Pub Rants

Unexpected Twist To Economic Downturn

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STATUS: Off to Fort Collins for the Northern Colorado Writers Conference. Lots of new publishing news hitting the internet. If you haven’t seen this article about HarperCollins advance-less imprint in WSJ, you might want to give it a look.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE WAY I AM by Ingrid Michaelson

It is of no surprise to me that the publishing world may need to rethink its business model in the not so distant future. Returns haven’t made sense for a long time and I’m still flabbergasted at how long it can take to publish a book (up to a year and sometimes more).

Heck, I’m still surprised when editors hand-mark a paper manuscript. It just seems so old-fashioned (and a lot of copy editors do the same). So changes are imminent and probably necessary—especially with the economic downturn driving tight bottom lines.

But here’s another interesting take on how the economy might be impacting authors and the world of publishing. An agent friend visited her local B&N, Borders, and Books-A-Million earlier this week to check out her April releases. [Yes, agents are guilty of shelf elving to turn our clients’ books face out etc. You’d think it would be beneath us but I must admit I do the same thing always if I find myself in a bookstore.]

So my agent friend visited three stores and not one of them had her April releases on the shelves. Of course she talked to the store managers at each location. All of them cited the economy—they’ve had to cut staff and don’t have the people to get the books onto the shelves in a timely fashion. It could be as late as April 10th before the books hit their real estate.

One manager took her to the storeroom where she was greeted with boxes from floor to ceiling—some of which contained March releases.

Now I don’t want to cause a nation-wide panic as this might be a localized event for this specific area of the country (rather than a national trend) but it does highlight how an economic downturn can impact the success of an author’s book in all kinds of un-thought of ways.

Hard to get good initial sales numbers when your book hasn’t even made it to the shelf yet!

52 Responses

  1. Just_Me said:

    That isn’t localized, sad to say, the book store here (borders) sometimes lags by several weeks when getting new releases out. If you want something the day it releases it’s better to go online unless you’re talking Harry Potter…

  2. Anonymous said:

    That’s discouraging… and maybe even a little disturbing. I’m going back to bed.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Weirdly enough, my Borders apparently compensates by putting out books weeks early.

  4. aerialscribe said:

    As a writer, editor, and reader I feel compelled to comment on your mention of being surprised that some editors still hand mark paper manuscripts.

    The reason is simple — no matter how good the technologies, it’s still easier for the human eye to look at writing on paper and we catch more errors that way than we do online even with the so-called advantages of spell and grammar checkers.

    Judging from the number of really obvious and horrendous errors I see in published books these days, I wish more people in the publishing process still had good editors who are marking up copy by hand.

  5. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said:

    I’m a freelance copyeditor. The only reason some copyeditors edit on paper rather than onscreen is that their clients—the publishers—haven’t made the necessary changes to deal with onscreen editing. In my experience, it’s the monoliths of publishing that are the technologic dinosaurs; a good many of the smaller pubs made the move to onscreen editing years ago.

    I find that the cause of “obvious and horrendous errors” in books is not necessarily that copyediting has been done onscreen but that some publishers pay freelance copyeditors (and, later in the production process, proofreaders) extremely low rates. You get what you pay for. I won’t work with the cheapos.

  6. Anonymous said:

    I work part-time at a national chain bookstore and I can tell you that staffing can definitely be an issue. It comes down to numbers and where that store is with it’s numbers from the previous year. It all comes down to the dreaded budget. Each store may only be allotted so many staff hours for the month and have to abide by those numbers as closely as possible.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Having worked at Borders retail for going on 10 years now, at three different stores on both sides of the country, from a large store to a smaller store, from large payroll/staffing to the current low payroll/staffing – we have always, ALWAYS, gotten the laydown titles on the salesfloor the day of release (provided we actually received them on time).

    If it comes seeded in the regular boxes it may take up to 72 hours depending on what day it comes in.

