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Common Misconceptions About Publishing: #1

I'm back home, I'm over the jet lag (for now), and I'm looking for something to write about.

It struck me, reading the comments on my various postings about the Amazon v. Macmillan spat in January, that many people don't have the first clue about how the publishing business works — or even what it is. Publishing is a recondite, bizarre, and downright strange industry which is utterly unlike anything a rational person would design to achieve the same purpose (which I will loosely define for now as "put authors books into the hands of readers while making a profit, to the satisfaction of all concerned"). So over the next few blog entries I'm going to make some notes about what's going on ...

Misconception #1: The publishing industry makes sense.

Most discussions of publishing take it as axiomatic that there is a thing called the publishing industry and that the entities within it look similar and work pretty much the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As an author of commercial science fiction and fantasy novels, which is a highly restrictive category I mostly deal with a very specific type of publisher: a mass-market commercial fiction publisher — as opposed to, for example, a University press, a small press, or a vanity press. (NB: the word "press" is often used to mean "publisher", even in this day and age when almost all publishers have outsourced the inky job of running a printer to someone else.) Here's how the mass-market commercial fiction publishers are structured:

At the top of the food chain, there are the big publishing conglomerates; companies like Holtzbrinck, Hachette Livre (itself the publishing arm of Lagardère Group), or News Corporation. You (as a reader) do not buy books from these people, and I (as a writer) do not sell books to these people. Rather, we interact with the publishing groups that they own. They're colossal multinationals, and during the 1980s they went on a buying spree, acquiring smaller (often family-owned or private) publishing companies in a giant game of publishing pokemon. Now they operate as an umbrella, setting goals and corporate policy. If you've wondered where the idiot push for DRM on ebooks comes from, it's from the top down — from the board level of companies that own film studios, communication satellites, newspapers, and a huge chunk of EADS — from executives who know next to nothing about the business of publishing commercial fiction (because it's usually below their radar).

At the level below the multinationals, we see the individual publishing houses owned by the dinosaurs; outfits like Little, Brown (owned by Hachette) or Penguin Group (owned by Pearson PLC). These are still large multinational organizations, but at least they're in the business of publishing books — fiction and non-fiction. Policies originating at this level usually make sense, from the point of view of a publishing industry executive who has risen to boardroom level through the industry during the 1970s to 2000s.

At the level below the multinational publishing houses, we see the individual imprints. Imprints are the vestigial remains of formerly-independent publishing companies, often family-owned or private, which were eaten by the big publishing houses during the takeover wave of the 1980s. Today they maintain a twilight residual existence within the cubicle farms and office suites of the publishing houses, because they're brand names recognized by the reading public. Ace Books, whose logo appears on the spine of my SF novels in the USA, is such an entity. Founded by Aaron A. Wyn in 1952, Ace published until his death in 1967; it continued with financial troubles for another five years before being sold several times, ultimately ending up as part of Berkley Publishing Group. If you turn to the bibliographic information page in one of my Ace novels, you'll see their name; they're another, somewhat larger imprint, existing within Penguin Group. These days, "Ace" is a brand name BPG stamps on their SF novels; "Roc" is the corresponding brand name they stick on Fantasy; "Berkley" goes on non-genre fiction (such as William Gibson's latest novels), and so on. Policies originating at this level come from editors and marketers who interact directly with customers and suppliers (authors), and usually make sense (when not overriden from higher up the pyramid).

So: for my American SF titles, I deal with the editor in charge of the Ace imprint, within the Berkley publishing group (division) within Penguin Group, which is owned by Pearson PLC (who also run educational software companies and publish The Financial Times). It's turtles all the way down!

But this is not how the publishing industry is structured. I've been lying to you, by over-simplifying. The truth is a lot more complicated. What I've outlined above is merely the hierarchical structure of the major commercial trade publishing houses.

In tomorrow's thrilling installment, I'm going to outline the alternatives to the big media conglomerates. And once I've got that out of the way, I can start describing just what it is that I do to earn a living — which, you might be surprised to know, is nothing to do with writing.



You've got the first and most important point right-the business makes absolutely no sense, contrary not only to what prospective writers hope, but what the "how-to" industry and other creative writing programs tell them. (And of course, the kind of thing the wilier ones suspect.)

I look forward to installment two.


Next time you write a short story, maybe the protagonist can be a galaxy-sized AI, billions of years old, who has an epiphany. Suddenly, THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY MAKES SENSE!

Then ebooks come along and we're back to square one.


What does 'making sense' mean in this context?

'Pearson owns Penguin runs Berkley runs Ace' doesn't seem weird to me. There used to be a lot of small publishing companies, now they've been bought by bigger companies. The existence of multiple levels in a hierarchy is not strange, given the existence of a large organisation. It's no stranger than someone saying "I'm a designer for the George clothing label, which is part of Asda, which is part of Walmart"

Things arguably make more 'sense' now than they used to - when publishing was a gentleman's industry, individual publishers had more leeway for idiosyncratic behaviour. These days, publishing has a very clear goal, and behaviour that is obviously directed towards that goal.

