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A footnote about the publishing industry

On the previous discussion, one of the commenters observed:

One thing I am getting from this thread is a list of large management failures by the publishers, just on the basic 'running a business' level. Destructive competition between divisions, the fact that an author can extract significantly more money from them by selling rights in pieces that then hamstring the publishers down the road vs selling them in larger blocks, inability to track how their product is being sold. Sounds like they really ought to put a focus on getting their own houses in order.
I think this bears some exploration, so here's a footnote:

The problems are structural in the industry, but they're not an accident: they're a result of the way the (current) industry emerged. Publishing is a very old business—it's been around in some shape or another for over 500 years, and in much its current shape since the mid-Victorian period—and the way publishers do business is the intersection of the set of all business practices that did not cause one of their antecedents to go bust, over a roughly 250 year period.

And now to the current mess.

Until the 1980s, publishing houses were generally small family-run businesses who owned their own typesetters and printing presses and employed their own production people and warehoused their own stock. And growth in the industry was negligible—it's a mature field, you can't easily "grow" a business in publishing because the amount of time consumers have available for reading (i.e. consuming more product) is an inelastic constant: the best you can run is a zero-sum game against other publishers. And in the large, you're competing with other media. Every computer game a punter buys is 20-100 fewer hours they have for reading, for example.

The biggest change of the 50 years prior to 1995 was that a wave of mergers and take-overs swept through the industry, first in the USA and then in Europe, starting in the early 1980s. This was largely complete by the mid-90s, and utterly changed the landscape. The former family businesses were now "imprints" or trading subsidiaries. Core competencies were merged, with cost savings, while less central stuff like owning warehouses and printing presses was out-sourced. Costs were pared to the bone. A senior editor these days doesn't just 'edit', they're a business manager running acquisitions and supervising product workflow and marketing strategy—jobs which come out of the time available for editing, in some cases consuming all of it.

But it's still a more or less global zero sum game (competing for readers eyeball-hours). And because the rate of individual production is relatively low and the product is still produced artisanally by cottage industries, product lead time is measured in years, time to achieve net positive revenue is also measured in years, and it's important to keep the back list on tap because it can take decades to grow an author's career. Stephen King was an overnight success with "Carrie" after a decade of learning to write, but Terry Pratchett took about 15 years to finally break big. J. K. Rowling took 3 books to really get rolling, and she grew eye-wateringly rapidly by industry standards. And some authors are slow-burn successes: my big breakthrough book was my tenth novel in print ("Halting State"). J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was in print for a decade or more before it really took off in the 1960s. If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren't immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he'd gone after groceries he'd be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

But the trouble with disruption is that it's dangerously close to detonation. You can end up destroying what you sought to shake up and take over.

PS: there have been attempts to get away from artisan production. Shared universes, media spin-offs, and the likes of the DC and Marvel Comics constitute such attempts. They generally don't work well for the creators (most of them entail work-for-hire and put harsh constraints on the creative freedom available to the authors or other artists involved); collaborative short fiction/novels are much free-er, but it's a general truism that when you collaborate with another author, both of you end up writing 75% of the book. Somehow we've been unable to come up with a better way to do high quality fiction since Thomas Hardy's day, despite having a century filled with progress in other fields.

59 Comments

1:

About the only thing that comes to mind regarding getting away from artisan production is ghostwriting.

The almost Renaissance-style 'master artist and his proteges' thing that happens with children's book series and writers like James Patterson.
You get a big idea writer who is the equivalent of a marathon runner and hire a stable of moderately talented writers who can take a prompt and run the 50 meter dash.

2:

There is no publishing industry.

There is only the bastard offspring of a three-century-long orgy among thirteen distinct publishing industries. And they really are distinct, from both the reader/market and author/supplier perspective... not to mention government relations, economic characteristics, etc.

That some of these industries now have members that are parts of the same conglomerates doesn't change things all that much. Remember, commercial fiction is a very, very small part of the publishing landscape; by both adjusted revenue and copy sales (not to mention profitability), there's a division at Pearson that could swallow up all of commercial fiction in English worldwide with a small burp at the end of the meal.

And that, by itself, explains an awful lot of the internal inconsistencies in the industry. As a specific example, in the Preceding Thread toward the end there was a comment about DRM-being-from-Hachette, countered with the assertion that it's irrelevant and Tor is such a great counterexample. I snickered at that: In the US market, the most-aggressive initial move to DRM was driven by the college textbook segment of Tor's corporate parent. Tor's position is pushback based on its own industry's characteristics, and at the cost of a lot of internal political capital.*

If you need any further proof that the industries remain distinct, just look at author compensation ranges across them... and ask a friendly academic how much of an advance he/she got for a widely-adopted textbook (that probably outsells all but the top five or six commercial-fiction bestsellers), what his/her royalty rate is, and how often he/she gets an accounting and gets paid! After carefully filing off the serial numbers, one of my clients for an introductory-level university textbook (not the market leader, but adopted at enough US colleges/universities to pretty well guarantee annual sales of 50,000 copies), got an advance of under $2kUS, 4% royalties on net for hardcovers (retailing at well over $150)/15% on net-net for e-books, and annual accounting six months after the end of the accounting period... and that was a comparatively generous offer, even though the author is also required to update the entire book every three years for three editions with no further advance (that is, it's a twelve-year project!). At least this publisher doesn't charge back for the ancillaries (student study guides, instructor guides, multimedia, PowerPoint slides, test banks, etc.). And there are no "page fees."

* That I think it is the right position, and will ultimately prevail until the next iteration of market-and-profit measurement fads takes over, is beside the point. The US civil rights movement was the right position and ultimately prevailed, but nonetheless cost a lot of internal political capital.

3:

See also "Daisy Meadows", under whose name not-quite-interchangeable 'fairy' books appear every few weeks. The last time I checked, most of them were written by one person (Narinder Dhami) but to begin with it was certainly a many-handed operation.

