the World Fantasy Convention is over, and I've finally recovered enough
to collect and organize my thoughts and observations into something that
may be half coherent.
For the record, a bit of background. The World Fantasy Convention
seems to be the big convention for the working side of the speculative
fiction genre. This year in Madison, attendance was about 800.
Of these, perhaps 100 were fans. Some 350 were writers. After
that, there were booksellers, publishers, agents, collectors, artists and
illustrators, editors, dealers and small press people. In short,
its seriously business oriented. No one was running around
in costume, no one was wearing Spock ears.
Instead, there were lots of writers gathered around tables, furtive
meetings between agents and editors, writers and editors, editors and publishers.
There was a lot of shmoozing and glad handing, a lot of people looking
for that critical connection.
I'm told that if you want to break into the field, this is a crucial
convention. I'm also told that you've got to attend at least three
of them in order to really sort of merge with the community. No one
is wearing ‘writer’ or ‘agent’ or ‘editor’ badges, so its really just the
luck of the draw. You talk to people, make a good impression, hopefully
get introduced to more people, make more good impressions and hope to click.
One interesting thing is that it's apparently bad form to talk about
or pitch your novel to an agent or editor. That's quixotic.
I've sat and chatted with an Editor for Random House for three hours, and
never got to so much as mention my title. People seem to talk
about everything under the sun, except writing. Discussions ranged
from American politics to killing mice with sticky traps.
The nice thing is that people seem to be quite friendly and approachable.
This doesn't necessarily follow for other genres. I'm told that romance
is particularly cut-throat. But around the World Fantasy Convention,
my feeling was that a lot of the successful writers remembered quite well
how hard it was to break through, and a lot of them felt a sort of ‘pay
it forward’ kind of obligation. I only met one asshole the
This year, I met a couple of agents and got cards and invitations to
send a few chapters. I made a lot of soft contacts which might
or might not lead me to places I can send things to. I went
three years ago and did considerably better in terms of agents and editors
willing to look at my work, so it does seem to be the luck of the draw.
For me, the most fascinating question was what was the state of the
industry. Like many of us, I'm writing my ass off, trying to
break through into the next level (which for me is getting a real novel
published with a major/mainstream publisher), and so I find myself fascinated
with trying to gauge where the industry is, what its doing, how to approach
The answers I got tended to be bleak. I talked to a British publishing
guy named Simon Taylor who bemoaned the state of the industry. I
got the same sort of thing from American publishers. Mainly:
Booksellers are reporting that they can’t sell all the books, the market
is uncertain, things are only getting worse, blah blah blah.
Basically, publishing is unhappy and dysfunctional, no one has any idea
what readers want, margins and discounts are being cut razor thin.
After ten years of watching, off and on, I've decided to take this with
a grain of salt. The song has remained pretty much constant
over the last decade, and I suspect that the song has been playing for
decades. The overall impression is that publishing is
a tough business, you have to know the territory, there's a lot of risk
and returns are uncertain, with occasional rewarding flashes.
In this, publishing is basically like any other business which does not
perpetuate itself by corrupting its marketplace. Its tough
What I didn't get was any sort of sense as to why the industry was functioning
the way it was now, where this was going, or how it had come about.
People seemed happy to talk about bits and pieces of the business, but
the big picture was absent. Perhaps the big picture simply
isn't interesting to people engaged in it day to day, or perhaps the proximity
to the nuts and bolts doesn't allow a really good look at the big picture.
But for what its worth, I talked to enough people and learned enough
little bits to try and put together some sort of big picture.
I could be completely or partially wrong about this, and frankly, I'm throwing
this out to people because I would like to see some thinking going on with
It strikes me that the big dynamics that shape current publishing probably
started up ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps twenty. Prior
to this, publishing was a fairly insular medium, or so I suppose.
It was a kind of ‘boutique’ industry, with relatively small volumes and
cash flows compared to other aspects of the entertainment industry.
I remember years ago, Dean Wesley Smith telling me that anyone who came
into science fiction with enough money to throw around could own the business.
