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.