4:

All of which is, to me, a disaster. As businesses, in the modern American definition, meaning long-term thinking is the next quarter, and the extreme risk-aversion, it makes it far harder to break in, books that should have been attacked by a box of blue pencils and cut to a third of their length, and severe sequelitis.

1. I will *NEVER*, *EVER* buy the first book of a 26 book series.
2. I'm deeply pissed at Rothfuss (Name of the Wind), and have no intention of buying the next two books in that series (which I was not told when I bought it, and a year later, still hadn't seen the second one), to the point where I'll wait a few years and buy the next two... used.
3. And then there's the dreadful writing. For example, Anderson's series, Book of the Seven Suns, where the fifth book, I think it is, seems to finally be winding down the story... and in the last two chapters, he brings back one race of villians that we thought were mostly defeated, *and* a race that's been extinct for 10,000 years - guess he sold another 5 books. But not to me.

I *want* more worlds to explore. There are series I like (1632 being an excellent example), but I don't want one story line that goes on and on and on and on - as Brian Sandersen said this past weekend at Balticon, you have to keep giving them bigger and newer powers and challangers.

I'll be voting for Doc Smith for the RetroHugo. Give me *space*, not rehashes of Earth wars....

mark

5:

This is interesting in light of the announcement Tor made (today I believe) of a new, primarily digital imprint. They're going to be doing some experimentation. From their announcement:

"In short, we are using this opportunity to reevaluate every step of the publishing process and are looking forward to creating a program with a fresh, start-up mentality, but with the rich legacy of Tor Books and Tor.com behind us."

6:

sometimes it is easier to burn it all down and start anew....

7:

Don't forget simple population increase as a source of growth! World population has more than doubled during my lifetime, US population has increased more than 50% (I'd have to look up figures for early in my life, 50% covers more like half my life).

Not that it's enough to counteract competing means of recreation like television and video games; but it's still a factor big enough it should be accounted for rather than ignored.

8:

So publishing industry is too big to fail?

Someone could use the same logic to argue Google or Amazon is too big to fail too, it's a slippery slop all the way down to government controlled centralized economy.

Disruption is good (TM), this is the market's way of breaking up the monopolies you are so afraid of, and it forces everyone to innovate.

9:

Is there that much eyeball competition from different media though? Purely anecdotally: I'm a gamer and so are most of my real world friends. However, I am a reader and none of them are. I'll usually spend a set time every day or week reading, more if what I'm into is particularly good. There's no entertainment overlap for me. Reading (and often researching what I'm reading) is an involved activity while gaming is (for me) purely passive. I can only game so much (less and less as I age) without getting bored. The people I know who don't read won't no matter what.

In entertainment-centric communities I frequent, there seems to be a level of crossover and it's always consistent by preference. A movie person is less likely to seek out the book, but they might if they REALLY love the property. The reverse is also true, but less so. Does Game of Thrones get more viewers from the Song of Fire and Ice fans or vice versa? (I have no idea). Granted, there are probably plenty examples of the reverse. True Blood spawning a demand for the novels out of nowhere, for example. Probably (ugh) Twilight too. And then there's the Hunger Games. I wonder if the phenomenon might vary by age of (potential) reader.

I dunno if the self-publishing movement is the answer (it still seems to be locked into the publishing industry, by and large). I've heard of properties that originated via blog and caught fire that way, to become books and movies but that's certainly going to be rare.

I hope there can be some changes to entrenched industry that will be good for content producers and consumers alike, but I always hope that.

10:

I don't see where you get "The publishing industry is too big to fail" from. Overall, it probably is, but each element, no.

And we're seeing publishers try to change - although there's a lot of inertia in the system - authors often take a year or more to write a book (I was listening to something yesterday and some authors were talking about taking over 4 years to write a novel) and then as Charlie often points out, there's typically a 2+ year lag from handing in a completed manuscript to the publication date. But a different friend who is an author is seeing more like 6 months from completed edited script to publication.

Plus we're seeing a rapid rise in self-publication again. There have been fads of this in the past, but with Amazon and Apple (and probably others) both making it easy to distribute your self-published opera you can probably do it more cheaply and easily than at any time in history.

I'm pretty sure there will be some form of publishing industry in 25 years and not just for publishing technical and academic material. It's pretty likely a number of the same names will remain - some of them at least will adapt rather than die. But the actual shape of them, no idea. Very different to how it is now I'm pretty sure

11:

This is a nitpick that doesn't alter the basic sense of your post, but I think it is a point that bears making nevertheless:

The biggest change of the 50 years prior to 1995 was that a wave of mergers and take-overs swept through the industry, first in the USA and then in Europe, starting in the early 1980s.

The paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s was at least as big. It was a new model of production, distribution, and sales; and it brought with it its own peculiar dysfunctions (e.g. stripping covers from unsold books and returning them for refunds, destroying the rest of the books).

The Tolkien boom in the mid-60s, for example, was the direct result of US paperback editions.

12:

Something very similar happens in kids' mysteries with the Hardy Boys and their ilk.

When I was 8 or so I would three of those books in a day. If the audience is undiscriminating enough, legions of ghostwriters get the job done.

13:

Charlie:
Somehow we've been unable to come up with a better way to do high quality fiction since Thomas Hardy's day, despite having a century filled with progress in other fields.
Actually, we have not come up with a better model since the first production of "The Tempest" (Assuming the usual trope that it was WS's last play.)

Someone has to imagine & create what JRRT called "A secondary world"
Amd then make that simulacrum come alive enough to engage our interests, especially enough to make us part with our money to read / see / watch / enjoy / absorb the messages being emitted.