Indeed, he said, people had accused his small press, Pulphouse (I believe)
of trying to dominate the genre, and he'd been tiny. Real players
could move in and take over if they wanted to.
And apparently, that's what happened. Or something like that happened.
A lot of the American publishing houses were bought out by media or entertainment
conglomerates, which in turn bought each other out. Publishing
appears to have gone through a phase of getting acquisitioned.
Currently, Random House in the US and Simon Taylor's group in the UK are
both owned by a German media conglomerate. I suspect that if
you took time out to unravel imprints, publishers and owners, you'd find
a lot of the majors (excepting possibly Tor, Baen and Daw) are finger puppets
to giant media companies.
All right, so the big media companies swamp their way into publishing?
What happens? Part of it was new management. The
traditional and conservative publishers and editors, people who knew their
business and had some idea of how the industry and readership functioned,
were at least partly superseded by hot young MBA's. People
who didn't necessarily know publishing, but who thought they knew business
very well, and who believed that their skills were convertible.
Now, you've got all these publishing companies being bought out, and
that means debt accumulating for the purchasers. The purchasers want
their new acquisitions to pay for themselves, so they start looking for
ways, with their MBA skills to increase cash flow.
Most of the publishing companies revenue comes from Best Sellers.
This is actually fairly standard economics. To maximize readership,
you try to keep your prices down. So for most or average books, you're
doing that balancing act between costs and sales and profits which hopefully
allows your boat to float. But a bestseller pushes sales and profits
way up, so that shows up as the money fountains on balance sheets.
The MBA's don't quite understand the way the graph works.
So, a joke starts to make the rounds in the early to mid-nineties.
Some MBA is reported to have come up and said, “Since most of our profits
are best sellers, why don't we only publish bestsellers.”
Well, that's funny, ha ha, everyone laughs. The people who
know the business smile at each other over whine and cheese, reflecting
upon the naiveté of interlopers.
But, looking back, I have the strong impression that this is what the
MBA's actually tried to do. They tried to retool the publishing
industry as bestsellers only.
So what happened? Well, I'll tell you: Death
to mid-list writers. They weren't writing best-sellers.
They weren't writing that pot of gold at the end o the rainbow. So
F*ck em. I remember subscribing to Locus and SF Chronicle immediately
after the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg in 1994, and reading
a fair bit about the tribulations of mid-list writers, including people
as venerable as Norman Spinrad, who were suddenly struggling to publish.
On the other hand, proven best-sellers were in high demand.
Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, it was a very good time to be Steven
King. The particular circumstances of the time meant that you
could make disastrous business moves, and it just wouldn't matter.
Nothing could sink your ship, you were that valuable.
But of course, except for institutional flukes like Steven King, Dean
Koontz, John Grisham and guys like that, best sellers were not terribly
obvious, even though they were terribly in demand. This leads to
something fairly interesting:
If Publishers believed that you had a potential best seller, or if you
could convince publishers that you had a best seller, then you, or your
agent, had incredible negotiating leverage. They desperately
wanted a best seller, which meant they desperately wanted your book, and
they'd pay through the nose up front for it. And of course,
having paid through the nose, publishers were committed to making that
bestseller a self fulfilling prophecy - ergo, lots of money spent on publicity,
promotion, production, everyone jumping on the bandwagon, etc.
This lead to an orgy of six and seven figure advances. Some
of the more remarkable stories of this period: Joan Collins,
an evening soap actress of no discernible writing talent, was given a million
dollars to turn in a potboiler which was later found to be so awful as
to be unpublishable. Jay Leno, believe it or not, was given a four
million dollar advance for his autobiography (which proceeded to sit on
shelves, because while Jay might be a nice guy, his life just wasn't interesting).
The Joan Collins and Jay Leno stories highlighted the MBA's big problem,
which was simply that you couldn't reliably pick the winners.
