Publishing . . . Huh?
As part of the course, Joe was asked to flow-chart a particular business. Since Joe knew a writer, he created a flow chart of the publishing business. He presented it to the class and to his instructors.
And the reaction was, basically, "Huh . . . ?"
The first thing asked was, "Who is the writer's client, exactly?"
Which is a hard one to answer. Because the author's ultimate client is the reading public, but the actual client, the one who forks over the money, is the editor.
"So who is the editor responsible to?"
Another hard one to answer. Because the editor is responsible to the publisher, or to the publisher's stand-in, in the forms of various committees to which the editor is expected to present her plans. But power is also held by the sales force--- I wish I had ten thousand dollars, or even ten, for every time I've heard an editor say, "I can't sell this proposal . . . the sales force won't understand it."
(Once--- exactly once--- I heard of an editor who told his sales chief, "Your job is to sell the fucking books that I tell you to fucking sell, and if you don't fucking sell them, you're out of a fucking job!" And that editor was John Jarrold, who is English, and maybe they do things differently over there.)
So Joe presented his flow-chart of publishing, with the editor, and the committees, and the sales force, and the art department.
"Who is the art department responsible to?"
Well, very often, they're responsible to no one. The art department is often a separate fiefdom within the publisher, and they put whatever art they like on a cover, or no art at all, and if the editor and writer don't like it, they can lump it.
And then there's the copy-editor--- who is freelance, essentially in a fiefdom all his own--- and even worse, the distributors.
"Who are the distributors responsible to?"
Well, no one. They buy whatever the hell books they want, based on whatever pitch the sales person gives them plus the computer figures for the writer's last set of sales, and if they don't sell the books, they can ship them back to the publisher for a full refund. Or even destroy them, and still get a full refund. They get all the privileges of being a middleman, and none of the risk. None. Zero.
One of the things they teach you at Toyota Camp is that for every step in the process in which something can go wrong--- for every committee, or editor, or art director, or copy-editor, or distributor--- that stands between the writer and the reading public, the odds of something going totally, hideously, horribly pear-shaped somewhere in the process does not increase arithmatically, but geometrically.
So if there are, say, seven potential roadblocks between the author and the reader, the effective number of roadblocks aren't seven, but forty-nine. Because friction begets more friction, basically.
(I have to say, as a personal note, that this theory explains the fate of my last seven novels rather well.)
The people at the seminar threw up their hands.
"We don't see how this business can possibly make money!"
And, of course, most books don't make money--- of if they do, they barely break even. For every huge mega-zillion best-seller, there are ten thousand books that are quietly flushed down the toilet of doom, along with the careers of their authors.
So why doesn't the industry concentrate on huge mega-zillion bestsellers? Well, they do--- that's why publishers' ads in, say, the New York Times literary supplement are mostly for authors who are so fabulously popular that they don't actually need the ads to sell their books. That's why publishers are shedding their mid-list authors (authors like me, only less lucky) left and right.
But even as mega-zillion bestsellers go, the publishers' record truly sucks. For every Da Vinci Code, which was turned into a megaseller through clever marketing, there are ten, or fifteen, or a hundred for which a lot of marketing dollars were spent only to produce disappointing sales. And for every Da Vinci Code, there's a Lovely Bones that became a huge seller through word of mouth--- or word of Oprah, or word of book clubs, or (most likely) word of Internet.
I once saw an article in which the books that publishers thought would become bestsellers (based on their marketing push) were compared with a list of actual bestsellers, and the lists were very, very different.
Bestselling authors mostly just sort of happen. It's sort of like throwing a bunch of books out of a tenth-storey window and hoping that one of them lands in a pot of gold.
So once you get a bestselling author--- however you get him--- you want to keep him, so you pay him more and more and hope his books earn it all back, eventually, and then some. Which is a strategy that sometimes works, or at any rate works often enough to keep publishers in business.
I won't go into how the folks at Toyota Camp assumed that writers all have personal assistants to do things like answer email, run manuscripts to the post office, arrange signings, keep the web page up to date, make coffee, keep the office tidy, furnish the author with healthful snacks, and so on. They were astonished that authors, unless they are very successful indeed, have to do this all themselves--- or not, as is often the case.
This explains author's burnout, by the way. Most authors in the SF genre have a writing life of about ten years, after which they do something more rational with their lives, like get a job teaching writing in a Midwest liberal arts school. (Oh yeah, there's a job with a future!)
So, to conclude, how do we apply the Tao of Toyota to publishing? Obviously, we need to reduce the number of roadblocks between the author and the reading public. An obvious way to do this is to make the books available electronically--- reader pays a few bucks for a download, author's bank account goes ching!, reader and author are happy. Except that this doesn't seem to actually work--- even Stephen King couldn't make a go out of directly selling his work on the Internet.
I don't have an answer, so I'm going to leave it to you.
I'm going to be out of town for a week. It's hard to say whether or not I'll be on the Internet or not during that time.
So during my absence I leave you with this challenge.
Publishing is broke. Come up with some ideas to fix it.