Tuesday, August 28, 2007

There’s No Such Thing

Sharon Wildwind

As Opening A Small Can of Worms . . .but here goes anyway.

If you follow DorothyL, or Murder Must Advertise, or any of the Sisters in Crime lists (and probably several others), you know that there has been a raging debate the past few weeks about whether booksellers and fan conventions are using this list or that, these requirements or those, to decide what is sold or who can have full participation in a variety of mystery-related activities.

I’m not even going to attempt to summarize or explain the arguments. If you’re interested, go to those sites and wade through the postings yourself. What I’d like to do is pull back to give a long-range view of some very basic changes that are taking place in the mystery publishing field. To get a manageable view, we need to pull way back, maybe to Mars. Maybe Alpha Centauri would be a good idea.

There are three bottom lines:
1. There are too many books chasing too few readers.
2. Traditional publishing, marketing, and distribution systems are coming unglued.
3. New technologies are creating opportunities and problems that multiply, not linearly, but exponentially.

From safe inside the fortress we inhabit as readers and writers, it’s hard to imagine that the barbarians are really at the gate, but ladies and gentlemen, they are. Literacy is down. Book buying is down, though used book sales are up. (See below for a couple of quotes related to that.) Reading for pleasure is down. Even in those hard-core reading bastions like libraries or chain bookstores, the majority of people who enter the doors are there for magazines, CDs and DVDs, greeting cards, gifts, to use the computer, or to buy a cup of coffee.

At the same time, technology is making it easier for smaller and smaller companies to go into the publishing business. Whether or not those same companies are getting into distribution is another question. Tony Burton (June 23, 2007) and Katheryn Wall (June 13, 2007) have both written excellent blogs on the current state of book distribution, and I refer you to them for more information.

There are six major mystery publishers in North America: Berkeley Prime Crime, Avon Crime, Hyperion, St. Martins/Minotaur, Penguin Pocket, and Warner. A few years ago, Penguin was reported to be on it’s last legs; as of this month Avon is rumored to be out of business. As recently as two years ago, those six accounted for roughly 50% of all mystery titles published in North America. That isn't going to last much longer.

Coming up behind the big presses, to fill the gaps as they get into trouble, are thousands of medium-size presses and hundreds of thousands of small presses. Two years ago, the Book Industry Study group estimated that, in North American, there were close to 600,000 small presses, with an average income of $5,000 per company per year. No one knows how long the average small press lasts—you can’t pay your bills and live for long on only $5,000 per year— but Publishers Weekly reported in 2005 that 7,000 new small presses come into being each year. Hope springs eternal.

Not only are the number of publshers staggering, but like railroads in the early part of the 19th century, each company runs on a different gauge track. It’s impossible to go from one publisher to another without a lot of hassle and, sometimes, you get lost on the journey.

Because the publishing and distribution systems are so difficult to even comprehend, much less survive in, many authors are taking matters into their own hands, and they are using technology to do it. Five years ago, the jury was out on web pages. Did an author REALLY need a web site? Now, it’s widely accepted that the average author needs not only a web site, but a blog, an electronic newsletter, a virtual book tour, an audio book contract, pod casts, CD-trailers, and DVDs of related material.

There is, in all of this, even from our distant Martian vantage point, one other bottom line. Fortunately, this one is positive. It’s the one thing that keeps us writers from going completely bananas.

Story is everything.

Spinning out a yarn, holding that reader spellbound, making fiction, is our reason for existing. And like the North Star, I hope we keep focused on that bottom line while the rest of the universe swirls around us.

Writing quotes for the week. Since these related to used books, I’m giving you a two-for-one. Such a deal I’ve got for you.

Estimates are that the used book industry is a 300 million dollar plus industry. That’s more than 10% of the entire industry. Ten years ago it was barely a blip. ~Melisse J. Rose, writer and writing teacher

“Used books will someday make up 15%-20% of the market. How soon will depend on changing consumer behavior—not on the buying side, but on the selling side.”~Marty Manley, president, CEO and founder of Alibris.

What Mr. Manley was commenting on was the changing willingness of book buyers to let go of their favorite books. In the past, people who bought books would have a pile of “keepers,” which went on their shelves, and a second pile of lesser valued works to take to the second-hand store. What’s changing is that the keeper pile is getting smaller. Manley contends that almost all books are now disposable: read once and get rid of them. Really hot books are now hitting the second-hand stores within days of their release date. And customers are checking the second-hand stores, whether in person or on line, first rather than going to traditional book stores.


Sandra Parshall said...

Nobody with any sense will become a novelist to make money. Only a tiny fraction of the published writers in the US -- or any other country in the world -- can make a living from writing. We do it for the love of it, and, in most cases, because we couldn't stop writing if our lives depended on it. But to complete the magic circle we're spinning, we need readers. A book that has never been read by anyone except the author feels unfinished; it hasn't fulfilled its destiny. So we keep trying to achieve publication, despite all the dire reports about the publishing business and the decline in reading.

Many worthy writers have had no luck attracting big publishers and are published instead by small presses -- sometimes tiny presses that bring out a handful of books a year. I recognize the right of writers' organizations and conference organizers to set their own criteria, but I hope they will rethink any rules that prevent these talented writers from participating.

Anonymous said...

No one knows how this current controversy—or the next one—or the next one, whatever they may be, are going to shake out. But one thing I feel very strongly is that the face of publishing is changing. In the face of that change, we have to keep a sense of perspective, a sense of humor, and most of all, a sense of humanity. All of us: writers, readers, and publishers have got to stick together and support one another.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to bother you. But I would be interessed to read Tony Burtons Katheryn Walls ideas, but have difficulties to find their blogs/websites. Could you give links ?