    I just don’t understand those stores that don’t get the product out to be sold ASAP – you don’t make any money any other way. And I did check my current store – we have at least two of you books faced out in the YA section.


  8. Anonymous said:

    What are “laydown titles”?

    And I sure hope they’re not talking Harlequin titles here with “a month or more from shipment to shelf”. Don’t those books have to be sent back to the publisher unsold if they’re a month old?

    And of course, if a title doesn’t make its initial sales numbers, it’s the author’s fault for not doing enough marketing…

  9. superwench83 said:

    I wonder…. If an author walked into a bookstore and found that her book was in the stoarge room waiting to be shelved, would the bookstore mind if she volunteered to put the books out herself? Because if that happened to me, I’d spend a whole day there if I had to. Heck, I’d even help unpack other books! That’s just crazy.

  10. A Novel Woman said:

    I visited my local Chapters (Canadian) to pick up Vicki Pettersson’s first novel. It wasn’t on the shelf, even though the computer showed 48 copies in stock. They had been sitting there for two weeks, according to their records. I got my copy, after insisting someone go and actually LOOK for it, and then got the manager to agree to put the books on the “special picks” wall (where it actually sold quite well.)

    Books stores are known for their appallingly low salaries. Maybe if the book chains didn’t pay their employees minimum wage, they’d have more staff available, or at least, a team willing to actually put in some effort. I worked at that chain, and the emphasis was always on shelving books not talking to customers. Now it seems they can’t even handle that task….

  11. Anonymous said:

    “You’d think it would be beneath us”

    Why would it be beneath you to do anything you could to help your clients? Surely turning a book out on a shelf isn’t dirty work.

  12. Marva said:

    You think it’s hard on book sales! My son has an art gallery, where paintings cost in excess of $500 and more likely in the thousands. Think how an economic downturn hurts his business.

    We “arty” folks are the residual victims of … well, I’m not going to get political here.

  13. Anonymous said:

    My wife’s a teacher who is being forced to mark essays she receives in a digital format. The time it takes for her to download, then correct and make comments, on each individual paper (4-10 pages) is ridiculous. She spends four times the length of time for her to do her grading on a computer as it does by hand, on good old fashioned paper. I went to a number of large publishers (the ones who still accept unsolicited manuscripts, that is) and all of them still want to receive a hard copy of the manuscript.

    So much for ‘paperless’.

  14. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think this phenomena is localized at all. If the author is not a name-brand author, then chances are, it’s not gonna be on the shelves. As someone who reads compulsively — and knows when books should be on shelves — I have MANY times gone into a Borders and found that my books (meaning, the books I want to buy) are not there. When I inquire, I usually get the eye roll — like, how does she really know it’s out? Then, when I force the bookstore to look, it’s usually a question of the box not being open … and I have to come back THE NEXT DAY. And this is WHY I try to buy only at independent book shops and Amazon. At least there, I can count on finding the books I have come to find!!! It doesn’t surprise me poor Borders may be headed out … it saddens me definitely, for what it mean, but I think we’re headed to a smaller business model, more customer focused, and with less generality ,,, perhaps this has larger implications for books and what sells in general ,,, something to ponder …

  15. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said:

    Anonymous 7:59 is right that using Word’s Track Changes feature makes it quite easy to edit onscreen. I’d never want to go back to the days of editing everything on paper. If you get really good with writing macros, you can save plenty of time editing onscreen. Making Word Word for You is a great little booklet that will help any editor tame Word.

  16. Belvoir said:

    I think it’s sad to imagine a world without bookstores, or record stores, or art galleries.

    I guess soon we won’t ever have to leave our houses.
    If someone set out with an agenda to destroy culture on the street level, they could not have done a better job.


  17. Anonymous said:

    This is sad. I naively thought that the publishing industry was impervious to any economic down-turn. I was wrong, and as a novelist hoping to make her debut soon, this is discouraging. Perhaps ‘discouraging’ is an understatement.