Much like, I suppose, an individual retailer 50 years ago had more control over the stock they carried, their opening hours, etc, while now there are far more franchises and conglomerates, and more uniformity in business practices.


Ray, Charles's point is that the levels of heirarchy result in the development and adoption of policies that make no sense, by virtue of originating from higher-up the food chain, spawned by executives that either (1) know nothing about publishing or (2) base decisions on what would have made sense 10-20 years ago. It is this very uniformity of practice, which you describe, that makes "no sense" in the modern industry.


Ray: "making sense" means "working the way an intelligent outsider would expect it to".

I see far too many people approaching the publishing biz with preconceptions about how it ought to work, who screw up because, actually, it doesn't work that way (and indeed doesn't work in a way that any sane individual would expect).

Note that I've very selectively dealt with only a single aspect of the publishing industry, and things are very different in other sectors.


What's meant as nonsensical here is that so much of the decisionmaking is made by executives who are quite far removed from publishing-not merely the existence of additional levels of hierarchy (though that's not necessarily unproblematic, if decentralization's regarded as a good thing), but upper tiers with very different interests and expertise which may come into conflict with sound decisionmaking regarding publishing as such.


I keep wondering with author-produced content (like books, music, art, etc) that in many ways the current model is a worse fit than the older comission-based model that used to be in operation.

For example, most artists were commissioned to produce works of art. Paid, in advance, for specific output. That paid work let them indulge in their own artistic works for fun. It's fairly similar to how I make money as a programmer - I get paid to do specific work - and how most other people earn a living.

I keep wondering whether it would work if, say, the paying customer could pay an artist up front for their work. Set a target up front - let's say $50,000 dollars. Anyone who contributes a $1 or more gets a copy when it's done. Once the fund hits $50,000 the work is 'commissioned' and any further contributions get the same terms right up until the point of completion. After that point, future sales of the work are at, say $2. You need 50,000 people to give up a buck for a book.

I admit, it relies on the honesty of the author, and having enough of a connection to the fans for them to pay up, but it's already been shown to work (e.g. Katy Jane Garside has used this kind of model to release at least one album that I know of). The risk to an established artist is low, because they can still sell the final work to a publisher if they want to, but they've just been paid $50,000 dollars to do it. New artists may have a fight to get established, but that's always been the case, and at least this way it would have a shot at being based on merit and not luck and marketing.

Meh. Doubt it'll ever happen, but I like the idea.


"doesn't work the way someone who knows nothing about the industry would expect" is not the same as "doesn't make sense"

If the way the publishing industry works is a rational response to its starting conditions, customer behaviour, production limitations, etc then it makes sense. The problem is with the person who doesn't know anything about those conditions, but thinks s/he knows better than the people who work in the field anyway.

Which is not to say that senior executives must always know what they are doing because they are gods among men. But frequently things that make 'no sense' make complete sense once you realise that there are hidden costs in book publishing, or that supermarket sales are having a huge impact, or that romance/lit fic/WWII non-fiction readers are important (but maybe not typical), that...



you're saying the publishing industry at some point went through a kind of...


NB: the word "press" is often used to mean "publisher", even in this day and age when almost all publishers have outsourced the inky job of running a printer to someone else.

That's no more oxymoronic than "fabless semiconductor company"...


I keep wondering with author-produced content (like books, music, art, etc) that in many ways the current model is a worse fit than the older comission-based model that used to be in operation.

I'll be dealing with that later in this series. For the time being: (a) There's more to producing an acceptable product than simply writing a manuscript (see: production costs -- which include editorial/proofing work), (b) direct sales, even via internet, give you a huge accounting headache (i.e. tracking all those subscribers, extracting/processing payments, and then delivering the finished product when it's ready), and (c) you can't do it unless you have an audience of whom a significant fraction are willing to pay in advance. This last bit the the biggest obstacle of all: we hairless apes don't do delayed gratification all that well.

It's not automatically an unworkable idea, and I know authors who've tried it, with mixed results ... but for the time being, working with the current model is far more efficient for me. (You've got to factor in the opportunity cost of the time spent setting up and running such a sponsorship-based system, against any improvement in profitability relative to the existing business model.)


A question I've always wondered about with all the multinational groups and local imprints going on: how do they handle translation rights? Are they sold cross-imperia, or would an author who publishes with, say, Random House in the US sell translation rights by default to the local imprint of that imperium?

(Also looking forward to the next installments!)


Til, translation rights are complicated. Hint: my agent holds them back when selling English language rights, and we sell them separately. I'll try to remember to talk about that side of things in another post.


This is an extremely timely series, Good Sir, given the 300th anniversary that's coming up on 10 April. That 300th anniversary is what makes this blog possible.

As an aside, I'd like to propose three preliminary misconceptions. (No, I'm not running for office; that's too honest for a politician.)

Misconception 0.1: There is, in fact, a publishing industry.

