Alas, Poor Book Business, I Knew It Well

When I was four years old, I started writing and binding my own books. I’d write (and illustrate) them, and then, with a hole-punch, some string, and folding techniques worthy of an origami master with a traumatic brain injury, create my very own, DIY “book.”

When I was eleven, I wrote my first novel. It was my third book. My first, a collection of humorous short stories, character sketches, and trenchant, thoughtful essays, was titled, Life as a Kid. It was quite enthusiastically reviewed by my father and an alcoholic friend of my mom’s. My second book, Getting in Touch with Your Feelings, was a runaway non-fiction bestseller amongst buyers who were my mom and me.

My debut novel, Travels with Snickles, related the spellbinding adventures of a brilliantly funny, preternaturally intelligent, and almost painfully sensitive young boy, John, who, by circumstances and temperament, is forced to run away from home. From the moment he strikes out on his own, John has by his side his beloved talking black cat, Snickles. Besides having quite the rapier wit, Snickles also excels at eating in restaurants. He sits in a kiddie chair (of course), and always uses a napkin, linen when available.

Here is an excerpt from the second chapter (“The Adventure Begins”) of Travels with Snickles, featuring our hero and his cat in a restaurant.

“You gonna eat those fries?” said Snickles.

“I certainly am,” said John.

“I want some. All I’ve got left on my plate is this pickle,” said Snickles.

“Sorry,” said John. “These fries are mine.” (John was terribly fond of french fries. He didn’t speak French, though.)

“But cats hate pickles.”

“Snickles hates pickles?”

“You know I also hate rhyming.”

“You’re some cat.”

“You’re some hog. Give me your fries.”

“All of them?”

“No. Half.”

“No way!”

“Oh, well. I guess I’ll order another tuna sandwich, then.”

“Snickles, we’re not made out of money, you know,” said John. “We have to be responsible.”

“How much money do we have?”

“Not nearly enough!”

Can you believe it was another thirty-five years before I got a literary agent? Me neither.

Anyway, I always knew I’d be a writer. (Which is vastly different than “I always wanted to be a writer,” which is a whole other, life-dominating saga.) To that end, then, in 1980, when I was twenty-two years old, I got a job working in a bookstore. I figured that if I was going to make my living writing books, I should know the book business from the ground up. So I got a job at the Stacey’s bookstore in downtown San Francisco. (In 2009, after eighty-five years in business, venerable Stacey’s closed. You can watch a YouTube video about that closing here.) I continued to work in bookstores, off and on, for many years afterward. (I used to be a major book freak/collector. I always worked in a bookstore’s shipping and receiving department, because that’s where you first see all the new titles. Pretty soon I’m collecting first editions. That’s how I caught bookcollectorfreakatitis, of which I’ve since been cured, sort of.)

At the time I started working in it, the book business was run by people who deeply cared about books: who knew authors; who knew literature; who understood and cherished what books have always meant to the history, evolution, and expression of ideas. It was a profound appreciation of the whole aesthetic of books—the aura of them, really—that brought people into that career, whether they worked as a clerk on the sales floor of a bookstore, a traveling publisher’s rep, a retail buyer, or in a publishing house. They were there because they loved books, period.

Today there are still lots and lots of people in the book business who passionately care about books, of course. But for so long now there have also been so many other people in the book business—people who wouldn’t know a decent book from a matchbook, and who wouldn’t care about the difference, either, as long as the matchbook had a really bitchin’ cover—that … well, that finally we have the abysmal state of the book business today.

Which, to be clear, is a state that I love. I am thrilled that the book business is finally choking to death on its own vomit. (Yow: sorry for that awful image. But … well, that is what’s happened. It all started, see, with the discount mega-bookstores, because then there was all that floorspace that needed filling, see, and … .) I mean, I loved the old way of publishing, too: agents, editors, publisher’s galleys, all that. I’m mad about that stuff. I’ve spent my whole life wanting to be part of that model.

But that model has tripped and fallen off the runway. She’s gone.

And with the new way—with the new model—I get to bring my work directly to my audience. (Um … and in my new book I swear I’ll use better metaphors.)

And oh, but yayeth for that freedom.