When the perfomance (reading the book in this case ) is done, then indeed one can echo Prospero [ Act IV sc1 )
"Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. Thes, our actors (As I foretold you) were all spirits & are melted into air, into thin air.
And like the baselss fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers ....
etc

Or should one do what, it is said, Octavian (Augustus Ceasar) asked on his deathbed:
"Have I performed well upon this stage?"
(YES!)
"Then you must applaud me!"
... and expired to that sound

14:

Chances are that the U.S. readership profile is not too dis-similar from other parts of the world. The Pew research below basically shows that older, educated, white, rural-area, middle-income females really the most! There you go Charlie - now you know which segment not to tick off. (Having any second thoughts about that 'marital break-up' in Laundry?)

This readership profile also suggests that making sure your books become available on audio (are audio books downloadable?) would also help boost readership/sales. And, there's a huge gap in the U.S. Hispanic market. Would be interesting to find out what the American Hispanic fantasy/myth/lore is, where it came from, and possible modern-day spin on same ... and develop a new audience for your books.

http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/16/a-snapshot-of-reading-in-america-in-2013/

I especially like this finding, which shows some market research support for the future of selling books off the publisher's site:

"Younger e-book readers were especially likely to access e-books on cell phones or computers, while older adults were more likely to use dedicated e-readers. Only 23% of e-book readers overall read on a tablet."

15:


Argghhh! typo ..

The Pew research below basically shows that older, educated, white, rural-area, middle-income females read the most!

16:

>>Somehow we've been unable to come up with a better way to do high quality fiction since Thomas Hardy's day, despite having a century filled with progress in other fields.

I wonder if people actually really tried.

A real "collective author", I think, if it can exist at all, will not comprise several authors writing different part of the book. Rather, it will employ division of labor. There will be separate specialists for building the secondary world, the characters, the overall plot structure, the fine plot details, the writing style, et cetera... :-)

17:

* rolls eyes*

It's been tried. The phrase you missed was "quality fiction". Any damn fool can set up a pulp extrusion mill. Training hacks to write good prose is another matter.

18:

There are teams which have worked for a long time, though maybe not of the highest quality. We can argue about the example of Ellery Queen, for instance, but the team worked.

Quality fiction is hard. The lone writers often take longer to write a book. I am not sure that a team can be designed, and we're in Mythical Man-Month territory, but they can be successful.

There is no single answer.

19:

If we step away and look at the business - the actual work done - there are some scary points, and opportunities.

1. Publishers now do acquisition, actual editing (plot, text), layout, artwork, printing, marketing, inventory management, accounting.

2. Amazon currently does acquisitions, (ebook "printing"), their own internal marketing but not external marketing, inventory management, and accounting. Note some gaps.

3. Self-publishing now does writing, (self or friend/subcontracted plot, text editing), (self or friend/subcontracted layout), (self or subcontracted artwork), (self or subcontracted marketing), optionally in rare cases hiring a printer and maintaining some inventory.

None of these *exactly* line up with the changes the internet hath wrought. Amazon is working to disintermediate publishers out of the equation, but not offering to step up (yet) with the additional services in the gaps. Particularly, the whole production details cycle, and the whole marketing cycle for external customer marketing (as opposed to internal ad placement within their closed ecosystem).

To some extent fan web sites / social media / blogs / magazines may replace a formal external marketing system, but I think that's ultimately naive. There is value in a proper marketing team, which I think A/B experiments would demonstrate.

That said, the whole marketing experience - presuming two-year cycles, book fairs, big warehouses and book buyers purchasing shipments from publishers based on fairs and marketing, etc. - all of this is in danger.

On prior thread we had someone talking about e-book first - with all "print" costs going to the margin who will insist on dead trees, and with schedules predicated on fast-to-market with the ebook once it's written. I have heard existing publisher and bookseller chain people scream at this idea before, but they have not offered any good alternatives. This model threatens not just publishers but the whole book chain. It is optimal for Amazon, and in fact what they're doing, absent not doing real marketing and real "editing".

So, it's not just Hachette, it's everyone up and down the chain in danger here.

Eventually someone with some money time and clue will step in with a ebook-first publisher filling those roles. THEN, the whole 500-year edifice starts to crumble. Amazon's gaps will be filled in, book production cycles will fall from years to weeks or low months, the current market equity and value of the existing publishing houses freefalls.

Any of the existing houses could shift to this model, if they are willing to accept that they're writing off a large part of their value and business activity in the name of continuing to hold market share in the future by dint of having the acquisitions, (plot/text) editing, and marketing savvy to bring value to the table Amazon hasn't. Plus - they have all the "remaining value" staff roles / people on staff already. Minus - 500 years of inertia and a likely unwillingness to write off large portions of business activity, even if the future holds doom for that segment anyways.

Or, Amazon could step up, and start offering those services, probably one field at a time. One might hypothesize which types of books they would go after in what order; My intuition is textbooks and (speculative fiction writ large), but I don't know for sure if that's the most attractive target(s).

I am hopeful that someone else steps up; Amazon will fill that gap in eventually if nobody else does. Then they really do start to approach THE MEDIA MONOPOLY status and we're all slightly screwed, or self-publishing direct to consumers...

20:

The real division of labour is what Charlie was on about at the start. The writer writes, everything else (from cover design to naming the book is outsourced).

The value add of a publisher from a reader's perspective is someone to go through the slush pile and weed it out for them. However that can be open-sourced. I found Charlie by typing "Cory Doctorow" into the literature map. I found that people who liked "Cory Doctorow" liked "Charles Stross" so I started buying "Charles Stross" (until USA/Commonwealth territorial rights made it literally impossible to download the rest of a series I'd already paid the retailer for... but that's another story). http://www.literature-map.com/cory+doctorow.html

21:

"I don't want one story line that goes on and on and on and on - as Brian Sandersen said this past weekend at Balticon, you have to keep giving them bigger and newer powers and challangers.

"I'll be voting for Doc Smith for the RetroHugo. Give me *space*, not rehashes of Earth wars...."

Because Doc Smith is the poster child for hero-and-villain inflation?

22:

TV fiction (which I know you don't care for as a viewer, but is relevant here) offers interesting examples of quality collective writing.

