Friday, January 15, 2010

Authoring in the New Decade (Or, Editorial Ass Gazes into Her Crystal Ball)

By Moonrat, guest blogger

So, to be totally honest, I’ve never actually had a talent for clairvoyance. Unless you count that time I predicted I would eat too much at the sushi buffet—that uncanny prediction definitely came true.

However, now is the Era of Many Changes in publishing. The people have many questions, and the people deserve answers. This isn’t to say I necessarily have them, or am qualified to give them, but I can do at least as well as Madam Rosmerta. So step forward, my child, and ask!

I heard printed book publishing only has five years to live. Is this true? Will ebooks kill books?

No. Trust me. People who like ebooks will read ebooks. They’re an extra market and have little to nothing to do with actual book publishing. They don’t even affect book revenue—people who say ebooks cut into hard copy sales are disregarding the fact that you make a lot more money straight to the bottom line on an ebook than on a paper book; ebooks pay for themselves.

Books will always be printed. Ebooks will be an extra thing you can have if you want. Nothing else is going to change. No market is compromised. This is the giant red herring of book publishing—freaking out about ebooks instead of working on the things that actually need fixing. Don’t listen to them; they’re all silly.

If you’re so sure books are never going to die, how will publishers survive this difficult time that seems to have them all running bankrupt?

Well, the sad truth is that the industry is based on cash-flow publishing—basically printing books, selling them, and giving the money back when they get returned, but hoping that next month’s books will cover the gap. It’s a kind of stupid system, one that encourages publishing too many books and publishing them too quickly.

So eventually, the system is going to break down, and a lot fewer books are going to be published. The only fiction published will be big-bomb NYT bestseller candidates, and literary projects that have some kind of cult following. All the middle titles—the ones that aren’t quite popular enough or high enough quality—will drop away. A lot less money will be made in general, but the money made will be real money—on books that sell to consumers, not books we sell to retailers who sell them back to us. Bookstores will carry fewer books, and books will print fewer copies. Authors and agents will make less money. Publishers will make less money, and so lots of people will lose their jobs—particularly in editorial.

It will be sad that people lose their jobs, yes, but what won’t be sad is the higher standard of excellence publishers and authors will have to hold themselves to in order to secure a successful publication. In our cash-flow world, quality has been the first thing we’ve sacrificed. We’re currently witnessing the end of an era that will have produced a disproportionately small number of immortal writers, because their books were rushed out for the sake of numbers alone.

Wait, are you saying it’s going to be even harder to get published in the future?

Uh, yeah, I guess I am. But let that be a challenge to you. Think of it this way—if you secure publication in the future, you’re even more worthy and special than the people who have secured it in the recent past. You jumped through flaming hoops they never even had to imagine.

So what the heck is the point of writing, then?

Because you love it. That should have been the only point, ever. If you’re only writing for glory and recognition instead of for personal growth and refinement, consider taking up another hobby. Perhaps table tennis.

Do you have faith everything’s going to work out?

Yes, blind, unconditional faith. There will always be books; there will always be people who love to read; there will always be people who love to write. And there will always be overlap among those groups. I’m here for love; I hope you’re here for love, too. I’m not afraid; things will work out the way they’re meant to. And in the meantime, I’m going to work as hard as I can toward my goals. I hope you are, too!

Moonrat, or “Editorial Ass,” is an anonymous book editor, diehard sushi fanatic, and incurable book addict. She works for a small press in New York and blogs at about her hapless exploits in publishing and life.


  1. Scary and comforting at the same time. I hate to see the midlist go, though. I almost never read bestsellers.

  2. Is it possible for a message to be both bleak yet hopeful at the same time? Thanks for sharing your opinions and insight Moonrat.

  3. They've been predicting the death of the midlist for decades now. So much so, I thought it was already gone. :)

  4. So what the heck is the point of writing, then?

    Because you love it. That should have been the only point, ever. If you’re only writing for glory and recognition instead of for personal growth and refinement, consider taking up another hobby. Perhaps table tennis.

    This is why I love you, Moonie. Doesn't matter how bleak some of the picture might seem - this cuts right through to the heart of it.

  5. Moon Rat -Thank you for this. The flaming hoops boggle my mind already but, I think, this transition is already starting to occur. Kind of. Nice to hear someone "in the biz" talk about the sacrifice of quality that's been made in the industry (generally- I don't mean to imply that is an absolute, for it isn't).

    What about the agent/publisher model? Any chance we'll wind up going back to the days where authors could submit directly to publishing houses? I mean- since you have your crystal ball already out and everything.. ;)

  6. Charles--don't worry, "midlist" in terms of "I'm an awesome book, but have a limited cult following" will survive. "Midlist" in terms of "I'm a pretty good book but not quite so great that I ever got that much attention" will be a different story.

    Pamala--that's honestly how I feel everyday at work. I'm afraid of change, like most humans I think, but I'm excited to be part of it.

    Kathy--yeah, Madame Rosmerta beat me there after all, sigh. (And it's not gone. So maybe we're both wrong!)