Explanation: What we think of as publishing is the result of a 300-year-long orgy among thirteen distinct, incompatible niche business models for disseminating the written word to a commercial audience. That is, it is even more chaotic than implied. And if you've actually met some of the cretins in charge, you'd understand why all of the implications of "orgy" and "inbreeding" are intentional...

At this point, I'm going to disagree with one aspect of Our Gracious Host's description. DRM is not being imposed top-down; it is being imposed sideways (without any lube, either). For example, at Conglomerate H (there is more than one of them, so don't assume that you know which one!), all DRM policy for the entire conglomerate has been, and is being, set by the English-language postsecondary textbook imprint(s). This is due, primarily, to the unique life-cycle/price/distribution structure of postsecondary textbooks... and makes some (a little bit) of sense in that context, but none whatsoever outside of it. This is due, secondarily, to the ignorance of the particular executive(s) involved, as none of them have an editorial background -- that is, none of them understand creating the product from the inside. This is due, tertiarily, to the UK's f*cked-up libel laws, and hence to Misconception 0.2. (Yes, there are other reasons, too; but that starts to get into unique-to-Conglomerate H's-circumstances territory.)

Misconception 0.2: Commercial publishing is an independent exercise.

No. Leaving aside the Orgy for the moment, just where do you think the word "publish" comes from, and what's the distinction between a "publisher" and a "press"? Hint: There's a reform movement in the UK for the subject right now.

"Publish" is a 16th-century term of art in defamation law -- as in "to publish a scandalous statement to a third party." Conversely, "press" arises from Star Chamber proceedings in the 1550s and 1560s to distinguish rogue printers from members of the Company of Stationers... which had as part of its mission the suppression of religious dissent.

Now put this together for a moment, and you'll realize that the "publishing industry" is implicitly admitting that it operates in and around libel (and general defamation) law. Looking into the inbred offspring of the Orgy only confirms that.

Misconception 0.3: Commercial publishing competes for capital and labor on the same basis as does any other commercial endeavour.

This isn't quite a corollary of Misconception 0.1; it is, instead, a corollary of Black Friday.


Modern accounting standards don't just encourage formulaic discounting of anticipated future revenues and expenses to what is called "net present value": They require it. In the US, this results from the Securities Act and Securities Exchange Act from the early 1930s, which were passed in response to perceived market manipulation that led to the stock market crash in 1929 (well, train wreck beginning in 1927, but I'm just quibbling there). Like democracy, this is a very bad system for preventing certain varieties of securities fraud... but it's better than the alternatives.

The real difficulty is not with having accounting standards, or with preventing stock fraud. It is with what happens when those standards get adopted in incompatible contexts... such as commercial publishing, which (unlike virtually every other industry that does not create product with easily determinable shelf life) has, during the Orgy, relied extensively on the backlist for a high proportion of both cashflow and profit. There's this meme that all capital competes in the same marketplace, made popular by misinterpretation of (among others) Keynes and Galbraith; and that, in turn, implies a uniform set of measuring tools.

The implications of this problem within the Orgy are left as an exercise for the student.

I'm suggesting these as sort of preliminary misconceptions to keep in mind in addition to those put forth by Our Gracious Host, because they help explain the source of both the misconceptions and the reality... and point out why certain neato "solutions" to the problems posed for both authors and readers by commercial publishing won't work for anything other than one, or at most two, of the offspring of the Orgy.


Ooh, this should be good.

Touching both the highest level and the 'makes sense' argument, I notice a strong implication that the great big lads with the ciliated tentacles are essentially pure rent-seekers - their rationale for existence being very real but purely, like that of my lord Bigblade of Hardcastle, strategic. Are they just strategic artefacts, d'you reckon, or is there anything at all useful they provide that filters down to the author or consumer?


The tentacles are carrying money, basically.

Most reasonably successful businesses want to expand - they think the good ideas that make them successful will work on a larger scale. One way to get the money to expand is to borrow. Another is to get bought out by a bigger company, whose financial operations are at a different scale. Bought have good and bad points. If the bigger company already owns businesses similar to yours, there may be ways you can work together.

(Also, there's a degree of security. You might feel that being part of a bigger company with deeper pockets makes you more capable of riding out bad times)


Ray @ 16 - Yes, I get all that, as well as the less attractive internal logics for consolidation (like, defensibility against hostile takeovers; and strength to stand against retail monopsonies and conversely to strong-arm smaller buyers; and the very great importance of overall company size to executive status and salary; and all that jazz in general).

What I'm wondering about is which benefits, if any, make their way down the chain as far as either the author or the reader. Ability to tell to go take a flying flip at the MOOOOOOON when it starts trying to sequester all the gravy for itself might plausibly be such a public benefit.

Charlie is way more clued-up about these things than I, though, and I'm really curious about his perspective on that side of it.


Well, they're businesses. On the one hand, their raison d'etre is not to improve the lot of the reader, it's to make money. On the other hand, any market advocate will tell you that you benefit in the end through lower prices and better choices. The fact that Tor is owned in the end by Pearson makes it easier for them to take risks on publishing weirdo Scottish authors, and to market and distribute said weirdos.