Steven King? Sure, Steve was a loaded pair of dice, his laundry list
would be a best seller. But once you got past a few safe bets like
him, suddenly it was wild west time. You couldn't know for sure in
So basically, it was a judgment call. Or in the case of
things like Jay Leno's autobiography, it was an incredibly good sales job
by Jay's agent to the publishing company. Except that Jay's
agent was selling a product to a small group of publishers, usually over
expense account lunches, and using a lot of personal charm and strong arm
tactics. That kind of salesmanship doesn't translate at all
into mass market sales at Chapters or Barns and Noble.
My impression of this era, and here we're talking mid to late nineties,
is of a publishing industry staggering around, flailing like an angry drunk,
of MBA's looking for some magic get rich quick formula in their spreadsheets,
trying, failing, making spectacular deals, having spectacular flops, and
perhaps discovering that ‘no, they don't actually know more about the business
than the people who have been in it for twenty years.’
Of course, there's a lot of other things happening around this time,
including the rise of book superstores like Chapters and Barns & Noble,
the emergence of new entertainment mediums like the internet and pc games,
and what seems to have been a generalized contraction in the industry.
The situation is almost certainly more complicated than the single thread
I'm trying to follow. But, one thing at a time.
This quest for the bestseller, by the way, seems real, and it seemed
to be persistent into the late 90's. I remember attending the Surrey
BC Writers Conference and there having a fifteen minute session with a
self proclaimed agent. The experience is seared into my soul.
I sat down, he was a well groomed man who wore leather pants.
I've since concluded that any man who wears leather pants is invariably
a thundering asshole. He said, “I only represent bestsellers.
Are you a bestseller?”
I was dumbfounded for a second. How can anyone tell?
“It's a fantasy novel,” I said.
He nodded. “Like Harry Potter?” he asked. “Harry Potter
is a bestseller.”
“Uh no,” I said. “Not quite like Harry Potter.”
“Then I'm not interested,” he smiled.
Still ten minutes to go. I pitched everything else I had.
Not interested. Five minutes to go.
“I'm only interested in bestsellers,” he said.
“Perhaps this isn't the place for you,” I thought to myself. “Maybe
you should be camping out on Steven King's front lawn begging to be his
I'd traveled 2000 miles and blown money I didn't have, simply to be
insulted and humiliated by some leather pants wearing bozo.
Ladies and gentlemen, it was one of those times you think of quitting the
But that's neither here nor there, or perhaps, more there than here.
The point is that the monomaniacal pursuit of the big brass ring seemed
to deform the publishing industry through the nineties. However,
the quest for the ring didn't work all that well, and seems to have resulted
in bad decisions and lots of debt.
But bestsellers did appear. The most notable examples being
J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.
“We're all dining out on Dan Brown,” Simon Taylor told me over a beer,
when I asked about the state of British publishing. “Take him
out, and its not a pretty picture.”
But here's the rub. I don't think anyone really predicted
either Rowling or Brown. Perhaps I'm wrong, and perhaps Brown got
a multi-million dollar advance. But I think that the lesson the MBA's
were taking from Rowling and Brown and others was that best-sellers were
a lot harder to predict than they had thought, and perhaps that while books
did become best sellers, you couldn't necessarily reliably predict which
ones they would be.
Getting that best-seller, that magic brass ring, that was like buying
a lottery ticket.
So, what do you do?
You go out and you buy lots of lottery tickets. Which, I
think, brings us to the current day.
So here is a peculiar thing I heard from American editors.
Their booksellers are complaining that they can’t sell all the books.
This was worrisome to me. But at the same time, they're telling me
that they're publishing more titles than ever before. Aggregate sales
of books arguably might be as good or better than its been, but there are
so many titles, that its getting hard to move them all. I heard
something very similar from the British side.
Now, the only way this is making any kind of sense to me, is if we're
seeing a lot of investment in lottery tickets. A lot of books
are being thrown out in the hopes that a few of them will take off like
wildfire, you'll have the next Rowling or Brown, and that will justify
the possible losses or marginal returns on all the rest of your lottery
There's some interesting things that would seem to fall out on that.
First of all: Death to mid-list writers.
Hmmm. Let me back up a bit on that.
