Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Essential -- repeat, essential -- reading

I don't often come across something on the web which I regard as truly essential reading, but here's one for today.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably (a) a writer, (b) a publisher/agent, or (c) a very keen reader. If you're in any of those categories, take a look at this account of profit and loss in publishing, written by one Anna Louise (the link was from booktrade.info.) I shall be surprised if you don't learn something useful.

The author works for Tor Books in the US, and she gives an extremely useful account of how firms figure out whether they are going to make, or have made, any money on a given book. Of course every firm will do a calculation of this kind somewhere along the line, but now that computers are commonplace the calculations have become not only useful but normally (I gather) compulsory. In the fairly recent past, editors just used to say, Yes, I think that will sell, and buy it. Now they have to produce some figures (even if they're no more than guesses at first), pump them into an Excel spreadsheet, and convince a committee. Times change, eh?

I'm going to leave the detailed commenting on this essay to other people. And plenty of them have commented. But your eyebrows will rise here and there I think. Note, for instance, what she says about discounts, and compare that with the formal position under Robinson-Patman. And note what she says about mass-market paperbacks: 'The average mass market paperback -- average -- sells one in three copies.' There's a lot more.

I can only repeat what I've said here before, namely that, to a young writer, this kind of information is worth its weight in --well, probably gold literally, since paper doesn't weigh a great deal. And when I was young it was unimaginable that you would ever find such an insight anywhere. Even if your father was a publisher, he wouldn't have had this kind of information to hand over to you. In those days firms simply didn't have the computing equipment to produce such figures. It was all done by guess and by God.

It must have taken Anna Louise a hell of a lot of time and effort to produce this piece (and more is promised), so say a prayer for her the next time you're in church, or wherever. This stuff is valuable, and she gives it away. No, I don't know why, either. Just be grateful.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I glanced at the article with no intention at all of reading it--and then read it in detail and was fascinated. Excellent piece of writing.

Seems the only good stuff these days is being given away--because the P&L's don't get into it. I suspect life was better when it was "by guess and by God."