August 28th, 2012, 12:43 PM
"Staying Awake While We Read" - LeGuin's thoughts on corporate publishing
I picked up a copy of Ursula K. LeGuin's book The Wild Girls the other day. I read the namesake short story and then moved on to the essay Staying Awake While We Read. A version of the essay can be read here.
I was wondering about everyone's thoughts on it, particularly people with experience in the publishing world. Is this true? If so, to what degree?
August 29th, 2012, 12:26 AM
Somewhat. When corporations started buying up publishers as part of media conglomerates and putting them together as large clusters, there were stockholder issues because book publishing was expected to show the same growth profiles as other media industries and that's not possible. After trying to expand through related business buys and then selling them off, corporations did kind of settle down to accepting that book publishing was a slow-growth business.
But there was obviously a still fair amount of pressure on books to perform, which doesn't go with how books actually sell successfully. The emphasis on marketing comes from the belief that all products are based on marketing, the need to have a lot of spare cash to do marketing and the reluctance of corporations to give publishers that cash when it doesn't seem to produce a good return like other industries. For fiction, sales and accounting very little get involved. Sales and accounting will let publishers know that booksellers would like more of such and such type of story that seems to be selling or on the rise, but beyond that, they pretty much leave editorial alone on what properties to be sold. There are arguments afterwards, though, on how much marketing will be done for each book. But there would be those arguments even if corporations did not own major book publishers.
In non-fiction, however, where author and information sell the book, not the reader experience, sales and accounting have a bigger interest and a bigger say. They will be asked about non-fiction properties, specifically, can you sell this or not? And for non-fiction, those assessments by sales reps, marketing folk and sometimes consulting with booksellers, are taken seriously. That's where a lot of confusion comes in -- non-fiction and fiction are separate but similar industries with overlap but fundamentally different focuses and reader buying patterns. So when people whine about problems in fiction publishing, they are often talking about non-fiction publishing instead.
Publishers in general have gotten very effective at utilizing marketing venues to promote books, whether those books are an action and sex filled mystery novel or a novel for which you're trying to get lit awards, course adoption and critical acclaim. So fiction bestsellers are never monochrome because variety and targeting has been very effective. The market is considerably broad. It's always then a little disconcerting when a fiction bestseller like Le Guin starts talking about all bestseller being mindless corporation picks. Are you saying your books are mindless? It's especially interesting when Dickens gets used as an example. But then, I won't presume to lecture Le Guin about anything. But the worry about bestsellers was a much bigger worry in the 1980's, due to various factors. There are more bestsellers than there used to be and more different kinds. They just don't stay on the list as long on average or get there by selling as many copies as happened in say the 1970's. And this is an increasing problem.
The first reason for the problem is that corporate impact on major bestsellers has been a problem because again those corporations demanded a level of growth from bookstores that was not possible to give. This lead to over-expansion, impacted further by on-line sales that do indeed treat books as just another commodity to sell like soap and concentrating on discounts. When the big chains went for BookScan -- Nielsen ratings of book sales -- to try to get some predictive control over the chaos of bookselling, it was a disaster. Individual books sell separately from previous books. An author's track record is decent imput, but limited. BookScan made it the imperative. As Norman Spinrad pointed out, this leads to a downward spiral: An author's novel does well, so they buy the next. The next novel, though, is a different novel and doesn't do as well, so they buy less of the third novel. But the third novel is a new series and could do better than the first two. Nobody knows, so trying to base store acquisitions on BookScan is like hobbling your own gambling. It doesn't remove uncertainty; it just makes a mess. Corporations like certainty -- projections and steady growth. Book publishing doesn't offer them.