    Merry--my pleasure. I must warn you, though, I am a VERY poor table tennis player.

    Kimberly--sadly, I think agents are going to be the ones who lose the most in the change/restructure. (I say sadly because I have so many lovely smart talented agent friends, and I know there are many more I haven't met, and I hate to think about the changes they're going to have to make to stay afloat.) My quick prediction there is that "midlist" agents are going to disappear, too. There are going to be the old steady conglomerates--William Morris, ICM, Wylie, etc etc etc--and the cult boutiques--Marley Russoff, Mary Evans, etc etc--who have such solid backlists that they don't need new product sales and can just dabble in pitching when they're interested. But a lot of the agents who survive hand-to-mouth on making new sales will be severely affected by the sharp drop of author advances, and will have to restrategize or spiral. (Again, my thoughts only.)

  7. This is a great post, and it's wonderful to hear someone in the publishing industry say something other than, "THE SKY IS FALLING."

    Although, I do know y'all only do it because your profit margins are so slim. It's a scary business made all the scarier by being one you honestly love.

  8. Good post, Moonrat. People keep comparing publishing to the music business. Do you see it that way?

    I also wonder if the Kindle et al are just a great big fat fad. I know a lot of them were bought for Christmas, etc., but wait and see how many are using them six months from now.

  9. Thanks for the post. I do feel a bit sad, too, about the midlist, because I don't always like the best sellers. As readers, what will be our other option if we skip the book table at Costco? I'm afraid we'll be buying self-published books on Amazon in an attempt to fill the gap and end up with stacks of unedited trash with ugly covers. Please, say it ain't so, Moonie!

  10. Wow, popped over here from Moonrat's site to say Hi. As always, not entirely sure that I agree with *everything* Moonrat says, but she says it well!!

    I've noticed a couple of midlist writers with backlist appearing on Kindle (they owned ebooks rights and worked to get them on Kindle.) So maybe there will be a place for midlist authors in the bright new world. Maybe a niche publishing spot or a place to go if they get dropped by their publisher?


  11. A future with only blockbuster titles? I thought we were already there...

  12. Good post...

    ...I'm just not entirely sure I agree about the print/ebook thing. I just read somewhere (so sorry, I can't find the link) that a v. recent survey indicates 20% of Kindle users are already abandoning print purchase. (I could have some of the fine details wrong but the gist is, I think, correct.)

    I know I have. Since I got my Kindle a year ago, I've bought only 3 paper books--the last was an academic title not available digitally. I've bought a hundred or so novels for Kindle. My preference for digital fiction--long form immersive reading--over print is growing more marked, not less.

  13. hi guys! sorry i ran out of time to check comments this afternoon, but i'm back now. i'll go in reverse order, because it's easier to keep track of.

    Nicola--yes, I totally believe that 20% of ereaders are total converts. You don't need any evidence to convince me--I know enough people who fall into that category to believe you blindly. But "losing" those hard-copy readers won't significantly hurt the number of print copies sold, and even if the numbers do eventually go way, way up, the cash we make on ebooks without having to worry about things like paper, postage etc will still CONTRIBUTE to the bottom line of paper books, not HURT it.

    I don't want it to sound like ebooks don't cost money to produce--they do, what with copyediting and typesetting as only two of several inalienable basics. But if a print version of the book exists, they really do help margins.

  14. Lexy--alas, I think it might get worse. Well, I think the airport bookstore is going to become the norm. Of course, The Kite Runner was an airport book, and it's awesome. So, you know.

  15. re: those who mourn the midlist: DON'T. good books will go on--and good books that don't sell well will go on (like Celine Dion's heart). i just think that acquisitions will be held to higher standards of either commercial viability or literary merit. there will be both kinds of books. the "midlist" i speak of are books you've never read, because publishers only put them out to fill in slots, and then they got no review coverage because they weren't worthy (maybe because they weren't ready).

    there are tons of these sad books. toooonns.

    i'm glad you guys are worried about good books that aren't bestsellers--working at a small press, as i do, those are the only kinds of books i publish!

  16. Becky--yeah, that keeps coming up, and my answer is that I know NOTHING about music. Ha. I don't even own a music playing device or a CD or anything. You can ask any of my coworkers; I just hum to myself all day long, usually little ditties that other people find really annoying and redundant.

    So... sorry to be of zero help.

    JJ--thanks, buddy :)

  17. Hi moonie I'm here for love too. So far writing is the only relationship I've had that's endured.

    I worry about the security of ebooks. Piracy will be an ongoing problem and I'd like to see authors protected. A published ebook will cost less to produce, and the profit margin will be greater. Everyone has to benefit.

    Love your work, Simon.

  18. Yay! Thanks Moonrat. Your words are balm to my anguished heart. I think, as a reader, I trust the publishing industry to be my watchdog, to keep the bad books out, so it's nice to know it'll probably be even better at that job in the future.

  19. I hope they'll keep more bad books out and better writers in.. crossing fingers.

  20. I admit, you almost made me cry. BUT I smiled by the end. :)


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