Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why Recessions Are Good For Aspiring Writers

I'm all about the lists today, so this is going to be in list form too.

First, a brief amount of background. The United States is in a recession at the moment. There is talk that there is a global recession (may I point to the example of the entire country of Iceland going bankrupt?). Recessions are, by their very nature, bad for business.

Today, both Publisher's Lunch and Publisher's Weekly ran articles about how HarperCollins' operating income for their fiscal first quarter (ending in September 2008) was down to $3 million from last year's operating income for this quarter of $36 million. The Publisher's Lunch article, said the following (quote in bold):

"due to a higher returns provision in North America combined with lower third-party distribution income" according to the release. (This quarter last year they profited from distributing Harry Potter for Scholastic.) CEO Brian Murray explained to us that the returns provision was related to their accounting (and reserves against sales of new titles) rather than associated with any particular set of titles or accounts.

What's even more telling, however, is that their overall sales are down to $315 million, which is a total drop of 4.5% from last year. The article goes on to explain how HarperCollins has taken preventive measures, by scaling back on print runs and doing other business related things. The most important fact, however, is that they're just not selling enough books to match what they sold last year. This, by the way, is with both Oprah's recent book club selection at the company, and the recent release of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman, who always sells like bananas.

Here's my take on it though: this is just the beginning. It's a recession. People are buying less books. There will be other major publishers who are not selling as much either. Less new books will be bought by publishers in the coming months, because they have less operating capital to buy it with. Agents will make less money because we don't make any money unless we sell something to a publisher for the authors we represent.

We're all in for a bumpy ride.


There are some good things to this recession, and hence, this list. =)
  1. It will probably take six to nine months for the economy to start to mildly bounce back.
  2. Six to nine months is a really good amount of time to start writing a novel (NaNo is a great start, people).
  3. In those six to nine months, you can make your novel so shiny and perfect that when you send it out to agents, they will adore it.
  4. If you have a novel done already, I recommend you start another! Coming to an agent with multiple novels, which are decent quality, makes you a more marketable quantity once they take you on for the original novel you queried them with.
  5. To go along with #4, you should KEEP QUERYING AGENTS.
  6. If you don't query us, what are we going to do for six months? =)
  7. In all seriousness, your novel can circulate to a lot of agents in those six to nine months, you can get comments back on it, and you may even be able to revise it to make it better, so that you can snag the agent of your particular dreams. (Everyone fits differently with different agents.)
  8. And finally, just because the publishers are buying less books, that doesn't mean that agents won't still be looking for clients. We want to be prepared for when the book-purchasing money starts flowing again. We'll take you on, we'll suggest our own set of revisions, and we'll help you make your books the best that they can be.
So take heart, and don't let the economy get you that down. Just go lose yourself in your novel for a few months, and your writing career will be just fine. =)


Jeanie W said...

Thanks for the upbeat message. I know I'll be doing plenty of writing the next several months. I mean, it's not like I can go out now and find a day job, is it?

Anonymous said...

Ach! HarperCollins/Eos has had my novel for over a year! Ouch!

I hope they have enough left to buy it!


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

It is also good for filmmakers. Bad economy means more depressed audiences fleeing to Hollywood films to seek joy and escape.

lotusloq said...

Thanks for bringing up the bright side of all this doom and gloom! I'm going to polishing things up til they shine--hopefully.

kiwiauthor said...

It's probably not said enough, but thanks for blogging, Jenny.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating; you bring a human face to this game.

Loved the optimistic view vis a vis recession (And yes, it's definitely global)

A few more years and Lit Soup will be an institution. Keep at it :)

green_knight said...

Thanks for reminding writers everywhere that agents and editors really are enthusiastic about books and are always looking for new ones.

I shall send you the next mss when it's done.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

This is a very informative post. And I can say based on my current contractual load, that the recessions doesn't necessarily mean your books won't sell. I've landed more deals in the last three months than in the entire rest of my career. It just depends on the kind of work you're writing. I'm lucky enough to write in a genre that remains in high demand.