US hour-long (read 42') serialized 'dramas' (includes everything non-comedic, thrillers, SF, etc) typically are staffed with 5-7 writers, while half-hour comedies (22') land in the 1-2 dozen range.

Add to that a couple writers' assistants (who take notes of every half baked idea flying across the room, do research and fact-checking, update the internal bible/wiki, etc).

Brit teams are usually smaller, but work on shorter runtimes (6-10 episodes per series, rather that 12-24).

This 'writing room' model is justified by the comparatively short production cycles for a season, the episodic style of TV series, and by the amount of medium-specific problem solving required (factoring budget constraints, location availability, production scheduling, etc).
Also, very few shows start shooting a season with more than a third of episodes already scripted, meaning delivering scripts in time is usually a race against the clock throughout most of the production cycle.

I won't go at length about the specifics of breaking/beating stories, rewrites and division / sharing of labor here ; suffice to say there are many tricks to this trade, some of which may be inspiring (if not directly translating) to written-word fiction.

The important part being : there is high quality fiction (storytelling and character development wise) currently made for TV by teams of writers, in scale and scope comparable to novels, which could be taken as a practical proof team-writing doesn't have to be mediocre.*

Would it be a sound way to write fiction books ? No idea whether the economics of even a small (2-3 writers) writing room could be viable for novels, but I know I've sometimes thought to myself : "this guy does great character work, too bad he can't do plot to save his life" ; or conversely : "lots of good ideas, so much cardboard".

Of course, a fair counter would be that a great writer does it all (with gentle nudges from her editor), but looking at it from the perspective of a reader, I'd rather buy three great books written by a team of good writers of complementary talents, than three OK novels all lacking in some major way…


*[Of note, an evolution towards heavily serialized writing in TV drama, closer to doorstopper novel format than to the formulaic rehash which was once the standard of TV fiction series. Also, the trend of shorter (12 rather than 24 episodes / series), plot and story are packed much tighter than they used to, with no watering down for length and less airtime wasted catching up slow viewers.
As a result of the above (plus DVD boxsets and VOD growing market shares), quality TV dramas are more and more often long-form movies (8h-10h), designed to be watched in relative continuity, a season roughly worth a solid SF or thriller tome, both in plot and character work.]

23:

The good news is if you're a Peak Oil Pessimist (I'm borderline), the global enterprise of publishing can be downscaled quite radically, so long as there's paper available. Unfortunately, it doesn't upscale like video games quite so readily.

Makes me optimistic about its long-term future, in a cockeyed way.

As for Mssr. Petit's point that there is no single "publishing industry," look at scientific publishers. They're something like 10 times larger than, say, romance publishers (I'm compared Elsevier and Harlequin a few years ago), and if they were publishing fiction, they'd be called vanity publishers: the author pays (allegedly through a grant, although grants are getting increasingly hard to come by), the editors and reviewers are volunteers, the company charges people to read it, and they often charge advertising. What's not to like, if you're in corporate parasite mode?

24:

The counter I would make to that is that there is a lot less character and plot development in a typical TV show episode than there is in a novel. If we take Babylon 5 as an example, I would say that the various canon novel trilogies contain at least as much, if not more, character and plot development in a single novel as there was in a single season of Babylon 5 (which would make each of those trilogies the equivalent of three seasons of the show.) Also of note is that, once season 3 started, JMS felt that everything was so tightly connected that he could not pass the scripts over to other writers - he wrote the entirety of seasons 3 and 4 himself, and all bar one episode of season 5.

And look at how many staff have to be involved to keep everything reasonably coherent - it most certainly is not a linear increase in overall productivity to share out the workload.

25:

The most discussed recent TV drama True Detective had all episodes written by the creator, Nic Pizzolatto and all directed by the same director Cary Joji Fukunaga. All the episodes of Broadchurch were written by Chris Chibnall. All the episodes of Top of the Lake were co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. Game of Thrones has a small writing team closely following the source material of a single author who also scripts one episode per season.

Team writing is necessitated by having 22 to 24 episode seasons but it doesn't make the writing better.

26:

Thing is, that model is worse for publishers than it looks. And it looks like firing 3\4 of your staff. The problem is that, if you primarily distribute ebooks, your main value-add is in editing. Frankly, I rarely notice a publisher in a book, so brand isn't too useful...

I suspect the better way to produce books has arrived. Writer writes, publisher offers small advances and editing services on a flat fee or percentage basis based on anticipated performance...and straight to eBook. Switch to print only when proven eBook sales justify it. Suddenly, publishers have nearly guaranteed profits. Problem is that they have trouble keeping successful authors.

Why better? More books can be produced economically.
Why worse? Unless a book is exceptional, it will have more competition. I suspect that burnout of authors making not nearly enough to live on will increase. And this may prevent the development of major talents.

27:

Another big function of the publishers is/was financing retailers, the whole don't pay for the books for up to 90 days deal. Amazon very effectively parasitized that system through vastly superior inventory management (in large part possible because of the lack of physical stores). I suspect that function explains some of the odd pricing arrangements of the industry, and perhaps also some of the rigidity.

28:

fwduewer writes:
Thing is, that model is worse for publishers than it looks. And it looks like firing 3\4 of your staff. The problem is that, if you primarily distribute ebooks, your main value-add is in editing. Frankly, I rarely notice a publisher in a book, so brand isn't too useful...

I suspect the better way to produce books has arrived. Writer writes, publisher offers small advances and editing services on a flat fee or percentage basis based on anticipated performance...and straight to eBook. Switch to print only when proven eBook sales justify it. Suddenly, publishers have nearly guaranteed profits. Problem is that they have trouble keeping successful authors.

Why better? More books can be produced economically.
Why worse? Unless a book is exceptional, it will have more competition. I suspect that burnout of authors making not nearly enough to live on will increase. And this may prevent the development of major talents.

So, I disagree with this part, which then flows out to the rest of your argument: The problem is that, if you primarily distribute ebooks, your main value-add is in editing. Frankly, I rarely notice a publisher in a book, so brand isn't too useful...

