by J.D. Rhoades
It wasn’t exactly a huge shock when the Borders mega-bookstore chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week. The company had been circling the drain for a while. Still, it was another blow to an industry that’s had at least its share, and maybe more, of those lately.
The reasons for the Borders filing are numerous and complicated, in accordance with Rhoades’ First Law of History: everything happens for more than one reason. Those reasons are discussed in detail, by some very smart minds, here and here.
The big question on the minds of writers and readers, though, is most likely: what does this mean in the long run? As a judge who pulled me aside at a break in court on Tuesday asked me, “do you think the printed word is dead?”
I told him I hoped not, and I meant it. Like a lot of you, I like the physical feel of a book in my hand. But we do have to face the fact: it’s a shrinking market, and not just because a lot of the physical locations to buy books are closing their doors. Not just Borders; seems like hardly a month goes by when we don’t hear of a beloved indie bookstore shutting up shop, and even the venerable Powell’s is laying people off.
The immediate effect of the Borders bankruptcy will be that a lot of people aren’t getting paid, at least not right away, such as distributors and publishers. In fact, Borders had started “delaying” payments to publishers in January and trying to turn their outstanding obligations into loans, sort of like calling up the power company and asking if you can just turn the January heating bill into an IOU. It worked about as well as you might expect, and caused some distributors to stop shipping to them. Now, of course, they’re not even getting the IOU; they’ll get what the bankruptcy court says they’ll get, when the court determines they’ll get it, which might be never in some cases. That can’t help but put extra strain on already stressed players in this business, particularly small publishing houses that were on thin profit margins to begin with. As for the big publishers…well, they’ll most likely survive. But they’ll be feeling the pinch.
Unfortunately, pinched corporations become more risk-averse, not less. When you consider that offering a writer a lot of cash for his or her work always carries a substantial about of risk, that’s bad news for authors who aren’t already bestsellers or who don’t have ready-made name recognition. Like, say, Snooki.
To paraphrase the classic line from PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki, may be one of the worst people you’ve ever heard of, but you have heard of her. Therefore, the tiny trollop from Jersey Shore gets a book deal, despite having only read, by her own admission, two books in her life (DEAR JOHN and TWILIGHT). They had to figure on big sales because, Lord knows, we all love a good trainwreck, and when it comes to trainwrecks, Snooki makes the Wreck of the Old 97 look like a kid’s Lionel HO-gauge jumping the track.
Oh, sure, I’ve considered “being a professional trainwreck” as a marketing strategy. I can do drunk and disorderly, believe me. I’m just not sure I can sustain it for long enough or loud enough to get a book deal out of it before I get thrown in jail. But I digress.
Absent that strategy, though, how do we get our work out to readers in a world where a writer as talented and experienced as veteran SF author Kristine Kathryn Rusch can have an experience like this with her book DAVY MOSS:
The book has made the rounds of traditional publishing (and then some!) and it garnered some of the best rejections of my career. Editors loved this book, but the sales force at Big Publishing hated the very concept. Books about music don’t sell, they said, and then they’d force the editor to pass.
(Boy, did THAT sound familiar!)
As readers, how do you find a wide diversity of content in a world where a nearly illiterate reality show star pulls down seven figures and Kristine Kathryn Rusch gets the old, “wow, we love this, but we pass”?
If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “Oh lord, here comes the bit about e-books…” Well, you’re partially right. Because the world where Rusch gets turned down on a book that even the people doing the turning down admit is good is also a world where fantasy writer Amanda Hocking, online, sells 99,000 e-books, at 2.99 apiece, in December alone.
I have to admit that figure staggered me, especially when you consider that writers make more of a percentage on self-published e-books than they do on traditionally published paper books. I’ve never read Hocking. She may be dreadful, she may be the second coming of Hemingway. But as a purely business proposition, it seems to me that, as writers, we’d be fools to turn our backs on a market with that kind of hunger. And say, for the sake of argument, that Hocking really is a dreadul writer. Well, I still think I’m pretty good…so how much better could I do?