  18. Anonymous said:

    The publishing industry is losing itself to these ‘business people’; small wonder that their battle-cry is “It’s a business!”. They are not looking for original work, things where people have taken chances in an attempt to expand the prison walls spawned by this ridiculous addiction to firmly setting pieces of literature into genres. They are looking for slickly packaged products that are easy to sell.

    “What’s selling?” That’s not a question that should concern a writer. That’s a question that should concern a salesman, perhaps in a furniture warehouse. Or maybe a used car salesman. “What’s selling?” What can we cram down the public’s gullible throat? What can we convince stupid people they need, what they should like?

    Simon Cowell tells us what we should listen to. Why shouldn’t publishing “professionals” [who don’t write, themselves] tell us what we should read? And how?

    I have met Ms Nelson, and she is one of those people who advises beginning writers to write to the hook. If you can’t write a good hook for your novel, it is not worth writing, for the bloodless illiterati of the publishing industry can’t buy something they don’t see selling with one single paragraph.

    Good day to you.

  19. Meg said:

    What’s with all the bitterness here? If you don’t like the content, don’t read it.

    I think it’ll be interesting to see how this no return publishing trial develops.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Gosh, what’s with all the bickering? You prefer to work with hard copy? Work with hard copy. You would rather work on screen? Work on screen. In either case, what’s to be gained by bitching about how someone else does it? There are still excellent writers who write their first drafts with pen and paper, just as there are others who are lost without their techno-tools. Is either group right or wrong? NO! You do what works for you.

  21. Lorra said:

    If I may tiptoe into this charming exchange: I’m wondering how the no-advance policy will impact a writer’s ability to market their work since I’m guessing many had planned to apply their advance to marketing expenses?

  22. chrisj said:

    Moving right along, I can offer that my publisher (Prometheus/Pyr), which is kind of medium-sized, does everything by MS Word track-changes mode. I was pleased with how well it went. On the other hand, my most recent editor did not feel the need to suggest huge changes. If she had, I can see where having a hard copy in front of me would have been very useful–easier to grasp what was changing. So there may be a pony buried deep in the manure of unhappy our anonymous’ complaint.

  23. WitLiz Today said:

    I’d advise all of you not to read anonymous comments like 8:17, beyond the first personal insult. And whatever you do, don’t respond in kind.

    And, it doesn’t matter who it was directed at, or what little gems of wisdom may have been hidden in their comments.

    That ceases to matter when these types of anonymous commenters disrespect others right to give an opinion, AND when they tear down other writers with personal insults that go way beyond the bounds of human decency. It’s that simple.

    So, believe it or not, the kindest thing we can do for commenters like this, is to set up boundaries for them.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Track changes in a royal PITA if you’re going back on forth on something two or three times. I’m a writer, I want to be able to look at the clean copy and the markup at the same time, with no back and forth, so there’s no confusion about what’s being changed by who in each go round. I’m way pro technology in most cases, I pretty much only communicate via email, but unless it’s impossible, edits should be in hard copy, to avoid headaches and confusion.

  25. Anonymous said:

    I’m an editor who uses track changes, but always prints out a final version to proof. The eye tends to scan online and the brain fills in words that should be in the copy that aren’t, ie the, in etc. It’s this type of error that’s much easier to pick out on paper.

  26. Anonymous said:

    No advance? Use your advance on marketing? Haha! Join the rest of us out here in small press land, trying to figure out what promo efforts offer the best return on our time. Oh–did I mention the advance we don’t get? All our income is from royalties on sales. I wish this publisher very well on trying to make a profit from the small press paradigm. Maybe first they should’ve done their homework and ask some small presses how they manage to stay in business.

    Hey, I know! Maybe they should ask Triskelion?

  27. Twill said:

    I wouldn’t do an edit completely on screen. Besides being buried in a Tourette’s syndrome outbreak, the “going back and forth” comment made perfect sense to me.

