It happened again this weekend. The typical party scenario. I am introduced to new people and asked what I do for a living. Within minutes these new acquaintances are asking me for free books. When I gently suggest that they buy them instead, I am given the cold shoulder, as well as resentful looks by the hostess.
I like to think I've mastered the art of educating people about how publishing works within the larger capitalist system, without being obnoxious. (This weekend's hostess would disagree.) I try to be polite, but here is what I want to say:
- You like music, you say? Do you expect concert promoters to provide you with free tickets to concerts?
- You enjoy live comedy, you say? Do you expect the management of Elaine's at the Seaport, or Catch a Rising Star, to let you in for free?
- You appreciate film/cinema? Do you think theater owners will gladly provide you with free movie tickets and popcorn?
- You adore opera? Does Lincoln Center keep its doors open by providing free backstage passes to all comers?
OK, perhaps I am being a tad sensitive. But at all adult levels of our society--from college students through the elderly--nobody seems to want to purchase books any more. (The delightful outlier is young children, who often spend their allowances on books; but it's not as if children have direct purchasing power.) How have we gotten to a place in society where people see free books as an entitlement?
Now, of course I am not talking about those on limited incomes, or library patrons. I am talking about those who drive Mercedes and dine at upscale restaurants on a regular basis. Those who will plop down $100 for a bottle of wine don't want to spend $14.95 for a trade paperback.
This may be the diamond/water paradox in action. Economists talk about this strange state of affairs, where people value something that's almost useless (diamonds) extremely highly, while valuing something essential to life (water) very low. Thus we complain about our monthly $50 water bills while plunking down $45,000 for an engagement ring.
I'm afraid books may have joined water in the category of perceived human entitlements. We've all grown up with books, had them around us since our earliest days. They're everywhere. And because they're everywhere (like water), we don't see their extraordinary value. We expect that they'll be there at no cost to us.
And yet we can't combine two hydrogen molecules with one oxygen molecule to create an unlimited supply of books. Despite what Dannon and Poland Spring would like us to believe, water is water--it's all the same. But every book is different, requiring a unique set of resources--author, editor, designer, cover artist, production department, printer, sales outlet. We don't come up with a book formula and then mass produce them in various plants across the country. (Well, OK, James Patterson does, but that's a different story.) The final printed product provides the purchaser with hours of pleasure, or a lifetime of reference. And all this for pennies per hour (all right, maybe a couple of dollars per hour for hardback novels). Is it really so much to ask that the consumer be willing to pay for these benefits?
Of course, I speak from the perspective as a publishing professional. I can't complain about a consumer looking to get a product cheaper by going into the used market, as I do it myself. But my point is that this is not the car industry (and, as we all know, people will go without food as long as they can drive their leased, late-model cars). There is precious little profit to be made in publishing, and we have to accept the likelihood of what may happen. My predictions:
- The newly introduced HarperCollins model of no advances and no returns accepted may become the norm. Hallelujah! If this means that the Web becomes the only way to buy books, and traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstore must go away, then so be it. (I'm sure I would feel very differently if I owned a bookstore.) Let's face it--there is no other industry that takes back unsold inventory. If you buy it, you should expect to sell it, and not pass on to me the cost of your bad decisions regarding your buying public.
- Agents will become less and less likely to take on fiction, concentrating their efforts on the more profitable nonfiction markets. The exception will be already established brand names.
- Authors will take on even larger roles in marketing and selling their own work. As a result, some of the stigma of self publishing may go away. If you think about it, it's odd that it hasn't already, as every other industry has welcomed self-starters. Independent, self-financed projects are welcomed in Hollywood (think Affleck/Damon; Stallone). Musicians set up Myspace pages, give away free MP3s, and work through word of mouth. In the theater, there are many success stories of one-person shows written and performed by the same person. In all these areas, the mavericks are admired. In publishing, a self-published book is considered the calling card of a loser. And yet I predict there will be more and more of it. There's no reason right now, for example, that Stephen King, James Patterson, and Mary Higgins Clark can't set up their own imprints and make a lot of money. And that would be self-publishing, wouldn't it?
- Publishers will get stingier with "free books." I personally advocate a model in which anyone who requests a reader's copy becomes ethically obligated to publish a review somewhere. I do think it is all right (thought not ideal) for reviewers who are not compensated for their reviews to then sell the book in the aftermarket.
- Print runs will get smaller, and print-on-demand will grow. To my mind, this development would re-balance the equation, with authors and publishers sharing in a product's success (and publishers not eating all the costs of a book that's flopped).
- Brand names will become even more important, and if you don't have a name already, it's going to get even harder to have your fiction published. This is going to get worse before it gets better.
- The expectation that ANYONE can write a novel and become an instantaneous millionaire will, and should, go away. The days when a novice writer could sit back, churn out a novel a year, and pay the mortgage on royalties are long gone. In the novel writing business, at least, authors will need to see their efforts as a hobby, not a profession, for at least the first ten years of their writing "career," with the understanding that even after a decade, they may not be able to making a living by telling stories. Publishing houses will stop enabling the belief that a first novel is worth $1,000,000 by returning to a model of low advances and higher royalties.