Thursday, April 21, 2005

Thoughtful, knowledgeable, and smart

From time to time in this blog, I have made certain (well-founded) criticisms of publishers, criticisms of so sweeping a nature that you may have concluded that I regard all of them as fools, villains, or worse.

In fact the situation is not as bad as that. It is perfectly true that the book business as a whole is relatively unprofitable, in commercial terms, and is staffed by people who for the most part are untrained and badly paid. (For further details see the fourth extract from my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.) However, there are individuals working in the book business who are knowledgeable, thoughtful, and smart. When I come across any written work by such people, I try to draw it to your attention.

Hence this suggestion that you should take a look at two speeches by Mike Shatzkin, of the Idea Logical Company. Both speeches were made, I understand, at a book industry conference in Canada last week. The speeches were addressed, it seems, to an audience of publishers rather than writers, but they contain a substantial amount of information and comment which is more than relevant to both groups. (Original links from Publishers Lunch.)

In the first speech, Shatzkin does a thorough survey of how the book business has changed over the last ten years, and where it stands today. Towards the end he makes fourteen specific suggestions for improvements that publishers can make to their existing practice.

The speech is far too long and detailed for me to attempt to summarise here. Instead, I will merely mention one paragraph. Here is what Shatzkin has to say about remaindering -- and if you're new to the business, 'remaindering' is the practice of selling off the last few hundred copies of a print run at a far cheaper price than the bulk of the run, just to get the last few copies out of the warehouse and make room for something else.
...Remaindering is gasoline on the fire of the used book market. Although retailers love remainders, I think everybody really suffers because they exist. Not only do they enable customers to buy substitutes for full-priced books that neither the publisher nor the author make a profit on, they devalue the retail prices publishers establish. The one case where a company would almost certainly help itself by ceasing remainders is with a brand name, repeat author. Repeat customers learn pretty quickly if they can wait a few months and save more than half the price on a book. Increases over the last book by successful authors are going to get harder and harder to achieve anyhow; remainders just add another obstacle.
This strikes me as particularly relevant in relation to the post that I put up on Monday about the Times's Inspiring Reads offer. Books at 99p and all that. My son, no less, has posted a comment to the piece, in which he points out that the first book on offer is not actually old stock at all; it appears to be a version specially printed for the offer.

Well, in that case the sales of the offer edition will be covered under the small print of the author's contract dealing with 'special deals' or some terminology of that sort. In which case the author will normally get 10% of what the publisher gets. But how much do you suppose the publisher is getting, on a per copy basis, if the book is to be sold at 99p? You can do the arithmetic any number of ways, but at the end of the day there seems to be precious little money in it for anyone.

Of course there is an argument that customers of WHS who don't normally read the Times might be tempted to start doing so by seeing that this offer is available. And existing Times readers might be tempted to go into WHS to get the special offer, and then buy other things when they get there. And, finally, there is the argument that readers, having read one book by an author at the wonderful bargain price of 99p, might be tempted to buy other books by that author at a more normal price. But to my mind it is all a dangerous strategy; and I agree with Shatzkin that it is not a smart move to encourage readers to think that they will be able to buy books dirt cheap if they are prepared to wait.

All in all, Shatzkin's first speech is, I would suggest, essential reading for anyone who works in publishing, and it is particularly important for writers. Anyone who has written a book, or is thinking of doing so, would be well advised to read this piece in some detail.

Shatzkin's second speech is more technical, and is aimed very firmly at the top level of financial management of publishing companies. There are a number of technical terms which are used without explanation, and the average reader may find it tough going. However, once again, my advice would to be give it a careful look, because there is much there which will improve your understanding of how publishers think, and how, perhaps, they would do well to think.

Writers, particularly in fiction, tend to slave away for a year or more without any advance payment. And they also tend to get very upset when their baby is rejected. Even those who put in a non-fiction proposal, and have it turned down, can feel seriously aggrieved. It is therefore not at all a bad idea to gain some understanding of the kind of financial thinking which may govern the publisher's decision. It is, after all, far from unknown for an editor to say that she really loved the book, but just doesn't believe that she can sell it. Reading Shatzkin will help you to understand why.


Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Thank you very much Michael, for this highly informative post. I know it's a big help to me.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter L. Winkler said...

As a sporadic writer and habitual reader, the take on how remainders are bad strikes me as another example of arrogance on the part of publishers and some writers. From the perspective of a reader on a limited budget, remainders are good. Perhaps publishers should consider how to make books less expensive. About ten years ago I discovered that the Los Angeles Public Library's card catalog was avialble online, and that I could transfer a book from any branch that had a copy to my local branch. Since then, whenever I come across a book of interest to me, I go online to see if the library has it. If not, I look for a clean used copy on Amazon. I'll only buy it new if that's the only way I can get it.

Books are a luxury, not a necessity, and compete with any number of entertainments for the reader's limited discretionary income. Publishers don't seem to recognize this, or if they do, haven't done much to acknowledge it. The business model of publishing hasn't changed in decades. I'm really getting rather sick and tired of publisers complaining at the same time they hold out their hand for their executive compensation. Meanwhile nothing changes. As long as things remain plush for a handfull at the top, they think the party will last forever. Anyway, they'll no doubt have moved on somewhere else soon enough. What is the average tenure of a publishing company's CEO or president?

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