The Work

The Business of Numbers

We talk a lot in this industry about metrics. For pretty much all its life, publishing has operated tensely around metrics. The romantic tale is that an editor is transported by A Great Work and acquires it, much to the consternation of the accountants and salespeople. The tale has two trajectories – either the Great Work is a huge hit, vindicating the editor and proving that those who pay too much attention to metrics wouldn’t know meaningful art if it hit them on the nose; or the Great Work is an abysmal failure in the short term, only to be rediscovered and become a seminal fixture in the literary canon.

Either way, everybody wins.

In truth, publishing is not this swashbuckling – and it’s sort of getting less so. What swashbuckling there is, is happening on the author side . An author writes what she loves, shares it with friends. Of course, she has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn, and possibly thousands of fellow forum-members on this or that listserv. Enough of her friends love her writing, so she decides to make it into an ebook. And why not also have some print copies, if for no other reason that they are lovely gifts?

So she hires a freelance editor, gets the book in shape, and publishes it. Because of all her friends, “friends”, connections, and forum-members…she has an immediate audience.

At some point an agent or an acquisitions editor is going to hear about how people like her book, and then the traditional model takes over. But this is only after all the proving, the percentage increase in sales, the cost of editing and even packaging the book have happened. By the time a traditional publisher steps in, the risk has been taken.

Whether or not this is how it “should” be, increasingly this is how it is. And the Big Four are not about words. They are about numbers.

When I first started at Doubleday, I witnessed a lot of the transition to the current state of things. My editor would acquire a book, and argue with sales and finance. Usually, that book turned out not to be a hit OR a seminal fixture in the literary canon. Nor was it a dud – by and large, most of his books were steadily-paying backlist. This caused some cognitive dissonance in-house – dissonance which, I’ve noticed, has increased over time. By the early 2000s, I was being told by contacts in major publishing houses that if it wasn’t deemed a home run by the sales force, the book wasn’t worth publishing, much less publicizing or merchandising.

This trend, as we know, has increased dramatically over the last ten years or so. By 2010, I was sitting in conference sessions where publishers demanded that authors come to them with a marketing plan and “platform” already in place. Authors had, understandably, some issues with this – the general feeling seemed to be, “If I have to do all that, what do I need a big publisher for?”

The answer has come down to distribution and relationships. But even that is changing. With Borders gone, Barnes & Noble moving resources from physical bookselling to ebook selling, mall bookstores long out of business, and independent stores still (and always) struggling, big publishers don’t necessarily have the relationships that they used to have. When large organizations have to lay off salespeople, that’s ominous. Either they don’t have much to sell, or they don’t have many channels to sell into. Neither is a good situation.

The business of words is much different from the business of numbers. It’s more complicated, and it may not even be a business.


3 thoughts on “The Business of Numbers

  1. Bookigee founder Kristen McLean recently posted a parallel idea on the Tools of Change blog. She encouraged writers to market first, developing relationships and platforms, and write “later”. I’m sure she takes even her own advice with a grain of salt, but the idea well past catching on.

    Creating community, whether at the level of a writer, a publisher or a brand (that’s happening now and represents what I think is a significant threat to ad-supported media), takes investment. As mid-list authors lose support in the traditional settings, they have to be looking at the difference between self-published and industry royalties and asking, “How much do I need an imprint when I could be making taking home 70% instead of 25%?”

    1. Yes, agreed. I think, too, that “creating a community” or “developing a platform” is not so hard. It’s a matter of being personable – of being, on Twitter or on Facebook or what have you – the sort of person that people ultimately like and want to read. Or at the very least being interesting/truthful, and understanding also that you won’t appeal to everybody. No one can. A writer can crave a larger audience but that’s an occupational hazard of being a writer.

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