More more more!

Dear Miss Snark,

I have been thinking a great deal about the recent WSJ piece that talks about how midlist writers (crime fiction writers in particular) have been forced to write under pseudonyms when the computers at Border's and B&N decide that sales aren't worth ordering any new titles written by the "old" names. This seems to spell the death of the "old" name as well as any series written by that name. Have you had to drop this piece of news onto a snarky client? How does a writer effectively change gears like this? It seems to me it would be very painful. And, given the fact that Jeremiah Healy and Reed Farrell Coleman aren't exactly making a secret of this, isn't this one big chain-store circle jerk?

I haven't had to drop that ugly piece of news on a client, but I've got friends and colleagues in this exact situation. It sux. A lot.

Some explanation: publishers demand that writers sell increasing quantities of subsequent books they publish. Book one can sell five thousand copies, book two six thousand but by book five you've got to sell forty thousand. If you don't, the publisher doesn't renew the contract. It's very similar to get promoted or get out in the military. If you don't make a certain rank by a certain age, they ask you to retire.

Why do this you ask? It seems shortsighted; the book is selling. The reason is that if you've got ten authors selling 40,000 books each year, you've got a full list and no way for someone new to break in. Logjam.

And a logjam means it's harder to publish the novelist they're all looking for: the breakout book that is going to sell a zillion copies.

The reason publishers want zillion copy sellers from one writer instead of ten writers each selling one-tenth of a zillion is because of unit cost.

Unit cost is the cost of each book sold. Add up all the cost for printing, editorial time, design time, and a percentage of the fixed cost like heats light and water and voila and voila: what it costs to make a book happen. That cost is almost same if you sell 3000 books or 30000 books.

You can see where I'm going here. The REVENUE is significantly higher for 30,000 books than for 3,000 so publishers with the roughly the same costs would really rather sell more than less. Not so stupid.

What truly drives the madness of sell more or get lost is that publishers have to show an increase in earnings these days. It's not enough to bring in steady revenue. They always have to show MORE or suffer the wrath of Wall Street and the head office in BeanCounter, France.

Understanding how this works, doesn't make it more palatable and there are some very very anguished authors these days. However, the free market system will rise to the occasion and you'll see a lot more smaller publishers picking up big names and happily publishing 40,000 copies till the cows come home. And that is good news for those of us who like to read Reed Farrell Coleman and others in this boat.


Anonymous said...

If it's a matter of survival, a pseudonym is easy to come by. You sit around with a pail of gin and throw out names until something catchy surfaces.

David Isaak said...

Fellow writers may be interested in Donald Westlake's grim (but hilarious)crime novel "The Hook."

The protagonist is a midlist author sitting in exactly that sinking boat, and Westlake uses this as part of the premise for his story. Horrifying yet funny.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget how publishers often kill a midlist writer's career with each new book by printing on a downward scale. If the first book sold 9,000 copies out of 10,000 printed, rest assured book #2 is going to have a first printing not more than 9,000. This doesn't necessarily affect the book buying habits of booksellers but it most certainly tells the marketing and sales teams "this book isn't going to do any better than the first, probably worse." If there's even a book #3 in the works, it's likely not going to see the light of day. And writer and agent be damned if they try to take said book #3 elsewhere because no one will touch it.

Sponge Girl said...

On the topic of pseudonyms - what about us poor souls with unpronouncable names? Is it better to have an "exotic" name from a marketing point of view or is it time to think of a name Redneck Joe wouldn't have trouble saying?

David Isaak said...

Some folks claim it's more the big chain bookstores than the publishers--automated ordering based on sales of previous books by the author, which automatically ratchets down the number of copies requested if there were returns previously.

I don't know the truth of this, but I've heard Barnes & Noble and Borders blamed at least as often as the publishers.

Unknown said...

One of my wife's bridesmaids is a buyer with one of the two big bookstore chains (I also work in bookselling, though at the retail end), and this whole notion of an author's career being buried by the "computers" seems pretty odd to me. It's true that hard numbers and the bottom line are the single biggest factor, but my wife's friend basically spends her entire work week researching those numbers herself--it's human beings who decide how many copies of the book are going to be ordered for its first release, and human beings decide when a book has finally run its course and no longer needs to be reordered. The computers still handle a lot, but the decisions that they do make are still constantly being monitored by humans. In short, human beings are far more involved in every decision of the bookselling process than those who want to blame the chain bookstores seem interested in understanding.