The role of the neu-Publisher in this scheme is not just editing. It's all of - having a Brand, by which we mean, a name ("Baen", "Tor", "Orbit", "Subterranean"), which the reading public see as indicating quality; editors doing product selection who choose good product from authors and not just grabbing buttloads of titles out of a slushpile without care; editors doing good plot and copyediting of the product; marketing teams who understand how to market books.

Amazon right now offers none of those. The value add for those - as you point out - is significant. Even if the Big Six went bankrupt tomorrow, I cannot imagine a world where a bunch of editors we all know and trust didn't set up shop individually or collectively to offer those roles. Seriously; a "Nielsen-Hayden" brand on a eBook or POD book, unless they did something to ruin it, would probably at least double or triple sales by itself. Their phone contacts lists for the copy editors and marketers wouldn't vanish; they'd go get those people, and voila.

Amazon could too. But they haven't yet.

Question is - is that strategy (don't want to, feel that role would be bad for them), strategy (haven't gotten to it yet but intend to), negligence (haven't thought about it).

I would say the answer is likely one of the two strategy options. If it's the first, then the fallout of the doom of the end times is obvious; all the paper-focused publishers either fold completely (and their quality staff in the aforementioned fields reform elsewhere) or implode the rest of their business activity as a last-ditch effort and survive in a mutated, smaller form.

29:

"... editors doing product selection who choose good product from authors and not just grabbing buttloads of titles out of a slushpile without care; editors doing good plot and copyediting of the product; marketing teams who understand how to market books."

Let's look at the first of those. You basicly want somebody to recommend stories to you. My obvious thought -- set up a website where users can recommend stories. So, you recommend the stories you like best. Then you take a collection of the ones you particularly like that don't get a whole lot of other people liking them, and you ask the computer to search for people who recommend those. When you find a good match, you look at what he recommends that you don't. If too many of them are things you know about and think are bad, then try again. Otherwise you have some good leads.

There could be professionals who are good at suggesting things a particular segment of readers will like. How much would readers pay for that? Perhaps authors who meet their standards would pay something for the recommendation?

Maybe if enough people subscribe to a particular critic's picks, then lots of others would subscribe so they would have the chance to read what people are talking about, in time to talk about it. But somehow I don't see this as being much like an editor's job. It's more like a critic's job. And speaking for myself, I can't expect a popular critic to like what I like. I'd do better to find other amateurs who like what I like. And the more that's available, the less room there is for professionals to do that job.

30:

Thomas Hardy? Had to read too much of him in high school; hated his writing, didn't see more than soap opera there :-)

One approach to the writing process that has emerged since his day, though, is internet fan-fic. No, most of it isn't high-quality, or even medium-quality, but separating the initial world-building and character discovery from the original author at least provides some ecosystem diversity.

Another effect of fan-fic is it encourages people to go out and write, a lot, and maybe get some feedback. As far as I can tell, the only way to learn to write fiction is to go write lots of it, and this lets people get practice without having to pass the barriers of novel publishers or the dwindling short-story-magazine market. Maybe we'll get more skilled professional writers out of the deal, in addition to finding out all kinds of things we didn't realize Kirk/Spock or Malfoy/Hermione/Snape were up to.

31:

If you look at US cable drama - which is winning a lot of the plaudits for great storytelling these days: Breaking Bad, GoT, Mad Men, Orphan Black etc. - it's shorter run and often written by much, much smaller teams. Often 1 or 2 people. I'm sure they have their fact checkers and advisors but the same one or two people write every episode.

There may be other benefits as well - I think it was a different show, but someone who was used to 22 episode series and was now writing a 10 episode cable series commented how nice it was being able to write the scripts for the whole season knowing a) it was the whole season, no need for a mid-season climax just in case it wasn't picked up for the second half, and b) they finished writing the scripts before they started filming. There were little rewrites and edits and tweaks of course but they actually finished the story they wanted to tell, then they went out and shot it. Of course if you can't write it doesn't make it good, but hopefully it helps you make fewer silly mistakes and paint yourself into fewer corners when you're writing a script and the actors and film crew are waiting outside the door to film it so it can be on TV next week as well.

That's not to say, if you enjoy TV drama as well as the written word, there can't be great TV dramas in the longer form as well. But the film and TV writing room is an odd environment compared to anything else.

And honestly I don't know if the skills interchange incredibly well. Certainly some can do it. But I've just finished a book by a scriptwriter turned author. I enjoyed it and will read more if there are more to come, don't get me wrong, they're tightly plotted - but the characters are flat too often. It occurred to me that the writer is writing like there's an actor to pick up the characterisation so there's stage direction converted into description sometimes and dialog of course, but the touches that make a character come alive on the page are absent. Something OGH doesn't suffer from, thankfully. It's not true of every screenwriter turned novelist, I'm sure, but it's true of a number of them I think or it's their weakest element maybe.

Plot and structure though, I can see how that can be rattled out and agreed in a team. Teams manage it in every other job after all. I wonder just how much teamwork there is in writing the blocking and the dialog though? Is it 5 people in a room wrangling each word? Or is it more like Charlie's process and then it goes off to be edited and approved? The actual writing, once the structure and what the scene is about is agreed is a more solitary process, even if different writers might work on different scenes in need or more likely different episodes in the season, and then there's a top-dog writer who is more like an editor who makes sure all the characterisation is consistent (and writes a few episodes themselves of course).

32:

The footnote doesn't address "the fact that an author can extract significantly more money from them by selling rights in pieces that then hamstring the publishers down the road vs selling them in larger blocks" other than by saying publishing is an old business.

Obviously the tradition of selling commonwealth rights separately from US rights and from UK Europe rights goes back to the early days when shipping was much more onerous than it is now. But it is obviously blocking a lot of motivated readers from paying money for books. The fact that a fan in Australia can't buy the books at all locally at the time they are released is annoying, that a paper copy can be bought over the internet and shipped (at significant time and monetary expense) but an ebook version cannot be downloaded (unless one mucks around with foreign currency gift cards) just seems to add to the comic effect.