I think that in the current marketplace, if you're a new writer, it
might be a lot easier to get published than it has been in the past.
Remember, they're looking for bestsellers, they're looking for the new,
hot thing, and they're not sure they'll recognize it for such when they
see it. So they're more prone to taking chances, and more prone to
buying new names.
On the other hand, once you're out there, its probably sink or soar,
not much swimming wanted. You get one book, maybe two, perhaps even
three. But by that time, you're a known quantity. And if you
aren't a bestseller, or a potentially winning lottery ticket by this time,
then they're figuring you aren't going to be, and they lose interest.
You've proven out as a mid-list or even a failed writer, and they just
In the old days of the 60's, 70's and 80's, a talented writer might
have a career, might be groomed, might have a chance to find their niche
or develop their talent and to develop their readership and earnings potential
over several books. Not any more, I don't think.
Here you have to make that circus bell ring with your first couple of swings
of the hammer or its back to the dugouts with you (yeah, I know I'm mixing
my metaphors like frogs in a blender, get over it).
But nowadays, the increasing perception is that soon after your first
or second book, writers are running headlong up against career crises.
There's a wrinkle there, and I'll come back to it.
Another thing that seems to come out of this is that series sell.
Series have always sold. That's why Edgar Rice Burroughs chugged
out 50 Tarzan novels. But in the current milieu, series seem
Look at it this way. You're a publisher. You're out
there buying lottery tickets left and write, looking for that big brass
ring of a winner, the next Harry Potter or the next DaVinci Code.
Well, the big giant powerball grand winners are rare. But lottery
tickets don't necessarily only pay off in giant winners. Sometimes
you get a lesser winner, not big time, but a nice piece of change, enough
to keep you in the game.
Once you get that little winner or that mid-level winner, once you get
a couple of those olives lining up on the slot machine, how do you milk
it? How do you maximize that return?
You basically order another book, same as the first, as a series.
Now, we're not talking trilogies, quadrilogies, dekakologies, quintilities
or whatever. Well, actually, yes we're talking about that,
but those are part of the overall thing and not necessarily the guiding
I don't think publishers are thinking heavily in terms of trilogies.
You buy a trilogy, publish the first book, it bombs.... well, you're screwed
then, aren't you? You've got two more books to publish, both of which
will probably bomb. Colour Mister Publisher unhappy, turn that smile
Rather, I think the industry is shifting more towards seeing how a first
book does, and then deciding whether to publish a continuation, or sequel,
or a next book in a trilogy.
Of course, trilogies are still selling. A friend of mine, Dave
Keck, has sold a trilogy. Now he's sitting on pins and needles as
his first book comes out in Hardcover rather than Mass-Market Paperback,
hoping that it will sell and that hell have a career. I think
that there's a comfort for publishers in trilogies in knowing in advance
that if the first book sells really well, then you've got another or another
couple just like it, waiting to be unloaded.
But I'm thinking that increasingly, the valued concept is a potentially
open ended series that can be milked indefinitely. I'm thinking Rowling
here. But I'm also thinking Laurel Hamilton's Anita Blake books,
Robert Jordan's endless Wheel of Time, Terry Brook's Milking of Shannara,
Turtledove's alternate histories etc.
As to how we as new writers, or older writers trying to break through
to the next level, ought to pitch this, I'm not sure. Should
we proudly announce trilogies, advance our novel as a one off but mention
its got sequels, remain silent on the subject, or cheerfully aver that
if this horse gallops we'll strap on spurs and ride it till it drops?
Beats me. It strikes me that I'm not yet at the stage where
this sort of conversation happens for me.
In the old days, back when dinosaurs ate hippies, we had writers like
Dick or Niven who basically wrote a separate novel each time out the gate
and had reliable careers nevertheless. That's still happening, though
its getting harder. I think that the gestalt is moving elsewhere,
towards new writers, if they have any kind of success, moving to a series
and essentially writing the same book over and over.
