Tag Archives: book publishing

Catching Up on Links

Some links on pieces about writing and related matters I had collected but not passed on:


Fonda Lee, who is making waves with her new novel, Jade City (more on my impressions of that book later,) did a good, practical Twitter thread essay on awards versus sales when it comes to marketing buzz.

Tim Pratt did an interesting piece on the process of writing his alien creatures in his SF novel, The Wrong Stars.

John Scalzi did a piece about attempts to tabulate authors’ sales from limited sources and the markets for fiction in general.

Anaea Lay recounts the story of her glamorous author travels to WorldCon in 2017, useful for those who may be doing convention traveling.

Chuck Wendig didn’t particularly like a piece of writing advice someone gave on Twitter and so did a comic riff on it followed by some useful writing advice as a Twitter thread essay.

Ineke Chen-Meyer points out an interesting difference between our fictional characters and the real world.


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The Wholesale Market Collapse

So, I completely misunderstood what a post on someone else’s blog was doing, and did a quick summary of the wholesale market collapse in book publishing in the 1990’s, which is what I thought on passing glance that the post was talking about. Since I am having life stuff and not being very efficient about getting my own blog posts together lately, I figured I might as well repeat it here as possible interest. 🙂 So here it is, a bit cleaned up and adjusted:


In the early 1990’s, there was a big recession in the U.S. and various forms of economic distress elsewhere, (plus the Gulf War in the U.S. messed things up for a few critical months.) It was the first of the big recessions, which occur at the end/beginning of each decade (we’re due for a new one in the next few years.) In the wake of that recession, which hit retail hard in a number of countries including the U.S. and the U.K., non-bookstore vendors for books, magazines and newspapers such as grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, newsstands, music stores, etc. made some changes. They cut drastically the number of items they sold, first off — fewer books (they sold mainly paperbacks.) And they also reduced drastically the number of wholesale vendors supplying them that they ordered from. As Tom Doherty of Tor told me, in the U.S., the wholesale suppliers for books and sundries went from about 600 different companies to 6 large ones within a few years. This devastated most of the magazine market as well and led to the beginning of the end, etc.

Mass market paperbacks are not big moneymakers for publishers because they don’t make enough profit with shipping and printing costs and the price discounts on top of the list price. When unsold mass market paperbacks are being returned, vendors rip off the front covers to return them to the publishers for credit and pulp the rest of the books because that’s cheaper than trying to ship them back for the full refund from the publishers, who pay the shipping costs for returns. So unlike hardcover and trade paperback returns, which are returned as full books, returned mm paperbacks can’t be returned to inventory and resold. What makes mm paperbacks useful is that they can be sold in bulk in wide distribution through the wholesale market, which makes up for the costs. When the wholesale, non-bookstore market radically shrunk in terms of distributors and buys from vendors, it was an enormous loss, especially for sectors of the market that do well in mm paperback, such as genre fiction and self-help. The entire fiction market went into a slump from which many sectors still haven’t fully recovered. (Fantasy was spared more than most because it had a bunch of big books doing well in hardcover in bookstores during the time period and was in the middle of an expansion.)

With the mammoth losses in the wholesale non-bookstore markets, that meant trying to get more mm paperbacks moved into bookstores for sale. And the bookstores didn’t really want them because they don’t make money for them because they don’t sell most of their stock in bulk. Which is why a lot more fiction started coming out first in hardcover and trade paperback than they used to do — to get the bookstores to play ball and make decent margins, as well as to get more reviews and library sales. The bookstores are also fewer in number, so even if they wanted to, they couldn’t make up the loss of market. The big chains were opening up their superstores in the 1990s, so they did take some large numbers of mm paperbacks in bulk, but they also deliberately wiped out a lot of the independent bookstores, so that the overall number of bookstores decreased throughout the 1990’s. That meant even fewer vendors for publishers since the wholesale market didn’t come back and in fact got worse. And the big bookstore chains were owned/bought by corporations that didn’t really care about their success in the weird world of book-selling but instead pressed for constant growth beyond what the stores could do, saddled the big chains with debt they couldn’t keep up with, and milked the chains for cash/stock buybacks by slashing staff, etc. That’s what took out Borders and it’s currently killing Barnes & Noble.

