What A Difference A Quarter Century Makes

By John Gilstrap

My first novel, Nathan’s Run, first hit the shelves in 1996–two millennia ago in book-time. To put it in perspective, Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were all different publishers back then. Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins were independent companies. Back then, the big money came to authors via mass market paperback deals because jobbers filled book racks in every pharmacy and grocery store, and everybody read paperbacks. Mass market rights often were sold to different publishers than the hard cover houses, and for much more money.

Borders Books and Barnes and Noble were just beginning to spread their wings, targeting local bookstores with extreme prejudice. In the mid-nineties, independent bookstores were the backbone of book sales. Every strip mall, it seemed, had its own bookstore. Some were generalists, selling all kinds of books, but others were specialty stores, targeting specific genres. Mystery bookstores grew like weeds.

When the superstore booksellers entered the scene, they were able to negotiate terms with publishers that allowed them to price books at retail for less than what the independents had to pay for wholesale. When really big books hit the scene, it seemed to me (though I could never prove it) that the superstores waded into predatory pricing, selling the books for less than what they paid as loss leaders that would force the mom and pop shops out of business.

Meanwhile, a guy named Bezos was a laughing stock throughout the publishing world because he had this crazy idea that people would buy books from their computers–no, really, their computers! Have you ever heard something so silly? As if book lovers would give up glorious trips to the local bookstore in favor of shopping on one of those squealy dial-up modem desk toys. At the same time, a kid named Steve Case was toiling like mad to create a platform that would give everyday people access to a thing called the internet.

In the mid-nineties, the competition among publishers to acquire the Next Big Book was cutthroat. Authors and their agents had so many big houses to choose from! And the result often ended in bidding wars or pre-emptive bids that routinely netted six- and seven-figure deals for first-time authors.

Money flowed in torrents. Big producers at major film studios paid real money to interns and assistants in the major publishing houses to steal manuscripts from the copy room to give the studios a leg-up on the inevitable bidding war for film rights. During the Christmas season back in the day, every publishing house threw lavish holiday bashes for their staffs, authors, agents and media.

Hands down, the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top book affair I’ve ever attended was a Christmas party thrown by Readers Digest Condensed Books at the New York Palace Hotel in New York (formerly the Helmsley Palace). Limitless beef, salmon, shrimp, caviar, Champaign, booze and desserts served to every author, editor and agent in the world, it seemed. There had to be a thousand people there, including every author who’d ever had a book included in a collection by RD. As a kid from Virginia whose first book was about to be released, this was heady stuff.

(Teaser: The most opulent party ever was the three-day celebration of Dino DeLaurentiis’s birthday on the Island of Capri. That was beyond amazing, and a very funny story. Maybe in a future post.)

Within a few years, everything changed. I don’t remember the order in which they fell, but over the course of what felt like a few months, overseas corporations consumed dozens of imprints and the number of “Big Houses” started to contract. The contraction never stopped. The recent news of Penguin Random’s purchase of Simon & Schuster saddens me. All I see are diminishing opportunities for writers earn big advances for their books. Think about it. Penguin Random (a part of the Bertelsmann empire) has assimilated once-grand independent publisher names such as Penguin, Random House (duh), Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Viking, Knopf, and others. And it doesn’t stop with the the Bertelsmann empire. Hachette is another, and there are still more.

Meanwhile, Karma being a be-otch, Borders Books is dead, and B&N is moribund at best. (In a happy bit of irony, B&N’s new CEO, James Daunt, is designing the company’s phoenix-like rise from its ashes on the direct involvement of on-the-ground booksellers in the decisions on what books individual stores should stock. You know, the way booksellers used to do it before the superstores ran them out of business.)

Independent bookstores are making a comeback (albeit very slowly and cautiously), and new publishing houses are being born every day.

While the bookracks in drug stores are gone, more books are published every year nowadays than have ever been published before. Ebooks, audio, graphic novels, and Lord only knows how many other new avenues for storytelling are exploding. While all these options bring limitless opportunity, they also bring limitless problems, not the least of which is discovering the new metrics and strategies for letting readers know that a new author has arrived on the scene. Those full-page ads in major dailies that used to grease the skids to bestsellerdom, are all but irrelevant now. Word of mouth has morphed into tweet-to-tweet (or something like that).

These are exciting times to be an author. But they’re also scary times. Million-dollar advances have gone the way of the dodo (or of Borders Books) and that’s probably a good thing in the long run. It makes a lot of sense to align advances with anticipated sales. Hollywood is an evolving train wreck, but it will straighten itself out, too. I’d hate to own a theater chain right now, but man oh man would I like to invest in big screen televisions for the home market.