It seems significant to me that no one's yet (as I write, of course) noted that your EADS wikilink goes to the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. As to what it means, I don't know. Then again, I'm the same way about EADS -- it appears to be somewhat obscure industrial jargon . . . or the military-industrial-publishing complex has spread its tentacles further than I'd previously thought.

Cogent and illuminating as always, Mr. Stross.


Bruce, what it means is that Hachette Livre is part of a group who make missile launchers and bits of airliners, never mind merely owning TV broadcast satellites or newspapers.

I threw that link in to highlight what I'm talking about; at the top level, publishing becomes indistinguishable from any other large-scale commercial activity engaged in by the likes of Carlyle Group, Haliburton, or Lagardère.

More here. And (warning: interesting but large PDF) here.


@20 -- Ah, all is now clear. I realize now that I was unconsciously resisting the notion that Rupert Murdoch has the Bomb. Thanks.


Aw CRAP :P I had forgotten the top level of the stack (which is a key difference in the videogame industry versus the traditional publishing industry)... scribble scribble scribble...


We'll try to stay serene and calm When Hachette Livre gets the Bomb...


Charlie @20: So when this publishing conglomerate talks about deterring copyright violation, it's not just lawyers they can send after you? The thought of DMCA take-downs being delivered via missile-armed UAVs make current day DRM not seem so draconian after all...


It sems to me that one of the big parts of any problem is the MBA school. There is the idea that getting a particular sort of general degree equips you to run any business, without having to know anything about the details.

That sort of training is a valuable toolkit. There are all sorts of problems in organising a large group of people for a common purpose, the heirarchal structures which Charlie has just described are part of most answers.

But they maybe haven't heard of Norbert Weiner and cybernetics. Where is the feedback in the system? If the DRM comes from the top, and is slapped onto very different media, how does an MBA-based system detect where it isn't working before a subsidiary collapses in red-inked annual accounts?

Feedback is how quality control on a production line works--you're measuring the product, maybe applying some basic statistical analysis along the way, and spotting deviations from specification before they exceed the tolerances. With that knowledge, you can adjust what you're doing.

Books don't work like that. It's batch production. Ideas such as Six-Sigma might work for some parts of the process, such as actual printing, but it would need a huge print run. And the whole concept of Standard Deviation is only useful as a source of obscene jokes when applied to authors.

Often, the processes I see which might make up part of a feedback system are only there for protection against lawyers when things go wrong. Procedures must be followed (and sometimes have little relation to the reality of getting the job done), and every detail recorded, but the records are never read.

There aren't the systems in place to handle the flood of potential feedback, neither storage not presentation. The next time I visit the outpatients clinic, if I follow all the rules, the doctor will have a set of some 2500 data points to examine, and the only mechanism for recording them seems to be a hand-written book. How does one find a potentially life-threatening pattern in that?

The computer on the desk gives a nice graph of a blood test which does some averaging, but they only have four readings on file.

I'm starting to ramble. But I'd suggest a lot of the problems with edicts from on high is that there are no useful feedback mechanisms.


Dave: a lot of the problems with edicts from on high is that there are no useful feedback mechanisms.

Or worse: that there are tons of feedback mechanisms -- all of them inappropriate.

Ask yourself, how do publishers measure outcomes?

Remember, the product is very idiosyncratic; you, as a reader, don't go into a bookshop to buy a kilo of Penguin titles, you go in looking for specific authors -- and worse, for specific books by those authors which you have not already read. Part of what any publisher is hoping for is that their editors and marketing staff are selecting authors who the public want to read ... but the feedback loop is so long (three book contract? We're talking up to five years for figures on the last volume's sales in mass market paperback to come in) that it's next to impossible to track it. Indeed, short-term trends can turn something that was deeply unprofitable at the start of such a period into an absolute must-have by the end of it (or vice versa).

You can't do effective statistical sampling and quality management across your product range with novels because they're all different: worse, they're different in multiple unquantifiable dimensions.

The back end (where your supply comes from) isn't scalable; you can't pick a popular supplier like William Gibson and say "right, I want you to ramp up production from one unit per three years to ten units a month". (It's been tried, but it doesn't work terribly well.)

Effectively, these huge conglomerates are running on top of a cottage industry that is still, in some respects, a pre-industrial craft.

It's almost as if the business was designed to drive MBAs into gibbering insanity ...


MBAs are useless, so anything that gets them out of the way has to be a good thing. The cult of the MBA is one of the most depressing things about modern capitalism, and there are plenty to choose from.

I really don't think publishing scales well, and the returns on capital just aren't there compared to other industries. You can get them by "sweating" the business, but that just destroys the long term viability of the business. This is a big part of the reason for the music industry's woes, they stopped investing in future artists. This is why newspapers are in trouble - they cut costs, and cut costs to maintain profits until people looked at the newspaper one day and thought "why am I buying this?"