    (1)You have the manuscript with the editor’s suggested changes.
    (2) You have your real working manuscript.

    I would never start with the editor’s version — I like to validate each change against what I was trying to achieve with the paragraph and scene. Often I end up rewriting a paragraph completely rather than accepting a one-word change, and the work is made stronger.

    A different example, just because there is a current mantra against “passive” writing, doesn’t mean every sentence has to be short and active with a crowd-stunning verb. Sometimes you need to slow things down and let your reader breathe. Sometimes the character is feeling exhausted or pensive or afterglow and you need to get that through to the reader.

    A good editor knows this, but sometimes a section might be edited on autopilot, or to standard practices that work against the scene.

    Doesn’t matter whether the editor works on paper or electrons, for me. I’ll have a paper copy of the edits when I’m working them.

  28. Anonymous said:

    To anon 10:55 – My first advance was $5,000. I spent every cent on marketing and it was well worth it. My advances have gotten bigger and so has my marketing budget. I just sold my third book. Pretty damned funny, huh?

  29. Anonymous said:

    Oh, yeah, it’s a knee slapper. Would you have spent every cent of $5K if you had gotten no advance at all?

    That’s the business model we see all the time in the small press model, and unless there are major errors in the original post, the model Harper Collins seems to want to undertake.

    Funny, yes.

  30. Carleen Brice said:

    Wow. Who knew editing was such a hot-button topic? I edit on the computer, but I also print out pages and use pen and ink. Guess it’s old school, but track changes just doesn’t have the same affect.

    Regarding, Borders. It took that chain WEEKS past my laydown date to get my book on the shelves (I was hearing from folks all over the country). And even when some stores had it on the shelves their internal computer system showed it as “not yet published.” But they finally got it straight and I hope they stick around!

  31. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think editing is a hot button topic. I think it’s the attitude of “Can you imagine that some people are STILL editing on paper? The barbarian rubes! Everyone should enter the 21st and get with the times!” Some people instantaneously agree, some do not. Never mind the fact that the larger publishers and all the larger agencies still require hard copies of a manuscript. That’s all.

    Kristin wants the world to be paperless. She’s busy being a pioneer, and loudly congratulating herself for being ahead of everyone else.

    Some folks get testy about know-it-alls. And butt-kissers. And grumpy trolls. All together they don’t mix very well.

  32. Rose Green said:

    So..ahem..going back to the mention of Harper Collins, I was actually hoping Kristin would have some commentary on this. I can’t possibly imagine an agent agreeing to no royalties for a first-time author, nor can I see any bookstore agreeing to no returns for an unknown writer. What’s your take on it, Kristin?

  33. George Peabody said:

    I must say that I think that Harper Collins thing is absolutely fascinating. Eliminating waste in the publishing industry would free up lots of money. Getting rid of forward-heavy advances would discourage bestsellers and their agents from selling to that imprint; this would loosen up the market for new writers, while utilizing the internet as a marketing tool (presumably at the expense of the publishing house, rather than the novelist) and discovering fresh ways of getting titles out there. Without paying for primo space in the bookstore and finding new and interesting ways of promoting books the publisher will gain some power back; the bookstores will lose some of their influence (while saving money rather than buying too many waste books, shipping them to and fro, etc.) and perhaps the publisher will pass on their business model to others.

    I don’t think it’s quite as frightening to writers as it initially looks. Actually, it looks as if it would cause more problems for the established writers who count on large advances as a part of their income (rather than depending on royalty money– money they’ve actually earned). Brave new world.

  34. KG said:

    Some will always prefer to edit on paper, but editing on an electronic copy is just about as ‘easy’ for those who are comfortable working that way.

    I have edited numerous of my own books via Track Changes and worked with a couple of online publishers who only do edits that way. I think that is the issue…where things are headed. I think things ARE headed towards more electronic editing. And if you aren’t comfortable with that, or haven’t learned or cared to learn how, I think that may be a problem for you in the future.