As I write this post, it occurs to me that as the business fluctuates and expands and contracts, the one constant to all of it, through all of time, is the public’s insatiable desire for good stories, well told. And that, TKZ family, is where we come in. If we don’t think this stuff up and put it on paper, the whole of the entertainment business breaks down.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

Finally, this is it for me here in The Killzone for a few weeks as we take our winter hiatus. Thank you all for making this blog what it has become. Contributors, you force the rest of us to keep the bar high. Readers, you’re the reason we do it, and your numbers speak for themselves. Thank you. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous, healthy and happy new year.

God bless us, every one.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

23 thoughts on “What A Difference A Quarter Century Makes

  1. Thanks for the review/overview, John. The changes are gutenbergian, though happening at warp speed this time. (The impact of Gutenberg probably seemed warp speed (or whatever the 15th century term was) at the time.)

    A major change that might also be included is the rise of the audiobook. Books-on-tape was always going to be a limited commodity.

    The decline of competition (that is, alternatives) in the publishing industry is, as you indicate, serious, perhaps most so in the audiobook area, where you can sell your audiobook anywhere you want, as long as you sell through ACX. More broadly, the anti-competitive potential/actuality of Amazon is alarming, and the pandemic is just feeding the beast. When wife and I try to buy somewhere else (B&N/Nook, Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s,…), Amazon is often the only practical option.

    Regardless, as you say, we must stick to our lasts and continue to tell good stories. Ah, there’s the rub–good stories.

    Thanks to all for another good year of KZB.

  2. As an indie author living in on a remote mountaintop–OK, not THAT remote, but 13 miles from the nearest small “city” and 40 from an actual big city, the ability to buy what I need on line and have it delivered to my door (or to my e-reader) is a godsend. Do I miss browsing through bookstores? Of course. But here, there are no bookstores, just a few shelves in grocery stores or the small-town version of a mall: Walmart.

    As an author whose “traditional” publishing life was with small press publishers and digital first publishers, I’m not quite 25 years into the game yet. But I can see changes, notably in the writers’ organizations: RWA, MWA, ITW, and all of them seem to reinforce my decision to remain an indie author.

    And Eric – My audiobooks can be found at libraries, Nook, Kobo, auldiobooks.com, iTunes, audible, Hoopla, Chirp and many more channels. I abandoned ACX for all but a few of my audio titles and moved to Findaway Voices. There are other distributors as well.

    • Do you find you get sales through those channels? I’ve put my wife’s book (Spiritual Connection in Daily Life) up through Author’s Republic, but when I look at the fraction of the market held by Audible, I’m pessimistic about not using Audible as well.

      • Findaway will distribute to Audible. Right now ACX has fallen out of favor because of their return policy. Not only is it far too liberal, but they encourage listeners to swap out books, treating it as a subscription service, and authors and narrators lose the royalties.
        Chirp is moving upward, and they are partnered with BookBub and Findaway, so you (if you’re lucky) can get a ‘deal’ on an audio book. I’ve been lucky twice, and have made excellent sales, which then should drive sales to other books of mine. You can also do promo ads yourself via BookBub.
        You can still sign with ACX as non-exclusive and distribute elswhere, but after all the issues with ACX, I’ve stopped using them for new books, and distribute to them via Findaway. My books get to Audible, but they go a whole bunch of other places, too.

  3. A fine guided tour through the industry past, John. My career also got started in the mid-90s, and I well remember the heady days of the biz back then. Opulent author dinners. Glitzy book conventions. Book tours (paid for by the publisher!!) But I also recall with a shudder the crash into the rocks of commerce for some debut authors with seven-figure deals whose books did not earn out. Most of those poor scribes were unable to get another book deal and have disappeared off the face of the shelves. The Forbidden City can be merciless.

    The main reason for trad pub mergers can also be traced to Mr. Bezos—the appearance of the Kindle: first as an ereader, second as a platform for writers to publish independently and make, gasp, actual money. IF, as you put it, you can write “good stories, well told.” That’s the one requirement that will never change.

    • As I recall, Kindle and indy publishing didn’t become a factor until the early/mid-aughts. BDD was the first mega merger, as I recall, and BDD was subsequently consumed by Bertelsmann. I had just left Warner Books when AOL ate Time-Warner, and I recall that that was a move to connect print books directly to film production and the (then-) dream of streaming video.

