29 July 2010

Elmer Fudd, Associate Publisher

From goofy IP litigation link sausages to goofy (goofier?) publishing link sausages in one day. Is anybody really surprised?

  • There's some evidence that the 'net is suppressing sales of celebrity tell-alls, but you'd never know it by what publishers are actually putting out... or acquiring. Leaving aside that a celebrity tell-all requires a celebrity with some stamina as a celebrity — for the 100-meter equivalents, the 'net is more appropriate — the real problem here is hidden: It's that marketing efforts are disproportionately expended on those celebrity books because the publishing industry (rightly or wrongly) believes that celebrity egos require it, even when the book itself doesn't. Unfortunately, the proof of this is too often buried in confidential discovery materials.
  • The preceding sausage implicates the problem with this one. An item in PW's online update proclaims "Tinkers Sells 100,000 Copies" (typography corrected), noting that BookScan and Constellation (two electronic point-of-sale trackers — that is, sales recorded via BookScan and Constellation are essentially nonreturnable, unlike figures for shipment to distributers and bookstores). That sounds like great news, right? The problem is that these figures are absolutely meaningless... because they're going to be folded into a royalty statement that won't be issued for a minimum of 90 days (and that's only if the reporting period ends on 31 July), and perhaps as much as nine months. By that time, the sales reported via BookScan and Constellation will be buried inside the returnables, and thus will be both subject to royalty-payment shenanigans and irrelevant to any ongoing effort to either correct problems or exploit successes.

    Perhaps one of the other reforms authors and agents should be demanding on e-books, along with more-realistic royalty rates, is more-realistic accounting methods and timeframes. It would actually be good for both the publisher and the author to have monthly, or at least quarterly, immediate reporting of nonreturnable sales... since it's quite apparent that the publishers are doing that anyway, so they can't exactly claim that it would cost them extra. That would allow everyone to adjust marketing strategies to reality in time to make a difference.

  • And further along on e-books, consider a UK perspective on e-reader competition, penetration, and pricing that bears scrutiny here in the US, too.
  • Inevitably, someone will defend any corporate malefactor with the cry "It's not all Amazon's fault!" And it's not. I do not believe that any single actor has caused the publishing industry's deepseated problems, however possibly fatal (or at least requiring major surgery) they are. Instead, the problem is one of attitude: That "bigger" is necessarily "better," and must be measured against noncomparable "competitors," and that every negotiation has a loser who brings shame and disgrace upon his/her family for a generation. Leaving antitrust aside, it didn't seem to help the dinosaurs a whole lot, did it? And it's sort of ironic that this kind of hypercompetitiveness leads to antitrust problems...

    To top off the problems with that article, it presumes that "earning back the advance" is a measure of publisher profitability, when almost nothing in this business could be more false. For one thing, the data "suggesting" that 70% of books don't earn back their advances is both overstated and highly unreliable, based as it is in a small part of the publishing industry. For example, well in excess of 95% of books in the educational market earn back their advances based on sales before the official publication date. For another, the meme that the amount of the author advance represents the publisher's breakeven point bears absolutely no scrutiny at all, either from a process standpoint or by examining the cold, hard numbers. From a process standpoint, if that represented the breakeven point, publishers would never negotiate over advances; instead, the management methods instilled in MBA programs across the nation would make the advance a nonnegotiable quantity, and only the payment dates would get altered in negotiation.

    From a numbers standpoint, both my own experience and the experience of others I trust with audited1 financials — and, particularly, audited financials based on actual expenditures and not hypothetical cost-sales sheet (aka profit-loss sheet) projections — indicate that the median breakeven point on a trade book appears to be between 74% and 78% of the publisher's maximum advance as reflected on the acquisition papers... which usually (not always) exceeds the advance actually paid. And then, lurking behind all of this, there's the counterexample of advanceless books and their experiences to demonstrate that the advance is not a meaningful measure of publisher profitability.

    It really doesn't help an argument's credibility when it's based on numbers pulled out of one's ass. When even those numbers don't say what they seem to, the argument starts to resemble religion or politics... and, in particular, the dubious evidence offered on all sides of the gun control argument.

  • Cheryl Morgan blogged some intelligent, and long overdue, musings on the "genre" of "literary fiction" and its distorting effects on awards and, well, everything related to publishing fiction. I say this as a refugee of sorts from high-end literary study who never abandoned speculative fiction in the meantime; whether you call it "magical realism" (Marquez et al.), "satire" (Voltaire, Cervantes), or whatever, the setting is just one of the four approximately equal legs of a work of fiction (along with character, plot, and theme; "style" is the tabletop, not a separate consideration). These considerations go back to the dawn of the modern publishing "industry" in the 1870s. And remember that for every literary lion arising out of so-called "literary fiction," there are dozens of literary failures; in short, Sturgeon was an optimist. I'll put The Sparrow and The Left Hand of Darkness and A Canticle for Leibowitz up against any set of Booker prize winners; there's nothing about being "speculative fiction" that makes them inherently superior or inferior to each other.

  1. Which is not to say "therefore true." It is only to say "closer to truth than what routinely appears on royalty statements." The dubious honesty and integrity of royalty statements is a cultural problem in publishing, just as severe as the "bigger is better" meme. Even with the best intentions, the very "standards" for royalty reporting — not to mention the data-collection methods — result in significant inaccuracies... almost always to the publisher's advantage.