Will Indies put an end to the “Death Spiral”?

Note: We’re delighted to announce that writer Kristy Montee has joined the TKZ family. Kristy and her sister Kelly Nichols write as P.J. Parrish, the New York Times bestselling author of ten Louis Kincaid and Joe Frye thrillers. Their books have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists. The series has garnered 11 major crime-fiction awards, and an Edgar® nomination. Parrish has won two Shamus awards, one Anthony and one International Thriller competition. Kristy has her first post next Tuesday. Stay tuned!

I attended my first writer’s conference back in 2005. Armed with an almost-finished manuscript and hungry for information about the publishing business, I absorbed every panel I could squeeze into two days.  
During a panel on how to write series fiction (I didn’t have an agent yet, so I was dreaming big),  we learned about something called the “death spiral.”  A death spiral occurs when a book’s print run doesn’t sell out completely. This sales gap prompts the publisher to order a smaller print run for a writer’s next book, guaranteeing lower sales numbers the next time around. And so on. The result: the death spiral. 
I left that presentation feeling haunted by the notion of a death spiral. Death spirals help explain why new writers have traditionally felt intense pressure to promote their books in the first twelve weeks. If your book doesn’t thrive during its brief tenure on the bookstore shelves, the thinking goes, you might not get another shot. In an industry where sales numbers follow writers forever, the unfortunate victims of death spirals were sometimes advised to start the publishing process over by adopting a pseudonym.
Then along came the explosion in indie publishing. Say what you will about indies, the stigma of self-publishing is rapidly disappearing. Readers have made it clear: They don’t care who publishes a book. They just want a good read.
It occurs to me that indie publishing may finally put an end to the dreaded death spiral.  Or at least, writers now have the hope of a softer landing.  If a publisher doesn’t renew our contract, we can simply publish on our own–and possibly even make more money.
The idea of indie-publishing as a career parachute won’t be news to most TKZ’ers. But I remember how nervous I was about death spirals, just a few years ago. If I were in the same position today, I wouldn’t be quite as anxious.  

How about you? As a writer, have you ever worried about falling into a death spiral with your publisher? Has the increasing viability of indie publishing changed your outlook at all?

10 thoughts on “Will Indies put an end to the “Death Spiral”?

  1. Welcome, Kristie.

    A death spiral with one publisher also leads to a hard sell for an agent to shop around to other publishers. There is a LOT of pressure for the first book, which is when most authors know the least about how to go about promoting it. By book three or four, when it may be too late, is often when the marketing comes together.

    Just another crazy thing about this whole publishing adventure.

    Looking forward to more posts from you,

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain


  2. I haven’t reached that point so can’t speak to the pressure, but I am glad indie publishing gives more options, for lots of reasons.

  3. The death spiral has more to do with the traditional publishing model and how they sell to brick & mortar stores, their marketing plan as well as print runs, in my opinion. Houses buy shelf space positioning & promote as they projected in their P&L estimates. The constant & reliable availability of indie ebooks, priced reasonably, has been a wakeup call to the industry. The gap now appears between the book stores & publishers, trying to compete & stay afloat without relying as much on each other.

    YA books seem to have a longer sales life because libraries sustain it. There doesn’t seem to be that frantic first month pressure to sell or die.

    Interesting post, Kathryn. And welcome to Kristie!!!

  4. The old model went off the rails in the 1990s. Money was flowing, and some outrageous advances were paid to new writers, with no possibility they’d ever be able to make that back. I can name half a dozen right now who got their first book shot out with big fanfare, bombed, and got NO SUPPORT on their next book in the contract, and were then subsequently dropped. Some of these writers were never heard from again.

    The odds were stacked against them from the start. And it’s hard to blame them! A publisher offering all this money. Can you imagine a new writer saying, “Gee, thanks, but can we move the decimal point to the left? Then we can have a chance to see if the book will sell.”

    This problem does not exist for self-publishing writers.

  5. Jim, it’s just amazing how quickly things have changed. And you’re right–what struggling writer would negotiate a smaller advance? I think the whole idea of advances may be a relic of a slower, more sedate era.

  6. Several years ago I got some offers for advance on my work, but they were small, $5000 or so. I’d think the fall from something like that price is not as dangerous as it would be from a $50k or $500k advance, but it would still be maybe a leg-breaking spiral.

    Nonetheless I was tempted to accept but it was just at the time that Joe Konrath started talking up this indie thing. I jumped on board in 2010 and glad I did. Made a whole more than those advances and it keeps coming in. Now, I’m not even sure I am going to try to go for an agent or trad pub on future works at all.

    …at least not until the paradigm shifts again.

  7. I was the poster child for the death spiral in 1996 when NATHAN’S RUN was first published. I got an advance that might earn out in the year 2190, and a big movie deal that never turned into a movie. The book got outstanding blurbs and pre-pub reviews (stars from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal!), and based on all that buzz, we doubled down and negotiated another huge deal for AT ALL COSTS before NR had even been published. International publishers lined up to throw money my way. Then when reality hit and people realized that you can’t possibly sell that many books from a first-time author, it was of course my fault. It’s a terrible feeling when the phone stops ringing.

    After the Spiral consumed EVEN STEVEN and SCOTT FREE, I couldn’t even give away the book that followed them. I had a boatload of money, but within a couple of years, my career was doomed. That’s what everyone told me, anyway. I hate it when people tell me stuff like that.

    I didn’t take any of it personally–bidness is bidness, after all–but I’ve never bought into business “rules” that deliver no hope.

    I knew that the path I had originally planned for myself wasn’t going to work, so a carved a new one. I wrote a nonfiction thriller called SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM. My agent said she couldn’t sell it, so I fired her and got one who wasn’t embarrassed to shop my new stuff around at a lower price. Think about it: who would want to buy a nonfiction manuscript from a “failed” fiction writer? Besides, everyone “knows” that Americans don’t buy books that are set in Latin America.

    Everybody knew it but Kensington, who took a chance and bought the book at a reasonable price, all things considered, and it earned out. Then came the Grave series, every one of which has earned out. On a roll, Kensington bought my backlist, too, and now NATHAN has a whole new audience, as does AT ALL COSTS.

    My point here is to turn a deaf ear to anyone who projects predicts failure. The spiral is only deadly if you walk away from the controls.

    John Gilstrap

    • Well said, John, and thanks for the inspiration. So many factors play into the perfect storm of the financial success of a book. It’s easier to blame an author or for the author to feel badly, but so many bigger factors impact more, things that rarely come to light. You are a great example.

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