Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Life in the Casino

The world of publishing is a confusing one. On the one hand, it's a business. Obviously it's a business. Publishers aren't there to lose money. Writers expect to get paid for their work and all the many other people involved (agents, editors, book designers, sales and marketing people) expect to get paid, too.

On the other hand, publishing falls clearly in the arts with one big foot in the entertainment industry. Many other discliplines in the arts require fundraising or grants (public or private) to exist (ballets, theatres, art galleries) but publishing does not.

Because of this one foot in the arts and one foot in business dichotomy, publishing, in many ways, doesn't (thank God, in my opinion) follow many of what would be called "best business practices" in other industries. If it did, then only the sure things would ever get published. And only the lowest common denominator of reader (in terms of taste, education, etc.) would be catered to.

Now, some may argue that's already true. But I think that's too cynical. (And this from a known cynic.) Lots of really different and exciting and challenging books get published. Books I'm sure are considered a HUGE gamble by everyone involved and that are published not because anyone can produce a spreadsheet or report predicting with any accuracy how well it will sell, but simply because those involved in the process LOVE the book and believe in it. Often it's those books that break through and sell well. Often it's not. Often it's the ones with more obvious mass appeal that do well... And nothing wrong with that either. Point is, there's still room for lots of different books to get published. (Just not room for as many as those of us hoping to join the ranks of published authors would like.)

I found the recent article in the New York Times very fun and interesting to read.

I'd read a similar (but much less accessible) essay on this topic written by a British statistician, a few years ago, but can't remember the man's name. One of the arguments I do remember him making in his essay stood out for me, though. He argued that if Yann Martel hadn't received so many rejections from all the big publishers for Life of Pi, it never would have become a bestseller. Why? Because a bigger house wouldn't have put him forward for the Booker prize (they would have nominated one of their bestsellers) and it was only after winning that prize that the book got so huge. So, if he'd sold sooner and to a bigger house, (even the publisher of his first two books which passed on Pi, it probably would have languished on the shelves and sold a few hundred copies. (Most people don't realize that of Life of Pi was first published by a small press and only picked up by the big boys after it won the prize.)

Moral is, Many different random stars need to align for even the best books to get noticed.

My favorite line of the whole NYT article comes at the end, where Sittenfeld states that an editor once told her, “People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.”

Yes, it's all a big gamble.

Every time a writer sits down at her computer, she's taking a huge risk. Spending hours, weeks, months, years working on something that may never earn a penny and that others may not like. Every time an agent takes on a book or a client he/she's taking a risk that he/she'll spend a lot of time/effort trying to sell a book to no end. Every time an editor decides he/she loves a book she's taking a risk on her credibility and her job by telling her bosses at the publisher she thinks they should spend money on acquiring the rights to publish it. The publisher is taking a risk that the editor is right. The publisher also takes a risk when they decide how much of an advance on royalties to pay an author, how much publicity to do, how much co-op advertising (usually zero) to engage in, etc. etc. etc.

And it's all a big crap shoot.

Just a few days before I saw that NYT article, I found these statistics in a Harpers magazine. (On the always fun and interesting Harpers List page.)

  • Minimum number of different books sold in the US last year based on Nielson Bookscan: 1,446,000

  • Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000

  • Number that sold more than 100,000 copies: 483

A bit depressing? Sure. But it's just reality and further proof of the whole casino theory.

Better get back to rolling the dice.


Molly O'Keefe said...

that statistic about the number of books that sell 99 copies simply blows me away. Just when I start to lament writing for Harlequin I realize that I am a part of something that works -- that might take the big gamble out of the casino aspect of the business.

But it also makes me lament the number of great books we never know about.

Anonymous said...

These statistics remind me of an article I once read about the Wright brothers. It had to do with how if they had ever really known the odds of success stacked against them, they would have given up from the beginning. Since they were ignorant of the fact that they had no chance of success, they just kept on trying until - voila - their plane flew.

And 'Life of Pi' - absolutely brilliant. One of my top three most thought-provoking reads ever (the other two being 'The Poisonwood Bible' and 'Fall on Your Knees') I think it should become mandatory reading in all Canadian schools - sort of like what they do with 'Anne of Green Gables' now.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is an amazing statistic and sort of gives us an indication of how many books are published every year.

Maya, I loved, loved, loved Poisonwood Bible and Fall on Your Knees as well.
Amazing books, definitely in my top ten.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I could not get through Fall On Your Knees -- I feel bad about that. I might be the only person. But Posionwood Bible was a masterwork. Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I couldn't put Fall on Your Knees down. Went to work seriously sleep deprived a couple of days because of that book..

But that's the whole subjectivity of this business and why it's a casino.

You just never know what floats one person's boat will tank with another..

I still love it..

Molly O'Keefe said...

Hey my son is teething, has diarhea, a cold and NOW an ear infection and I'm hungover -- I totally blame Maureen. That was the best second baby shower ever.

Anonymous said...

I'm so jealous you're hungover...

And my kid has a cold as well...

But you were at least drunk sometime in the past century..

I'm so getting drunk at your next baby shower...

Maureen McGowan said...

I fail to see how I should take blame for your hangover, Molly. :-)

I hold you fully responsible for mine.

Great day, although one might question a "shower" for Sinead where no baby presents are offered and basically she just watched you and I get sloshed on red wine all afternoon. At least we bought her lunch. Sorry, Sinead. :-)

Karen In Toronto said...

Excellent blog. Great article at NYT as well. Writing is such a crap shoot. Write what you want. Who knows if/when it will sell. How many authors have you heard of that knocked on every publishers door until finally one gave in. Or the author that wrote 10 manuscripts before she sold the 11th, afterwhich all ended up being published.

All we can do is keep on writing, improve our craft and let our voice soar. And hope our numbers turn up soon.

BTW Lotto 6/49's $25 Million next Wednesday.

P.S. If you couldn't get through 'Fall on Your Knees', try her 'The Way the Crow Flys'. Haunting and beautiful.

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