Monday, September 20, 2010

Whither Goes Value?

I'm back to address the question of value in publishing. As I begin, I'd like to point out a post on that subject by Kassia Krozser at Booksquare here.

Kassia describes her annoyance with a favorite author whose books are still being published in hardcover although the quality has noticeably slipped:

Very recently, the author confessed in a public forum that she’d been off her game with her recent releases. Health issues ...

[Her] publisher sold readers a book they knew was not very good ... So much for the gatekeeping function of publishers ... How are we supposed to discern value when we cannot trust publishers to perform the most basic duty of vetting books for quality?

Kassia makes an excellent point. Whether we pay $25 for a hardcover or $15 for a trade paper or $8 for a paperback, we want to know that we're going to get our money's worth.

And that leads me to the point of this post. The publishing industry has painted itself into a corner at exactly the worst time to do so. They've been heading this way for forty years, and now they're facing the perfect storm. Let me recap recent publishing history:

  • Deregulation of major industries began in the '70s, leading to the creation of giant conglomerates, which in turn led to concentration of the media industry. Along with radio and television stations and newspapers and magazines, independent publishing houses got snapped up by mega-corporations. The Big Six of publishing grew out of this movement.

  • Corporations must answer to their shareholders, who expect rising profits and fat dividends. Taking chances is dangerous when you must answer to your stockholders once a quarter. This reluctance to take chances led to publishers' increasing reliance on already proven entities like best-selling authors ... and led to bidding wars and huge advances for those mega-stars.

  • The need to earn out those advances explains the publishing rat race where an author is expected to produce a new book every year. This means that authors are put into the position of writing a new book while editing the last book and at the same time doing publicity for the book that was just released. Is it any wonder that quality begins to slip?

  • Meanwhile publishers and editors are on their own version of the never-ending treadmill. Under pressure to produce higher profits, they seek to cut costs while continuing to release best-sellers. The fear of making a mistake only increases the tendency to formula because everyone wants to sell what has already proven to sell before.
Over the last week, I've read two novels by authors whose earlier books simply delighted me. I was really looking forward to reading the new book from each, and both proved to be enormous disappointments.

I'd read multiple books by the first author and loved his characters, his world-building and his unique take on urban fantasy. This time around, he developed a complicated plot twist that reminded me of Laurell K. Hamilton's ardeur, a deus ex machina that came out of nowhere to solve the author's problems. The big clue that it wasn't working was that he spent more time explaining it than he did on moving the plot forward or on developing his characters. Because I'd wanted to support the writer's career, I'd bought the paperback new. [Shrug] I don't begrudge the eight bucks, and I'll probably try the next book, but my expectations won't be as high.

The other author was obviously trying to continue the momentum of a terrific first novel. He threw everything but the kitchen sink into the second outing. His villains were so bizarre, they kept me at a distance from the story. To make matters worse, the author's mode of delivery was simply too choppy. He used the device of skipping to a different subplot in each chapter so that, as a reader, I was keeping track of six different ongoing subplots. That, in and of itself, wouldn't usually have been an issue. However, his chapters were very short and the subplots very complex. I got tired of working so hard and of skipping all over the place.

The novel ripped the sheets with me over a continuity error. In Chapter 69 (a two-page chapter only halfway through the book), began with the protagonist talking to a woman through his earpiece. On the next page, she shook his hand -- through the earpiece??? I put the book down, and I don't expect to pick it up again. In my effort to support the author, I'd paid $15 for the trade paper. I feel ripped off and doubt I'll buy another of his books without an endorsement from someone I trust.

In both cases, the p-books had been released exactly a year after the previous outing in the two series.

It comes as a shock to some new authors. They've spent years honing and polishing their first novel. Then--all of a sudden--they have nine months to write a second novel while promoting that first book. And it gets tougher from there.

Think about it. As the industry moves to e-book releases, that annual timetable is probably going to shrink because e-books don't require the same amount of prep time to release that p-books do.

Add to that, the new agency model and arguments over book prices, and then throw in publishers trying to build their own brands, and you have the making of a perfect storm.

[Shakes head sadly]

Batten down the hatches.


Jan Springer said...

Yep, you got it right. The perfect storm...

I loved that movie btw. *grin*

Maya Reynolds said...

Hey, Jan Springer! Haven't talked to you in a long while.

Hope all is well with you.