So, we’ve seen libraries and book shops close across the UK – apparently because people didn’t want hard copies anymore and e-books were cheaper. We’ve seen the undignified bun fight between Amazon and the main publishers – because book prices had been forced so low that publishers could no longer justify taking such a big cut from the pittance that authors were making. And we’ve seen an era of mega-mergers between publishers – as they sought to realise economies of scale and thereby continue to survive.
It was looking apocalyptically bad for publishing. But was the view of things described above the whole picture? Not really. The main problem has been the behaviour of the publishers – they have been victims of themselves in large part. Where other industries have survived changing markets (via innovation and changing themselves), publishing has only made an already bad situation worse. Let’s look at a few behaviours as examples…
- Publishers are more reluctant to ‘take a punt’ on authors these days. They don’t want new authors who have no established fan base. Seems sensible? It’s not. How can a genre evolve and remain relevant unless it’s through new blood? If a publisher publishes the same old names over and over, it will soon begin to see a decline. Look what’s happened to the book sales of scifi and horror. Dead. Why? Because no one would take on Necromancer’s Gambit by the young A J Dalton, a book that he was forced to self-publish, a book which proved to be the UK’s first new wave zombie book and which became the best-selling self-published title in the UK. The book was rejected by publishers as not being ‘squarely within the genre’ – the fact it was fresh and different was seen as a weakness! Bringing us to the next issue…
- Publishers over-read trends and markets. True Blood by Charlaine Harris was rejected by every publisher in the western hemisphere for two years. She was close to giving up. Twilight became successful in 2008 and then there was an insane scramble to secure the rights to True Blood. Publishers then ONLY wanted vampire fiction. They started rejecting anything that didn’t have a vampire, no matter how good the book was (and Empire of the Saviours by one A J Dalton probably got its deal back in 2010 cos it contained blood-drinking saints). What happened? Various rejected authors gave up, meaning that the ‘new blood’ the genre needed was lost, meaning that we ended up with the same situation in example no.1 above. Sure enough, the market was saturated with vampire fiction, people got sick of it and it all died off. Dead.
- Publishers are reluctant to commit to a series anymore. Say the first book in a series sells pretty well, but the second one doesn’t sell so well, are you gonna publish the third book or ‘cut’ the series (anticipating even more of a fall-off in sales)? More and more, publishers are cutting a series before it’s finished. It happened to Paul Kearney’s Sea Beggars Trilogy (which was never a trilogy!). And what about Joss Whedon’s Firely? Seems sensible? Not really. Readers have got so fed up with series being cut, that they now won’t commit to buying a series until all the books are out (or they’ve heard the next series instalment has been commissioned). This reader behaviour makes the situation worse, cos it means that sales of books 1 and 2 in the hypothetical series we started with will be even lower, meaning the publisher will be even more inclined to cut the series. Dead.
- Publishers are insisting on game-changing novels. As in example 3 above, publishers won’t commit to a series. Instead they insist that authors submit a ‘game-changing’ first novel that will all but guarantee immediate and massive sales. The number of brilliant books that get rejected because they aren’t ‘game-changing’ enough is disgraceful – and, remember, it means we lose the ‘new blood’ the genre requires. If you meet a publisher demanding a game-changer, tell them where to get off. I wrote a brilliant scifi called Lifer, but it got rejected in precisely this scenario. (By the way, it’s still available if anyone’s interested.)
- Publishers over-extend series. If a series does emerge as relatively successful, publishers then insist the series-author writes more and more titles in that series – it doesn’t matter how good the book is, it’ll sell anyway. Yes, in the short term it will, but in the longer term it’ll die a death. Look at the Joe Abercrombie Gollancz series (ending with The Red Country). Or the True Blood series, which ended up with 12 or 13 titles. At the same time, the publisher puts all its marketing resource, time and effort behind that one series, ignoring all the other authors, meaning that other stuff starts to fail, no matter how good it is.
- Publishers aren’t even offering book advances anymore! Even established authors (like myself and Tom Lloyd) are being told that no advance on their next book will be paid (that or a derisory amount will be offered). Seems sensible of the publishers? Not really. If the author isn’t paid any money to live on while they write the next book, how can they actually write the book? They’re too busy doing other work, work that pays and therefore buys food. Many authors have given up. Some authors manage to keep writing, but it takes them far longer to write a book. And by the time they deliver the book, things have moved on and the book is no longer the game-changer that is required. The book gets rejected. Dead.
And I could go on. But then I’d be writing a book rather than an article. At the end of the day, publishers have made their own bed and will have to lie in it. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be their death-bed. But maybe it will. With today’s technology, how much do we really need the old monoliths of publishing? What we need are innovative, risk-taking, marketing-savvy and IT-savvy companies. We need companies that respect their authors and invest in their authors in the longer-term. A last example. Elton John says in interview that he wouldn’t succeed as a young musician these days. You see, he didn’t become successful until his third album back in the day. But record companies today don’t offer three-album deals anymore.