    Doesn’t mean the paper system is ‘bad’ or doesn’t work as well or works better…just that it is ‘easier’ and ‘faster’ to work electronically, since most everything nowadays is done via computer.

    As for the comment about Triskelion, I could point out several small online presses who are helping their writers make quite a bit of money: Ellora’s Cave, Samhain Publishing, Liquid Silver, and others. Of course there are always the ones who don’t know what they are doing who will go out of business, but there are many who are making quite a bit of money. Which speaks to the success of going electronic for publishing in certain areas.

    Some of these comments remind me of writers who swore they would always write on a typewriter or in longhand….some still do. But most adapted and are doing just fine. There’s nothing wrong with the old system, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the new system. Just seems like the world is moving in favor of the new system…so do you want to be one of the few that doesn’t move forward?

    Since Ms. Nelson prefers working electronically, of course she is going to be happy when it seems some of the big publishing houses start moving more in that direction. It only makes her job easier and speeds up the publishing world somewhat. Whatever makes her or her clients more money would certainly look like a good idea to me, too.

    I hope that HarperCollins experiment is a successful one and that it encourages other publishers to try this.

  35. Anonymous said:

    kg – Your voice is so calm, so reasonable, so intelligent and ever so wonderfully non-condescending. You are a breath of fresh air in a fetid sewer (at leastit seemed, at times, these comments descended to that level or at least a level of unnecessary derivsiveness.)

  36. Anonymous said:

    I wouldn’t have minded receiving no advance from my first novel if it meant the BIG HOUSE would have bothered to market it. Or made an effort to get it stocked on B&N shelves. I’d have rather been sucker punched, frankly.

    With a small press at least you know what you’re getting into: big publishers have no loyalty. Better have a best seller, even though they do nothing to market your book, or you won’t get a second deal.

    No wonder the industry is going under.

  37. Anonymous said:

    Don’t be bitter, just keep writing. The most common wisdom in regards to your first book is that YOU are the marketing department. If they didn’t jump all over you with a six figure advance after a bidding war for your book, if Oprah isn’t throwing you into her book club– you are on your own. They are not going to market a probable mid-lister. You’ve got to figure out how to do a website, you might have to hire your own publicist or worse, you might have to figure out how to do the job of one all by your lonesome.

    It sucks. It really does. But it is in fact Writer Life. KN’s clients are lucky enough to have her calling attention to their work, and they always seem to be in the running for genre awards.

    It disgusted me when I discovered all this, oh so many years ago. You get to the point when you think being a good writer and working your ass off on a book is enough to make it- and then you find out that you have to learn a new trade, just to get your book printed and then sold. You get used to it.

  38. Janny said:

    In my day gig, I primarily edit on the screen, but for catching the teeny little nitpicky errors? Paper wins, hands down.

    Setting aside for a moment the absolute mess that Track Changes can be…Word’s Spelling and Grammar checker is also completely haywire. Many times, if you follow it, you’re making CORRECT things WRONG. This is progress?

    Yes, a careful editor looking onscreen will catch a great many errors; however, in my experience (which is long enough to remember having to retype pages on a typewriter :-)), even very careful editing onscreen never catches everything. Looking at paper isn’t perfect, either, but it’s a way to get a lot closer to perfect.

    Going paperless is commendable, for many reasons. The condescending “I can’t imagine why people still do this silly thing” attitude about it…is not. Paper still works perfectly well–and has done so for decades longer than much highly-touted technology has even existed.

    My take,

  39. Anonymous said:

    People seem to get angry about everything these days… watch out, Janny, even though your comment looks fairly mild, someone may take offense anyway. Incidentally, I agree with you.

    As to the economy, and the effect on publishing as an industry, and the effect on the poor, bedraggled masses that are authors, take heart one and all!

