Tuesday, May 25, 2010



YOU AND EVERYBODY ELSE! But let’s think about it a little bit first.


These are the steps of conventional publishing:

You write something terrific. At one time you would simply mail or hand-carry it to a “publisher” who seemed friendly to your topic and style. The publisher would put it on the “slush pile” and eventually read it -- or more likely someone paid to pre-read would do triage. The criteria is NOT “terrrificness” but rather “what will sell.” That generally becomes “what worked last time.” This publisher might think what will sell is quite different from what you think might sell. Today’s author must convince the publisher that their “terrific” manuscript will sell by suggesting who might buy it and what total sales might amount to. Some publishers explicitly ask for a marketing plan with the manuscript.

If you don’t have time or don’t know how to do this, you could hire an agent whose job would be to find and convince the right publisher. This means you have to find and convince the agent. These days they are likely to be women who have lost their jobs as editors with publishers who are cutting back (the costs of publishing are going up steeply) but have a great many contacts. They are even more dependent on those publishers than they were when they were on salary, so that’s where their loyalties lie -- not with the writer. Some publishers, maybe feeling a little guilty about firing these faithful women, will not buy directly from writers. You MUST have an agent.

After the book is accepted and if the manuscript is complete (it would be near impossible to sell an incomplete book), an editor will go over it with the idea of making it even more sale-able: shorter maybe (books now seem to be about 200 pages long); take out a few parts that are objectionable; re-organize; note parts that already exist in other books, maybe ask for new parts. Later there will be line-editing: grammar, punctuation, proper spelling, checking out footnotes to be sure they’re accurate.

There are parts that are not the body: foreword, acknowledgments, table of contents, maybe appendixes. Then there are permissions to get if you used pieces of someone else’s work. Illustrations might need to be commissioned. Photos go through processing to improve them.

These days the publisher increasingly expects a digital manuscript that needs little or no editorial intervention. The kind of rough genius that used to be admired and “brought along” by an editor, is now too expensive. And it takes time, which no one has.

Some former business conventions are in danger. An “advance” against profits, esp. the kind of huge amounts that the media promotes, are obsolete except for near-guaranteed best sellers. Instead there is profit-sharing as sales pan out. Keep in mind that the publisher may deduct any costs of doing business. The U of Calgary Press advanced me $200 so I could drive up to Calgary to speak to promote my book. That comes out of my theoretical profit. I have yet to receive a check that is payment for book sales. In the end I could have a negative balance.

In the past the publisher estimated what sales might be and ordered that many copies from the printer. These books had to be stored in a warehouse and physically shipped to stores. If a publisher overestimated the number of books that would sell, the author’s contract might allow them to buy the leftover copies at a discount to sell at readings or from home. I was surprised to hear how much of the publisher’s final profit depended on this “ego factor.”

Internet book sales by remainder houses have also helped to dispose of books. If the books are all sold, the book is “out of print” until the publisher orders a new printing. Runaway best sellers can go through a number of printings. The 20/80 rule from the point of view of the publisher is that 20% of the books published must pay for 80% of the costs of publishing all the rest. (20-80 is not actual numbers, but is meant to convey that a few books carry the business.) The trick is figuring out WHICH few are profit-makers and what to do about what are sometimes called “mid-list books,” carried in the catalogue as available but not hot sellers.

Before the Internet, books were bought mostly in bookstores, and distributors connected the publishers to the bookstores, sometimes as intermediary warehouses that might specialize. (There used to be a woman in my “dog-catching” area in Portland who specialized in locating Native American books and notifying bookstores of their existence.) Some distributors or presses hire reps who go physically to bookstores or markets like schools to urge the acquisition of certain books. Textbooks are major business. These on-the-ground reps hugely influence what will sell. In the Sixties when I was still teaching in the Browning Public Schools, one of them did a bit of recruiting and suggested I write a textbook for NA kids. I just didn’t have the skills or interest at the time. Such a thing is unheard-of now. Timing is a major part of the writing business.

Bookstores are conventionally allowed to return any books that don’t sell. Years ago Russell Chatham spoke at the Montana Festival of the Book and being the “forthright” person he is (my hero!), identified two major problems for publishers. One was having to keep a warehouse full of books, which were taxed as property. He solved this by not binding the books until they were ordered, arguing that they were only sheets of paper with writing until the binding was added. The other problem was the practice of returning books from the bookstore shelf. Chatham only published books he loved and believed in (usually by friends) and since he is a famous painter, made the value-added gift of painting something remarkable for the cover. When he got back the books that had been on the bookstore shelf, he often found that they were shopworn or that big dayglo “sale” stickers had been slapped onto them over the top of his subtle landscapes. They were now unsaleable.

The internet invention of the Long Tail, combined with Print on Demand, greatly improves the life of a publisher. The Long Tail means that some books will sell a few copies for many years, making up in longevity what they lack in volume and providing an outside chance that a book could “catch fire” and suddenly flare up in a burst of popularity and sales. Print on Demand is something like Chatham’s strategy of “bind on demand,” which still means he has to rent a warehouse and hope the roof doesn’t leak and the building is fireproof. POD means that books are not printed until they are ordered.

The problem that is NOT solved is the passive or impulse book buyer. Instead of seeking some specific book, they buy only what they can see and throw into their shopping cart. Proportionally fewer book buyers will make the effort of ordering, much less search around to see what’s available. Publishers are selling through Big Box stores at deep discounts to get high numbers of sales through eyeballs.

I’m writing this post in part for the several potential writers on the Blackfeet reservation. They need to know that Native American books are vulnerable to all these forces. The NA Renaissance that made the reputation of Jimmy Welch, Louise Erdrich and dozens of others was based on the idea that the books would sell like hotcakes and some of them did -- usually the most “white” ones. They were read as novels rather than the kind of anthropological records that made the early white writers about Indians famous. But the NA novels were not marketed to reservation people and got to small towns only through schools and libraries. They sold to urban white people. Over-optimistic publishers ended up remaindering many copies. They concluded that the category just didn’t make money and they didn’t want to wait for readers to figure it out. Meanwhile, back on the rez, those few who bought books were reading vampire romances.


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