Sadly the reason why the author gets more money selling the rights separately is all too obvious we pay double (or more) when a local version is released.

33:

J Thomas wrote:
Let's look at the first of those. You basicly want somebody to recommend stories to you. My obvious thought -- set up a website where users can recommend stories. So, you recommend the stories you like best. ...

If a website can be made that is sufficiently resistant to gaming the system. I neither want a bunch of fanboys of a fanfic author five-starring their latest juvenile space captain sexcapades melodrama nor have to deal with zero-stars for OSCs' latest Ender book because ZOMG HOMOPHOBE AUTHOR. Which has nothing to do with book quality (does affect my buying, but I want separately and independently to know if it's good writing).

You go on to sketch out systems, but come around to the real point I was making. These are not really reader choices. They are author/agent choices.

If FutureCharlie is looking at EbookFirst publishers for the fifth Merchant Princes trilogy in 2030, and Neilsen-Hayden Editorial would like to 'buy' the books, taking 25% of the gross and reducing Charlie's cut from 55% to 30% but probably tripling sales (A/B tested etc), he should use their name / editing service / marketing service. And will. And those books may still get your website ratings, but will do so with a higher degree of attention ("a N-H book!") and marketing. Which along with their editorial reputation equals that sales boost. If results overvtime favor the pure web ratings system then 'editor' functions will fase to copyediting. But I bet the package of all those services will be well worth it.

34:

Charlie:
But the trouble with disruption is that it's dangerously close to detonation. You can end up destroying what you sought to shake up and take over.

Can you provide an example of when that has actually ever happened?

35:

Another big function of the publishers is/was financing retailers, the whole don't pay for the books for up to 90 days deal.

Also financing authors: the whole [non-refundable] advance against future royalties thing, which means I get paid about a year's income in instalments as I work on a book under contract -- a chunk on signing, a chunk on delivery of the MS, a chunk on publication.

Authors live on credit. Bookstores operate on credit. The credit agencies -- on ridiculously generous terms -- are the publishers. Take the publishers out of the loop and everyone else has a 1-2 years-of-revenue-sized cash flow crunch. And no real bank would accept the level of risk involved in underwriting that business, or the lack of interest/return on investment.

36:

Thomas Hardy? Had to read too much of him in high school; hated his writing, didn't see more than soap opera there :-)

I avoided reading him, successfully (zero appeal: also the focus of the English educational system in the early 80s pretty much required me to drop English at age 16) ... but you know he lived long enough to get involved in selling film rights to his books, and in screenwriting (or dealing with scriptwriters, anyway)?

The point is, he worked across a pivotal time in the way the writing of fiction was evolving. And publishing of fiction. And indeed what it was acceptable to write -- remember, his not-quite-a-contemporary H. G. Wells was considered a perfectly respectable novelist while writing about time travel and alien invasions? By the 1920s that had changed somewhat.

Finally, as for fanfic: I don't write fanfic myself (unless you count the Laundry Files as, um, Laundry Files fanfic in its own right -- sometimes it feels like it), but at the high end you've got folks like and Seanan Mcguire, Naomi Novik, Steven Brust writing no-shit-for-real fanfic, and others like George R. R. Martin running full scale fanfic factories (what else is "Wild Cards"?) ... and that's without getting into the whole Star Wars/Star Trek/media franchise business.

When Greg Bear writes a Halo spin-off novel, is that fanfic? I'd say the only way it isn't fanfic is that he gets a contract and a pay cheque for it.

Now, what will be very interesting to see is what happens when, say, Disney does an undercover deal with Harlequin to license out the commercial Star Wars slashfic rights ...

37:

Sure: look at PDF distribution and the paper-and-pencil Role Playing Game market in the 70s-90s. (That's off the top of my head.) Again: look at the effect of internet advertising on print magazine page counts and profitability in the late 90s/early 00s.

I used to write a column for a successful newsstand mag with a circulation of around 135,000 readers (UK; equivalent to about two-thirds of a million in the US market, to give you a sense of scale). Peak was 700 pages, 200 editorial/500 advertising. 90% of the revenue came from ad sales. Last time I looked, it still existed: 100 pages editorial/150 pages advertising, circulation down 30-50%, and almost certainly a price freeze on the cost of ads for the past 5-10 years. Entirely because advertising on the internet ate the trade computer magazine industry's advertising lunch. (Oh, and the punch-line? This was the second best-selling title in the market, run with ruthless efficiency.)

38:

All this detail on how TV shows are written is fascinating, and shows that teams can work, but it's a bit off to one side of how publishing gets away from the accumulated historical dross that the new technologies are challenging.

It's not so long that Print On Demand was the big thing.

Amazon is one of the companies which is benefiting from differences between national governments, taking advantages of sometimes quite rational definitions of where tax is levied. And governments are starting to notice how those rules are failing. Within Europe, ebooks attract a sales tax where the servers are located, Amazon sets up shop on a low-tax location, and the politicians have woken up.

How long before anyone in Europe notices that Amazon embroils European writers in the US tax system, even if the work is never sold to a retail customer in the USA?

Who will see and grab the opportunities? Why isn't there an ebook publisher working within Europe and keeping the money here?

Amazon seems so big, and it is, but, wearing my dinky little artistic beret as a writer (or is it an onion seller) what do they offer me?

39:

A successful fiction writer is a rare beast, requiring a combination of articulateness, discipline, organization, and inspiration. Those of us who enjoy written fiction have come to expect this combination of traits in our authors. This solitary model is often difficult to broaden to a collaborative environment, as OGH mentioned in his PS. Niven and Pournelle famously succeeded with "Mote in God's Eye", but not all of their combined efforts reached this mark.