Notably, for both Pratchett and Hamilton, what I've noticed is that
their non-series books don't seem to do quite as well as their series books,
and where they find even modest success, that tends to morph into a second
series rather than a set of unrelated works. Readers seem to
cleave more strongly these days to a series than to a writers name.
In any event, for publishers, it really does seem to be about risk management
and revenue maximization. Which, I suppose is true for just
about every business. But its worthwhile to have a handle on the
fashionable thinking and tools for risk and revenue management.
Where does it all go? I come back to the two keys of 1)
More titles than ever; 2) Increasing difficulty moving titles.
It strikes me that you can’t spend your whole salary on lottery tickets.
Eventually, you cut back, budget more sensibly and conservatively.
So, I'm thinking that the industry will probably move towards a contraction
in a few years. A lot fewer titles, a steady roster of ‘upper
midlist’ who are increasingly well cultivated, a limited but steady number
of new-writers (lottery tickets) each year, and a more conservative approach
to new works as experience and convention reassert themselves.
But for now, I think its probably an excellent time to be a new writer
trying to break in. Its always going to suck. But my
read right now is that this may be one of the more open periods, and particularly,
one of the better times to cross that first hurdle.
Now, there's some other peculiar things going on that I should probably
mention. You remember my friend Dave, who is having his first book
published as a hardcover? Brand new writer, no history at all
(Dave had one previous short story published in On-Spec but apart from
that, he's got no credits and no track record), and so I think he's being
made to take a pretty big risk, by Tor publishing him in Hardcover out
the starting gate. Are a lot of people going to shell out forty
dollars for a hardcover book by a guy they've never heard of?
I have to wonder. Hopefully, Tor will get behind and push the
hell out of it, or they've got some kind of marketing plan or market idea
that justifies this decision. Myself, I suspect Dave might
be happier with a mass market paperback where people are only risking 10
bucks for a writer they've never heard of.
Well normally, I'd just think this is weird. But interestingly,
one thing I heard talking to a fairly well established writer, is that
his agent claims that paperbacks are on the way out. It's shifting
over to hardcover, and eventually, paperbacks will simply be second run
stuff. All the real original will be in hardcover, and paperbacks
will just be where they wind up. This seemed bizarre enough that
I asked around to other editors, and they scoffed, saying paperbacks aren't
going anywhere. So normally, I'd just dismiss the whole thing.
But Dave's experience is suggesting to me that there is at least a working
theory out there, and some publishers are trying to implement or experiment
with this theory. Lucky Dave, he gets to be the guinea
pig. I'm not sure how well grounded this working theory is.
As I said, I wasn't sure I was getting any kind of sense of awareness of
‘big picture’ from people, so this approach may be arising from a sophisticated
and systematic analysis of the industry and development of a careful marketing
strategy, or it may be like those parties where it goes really late and
everyone is throwing panties at the wall to see which ones stick.
Likely its somewhere in between. All I can say is, we'll see if it
works or not, if it doesn't, I hope it doesn't take Dave's prospective
career down with it.
I also heard the story of a young Editor at a major publishing house,
whose writing career imploded for inexplicable baroque publishing reasons
when, after publishing a successful novel with Tor's paranormal romance
line, they basically turfed her second book option. I'm not getting
into the details of this. When you start talking to people,
hear a lot of stories of how projects just sort of implode or explode.
The most disturbing part of this particular story for me is that our protagonist
is a young, incredibly well connected, extremely personable, quite talented
Editor based in New York, who knows everyone and has her finger right on
the pulse. If a person that well positioned and connected can
be hit with career implosion, what the hell chance do the rest of us have?
What the hell chance do I have sitting up in The Pas in the middle of nowhere,
struggling to keep polar bears from eating my manuscript? Ah
Other observations: There seems to be a movement towards
romance or chick-lit. I think that there's a developing perception
that many readers are women, and some conscious efforts to try and actively
cater to that. Ergo things like Tor's Paranormal Romance line.
As a side note, one interesting thing that came up was the observation
that Romance Writers invest heavily in marketing themselves and their work.
They're apparently quite aggressive and creative about self-promotion.
