Jobs lost, imprints closing, with more publisher consolidation possibly on the horizon. A lot of people are being hurt, but am I the only person who thinks there could be something good come of this? Big publishing houses have been making life harder for new and mid-list writers for several years now. Might a lessening of their stranglehold on publicity and shelf space be an opportunity for smaller, more flexible publishers to fill a niche? And would this be good for authors? Not the seven-figure advance crew, but in general?

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It is a Homer Simpson crisitoonity all right (what he called it when Lisa told him the Chinese have one word for crisis and opportunity).

It really is how you look at it. Very few people have ever made their complete living as a fiction writer. I think aiming for those seven figure advances is kind of like retirement planning by buying lottery tickets.
I doubt it. Big publishing houses pay their midlist authors 4 to low 5 figure advances. How much less is a serious author willing to take for a year's work?
Of course, we all complain about the garbage that gets published with the 7-figure deals: books about vampires and Da Vinci plots and other silly stuff that requires neither knowledge of the subject matter nor style, but relies heavily on (shudder) monsters sucking the blood of virgins and committing horrid serial crimes. That is what the public spends the money on. It has really more to do with the lack of proper education in history, literature, geography, or any of the fine arts. The void is being filled with superstitions.

For me, the most disturbing book recently was CHILD 44, a serial killer novel that received awards and critical praise. It is a poorly written and organized novel with unbelievable behavior by its main character and had nothing to make it attractive or unique but its setting in Soviet Russia (where all sorts of excesses may be expected by American readers).
It's possible there could be the same amount of money earned, "the 4 to low 5 figures," but paid out later rather than as an advance. How many authors ever get more than the advance, anyway?

In many ways the publishing industry still operates with an outdated mid 20th century approach. The whole idea of print runs and returns (50% in many cases) doesn't seem necessary anymore. The fact it takes so long for a book to get prepared and published (unless it's Joe the Plumber's or some hot 'true crime' cash in) seems odd. The idea of seasonal catalogues from publishers. Why?

There seems to be such a huge amount of waste involved for a book to find the 5000 readers its likely to get and a more effeciant way of doing that may be possible.
I'm thinking it would shake out, at least in the mid-term, with more authors getting smaller advances, though the total amount of author dollars would eventually even out, just spread around more, as the smaller houses would be reluctant to risk too much money up front. That could lead to a more stable business model, which would be in everyone's best interest.

As for how ittle a serious author is willing to take, the business model will always be driven by sales; there's no way around it. Someone (it might have been you, John) said in a discussion a few weeks that expecting to earn a living solely by writing fiction was an American concept; few other nationalities did that. (Not that no one else makes a living writing fiction, just that they don't go into it with the same expectations we have.) What "serious" authors are willing to take depends, I suppose, on the definition of "serious." If it means you think you should make a living writing fiction, then low 4 or 5 figure advances is going to be a problem, but someone serious about doing this for a living should know thsat going in.

If "serious" means "elevated, or--dare I say it?--literary, then there's nothing that says the author needs to accept any offer; self-publication is always an option if the author's vision of the book's value doesn't mesh with a publisher's. As I used to tell my friends when I was a struggling musician, no one owes us a living.
Nah. "Serious" just means that you're committed to the craft. It skips anyone who gets a big kick out of "being published" or who expects to earn millions.

And clearly, you don't make a living at 4 to 5 figure advances. It pays for expenses and a used automobile. I have other income. Most midlist authors do. And somewhere down the line (years and many books from now) I should be collecting royalties.