      Again, my memory of the order of events is jumbled, but the kindle was written off as a waste of money–as was Amazon in general. E readers existed before the Kindle, but they were novelties.

      In fact, one of my early blog posts in this very space (October, 2008) dealt with my thoughts about the irrelevance of the Kindle. https://killzoneblog.com/2008/10/kindle-schmindle.html

      I’m not always prescient.

      • The title of your post is priceless. 🙂

        I remember agents getting in a lather about new writers going indie (this was 2009/2010 or so), saying it could ruin their chances at ever getting a contract or having a career. Talk about not being prescient.

  4. John, thanks for the great review of recent modern history of the publishing industry. For those of us who are new to the scene of writing it is mind boggling, especially when we start trying to find the path we should pursue for writing, publishing, and marketing.

    In three days (Saturday), I plan to post here at TKZ, asking us to reflect on the past and the present, and to predict (or attempt to predict) what is coming for the future of writing. Your post has covered that idea in more detail and more eloquently than I ever could. But I hope everyone will put on their thinking caps and help us draw a line through the past and the present, look at the trajectory of that line, and help us guess where we are heading – AND share their best advice for changes we should make in writing/publishing/marketing.

    Thanks for a great post! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

  5. You gave us an education here. I’m 41 and I remember my first online purchase ever was from Barnes & Noble’s website. My parents flipped out. “You gave your banking information to a website!?” They thought it was a scam. About a week later–wow, fast!–my books arrived. I was hooked. I loved the idea that your book was always in stock. At that time, in 1997, B&N was the big bad wolf, as you detail, tearing up indie bookstores. Now we’re supposed to feel sorry for poor B&N due to Amazon crushing them.

    As a (wannabe) writer, there’s nothing better than the ebook revolution. As a reader, I have to say I really miss the mass market paperback. Easy to hold, great smell, disposable. Only select authors can be found in that form now, and the books just aren’t the same.

  6. You packed a lot of publishing history into this post! I remember well Barnes and Noble and Borders displacing independent bookstores. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, here in Portland we had a thriving ecosystem of indie bookstores, from the small (Looking Glass Books) to the genre specific (Murder by the Book), to the large (Powell’s), and many others, like the basement book store Great Northwest Books, or my friend’s Paul and Debbie’s Wrigley-Cross Books, which specialized in two genres, mystery and science fiction, as well as having a decent non-fiction selection. By 2000, only Powell’s and Murder by the Book had any really physical store presence, the rest had gone online or closed up. It was ironic indeed when competition from Amazon put the same sort of sales pressure on Borders and B&N.

    That said, I was sorry when Borders closed, and hope B&N hangs on. I started out aspiring to have a career in traditional publishing–back in the late 1980s and early 90s it was simply publishing. My first fiction sales were to small digital magazines. By the time I finally did publish novels, digital self-publishing was flourishing. The more outlets the better, so I publish “wide”, not exclusively on Amazon.

    I had a long career working for the public library, and I think there will always be a place and a demand for print books, even as digital books soar in popularity, especially now, when the library system I retired from a year ago is currently closed to foot traffic. But, when the pandemic ends, people will return to libraries and book stores once more. Here’s hoping both continue.

  7. On the issue of small presses, I should have expounded on those more–but the post was feeling a bit long as it was. I think for many (most?) authors who wish to go the traditional route, smaller presses are the best option–even in the face of an author from one of the majors. I try not to cross-post to my YouTube channel in this space, but I go into some depth on the rationale in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzkY6D9BG0o&t=8s&ab_channel=AuthorJohnGilstrap

  8. Thanks for the stroll through the history of books & publishing, John. I have mixed feelings about it all, as many do, but I’m also optimistic that change is a good thing. Authors have more choices than ever before. Though I haven’t dipped my toes into the self-publishing water yet (other than a couple nonfiction guides), it’s an option I’ve mulled over several times. Never say never.

    Wishing you and yours a merry Christmas!

  9. I really appreciate this piece, John. It’s a great perspective from someone who’s been there and someone whose ability I respect. My take is content (good stories, well told) will always be king, regardless of how or who it’s delivered by. A big booster today is like you say, “word of mouth has morphed into tweet-to-tweet (or something like that).” I’ve heard it called “word of mouse”.

    To be PC, seasonal wishes to everyone, no matter your faith. And I hope 2021 isn’t another bummer.