As noted above, Borders went toes up for a variety of reasons, but we can’t discount the importance of this one: while Borders tried to diversify by expanding things like CD and movie sales, they were diversifying into formats that were already being threatened by cheap, convenient, and quick downloads. While there are a lot of people, including myself, who love the experience of browsing through books or CDs, we all have to face the fact that there are an awful lot of people out there who want to be able to get a book without having to get out of their jammies, jump in the car and drive down to the store. If that book also happens to be low in price, they’ll be more likely to buy, and read.
Some may call people like that “couch potatoes” and “cheap bastards.” I call them potential readers. Here’s Rusch, again:
I personally want readers and I want as many readers as possible. More readers equal more money—of course—but more readers also equal a long-term career. If my book is in print from a Big Publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers. If my book is in print from my self-publishing arm or an indie publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers. And that, my friends, is really what matters.
So, I’m not turning my back entirely on traditional publishing. I’ll keep submitting, and I’ll never stop browsing the bookstores (or trying to get my work into them).
But in the meantime, I’m diversifying. I’ve repackaged my e-pubbed novel STORM SURGE with a snazzy new cover, by new Zealand artist Jeroen ten Berge,
and my new one, LAWYERS GUNS AND MONEY, goes live on Amazon and Smashwords today.
After this, the backlist will be going up, starting with the book that began it all, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND.
Hey, if that fails, I can always go the Snooki route.
Yup. I'm, er, totally on the same page with you on this one. Still marketing to trad pubs, but also doing the e-pub thing as well. As the late Robert B. Parker was known to write: "We'd be fools not to."
Ah, Dusty. This is thought-provoking and beautifully written. Thank you.
I couldn't find a tradition publisher and now have two thrillers up on Kindle and Nook. Not many sales yet, but its only been a couple of months.
eBooks are opening some doors that were closed before. Good on you J.D.
"So, I'm not turning my back entirely on traditional publishing. I'll keep submitting, and I'll never stop browsing the bookstores (or trying to get my work into them).
But in the meantime, I'm diversifying. I've repackaged my e-pubbed novel STORM SURGE with a snazzy new cover, by new Zealand artist Jeroen ten Berge, "
And, as a reader, I'm pretty much doing the same thing, J.D. (except for submitting, of course). I'll never stop browsing the bookstores and browsing usually means buying. But at the same time, I'm loading books ( a lot of books) onto my iPad. New books by writers I've yet to try – Old books by writers I love. I've learned that, for me, these options complement one another. They, in no way, restrict me to one form of reading over the other. I too will always need to feel a "tree book" in my hands and lovingly stroke its pages. But I've grown to love all the pluses of the electronic book also.
I'm thinking when it's time for me to move into the old folks' home, they may not let me bring all my hard backs and pape backs, but surely they'll let me bring my iPad loaded with enough books to keep me reading till I move on to that great library in the sky.
I'm right there with you – and I love the Storm Surge cover! I hope you'll keep writing about how this is going for you. I'm not breaking sales records but since November each month has brought bigger sales numbers and last week my middle grade magical pony book one of a series actually hit #8 in its Kindle category and #41 in its category overall on Amazon.
I'm still working on getting all my completed titles up so have not even begun to do "real" marketing – but the one thing I can say is that last year I was waiting (on agents, editors, and the entire business) and this year I am selling, getting emails from readers who loved the books, and starting to get reviews, offers to guest on radio shows, offers to be interviewed, etc.
While this path is not for everyone, for someone like me, who detests waiting on someone else to make decisions about my work, being the responsible party for making things happen and actually SEEING RESULTS is truly wonderful.
Much rather be in a store, but published with an audience is published with an audience. I won't turn my nose up at it.
Love that Storm Surge cover. How did that come about?
If my darkest YA in the history of YA really is too dark to publish, I am extremely glad that e books are an option. Seems like YA is not the best genre for e books, though… teens seem to want book books.
