designer, and publisher. It’s been very rewarding helping people make their ideas real and tangible.

I couldn’t write those business plans without thinking more deeply about publishing and models, and thinking about it as a business really began to alter my perceptions of the industry as a whole. And eventually I started to realize it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Maybe it shouldn’t. Some of the rejections I’ve gotten have cited the “subjective” nature of the publishing industry, and I hear time and again agents reject manuscripts they “just didn’t fall in love with” for one reason or another. Oddly, these agents never say those things about stuff like Never Fall in Love at the Jersey Shore, but I guess it’s supposed to remain valid? Somebody had to fall in love with Snooki’s bump-it and The Situation’s abs, I guess, right? Someone had to really believe that the most pressing question publishing could possibly answer was how J-Woww and Ronnie gymmed-laundry-tanned their fist-pumping ways into our collective hearts.

Right?

Thing is, business isn’t for subjectivity. It’s like science; it’s meant to be a place for objectivity, data, facts, measurement, analysis. I suppose one could make the argument that publishing is a business that concerns itself with art, which is all well and good, except here again we run up against the problem of Meyer and The Jersey Shore. Which one might bypass altogether by claiming both as examples of “low art,” which is shit that everyone totally fucking loves and goes batshit over but which is vulgar and probably lewd.

Like, say, Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus and the like.

Business is about bottom lines and revenue. Which is where Meyer and The Jersey Shore actually make sense; the latter is, quite literally, beach reading. And lots of people go to the beach. For better or for worse.

So maybe it all actually does work on that level. But on several others besides, I think it’s less viable.

***

To explain what I mean, let me first address what publishing means. Going by Dictionary.com’s definition of “publish,” it means “to issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution to the public.” This explains why, a few years ago, agents and editors were all universally recommending authors never post writing on, say, a website; publishers want things like first American rights when they buy manuscripts, and posting something online basically uses those rights up.

Years ago, before the Internet, it wasn’t so possible for just anyone to issue printed or otherwise reproduced textual material, nor to sell or distribute it to the public. First, it was expensive; printing all that paper and making books costs money. Second, they take up room. Third, they’re not easy to distribute, and when you do, they’re not easy to sell. Which was where publishers helped. Corporate, New York publishers. They had editors who proofread and developed manuscripts, relationships with printers to print large quantities of books at a discount over printing fewer numbers, and relationships with bookstores, where the public went to buy books.

That part of it made sense.

Some of the rest, however, didn’t, or at least didn’t to me. The two big areas where it seemed to make less sense were concerning advances and returns. When purchasing a book, editors and their publishing houses offer authors an advance, generally in the $5000 to $10000 range (last time I looked at figures from surveys conducted by guys like John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell). Some are significantly less (down to $0) while some are significantly more; Sarah Palin received an $8 million advance for Going Rogue. Now, that advance is against royalties, which means that when, say, HarperCollins bought Going Rogue from Palin and her ghostwriter (you didn’t really think Palin wrote her own book, did you? She can’t even speak an intelligent sentence, much less write one), they must have believed they would sell a boatload of copies, ultimately more than $8 million dollars worth. After which they would pay Palin royalties (generally between 7% and 15% per book, depending on contract).

I think they were actually right. I think it’s sold something like 2 or 3 million copies. At $30 for a hardcover, that’s, what, between $60 and $90 million dollars?

Most don’t sell that many copies. This page has some stats about sales, and it was written by the president of this company, and some of it is pretty startling. Eye-opening.

***

The other aspect of the model that never made sense to me was returns. It is, apparently, a throwback to the time around the Great Depression. Basically, book publishers had to offer to buy back from booksellers any copies of any books the sellers couldn’t sell; otherwise, the seller couldn’t stock it. Cost too much, or something, I guess.

I don’t know how many books get returned. Nor how it works. I do know, though, that it figures into that whole advance/royalties thing. I know that publishers withhold some portion of royalties at some point based on credit returns, some of which haven’t actually yet been made.

It basically just seems to tie up money on everyone’s end.

Do other industries work like this? I’ve never heard of it. Do DVD distributors let Best Buy return unsold discs? Do music labels allow Target to return CDs? I ask because if they do, I’m not aware of it.

Maybe I’m just ignorant.

Of course, maybe it’s also why Tower and Virgin and all went under.

***

Thing is, if you never knew how corporate publishing worked, if you were a writer, right now, and you wanted to publish your stories, you might not even consider the idea of paper. Not at first, anyway. If publishing is distributing information, you’d have all the necessary tools right here, online. If you were a writer, just starting out, or just trying to, and you’d never heard the idea of someone with no advanced degree in either business or law who wanted to take your story to editors with the hope of selling it to them and then withholding 15%, I’m not sure the idea of getting an agent would seem so attractive.

If you were a writer, just starting out, who disliked everything about Rupert Murdoch and News Corp and Fox, would the thought of attempting to get a book deal from Harper Collins even cross your mind?

I’m not sure.

Sadly, I’m not a writer just starting out, and may not have been when it counted. By 2000, I’d already been writing for five or so years. I’d already found the Well and met Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who maintain Making Light and are editors at TOR. I’d already read a lot about publishing, interviews with King and Koontz and Grisham, and the thing about that, when you consider it, is I’d already been exposed to publishing’s idea of what publishing was.

I am, however, an author just starting out. I have that USC master’s, and nearly another, in business, from Regis.

As a businessman just starting out, it strikes me that all the tools are right here. It strikes me that lots of people still love actual, physical books, but that maybe they’re now more about legacy rather than information; so many people read, right here, right now . . . is paper even necessary? Maybe paper’s necessary when you’ve already read and loved something you just want to put on your bookcase, just want to crack open one night alongside a bottle of wine and a new playlist and have an old-fashioned kind of quiet evening.

Because otherwise information has changed. It’s no longer kept in books on shelves and produced only by academics and professionals; it’s interactive, housed in servers and accessed electronically by everyone in the world, who can create and edit and interact and participate with it as they wish, and that’s exciting.

It makes sense why it scares all those corporate publishers, of course. It makes sense why Viacomm wanted to sue YouTube back in the day.

But for writers? For authors and creators?

And most of all, for readers? How many books are readers missing a chance to decide, for themselves, are great because publishers are focused on Palin and The Jersey Shore? If taste is truly subjective, should we really leave the arbitration of it to people whose track record, especially lately, is dubious at best and outright detrimental at worst? Consider the ways corporatization has changed publishing; who, in corporate publishing houses, is really reading books? Overworked editors who have meetings and pitches and proposals and marketing to do, every day, or their assistants, their interns, the ones who’ve just finished their degrees in literature or are still working on it?

***

I’m a writer. All my life, I’ve only wanted to connect to readers to tell stories. When I was growing up, the only way to do so was to pitch ideas to agents, who might take them to editors, who might buy them for publishing houses, who might work with printers to distribute those stories to bookstores who might stick them on shelves for readers to buy.

That is no longer true.

Lately, with iPads and Kindles and nooks and the Internet and digital revolution, there’s been some talk of the death of publishing. Who will save it? How will we save publishing?

Truth is, we don’t need to. If publishing just means the dissemination of information, well, maybe it was folly to believe anyone was ever able to control it in the first place. People say publishing has changed, but publishing has always changed, and it will continue to, because publishing is change, and information is the most basic mechanism of it, truly one of the only things that ever has exacted change on the world.


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