Within our genre, and within other genre's, this doesn't really seem to
happen much (with the notable exception of Robert Sawyer).
However, it strikes me that the current realities of publishing in our
genre are such that learning promotional skills and putting time and energy
into self-promotion like the Romance Writers do may be the way to go.
If nothing else, it seems to impress agents and editors, and it may well
be that little extra push you need. How effectively these tools
are available to me as I sit in The godforsaken Pas staring down muskrats
and wolverines, I don't know. But its something to keep in mind.
One interesting thing I got from Simon Taylor is that there's a continuing
attempt to infiltrate books into new venues or retail outlets, rather than
simply bookstores. Think of it as the Wal-Mart paradigm.
On the other hand, its not clear that its going all that smoothly.
Simon told me about British supermarkets demanding a 65% discount on book
titles as a condition of their order.
That makes for some interesting balances of negotiating power.
Supermarkets don't give a rats ass. They sell food primarily, books
are off their main product lines, and so it's a side trip to them.
On the other hand, they're a potentially huge market. So their
attitude is ‘We’ll order 30,000 units, but we want a 65% discount.
If you won't give us the discount, then screw off, we don't need it.
Its on our terms.’
For publishers, 30,000 units is a big goddamned sale. On the other
hand at 65% discounts, you'll simply go broke publishing a bestseller.
So what's the point?
Years ago, I listened to Tom Doherty talk about book racks in convenience
stores and pharmacies. His take on this was that they were
loss leaders. You weren't going to make a lot of money on this,
but it was worth doing, because that was one way you built your audience
and it would pay off in the long run. The guy who picked up a title
off the paperback rack at 7-11, would potentially go to a bookstore for
more by that author or in that genre.
Well, with Wal-Mart and other superstores, that's changed.
These stores are so big that their sales become a significant portion of
the retail market. It's not so bad with books, but I've read
somewhere that 60% of all CD's are sold through Wal-Mart, which is just
nuts. The tail starts wagging the dog.
For books, what it means is that a market niche which was traditionally
a minor part of sales and a loss leader for promotion has dramatically
morphed. Now its potentially twenty or thirty or forty per
cent of your market. And you just can’t afford to treat 40%
of your market as a loss leader, you'll lose your whole shirt.
At the same time though, your negotiating leverage with Wal-Marts or
these other superstores like Supermarkets or London Drugs, dwindles away
to just about nothing. They can shove you right up against the wall
and demand huge discounts well beyond the industries normal economics.
And the rule with these big box places is that they drive you hard.
At this point, its catch 22. You can’t afford to get on
board, but you can’t afford to stay off. I'm not really sure that
the publishing industry has really gotten a handle on this, and I suspect
its going to be troubling for a few years to come. I don't
think anyone has really figured out yet how to incorporate big-box store
sales into the overall marketing strategy, so look for groans and crunches
One thing that occurs to me is that one of the handicaps we're looking
at in this area is publishing inertia. Books as they exist
now come as trade paperbacks, paperbacks and hardcovers, and they're designed,
formatted and marketed to be sold in and through bookstores. Well,
that's fine. But are the sales strategies, packaging and formatting
really well designed or adapted to be sold in a big-box store medium like
Wal-Mart or a supermarket? Is the key fitting this particular
lock. I don't know. But I have to wonder.
A couple of months ago, I bought a copy of Planet Simpson at the Safeway.
It was just sitting there loose in a big bin filled with an apparently
random assortment of a half dozen titles. It hardly seemed elegant,
and definitely didn't seem effective.
So, I suspect that there's going to be some sort of learning curve at
work as publishers and big box stores learn the best ways to package, format
and sell books. Of course, I suspect that this is going to
be an incremental process, that its going to be trial and error, and its
likely to be a noisy painful process, particularly for publishers and writers.
