Mark Terry

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Little Mr. Sunshine

December 4, 2008
I know that I don't often look on the bright side of the publishing industry or writing for a living. Although I'm aware you need to stay optimistic and realistic at the same time, it's a tough biz and I can't see any reason to ignore that fact when writing about it.

Anyway, I'm sure most of you have heard some of the gloom and doom coming out of the publishing industry. If not, let me summarize:

--Houghton Mifflin Harcourt froze their lists, saying they won't pick up any additional books for a while. VP/Publisher Becky Saletan resigns as a result, and a number of people are fired.

--Nelson: laid off 54 people

--Simon & Schuster: S&S Children's President Rick Richter resigns, plus there are 35 job cuts

--Penguin: freezes salaries

--HarperCollins: delays raises

--Random House: hell, they're totally restructuring, so expect layoffs

--MacMillin: layoffs are rumored

Anyway, there's more and not much of it is good.

First, let me express my condolences to the people who WORK for these companies and are now out of a job. It sucks to be you. Good luck.

Second, we're just writers, we're the LUCKY ones, we can't get laid off. Our contracts can get cancelled, etc., but nobody's really firing us. I said, today, we look on the bright side. 

Third, although this will probably make getting a book published harder in 2009 (or acquired, to be more accurate), I don't think this will be terminal. It may last a year or two, but bookstores big and small need product, and I think there's still a thirst and need for books. Maybe that's an unexpected optimistic streak for me.

Fourth, I think authors like myself are screwed, because in troubled times most publishers aren't going to gamble on people whose sales never took off. But I think authors whose sales have shown increases, authors who sell a decent number of books, even if their sales are a little flat, and authors who sell a lot of books, are going to be more important to publishers than ever before. As for yet unpublished authors, I'm not sure this makes a bit of difference to you one way or the other. The odds sucked before and they suck now and I don't believe "the odds suck" is ranked on a scale of 1 to 10.

Fifth, for unagented authors, now's the time, folks. I could be wrong about this, but frankly, if I were an agent facing a publishing industry that's contracting, I wouldn't cut back on the number of authors I took on--I would increase them. I would market novels and nonfiction books until I couldn't think of any more markets to go to. It's a numbers game, but sometimes agent will stop marketing early if they sense the way the wind is blowing. If I were an agent, in times like this, I would just say, "I've got to make some sales or I might as well go work for the NYC Transit Authority, so I'm going to market the hell out of my clients." I would be reading a LOT of manuscripts, more than usual.

Sixth, and this is kind of important: don't freak out about things you have no control over. The only thing you can do about this is write the best book you have in you to write, market aggressively, sacrifice a couple virgins to the publishing gods (if you can find any), and wait.

Oh yeah, and buy books. Lots of them.

Which makes me think: this is so typical of industry. When the going gets tough, cut back. Because it's easier to do that than to try and sell more books.

So publishers, should you actually be reading this blog, here's my MODEST PROPOSAL TO SALVAGE THE SEASON.

Go to your top selling authors: Your Stephen King, Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Dan Brown, et al, and tell them, "We're sending you out on a multi-city tour. You're not only going to promote your books, but we're going to hand you copies of ten authors by our publishing houses--that you pick--and wherever you go, you're to plug the hell out of them as well. The industry depends on you, it's been good to you, so please, help us out. It's a win-win situation."

I'm just sayin'.

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I disagree about the agents, Mark. I think the good ones will be tightening as well. I don't think sales usually come from a shotgun approach, but rather from targeting the right manuscript to the right editor. What exists, then, is a direct correlation between the acquisition rate of editors and the discernment of agents. Fewer acquisitions by editors=fewer clients signed by agents.