    The economy is cyclical. Politicians love to take credit for good times and blame their enemies for the bad ones, but they are all quite full of shit… it’s a cyclical system. It goes up and it goes down. Not an enjoyable ride, but a ride nonetheless.

    Publishing is an industry, and thank God it’s an old one. It’s been effected by bad economies before and it will be effected by bad ones again. No matter how lousy things get, THEY WILL GET BETTER. Does anyone honestly believe that writing novels will become unprofitable? If writing books becomes unprofitable, the publishing industry will die, and if there is one thing about business, there is this… it is a self sustaining animal. Animals survive. The publishers HAVE TO KEEP WRITING PROFITABLE, OR NO ONE WILL WRITE. Then they will have nothing to publish. That seems pretty simple.

    With the web and our burgeoning electronic business world developing, the publishing industry has something to fear. The writers themselves. That’s right, writers. Say the publishers get us all so low that we’re willing to take anything they give us… two thousand dollar advances, no marketing budgets, a fraction of the percentage once offered on sales… if it gets to the point that a new novelist makes a whopping total of five grand on his novel, why would anyone bother writing at all? Are we to take the sop of “Get your books published and build up a following, a reputation… maybe after ten novels and a track record, you’ll get a decent deal”?

    I wouldn’t. What I would do is start my own website and post my novels there. Like a blog, or along the lines of what Amazon does. If you had enough writers doing that, posting and selling their books online (with the potential to make just as much as the low-low deals publishers offered), where would publishing be?

    It’s never going to happen because the publishers will never get that bad. They have to keep it profitable to stay in business. Otherwise, some genius will invent a new paradigm for running a publishing company that makes it profitable for writers… that company will get all the product, and the rest will suffer, then redesign their own business models to match.

    Don’t let all the nay-sayers get you down. Don’t think you are wasting your time. Hang on.


  40. Joe Wikert said:

    Hi Kristin. Strike up another victory for the online retailers like Amazon, where there are no back rooms where books sit untouched. I can’t help but wonder if the real solution to this isn’t a dramatic reduction in on-site inventory and a print-on-demand unit in every store. That way, we’ll all have access to every book ever printed…or at least we’ll have access 10 minutes later when our copy is made just for us!

    Seriously, I’m hoping that print-on-demand becomes cheap enough to help us all clean up this messy inventory management situation we live in.

    Joe Wikert
    Publishing 2020 Blog (
    Kindleville Blog (

  41. AC Gaughen said:

    It’s so interesting how much people respond to different mediums–so many people on here are railing against or for online editing. Personally (as an editor/tutor for students) I prefer online, but sometimes when I know I have a lot of comments to write, then I like to scribble and draw stick figures and lets face it, Microsoft Word isn’t so generous with the stick figures.

    I think its also interesting because of the tie-in to the whole kindle v paperback debate. Is Kindle really the future of books?

    I don’t think so. I think there’s always going to be a market for on demand, immediate releases downloaded on the go–how fantastic would it be to be stuck on the tarmac at the airport when they announce you’re getting delayed for another two hours and download an extra book?

    But at the same time I love feeling books, looking at them, stacking them and eventually donating them. It’s a process.

    The real excitement for me is the potential that this is going to help new writers (let’s face it, all I really care about is self-preservation). I lived in Britain for three years where the book industry is dominated (as reported to me by a Brit agent) by the choices that Tesco (a superstore equivalent to Walmart) makes for it’s top fifty list. Now that’s depressing.

  42. Cora Zane said:

    A year or so ago, I was talking to another writer who felt that POD would be the wave of the publishing future. I didn’t really know what to think of that at the time, but given the economy and what it costs to get books out there, I wouldn’t be surprised. HarperCollins move seems like something that is sure to fire off a trend.

    As for books not getting put out on time in stores, I thought that was just my area Books A Million. I guess not. It’s frustrating because many times, unless I pick up a book through Amazon, it’s months before I find it locally, and more often than not it’s a copy I’ve spotted in a used bookstore.