Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Money and books

Many months ago, the fabulous (former) Tor editor, Anna Genoese, did a great series of posts on the economics behind publishing. As far as I know, she's since taken them down and sells them for profit; which is entirely her right, but leaves a big gap out there. And I know for a fact that my own colleague, Lori Perkins, has a wonderful book she wants to write on the numbers behind agenting, but no publishers have wanted to bite on it.

But I thought that perhaps it would be useful to do a little primer of my own, now that we're officially in a recession. (You may disagree with me, but in any economy where I'm paying $4.60 for a gallon of milk and $3.39 for a gallon of gas, plus baking my own bread to save some money... we are in a freaking recession.)

So anyway, what does being in a recession mean to publishing?

Pretty much what it means to any other business sector of the economy, especially all the sectors that are so dependent on consumer confidence, which is at an extremely low number right now. Publishers are wary that they'll be able to recoup the money that they spend on books--all the production costs, the shipping costs, plus the actual advance on royalties that they pay to an author. They know that people aren't going to necessarily stop buying books, but that the pace of book-buying will slow, and that fewer people will be able to work them into their monthly budgets. When times get tough, food and fuel are more important than entertainment. It's a stark truth.

So the publishers begin to be more cautious about the books they purchase from agents and the authors they represent. The editors are slower to make decisions because suddenly their available pool of purchasing money has shrunk. The publishing companies are essentially tightening their own belts. Every time they give an advance to an author, that advance is a calculated business risk. Sometimes the publisher will be able to earn that money back, and sometimes they won't. But when there suddenly becomes less money available to purchase books in general, hardcore economics tend to kick in.

And as far as I can tell, here's what's happening.
  1. Publishers are more willing to spend money on known quantities. It's less of an economic risk for them. They're more likely to pay money to Julia Quinn or Jim Butcher than to an unknown author. The publishers know that even though people are going to be spending less on books, they're still going to try and shell out for the bestsellers or the people who have very large fan bases.
  2. As a result, it's harder to sell a first-time novel. There still exists money in the budget for it, but suddenly, you're competing against the established ones and the other first-time novels, and yours has to be extra-super-duper-good to make it. The publishers, who as a rule, look for books they can make bestsellers, are now looking even harder. They want every first-time novel they buy to be a success, since there's so little room in the budget otherwise.
  3. Everyone, except for the huge name authors, is probably going to get paid a little less than normal too. It's probably not going to be drastic, but again, it's economics.
  4. Also, as a result of the recession, there are more bookstores closing, which leaves slightly less markets available to sell books to. Borders is consolidating and closing stores; as a result, they may not order as many copies of a title as they previously did.
Now, am I a bringer of doom and gloom? Possibly. Am I overreacting to what I'm reading and listening to in the news? Possibly. Am I too young to have the experience to see what this economy will truly bring to the country? Most likely. I'd love to hear from more experienced agents and editors on this, personally.

But what I do know is that the industry is slowing down as a whole; less deals are being announced daily on Publisher's Marketplace, and the deals that are announced are for less money. In tough times, and these are starting to be tough times for many in America, everyone is being cautious economically.

So do you stop writing your novel now, throw your hands up, and proclaim that you'll never get published?

No way in hell, my friends.

You keep writing that novel, writing your heart out on it, because sooner or later the economy is going to get better. We're going to eventually get out of this recession (and if we slide into a depression, I'll be simultaneously fascinated and terrified, as it means that all our fiduciary measures since The Great Depression have failed). The economy will improve. And while it's in a rut right now, you should be writing your first novel. And the novel after that. And the novel after that one. And you should keep searching for an agent and trying to get published, because this is a damn slow business and you never know when things are going to change.

Sermon's over now. Time to take the bread out of the oven. =)


Jodi Meadows said...

This is really interesting. I look forward to seeing other people's reactions, too.

Anonymous said...

$3.39 for gas? Where are you finding it? We have officially hit $4.00 a gallon here and I need at least a tank a week. Sigh. Guess now I can't count on selling my debut novel to cover my transportation costs either. Deeper sigh.

Jenny Rappaport said...

I live in NJ.

Cheapest gas in the nation. =)

And I'm not ashamed to say that I've never had to pump my own gas.

*mad NJ love*

Kristine Overbrook said...

