What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.


Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.


For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:


What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?

Another Coup for Self-Publishing

Dovetailing on Joe Moore’s great post yesterday on “Show Me the Money,” I saw an article in Publishers Weekly and wanted to share this very interesting deal.
John Locke is my hero.
No, not THAT John Locke! This guy…
Publishers Weekly reported on Aug 22nd that John Locke, the self-pubbed Kindle bestseller phenom, closed a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster. The deal, negotiated by his agent, is an exclusive arrangement where S&S will handle Locke’s eight Donovan Creed novels and get them into retail markets for print books. These novels are expected to start releasing in Feb 2012 with more titles to follow.
This seems like a really different idea, but a rep at S&S said this concept mimics the type of arrangements made between distributors and small publishers. Whether you consider this unorthodox or not, this is news, people. Locke still distributes his e-books and retains his rights as publisher on all digital fronts. S&S is only getting the right to sell print books to retail markets. S&S sees value in print and paid accordingly for that privilege, but Locke didn’t have to give up his lucrative digital rights.
If Locke hadn’t self-published, he never would have known his true value in the marketplace.
I see this as very encouraging for aspiring authors. The digital marketplace has become the new resume, a proving ground. It requires work to market your own books, but traditional publishers expect authors to do this anyway. Quality and author craft is still important to this process, but I believe if an aspiring author has talent and a marketing platform to get the word out, this new digital world can be the best way to showcase work.
Published authors benefit from this development too. Striking a similar deal, they would get to focus on their writing, get their books into the public faster without all the approval and production schedule delays, and push the genres they write without NYC filtering the content for placement on shelves in retail stores. Established authors already spend time on promotion. Nothing new there, but there would be no more waiting to see if the publisher will spend money on promo or coop dollars for often limited time on the shelves. And the author retains control of cover art, book jacket summary, copy editing, and formatting, if they want it.
Even though S&S has limited access to Locke’s work, it can be looked upon as a WIN-WIN, in my opinion. S&S gets access to books that have a proven readership. They don’t have to “guess” whether a series will gain traction or not. They get exclusive print distribution rights for a known commodity. Not a bad thing to try in a changing world.
The author gets to take the risk of whether his or her book will find success, so they can push the genre or create a new trend—AND keep the rights that are most lucrative these days. The author would also free up time to write more, rather than spend time with the print side of the business—and gain access to retail markets he/she would not have reached on their own. PLUS a proven winner like Locke would also have the attention of NYC with his next project, opening more doors. Definitely a WIN-WIN!
I see this as a very positive arrangement—a healthy one for the industry. Both sides benefit from something they would not have tried otherwise. If a traditional bundled publishing deal can be broken apart for perceived value, how do you think this might change how deals can be negotiated in the future? Can digital rights be retained by the author for the right project? How would an agent’s role change? Would an author have to be a proven bestseller to have enough clout to negotiate a similar deal or does a deal like Locke’s foreshadow things to come for all authors?

Q & A with Oline H. Cogdill

ThCOGDILL20Ae Kill Zone is thrilled to have Oline H. Cogdill, Mystery Fiction Columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, joining us today. She also reviews for McClatchy Tribune Wire Services, Mystery Scene magazine and Publisher’s Weekly. Her reviews appear in about 250 newspapers and publications world wide. She is a judge for the 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Oline also blogs about mysteries, the publishing industry or anything else that amuses her at www.mysteryscenemag.com/msblog and at

Q. What happens when you review a friend’s book and you don’t like it?
A. I don’t review friends’ books. I am often called a “friend” or a “friend of mysteries,” but that is like using the word “friend” as one does on Facebook. I genuinely like most of the mystery writers I meet or are on panels with. But I am not their friend. There is a difference between being friendly and a friend. I’ll have a drink with them, or even a meal, but that is as far as it goes. (And I pay my own way.) I completely put the identity of the author out of my mind when I am reading a novel to review. I am focused only on the work, not the book. If I felt I was really too close to an author, then I could not review their book. My husband is working on a mystery; I have read the first six chapters and I think he is onto something good. Naturally, I would never review that, although because we have different last names I probably could slip it by. But it would not be ethical.
I want people to respect what I do.