When Amazon lit up the tiny e-book retail market a decade ago, that helped since e-book sales took the place of some of the lost mm paperback sales. But e-books, requiring electronic equipment, Internet hook-up, etc., were always going to be more limited a market, and when Amazon kept trying to keep a monopoly on the whole market — largely successfully — that even more limited the market. So e-books have leveled off in sales, especially as Amazon has less and less interest in them (e-books only make up a tiny part of its sales, like 3% out of the 7% total of their revenue for all their book sales.) Neither e-book sales, nor fishing the best self-pub products for reprint opportunities were going to save book sales fully. The YA and middle grade book expansion — which was largely in hardcover and trade paperback — in the early oughts did boost those sections considerably but that has also leveled off somewhat. A pricing war between WalMart, Target and Amazon — all wholesale accounts — helped things in the U.S. for about a year. Renewed Hollywood interest in adapting books for t.v., streaming and film helped, (that sort of thing had also declined previously in the 1990’s.)

Book sales have improved, a lot of indies have done well, smaller chains that can manage their inventory and store rent or mortgages have done well. The U.K. market is actually a lot healthier than the bigger U.S. one. The industry is basically doing the sort of growth rate that it did before corporations kept pushing for bigger returns in the 1980’s and 1990’s — low, small percent growth, narrow margins. More books are put out now than before and the market got much better globally. But there are fewer vendors, bookstore and non-bookstore, than there were in 1990. The wholesale market is still shrunk, hurting lots of different products. They need more places that sell books and that they can sell to in bulk amounts. And they haven’t figured out a solution to that yet. They can’t go to China for sales like the movies or music. And it doesn’t help that book readers are marketing resistant, especially for fiction, and tend to not buy ancillary merchandise to books, unlike other entertainment and info products. (Piracy doesn’t help either.)


So that’s not a finished essay, obviously, but may provide a bit of helpful information.

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Hire Artist Natasha Alterici!

Artist Natasha Alterici put out that she has slots available for up-coming commissions in February. Her stuff seems pretty good so check her out if you are looking for a cover artist or other artistic needs:


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Some Writing Related Links

Well the world keeps being a rolling cyclone, don’t it, so in the meantime, some writing-related links:

Author Kameron Hurley explains how the editor-author relationship works and that it’s not a boss-employee relationship.

Author Ann Leckie offers encouragement about the uncertainties of the submission process, even for those authors facing additional obstacles.

Author Jim C. Hines talks about being rejection and how it’s part of all authors’ lives.

Travel writer Geraldine DeRuiter, of The Everywhereist blog, offers Unhelpful Charts for Writers.

And author N.K. Jemisin offered a Tweet thread about Embracing Your Own Voice as a writer.

Author John Scalzi talks about his new novel, The Collapsing Empire and writing life in general in an interview with The Nerd Reactor.

Scalzi also explained how book contracts work to a, I believe they are called Dreaded Elk or something like that, at a signing he did. It’s a good accompaniment to Hurley‘s piece and just funny:




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Jim C. Hines Returns to Modeling

Fantasy author Jim C. Hines took a break from working on his new series to do one of his famous here’s the ridiculous sexist poses they put women figures in on SFF covers for no reason cover poses. Although Jim has mainly retired from doing such photo shoots, in order to save his back, he came out of retirement for a good cause — to raise money for the Pixel Project, which works to end violence against women. A donor paid $500 and they selected imitating the cover for the YA novel The Selection by Kiera Cass. Here’s the photo here, and you can check out Jim’s blog for info about donating to the Pixel Project.


Hopefully his spine remained intact!

Hopefully his spine remained intact!



Filed under book publishing, Humor, SFFH, Women

I Got Quoted in Academia This Year

Back in 2013, I did a blog post about women SFF authors, “Reality and the Welcome Sign — Gender and SFFH,” in reference to Tor UK’s editorial director Julie Crisp’s blog post at the time about how Tor welcomed women authors but they weren’t showing up in submissions, or at least not for things like hard SF. I felt that Crisp was offering a nice welcome message but missing the plot of what women authors actually faced in the field regarding discrimination and marketing obstacles to their success from the industry. Essentially, Crisp was using the “it’s women’s fault that we’re ignoring them” defense, a very popular idea, and the stats that she compiled on Tor UK’s submissions have often been cited by those who want to claim women SFF authors face no discrimination in the market at all. Unfortunately, the stats Crisp offered show the exact opposite.

