Spec Fic Publishing: Pitfalls and Opportunities

Recently, I reviewed the special reissue of Dragoncharm. In his forward to the novel, author Graham Edwards explained that it had originally been published by HarperCollins’ Voyager Imprint, but the publishing company eventually took it out of print. The new version was published by Edwards himself.

Over the years, I have heard similar stories. About four years ago, I attended a reading by an internationally well known fantasy author. We got to talking before the reading started, and he mentioned that once his three book deal with Penguin (not exactly a small press!) was fulfilled, he would only ever self-publish his own books.

More recently, I was talking to an internationally well known science fiction writer who told me that his most recent novel would probably be his last. This was partially due to the fact that he had written many books and he wasn’t sure he had the inspiration to write any more. He made a point of also mentioning, though, that his publisher had recently merged with another publisher, most of the people he had worked with had either left the new organization or had been fired, and he was not happy with the way his relationships with the new staff were going.

What the hell is going on?

Corporate conglomeratization, friends. That’s what the hell is going on. And it has been going on for a long, long time.

The quintessential horizontally integrated entertainment conglomerate. The publishing companies feed stories to the film companies (or publish adaptations of film properties), which are promoted on TV and radio, and in magazines.

To be considered successful, corporations have to grow on an annual basis. There are only a small number of ways they can do this. Opening up new markets so that they can sell more products is one. But that takes a lot of investment and is, at best, highly risky. Another way is to take over or merge with another company; this allows you to save money by cutting redundant staff, increasing the profit of larger merged corporate entity.

This process has been going on in the entertainment industry for decades. Medium sized companies took over small companies. Large companies took over medium sized companies. Then, large companies started merging with each other. Most major publishing houses – the ones that publish books that are stocked at bookstores and are reviewed in major publications – are now a part of huge, transnational, horizontally integrated corporations. (Horizontal integration means that the companies own properties in a large number of fields: publishing houses and movie studios and television networks and newspapers and magazines, oh, my!) These corporations are constantly squeezing their constituent parts to wring as much profit out of them as they can.

In publishing, the first layer of employees to go were the editors. It is embarrassing how many simple spelling and grammatical errors can now be found in mainstream books (which gives the lie, by the way, to the argument that they are better edited than self-published books). The science fiction author I mentioned above may have  came across a variation of this problem: inexperienced editors were cheaper to keep on the payroll than experienced ones.

The second layer to be let go were mid-list authors, those who made a steady but not spectacular income for their publisher (and, of course, themselves). The fantasy author I mentioned above was one of them. He explained to me that where publishers used to support their authors with promotion (such as arranging and paying for book tours), now, they weren’t willing to put up the money. What was the point, he asked, of allowing a publisher to take so much of the profit on the sales of his books if the author had to do most of his own promotion? He figured he might not sell as many self-published books, but the profit would be all his.

The good news is that current publishing technology gives authors a lot more options than they used to have. As with Edwards and the  unnamed fantasy author, self-publishing is now viable. If you have already built an audience in traditional publishing, there is a good chance you will be able to capitalize on that to make a living by publishing books yourself.

Print on demand (POD) has made it possible for a lot of smaller publishing houses to arise. Traditionally, a publisher had to print a substantial number of copies of a book and hope they sold in book stores; the amount of money they needed to put up before a single book was sold was substantial, making it prohibitive to start publishing houses. Now, although bookstores are still wary of listing such books, POD makes it possible to start publishing houses with a relatively modest investment. (The publisher of my novels, Elsewhen Press, has taken this route.)

POD also makes it possible to keep books in print longer. When you had to publish large print runs, you had to store the copies that went unsold, so they kept costing you money. It was cheaper in the long run to mulch books that were not immediate bestsellers. Because POD gets rid of this cost, publishers can keep books in print, allowing them time to find an audience.

It’s a strange time to be an author: the usual paths to finding an audience have become greatly constricted, but new paths (admittedly requiring new skills) have emerged. Given the explosion of new work, thought it is a great time to be an adventurous reader.

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