J.D., You eloquently expressed what I've been struggling with for the past year+.
At the beginning of that year, I hadn't considered putting up original fiction — just getting my Sasha books up and starting to learn the ropes a little — but then my paranormal mystery manuscript got wonderful rejections because people didn't think mystery readers wanted a protag who could communicate with nonhumans.
So I'm looking at putting the book up electronically instead. Like incredible Kris, I want readers. . . and I want to make some money off of my writing too.
It's a brave new world, isn't it?
I'm doing the same thing, and WOW, those covers are gorgeous, especially Storm Surge. I wish you all the best!
Mark: "We'd be fools not to"
Exactly. I mean, why not? What's the worst that could happen?
Cornelia, Steve, Chryse: thanks!
"I'm thinking when it's time for me to move into the old folks' home, they may not let me bring all my hard backs and pape backs, but surely they'll let me bring my iPad loaded with enough books to keep me reading till I move on to that great library in the sky."
Kaye, may that day be far, far in the future.
And I'm thinking, if they don't let me bring my books, I ain't going.
Beautiful new cover, JD.
I'm kind of on the outside looking in…watching the world change. I'm moving so slowly on my current WIP and I'm just focusing on writing the very best book I can. When it's done I'll worry about how or where to sell it. Question – if everything ultimately goes to ebooks – if this is the best place for authors to sell and make money, then what role does the agent play in this? Do we have or want representation anymore? Do they just handle foreign rights and film rights? How do their roles change?
What I'd like to know, J.D., is how are traditional publishers reacting when the books which they have "wonderfully rejected" later find success as e-books.
Is it the case now that a sales force, and not an editorial team, decides what gets published?
You'll be heartened to know that Snooki's book actually bombed. According to 411mania.com, it sold just under 9,000 copies, although it did better than The Situation's book. (Of course, I'd love to sell 9,000 copies of either of my books that are out there, but that's not the point.) I'm seeing a lot of my friends who were mid-list authors at big houses, watching their careers sputter along at the whim of the sales force, get fed up and release their backlist using Createspace and e-book formats, and suddenly start making enough MONTHLY money to pay their bills. Then they sit around asking themselves why they're still with the big house at all.
It's an exciting and scary time to be a writer, and the rules are changing every day. BTW, I love your covers.
"Love that Storm Surge cover. How did that come about?"
Blake Crouch mentioned Jeroen on Joe Konrath's blog. I conacted him, he read Storm Surge, sent me a proposed cover, and voila! The guy's very talented and understands branding.
As for YA and e-books…having seen a sixteen year old lose her phone four times in one day, I can sort of see why people would be reluctant to get their YA a Kindle or an IPad.
"my paranormal mystery manuscript got wonderful rejections because people didn't think mystery readers wanted a protag who could communicate with nonhumans."
Pari, my response now to those "this is really good but not right for the market" rejections has become "let's let the market decide."
Stephen, I don't know what the role of the agent is in this, since we're going straight to the market. I worry about it, because some of my best friends are agents.
"What I'd like to know, J.D., is how are traditional publishers reacting when the books which they have "wonderfully rejected" later find success as e-books."
I hope I find out 🙂
"Is it the case now that a sales force, and not an editorial team, decides what gets published?"
I know they have a say. How much depends on the individual publisher. I sure would like to kow exactly who it was that decided that "people won't buy a mystery set in a small town" the day John Hart's THE LAST CHILD (a mystery set in a small town) was on the NYT bestseller list.
I am curious about clauses in existing contracts, with regards to self publishing books that have been traditionally published. Aren't there clauses in place to protect the publisher and is it difficult for an author to regain rights? What about current contracts now that e-pub. is so common??
Going now to check out all the links. Thanks for such an informative post!
Debbie, I got the rights to my backlist back (in accordance with my contracts) before I considered doing this. My contracts were somewhat older–one dates back to the dark ages of 2005!