Ignoring ebooks, something similar seems to be happening to publishing. Editors are being laid off (I have a suspicion that many books are barely edited anymore), midlists are slashed. Authors are given maybe one book to make it with, and are then dropped if they fail. Publishers chase the "sure thing" of the celebrity biography, rather than invest in the long term. Sure there are other problems, but the main problems are of the industry's (or rather its corporate owners) making.

If history is any guide, then what we may see will be smaller publishers taking advantage of ebooks and working with more marginal authors. They won't have the legacy costs of existing publishers, and they'll value editors more (some of them may even be founded by editors). Being real publishers, they won't bother with DRM. A few of them will get lucky, have hits and grow to the point that gradually they end up with more established authors who are increasingly tired of the dinosaurs.


Can't wait till you get to the Throw-Stuff-Against-The-Wall-And-See-What-Sticks publishing strategy! Aye, its a hoot, a regular hoot.


The back end isn't scalable; you can't pick a popular supplier like William Gibson and say "right, I want you to ramp up production from one unit per three years to ten units a month".

To an extent - see James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Baen collaborations, etc. I think some romance fiction publishers have very specific genre categories, and can increase production of 'time-travelling single mother doctor" romances at short notice, with some confidence that readers are loyal to the category as much as the individual authors. (Baen seem to aim - with some success - for a very strong brand identity, such that there are Baen readers who assume that any Baen book is going to suit them)

Plus, of course, there's non-fiction/reference, where you could go from 5 "X for Dummies" books a year to 50 or 500 if necessary. Not easily, but it is scalable.


To some extent, isn't the scaling what happens when a certain idea catches the public mood - or the mood of a certain subsection of the public - and a load of authors follow it up (perhaps after prodding from their publishers) - eg all those vampire books?


"And once I've got that out of the way, I can start describing just what it is that I do to earn a living — which, you might be surprised to know, is nothing to do with writing."

Completely OT (I hope!) - but the first thing to flash into my mind was "He's going to reveal he's an international hit-man".

Excellent cover, all those trips abroad.......

There's probably a story in there.

Back on-topic:

The growth in power of our corporate masters does finally seem to be penetrating the public conciousness (banks "too big to fail", the power of the US health insurance lobby, the sale of the US political process, etc, etc).

I'm wondering if at some point there might be some kind of grassroots kickback against the corporate model in the offing? If so, the publishing industry is an obvious target with the availability of alternate distribution streams and non-traditional moneterisation.

(If I ever write something that I don't feel the immediate urge to bin, it WILL be published. Even if only online with a link to a paypal account and a note: "If you want me to write more of this then put money here"!)


There's a bit more predictability for nonfiction books (there's even more for other branches of publishing such as professional publishing, but generic nonfiction is frequently part of a standard trade publisher's line). Publishers can and do slot in a certain number of books in a general topic area per year well in advance and then hunt down authors to write them.

That part of a general trade publisher's list helps stabilize the whole enterprise. It doesn't help for more specialized imprints (like Tor), though.


Have you seen Confessions of a Dangerous Mind?


A minor quibble. Ace publishes both science fiction and fantasy titles. My WebMage books come with Ace Fantasy on the spine. Likewise Roc, which published Lyda Morehouse's sf titles when she was still writing sf under that name.


26 Note, too, that unlike (say) the automobile industry, many works can continue to be financially viable products for decades. Quickly, now:

What's the ROE (UK or US rules, I don't care, just state which you're using) on The Return of the King in mass-market paperback? Or Ozma of Oz in trade paperback? Or (and I know this one, because I've got the bloody numbers) How to Win Friends and Influence People in trade casebound?

It's not just feedback methods that matter; it's the timeframe for feedback. And "modern" management sets up all of its feedback systems so that they become invalid more than four years after initiation... which, not coincidentally, is the statute of limitations under New York law for breach of a written contract, although they don't teach MBAs the "why".


What about this thing about printing and distribution being essentially free that we hear so much about in the pricing debate? What's that all about?


I'll get to that question in due course. But for the time being, I'd like to note that the ink-on-paper component of the as-sold price of a new book is around 10-20%, depending. (Paper really is cheap.) In contrast, distribution via wholesale and retail channels takes a gigantic bite out of the pie -- bigger than the authors and publishers shares combined.

In contrast, there's a common misconception that ebook printing and distribution is next-to-free (it's not, and I'll go into that later).

NB: next posting delayed due to (a) pressure of work, and (b) I seem to have a mild case of what appears to be labyrinthitis (pending visit to the doctor for an actual diagnosis, tomorrow -- it's extremely distracting and somewhat annoying).


Note, too, that unlike (say) the automobile industry, many works can continue to be financially viable products for decades.

99% won't be though. Its one of the reasons why the copyright laws don't make an awful lot of sense as currently constituted - most books generate zero income within ten years. I've heard authors talk about their backlist as their pension, which seems risky for most...


In contrast, there's a common misconception that ebook printing and distribution is next-to-free (it's not, and I'll go into that later).

Hmm. I've seen it argued, but only through the use of exaggerated server costs, or through including the costs of DRM (which are not cheap). I'd be interested in seeing a better argument.