:) I'm so used to pumping my own gas it feels odd to drive the turnpike and be made to let someone else do it.

Now is the time to stockpile our work and perfect our style. :)

Just_Me said...

See, this just fuels the debate... I write, I know other writers, we get together and compare notes on works-in-progress every now and then and the majority of us have 10 or more novels either in progress, being edited, or finished and getting ready to query. None of the authors I know only has one book in the works.

So our debate becomes what to query first. We watch the market trying to decide if we should push on with some cyberpunk sci-fi or try a traditional fantasy. We debate how different our debut novels should be from established genres. How much can we twist a genre before an agent or editor thinks it's too risky?

When the economy is good and publishers are feeling up to the challenge writers can twist genres a little more, there's room to make your own niche. Right now... I write a lot of science fantasy but I know if I want to query one at the end of the year (and I do) it's going to need to be perfect. I can't send out something that's less than 110% shine, dazzle, and perfect.

As for spending on books... I always have some cash for new books. Right now none of my favorite authors have anything in the works. I'm looking for a new author to add to my "oh goody!" pile and recommend to friends. Suggestions for a rabid action/sci-fi fan are always welcome :)

Ryan Field said...

Great post, and the perfect example of how you take this blog to another level.

Anna Jordan said...

I know that gas prices were not the point of your post but I was distracted by my jealousy. $3.39 for gas would be considered cheap here. I cry at the sight of the $4.01!

Pete said...

I've been putzing around news sites, following the This Is Not A Recession, Honest recession articles that appear on a daily basis partially for the reason you mention: because in a horrible way, it's so fascinating to watch.

Anyway, I won't stop writing, I just look at it like this: if I sell my novel in the midst of The Great Depression no. 2, then it'll make a terrific story many years from now, in my obituary.

(and what else am I going to do but write? Put up shelves? Brush my hair? Perish the thought.)

Brittany said...

This is exactly the kid of post I was looking for. I am very interested in the economic impact on publishing right now, and I love your straightforward post about it, and also your advice at the end. Luckily my laptop doesn't run on milk or I will keep writing away:)

Welshcake said...

Well every recession has a silver lining. If we’re unable to afford to go out to eat or catch a movie or take a holiday, we'll have to stay home...and write.

Then, when the recession lifts, we'll have gleaming masterpieces to sell to a recovering and newly hungry publishing market!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard of investment groups defraying some of the publishing costs (and thereby risk) by plunking down some cash for a very small percentage of the profits? Kind of like a hedge fund for books...the group invests in agented unpublished novels it sees as having potential to turn a profit, for example, $10,000 for every percentage point of ownership, which then reduces risk for the publisher and perhaps guarantees some marketing dollars which then increases the risk of sale. Similar to some of the packages movie studios sell to investment banks....

Pete said...

(in reply to what "just me" said...)

If it were me and I had loads of manuscripts unpublished and lying around (and mostly, I don't), I think my strategy would be to pick the one I was most excited about. The one I'd be happy to show friends and the one I find easiest to describe and talk about. The one that flips all my switches.

Calling the market can be something of a mug's game (or a horse race, if you like). So I guess I wouldn't try. But that's just me... :)

Michele Lee said...

Personally, and I have no experience here, I think there's a good chance that people will have more confidence in the economy once the elections are over. Sometimes any change is enough to give people hope. Now whether it actually improves long term or not will depend on what it done about it.

Richmond Writer said...

What if a recession or depression actually creates a better situation for new authors? Yes, they will be more selective, but they will also invest more into creating success for what they select.

It seems to me that if they're investing in fewer manuscripts that for those few they do invest in they will do more than toss it to the wind and see if it flies. They'll put wings on it first.

Hopefully, if you get a contract the publishing houses will stop this practice of allowing your book to molder while you try and evolve from introverted writer to extroverted marketer.

Carlene said...

It's always been hard for a new writer to break in so I agree with you completely. Just keep writing! Then when you DO get a contract, you'll have several books to offer the publisher. Why sell just one book when you can sell three or four!

Carlene blog

Demon Hunter said...

Wow. This is really good to know. You're right, I'm revising my work and writing other novels anyway. :*)

Anonymous said...

Hey, maybe I missed it, but did you ever choose a winner for the Birthday contest?