I was contacted about whether a quote from that blog post could be used in an up-coming non-fiction work on the SF field and I said sure. That book, an academic reference work on early women SFF writers, came out this year from Wesleyan University Press. It’s called Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction, edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp. It offers sample works of prominent women writing SF in the early twentieth century, along with lots of commentary and historical context of the field in its early golden age and the women’s role within it. My quote is in the concluding essay written by author Kathleen Ann Goonan, which looks at the women in SF and the science community and the contemporary SF field in contrast.

Being an academic work meant for universities, it’s a bit on the pricey side though chock full of good stuff. If you are looking for a good specialized reference book or teaching writing fiction or SFF fiction, it might be helpful. Anyway, I wish it well and not just because I got a shout out in it. As author Joanna Russ explained so clearly in her non-fiction book, How To Suppress Women’s Writing, if we don’t talk about women writers, society will pretend they aren’t there. Especially these days.


Filed under Blog Issues, book publishing, SFFH, Women, Writing

Publishers, Magazines and Agents Are Not Trolling You

Author and editor Jason Sanford did a piece about the perplexing complaint from writers who had submitted stories to a prominent horror/dark fantasy magazine, The Dark, that they were getting a response too quickly and that rejections they received clearly indicated that the stories hadn’t been read at all.

This was a familiar issue to me because when I was a literary agent, our agency used to get the complaint all the time, and indeed, magazine editors, literary agents and book editors who deal with unagented submissions will tell you that they regularly receive it, and usually when they have managed to respond to submissions quickly. It was a somewhat more understandable situation when it comes to novel manuscripts. After all, authors do know that when they submit sample chapters to an agent or book publisher that the person may not read all the chapters, but may make a decision based on reading just the first chapter alone or even on a few first pages. The biggest commodity publishing folk have to deal in is time, and they will try to get through submissions quickly to find stuff they think they can use. Ninety-eight to ninety-five percent of what they receive they won’t be able to use — it doesn’t work for them, and they know it pretty quickly because they aren’t engaged by the material or it’s not their area of fiction. But they are willing to look at that large pile of submissions to find the small percentage of ones that could and do work for them, for whatever reason they have for that decision.

So it would not be entirely surprising for a writer to accuse an agent or editor of not giving their work enough of a read or proper careful consideration — though agents and editors owe submitting writers neither. But there is no real logic behind the accusation that editors and agents are purposely asking for submissions and then not reading them at all. To what point is there in these publishing people having submission piles in the first place with that assumption? For simply the thrill of rejecting people, usually with a form letter? Authors who make these accusations seem to be claiming that entire publishing operations are wasting their time in an elaborate trolling exercise of strangers with no discernible purpose.

The reality is that no fiction magazine, no fiction publisher and no literary agent intent on selling fiction to fiction publishers needs to be open to submissions from authors if they don’t want to do it, if they don’t think it will pay off with the occasional good find. They can instead keep a closed process where they contact and solicit chosen authors out there for material and only look at that material. Even operations that do take open submissions also do this as well and they can easily find more than enough material by soliciting known authors or authors they happen to spot in the market. Which is why the larger book publishers, finding that keeping increasingly large open submission piles didn’t provide enough returns for the time and expense of having their staff go through them, simply shut the piles down in the 1990’s, and limited their allowed submissions to solicited ones from agents and authors they chose.

Given how low and depressed the payments for short fiction have been over the last thirty years and how much the market for such fiction has shrunk even with the more recent self-publishing and anthology booms, SFFH magazines have no problem soliciting short works that well known book authors happen to have lying around, paying them a few hundred for the stories and reaping the benefits for their circulation numbers. Even the newer, smaller magazines don’t actually need to bother with newbies if they can swing a decent payment by market standards.

Yet the magazines do often have open submissions, or open submissions part of the year, because finding new talent also brings smaller, long term rewards, including pleasing their readers, and because it’s a tradition certainly of the SFFH field to find and bolster what they feel is new talent. But you can’t actually find “new talent” if you do not actually read what new authors submit to you. If you don’t read submissions, having them at all is a colossal waste of time.

