Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Getting Published

I'm a professional member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association and the Horror Writers Association. I'll be the first to admit, I'm not sure I understand what really qualifies a "professional," making that person different from an "Affiliate" member. Yes, I know the rules stipulating qualifications, but in an Affiliate member writers, and publishes, and quite often does as well financially as a Professional member, then isn't the Affiliate a Professional?

But I'm not here to talk about that. Recently, the famous publishing house Harlequin purchased a "pay for print" business. These are quite common today. Amazon has one, Ingram (the book wholesaler) has one, and there are myriad others. These businesses basically charge writers to print their books. I'm not using "publish books" because that is a little bit different.

Originally, Harlequin had their name associated with this business, which mislead some new writers into believing their manuscripts had been accepted by Harlequin. Not true. First, Harlequin doesn't charge writers, and next one is more or less printing while the other is publishing.

In turn, the HWA (Horror Writers), SFWA (not defining the rest of them), RWA, MWA, and most every other organization for writers which included "WA" in their initials protested and removed Harlequin from their list of "approved" publishers (notice that last word).

In turn, Harlequin changed the name of the business to Dellarte Press. This satisfied no one, so the protests continue.

If you're not keeping-up with these things, you might wonder what why this is important. It is important because there is a difference between being published and being printed. At first, most people think it has to do with the pay - the author being paid. Well, that is part of it. Although most authors don't get much pay to begin with. And others would argue it has to do with the writer paying to have the book printed. Partly the issue as well. Publishers don't charge - at least not yet.

But in the end, if a writer pays to have a book printed and it sells a million copies, does it matter? Probably not - except that million selling author isn't a Professional according to most places with WA in its initials.

What is important is the spectacularly poor odds of that book selling more than 200 copies. The cause isn't a lack of editor, or because the writer paid to have it printed. The most overwhelming issue is the lack of distribution. Or to put it another way, a book in a box in someone's basement isn't selling to anyone. Neither is a book in a box in someone's warehouse.

Let me offer an example. Think of a book title you've never heard of. I'll wait. :)

Of course, coming up with the name of a book that you don't know and no one else knows is very difficult. Now imagine a reader saying spontaneously, "Hey, I want ..." and she blurts out the name of a book of which she's never heard.

Probably isn't going to happen.

This is the problem with most of this "pay for print" houses. They offer you "distribution," for an extra fee, and then they list the book with wholesalers. This means, if someone knows the name, and wants the book, he or she can contact the wholesaler and purchase it. That isn't really distribution. The book is basically available for those who know and want it.

Of course, Amazon will stock one or two, on consignment. Even so, finding the title on Amazon requires someone to type in the name - Amazon won't promote it unless the writer pays for that as well. And most likely, the promotion will go unseen by the vast majority.

So, how do bookstores get books if not from wholesalers? Bookstores do use wholesalers. But they have to know the name of the book as well. And they need a reason to buy it. Stores have budgets. If one has $100.00 to spend on books, is the best investment in a title no one has heard of, or a very popular title? Shelf space and cost often prevent books from appearing in bookstores. Of course, never having heard of them hinders it as well.

This begs the question, how does the industry know what is popular? Simple answer: Nielsen Bookscan. Yes, the same people who bring you television ratings does it for writers as well. With the tapping of a few keys, a book buyer for a large chain can look-up you name and the history of every book you've sold - including publisher, and demographics. Of course, this system is only as accurate as the numbers received. Any writer who sells a book directly to someone at a convention doesn't have this number added into Nielsen.

Nonetheless, Nielsen does determine the fate of many writers. Publishers use it as well - except those that charge to print a writer's book. They have nothing to lose. But book buyers for large chains do have something to lose - their jobs. Or at least the stores money. As a result, there is little incentive for a large chain to risk money on writers with small or no sales records.

Here is where the distributor enters. Before you cry-out about how unfair the Nielsen system is, know that distributors use it as well. And it leaves one wondering: How does a writer get a Nielsen rating if the books are never sold in stores that provide numbers to Nielsen. The answer is, they don't.

The good news is most publishers are willing to take risks on new authors. And most publishers use distributors or own their own distribution system. This means someone is going to bookstores, chain stores, wholesalers, and all manner of places, asking buyers to purchase titles. Yes, the Nielsen debate rages in these negotiations, but having a person sitting face to face with a book buyer or store owner or wholesale buyer helps in creating awareness of the title. It is no longer a game of "guess the name." Now the name is there, with a sheet describing the book, with a cover image, along with how the author is going to work herself to death going from city to city to promote the title if only the store buys it. (Oh, and use the Internet to promote it as well).

While the book might be turned down, at least it has a fighting chance.

All of this boils down to getting the book in front of the people who need to know about it. While places like Dellarte Press promise the above, mostly what the writer gets is a list of wholesaler names - and how many writers, new or experienced, know the name of wholesalers and distributors, or know the difference in their function? When the writer is told the book "will be available to all bookstores, and online shops, through Ingram or Baker & Taylor," how can a new author know this means the book, at best, will sit in a box on a shelf in a warehouse. At worst, it will only be a name on a list of a few million other titles.

For this reason, and others, the -WA organizations listed above are protesting.