One observation that came to me from Michael Stackpole had to do with
Young Adult novels. Stackpole essentially felt that publishers
had missed the boat. When Harry Potter hit it big, a lot of sci-fi
publishers jumped on the bandwagon by simply re-labelling their adult SF
as young adult. Consequently, it didn't really sell or break through
all that well. Stackpole's idea was that established SF writers
should have been encouraged to do YA stories set in their worlds or YA
versions of their books. Its an interesting notion, and I'm
not sure how far I endorse it.
But the big thing that came out for me with my conversation with Stackpole
was how sectoralized publishing was. The YA people are off
there, the SF people are over here, the Romance people are somewhere else.
SF and F might do very well by working more closely with YA, to grow their
audience as kids mature, rather than risking them dropping out altogether.
There seems to be more cross-genre stuff happening, as with the overlaps
between romance and fantasy. But overall, these efforts feel tentative
and isolated. Tor might dabble in Paranormal Romance, but basically,
its just Tor people and Tor think putting on funny clothes, rather than
communication between different publishing sectors.
Anyway, this is interesting, and its worth talking about and keeping
an eye on, just to see if it goes anywhere.
One of the most remarkable developments, at least to me, was the apparent
explosion of the small press industry. Now, maybe its me.
But attending this year's World Fantasy Con, I was struck by both the proliferation
and the quality of small press publications, even over three years ago.
As I've said, I might be completely out to lunch here. The
small press has been around in genre publishing for a long long time.
All the way back to Arkham House in the fifties. But its volume and
its importance have fluctuated over time. These days, I have
an unverified impression that the small press may be in an extremely strong,
perhaps unprecedented, up phase.
I think that there are several reasons for this. For one
thing, I think that desktop publishing, computers and new printing techniques
have made it viable to do small print runs of impressive quality.
I was looking at trade paperbacks and hardcovers that in terms of price
and production quality were as or more impressive than anything produced
by the mainstream publishers. These people have moved way past
While I don't have the economics down, a few thumbnail evaluations suggest
to me that small presses may be theoretically quite viable, provided that
they can find their markets. Take a 24 dollar trade paperback,
assume 1000 copies, that's potentially $24,000. What's your
production cost? $1000? $5000? Sell through tables
at specialty conventions, through the internet, specialized stores, allow
a larger or longer window... Even paying the writer, the middlemen,
you might clear a few thousand dollars. What doesn't sell immediately
becomes a potential collectible, the volume is fairly easily stored in
a trunk or a basement. The economics seem, at first blush, to be
But there's more to it than that, I believe. It strikes
me that the proliferation of small presses may be a by-product of shake
ups in the larger market.
Consider this: The current gestalt is death to mid-list
writers. That means that there are a hell of a lot of talented
writers out there, writers with track records, critical reputations, followings,
that are finding it hard to get published. So....
Look at it this way: Suppose Writer A can’t sell 100,000
paperbacks at 10 bucks a shot, he's just not got enough pull in the mass
market. On the other hand a failure to appeal sufficiently
to grab the brass ring in the mass market, isn't necessarily the end of
the story. Does Writer A have enough of a track record and
cult audience to sell 1000 autographed small press hardcovers at 40 bucks
a pop? It strikes me that an established mid-list writer may
not have sales satisfactory to the mass market targets of the major publishers,
but he or she might still be attractive enough to the audience they already
have that a viable fraction of that audience could support small press
I don't know if I've made that coherent enough. But what I'm thinking
is that the economics and difficulties of production have dropped on one
side, and the availability of a large pool of talented writers with reputations
and followings has expanded on the other side, and these two things are
fueling an expansion of the small press, both commercially and creatively.
Successful writers in the commercial stream, including Steve Erickson
are also dropping things in on small presses, and there's some indication
that small presses are a starting point for at least some writers who go
on to critical or commercial success.
Steve Erickson by the way, is a Canadian writer, formerly of Winnipeg,
who is writing the “Malazan Books of the Fallen” series. He
got published in England, got a very good deal, and now he's committed
to a series of gargantuan Malazan novels. But he's also publishing
Malazan novellas and other short novels outside the Malazan series through
small presses in England and the US.