Q. How many pages of a book will you read before you decide it’s not for you?

A. For me, the litmus test would be about 50 or 60 pages, but this actually seldom happens. Once I make the decision to review a book, I am committed to it: good, bad or indifferent. Since the books space at the Sun-Sentinel has been severely limited – and we have no idea what the future holds – the Books Editor and I made a conscious effort to try to publish reviews only on those books we liked. The idea being that we ‘d rather steer readers toward something than away from it. However, that said, if I begin a novel that I have chosen or one I must review and it is dreadful, I am committed to that book.

But there are a lot of exceptions. For one, if I just really hate a novel and don’t want to spend another minute in those characters’ company, I would just move on. Another exception is if it is a local author published by a small publisher. If I hate that book, I would not be serving anyone. I would put the author’s book signings, info in my Local Book News column and move one. Another reason for me not to continue with that novel would be if the publication I am reviewing for doesn’t want negative reviews. When that happens, I call the editor and ask that the book be assigned to someone else.
I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews, and would rather spend my reading time enjoying myself.

Q. How do you decide which books you will review?
A. For Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly, the novels are assigned to me. It is kind of interesting to have novels assigned, because since I started reviewing mysteries sixteen years ago, I have always chosen what I read. Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly have assigned me novels I may not have selected otherwise, opening up my world further.

For the Sun Sentinel or MCT, I choose the books. First criteria: if the author is local. Any South Florida or Florida author gets priority. Second is if the author is coming for a book tour. I can’t do everyone who swings through South Florida, but I try. There are a few – for me – must review authors such as Michael Connelly (who also has a strong Florida connection), Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid (those are not my only “must review” authors, but a sampling).

After that, I look for something new, something different. I tend to review a lot more hard boiled than cozy or traditional, but I also try to self check myself and maintain a balance. Whether an author is male or female, a minority, etc., shouldn’t matter. It is the work I focus on. On a larger plane, it matters a great deal because I want to give readers a balance. I also try to remember authors I meet at Bouchercon or Malice, anyone who might have something different to bring to the table. Last year at Bouchercon in Baltimore, my husband and I ended up talking to two newbies. They had no idea who I was until at the end of the conversation, when I gave them my card and told them to make sure their publisher contacted me. (I think they are both with St. Martin’s, but that is the only hint.) The books they were describing sounded interesting. Whether they will be or not remains to be seen.

Q. Does a book have to be published by an accepted house (think ITW and MWA members’ books) for you to review it?

A. I don’t know what the accepted houses for MWA and ITW are. For me they have to be a legitimate publisher, not a glorified vanity press or a subsidized one (meaning the author pays part of the cost). I will not review novels from any publishers like that. No self published. There are so many books being published by legitimate houses, both large presses and small, that I can’t keep up with those. Cream rises to the top. If an author has to go the subsidized route, then I wonder why. Yes, I know there are some books that got their start that way, gaining a following and rising to a legitimate press; but those are the EXCEPTIONS, not the rule.

Q. Do you review mainly hardcovers, or does the format the book is printed in not make a difference?

A. It should not make a difference, but in reality it often does. I used to do a paperback a month but now with the cutbacks in space, I will often do a paperback or two a month and put the review on the blog at www.sun-sentinel.com/offthepage and then put it on the MCT wires. That way I can cover it. And those reviews on the wires get picked up a lot. Last year, the ones I did on the novels by Jeffrey Cohen and Julie Hyzy ended up in about 100 different spots.
For the newspaper, the editors prefer hardcover but sometimes I will slip in a trade paperback if I think it is really good. Or a paperback by a local writer such as P.J. Parrish. But as a rule, the novels that are reviewed for the Sun Sentinel are hard cover.
Let me add that I am a fan of paperback originals. A lot of excellent authors got their start in paperback originals. Sometimes the paperback original authors (Joel Goldman, Rick Mofina, Michelle Gagnon, P.J. Parrish) are as good if not better than many of the authors being published in hardcover.

