Friday, January 09, 2009

Cheer Up, Brian

"You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing. What have you lost?" Nothing!"--Life of Brian.

The economy is in free-fall. And what does this mean for writers? 

According to PRLOG.ORG:" Net sales of books in April fell 3.5 percent to $472.7 million, based on data from 79 publishers as reported to the Association of American Publishers." This is from 2007. A more recent release directly from the AAP website cited that books sold in October alone of this year decreased by 20.1 percent at $644.5 million and were down by 3.4 percent for the year.

These sorts of statistics have shaken the publishing houses large and small. According to the New York Times:  Random House is undergoing a major reorganization.  In October of last year Doubleday laid off ten percent of its staff.

According to an article in Salon: "Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher [ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt](actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees. Layoffs were also announced at Simon & Schuster, Thomas Nelson, and Macmillan.

Magazines? With advertising dropping ten percent and with the internet drawing away from the printed word, seems look grim. Media Life recently had an ominous article on what 2009 holds for the industry.

Meredith, publisher of thirteen magazines such as "Ladies Home Journal" and "Better Homes and Gardens", has perhaps given us a preview, reporting a 44 percent drop in net income for the quarter ending Sept. 30 from the same period a year earlier. It dismissed seven percent of its workforce and began downsizing.  

Depressed yet? What does this mean to people seeking publishing? Do we stand a chance?

I think the answer is "Yes."  Well, sort of.

With so many of the big houses having so much to lose as they invest in marketing larger titles and committing to broader distribution, I think small presses have an edge in some ways.  The returns for some of these companies may not be as large, but neither are the risks. And small presses are able to work with writers that the big houses necessarily pass on.

With so much advertising revenue moving to the web, so too have the magazines. People will argue that no one wants to sit at a computer and read. Yet look at the sales of Amazon's Kindle. Ebooks have exploded. Electronic books mean virtually no investment in maintaining an inventory and distribution is as simple as clicking a download from a server.  

A "must read" article from The Independent suggests that instead of despairing, aspiring writers should seek these times of economic darkness as an opportunity. Author Boyd Tonkin wrote: 

"Where could the silver lining lurk? Might the flight of big – or even middling – money from literary publishing prompt a quest for bolder choices and wider horizons from authors who know that their finely-finessed debut now stands no chance of reaching the Richard-and-Judy sofa or the Waterstone's front table? If slimmer cheques and smaller expectations force some novelists to give up altogether, surely they might inspire others to thumb their noses at a deep-frozen marketplace and go – as it were – for broke."

I think Tonkin is correct, at least in his view that for those who have imagination and creativity, there are rewarding avenues to follow to literary success. People should be exploring every avenue possible. For me, I'm continuing my current path of seeking publishing through small press and online magazines. Maybe I'll try something with podcasting and perhaps try to market something of my own through the net. 

Sit back and fret...and fail. This is the time to step up and be bold. This is when we writers need to change our paradigm and start seeking new avenues to finding our way into print, electronic or otherwise. Or into other medium altogether.

Let me close with a story I remember from a reading of Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"

Two battleships were at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather. The captain of the lead battleship was on watch as night fell. They were traveling through patchy fog that made visibility poor. Then, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “Light, bearing on the starboard bow.”

“Is it steady or moving astern?” the captain called out.

“Steady, Captain,” came the answer, confirming that they were on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.

The captain called to the signalman, “Signal that ship, tell them we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.”

“I’m a seaman second class,” came the reply, “You had better change course 20 degrees.”

The captain was furious. He spat out, “Send this message: I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.”

Back came the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.”

The battleship changed course.


spyscribbler said...

That story never fails to crack me up! :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm hoping that the publishing companies might be more willing to take some risks, which might help unknonwn writers.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Spy, I usually roll my eyes with these types of anecdotes. I had a boss who would recite them and claim them as her own experience. The worst of all was the starfish tale. Hate that. Still, this one well illustrates the idea of the necessity of paradigm shifts, especially in these times.