Incidentally, for anyone who thinks self-publishing is a viable model, take a look at the career of Timothy Mo. He was a contemporary of Amis and Rushdie, nearly won the booker and sold very well indeed. Then he made the fateful decision to self publish his next novel... Hasn't published anything in ten years.


re: Labyrinthitis. Get well soon. I'd rather you had that sensation with the alcohol than without.


I don't know much about the publishing industry (Though if all goes well... or poorly... I may know as soon as I try to publish the novel I am writing) but I've heard from some publishing nerds that I know that Baen books isn't pushing for DRM.

So, you know, if you don't like the DRM maybe you could switch to Baen?

By the way, I love your stories and my first exposure to them was by 'atrocity archives' which I picked up because I had a gift-card and it fit into the money slot right next to the book I actually wanted at the time (The book I actually wanted turned out to be rather dismal. It wasn't bad, but it was not up to scratch, especially compared to some of it's author's prior works. )

All in all I consider it a net gain as, while I got one book that turned out dismal, I got a great book, and learned of a new good author.


re: Timothy Mo, that's terrible news, I used to love all his books, but like you say it's been ten years since I saw any new ones.

There are other reasons for an author not to put a book out in 10 years than "self publishing" though, so we'd need more info to make a judgement.


No, but in his case it was a massive contributor (mixed reviews for his first self-published novel didn't help, but sales were dismal).


Dave, I did labs yesterday and got results online today. I pulled up graphs for two that were not like recent labs (they do charts, too). I can view my test results for 10 years if I want, at different granulations, as well.

(I'm just two points above stage 4 GFR and in better news, my glucose is lower, so still no probability of diabetes.)

So some medical places are a lot better at checking this kind of thing than publishing is.


And that there are readers who assume that any Baen book is not going to suit them (other than the one Vorkosigan left).


Ezra Klein said that if we let insurance companies sell out of state, they'll all get one state to give them the best regulations and move there, just like the credit card industry did.



I hesistate to mention what that did to me - but suffice to say I wouldn't wish that on anyone (it lost me my job and kept me off work for nearly a year). I sincerely hope it's very, very mild and/or treatable with a course of anti-biotics.

Re:self publishing.

I'm not daft - that would be a last resort when faced with the choice of self publish or bin (i.e. AFTER it's done the rounds). But for me will probably never happen. Were I to write a book though (or article, or rubbish posted to someone's blog) I'd have to know someone was going to read it - I need that "oomph" to get it written.

In other words, the revolt won't come from established writers with a track record, but some unknown who gets lucky. Could happen next year or ten years down the line, but only one first novel has to go viral and thousands will be trying to emulate it (99% of them crap obviously), but enough will seep through to start changing the way the industry works.

Just my 2 pennies.


Self publishing pitfalls.

As Charlie has previously mentioned it's the editing that makes a big difference to the quality of the book.

I'm guessing that if publishers are cutting editors there will be a number of unemployed ones out there who might accept a percentage of the profits on an ebook rather than a fixed fee.

The same would go for marketing.

So hopefully we will eventually see professionally edited and marketed ebooks from 'publishers' where everyone involved receives a percentage of each book rather than an upfront wage.

It would certainly represent a viable way forward - although the initial five years would be meagre in terms of cash flowing in.

Some sort of self publishing partnership system.


i enjoyed you part 1 on the structural mash up that is publishing. As someone who came from outside i found publishing one of those huge challenges that always take the opposite route you would often expect. I put it down to the fact that it is a 'many to many' supply chain (there are thousands of publishers each with unique product selling to thousands of resellers), it similar to venture capital or betting on the horses (you have to start with thousands but only a handful make the podium but without the thousands predicting the winners is hard).

Its interesting to hear an authors prespective on the industry as i believe the only two people that natter arethe author and the reader (one puts ceativity in the other money the rest add cost).

Look forward to the next installment


the only two people that matter are the author and the reader

(Leaving aside the editor's contribution for the moment...) The writer produces words on a page. Quite possibly handwritten words. You want a book. Everyone involved in turning those pages into a book and getting the book into your hand is important. Without them, the writer has no readers and you have nothing to read. These steps can't be magiced away, the complications involved in those steps can't be ignored, and the people working on those steps expect to get paid, just like the people in any other job.


So is there some kind of fatwa among publishers that says if you try to self publish you are then on forever anathema in their eyes unto the sixth generation? Can't Timothy Mo just go back to his publisher, or a different one? There's no embarrassment in business decisions.


Nope, there's something else at work here. (Self-publishing doesn't block you from submitting your next book to a publisher.)


Not from submitting, no, but I figure there may be an element of bridge burning to it if you're an already published author...


I am one of those market advocates - to the point where I am occasionally mistaken for a nut with wings on it. Since such is not in fact the case, I take a special interest in areas where my preferred solution seems to behave perversely. And publishing is, as noted, bloody weird.