But the other, bigger problem is that books are sold in greater numbers and more titles, but through fewer places. The shrinkage of the wholesale markets cut off millions, maybe billions of sales. The online market has not expanded enough. The bookstores shrank down to the bone on a combination of bad management, price wars, over expansion and rent and building costs, so that's fewer vendors. The Net is a reading culture -- people read more than ever before. But the sales numbers for each individual title dropped because they are distributed less widely, print and e-books. The more places books are sold, the more they sell. And the places are dwindling, not growing, even as the market gets more global. That's not a corporation issue, except in the sense that corporations own groceries, department stores and retail store chains and they don't have much use for books since most print books are not made cheap in China and most on-line books, like dwindling DVD's, music, etc., aren't worth much to them as inventory. The later part of the "century of the book" was not because of public schools (frankly, my daughter read more novels in school than I did growing up,) but because books were everywhere and so people bought them. The retail corporations are also watching their markets shrink -- even WalMart is watching its domestic revenues crater.
So we need more booksellers, corporate or not, more than we need to worry about corporations funding large book publishers. But Le Guin is also perfectly right that books will not disappear. Because they are a product that is not fad-based (though individual non-fiction books may be fads, like diet books, or time sensitive; non-fiction is more ephemeral, being information,) but instead have intrinsic value in their text. As long as there is text -- and we are more text based now, not less -- then there will be books (long pieces of text.) As long as people need things, corporation will try to sell them to them. So books always survive but are never dominant. Books have never been dominant, even in the 1950's. Shows -- circuses, speakers, plays -- were dominant, then film, then t.v., etc. Music has always been bigger than books. They don't need to be big, but they do need to be seen and seen widely. And in that sense, corporations may be absolutely vital to bookselling.
August 29th, 2012, 08:17 AM
Thank you, Kat. While I'm cynical enough that I could see what LeGuin was saying perhaps had some truth in it, I wasn't sold. The essay seemed so angry. Anger clouds judgement. As to your last point, about perhaps actually needing the corporations to keep books alive, I can see that. I don't like it, but I do think they're necessary to get the books out there. They're the ones with the moolah to do it.
I have another question. About midlist authors. Is it true they're being dropped?
August 29th, 2012, 09:02 AM
That happened a while back. I remember a stunned author who had just been let go during the Black Wednesday purges who was still coming to grips with being given the boot.
Originally Posted by NickeeCoco
I read Her Nibs' article and pretty much agree with it, save for the swipe at electronic books. People are still in denial even today when it comes to e-book acceptance, but the corporations only have themselves to blame in my opinion. I had talked at length with Daugherty (TOR) and he had a great tale to tell on how the Mom & Pop stores were abandoned, and with them a great system of book distribution. Then the suits came up with big-box stores that promised more efficiency than the mall stores - which put the kabosh on all those impulse buyers. Today's wasteland is that short-sighted legacy.
The savior, in my opinion, is e-books and all the different independent publishers now thriving outside the corporate grip. Never before have readers more choice, and authors more opportunity. Editors can actually enjoy an intimate level of control without being sat on by marketing departments wanting the next sparkly something or shades of smut. Still, we have Amazon and Apple doing their best to make the same corporate moves that are not friend to author or reader alike, but at least there are other sites that can pop up to challenge these behemoths.
August 29th, 2012, 09:21 AM
km, I don't know whether or not to agree with you. This is why:
I don't use my credit card on the internet. I'll use on-line interac, but not credit. I guess, I can control how much is in my chequing account and how much someone could steal from it, as opposed to having someone go nuts with my credit card. Now, I have an eReader. I've got a Kobo Touch. I can't get eBooks off of Amazon, 'cos I've got a kobo. It's not particularly compatible. I can get books off of the Kobo website, but they do not have interac on-line, and they do not accept Visa Debit cards. (I often just get one of those visa gift cards and use those for the Kobo site. But when I use a card up, I have to get another one, not to mention, you have to pay for them.) The other day I went searching on-line for a place where I could get eBooks with my Visa Debit. I barely got any hits on my search. I barely got any hits on eBoo sites, let alone some that accept visa debit. The sites I did find didn't carry any books by authors I was looking for. From what I found, their fantasy section was pretty darn small.
So, based on my experience with eBooks (and I love them. I can get loads of books and not have to worry about having shelf space for them all) I don't have a lot of options to work with. I'm limited to where I can buy them.