Q. Do you agree with Dick Cavett that there are two ways to tell someone their book isn’t good: A) You book was not my cup of tea, and B) I put down your book and just couldn’t pick it back up?
A. Another thing to say would be “Your fans will love it.” But, ha!, no, I disagree with Dick Cavett. Those are kind of cocktail party responses, things you say to people to not hurt their feelings, though if you think about those responses they are hurtful in a way. I grew up watching Dick Cavett and realizing there was a whole world out there beyond my home town. But that is a milquetoast thing to do. I may try to soften a review, especially if I have liked everything else the author has written, but in the end I have to be frank.
Case in point, I reviewed a nationally known and admired author last year. I have followed this guy since his first paperback original, and have seen him get better and better until he now regularly lands on the best sellers list. But I did not like his latest one. It hurt me to not like it, but that was the reality. So I had to give it a negative review.
A book may not be my cup of tea, but it could be yours. However, I am the one writing the review.

Q. Are there any standardized rules for reviewers, such as not quoting too directly from the book or tempering your praise/criticism?
A. My two main rules are not to give away a plot twist that will spoil the book for a reader and not to fall so in love with my own voice that I forget who the review is for. The first rule is pretty standard – I hate when a reviewer gives away a plot. I remember some review of a Michael Connelly novel (don’t remember the publication or the book title) that seemed to take glee in giving away everything twist and turn. As a reader, that made me mad.

The second rule: I think too often reviewers get so caught up that they go on too much and forget that they are writing that review for the reader, not to hear themselves be clever.
I think all reviewers should follow the rule ( I think it’s from Star Trek), “to do no harm.” That doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t rip apart a book if it deserves it, but review the book, not the author.
Quote from the book as much as you want to – most of the time that is just padding out a review – but don’t give away those vital plot points.

Q. Now that many reviews/reviewers are moving online, do you worry that they won’t adhere to the same journalistic codes?
A. I absolutely worry about that. I believe I am an ethical reviewer and I hope others think that too. I see a lot of reviews on Dorothy L and on a lot of online sites and, for the most part, they seem to be OK. Some of them are not especially well written but they are from the heart. But I worry that people are basing their reviews on grudges, agendas, friendship or anything else. Everyone now seems to be a reviewer. The rise of food review blogs, etc., seems to give many people permission to give their opinion on everything. When certain ethics such as being as objective as you can, approaching each book with a blank slate and others are not followed, I worry that it cheapens all reviews.

Q. What’s your take on ebook readers? Pros, cons as a reviewer?
A. If you mean like a Kindle or a Sony or whatever, I think those are just fine. It is another means to read a book. I like holding a book, that invisible connection to an author conveyed by holding their work. But if you read the book on a device or via the printed page, does it matter? I don’t think so. I would not find that a pro or a con as a reviewer.
The convenience might even encourage more people to buy books and that would be a good thing!
Actually, I wish the
New York publishers would get together and put their advanced copies on a Sony or whatever for reviewers. That way I could take an unlimited amount of books on vacation rather than limiting myself to 10. The publishers would save a ton of money, too.

Q. Amazon book reviews: many people think that readers pay attention to those starred, “street” reviews of books. Do you think they’re having a significant impact on book-buying decisions?
A. Lord, I hope not. Anyone can publish a review on Amazon. I know an author (self published) whose wife posted this glowing review on his Amazon site. Like me, she had kept her maiden name so no one else they knew the couple would know they were married. When they got divorced – and I bet you see this one coming – she posted a nasty, vicious review. Again, these reviews on Amazon are fraught with agendas, grudges, etc. I am sure some of the people posting their reviews are writing from the heart but others aren’t.