In general, publishing more books is not the solution. Publishing fewer is.
I agree with John. The major publishers are using a mid-20th century business model that is terribly inefficient and wasteful. Large print runs, expensive hardcovers, huge losses on returns and exorbitant advances for books that don't sell enough to recoup the costs. I mean, really, these people rank right up there in ineptness with the leaders of the auto industry. Why would a publisher print 10,000 or more books from an unknown (even promising writer) when they could print 1,000 digitally and then see how the book sells before printing more? Of course, that would mean a major change in the way digitally printed books are viewed and distributed to the big chain stores like B&N and Borders. Random House, I believe, is SLOWLY moving in this direction with their mid-list authors. But unless the larger chains accept this new model, the books will never get into the stores and onto the shelves. Perhaps with a better business model, some of those wasted dollars could be used more efficiently and effectively. I agree with Dana's point that there MAY be an opportunity for smaller publishers, but distribution is key. As I've said in previous discussions regarding the publishing industry, I believe it's facing many of the same challenges faced by the music industry. And, unfortunately, the publishing industry is responding in much the same manner, which doesn't bode well for the future.
Keith,
I agree with you that the music and publishing industries are different in many respects, particularly in technology, although Kindle is rapidly growing according to Amazon. I was speaking more of their business models rather than technology. The Eagles latest album, "Long Road Out of Eden, is an example of how the music industry is mirroring changes in the publishing industry. In marketing their new album within a dying record industry, i.e., fewer record stores, copyright infringement and online piracy, the Eagles decided to press their own records, and signed an exclusive distribution deal with the nation's largest music retailer, Wal-Mart. The chain agreed to buy three million copies directly from the band, sell the double set album for the low price of $11.88, and spend tens of millions of dollars to promote it. Obviously, the Eagles have name recognition and a history of success. However, I think this business model reflects the changes we're beginning to see within the book industry, i.e., more small, independent and self-publishers who are by-passing the traditional large publishing houses. Whether small publishers will have enough clout in the long run to significantly change how books are printed and distributed remains to be seen. But I do see similarities between the two industries. Large publishing houses, like the music industry, continue to operate under a flawed and wasteful 20th Century business model.
Last night I was thinking that the big publishers are starting to look to me like the big car companies.

I can't tell a Chrysler Malibu from a Buick Allure and all the big thrillers and mystery novels have started to look the same to me.

And both industries seem to be in trouble.

I wonder if publishing will get a bailout?
Absolutely agree on mysteries seeming all pretty much alike. But here the problem is that readers like the comfort of knowing what they'll get. They will not try anything different unless there is a lot of hype. So if the hype has alerted them to Stephenie Meyer's vampire novels (never mind that the premise is ridiculously off from the original vampire conception), then they will buy eagerly not only future Meyer novels, but all other novels about attractive and lovable vampires. I see that her book/film has sparked another where the vampire is a teenage girl attracted to a human boy. You see how this works?
Yes and no. Something still sparked the initial hype that pulled the Stephanie Myers out from the hundreds of other vampire books - or other books for teenaged girls. Something allowed the Honda Accord to become THE car. The Accord is actually no better than many American cars.
My thought is that Meyer got heavy promotion. But I don't know that for a fact. The vampire theme was already doing well with female readers.
Interesting topic. I hate to agree that fewer books is the better business model but it is true. Part of why I read almost exclusively crime books is that the genre is at least manageable as far as finding what I want to read. There are just so many books out there a step into the front door of an average Borders is intimidating. When someone, either a friend or the NYT book review, singles something out then people flock to it so they won't have to wade through the thousands of options before them.
I was in the indie music world for many years and there is a similarity with indie writers these days. I agree with I.J. that you have to have a "day job" and I would say plan on that being true for the rest of your life. If something breaks, then great. The difference in being a musician was that when we went on tour we had many other ways to make money than album sales. Ticket sales, t-shirts, etc. That doesn't seem to be the case with writers. It is book sales or nothing except for the holy grail of film licensing. Now the web has done for short fiction what it has done for music. Free MP3s are common as a way to get your name out there and the same is true of short fiction. I have been "published"* on several websites by now but for no money and it's just to get my name out there and to start to be a part of the small community of hardcore fans. Will it help get a book published? No. But maybe when that does happen people might recognize the name and pick up the book the same way bands make songs available before a gig in hopes that people would come out to the show.
But back to the topic at hand. For genre specific writing (like niche record labels in music) I think smaller is better and the only way to stay afloat. It's not much of a step up from self-publishing but at least if a fan is seeking out a new book they can start with a certain publishing house that they know they like (like Hard Case Crime) and find other titles from there rather than with self publishing where you need to handle to task of getting the novel in front of people's eyes all on your own.
I think if smaller houses are smart and remain targeted to their core audience then they can survive. If publishers, like authors, only want the next blockbuster then they are ripe for disappointment.
I feel like I rambled but that's my 2 cents worth.

* yes, online publishing is with a small p and in quotes. As much as I love it, it still isn't "real" publishing.

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