Friday, October 21, 2011

Welcome, Intermix

by Sheila Connolly

Writers, can you feel the earth shifting under your feet? Yesterday Publishers Marketplace reported that Berkley/New American Library (the mass market paperback division of Penguin) will launch a new e-book imprint in January, to be called InterMix. (No, they didn't tell me, even though they publish my books.) The imprint will focus on the traditional mass market genres, and will release both reprints and titles from new authors.

What I found most interesting was not the formation of this new imprint—we all knew something like this was coming, right?—but the fact that they're starting out with eleven of Nora Roberts's titles, which have not been released as e-books until now. (Note that they didn't mention any "new" authors for release.) Through the next year they will also release Regency romances and seven more of Roberts's books, among other things.

Uh-huh. I think it's safe to say that Nora Roberts does not need B/NAL. Recent reports say that she has published over 200 romance novels; there are over 400 million copies of her books in print. Maybe more, for all I know—it's hard to keep this information up to date. She's won every award in her genre, many times over. Several years ago it was said that she was earning close to $70 million dollars—per year.

I admire the woman, no question. She's paid her dues, worked hard, and gives back to the writers community. I've heard her say that she writes four books a year (and apparently doesn't need to edit any more, but after 200 books I'd guess she doesn't have to).

But I'm not writing here to praise Nora Roberts; I'm trying to figure out what thinking lies behind B/NAL's strategy. As noted, Nora does not need them, but they seem to believe that they need her star power and her army of faithful readers to succeed in their new venture.
I'm sure most of us who write have watched the Big Six publishers struggle to respond to the wildfire spread of e-publishing in the past year or two. I have a mental image of these companies as hulking creatures, cobbled together from the bones and bits of smaller companies, and it's not easy for them to change course. Think of the Titanic trying to make its way through the icebergs: you can't change course quickly, but if you can't, you slam into an iceberg and down you go (even when you're supposedly sink-proof). Are e-books like icebergs? Maybe. They've been growing for a while, but now they've broken off the glacier and are bobbing around in the bigger ocean—and creating problems for the slow ships.

Or maybe I should offer another analogy: the king, with his bloated court and his wealth and armies and long traditions, is now on the battle field facing a new enemy (think King John and Robin Hood), who may be small with scattered forces, but who is agile and creative—and who may bring down the kingdom.

Maybe books as we have know them are going the way of the dinosaurs. That does not mean that writers and readers will disappear, only that writers will find new ways to reach readers, and readers may hope to find easier (and cheaper) ways to read.

But to come back to Ms. Roberts, she brings her readership to the table in this deal, and I'd guess that her readers will buy anything available from her. But historically the schedule for books has been driving to some extent by the physical process of printing and distribution (and the writer's speed). Now it is possible to make a book available in a day, electronically.

My question is, is there a reader saturation point? If a writer can produce three or four books a year, will readers—even the most faithful followers—snap them all up instantly? Gone will be that interval of aching anticipation of the next book, a year or more in the future. Is that good or bad?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

For me, the problem is still the disappearance of the midlist--as a writer, obviously, but also as a reader. In both bookstores, even indies, and libraries, I'm finding fewer and fewer books--half empty shelves in libraries, half the store devoted to non-books in bookstore chains--and those that are still there are the same old authors: Nora Roberts, Patterson, et al. If I don't want to read bestsellers, I'm plumb out of luck.
And if I go online, I need to know who the authors are before I can seek them out. No more browsing and discovery. :(

Sandra Parshall said...

With sales of mass market paperbacks plummeting and hardcovers struggling, I think publishers will turn to the e-book format as a way to introduce new writers. Of course, the cost will be the same on the editorial side -- but the savings will be huge on the production side. No more distribution costs, no more boxes of paperback covers returned for credit, while the body of the book is recycled or simply thrown in the trash. This can be a great opportunity for both writers and publishers.

Lisa Shafer said...

And I wonder about writers who think they don't need to edit any more. It seems to me that such books all start to sound alike after a while and/or the plots ramble.