Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why There's a Doom Loop

NaNo update: I should hit the halfway point today! Yesterday was the first time I finished my target word count early in the day without having anything else I needed to work on. Theoretically, that should have meant the rest of the day was free, but I found myself writing nearly 2,000 more words and feeling guilty when I wasn't writing. I still managed to do a ton of laundry and some tidying, but I need to work on that idea of giving myself free time after meeting my writing goals.

To follow up from yesterday's post, why does the publishing world operate in a doom loop when it should seem obvious to anyone with common sense that it doesn't work?

For one thing, I'm sure I vastly oversimplified the scenario. There are so many people and numbers and books involved that it may be impossible to really see the pattern, especially not from within the company, and changing anything would mean taking the kind of huge risks that businesses usually avoid.

For another, publishing certainly isn't alone. Almost every industry I've dealt with functioned in a kind of doom loop. You see similar things in movies, television and music. Something is successful, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and soon there aren't a lot of other options, so they lose the part of the audience that doesn't see anything they like, and then the remaining audience is spread too thin across what's left until everything tanks, and it starts all over again when someone takes a risk to do something new. Everyone sits around waiting for someone else to be the one to go out on a limb with the new thing, and then they're willing to pounce when it works, but then they kill it when they all go overboard with it because no one wants to be the one to cut back on doing something that's currently popular, even though they're flooding the market.

I didn't work with publishing in the Good Old Days, so I don't know if what I've heard is merely misty water-colored memories tinted heavily by nostalgia, but apparently it used to be a "gentleman's endeavor." Someone with money who liked books would set up a publishing house, and since there were no computers to track the minute details of profit and loss, the business decisions were mostly made on gut instinct and weighing the merits of individual books, and as long as the trust fund was still more or less intact, then all was well. But I suspect that if that model had really been all that successful, those publishers would still be around in more or less that form. Instead, though, they merged or were bought out, and now major corporate entities own most of the publishers. There are about five or six major conglomerates these days, encompassing all the little publishers from days of yore. Names like News Corp., Viacom and Disney are involved, and the groups that aren't owned by entertainment giants are owned by foreign holding companies that may or may not have anything to do with books. That means it's now about the money, and the fast money, at that, because the shareholders want to see their stock prices go up. It's very hard to take a "flywheel" approach in a publicly traded company because Wall Street likes to see activity. Steady momentum doesn't look like activity.

Another thing about the Good Old Days was that they didn't have elaborate inventory-tracking systems and point-of-sale data recording. Bookstores knew what they'd sold when they saw an empty spot on the shelf or noticed the book going out the door. Publishers knew what books were selling and what books weren't when they got returned books from the stores or orders for more books. That could have been months later, and when you don't get sales data until months later, it's really hard to jump on trends. Now they know day-by-day exactly how a book is selling, and all decisions are made on those hard numbers, often just looking at the bottom line instead of considering other data points. With services like Bookscan, publishers now also have access to numbers for every book, even their competitors', so that makes it that much easier to jump on a bandwagon when they see something taking off, and they have all those numbers to plug into P&L projections.

One big problem is that it's nearly impossible to track demand that's not being met. I used to do PR for a company that did supply chain management software (you see why I write books now instead?), and supposedly they could make sure that things that customers wanted would be where they wanted them, when they wanted them by analyzing sales data and feeding that into ordering systems. I stumped a room full of engineers by asking what happened if something someone wanted wasn't in the store, so there was no sales data. They knew what customers were buying and could supply more of the same, but they had no way of knowing about potential sales that they'd lost, either because that item was out of stock that day or because the item didn't exist. And I haven't thought of a reliable way of capturing that. When the helpful cashier asks if you found everything you were looking for, what she means is was there a product that exists that they carry that you didn't find on their shelves that day -- maybe because you didn't know where they shelved it or because they were out. She's not gathering information on what you'd really like to find but that no one makes.

At bookstores, you can ask for books they don't stock to be special ordered, and that often will trigger the computer inventory system to put them in the store's usual inventory. But if no one's publishing what you want to read, there's no real way of letting publishers know that. All they can do to measure public taste is see how well what they make available sells, and that tends to trigger the doom loop because it just feeds on itself.