That said, the discussion in 22, 24, 25 and 31 above shows there is a place for collaborative work in fiction; other examples of shared creation include the "Thieves World" shared world anthologies edited by Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey, and the various themed anthologies we've all read. This approach seems to work best for shorter works; I think it would be very difficult to maintain a quality stylistic and plot levle of a novel-length work.

So, for long fiction, I don't see any substitute for the lone author, which brings us back to the artisanal nature of the novel. And isn't that artisanal nature what we're looking for?

Circling back to OGH point about the industry, one of the primary values of the publisher to us, the readers, is to find, develop and provide editorial support to those lonely scriveners in their writer's garrets. Amazon has no apparent interest in this role; why should they when "someone else" will do it?

I've been getting some referral lists for ebooks, but all the blurbs I read are depressingly cliched. I don't think there a good method for finding self-published quality fiction currently exists. I think there is a place in the market for publishers, but it's going to take some real creativity on their part to survive. Baen Books is an example, even if their product isn't really to my taste. The old DAW from Don Wollheim was a good example of well selected SF. If there is a market niche, I hope talented editors and publishers will find a way to make a go of it.

40:

Baen seems to have changed a bit since Jim Baen died. But it's still a line with some good writers, such as Bujold, and some I really don't want to to hear of ever again. Different people now are making different selections.

Any publisher is going to have that problem.

And, yes, they have been creative in other ways. Will that last? Who does have the clout in this convoluted business to break away from the pack?

41:

All the shows you've mentioned have fairly standard-sized writers rooms for drama (5-9).
The comparatively smallest team of the lot might be GoT, with a relatively small room (5-ish) for what is a very heavy-duty show (production and plot wise).

The 'creator' and 'showrunner' credits usually apply to a single individual or pair a of writing partners, but that says nothing about how the writing room for said shows operates.

The way each episode is usually credited to a single writer regardless of how many people actually contributed is a function of this other industry's specific idiosyncrasies.

There is a noticeable difference between US and UK productions on that front, however : single or duo writers are more likely in Brit TV, with a full season's scripts commonly completed before the beginning of principal photography.

42:
Amazon seems so big, and it is, but, wearing my dinky little artistic beret as a writer (or is it an onion seller) what do they offer me?

Seriously?

OK. They offer you a distribution channel. Be that eBook or dead trees. Your deathless prose (or poetry) to your adoring public's eager hands and thence retinas. Unlike Charlie, working on an advance from the publisher, you work purely on sales. They take their cut, so does the tax man (or men) you get the rest. (I'd have to look in to the fine details for how big their cut is, I know it's a different arrangement to Apple, with Apple it's a flat 30%, same as the app store, but it's not a hugely different actual amount for most book prices I'm led to believe by someone who does this.)

What do you lose? You have to pay out of hand for an editor (assuming you bother), cover art, advertising beyond it being on Amazon's search and the like. You also take the risk that your book sells well enough to cover the effort.

I have what Charlie might call a novel shaped piece of text. If Apple ever let me publish without registering with the US tax system and so on, I might self-publish through their system but I could do it through Amazon right now. (I don't think Apple are brilliant, but I do think on this they're probably better than Amazon.) Say I charge a fiver for it, and it sells 150 copies. I can just about afford a new iPad. I can live with that to be honest - I don't consider myself a professional author, and enough to buy a new iPad would be a nice bonus for something I did more because the muse struck - Charlie would call it an attack novel. If it sells 10x more than that in a few months - enough to buy a new iMac say - then I might have to consider writing that difficult second novel. It really has to sell 10x more than that - so 15,000 copies per year as a self-published, self-edited, own cover-art producing book as a workable BOTE figure - to make something that might start to be considered a living wage. I reckon my writing's good enough to sell 150 copies at a fiver, probably 1,500 copies. 15,000+ that's pushing it.

43:

A real "collective author", I think, if it can exist at all, will not comprise several authors writing different part of the book. Rather, it will employ division of labor.

Seeing as no-one appears to have mentioned it, what about the Mongoliad? Multiple authors, including Neal Stephenson, not a bad effort.

It would be interesting to hear how the gestalt worked, maybe OGH can ask one of the participants :)

44:

From what I know of Mongoliad -- from one of their authors, and from discussions with Neal and his people -- the actual fiction is written in pretty much the same way as any other shared universe anthology, by individual authors working under an editor with a world book (which just happens to be a whizzy wiki-like system).

45:

I'd suggest that publishing suffers from the same disease that every industry that's been around for hundreds of years, pretty much unchanged, suffers from. Mature in business terms is another word for mouldy. There are 'ways of doing things' cross connections, vested interest laws, lawyers contracts, and general mutually assured destruction pacts that mean it's very resistant to significant change.

I'd also say that Amazon really isn't looking to disrupt much - they are simple looking to take over the retailer/distributor/publisher roles - which would be very nice for them, thank you very much.

Now, in the age where authors couldn't do the above, and certainly couldn't own a big printing press, it made sense. However today, when it IS practical for the author (with support services) to do it all, true disruption would be for the authors to take control of the reins, and the profits.

As Charlie says, there is a financial issue. Advances help to front load the cash flow - but angel/kickstarterish funding models can accomplish that as well. Proof reading, cover design etc. are already outsourced, and I can easily see a smart software designer automating much of the rest of the job. In short, despite what Charlie says, I'd suggest that the future lies with the industry taking more of the artisan model, not the other way around, and particularly with differing forms of output, including serialised, clustered around how the reader will consume the product (which ties in with limited time for reading).

And from a reader PoV, that's probably optimum as well.

46:

"Under the Greenwood Tree" is a wonderful account of rural England in the mid-1800's
Of hois novels, "The Trumpet-Major" & the one that was made into a classic film: "Far from the Madding Crowd" are well-worth a read.
Hardy was often very pessimistic, about the human condition & humanity.
Wrote soem good(ish) poetry too!
"Jude the Obscure" scandalised victorian prudery, too, I'm glad to say.