So it's going to be tough all over for awhile. But, the acquisitions editors should be thinking about what the economy will be like in mid 2010 and 2011, when current acquisitions will be released. Odds are the economy will be much better by then. It's a gamble, but publishing always is.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't know, Jude. They're paid on commission. I even expect known clients to have to be fighting for decent advances. Publishers know they can't jerk their big clients around too much in that respect, because they'll go elsewhere, but I expect publishers to really be looking hard at their upfront costs for a while, so a writers that was typically getting a $100,000 advance might be getting $90,000. That's going to trickle down in a negative way and agents are either going to market like crazy or, and I didn't touch on this, put a lot of emphasis on subsidiary rights--foreign sales, audio, etc. I think it's safe to say you're going to see a lot of e-publishing going on.

And yes, if the publishing industry goes into a holding pattern for acquisitions, they're going to really be in trouble in 2010 and 2011, so I do expect some publishers to really be thinking long-term.

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think that for unpublished or not fantastically well published writers this all makes very little difference because, as you say, it was already so hard that a little harder is barely noticeable. Like, instead of five lottery tickets you have four. It's not really a reason not to write, but just another reason not to count of making much money from publishing fiction.

I don't know if Dan Brown would be wanted. I read his delay in finishing his next big book is largely responsible for killing off -- what was his publisher -- Doubleday? -- which is being folded into another line.

Maybe publishers will cut back on ridiculous, all but impossible to recoup, advances for celebrities and totally unknown beginners. Naw, probably not...

8:07 AM  
Blogger Kath Calarco said...

Love your optimism. Too bad the Big Three auto-makers didn't think like you, but don't get me started...

Since publishers are hanging on to their moneymakers, I like to think that in a few years readers are going to want something new. That's when I'm going to strike. And I agree with your thoughts on agents. They have to keep working it because what they're presenting to editors today will be what's published in a couple of years (I'm guessing).

I just read a piece in today's paper about ABC Daytime. They've cut the salaries of their more mature stars. (Susan Lucci is no longer making over a million a year.) What I find refreshing is that the actors want to work and will take the pay cut to keep their job'; the network realizes that the mature talent keeps viewers, so better to have ratings, etc.

I wonder if the big name authors took a cut in royalties? hmmm...

Uplifting blog, Mark.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said...

Thanks for the rays of sunshine. Much appreciated in the midst of the doom and gloom of what's been written in most of the media. Though today's Publisher's Lunch Deluxe reports some good news including the fact they have 90 book deals in the last three days.

9:08 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I definitely think these times are the best times to be self-employed, because you can scrounge up work. It may not be as plentiful or as high-paying, but you have more flexibility, I think. We can also adapt, change, diversify, etc.

A new market for my tiny niche just opened up, which made me feel a lot better. That's another thing: searching for new gigs is comforting when things are tight. Having your hands in lots of pies feels more secure than having only one pie.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

As for yet unpublished authors, I'm not sure this makes a bit of difference to you one way or the other. The odds sucked before and they suck now and I don't believe "the odds suck" is ranked on a scale of 1 to 10.

bwahahahaha. True.

I got your Derek Stillwater books for my Dad, they should be here soon.

Also I think the idea of famous writers pluggings new writers to help them get going is a FANTASTIC idea. Maybe you need to be employed at a major publishing house.

11:25 AM  
OpenID marciacolette said...

Interesting take on publishing part of the economy. Oh, and you can blame Kathy for steering me over here. ;-)

I worry for authors who have books coming out in the next six months. Those are the ones who are really going to feel the pinch because people are just now scrounging around to cut costs wherever they can. The only good thing about it is it can't last forever.

A year from now is a different story. Everyone will come back and reevaluate because they will have a better grip on their company's situation. Any books coming out 2010+ will stand better chance in the market than they do now. Interestingly enough, that'll probably jumpstart editors into buying again...which is also why I'm not slacking on my Great Agent Hunt.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Joe Barone said...

I think my part in all this is just to keep on buying books. We've taken a hit, but not as big a hit as most others. So it is books for Christmas including some books from writers I learned about in blogs like this.

6:00 AM  
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5:47 PM  

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