Alas, there is another side to this tale. The "pay for print" industry is a multi-million dollar profit boom. With technology creating more writers by the day (probably more writers than readers if that makes sense), and the ease of "printing on demand," why would Harlequin or any other such business stop? Will all of the writer associations cause them to close or sell a growing business? Doubtful.

Lastly, while I am warning writers about places that charge to print a book, and for editing, and for cover art, and for making the title available for wholesale, I'm not saying that such places are foul. In some instances, they can take advantage of a person who doesn't understand the industry. But in other cases, a small number, they have produced popular titles, or at least titles that "pay the author" publishers have purchased and re-printed. Like any other business, and while writing is a craft and an art, it is a business when it involves money, be aware of the industry and how it operates.


Rick said...

I'm really glad you posted this, William. Nice wake-up call.

When I first read this, it reminded me of the general marketplace. For example, I am a business owner manufacturing laboratory standards. We have a great many companies (read "writers") looking for us to sell their products (read "books"), and we screen them first based on their DUNS rating.

There are parallels to every aspect of the publishing industry because publishing is really just another business to many people.

I think many writers are shocked to find that the book business really is a business. They hope that there's more "magic" or "art" involved. It's a disappointment to find that they are more like engineers creating blueprints for products that someone else will manufacture. Of course, they can undertake to pay someone else to manufacture their widgets (read "POD" or self-publish), but then they must undertake the marketing, etc.

Having been a sales professional for a good part of my life, I feel badly for those writers who look down on sales and marketing and business in general. Especially those who feel out and out disdain for sales and business activities, claiming a "higher calling."

It's these business considerations that ennable us to bring our writings in front of a broader market. So I appreciate you educating us on these matters, because it helps us prepare for the reality. It's sometimes hard listening to writers go on and on about how unjust the publishing world is. It like standing in front of a gas pump putting gas in your car and complaining about the combustion engine.

Daniel Johnson said...

I thought you might be interested from the perspective of one of those big box wholesalers to learn how it all works (I work for one of those listed). A new title gets added to our database and is available for purchase. We don't purchase the title at this point unless there is a Marketing effort behind it or we have historical demand for prior titles indicating that there will be a steady rate of sale.

The formula is usually straight forward... We buy to fill backorders at first and when the demand reaches a certain threshold in a warehouse we then stock the title. To accomplish this, demand can be as low as 6 copies in a 3 month period. Our forecasting system takes into account Sales, shipping time from the publisher, In stock ratios, and seasonality of the subject matter.

As soon as a title is stocked, the information goes out to the Internet Retailers and Brick-and-Mortar Retailers in their hourly feed which shows on-hand inventory. Most then change the display on their sites to show 24 hour availability.

You're right it's fairly systematic for most titles except for the large releases.


Daniel said...

Probably the most important thing I took away from self-publishing was realizing that publishing/writing IS a business.

I certainly here you on the distribution part, I've been fortunate to have a few lucky breaks here and there but distributing on your own is a pain (I've sold just about 250 copies so far).

That's one thing I like about the podcast version of my novel, I can easily track what my distribution is every month, and it has helped me get a few sales here and there.

Charles Gramlich said...

The biggest problem is getting anything noticed amid the glut of books. And since both small press publishers and vanity presses use POD technology you can't tell the difference between the books based on that. What I see is the business side gaining too much power. People with weak books may still outsell much better books simply because they are business savvy. This attracts more people into the field who really aren't interested in writing per se, but in making some quick cash.

Steve Buchheit said...

The more I learn about this business the more I realize how changes in the distribution model (and loss of local market knowledge) have been responsible for a lot of what's been dragging it (book publishing) down. Of course it's changed from pressures by the stores and by the publishers (ie. both ends) as well as internal costing structures.

Or as I commented in a recent impromptu conference, "There's business strategy designed to fail." And unfortunately I don't see any real business pressure that will enable it to change in a positive direction (as long as "cut costs to maximize profit flows" and "standardized commodity offering across the enterprise" thoughts continue to rule the landscape). Or at least that's my personal opinion. After all, for most people, book reading falls in the category of "entertainment." And there's plenty of other entertainment streams to fill any perceived lack (and take consumers away from books).

William Jones said...

Rick - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I suppose it is a wake-up call, but I hope it doesn't cause anyone to stop writing. Since there is this great debate with Harlequin presently, it seemed like a good idea to partly clarify it.

Daniel (J) - Thanks for posting. Your insights are very much appreciated. And I'm glad the topic caught your attention.

Daniel (H) - You are very informed about the industry, and you've been actively promoting your title. That is unusual. Most writers who don't have distribution think someone else is doing it. And the Podcasts worked well for a few authors. A great idea.

Charles - I think that as happened with some vanity presses. They tend to be cut-throat, and even try to fool writers into believing they've been "accepted" and paying to have the book printed is typical. I've no issue with an informed author paying for a book to be published. But those publishers that are intentionally being misleading are a problem. Although, I'm not sure how hard they work to get titles out there.

Steve - You're correct. Books are for the most part, and have been for at least two centuries (many would say longer) a business of entertainment. And given the advancements in other technologies, books are not as popular as they used to be. I wonder if new, exciting devices like the Kindle will change that. I believe once e-reader company uses the phrases: Make reading exciting again.

But in the end, books do have to sell, and usually much of the weight of that is shifted to the author (excluding distribution).