The Publishing Treetops Shake

So the last few weeks have been full of interesting news for the book industry. In fact, I was planning on posting on this last week, since it was more topical then (and I would have found easy access to the relevant links, now I’m just going to talk about it) but had that run-in with a falling teen from the sky and ended up a little out of it.

So we’ll discuss it right now instead, between bits of pre-work on Starforge. So then, what’s to talk about?

Well, when I say “book industry” I really mean one area: Traditional publishing. To be more specific, the big five. The last few weeks have seen a number of shakeups across the big five, from Simon & Schuster switching CEOs (even as they’re up for sale) to other publishers replacing high-up corporate positions, funneling their long-held higher officials out and bringing in new ones with the hope that they’ll bring change.

That hope isn’t speculation, mind. One article on the vast array of change-ups across the industry noted that many of the newcomers were not promoted from within, but external hires and in many cases, were individuals who were not involved in publishing prior to these new positions. Why? Because as some publishers explained, they were looking for new ideas and concepts, changes to the traditional way they’ve always run.

Because (and the articles didn’t go into this) if you look at the numbers, the same old, same old traditional publishing has been following and adhering to for decades has been slowly bleeding them dry. Simon & Schuster, for example, is up for sale because they’ve seen three decades of losses. Nearly straight, save a few outlying years where they got on the right side of the fads. Most other publishers aren’t looking much better.

Why? They’re old. They’re out of date. They’re locking in a mire that’s decades behind. One of Simon & Schuster’s houses, for example, relies on a controlled stable of authors. What this means is that you “sign” with that house, and you don’t leave. You are part of their “exclusive” stable of authors (yes, like a stable of horses to be trotted out when necessary. All the author’s work is theirs. And how are new books written? Do authors come up with new ideas?

No, the publishing head approves an idea from their own marketing group, picks one of the authors that’s free and waiting for an assignment, and says “You’re writing this now.”

Now, that may have worked forty or fifty years ago, but what modern author, with the options available to them, is going to look at that setup and say “Yes, this is the direction I’ll let my writing take?”

Oh, and bear in mind that they’re still paying peanuts, so you’ll likely need a second job alongside this “stable” situation just to make ends meet.

Is it any wonder that all the authors in that houses stable are in their 50s and over?

But that’s just one example of how out-of-date and behind the times these publishers are. And with such reluctance to change even as profits slip and slide and author after author jumps ship to newer, more modern approaches … is it any wonder that a shakeup was in the cards?

Actually, this shakeup isn’t limited to publishers, either. Barnes and Noble, the bookstore that failed so hard it got bought out, had some big announcements at the behest of their new owner. Something like roughly half of the corporate offices were laid off. And no, they weren’t replaced either. They’re gone. Of the people now out were the folks in charge of corporate oversight of book store management and purchases. You know, those people in an office somewhere that mandate what each bookstore’s customers “really” want, rather than the people who actually work in the store? Yeah, all of them are gone. When asked about it, the new owner commented that bookstore managers had a much better idea about what would sell in each bookstore than someone in a corporate office who’d never even been to the location in question.

Given that the new owner of Barnes and Noble has turned around several failing bookstore chains around the world, I’m inclined to agree. Also, what he’s saying is common sense, as compared to the absolute corporate idiocy that drove Barnes and Noble to fail in the first place.

Oh, and apparently—and this is really shocking news—toning down or even removing the cafes, toys, and other areas to focus on books. Like they’re a bookstore or something.

Madness, I’m sure, if you’re one of the old corporate suits struggling to breathe past your tie.

Anyway, so what does all of this mean? Personally, that the storm sweeping across the publishing industry is only intensifying as traditional publishers struggle to catch up to a world that they’ve been steadily denying and decrying for almost three decades now. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that many of the people who have recently been replaced by outsiders were ardent supporters of “the old ways,” refusing to adapt to modern methods.

At the same time, however, there’s no proof yet that the newcomers will be any better, or that they won’t buckle to internal pressure to keep things “the way they’ve always been.” I can’t imagine they’ll be very popular in private either, seeing as they probably replaced friends and long-time colleagues by taking their new positions.

Ultimately, then, I don’t believe that much will change right away to help the floundering publishers. Rather, I see this as a reactionary move, kind of like installing a bilge pump and flicking the switch as water swarms in. I don’t think that these abrupt changes will save some of these publishers … But I do see it as a tacit admission that something is wrong.

Who knows? Maybe in another year or two I’ll be writing a post about how the new owner of Simon & Schuster went in an utterly wiped out every instance of “author stable” and let over half of the corporate offices go because they had no reason to exist. Or maybe the current owner (who is looking to sell) will have made good on their threat to split the publisher up and sell it piecemeal, and those stable imprints will be left out in the cold with no buyers.

I don’t know. I’m not a prognosticator. I make predictions and write fun Sci-Fi and Fantasy. But one thing is certain: This much abrupt change signals something. The treetops of publishing are shaking. What this means ultimately is up to each viewer. But personally?

The storm is building. And me? I’m glad I’m indie and a creator, rather than some corporate suit sitting somewhere in an office waiting for the ax to fall on my neck.

Oh, and speaking of being indie and a creator (and this does tie in), WordPress now offers the ability to be a “store” of sorts, selling premium content and downloads. Basically they kind of want to be Patreon/Etsy/whatever else.

First things first: I’m not going to be offering “premium subscriber content” the way they keep bugging me to. I already eat the cost of not running ads, because ads suck. I’m not about to bury parts of the site (like Being a Better Writer) behind a paywall. And I’m not getting rid of Patreon.

Why bring this up? Why, because it’s more stability for me! Confused? I’ll explain: Some worried readers have expressed fear about what would happen if Amazon did something awful (take your pick) and was no longer available as a seller.

My answer was, for the longest time, “I’d figure something out.” Now, however, it’s even simpler: I’d just start selling them here on my site in addition to some of the other indie marketplaces out there.

So no worries, folks, my being able to sell you a product is still safe.

Anyway, back to work on Starforge. Also, new episode of Fireteam Freelance this weekend! Gotta run!

2 thoughts on “The Publishing Treetops Shake

  1. I’ve got a Barnes & Noble nearby, and I love it. Only reason I never go in is because I’m so busy reading horsewords thees days I don’t have time for original fiction. But if things go right then someday within the next or two I’ll be down low enough on my RiL that I can do less reviewing here and start doing that as well. When that happens, I really hope B&N is still around so I can enjoy having a legit bookstore with legit books to hold in my legit hands.

    Whether my specific B&N is still around then, I’m t least glad to see the publishing companies getting the shakedown and maybe starting to change for the better. Maybe.

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    • I think they likely will be. The new owner pulled Waterstone’s (a European book store chain) out of bankruptcy with similar tactics, so it stands to reason that B&N will survive with some competent leadership (rather than the previous owners, who were literally running it under the fashion of burning it for the insurance money).

      Like

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