Originally posted in the Huffington Post
In the climactic scene in Frank Norris’ classic novel McTEAGUE, the two antagonists find themselves in the desert. Shady San Francisco dentist McTeague has murdered his wife to steal her money (Belated spoiler alert!). He is then pursued by his former best friend Marcus, who wants revenge slash money slash I only vaguely remember this I read it in college and that was kind of a long time ago.
A scuffle ensues in Death Valley. It’s hot! Water is lacking! Tensions running high! Bad guy McTeague nearly kills Marcus in the fight. But just before Marcus dies he handcuffs himself to McTeague.
And thus McTeague finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, the keys are back in San Francisco, and Marcus has successfully ensured that even though he has lost the battle, McTeague will also die in Death Valley.
Book publishers are currently in retrenching mode. The slumping economy has not been kind to the print world. It has exacerbated many existing weaknesses (rise of e-tailing, rise of e-books, creeping omnipotence of e’s and hyphens), and has forced publishers to examine their business models.
The publishing marketplace has been plunged into a great deal of chaos. And if, as I detailed in my last post, publishers can no longer accurately guess at an audience even for formerly safe categories like adult trade nonfiction, will they continue to gamble so much money on big advances for a small number of books whose success is increasingly difficult to predict?
Well, from a publisher’s perspective, they’re often willing to pay big advances because their profits hinge on a relatively small number of hits and bestsellers. Thus the authors/celebrities who can reliably deliver an audience become hugely valuable. If a publisher doesn’t pay a healthy advance they risk losing their bread-and-butter authors and the most promising new projects to their competitors.
From an agent’s and author’s perspective, there’s not always a strong incentive to move away from traditional advance/royalties either, simply because it’s often appealing to bank the guaranteed money and head for the desert.
In economics they call this the Winner’s Curse, which is the theory that when you don’t know what an object is truly worth (e.g. how many copies a book will actually sell) the winner of an auction will tend to overpay relative to the actual value of the object. The theory goes that someone who wins an auction is often worse off than if they hadn’t bid at all. (Was that Gladwellian? I hope it was Gladwellian.)
And so here we publishers and agents are, McTeague and Marcus style, handcuffed to each other in the desert, stuck with the advance and royalty model even if it’s ill-suited for a time when success is nearly impossible to predict. (Who murdered whose wife probably depends on whether you work at a publisher or an agency. Also: send water!)
Is it time to think outside of the desert?
K.L. Brady says
I had to chime in on the self-publishing issue. There are so many misconceptions that I can't help myself anymore.
I went the indie route after several rejections from agents. As I later found out, my novel was rejected because it wasn't good at the time–plain and simple. But I used all the great feedback from the agents and a former acquisitions editor from a major publishing house to whip it into shape.
I officially released my D-I-Y POD masterpiece on October 6th–yes, POD (the bottom-dweller of the publishing world). And at a very low-cost comparatively speaking.
As of today (two or so months later), my book has been picked up by buyers at B&N and Booksamillion and sits on bookstore shelves across the country as well as online retailers around the world–and sells pretty well on Kindle. It is very well-reviewed (not just by my mother) and I'm slowly building my audience and respect as a new writer. Dang, it's a lot of work but I'm learning things about this business most traditionally pubbed authors will never know.
On top of that, I'm building the ever-important PLATFORM–and pretty quickly too. Rather than throw my vastly-improved manuscript in a drawer and let if fester for years while seeking representation, it is helping me build an audience. So, that when I complete one of the three new masterpieces I'm working on, I will have marketing skills, an audience of several thousand readers, and lots of business savvy–in addition to my well-written 90,000-word manuscript–if I decide to go traditional.
I've just minimized an agent's and publisher's risk in taking me on–and quite possibly the fear of paying me a decent advance.
With that said, indie-pubbing is NOT for everyone. I've loved every minute of it because I'm borderline insane. I can get my book on store shelves but it takes A LOT more work. Nothing compares to getting big house distribution and an agent to help you maneuver the process. But there are benefits that can make you more marketable in the future IF you find some success.
Rich Dailey says
I suspect a sharp implement will be put into use by the survivor at some point.
Luisa Perkins says
This is some of your best writing ever.
Book of Matches Media says
"…creeping omnipotence of e's and hyphens."
Nice article, Nathan, and surely something on which to ponder.
Now where did I set that Dr. Pepper? I'm parched.
Nancy Beck says
McTeague…didn't that come out as a silent movie (Greed) with, of all people, Zasu Pitts as the leading lady?
(Yup, I was right, according to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McTeague )
@Marilyn Peake – I like your idea:
Maybe the publishing world should watch the new TV show, PAWN STARS. Those guys, especially the Old Man, rarely pay too much for anything without first doing research to find out the item’s real worth. They even talk about how the current economy might affect an item’s worth, and the Old Man has a fit if the younger guys pay too much for something.
I love that show, BTW.
Nancy Beck says
The reason the film version (Greed) ran 10 hours is because Erich von Stroheim directed it, and he was well known to do such things. He fought with studio heads all the time, and eventually was forced out of directing. He got the occasional acting role afterwards (probably most famously as the director in the movie Sunset Boulevard).