No mid-level advertising doink deciding how to “package” my “message.” No marketing flack asking me to identify the “take away” of my book. No more infernal talk about the “felt need” of a book. (“I guess there was just no felt need for it,” is how people in Christian book publishing explain yet another of their excruciatingly boring books that failed to sell.)

Do you know that for years now, the people in a publishing house who decide what books will or won’t get published are not the editorial people? It’s the marketing and sales people. A big editor in a big house can suggest a book—but if the heads of both advertising and marketing don’t also give it the thumbs-up, that book dies a swift death. The editor who used to discover, champion, and publish books based of their literary merit is now a project manager overseeing the production of books that his counterpart of twenty years ago wouldn’t have touched with a twenty-foot pencil.

It’s a new world now, baby!

For me, if feels full circle. I’m happily back to where I was when I was a kid, creating my own DIY books.

I’ve got one more book to ghostwrite, for one more big book publisher, and then I’m as free as I wanna be.

And, oh, God, do I wanna be. I can’t even begin to tell you how much. (Though, all that said: my two books, Penguins, and I’m OK—You’re Not were published exactly how I wanted them to be. It was awesome.)

Speaking of the bygone era of the book business, check out this video. This is definitely when the “E” in “Ebook” stood for Excruciating Amount of Work.

"If I may ask, what would you consider a good argument?"

Atheist and Christian argue about hell ..."
"wow....if that last sentence doesn't scream "I'm a racist" nothing does."

The fundamentally toxic Christianity
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The fundamentally toxic Christianity

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  • Good post, John. You’ve touched on this a few times and while I think this could be a viable solution for folks with non-fiction titles, fiction has few success stories. The great irony here is that whether one seeks to self publish via Print-on-Demand and e-book, the writer still needs a platform for success with their own sales or in chasing down a publisher/agent.

    In this way, how is it different? How does going at it alone become more attractive without the help of a publisher’s visability in the market? It seems that going solo would only be a good option once a writer has gone through the rounds of traditional publisher, secured a platform, and then he might have the driftwood after scuttling his own ship to float on his own work. Thriller writer J A Konrath talks a similar game, but for those of us just growing our gardens…I think the old game still applies.

  • Anonymous

    If you’re “just growing your own garden,” you have virtually no chance of being invited to play in “the old game,” which is rapidly winding down anyway.

  • I agree. All you hear these days is platform, platform, platform. This is despite the fact that 9 out of 10 books that are published fail in the market.

    So in the way you describe, what do you think is the central element that defines success in a book apart from just writing a good book? It’s true and tragic that many good books often go under the radar.

  • Saffron

    You speak my pain! After years of happily working my way up to senior managing editor and feeling fully immersed in the book publishing world, I’m sad to see the industry becoming more about marketing than anything else.

  • Kara K

    I love the line “origami master with a traumatic brain injury”. I can picture mini-John and his ever-ready hole punch.
    And here is your free editing for the day:
    “When I was eleven, I wrote my fist novel.”
    “Snickles is also excels at eating”

  • The thing that gets me about the book business is this platform thing. It means that the authors are usually ghost writers. How many of us actually believe that Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and Dubya actually wrote their own books? Laura Bush probably did; George probably isn’t any more capable of writing a book than Bethany Frankel, Lauren Conrad or the Situation. But all those people can sell books, with their names. It’s a sad commentary on our society.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, right. Good eyes. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, it’s so … weird, basically. The whole system is designed to produce mountains of inferior books. Which … serves no one. Lame. (For whom you were an editor, if you don’t mind sharing?)

  • Old school typesetting! *Starry eyes.*

    I have a book around that I wrote, illustrated and bound myself – when I was 12 for a class project. The Cat and the Coyote. It was about a cat and a coyote pup who became friends, then the coyote had to save the cat from his family, which wanted to eat his kitty best friend. I could draw the animals well, but, at the time, I didn’t know how to draw houses, so there’s a page with a color photograph house on one of the pages with the characters in 12-year old’s line-art darting toward it. *Laughing.* Not quite Snickles.

    35 years before you found an agent…. Hmm. I’m only 31 now, so that gives me hope, though one thing I’ve always worried about with going the traditonal route is “Will they let me design my own covers?

    None of my novels are published. I do the cover-design stuff for fun. Folks can read a version of the last one there right on the site – I have a rough draft up (I’ve already done some editing that *isn’t* on the site though, with more changes planned). Lots of illustrations.