I know four typical reasons for markets so transmundanely hideous in their aspect that they cost the viewer 1d10 SAN. One is the Invisible Colon of State, and this is so not the place to go into that. The second is that we're operating at a level of granularity where game theory calls up monsters out of the vasty deep. Are there oligopolies or oligopsonies at any stage in the publishing chain? Seems so. The third is that there is an unsolved problem of agency somewhere - and big corporations have correspondingly big and interesting internal ecosystems. The fourth is that the viewer is too ignorant to know the difference between a sinisterly-tentacled demon and an innocent friendly octopus.

I am looking forward to Charlie's setting us wise on these matters here, and most especially on the fourth, because it is such a very embarrassing thing to fall foul of.

If there is a node along the chain which, from the point of view of storyteller and audience, is presently a value-sink, I would like to know that, as well as the conditions under which one might in future hope to rout around it.

Conversely, if a load of gibbering insanity is currently bundled with some service so super-excellent that the whole is really worthwhile, it would be good to understand how far the combination is a logical necessity.

So it's publishing-industry specifics I'm thinking of. You've suggested one such. The basic incommensurability of stories implies a need for unusual levels of experimentation. Assets far out of proportion to the cost of any single experiment reduce the riskiness of this strategy. So if the actual level of experimentation isn't cancelled out by beancounty internal dynamics, then the sheer size of the top-level behemoths creates a general benefit.

I'm rather doubtful as to whether this is actually true, but it does point to one factor in Cthulhu & Co's favour. Interested in further possibilities!


I can say from experience that if you bypass the traditional publishing route, and do all the editing yourself, it is immensely time-consuming – and troublesome. It’s amazing the errors that can slip through the net (at least my own personal scrutiny) even after checking for the tenth time.

Then there are the other considerations beyond the minor typos and grammatical errors, such as: did I use a certain word too many times. Then: what about the consistency of the plot – the coherence? Did a theme hold true throughout? Are there too many themes? Too many characters? What about the basic continuity, such as the physical appearance of a character? Are the chapters divided correctly?

But, without going the TP route with all its filters, you don’t get that seal of approval. Yet, surely, someone is developing a sophisticated editing program that will one day deal with those issues above. And the printing process itself, with print-on-demand, will make it a simple click to order process, rather than stacks of hardcopies returned for pulping.

So I think – with ebooks and reader technology – the publishing process will become a lot cheaper. It will mean many more people could produce a professional-looking novel. Albeit, computer aided.


To note, these things have already been exhaustively covered in the various Amazon/Macmillan posts and comment threads; I'll just refer to them in short here.

I'm guessing that if publishers are cutting editors there will be a number of unemployed ones out there who might accept a percentage of the profits on an ebook rather than a fixed fee. The same would go for marketing.

Except that this requires the writer to take time away from the job that is a) his primary responsibility and b) he is (hopefully) best at - and spend time doing the donkey-work of a manager. (Choosing and negotiating with editors and marketers, etc.) Speaking selfishly as someone who loves reading, I want my favorite authors to spend their work time on the thing that is their unique contribution to the enterprise: writing. Time spent on the donkey-work takes away from their production as writers, which cuts down on the amount of new stuff from them that I get to read.

So hopefully we will eventually see professionally edited and marketed ebooks from 'publishers' where everyone involved receives a percentage of each book rather than an upfront wage.

Except that this requires people to essentially live 'on-spec' - where are these hypothetical editors, marketers, etc. going to get their living money while they're waiting for the royalties to come in? I've lived the freelancing life, and that part of it ain't no fun. By and large, I'd bet there's a very limited pool of talent who will choose that lifestyle voluntarily - and I know I wouldn't feel comfortable deliberately building my own livelihood around people coerced into that lifestyle by economic factors.

That's a big part of what publishers do, as others have pointed out - put money upfront so that the people involved in producing books don't have to scrabble for a living, and can devote their full attention to their part of the puzzle. Speaking as a reader, I very much prefer it that way - both from the practical standpoint of getting a better-quality product, and from the ethical standpoint of having things I enjoy produced in a way I'm comfortable with.


Then there are the other considerations beyond the minor typos and grammatical errors, such as: did I use a certain word too many times. Then: what about the consistency of the plot - the coherence? Did a theme hold true throughout? Are there too many themes? Too many characters? What about the basic continuity, such as the physical appearance of a character? Are the chapters divided correctly? But, without going the TP route with all its filters, you don't get that seal of approval. Yet, surely, someone is developing a sophisticated editing program that will one day deal with those issues above.

I'm certainly not holding my breath. What you're suggesting gets very heavily into AI - even spellchecking is far from a settled art, and that's both relatively unambiguous (even compared to grammar, let alone writing style and content) and highly rule-based. In the 25 years I've been using spellcheckers, they still make mistakes an embarrassingly high percentage of the time; the state-of-the-art in grammar checking is far worse. Don't even talk about how to polish grammatically-correct, but clunky, prose into something that's entertaining to read.


Ah, the famous Pearson's Puppeteers.


