Features, Bugs, and Only (X) Copies!

STS bookstack
More than eight copies sold, I promise

Like a lot of writers, I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye out on the big Penguin Random House affair. You know what I mean. The merger and the hearing and news coming out about the industry and how it’s worked or not worked for a long time.

Being a person who grew up in “the business” before independent publishing became a viable route, I have a weird relationship to it because for whatever reason (poor writing, poor business decisions, bad contacts, whatever) I bounced off the big publishers. I had two different books circulating with publishers and agents of the day, and that received considerable attention before both were … um … ignored. I have subsequently published both as an independent and they have done quite well, thank you very much.

Regardless, this means I have a seat right on the edge of the field. I’ve had my toes out there on the foul area grass, but never fully played the game. You could argue this to mean that I have a valid viewpoint, or you could argue this means my opinions are worse than those coming out of left field.

So. Yeah. I dunno.

But I’ll add the fact that I’ve also spent a couple decades in the middle tiers of Corporate America, and I could pretty much guess the transcripts of the hearings before they happened.

In other words, for example, the statement that half of trade books that are published sell fewer than eight books, Does Not Surprise Me. At All. One can boggle at the 50% if one wants. I’ve seen articles that explain how that number could be wrong—or could at least be wrong in certain ways. Fine. My response is that in other ways that number could actually be conservative.

The entire point here is that while there is massive data on the subject, and there does exist a truth, no one outside the executive suite actually seems to know what that truth is, and neither do they.

Facts are facts, but none of that changes the fact that traditional publishers are not particularly good at understanding what they do. My personal view is that this is a feature, not a bug. The whole Penguin Random House hearing is full of double-dealing from the witness stand. On one hand a $100,000 advance is “not a large advance.” On the other “we can never tell what is going to sell.” And on the other, “this is a business that runs on talent.”

Of course, just how much talent it takes to not know if something will sell or not, yet still give those “not large” advances to authors is not exactly clear.

Wait. What?

You’re telling me you didn’t get a “not large” advance of $100,000?

Clearly you must be mistaken.

You get the idea. Those articles I’ve read that discredit the low numbers often explain how complex it is to determine what a published book is, and how many copies those books sold. From my perch those articles are somewhat entertaining. Yes. There are merits to their arguments. But the main point here is not whether the numbers add up perfectly from every perspective. The main point here is that there are a thousand perspectives, and that the people who run these companies—those at the top—like it that way.

They like it that way because multiple perspectives obfuscate the truth of the big picture, and the truth of the big picture is that while these companies are growing and merging and putting together more power in their gently shrinking pool, while they are actually shrinking creators’ income and holding the rights to those creators’ work, while they are driving people out of the industry via back-breaking work for mind-numbing pay, they are making record profits. Meaning those at the top are doing just hunky-dory, please pass the salt and pepper.

I am not some ultra-radical lefty here. I don’t need to be an ultra-radical lefty to see that this is exactly how the traditional publishing industry works. All I need to do to see this is to watch the reports coming from the hearing and overlay it with basic reality.

The point of “8 books” is not that it’s perfectly correct. The point is that (1) there is almost certainly a perspective in which it is correct, and that (2) the mound of data is so cluttered that unless you’re looking at it correctly (or unless it’s testified to under oath, I guess) you’ll never see that perspective.

To be honest, the thing that surprises me most about this situation is that so many writers I know are just flabbergasted at the news. I mean … my reactions as I read all the statements and counter-statements coming from the hearing have been mostly: “Duh.”

Of course.

This is how the publishing industry works.

As far as I can tell, at least in my lifetime, traditional publishing companies have never been particularly good at reporting clear numbers, and never particularly excellent at running the details of their business in the way a normal person might think they would. Traditional publishing has been very good at utilizing cheap labor and intellectual property rights of (mostly) underpaid writers to pump money into their executives’ and shareholders’ accounts.

It seems to me that publishers are very good gaslighters, to use a term thrown about today. It has always run this way. Always.

And it seems to me that writers—especially those in the middle of the game—should know that.

There should be no surprise about this news. At best this news should bring forward knowing chuckles simply because these practices are being exposed for what they are. It is this way because it’s designed to be this way. It is this way because it creates a fantastic money funnel that flows cash to the places the people who run it want that cash to go. Welcome, after all, to Capitalism 101.

This is why, as I look back on my dalliance with traditional publishing, I find myself more and more pleased that I bounced off it in the first place. Or maybe happy is the better term. I’m not making millions as an independent writer, but thanks to that time in Corporate America I don’t need millions. I’m not selling hundreds of thousands of copies of my stuff, either. I do okay, I guess. At least I’m pretty much always above … um … eight copies sold. But more important, I own all my own copyrights. So in the case where someone wants to make something of my work, they’ve got to come through me.

Of secondary importance, I don’t have to deal with the whole tournament game and company structure inherent with the traditional structure. I can simply run my business as I want to run it, write what I want to write, and publish what I want to publish. I’m pretty sure this keeps my blood pressure at a more manageable state.

To be fair here, I know several people in that traditional structure, and they seem to be managing fine. So good on them. But sitting where I am and having been in and around the game of corporate management, I’m personally quite content to stay out of it.

Unless, maybe, I were to be offered one of those “not large” advances, right?


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