In the “old” days a couple of decades ago, the open submission pile was a huge time investment as well as costing some money. Submissions arrived in packages and had to be unpacked, which was hours and hours of time. They had to be logged in to a record system of some sort, which was hours of time. They had to be read, which was hours and hours of time. They had to have rejection letters or requests for more material letters printed, even if they were form letters, which took hours of time. And they had to be repackaged as returns in the self-addressed stamped envelopes and gotten to the post, which took hours and hours and hours of time. The claim that editors and agents and their staff, if they had them, would spend all that time in the processing and mailing of submissions but skip the critical reading part made no logical sense. Yet it happened from submitting authors all the time. They seemed convinced that agents and editors were spending the better part of their days engaged in a non-profitable prank operation.

Everybody in publishing was a little slow to adopt electronic submissions, not because of a distaste in technology but because they feared the submissions would swamp their networks and also leave them exposed to viruses in attachments. But eventually most places taking submissions were able to do so electronically and send the responses electronically as well. This not only saved an immense amount of trees and postage and print costs for authors, but cut down considerably on the amount of time needed to process submissions by editors and agents. The submissions have to still be logged in, which still takes hours, but now story files can be opened with a click. The stories still need to have return responses crafted and sent, but that takes much less time than doing it by mail with packaging. So now the main time requirement is reading the stories. This has meant that editors and agents can get through and respond to submissions in half the time or less than back in the only paper days. And authors in short fiction definitely can hit a lot more markets with their submissions in the time it used to take to get a response from just one submission, which greatly increases their odds of finding a publication that will want their work.

But this improved situation has instead been received by many authors as further proof that they are being tricked by editors and agents who lure them in with open submissions, ignore their work and reject it. Why would they do that? Because, that’s why, seems to be the main response. Submissions to agents and book publishers are free — they aren’t making money off submissions and yet are still spending hours processing those submissions if they take them. While many literary magazines seem to have taken up requiring submission fees, which is deeply ethically problematic and usually not worth an author’s time, submission to major magazines and SFFH magazines is also usually free, and those magazines are again still spending hours processing those submissions. So what exactly is the allure here for publishing people if they aren’t really going to read the submissions, searching for material?

One reason occasionally floated is that book publishers and magazines urge authors considering submissions to check out what they publish before doing so. This is mainly because editors hope to cut down their time spent reading material sent to them that plainly doesn’t fit their lists or publications. But some interpret it as the editors trying to get authors to buy books or subscriptions, or in the case of free online magazines, get their views for the advertisers. But there are many problems with this notion. First off, it doesn’t apply to literary agencies or most anthology editors, and yet those folks still get the same complaint that they aren’t reading submissions. Second, although they ask for it with hope in their hearts, editors know full well that nine out of ten authors won’t buy books from their list or buy/read issues of their magazines before submitting to them. As a way to profit and raise circulation numbers, it’s largely a bust. Third, there are dozens of other types of promotions they could try that would have a much greater return in customers and viewers and do not cost them the hours and hours of valuable time processing submissions, or lead them to have buyers/viewers who are then very unhappy with them and will do no further business due to submission rejection. You get the idea here. Unless some sort of reading fee scam is involved, it simply doesn’t make much sense, and well known agents, publishers and magazines are not running fee scams. What profit they manage comes from the other end, when they put out product into the market. Which is why they are willing to slog through a lot of stuff they don’t want in search of what might be the best thing for them that they’ve ever found.

So the claim seems to come from deep mistrust that some authors have of the very institutions with whom they are trying to work. Even though there is no viable reason for believing that a returned submission has not been read and considered, they tend to treat it as if a blind date has stood them up entirely. But when an author is rejected by an editor or agent, it’s important to remember that all it means is not this story at this time with this person/organization. It doesn’t mean all selling options are closed or that circumstances won’t change. And quite often it can turn out to be a good thing as a better opportunity may come up that would have been missed if the author hadn’t gotten a rejection. Writing fiction is creating, but selling rights to it or placing it is resilience. And understanding that even your best work, which someone will love, may still leave the brightest editors and agents cold because the field is subjective.

After they read it. Really, they read it.

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