August 29th, 2012, 09:32 AM
I can understand your hesitation - I maintain a separate barely funded account for my online transactions. Problem solved in so far as risk is concerned. Most banks will do second accounts at no charge.
Originally Posted by NickeeCoco
Platform availability is less of an issue now with the smart phones, although your better reading experience will still be more tablet orientated. Prices continue coming down, but yes, we're not "there" yet for complete adaptability. We are a damn sight closer than even a few years back, however.
August 29th, 2012, 09:51 AM
The price isn't an issue for me. It's a lot cheaper to have an eReader than it is for me to buy a larger house just so I can have a couple of rooms dedicated to books. (I've got six bookcases with six shelves each piled, two deep with books. I've also got nine large plastic totes that weight about 50-60lbs each full of books stored in the basement.) My concern is the availability. I don't think they are. There are not a lot of places to buy eBooks from. Like the paper publishing world, eBooks are still only found in a few large sites.
Originally Posted by kmtolan
For example, I went to the publisher sites themselves (Penguin, HarperCollins) thinking that they probably sold eBooks versions of their books on their site (similar to what Harlequin does), but they do not. The only sites that popped up for me was Amazon Kindle, Kobo and ebooks.com. That's it.
Speaking of Harlequin, does anyone know how their eBooks sales are going? I've a hunch that it's going quite well, considering you don't find their little displays at grocery stores and the such much anymore. They seem to have embraced the eBook market. If their eBook sales are doing well, maybe other publishers should look at their business profile.
Last edited by NickeeCoco; August 29th, 2012 at 09:55 AM.
August 29th, 2012, 12:11 PM
Heh, that's not anything but their fault - not the technology. I did mention "denial", did I not? (grin).
Originally Posted by NickeeCoco
I suspect these folks will fall in line sooner or later - I truly would hate to see Amazon become the end-all for distribution. If you're lucky, you might find some of your favorite authors self publishing back issues.
August 29th, 2012, 01:07 PM
it could be worse
Wow - well, I'm an internet surfing idiot, because I use my credit card, debit card, PayPal, Bill Pay (through my bank that let's me pay anyone) ALL THE TIME on the internet and buy books from just about every vendor. I have no problem. Hell, I'm waiting for an eyescan or embedded chip in my wrist so I can just swipe and have the charge automagically go through.
But, interesting you brought this up, Nickee. I didn't know that would be a hindrance for some to access a book. As Kat is always saying (because it is the truth), not everyone is as wired as some of us. Food for thought.
As is the original article.
August 29th, 2012, 01:15 PM
I have no idea where you bank, but everybody should check it out because no, most banks do not do this at all these days.
Originally Posted by kerry
The issue again is not price. The rate of customer growth has had nothing to do with e-book prices and everything to do with the development of electronic device product markets that made e-books easily available. But they are easily available only from a few vendors. We are not having enough vendors sell them, and this is in part because Amazon has been trying to control the market -- including buying up their smaller competitors -- in part because publishers have only had five years to build the necessary infrastructure for the market, and in part because books -- even free books or very low priced ones -- are largely of no interest for most on-line vendors in either form. And if that doesn't change, then the e-book market is going to hit a limit wall. The nature of the product itself -- books -- doesn't interest them, as well as the fact that books don't offer merchandising and accessories products markets much. (Pretty colored covers for iPads and ereaders? -- way huge industry compared to book sales.) They aren't going to try and drive new sales for books -- the people who don't ordinarily buy books -- and the old sales -- people who do ordinarily buy books -- are not large enough and demographically young enough (except for the YA bump,) to interest them. Books are not sexy products.