    Some things I worry about the “new climate” of the book market, though — with the Internet, authors can put stuff up for free if they want, and readers can read free if they want (or just download and rip off if they’re saavy). Does this mean I will be a stablehand forever? Or that I *really* need to press my failing Disability case lawyer to fight harder for me because it’s obvious I’m too crazy to do anything *but* write and art (and scoop thouroughbred poop for non-sustaining pay). Also, since things are becoming more direct, does that mean that more of Sturgeon’s Law will be in effect?

    (For those who do not know Sturgeon’s Law… it’s “90% of everything is crap.”) It certainly rings true for my other hobby: Fanfiction – that is, derivative works that can never be legitimately published anyway and fans just share for free on the Internet. I love writing and reading fanfiction for some of my favorite things and there are some really great stories out there, but yes, 90% of what’s out there is garbage – sometimes even barely legible, stuff written in text speak or possibly drunken monkeys and just put… out there. I’m not just talking about the porn, either (the common sterotype is about 90% of fan-fiction is porn but I stay away from that) – even among the general stuff, it’s hard to find a geuinuely good fan-fic.

  • Two posts come to mind when I read this, John. The first is from a colleague of mine. In this post, she, too, ponders the future of publishing (though she failed to mention the vomit):

    And then this recent post about “The Work of a Bookseller” also seems like something you, as a former bookseller, might appreciate:

  • Diane Noble

    My literary agent told me today that before an editor even reads a submission the sales teams checks the numbers of previous books sold, especially the most recent. One author claimed she’d sold 20k, turns out the fact-checking site showed a sell-through at 8k. The proposal was returned without being read. This happened twice in one week. Agent is tearing out hair trying to get to the bottom of it. The sad thing is, these were solid selling, known authors, basing their numbers on royalty statements, and their materials didn’t even get read. There’s something wrong with the system! My agent will run the sell-though numbers on my latest release tomorrow. According to my Harper Collins editor via e-mail they’ve been moderately good. Now I’m worried the number she gave me was a typo.

  • Diane Noble

    P.S. Wrote my first story at age eight — Eloise My Love, complete with music back up. (Had just begun piano lessons.) Thought I’d turn it into a stage play. I had Judy Garland in mind for the lead. All I remember is there was a rainbow in it, which I also illustrated.

  • Don Whitt

    John, this may be the best time to be a writer, ever.

  • Anonymous

    Of a certain type, yes. But god help you if you’re not that type.

  • Anonymous

    This is so great.

  • Anonymous

    That sounds great for you, right? That sales for “The Sister Wife” (if that’s the title you meant) are good? Awesomeness. But yeah, how sad is it that the FIRST thing anyone in a house cares about is previous sales? I mean … I get it, of course. As do you, I’m sure; as does anyone. Publishing is a business. They need to make money. So they’re stuck having to apply the rules of business in a world where the main thing that matters is quality of art. Bad combo.

  • Diane,
    Your agent is correct. Most use Nielsen Bookscan for the numbers. This source has two limitations:
    1. This source only reports sales through bookstores and Amazon; books that sell through other channels get shorted. The author could well have sold 20K overall, but only 8k through bookstores.
    2. Nielsen’s figures for titles more than 4 years old are short based on my benchmarks for older titles that sold through the bookstore channel.
    The competitive analysis portion of a book proposal, then, needs to lead with the best-selling examples in the genre and segue back to the closest like-types.

  • Anonymous

    The thing about Bookscan only registering bookstore sales is particularly problematic for writers of Christian books, which often sell primarily through churches. Christian authors must rely on publishers to release sales numbers, which (like all publishers) they don’t like to do.

  • This is what honks me off about the publishing business as I have found it – especially in the current economy. Everyone’s looking at sales/marketing/nobody reads anymore so can we make a movie out of this?

    (I think my stuff could make great movies, being fantasy-genre… imagine a 3D war-gryphon flying in, screaming at your face!)

