I’ve obviously not kept up with the bi-weekly schedule and am not sure how consistent I’ll be any time soon, so hopefully a random issue appearing in your feed is a pleasant surprise! Sign up to get this as a fancy email newsletter whenever it comes out: As in Guillotine.
I followed the DOJ vs. Penguin Random House trial on Twitter throughout a much-needed summer vacation abroad, particularly the live tweets from a quartet of diligent journalists that offered an unusual real-time peek into the inner workings of what is arguably our most ridiculous cultural industry: book publishing. Specifically, corporate book publishing.
A week after the trial ended, I had the pleasure of participating in a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by The Hot Sheet and moderated by Jane Friedman, along with Ann Garvin, M.J. Rose, Anne Trubek, and Howard Yoon. The recording is embedded in the post, along with my prepared comments for the key points we intended to discuss. The whole conversation is worth listening to, with great insights across the board, and some disagreements here and there.
Because I haven’t published a newsletter in nearly two months, here’s four good links that will give you the best overview of the trial and what’s really at stake beyond a small subset of well-paid authors and their deep-pocketed favorites:
- Everything You Need to Know About the Penguin Random House Trial, by Sophie Vershbow
- The PRH Trial Has Revealed a Barely Hidden Scorn for Independent Publishers, by Margot Atwell
- Book publishers just spent 3 weeks in court arguing they have no idea what they’re doing, by Constance Grady
- Publishing Antitrust Case in Final Stages, Velocity of Content Podcast
tldr: The Big 5 aren’t inherently better or smarter publishers, they simply have more money to play with to take more risks and systemic advantages that increase (but do not guarantee) their chances of success. Caveat emptor.
“The same situation is happening in media, too. Writers are paid less now than they were 50 years ago, for the same work. Ernest Hemingway was paid $1 a word in 1936. That’s more than $21 per word in today’s dollars.”
This article is mainly about Hollywood, but it is also very much about publishing, too — from books to magazines to newspapers. There’s a specific version to be written about authors and corporate publishers, in particular, a connection The Authors Guild should be making aggressively every time they do their flawed salary survey, or even right now to push back against the PRH/S&S merger.
The takeaways from their salary surveys never mention what’s changed (including far fewer paying outlets for writers, all of which pay less than they used to), nor how much book money goes to support overpaid executives with questionable business acumen, several of whom proved as much under oath in DC last month.
“Most advances should be no more than about $3,000.”
The vast majority of authors do not get $250k+ advances, including the majority of those signed to Big 5 imprints, and regardless of the size of the advance, the vast majority of authors don’t actually earn out those advances. Some consider that the ideal scenario, the mark of a savvy agent, but it can also become a Scarlet Letter, branding an author as unsuccessful and less likely to get a subsequent book deal.
What’s often missing from these conversations is an important bit of context: Sales.
Trubek runs some rough numbers and sets $3k as the baseline for a realistic advance (with several caveats) that minimizes a publishers’ loss if the book doesn’t sell, while maximizing the authors’ gain if it’s a success via steady royalty payments.
Whether you agree with her math or not, I appreciate her attempting to shift the focus to sales and profitability. I also understand any reluctance because publishing is notoriously opaque about sales numbers. Some of your favorite NYT Bestselling Authors hit the list for one week and sold fewer copies overall than a random issue of a B-list comic book.
“[Daunt] told PW that returns of middle grade hardcovers had been running has high as 80%, something he attributed to B&N’s abandoning its role to thoughtfully curate its stores.”
When a category booms, publishers fill their pipeline with comps, most of which they have no actual dedicated marketing plans for beyond sticking in their catalog and riding the wave. Bookstores tend to ride the wave, too, knowing they can simply return what doesn’t sell when they need to make space for the next trendy wave. Most authors have no idea what their return rates actually are, either, nor how much library and school sales — which aren’t returnable — may be driving their success.
The “superstore” model is dead, though, and indie bookstores’ latest resurgence is grossly exaggerated. B&N, specifically, wants to sell more books, not be publishers’ showrooms for serendipitous discovery, and has made moves to allow its stores to operate more like indies, curating their own shelves for local interests rather than relying on corporate influence. They even killed co-op marketing, removing the pay-to-play cheat code mostly available to big publishers that guaranteed shelf space (and ego boosts), but not sales.
It’s an unexpected blow for the middle grade authors who were surprised to learn their hardcovers wouldn’t be on B&N’s shelves in coming months. Missing from the discourse was the understanding that growth in this category had been happening for several years, driven by schools and libraries way more than having a couple of copies sitting spine-out on crowded shelves at B&N for a few months.
What changed since September 2019 that may have affected B&N’s sales and higher than normal returns, leading to this latest decision? New ownership at B&N desperately focused on increasing sales and lowering returns in the midst of a global pandemic; print purchases by schools & libraries tanked in 2020, and budgets were hit hard afterwards, thanks to a global pandemic; and a very popular category seeing more and more books published every year than their publishers can effectively market, competing with an ever-growing backlist that requires little to no marketing.
That this might disproportionately impact authors of color suggests a harsh reality: some publishers have been acquiring those books as list filler — in a hot category and/or ticking the “diversity” box — rather than as priority titles they’ll put real marketing muscle behind to ensure it finds its audience in multiple channels.
“So, when we got on the show, we auditioned, and there were cuss words in the script. And we were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t cuss,’ and they honored that for us. They let us rewrite a lot of the stuff too.”
I shouted out Reservation Dogs in a previous issue, and we’re in the middle of enjoying its wonderful second season. It’s absolutely one of my favorite shows right now and is in my Top 10 of the streaming era, without question.
I wasn’t sure if Mose and Mekko were real rappers, and certainly did not expect them to be Christian rappers — which means they’ll never utter my new favorite phrase, “Shitass” — but it’s just another reason to love the show.