At one time, around the 2005-2008 period, what was thought to likely happen was that independent bookstores would be selling a lot through e-books online, as well as online print operations. But setting those online stores up are very expensive and Amazon went draconian on publishers on terms, especially smaller publishers, to discourage them from selling with other bookstores. Some of them had a great deal going with Google -- Google then decided it wasn't interested and dropped it. So that part of the market -- the vendors most interested in books -- has not grown. And then there was also the idea of the publishers all selling from their sites. That is happening and can be a boon to a smaller house, but the problem is that people don't care who publishers are and don't want to go to just one house for books, even if it's big, most of the time. They want to go to a big nexus for books. So again, that part of the market for vendors has grown very slowly, once a house can manage the infrastructure expenses and set-up. So the main places that people go to buy ebooks are the handful of bookstore online retailers, department stores which have minimal interest and electronics companies which have minimal interest. So that's a problem, in the same way that print has the grocery store/wholesaler problem.
One very fruitful area for books is to try to pair themselves up with music sellers, in the istores manner, because if people buying music see books, they'll buy some of them, which bumps up sales and awareness. But getting music retailers interested is not automatic. So these are areas that publishers need to work on. There are sites people go to on the Web to buy things and those sites we need to sell e-books.
So bash up Fifty Shades all you want -- it gave Barnes & Noble a big boost in profit, which means B&N and their online store and e-book store stay viable, keeping the vendor problem from getting worse and giving lots of customer spillage in book buying, which lets everybody fund other books. It helps independent and smaller publishers because there are more customers circulating, and obviously it helps self-pubs. Le Guin knows this and sort of acknowledges it in the article, but there is always the fear -- an irrational fear -- in creative culture and particularly in written fiction that something that is popular will take over and wipe out other things -- call it the cookie cutter belief. But a hit instead helps those other things find a market and funds the market. We only have a Renaissance small press SFF industry now because of various fantasy titles selling really well from larger publishers in the 1980's and 1990's, creating a market for smaller offerings nationally in conjunction with the help of the Internet for sales. It's a symbiotic market. Increase the market and there will be more different types of things in the market, not less -- as we have seen. Any attention for books makes them more visible, which helps sales and may attract more vendors.
They always get dropped in a recession and this last one was the big one, so lots of them got dropped. This is also the BookScan issue -- and Le Guin is not wrong about that. New writers get a pass -- a grace period if you will -- mid-listers may have a great new book or series, but the big booksellers look mostly at the BookScan numbers for past titles. Which is why a number of mid-list authors have switched to a different pen name for new series. Everybody -- their publishers who usually come up with it, their readers to whom they promote all their books, media reviewers who mention the author's former pen name, and the booksellers themselves who know perfectly well who everybody is -- are all in on the switch. But the numbers printout, which goes to corporate office and shareholders, says that the author is really two different authors -- a mid-list author with mid-list sales and a new author who gets a shot. Essentially, Le Guin is right that big booksellers are trying to treat books as commodities -- depending on an algorithm to be the dominant factor of most stock title purchases, with a pass for newbies -- and paying Nielsen to provide them with that algorithm. At the same time, though, they are sneaking around the algorithm in partnership with publishers -- playing a shell game on the very same data they're paying for. It's nuts. But the rest of the industries dealing with completely different products do it that way and so the book industry -- being part of corporate media holdings -- is being forced to try it that way. But it's not sustainable.
Originally Posted by Nickee
So many of the problems that Le Guin is talking about -- the short lead time for books with the ripping off of paperback covers and the returns system problems, the problems with e-books (but remember, she wrote this in Feb. 2008 when the Kindle was barely launched,) are real, but not entirely in the way she's looking at. But she is looking at the basic disconnect that leads to big bookstores trying to fool their own computers instead of simply not using the computers.
The biggest problem that book publishing has always had is convincing vendors to sell books at all. That's how we got the returns system -- so that during the Great Depression, vendors would sell books, especially newsstand vendors who already had returns for magazines. And part of that problem is that publishing has haphazard marketing and no money to invest in it properly. When television talk shows and such lost interest in having fiction writers on t.v. anymore in the 1980's, sticking mainly to some non-fiction, publishers didn't do anything about it. So all they got was Oprah deciding herself that her show would have a book club. That book club was incredibly successful, not just for the books picked but in selling acclaimed fiction in general and regenerating on a big scale the idea of readers book groups, which also are great at selling both acclaimed fiction and action-packed fiction. But the authors blew it there because oh lets all turn up our noses at Oprah's audience. (If there's one thing that Jonathan Franzen had the most impact on in his career, it was totaling the careers of hundreds of other authors by being scared he'd lose the National Book Award if he was an Oprah pick. (He didn't.) So she tabled the club, then brought it back only for non-fiction, then sporadically for fiction and then she closed her show to run a cable network. While we got a few more t.v. book clubs out of it in the U.S. and Britain, fiction writers have an incredibly hard time getting media attention and most of what they can get is print.
