House Slaves beware: windows are closing.

Earlier this week I mentioned that books were being marketed more like magazines and less like novels. For those who are too young to understand what magazines are and why this is significant, it boils down to this. Magazines have no backlist sales: once the new issue comes out, the old one is gone and largely forgotten (except in dentists’ offices, where they all go to die). Because of shrinking shelf space in stores, novels are getting less time to be on sale—they’re being treated like magazines in that regard, with backlist sales moving to ebooks.

In my essay, I predicted that one result of this marketing shift would be publishers narrowing the window between hardcover publication and the publication of subsequent editions, like mass market paperbacks. The New York Times confirmed this is exactly what publishers are starting to do. The reasons for this are simple. The vast majority of books sell in the first four months, and then taper off. Since they won’t be on the shelf much longer than that—if that long—there’s no reason to delay the paperback edition, which provides another, similar sales spike.

What is all this going to mean to authors with traditional publishing deals, or anticipating getting same?

1) Lower advances. Publishers have less time to move your product through the stores, have less opportunities to see sales there, and have no idea what they’re doing on ebook marketing. Their only choice is to cut your advances and face the prospect of owing you more money some time down the line.

2) As I noted in a previous post, except when a publisher has grossly underestimated the demand for a physical copy of a book, books will not be reprinted. It’s not that a second printing might not sell, it’s that there will be no slot on the shelves to sell it. While it might sell four or ten copies in a month for each store, a new book has a better chance of selling more copies each month. So, unless your book can keep up with new book sales, no way more copies are rolling off the presses.

3) Physical sales of series books will take a serious hit. Right now, with the year lag-time between books, we see a 30-60% drop in sales between books in a series. Now without the previous book in the series on the shelves to help drive interest to the new book, sales will tank. (And, face it, the sum and total of advertising most series books get is the printing of a preview chapter in the previous book in the set.) The only way to combat further erosion, is to speed up the publishing cycle, so…

4) Authors will be pushed to write faster, so the books can come out more quickly. A contract for a trilogy might have, in previous years, had deadlines extending out four years from the date of signing, with publication dates pushing out years beyond that. Not any more. If you can’t grind the books out on time, on a regular basis, every 6-9 months, your career is done.

5) The boom-and-bust cycles for fad books will cycle more quickly, too. As bookstores devote vast sections shelf space to the fad of the month, they overload readers with options. Readers do not have unlimited budgets, so fad books will stall faster. Publishers, who will buy to a fad and sacrifice other spots in their line to accommodate it, will be stuck with inventory when that cycle busts. In the short term, folks who are not writing in that fad will find the slots for non-fad books very limited; then a period of fearful frenzy buying as publishers dump books without printing them, and try to buy to whatever they think will be the next fad. Here publishers will be badly hurt by their production lead time requirements, and authors who are slow will likewise suffer.

6) Physical books will go out of print faster, but the retention and publication of electronic books means it will be a good long time before you ever get the rights back to your books. Authors are going to have to take good, long looks at their contracts to see what other rights they can exploit to make a living off their work.

This is the part of the blog post where I’m supposed to point out that entrepreneurial self-publishing of digital editions of your work—avoiding traditional publishers and linking into the new digital age—will solve all of these problems. The fact is, it actually will. That’s a bit of the message that will fall on deaf ears as far as House Slaves are concerned. All I can hope for them is that they read the above, check my reasoning, and then decide what they’re going to do.

I should point out that despite my comments about the physical sales of series books being hurt, I think serial stories published digitally are the way to go. Humans have learned to understand stories in terms of series and serial content. Television and movies reinforce this storytelling model. Most folks reading this already write series, or have places in their work where they could add stories. Being able to write continuing stories that are exciting is going to be the golden talent in the digital age. Writing more quickly won’t hurt, either, since building up an inventory is the only way to be sure folks will find something to buy when they decide they like your work. (And if you link to the next book in a cycle from within the book they’re just finishing, you have an instant impulse buy.)

The narrowing of publication windows is a desperate attempt by traditional publishers to shore up a failing business model. It has to be seen for that, and writers need to react appropriately. Traditional publishers really don’t know what they’re doing, and you have to wonder, do you want them trying to figure their new model out using your work for experiments? I’ll take a pass on that, thanks; and do a little extra work so my stories get the treatment and distribution they deserve.

_______________________

Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

In Hero Years... I'm Dead. A Digital Original novel.
My digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)

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9 Responses to “House Slaves beware: windows are closing.”

  1. Scary stuff if you’re looking for a Publisher!

    May have to re-think ‘the plan’.

  2. Sir, you’ve written an informative and notable post.
    I’m sure many will find it useful.

    Stay Alive – Neil

  3. Especially series. Years ago (don’t ask) if I found a (paperback) I liked, I’d check the bookstore shelves for more by the author and more/earlier in the series. Sometimes prime rib, sometimes 80%-fat hamburger.

    I was able to fill out my series on Howard’s Conan only in a used bookstore.

    Let’s hear it for authors acquiring/keeping the rights to their backlist and electronic publishing.

  4. Great advice. I love series! If I find an author I like, I look for more. L.E. Modesitt kept me busy for months!

  5. Thank you for this post. As a newbie, I’m always interested in these perspectives and frankly, I hate the model of trying to please an agent. I’m also not thrilled to join forces with anyone so behind the times as to require print submissions (as some agents and publishing houses still do.)

    Anyway, Thanks!

    Larry Nocella

  6. That write faster to get the inventory going should not be a problem for serious writers. Talking about – it is golden advice and practice for most authors that a thousand words a day is what you aim for.

    Yet, most writers who says so don’t have the backlist to prove that they do so. Do they all publish under multiple pseudonymns or do they trash 80% of what they write when they rewrite.

    Okay, don’t look to carefully at my production either. I’m a two steps forward three steps back kind of guy.

  7. 1000 words a day is a great goal. I’ve found that every writer has a comfortable pace. Writers should find it, stay with it, and as they get better they’ll find that the work is easier and the editing is not as hard. But steady will grind out the words, which is what we all need to be doing now.

  8. There’s no doubt there will be shorter print runs, and shorter times on the shelves. We already see this happening. I would disagree, however, that shrinking shelf space only impacts “impulse” sales. While having a broader selection on the shelves increases impulse buys, I’d wager good money that’s only among readers who visit bookstores with higher frequency than once a month. If a reader doesn’t come in at least once a month, they have no chance of seeing books by authors they don’t know, and now, by authors they DO know. The cycle of haunting bookstores gets broken, and that causes the store economy to crumble very quickly. Unless the House Slaves jump in and make sure the backlist they own shows up on electronic shelves, they simply disappear.

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