The Dog Rapist

The Kill Zone is thrilled to welcome author Scott Pratt for a discussion of outlandish cases and how they can influence your work. Publisher’s Weekly called AN INNOCENT CLIENT a “brilliantly executed debut,” and awarded it a starred review. I can attest that it’s a remarkable book, not to be missed.

INNOCENT CLIENT1 People often ask me what it was like practicing criminal defense law, representing guilty people, being close to murderers and rapists and various other scumbags. They want to hear the stories. I write about those stories now in my novels, but there’s one that’ll never make it into a novel. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine who worked for the public defender’s office found himself representing a dog rapist…

These are the facts:

Truck driver and wife fall out of love. Wife leaves home and files for divorce. Truck driver is miserable, drinks too much, and becomes lonely. Wife has moved into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, forcing her to leave her beloved Irish setter with the truck driver. The only way she can see the dog is to visit her former home. She usually goes by right after work – around 5:00 p.m. – and lets herself in with her key. This particular day, however, she is forced to work late and then runs a couple of errands. Believing her soon-to-be-ex-husband is out of town, she stops by to say hello to the setter. When she walks in through the kitchen and enters the living room, however, she is greeted by a horrifying scene – hubby is on his knees on the floor in the corner, trying to insert his penis into the dog. Wife calls the cops.

Scott004 Under the Tennessee animal cruelty statute, a person could be found guilty for committing a litany of offenses against animals: starving them, neglecting them, beating them, etc. But screwing them was not one of the elements listed in the statute. This important bit of information was passed along by my buddy to hubby, who was relieved to know that he couldn’t be convicted under the animal cruelty statute. What’s more, Tennessee does not have a statute on the books that makes having sex with an animal a criminal offense – called a “bestiality” statute in many states. Subsequently, hubby took a hard line and refused to plead guilty to any offense. He didn’t want to pay any fine, he didn’t want to pay any court costs, and he didn’t want to do any time in jail or be placed on probation. He even asked my friend about suing the police to recover the money he had to pay out for bail. When my friend relayed this information to the district attorney prosecuting the case, the D.A. said, “Fine. I guess we’ll have us a little trial in a couple of hours.” In the meantime, the prosecutor got on the phone and called the local media and asked them to come down to the courthouse. He filled them in briefly on the details, and being the dedicated journalists they are, they came running. The prosecutor also asked the wife to go get the dog and bring it to the courthouse.

After the lunch break, hubby walked in and saw the dog sitting with the wife in the hallway outside the courtroom. He also saw the television cameras and the reporters. He asked my friend what was going on, and was told that someone had apparently called the media to cover the trial.

“What the hell’s the dog doing here?” the hubby said.

“She’s here to testify that the sex was Ruff!” my buddy said.

Okay, that last line is a lie. But the rest of it’s true. Once he was confronted with the possibility of testimony being presented in a public trial, hubby pleaded guilty to animal cruelty, paid a fifty-dollar fine and served fifteen days in jail. His explanation to my buddy for his conduct? “I was drunk. Besides, I wouldn’t have hurt her none. Me and her has always been close.”

Hubby moved away less than a month later. Nobody’s heard from him since.

The stories that do make it into my novels are all based – sometimes loosely, sometimes not – on things I’ve done or seen, things I’ve been close to in the profession of criminal defense. It’s a fascinating world, full of zany characters, but it’s also a world that can be dangerous. The murderers aren’t always handcuffed, the guards aren’t always close enough, everyone you meet seems to be playing some angle, and there are guns and steel bars at every turn. I felt like I was suffering from battle fatigue when I finally got out, but I’m glad now that I stayed as long as I did. I have enough material to write at least ten more novels.

You might be saying to yourself, “Good for you, but I’ve never been a lawyer. Where am I going to get that kind of material?”

All you have to do is look around. Conflict is everywhere, and the world we live in is filled with danger. Mix in a little talent and a little imagination, and it’ll appear from the murk. The nugget we’re all panning for… drama.