Charles, you can hope but you would be mistaken. These publishing company don't want to take risks and then have to answer to investors. The small presses are the way to go for many of us...and their risk is limited only because the size of their investment and their scope is limited. Getting published has been getting harder, and it's going to start getting more difficult. That's why we have to change our thinking and start being more creative.

Christina said...

I've been hearing about all the changes in the industry. It's good to see other's opinions on the matter.

Enemy of the Republic said...

Thank you for stopping by. I left a long winded reply which I don't think addressed all your points; maybe it just addressed my own in my head. It is good to see another blogger who cares about books and writing. It's a pleasure to "meet" you.

spyscribbler said...

I love your new header. :-)

My Blog 2.0 said...

I have heard there are major changes coming that have some of the tried and tested authors nervous, what can that mean for everyone else? I have also come across several articles online that said that ebooks are the new wave (but not as profitable for the authors), and as you pointed out, look at the sales for kindle. I hate to think that holding a book in my hands, smelling the ink on the pages, and feeling the weight of it will, may soon be lost. The upside is that ebooks publisher takes bigger chances on new authors. There is an online site @ that allows new authors to submit podcast for online readers. Look at Scott Sigler, he published his first book completely online in chapters, and now has Infected in hardcover and Contagious will soon be out.

Pythia3 said...

Hello and Happy New Year to you Stewart!
BTW I love your Hitchcockian profile avatar :)
Great post, too. I have heard some of these falling stats - but like Charles stated - maybe there's more room for new, fresh blood and flesh and guts (OK, sorry, you bring out the gruesomeness in me!)

Virginia Lady said...

I suspect that the tighter times may keep the less talented writers from getting published as easily. Well, at least I hope so, could be it will mean those that follow the 'established format' (whatever that may be) are the one more likely to get in print.

Either way it will probably mean a drop in author profits.

Virginia Lady said...

BTW, I love the house! Too cool.

SQT said...

Wow, love the header.

Interesting times for sure. I wonder if we'll see industry altering changes or if they can white-knuckle it long enough to go back to the old model-- I'm betting on change. I think it'll be good for industry newbies. Too many writers are already used to working a day job and just because they don't get the initial windfall probably won't change their drive to be a published author. We could actually see some improvement in the quality of mainstream fiction. Well, we can hope.

Avery DeBow said...

Funny, I was researching the notion of tossing my novel into the postcasting waters just before I came here. It's starting to seem like giving away our babies for free is going to be the only way to get noticed. It sucks, but if one sacrificial lamb can open a door for me, I'll get the knife ready.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hey I know you no longer comment on my blog, but I thought I'd add my two cents to this discussion. Nothing beats the feel of a book. Reading means turning pages with your hands and not a mouse. On the other hand, the internet has provided a viable forum for writers to gain readership. I believe that's where it's at. Peace.

Stewart Sternberg said...

JR, MyBlog, SQT, Virginia Lady...I suppose one could argue for printed pages, and I love em..but I have already decided my next purchase is a Kindle. I love the idea of carrying around a library. And if the display is easy, intuitive and mimicks the printed page, I'm okay with that.

Avery, I like the idea of a podcast. I'm not sure its going to lead to anything, but there is still something satisfying about producing something and putting it out there.

Christina, the changes are there. Success is about recognizing changes and adapting to meet them

Take care Pythia. Hope things are going well for you.

Rick said...

Have you ever considered nationalizing the publishing industry? I was speaking with a friend at the National Writers Union who believes that fiction is so important that it should be broken free from private industry.

The problem, she said, was that just as private industry pollutes and destroys the environment, it does the same thing in a different way with the publishing industry. She argues that determine what should and should not be available to the public should not be at the mercy of capitalists who pander to the profit motive.

Further, we were at the time discussing the very issue you presented here, and she made this point: why is it that normally bold writers break can't see there way to break themselves free from the most confining paradigm of all- publishing for profit.

After our discussion, of course, I paid for dinner. She was, though, incredibly attractive.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I can't help but think the backswing of the economy will be publishers scrambling to chase new, exciting profits. Multi-book deals now are becoming scarce, but as with everything cyclical, they'll come back. The question is how do we wait it out? Really the only thing we can do is write each story better than the last.

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