I understand new ones are a little more sticky on the subject of e-book rights, which is why some established authors are rejecting them.
You make your case eloquently, JD, and I thank you.
Sadly, I'm seeing myself being on the market for a new job in the next year or so, although we at Seattle Mystery Bookshop are still hanging in there, fighting the good fight and doing our best. But, if it's cheaper for people to buy e-books — and it is–that means realisitically the only hardbacks we can sell are those that are signed, but since there's no money to tour authors and it's cost-prohibitive to send books away to be signed, that's going to be a diminishing market too. Well, except for Barbara Peters, bless her, who's a beacon of light in these troubled times.
Printed books will never completely go away, but this is a turn of events a lot of us little stores won't be able to withstand. It's sad, but it's true.
And even just selling ebooks through our website isn't enough. I've broken down the costs, as I understand them, on one of our shop blog entries, but I've been watching a sister indie, Fremont Books, and they've been selling ebooks on their website, and they're closing their doors forever on Sunday. We can't compete with the Big Boys.
These are interesting times, and I'd be thrilled to see how it all plays out if I wasn't so concerned about my livelihood, y'know?
I know, Fran, and I hate to see it, too. I've been wracking my own brains for ideas of how to compete with fast cheap and convenient, and I don't even own a bookstore.
I did see one article about a bookstore that was getting people in by giving away free chocolate….
Gorgeous, darling. Just stunning! I hope they sell like mad. And thank you for the very thoughtful post.
Loved your post and the new cover for your book. I heard a rumour I might be getting a Kindle for my b'day and will search for your work. E-books provides an alternative to the traditional route and it can be, for some, an exciting, $$$, alternative. I'm waiting on response to a requested full and if it's a turn down, I'm thinking of taking the plunge – under a pseundoynm – don't want to ruin by reputation before I get one.
Great analysis, JD. I've been looking for a good post about Borders to link to from my blog. Now I've found it 🙂
Great post, JD. And Mark Evans' article on Borders' demise was incisive and thought-provoking. I would recommend that everyone who read your post and skipped over the link to Evans' article go back and check it out. It's well worth it.
Yes, self-publishing is here to stay. Minus the stigma that New York is still trying to attach to it. You mentioned Amanda Hocking and the fact that she sold 99,000 novels in December with an array of titles. Victorine Lieske has only ONE novel, selling for 99 cents, and it hit 21,000 sales in December. There are literally dozens of these wild success stories in the world of self-publishing.
We stand on the cusp of history.
The problems at Borders is less about print books than it is about brick and mortar retail.
You can still buy print at Amazon. This is more about how we shop rather than the format we pick to read.
I am a Kindle fan, but I don't see print disappearing. I see POD coming to save print. Imagine a small local bookstore run by knowledgeable readers. Imagine having a selection to rival Amazon and Google. Imagine touch a button, download a e-book or audio/enhanced, or print book and walk out of your local store in minutes.
Now will Borders or B&N do that? There are only so many book fans to work at bookstores, certainly not enough to staff the number of stores a chain has. But who knows?
Michael, we are knowledgeable at our shop, and friendly and frankly, pushers of mysteries. We love our job, we love the books, we love the authors.
I'm trying to get us into the ebook section of things, but it's not cost effective for us. Would that it were, and perhaps soon it will be. It's a loss leader, and maybe that's how we'll have to approach it, but that may mean letting a staff member go. It's a tough decision. Losing people or losing sales? It looks easy and straightforward when I type it out, but in reality, face to face, it's anything but.
And I know that we can't afford the $10,000 necessary to have an Espresso Book machine. Well, and we don't have the space.
But there are a few indies who can make this work, and more power to them. I was sorry to hear that Powells is letting folks go, though, because if they're being hit by this, we smaller shops are in deep trouble.
