Sunday, January 17, 2010

Publishing Down the Road

Publishing Down the Road
Carolyn Haines

If I had a crystal ball, I still don’t think I could predict how publishing will shake out in the next decade. Technological changes (some would say advances but I’m a troglodyte) are coming so hard and fast that about the time I adjust to some new gismo, an entirely new market or way of doing business gallops over the horizon.

Storytelling is a part of the human condition. Fiction illuminates and creates order out of chaos, and we need that. Having worked as a journalist, I’m positive there is more truth in fiction than in “bald facts.” There is certainly more justice in books than in our legal system. I can’t imagine a world without mysteries, romantic tales, adventures and quests, fantasy and horror. Words are magical things. With squiggles on a page, a good writer can bring a reader to laughter or tears. That, folks, is magic of the highest order.

Whether those words will be delivered electronically or traditionally between the covers of a book, I won’t even try to predict. Personally, while I see the advantages of the electronic readers, I’m the kind of gal who likes to hold the book in my hand, to feel the weight of it, to know when I’m getting close to the end so I can slow down and savor the final pages.

What I do know is that if authors aren’t protected in these new technological methods of delivery, we won’t be able to continue writing, no matter how much we love it. The statistics I’ve heard on writing is that only 5 percent of working writers today make a living wage from their work. That means 95 percent are holding down day jobs and writing at night. That’s a tough schedule, especially for those with families or ill parents or a million other issues. Already underpaid, many of these writers will simply have to stop.

This market shakedown, according to capitalistic principles, is what’s supposed to happen. Those who make a lot of money stay, others die. Survival of the fittest. All well and good, unless one of those fading away happens to be your favorite author. I get a lot of emails from readers who like my work, but they also ask about other authors. “Where has so-and-so gone? I loved his/her series but he/she hasn’t had a new book for two years.”

Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I know this author has returned to the work force, or taken a second job, to keep the bank from repossessing his/her home. It wasn’t a lack of talent or grit or determination that ended this career—it was a lack of money.

Sometimes it’s the author’s choice to stop writing. Other times the publisher won’t offer a new contract. Publishers have to show a profit on books they publish. It’s a business. While I don’t like some aspects of this business, I realize publishers have a bottom line to meet, just as we all do.

My concern here is the proliferation of free content offered to readers. Or content sold well below the cost of producing it. Just remember that someone has to pay for the $8 books and the free downloads. The idea that such “cheap” exposure leads to wider sales and a growth audience may or may not work. Trickle-down economics didn’t work all that well for me back in the 80s. I can’t see how shifting a free audience to a paying audience will work either, but hey, I’m a writer not an economist.

Many people want to compare the book business to the music business, but I disagree. It takes three minutes to listen to a song. And often you want to hear that song multiple times if you like it. A book is very different. A book is an investment of time, and while I have some books I read every year, many I do not revisit. Ever.

A singer or band who builds a following with .99 cent songs has the option of touring to make money. Can you imagine four or five authors traveling around reading their latest chapters? And sorry, but if we are on tour all the time, when will we write and work the day jobs? Frankly, I just don’t see an evening of public reading as a hot ticket. Would that I had the charisma of a rock or country star.

While I don’t have any answers for the future of publishing, I will offer some predictions. Mid-range publishers will grow and thrive, bringing out new and original voices. Big publishers will cease and desist with the ridiculous $4 million advances for political/celebrity books that don’t earn out. Many, many midlist authors will fade away.

Whatever form it takes, storytelling will still be with us, as riveting and wonderful as ever.

Carolyn Haines has been named the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award. Her latest book, DELTA BLUES, is a compilation of stories which she edited, and will be published in March of 2010. Haines is an avid animal activist and cares for 22 animals: horses, cats, and dogs. Visit her on Facebook at and check out her website at and be sure to sign up for her newsletter.


Karin Gillespie said...

Great blog. Congrtulations on the Harper Lee award!

Bente Gallagher said...

What Karin said. Awesome post! And congrats on the award!

(And just because it happens to be true and I'm not really sucking up if it's true: I just finished reading Greedy Bones, and was thrilled to find Jeannie Holmes and Crimson Swan in there!)

Carolyn said...

Thank you both! I really am deeply honored by the award.

Theresa Shadrix said...


I couldn't agree more and this is a great post! There really is no substitute for storytelling and good books. Imagine trying to give an electronic book as a gift to someone...not very personal!
Also, congratulations on the Harper Lee award!

Carolyn said...

Thank you, Theresa. My head (which measures 23 inches on a normal day) is swelling with pride over the Harper Lee Award. I may have to get a neck brace.

Eleanor Andrews said...

Carolyn, I agree!

Hardcover, paperback, trade paper, and ebook are not locked in battle. These formats are mere flavors and reflect differing tastes.

The real war rages with content. How can publishers battle free content? Free loses appeal once it gains a price.

The midlist has been dying a slow and painful death -- for years. The front list has caught the dreaded lack of sales disease and the back list still sells, modestly.

The large pubs need to restructure the "house" and make changes.

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