Why New Worlds: Markets
In early 2011 I was going through a novel of mine, Eyes of Silver, cleaning up a scan from the paperback version. I’d not looked at the book in thirteen years, save for finding a couple of references that I used in my Age of Discovery novels. (Yes, the books are linked.) Cleaning up the scan forced me to read the book over word for word and, as it turns out, it was pretty good. More importantly, I found characters and aspects of world-building which actually showed up in later novels.
At the same time I’d see a number of blog reviews of In Hero Years…I’m Dead and At the Queen’s Command. A common thread among the reviews (aside from being really positive) was that each reviewer commented on how the world felt. They suggested, and I’m humbly forced to agree with their brilliant assessments, that these worlds had a lot of depth.
In going to conventions and in talking with readers, I always get asked if I’m going to return to one world or another. The whole 10,000 copy Talion: Revenant ebook challenge is designed to let me do just that. And I love serial fiction. Whenever I look at the books I’ve done and the worlds I’ve created, I see plenty of opportunities for other stories set in those worlds.
Thinking about this caused a question to bubble up in my brain: Why new worlds? Why not just sit down and write more books in the older worlds? Why go to all the trouble of building brand new worlds, making them work, and running the risk of finding out that they don’t work in the middle of things?
There’s a number of reasons for that. I’ll tackle them in no particular order here because they all have equal weight. Some are circumstantial, some are preferential, and some idiosyncratic.
The Market: The market for fiction plays a big part in decision making. I have to eat, and I’ve gotten used to things like shelter and electricity. If a writer doesn’t pay attention to what’s selling and how it’s selling, he’d be like a tomato farmer who lets half his crop rot because the catsup folks are buying less, and he’s not looked into this new-fangled salsa thing.
The marketing of fiction has changed over the years that I’ve been involved as a reader and a writer. Back in the day, and making a comeback now with electronic publishing, marketing experts used to refer to something called “the long tail.” In the book trade it’s known as backlist. Readers would discover a writer and if they liked her, would go out and buy every single book she had in her backlist. Plenty of midlist writers made wonderful livings off the backlist. Just as we’re seeing in digital sales, selling 100 copies of 30 books a month is just as good as selling 3000 copies of one book a month.
In 1988, during the Reagan administration’s revamping of the tax code, a little change got made to how physical inventories were valued. Previously the cost of warehousing would be treated as an expense. It would lower corporate revenue, hence lower gross profits and the taxes upon them. With the change, known as Thor Power Tools after a court decision, the cost of warehousing added to the cost of inventory. In other words, if it cost a nickel a year to keep a paperback book on the shelf, the base cost of that book rose by a nickel. This raised the value of inventory, which raised corporate profits, and forced businesses to pay more taxes.
It also forced them to make a decision. Prior to 1988, there was no reason they’d not keep a book in stock forever. This enabled backlist sales. After Thor, publishers had to decide what the monthly sales figures for a book had to be before they’d reprint, or send the remaining stock to be pulped. This choice killed backlist sales.
At the same time, the way books were retailed changed. Instead of hundreds of independent bookstores stocking their shelves with books their customers wanted, buying became focused in the hands of a few buyers in New York, purchasing for the chains. If Barnes & Noble or Borders didn’t like your book and wouldn’t order, the book might not get printed. The number of copies in a store would determine sales, and your sales would determine if you were on automatic reorder or not. Your initial sales—the sales recorded during the first week, or the lay-down week—would set the tone for your book’s future.
This is how that would work. The book would start selling on the first Tuesday of the month. On the following Monday, chain buyers would look at the computer figures for that first week. Depending on how your book sold, they would issue a strip order, a hold order, or a model order. If your book was to be stripped, the covers would be torn off and returned for credit to the publisher. A hold meant you had another week. A model order meant you’d be on a reorder program, with the store always having a certain number of your books on the shelf.
Two flaws with this system. The first is with the lay-down week. Back when the Star Wars® novels were coming out, I’d drive around Phoenix and hit a half-dozen of the big box bookstores. It was easy—there were bunches of them. I’d go in on the Thursday and, surprise, wouldn’t see any books on the shelves. The staff hadn’t managed to get the books out yet. And those were books that were guaranteed to hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Countless folks who’ve worked in stores have told of getting the strip order for books that had never gotten out of the cartons. Yes, you read that right. The book would never make it onto the shelves during the initial week, so they could record zero sales. They’d be stripped because they weren’t selling, further guaranteeing they’d never sell. According to clerks, it didn’t take extraordinary circumstances for all that to happen, either. Readers just never got a chance to find a book.
Computerization enabled bookstores to do all that, and a couple more things. They’d track sales figures by author. If your second book didn’t do better than your first, or your first was a complete disaster, they might not order any copies at all. This spawned the era of two-and-out, where an author would get two books with a publisher and if their numbers weren’t great, they didn’t get a new contract. And because the bookstores were tracking data against the author’s name, if they wanted to sell more books in that genre, they’d have to change their name.
This is also the time when you found seriously good first novels by names you never heard of. Why? Because these were writers who already had a half-dozen books under their belts who were writing under a rookie name that carried no baggage. Editors and buyers would evaluate and promote the books based on their content, not the past track record of sales. There were times (and still are) where the publishing house didn’t even know who the writer really is.
Computerization also did another thing: it allowed the beancounters to dictate how books would be purchased—especially series work. It is a fact of life that the first book in a series will sell better than the second, and the second better than the third. It’s also true that some readers refuse to pick up a series until it’s done (you folks drive me nuts), pretty much guaranteeing that the series will die. I’ve looked at my series sales and they do look like the side of s stepped pyramid, with each book in a series lagging by 10-20% compared to the book preceding it (even accounting for the added time for sales).
This is how the stores interpreted that data: If book one sells 20 copies, then book two will sell 16 copies. So, we’ll only order in 16 copies—thereby guaranteeing that book two can never sell as many copies as book one. And while this would seem like a wise business move, remember that these guys can return the books for full credit at any time they want. They don’t have to be careful about their orders. Book three, obviously gets a dozen ordered in, and so on, until the chains decide that no one could ever possibly want to see more books, and refuse to order.
You wondered why some publishers stopped listing books as being the first in a series? That’s why.
Now not all series follow this pattern. I’ve watched the BattleTech books and their sales numbers. The books had a baseline set of sales that indicated the folks who would buy anything BattleTech. But toss a novel out there with my name on it, or Loren Coleman’s name on it, and sales would spike. And our spikes would hit consistent numbers.
Now, none of this talk about how series are purchased ever killed a series of mine. The DragonCrown War books and the Age of Discovery novels were packaged as 4 and 3 book sets. My publishers didn’t come to me and say, “Well, they’ve run their course, what else do you have?”
On the other hand, they never said, “Hey, we’d really like more in the DragonCrown War world; or do you have another Talion book in you?” I have to assume that their view of the market justified decisions to encourage new worlds instead of having me return to established worlds. Which is kind of a pity because I had notes on five Talion novels, and a really cool duology thing to do with the DragonCrown War.
I’d kind of thought I’d have gotten more said in a shorter essay. I guess this will have to be a series of essays. I invite you to ask questions and make comments in the comments section. I’ll do my best to address them either in replies, or in future posts.
And just to help pay the rent here, talking about writing like this is what I do in my newsletter, The Secrets. It’s $25 for 25 issues. The discussions deal with both writing techniques and market/career issues. We’re closing in on issue 150. Hit the link to learn more and subscribe.