I drove to Portland, OR yesterday. A friend was celebrating her birthday. First, we had lunch with the Portland Writers Consortium, and introduced them to a new friend. And talked a lot of business and gossip about the magical, fading land of Traditional Publishing.
It kind of felt like the sort of gossip one would expect as the asteroid had just hit, and the dinosaurs were looking up at the spreading mushroom cloud with the first hints of concern.
For those of you who haven’t been following the (largely hidden) news, several of the big New York (Traditional) publishing houses have been having a blood-letting recently. As in, one of the major owners (the bean counters) has recently laid off something like four thousand people at one shop. To put that in context, one editorial group my lunch mates were familiar with had eight people in it, this time last year. They have two now. And those are the youngest two, in terms of experience (and salary) in the industry.
One gentleman was talking about how had had kept the same contract language, rolled over, since 1996. But the woman who kept giving it to him no longer was employed there. So he has just finished one contract, and will finish his other one shortly, and then will become an orphan.
To give you more context, they fired Nora Roberts’ editor. So she walked out the door and went somewhere else.
The problem is that not all of these people will find jobs elsewhere in the industry. What we are seeing (IMHO) is the consolidation of what used to be hundreds of medium and large publishing companies down into the Big Twelve, and then the Big Eight, and more recently Big Five. New York will probably be down to a Big Three shortly.
Economics of scale theories suggest that everyone else will bail out and sell themselves to one of the others, until you reach the hard kernel that will survive. And this will happen in the next 12-18 months, I suspect.
It doesn’t impact on my life much. I made the decision a long time ago not to even waste my time pursuing the concept of an Agent and a book deal. I can write what I want, and publish it how and when I like. And (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your take on these things), I’m likely to make more money than many of the authors out there. I certainly did last year, even if that amounted to barely more than walking around money.
Most traditionally published writers make under $10,000/year. Yes, you read that correctly. Less than one quarter of what the US considers median income.
The big names, those people you recognize and read, make good money. They aren’t getting the million dollar advances any more, but they aren’t starving. One person I respect greatly, who has his fingers on the pulse of publishing, put it this way. “Now I have to string together $50,000 and $100,000 advances instead.”
He won’t starve. And you’ve probably read his books before this, and will probably read more of them in the future.
But most writers never see that kind of cash.
They write a novel and try to find an Agent. Maybe they get lucky and find one that will take them on and try to get a deal. There just aren’t great deals anymore. At lunch yesterday, the gentleman with the big name talked about $3,000 advances. He earns well on the residuals when the advance is covered, and has a lot of books out there that sell well.
But he is a known quantity.
Newbies, like me, don’t even get offered contracts.
Every once in a great while, a newbie might get a great contract because the editor believes they might be the next JK Rowling, or Suzanne Collins. They get bidding wars fought over their debut novels.
This happens less and less, however. Only a couple such deals were reported last year. None have been reported for this year to date. (Whereas even as few as five years ago, there were close to a dozen.)
But the sad truth for most mid-list writers is much different.
IF (big if) you get a novel deal, it has to explode in terms of sales or you get dropped. (A critical success—meaning a book much beloved by critics—will still be dropped if the sales aren’t great.) Fifty years ago, in the age of smaller and medium-sized publishers, you might be able to write three or five novels, working with a good editor to hone your craft and build your audience. You could make a comfortable living. Not rich, but making enough to live on and maybe raise a family.
Today, it is one and done. You bottle lightning, or you get dropped.
And that’s for the thousands of young writers who try each year. One or two of them might succeed.
I could spend a lot of time trying. I might even succeed.
I am statistically more likely to be hit by a bus than I am to get that million dollar publishing deal. And I would read the damned contract they offered me, red-line it, and send it back with their stupid clauses crossed out. Their lawyers would never allow them to sign a deal that didn’t screw me out of my rights every way they could.
That’s what book contracts for newbies look like. Established writers, big names, tend to get better deals, because they are willing to walk, or sue.
So I’m back to watching the mushroom light spread across the sky. The wind is picking up. The folks at the table are concerned that maybe the weather is changing.
And I’m watching the sky burn as the world ends.
I have four novels available. Number five will be out this summer. I’m about to drop a novella that takes place in the Jessica Keller series. I’m about to publish a new Doyle Iwakuma story. I’m midway through the fourth Jessica novel. I’m planning to edit and participate in two anthologies later this year. I just bought several research books for the next novel. I have a whole bakery of things for people to read.
My world won’t end.
Old school authors are starting to get the rights to their old books back, partly because the big publishers don’t want to spend the money converting them to ebooks, when they won’t see enough return to justify that level of investment.
Newer books, those already available in ebook format, will never go out of print, so that young writer who did get a deal won’t get the rights back for decades. (There is a law that says thirty-five years. Not before. But only if the writer pays attention and is smart about it.) So the new writer gets doubly-screwed.
Fabulous Publisher Babe™ is actually going to see some business from the transition going on. She knows everyone. And she offers a really good deal, either to help them self-publish, or to do it for them. She gets business from other pros who would rather just pay her to do that stuff for them so they don’t have to climb that learning curve and can keep on doing the thing they love most, writing.
Everyone wins in this new economy, except the folks who wanted to work for Traditional Publishing in New York. They got screwed pretty badly in March.
And the light from the mushroom cloud is climbing over the rest of the world’s horizon…