Books need to be sold and seen everywhere -- clothing stores, toy stores, camping equipment stores, electronics stores, game stores, housewares stores, every conceivable site online for print books and ebooks. Why does Boing Boing barely sell any print books and no ebooks? Why do sites selling gadgets and apps and downloadable programs and content not also have e-books for sale, etc.? It's not a price issue -- most of the things all these stores sell are more expensive and often over-priced. It's first off for ebooks an infrastructure distribution thing because it's early, and second, that publishing has not been able to persuade and seek out these new vendors. They don't have the people, the money, etc. to do it properly. But small efforts can nonetheless yield big dividends. Have Starbucks sell some books? We get lots of book sales and a bigger presence for books. Have Starbucks sell or do promos for e-books in conjunction with iTunes? Even better. Do more and more book events and have SFF authors out for the big ComicCons? Works well. Having a music festival in a city? Get books in there. Having a garlic festival in your town? Sell books there. Artworks -- books. Furniture -- books. Future of electronics conferences -- books, books, books. Books needs a bigger retail presence. It always has. So any hit that gets us that presence? Good, because it gets us more vendors.
Which is why the self-pubs are a good thing and everybody should just shut up. But the books coming out from publishers and some of them doing well in print and e-book are also a good thing and everybody should just shut up about them. (Yes, I'm aware that I can make no one shut up; it's a rhetorical device.) Books are not several different organisms. They are one big organism that needs all the good luck and interest it can get.
August 29th, 2012, 01:28 PM
Yes, you can get a second checking account
I was being a bit loose with the term "banks". Actually, try out a credit union. Mine here in Austin charges nothing for a second checking account used for this purpose. Wells Fargo did have this feature (free too) but later made you pay. I dropped them well before this happened (was one of the Fifth of November protesters who dropped their bank).
August 29th, 2012, 03:36 PM
Thanks, Kat, for yet another "wall of text"! Joke aside, I found it very useful.
On a side-line issue: separate bank accounts. I so no reason for this or any way it would protect one's online transactions.
Instead I use separate credit cards, at one time as many as seven. Now I have three + a debit card + a Paypal account. Each one is used for a different purpose. Each has several protections such as per-purchase and per-day caps. All the protections cost me less than $20 a year.
Plus I spend a minute or two each day when I go online to be sure there've been no unusual purchases since the last time I logged onto my computer. Automated security is great but it's no substitute for human oversight.
The only time I ever have trouble is when automated security is too cautious, and denys the use of a credit card till I verify I do indeed want to (for instance) make two dozen purchases within an hour from one vendor.
ID theft and credit-card fraud is a big and growing threat. We are wise to be careful. But, rather than deny myself the use of online transactions, I am willing to be vigilant and use anti-theft and -fraud protections available to me.
August 29th, 2012, 04:32 PM
Simple. You keep minimum amount of money in the "on line" account. We're talking like five or ten dollars. Bad guy comes in, he's not gonna hurt you financially. The only downside is that you need to remember to transfer money into the account right before hitting it. Been doing this for a year now.
Originally Posted by Laer Carroll
August 29th, 2012, 05:10 PM
Author and Game Designer
I have a Credit Card with insurance that I use on every online transaction.
Not only I'm protected if someone steals and use the numbers (happened twice already, didn't cost me a penny), but if I buy something and the vendor doesn't provide the item or service requested, I get my money back (saved me a few hundred dollars already). Couldn't be happier, piece of mind with nothing to take care of.