So, say I'm browsing a bookstore and a helpful bookseller notices me wandering aimlessly around the shelves and frowning. After she catches me in a flying tackle when I try to avoid getting help even though I really need it (I have issues with that), she sits on my back and asks if there's something I'm looking for. She can only really help me if I know a title or author she can type into the computer and tell me if that book is in stock or if she has to order it for me. If she's a really knowledgeable bookseller, she can ask about the kind of book I'm looking for and maybe make a recommendation based on her own observations and reading. So, because she's sitting on my back and won't let me go until I let her help me, I tell her that I'd like to find a fun contemporary-set fantasy novel that's more about magic and wizards and stuff like that in the modern world, and not about vampires, werewolves and all that dark stuff. Something more like Harry Potter, with that sense of whimsy even as the plots got serious, but for grown-ups. And not a paranormal romance, either. I don't mind romance mixed in, but I want the story to focus on the fantasy, not the romance. "Hmm," she might say, "have you read Shanna Swendson?" I'd say that I am Shanna Swendson, and therefore I've read that whole series, thank you very much. I want something like that without me having to write it. If she can't think of anything to recommend, we're both out of luck. I don't find a book, and she doesn't make a sale. After she lets me up, it's not like she can get on the Batphone to corporate headquarters and let them know about the kind of book a customer was looking for that they didn't have. The bookstore chain can't send out an alert to publishers saying "Here are the kinds of books our customers requested this week. Maybe you should publish something like this."

I don't think it would do any good for readers to go directly to publishers and say what they'd love to see. I know I've chatted with editor friends, but that doesn't help, as they can only go with what authors send them, and then there's all that pesky P&L stuff, so that if something like that doesn't exist, they can't get numbers and will have trouble getting corporate buy-in even if someone writes it. They're not going to go out seeking a certain kind of manuscript on the basis of a few readers saying what they'd love to see. I have heard editors at conventions asking people what they'd like to see more of, but a few people who really want something doesn't mean that thousands of people are dying for that same thing. Obviously, there isn't a huge hunger for the kind of light contemporary fantasy I'm looking for or else my books would be selling a lot better, since there aren't a lot of other options out there for readers who want that kind of thing (or, perhaps, the people who really want that kind of thing aren't finding these books because they aren't shelved as fantasy, but that's an old, futile argument).

So, I think that's a lot of the problem. The decisions are made based on which items out of those currently available sell well -- and even there, they don't actually know why they're selling or not selling, so that doesn't help in making other decisions. And there's no way to know who's not buying books and why not, so the trends sort of feed on themselves.

Plus, I don't think the publishers and booksellers take responsibility for their roles in the trends. They act like it's all the readers at fault -- the readers were the ones driving the trend by buying the books and the readers were the ones who rejected the trend when they stopped buying the books. There may be some readers who are heavily influenced by trends and who will only read what's popular, but the majority are most likely reading what they like out of what's available. When a trend takes off, it's not because all the readers only want to read that kind of book. When a trend dies, it's not because readers who used to like that thing have totally changed their tastes and no longer do (though they may get burned out when there's nothing else to read). The trend happens because that's what publishers are putting out there and pushing. That's where they focus their marketing. Because of that marketing, that's what bookstores are buying, and that's what you'll see prominently displayed. And, guess what, people are more likely to buy books they can see. If something is trendy and you like that sort of thing, you can stand at the table in the bookstore aisle and gather an armload of books. You don't need word of mouth to find those books. If what you like isn't trendy, you may have to dig harder to find fewer books to your taste. You'll have to read book blogs or online bookstore recommendations, or dig through the shelves at the back of the store. Which kind of book is going to sell better?

Tomorrow, I'll have my recommendations to whoever wants to spearhead the revolution and change things (actually running the revolution would be too much work).

1 comment:

Angie said...

Is it possible that services like Amazon's "Items other customers have purchased" could help fill that gap by truly analyzing the choices that consumers make to determine whether it is the romance or fantasy element they seem drawn to in their purchases?