Holy shit, JD, that STORM SURGE cover is completely badassesq! Jeroen ten Berge is brilliant. I know you know that I can't do regular books (as they say in Boston) anymore, but I love the atmosphere and activity of bookstores. I love author readings. Bookstores are not so fussy prissy as libraries, although I am a stacks rat by nature. Kendall and I went to B&N yesterday, even the cafe was practically empty, for B&N that is. It worries me.
Fran, I think a staff like yours is the most important part any bookstore can have to survive. Chains are too big to offer that type of service in all their stores. Look at what still survives in the music brick and mortar stores, all knowledgeable local stores without a major chain in sight.
As for the POD machine. Remember when Kindles cost too much? Prices will go down. When that happens, and you end problems with returns and inventory costs, maybe you can hire some of us to come work for you.
JD, both those covers are kickass awesome! I read STORM SURGE several months ago and loved it. Your description of hurricane conditions made me feel ill for days (I'm kind of traumatized by the whole concept of hurricanes after living in south FL during Andrew). Excellent read.
And yeah, I've been drinking the Kool-aid over at Konrath's blog too. Reports are Hocking sold 450,000 in January at various prices. Mind boggling. I've heard reports from many writers of slow sales in the early months, but haven't heard very many who say sales over time did anything other than go up.
I have no issues with traditional publishing. I love traditional publishers. As a reader, they've given me all the books I love dearly. But as a writer, I'm constantly being told by other writers that once you've written the book, everything else is a business. That you have to put away your emotions and handle it with clear eyed unemotional business sense. I've never queried an agent or a publisher. [Well, I pitched to an agent once because she was there (here) and it seemed the thing to do, but I came to my senses, realized the book wasn't anywhere near ready and never sent the partial.] So I have no history of trying and meeting with frustration. And I am very seriously considering self-publishing, not as a last resort but as my first choice.
Sure, I have that irrational hope of one day being a NYT Bestselling Author. What writer doesn't? But that's emotion. And even that goal doesn't mean to me the same thing it did even a year ago. Not after seeing who is on it lately and who is not. I'd also like to make a living writing fiction. But between low advances and low print runs for debut authors, neither of those are realistic.
Being published by the Bix 6 doesn't even mean what it did a year ago. My naive little self used to think it meant you were good enough [see post above]. I was completely floored to hear a month or so ago that S&S (I think) signed a six book deal with Bob Dylan. I've blocked the dollar amount from my memory, it was too traumatic. But SIX BOOKS?! Fuck me. I'm sorry, I can't think of any celebrity from whom I'd read more than one. What are they thinking?
So yeah, without even trying to see whether NY thinks they can make money off me, because unemotional business sense tells me that's what it means to be traditionally published, I'm 95% convinced I'm going to do it myself. Apparently I'm going to have to do the marketing on my own, either way. If I'm "good enough" to make money for someone else, why shouldn't I make it for myself instead? And if I'm not good enough, no loss. Let the readers decide. They're the reason I'm writing. They're the reason I'm going to make damn sure anything I produce is worthy of their reading time and hard earned dollars. Because they're the ones whose opinion matters to me.
I imagine some of you reading this are shaking your heads sadly over what a mistake I'm about to make, but logically, after gathering all the facts to which I have access, I don't think any other choice makes good business sense. Next step is to find a good professional editor. Honestly? The independent little control freak inside me is actually pretty excited about this whole DIY concept. Okay, maybe a little terrified. But mostly excited.
I'm echoing everyone else here – those covers are wonderful.
A very thought-provoking post. I've only just discovered that three of my Charlie Fox series are now available for Kindle, so I'm very interested to see what happens.
Oh, and who the hell is Snooki whatsherface?
Zoë, yeah. Still struggling with the first, slow-going when I can't hold it up. I have the others ready on my iPad. Much easier to use, that.
Nice article, Dusty! Glad to hear you had pre 2005 contracts and were able to get those back. My two books which SMP still has – ABANDON and SNOWBOUND – are costing me thousands every month. I hope to get those back in the next year. I think once you get your backlist up there with some hot new covers, you're going to really take off. The more shelf space you occupy the better.