Except that this requires people to essentially live 'on-spec' - where are these hypothetical editors, marketers, etc. going to get their living money while they're waiting for the royalties to come in? I've lived the freelancing life, and that part of it ain't no fun. By and large, I'd bet there's a very limited pool of talent who will choose that lifestyle voluntarily - and I know I wouldn't feel comfortable deliberately building my own livelihood around people coerced into that lifestyle by economic factors.

And I'd like it if all the people who picked the fruit I buy from the store were paid enough to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with cable TV, but, y'know, even if I had the cash to pay $10 for an apple I probably couldn't convince all of my fellow Americans to do it.

"Coerced by economic factors" basically is just another way to say "People don't want to pay for it" -- and the fact that you want to pay for it doesn't necessarily mean the money exists in the market at large to support it. That's what the real issue is, and what lies at the heart of all this "publishing is in trouble" stuff.

(And note that it's not exactly that the money doesn't exist for $10 apples to exist, but that if $10 apples existed there would be far fewer apples and far fewer people to buy them. Price-fixing's overall effect is always to shrink the size of the market as a whole. The people who still worked picking apples would be making a decent living, sure, but there'd be far fewer of them total, far fewer apples being grown, and unless you had the government artificially quashing any such efforts with a price-fixing law you'd get some plucky corporate goon somewhere saying "Shit, why don't we just pay the fruit pickers a lot less and make a lot more fruit for cheaper? We'd make a killing!")

...It is kind of ironic, btw, to check in on this thread and see that it's an ongoing discussion of how and why publishing is in trouble whereas in the other thread I'm getting attacked for daring to suggest that publishing is in trouble at all.


As someone who has been published in traditional NY press and also dabbled with some indie stuff, I can see both sides of the coin: nobody can produce a nice printed book and get it on store shelves quite like a mainstream publisher, though at a significant cost.

But I also wouldn't discount independent cooperatives, sort of what we're doing with Haunted Computer Books and Ghostwriter Publications (UK) where we pool graphic design, editing, formatting, and layout talents. I like to think our quality aims as high as NY's, and we by default are working on royalties, because none of us have any money. Of course, it's simpler with ebooks than paper books, and I see no reason to risk fighting the paper distribution battles at this point. Better to take smaller cuts of ebooks at working-class prices and see measurable, relatively reliable results. I know what goes into the creation of an ebook and there's no way it should sell for more than $10, notwithstanding editorial costs. A coherent file for a novel can be formatted for Kindle in an hour. Non-fiction with indexes, images, and internal links can take much longer, though.

I recommend for an author who is succeeding both with mainstream paper publishing and his own ebooks. I think this is the model for successful writers of the future--to have some control over most of their content.

Scott Nicholson


Really interesting for a "gamekeeper" to read this "poacher" stuff. I ran Macmillan Children's Books, Scholastic in the UK, and then Headline (a big Hachette UK imprint), though the last one only for few months, and have just started up a company publishing children's books and apps. I think that there is much that's wrong with corporate publishing, but, in the last week, I've been inundated by self-published authors who can't crack the retail chain, or work out what to do with rights. I think that a publisher still has a role, which I'd define as identifying good stuff, working with the author to shape that stuff, placing that stuff effectively with retailers and making sure the retailers or the publisher tells people about that stuff. I hope that there are skills and knowledge inherent in what I have to offer to authors, but I am never in any doubt that, in almost every case, the key talent is theirs, not mine.


Hi, Kate!

Yes, there's definitely a role for publishers going forward. However, what that role is going to be, I think, not yet clear. (I'm going to speculate wildly in an upcoming post, but I'm still trying to eliminate my own misconceptions about publishing before I go there.)


I know you must realize that you just equated picking apples with the creative and complex efforts required to write and produce a book, since you chose the metaphor.

I'm not sure you could've picked a less apt metaphor. Comparing a process where labor is very standardized and routine, where the process is set and the outcomes have almost no variability to one which requires a great deal of creativity and complex reasoning at every stage of the process somewhat misses the mark.

And that's why the situation is the way it is. As a society we don't value the labor of Apple Pickers very highly because there is no variability, creativity, or complexity in the labor demands of an apple picker. You simply have to be able to reach into a tree and pick a piece of fruit. The fruit is already there. No special training or complex processes are required.

Not so with a creative endeavor like writing, editing, and producing a novel. As has been pointed out above, it's a very batch-process, with very complex creative processes that can change from product to product involved at every stage of the production process except one (the printing itself, which is the point at which economies of scale actually come into play and apple-picking metaphors might actually make sense; it's why we have machines doing more of the heavy lifting at this stage).

The problem is, publishing as an industry wants to treat the entire process like Apple Picking (as though writing and editing were as easy as reaching u to a tree and pulling an existing piece of fruit down), but fundamentally it's nothing at all like Apple Picking.


FYI, my apologies for not indicating in the body of my comment that I was replying to Art @ 58. I'm pretty new to blog commenting as a discussion forum; I'm more used to vBulletin-style forum software that automatically embeds that data into the text of the reply.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on February 23, 2010 12:56 PM.

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