  10. I believe the great massmarket jobber crash came a bit earlier than you mention, it all but wiped out science fiction*, but this is a pretty accurate depiction of the sh*tshow that is traditional publishing which has been happily cutting its own throat by helping other corporations control distribution and prices instead of helping a multitude of small bookstores and distribution channels.

    Amazon was never the innovator in either selling paper or electronic books, but they did it better and wiped out the companies who did.

    As things have gotten rougher for the traditional publishers, they’ve done what they have always done. Screw over authors first, then everyone who helps create the final product, particularly the book editors. I’m frankly stunned that authors are happily handing over their futures to corporations who have cut down royalties and tied authors in noncompete contracts that enslave their careers. If I were starting in this business right now, I’d choose the indie writer life in a heartbeat.

    *Fun fact. At one time, organized crime controlled a good chunk of the paperback distribution to grocery stores, drug stores, etc., and one crime boss LOVED science fiction so its presence on the racks made sales explode.

    • Marilynn, I’m not sure what you mean by this: “authors . . . happily handing over their futures to corporations who have cut down royalties and tied authors in noncompete contracts that enslave their careers.”

      I have signed many contracts with more than a few publishers and never once have I encountered language or clauses that come even close to what you describe, even if I account for hyperbole. I’ve seen right of first refusal clauses, but nothing approaching non-compete.

      Nor have I seen authors and editors getting “screwed.” I’ve seen series and entire lines dropped, leaving authors and editors to reconfigure their careers, but why should they be more immune to business decisions than any factory worker? That’s just bidness.

      I’d heard rumors of organized crime being involved in the old jobber structure, but I didn’t realize that I should have been writing sci-fi!

  11. John, It’s fascinating to read this history, especially from someone who was personally there. I look forward to hearing about DeLaurentis’s birthday party on the Isle of Capri.

    Changes in the publishing industry over the past couple of decades have been astounding, but I appreciate your focus on a good story, well told. Following TKZ keeps me in that lane.

    Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a successful and healthy new year.

  12. A great look back. I was thinking about the first book I bought from Amazon. It came with a magnet with a quote about the joy of books. I also remember an article on the folly that was Amazon. How it wasn’t going to make a profit and wouldn’t for years. And to rub salt in the wound, a stripper in San Francisco had just launched her adult website and was making way more that Amazon could ever hope to.

    I do miss going to book stores all the time. Wandering the shelves, picking something up, thinking about it, and bringing something home. If there is any saving grace, there are a number of authors I have discovered online, who only publish online, that I enjoy and follow.

  13. This really resonated with me, John, particularly about writers feeding the maw of the constant demand for entertainment in all of its forms. I do some things with old — maybe that should be “olde” — English folk music, which was performed by people who would sing for dinner. They may not have made a fortune, but they didn’t go hungry and always had an audience. Oral storytelling is alive and well, too, after lo these many, many years. It never stops.

    Merry Christmas and Happy 2021. Thanks for all that you do here and elsewhere as a voice of reason and sanity.

  14. That’s a lot of change packed in one post. And I still don’t know what I think about all of it. For example I’m so happy that authors have audiobooks as another platform, but I can’t for the life of me understand how people can tolerate ‘listening’ to books. I’ve tried over & over & it just doesn’t work for me. But clearly, they are very popular & it’s a segment that can’t be ignored.

    I love having physical books, but with aging eyes have swerved far more into e-books.

    So in some ways I reject technology (audiobooks) and embrace it happily (ebooks).

    I fell out of love with bookstores before they began to suffer from the online transition. It started when the market of good Star Trek original series writers dried up. And by the days of Amazon, it was far, far easier for me to search out and find the very particular non-fiction books I wanted online. I think that was the difference for me–I think when most people use a physical store, they’re browsing for whatever grabs them. I always have very specific subjects in mind, and it wasn’t often they could deliver (well I suppose they could if they were the size of a super Walmart).

    But as you said, the one thing that remains true is that writers still have to write great stories–regardless of format, regardless where the reader picks them up. 😎

    • The first time I tried to listen to a book (on tape no less), I hated it. I couldn’t just sit and listen. Way too much ADHD here for that. Then a couple of years ago an author gifted me an audiobook copy of one of hers and I discovered that I could listen on my smart phone while doing otherwise mindless tasks – gardening, cooking, cleaning, driving. I’ve almost always got one lined up or playing. I have also discovered however, that if I’m working on my own novel, I need to quiet the audio book for a while or my characters simply shut up and go away.

  15. Always good to have a history lesson for those who weren’t there in the “good old days.” (Or otherwise, depending on how you see the rise of self-publishing!)

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