Ink Johnson said...

You mentioned writing multiple novels and that it makes it more marketable. How much should you talk about your other novels in your query letter?

Jenny Rappaport said...

Ink Johnson, you wouldn't mention the multiple novels in your query letter at all. You would query for one novel at a time, and when it came to the point that the agent offered you representation, then would be the time to mention that you have other completed projects. Not until then.

We agents overwhelm quickly. =)

DFortier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DFortier said...

With the cost of entertainment dollars at an all time high, and money tight for most consumers, you would think the publishing industry would try to advertise books as an cheaper form of entertainment.

Going to the movies for a couple is well over $30 for 2-3 hours of fun. Books are much less expensive and they enjoyment lasts much longer...

Angelo said...

Interesting post, dfortier. I originally wasn't going to comment, but since I am by self-proclamation and profession a marketing/sales genius (seriously, it's on my business card), I thought I'd throw down.

First, the cost of books: Didn't Harry Potter list for $34.99?

Second, the "time" factor: The fact that it takes longer to read a book than see a movie is precisely the problem. I will address it the way I spoke to the corporate exec's of several companies at the last convention I went to. The CEO of one company said, "I can't stand when people complain they don't have enough time in a day. We each have the same number of hours in a day as Plato, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Einstein." I responded, "Yes, but while Leonardo was painting the Mona Lisa and Michaelangelo was hanging from the rafters of the Sistine Chapel, the average workday lasted six hours. Now, it lasts nine. Imagine what you could do with fifteen extra hours a week, almost eight hundred hours a year." If you didn't do the math, that's 86 extra workdays a year.

So, how do you market something that costs more than a movie--heck, more than the cost of gas--and takes so very long to consume? ;)

Jenny Rappaport said...

Some, although not all, of the cost of books is related to physical production costs. Paper eats money, ink eats money, different types of bindings eat money. You'll notice that if an author gets raised type or embossing or shiny letters on their cover, it's usually because the publishing house expects to get their investment back for the extra bling they've thrown on the cover.

And even though Harry Potter retailed at $34.99, I think I got my copy for somewhere between $17-$20. A lot of people paid a similar price for it. Which is one of the small reasons that it didn't end up making the bookstores a ton of money, since to be competitive, indies had to try to offer it at the same price as the big chains, etc.

Lady Ellen said...

Hi Jenny: Found your blog by reading the blurb in 2008 Guide to Literary Agents on L. Perkins Associates.

Really enjoyed this post and found it keep the fires of writing burning.

Recessions are certainly scary things, but a good read makes for a relatively inexpensive escape.

Lady Ellen

DFortier said...

Your argument has some merit; people do claim to have less time in a day. If people only had four hours a week for entertainment, would they be better off then to go to the movies twice, or buy a book and read it for a month?

For those who are still time constrained and cannot read regularly, compilations and anthologies of short stories are a great way to get more immediate satisfaction, or to not have to remember what you read a week ago.

As for the cost of books, your Potter example is skewing the reality. Only a small percentage of books start out in hardcover, but all eventually are available in paperback or trade paperback, and most for under $12. The $34.99/book applies when buying a new release in hardcover, and only for some titles. Some HCs fall into the $19.99-$24.99 range, still cheaper than a movie.

As for the time it takes to consume a book, I wasn't sure about your point. The enjoyment of a book is not achieved merely upon reaching the last word, it is enjoyed throughout, thus the lengthy time it takes is a positive thing.

America has much to gain by reading more, and I don't just mean the publishing community.

Margaret said...

Thanks. I really needed to hear this right now as I ready a novel to send around. I have been wondering about whether anyone would be interested in getting a query this year, but no longer. Your points are well made. And the built in delay should work in my favor.

Dal Jeanis said...

Angelo -

Don't know where you got your figures for the Renaissance, but work days in the early twentieth century, Einstein's day, were about the same as today in the U.S.

Hmmm. I wonder if novels would sell better if they were designed with "Intermissions"?

Doubt it.