It seems to be an American phenomenon principally, and seems to gravitate
to larger conventions and populations. I'm not seeing anything
of this sort at places like Keycon, for instance, where the population
density just doesn't throw up enough dedicated fans of Writer A to make
it worthwhile. The Americans have huge conventions, like Dragoncon
with its 20,000 attendance, or hyperspecialized forums like World Horror
or World Fantasy.
Canada? Maybe Toronto or Vancouver. You might see
population densities being viable there. There is of course the Tesseracts
and On-Spec folk out of Alberta, but they seem to precede this apparent
small press boom by many years. I'm not sure if they're taking advantage
of it or positioned to take advantage of it.
It also seems to be connected to specialty bookstores in the states.
This is principally an inchoate impression. But it struck me that
many people in small press, particularly the more ambitious side of the
small press, seem to also be with bookstores or booksellers. It seems
that it would be logical though. Don't quote me on this.
There are signs that I'm not completely off track here, and that there
really is a trend. At the World Fantasy Awards there were quite a
few nominees and even winners who were identifiably part of the small press
movement. And there was a big sentimental sloppy tribute to
Arkham House which suggested that the small press movement was riding high.
So anyway, I'm seeing a small press explosion as the opposite side of
the coin to what the mainstream or commercial presses are doing these days.
For writers, this is encouraging, particularly if you have any facility
with self-promotion. The advice I get is not to start with
small presses, but to try the top and work your way down. Its likely
that you'll have a hard time making it up the ladder if your initial novels
start with small presses. But at least it does seem to be an
alternative career track that can be pursued, and given the developing
critical credibility of small presses, it may well be a pathway into the
majors. More to the point, the Small Presses may offer a second kick
at the cat, either to enhance and build on commercial success, as with
Steve Erikson, or it may be a viable bolt hole to try and leapfrog over
career crises or paralysis in the mainstream.
For me, the key to small press success and health depends a lot on their
ability to reach their audience. Homer Whipple sitting
at home in Dubuque, Iowa in his Mom's basement, may well shell out 50 bucks
for a rare small press Malazan novel... But how do we reach Homer
As to where it goes, I dunno. One thing is that the small
press has been a stable feature of SF for at least fifty years or so.
On that basis, we might expect it to continue indefinitely.
On the other hand, if the small press marketing model crosses certain thresholds
of success, we could expect mainstream publishers to dive in, establishing
their own ‘small press/specialty’ imprints and bringing their huge advantages
in money, distribution and marketing. If that's the case, then
we might well see all sorts of different things happening - the majors
could wipe out the genuine small press, replacing it with a faux small
press. Or the small press marketplace could be so saturated
and overblown that it eventually implodes. Or maybe things will just
carry on. Or maybe participation of major publishers in this forum
will be a ladder that real small presses can climb up, infiltrating larger
audiences and ultimately resulting in a stable, larger marketplace.
Here's another wild card that no one seems to have much grasp on:
Print On Demand Publishing. All I can say is that the technology
seems to be there, and it seems to be getting better. As to
where its going to go and what its going to amount to, I can’t tell you.
It may wind up being the Electrical Car, a kind of marginal curiosity.
Or it could be the thing that reshapes the industry.
The most remarkable thing about POD publishing was how completely absent
it was from most discussions. At most, it was barely alluded
Anyway, I find myself looking at the publishing industry and my best
description of my thoughts seems to be: Intense guessing.
I spent a weekend, I talked to a bunch of people, I draw on things I've
seen and heard over the years, and I've formed some half baked working
theories. How good they are, what I've missed, what I've hit, I don't
But for me, even a half baked theory is better than just flailing about
randomly. Trying to understand what's going on in the marketplace
allows me to formulate some kind of strategy for trying to break in, and
to have some kind of optimism about my chances. So, there you
If anyone wants to kick these ideas around, or offer their own ideas,
feel free. I think I'd enjoy a discussion. If not, then
at least you have my thoughts, for whatever they're worth.
Writers' Panel at a Previous Con
Josepha Sherman, Darlene D. Bolesny, Den Valdron,