47:

It's worth noting that shared-universe settings are very common in Internet fiction, going all the way back as far as the mid-to-late 1980s. I wrote for some of them back in the day, and wrote about some of them in my "Paleo E-Books" articles for TeleRead. (Heh. If I'd known the meaning "Paleo" would take on a couple of years later, I'd have chosen to call them something else.) And I've kept writing in them, and even helped create another one of my own lately.

Some of these shared-universe settings have been quite successful in their own way, going on for years and years. Maybe they're not great literature, but they're not intended to be. They let people hone their writing craft the same as any writing circle, but also allow them to interact with other people in a way that blends the enjoyment of spinning a story with the different kind of fun of interactive role-play. And a few have spawned self-published story collections. (Though, as Charlie Stross notes, they're not exactly in any danger of putting traditional solo authors out of business.)

"Mongoliad," and Elizabeth Bear's "Shadow Unit," are really kind of johnny-come-latelies. The Internet has been doing this for a long time.

48:

It's worth noting that shared-universe settings are very common in Internet fiction, going all the way back as far as the mid-to-late 1980s.

Actually to the early 1970s, or earlier. Anyone else remember Roger Elwood's anthology factory? Arguably a prototype shared universe model, the Continuum series of anthologies did something rather interesting: commission a group of authors to write 4-part serials, then publish one episode from each in each anthology volume, effectively turning them into magazine-like serial products. (Alas, Elwood's influence was not benign -- he pretty much killed the short story anthology market: it took a decade or more to recover.)

Yes, I did shared-universe fic in the early days. Hell, I even wrote short stories for Warhammer in the late 80s/early 90s. (It paid well and I was in my starving student phase. What can I say?)

49:

Ah, shared worlds.

I remember CJ Cherryh's Merovingian Nights. Her writers kept on trying to do things that would make the setting evolve, and she allowed each new change as a possibility that migh make big changes in the future, far later in the series. Cherryh's own heroine was in perpetual crisis, a crisis that changed slowly but never got any less dangerous. It looked like Cherryh was getting tired of it.

And then at one point a character was getting all frustrated and asked "How long can we keep this up?" and the heroine replied, "As long as we have to. As long as any other." And somehow I was sure that Cherryh was speaking for herself....

50:

Hell, I even wrote short stories for Warhammer in the late 80s/early 90s.

Don't knock them :)

I have a twelve-year-old Warhammer 40K enthusiast in the house, and natural reservations about MilSF - note the irony of the former reservist infantryman being wary of the subject. Yours is the only Warhammer fiction I've let him read...

I insisted that he read HMS Ulysses (Alistair Maclean's breakout novel, IIRC) and Quartered Safe Out Here, before he was even allowed to read that :)

51:

I recall when Warhammer40K came out, and the very strong echoes of Triumph of the Will in the illustration, and a certain dislike for the way the game worked. I had been hanging around with gamers for a while, and heard some scathing opinions of how it was a pre-gunpowder combat system which had been warped to fit a far-future world.

Warhammer worked. There was even an historical version. The figure scales and weapon ranges and movement distances worked out well. Space Marines in spikey power armour got weird.

It also came when Games Workshop moved from being a company which sold games to a company which sold expensive figures.

There are SF wargames, using figures, that can cope with representing the wars of the 20th Century. The colour schemes of Warhammer40K were on the way out over a century ago. Hiram Maxim and his successors were making more lethal weapons than the Space Marines ever carried.

Next year is the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt, and you could represent that with Warhammer, though I would suspect you would struggle. And nobody at Games Workshop at Nottingham would care to try selling those warriors for the working day, their gayness and their gilt all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field.

They're not selling war. The nearest they want to get to Agincourt is the shot, in Olivier's Henry V, of the charging French knights, riding over that dry Irish turf.

52:

The comparison to TV ignores that we don't sit around and read scripts, we watch shows that have been produced and performed. Consistent setting is done by the sets, and a good actor with a well-established character can perform a wide range of lines in-character. Many scripts written by tv staff writers can be quite generic and still be turned into a decent episode. Novel writers have none of this to help make factory results work.

53:

Sure: look at PDF distribution and the paper-and-pencil Role Playing Game market in the 70s-90s. (That's off the top of my head.)

What gut-shot the paper-and-pencil RPG market in the mid-1990s was not PDF distribution (which didn't take off in a big way until the early-mid-2000s) but the invention of collectible card games (Magic the Gathering, 1993) which sold orders of magnitude more copies on a much faster inventory turn. Suddenly, all time and shelf space spent distributing or selling RPGs was money lost. (It's only fair, though; RPGs had done the same thing to hex-and-counter wargames.)

54:

Shared worlds?
"Medea" ( Harlan's World ) 1975

I've got a copy somewhere in the stacks ....

55:

It also came when Games Workshop moved from being a company which sold games to a company which sold expensive figures.

This happened when Brian Ansell's Citadel Miniatures took over Games Workshop (who had lost the TSR Hobbies/AD&D franchise in the UK around the time). The CM crew's priority was to sell miniatures and accessories on as large a commercial scale as possible. GW's earlier management's priority had been to subsidize their RPG hobby by running shops and a fanzine. There was a Night of the Long Knives, followed by a corporate pivot in the direction of the pocket money market, on the grounds that a couple of million 8-14 year old boys had rather more money to spend each week than a couple of tens of thousands of somewhat older hardcore gamers.

56:

We could argue a long time over details of the story. The change in style didn't come quite with the Citadel Miniatures takeover, as I recall it. Things happened 1987-88, with the Warhammer40k hitting the scene in late '87.

57:

Also Antonia's #51 and #56

I'm not sure which of you is right about the timescale, although I'd agree with Charlie about the plot synopsis.

My suggestion for when Jo Public noticed the change would be a 1987/88 issue of "White Dwarf" which carried an outright statement that they would no longer cover non-GW systems "because our editorial team can't write dispassionately about them".

59:

France.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 29, 2014 4:13 PM.

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