    What I have found in my search of agents and publishers, it seems that, overwhlemingly, they want someone who’s already been published, and whose work is a proven sell. They just don’t want to take chances on unknowns. I have known very talented writers through the Internet who are in the unknown boat. Aside from most too self-depreciating to even take a chance in trying to go professional, no one is inteterested in them because they are unknown, even though they write beautifully. As for me, someone who’s courageous (or just stupid) enough to try? Well, it makes me feel like I did when I was trying to get my very first job (regular job) as a teenager. No one wants you unless you have experience, yet no one is willing to give you the experience and you search forever.

  • Anonymous

    Have you read my “How to Make a Living as a Writer”? (See tab at top of blog.) In there I talk quite a bit about this dilemma. The answer is you have to work, for a long time, for free, for print publications. There is no other way to get anyone to take you seriously outside of the college graduate writing programs.

  • My fiance’ is on a few email lists for small markets – forwards me these every week – contests, magazines looking for that kind of thing, small-pay and no-pay. I’ve thought about them, but I’m honestly not sure my work is of the kind any of them would want. I tend to write stuff that is… well, weird, not sure it’s good enough and all that.

  • Skimming through the “How To Make A Living as a Writer” post again…

    Also, I was looking in on some of those contests and freelance markets I get in email forwards tonight and (going through one of my depressed moods), I realized something.

    I’m not an expert at anything. A lot of markets, magazines and such want you to actually know stuff about this or that. Sorry, “Mothering Magazine” you may be open, but I’ve never been a mom. I know a little bit about a lot of subjects, but not so much about any one or two or even a few subjects – and I probably know very, very little about what normal people care about. My life experiences? Well, my life has been weird – I actually find putting my experiences into fiction a lot easier and more believable than trying anything non-fiction.

    There’s my lack of confidence issue, too. I struggle between thinking no one wants anything I do or am about and thinking that I’m such a genius that, if nothing else, someone will discover my work after I die and it will change the world. I have mentioned on here that I’m bipolar, right? Actually, something like that happens to a minor character in one of my novels.

    The being a wellspring of ideas – oh, that’s easy for me. I’ve written 3 different novels set in different worlds in the last five years. Some short stories. I write lots and lots of fan fiction but fan fiction doesn’t count because it’s just a geek-hobby that plays in other peoples’ backyards. As far as novels go, I have written 5 in total so far – but two are… not good. One I think is possibly salvagable with some heavy changes, but my first one is a steaming pile with a plot I’ve mostly forgotten. I was excited about it when I was writing it, though, I remember that. My signficant other has work that has changed form over the years (he couldn’t get it syndicated as a comic, so he’s novelizing it)… he has a whole complex space-time-bending meta-verse. We both come up with stuff on the fly all the time, too. There’s a character we created between the two of us that started out as a cartoon voice of his – our inside joking has given him an assistant, a lawyer and several little plots including one involving breakfast cereal and exploding horses (don’t ask). We’d be making Flash animations of this and putting it up on the web for all to see if it weren’t for the fact that my guy is too busy looking for an actual, real job right now.

    I suppose all there is for us to do is to keep trying and to keep looking for an “in.” I’m wondering if I should bite the anti-social bullet and get a Facebook. I already have a Deviant Art page, but Facebook always seemed a little scary to me for some reason… maybe because the last blog/journaling system I was on was where I got harrassed by some people over very stupid things and I worry about that happening again.

  • Diane Noble

    Sales are good for “The Sister Wife” outside the Christian market. CBA stores won’t touch it with a ten foot pole because of the plural marriage content and the fact that Harper Collins/Avon isn’t thought to be a CBA house. In the words of one Family Bookstore buyer. “Can’t carry it. We’d get killed.” Sort of chuckling because they “got killed” anyway. My CBA readers simply bought the book at WalMart or elsewhere. Yes, it’s a business. Sadly, too often a short-sighted business.

  • Diane Noble

    Thanks for the info. Very interesting. Copying and pasting to tuck away. I wonder if big box stores are included in the Bookscan numbers? (As in, OH NO! you mean those 500 books per week I *hear*are heading out WalMart doors won’t count?!)

  • Anonymous

    You’re rockin’ the universe for having your book/s available at WalMart. Congratulations on that fine accomplishment. And yeah, that craziness with the “bluehairs” (an obnoxious term I’ve heard Christian publishers and agents use to describe the owners of the Christian bookstores to whom they must ultimately cater) is so … completely counter-productive. And exactly, as you say, why Christian bookstores are in such deep trouble.

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