Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Publishing Doom Loop

NaNo progress: I topped 20,000 words last night and have more than made up for the Saturday off. However, I sense an "all" binge in the making. We'll see if I give into it or if I hold fast to the idea of giving myself time to have a life and find balance.

Thanks for all the book recommendations. I think I know what I'll buy next time I'm near a bookstore so I can do my part to Save Publishing and I also have a library list. Not that I was running out of things to read. My issue was finding things I wanted to buy. But a list of books to read is always good.

Yesterday, I blamed the publishing doom loop for the reason I can't find much that I want to read right now. That concept came from the business book Good to Great, and I did a whole post on how that book might apply to writers. But I think the doom loop concept applies more to the publishing industry, as a whole.

As a refresher, the ideal is to go with the "flywheel" approach, where you can slowly and steadily build momentum over time until that momentum keeps it turning with minimal effort. That requires consistency and sticking with things rather than constantly changing course. The opposite is the doom loop, where you get into a vicious cycle of chasing after trends and changing direction so that you never end up getting anywhere.

So, here's how I see the publishing doom loop working, based on whatever insight I've gleaned from dealing with this industry.

Stage One:
A book comes seemingly out of nowhere to become a huge bestseller. It's new and fresh, and there hasn't really been much of anything like it before. Quite often, it's a book that was rejected by almost every other publisher, not because it wasn't a good book but because they didn't know what to do with it. It didn't fit into a convenient niche. Because it was new and unique, there was nothing else to compare it to. When an editor makes a pitch for a publisher to buy a book, the editor doesn't just make a case for what a great book it is and how much people will like it. She also has to pull together projected profit and loss numbers about how the book will be expected to sell, and those numbers come from looking at the performance of similar books. With no similar books, there aren't good numbers for the P&L projections, and that means the bean counters and the sales staff will give it the big thumbs down. The publisher that bought the book took a big risk, but that risk paid off.

Stage Two:
All those publishers that originally rejected the bestselling book now want to jump on the bandwagon and publish something similar. Because of the stellar performance of that book, their P&L projections on similar projects all look really promising, so the bean counters and sales staff give a big thumbs up. Never mind that the other things kind of like the original book they rejected earlier may not actually be as good. Every publisher in town wants a book like that, so anything that comes close will likely sell for a pretty high advance and get a good promotional push. Meanwhile, the readers who loved the original book have been looking for something more like it, so they pounce on these new books, and they become bestsellers.

Hollywood notices the trend and starts optioning books for film adaptation. Editors start talking at writing conferences or in interviews about how they'd love to see more books like this.

Stage Three:
All those bestsellers make the publishers giddy. They want even more books like that, to the point that they're buying things they might not have considered previously. But hey, the P&L projections look amazing, so who cares? There's a clearly demonstrated demand for this kind of book, and readers want more, more, more! When they can't fill slots with this kind of book, they find ways to package other, slightly similar books in ways that make them look like they kind of might possibly be books like this. They may encourage some of their current authors who aren't writing this kind of book to try writing one like it. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer slots left open for any other kind of book -- so that some of those authors already working with the publisher may not be able to sell books unless they try writing this kind of book. Authors who want to break in look at this as their big chance and try writing this kind of book, even if that's not what they read and enjoy. Readers who aren't into the new trend can't find anything to read and may even get out of the habit of book shopping so that sales of other kinds of books drop, and those numbers validate the publishers' decision to focus on this trend.

Things start to take on a look of sameness at the bookstore. The books in that hot subgenre/category reach critical mass, and even the devoted readers who love books like that can't possibly buy them all. They start picking and choosing, and they're seeing a quality drop as the authors who were merely jumping on the bandwagon or who were more or less forced onto the bandwagon don't produce books these readers find very satisfying. Instead of all the readers buying all of the few books like that available, as before, all those readers are spread out over a wider number of books, so the sales numbers for each individual book are lower, even if overall total sales in that subgenre/category remain high.

Stage Four:
Because the way publishers and bookstores track sales is on a book-by-book level, all they see is that sales are dropping. When sales drop on certain titles, that means the comparable numbers for future potential books like that look worse, and the publishers start wondering if the trend is about to end. The bookstore chains order fewer of each title like that or fewer of those authors' next books because they base their orders on previous sales. Meanwhile, readers are mostly still enthusiastic about that kind of book, though they're starting to be even more careful about their purchases because they've been burned on the lower-quality books the publisher flooded the market with or with the books that weren't actually like that but that were given covers and marketing treatment to look like that. After being burned, they learn to go with known quantities and stick to the first-wave authors they've read before and loved. They're leery of new authors.

Stage Five:
Books by authors who weren't in that first wave of the trend start tanking, so publishers are leery of buying any more, and the bookstores don't order as much of the books that are already in the pipeline, which guarantees that the books will tank before readers even get a chance to consider them. The publishers evaluate the situation and decide that the problem was that all those books were too similar. They start looking for books that are similar to the trend, but different somehow, with some kind of twist. They reject anything that's too much like the original books that started the trend, except maybe by that core of first-wave authors who continue to sell well. Some of those authors have grown bored with writing that type of book and try to move on to something else. The more marginal authors who came along at a bad time and ended up being victim to the downward trend have to reinvent themselves.

Meanwhile, the readers are still enthusiastic about that kind of book and buy a lot of their favorites, but there are still too many books for them to buy them all, and they become pickier. The people who work at bookstores and who see the kind of books they ring up at the cash register, instead of looking at the performance of each individual ISBN, think those books are still hot because they sell a lot of books like that.

Stage Six:
The "same, but different" books start hitting the shelves. The readers who've been driving the trend, who liked that kind of book, don't really like the "same, but different" books, so they tank. There was a reason they liked the original books, and these new ones are missing the mark. All that's left of the kind of books these readers wanted are the ones written by those bestselling authors who still have the leeway to write the "classic" books of that type without trying to be different. Those continue to sell well, but the rest of that market totally dies. The publishers conclude that no one wants books like that anymore, and the trend is dead. The bestselling authors from that trend are now considered author brands and not part of the trend. Their books continue to sell well, but publishers won't even look at anything else that looks remotely like the books in that trend, and they've pretty much dropped all their midlist authors who were part of that trend, unless they've been able to switch gears and write something different. Readers get frustrated because they can't find new books by some of the authors they liked. They still like those books, and they bought a lot of them, so they don't understand why they went away like that. The surviving bestsellers can't write fast enough to provide enough books like that, and the readers have gone from feast to famine. When the surviving authors do have books out, they're smash hits. Bookstore clerks continue to think that these books are hot because whatever they get like that now, they sell a lot of, and their customers keep asking for more like that.

Meanwhile, a new manuscript is making the rounds, but most of the publishers don't know what to do with it because there isn't anything like it already on the market for them to plug comparable numbers into a P&L sheet.

Stage Seven:
One publisher takes a chance and buys that book, which becomes a major bestseller. And it all begins again.


Carradee said...


Love it! Ever try to write a satire? :-D

Shanna Swendson said...

Sadly, this isn't really satire. This is pretty much exactly what happens. I couldn't make this stuff up. If I did, there would be more gargoyles.

Carradee said...

I realize this post is what happens in actuality—but isn't having a keen sense of actuality a significant portion of being able to write satire?