Saturday, May 25, 2013

We've been here before

If you've gotten close to a writer lately, you'll probably witness plenty of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth over the seemingly Apocalyptic changes in the publishing business.

But such seismic change has happened before.

First up: A Story of the Short Story.

Up through the 1940s it was possible for a writer to earn a living publishing short stories. In fact, the pulp magazines--known for establishing the mystery, science fiction, and romance genres--provided many writers with a reliable income. And the larger magazines such as Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post paid amazingly high sums (even by modern standards) for short fiction. Stories published in the big "slicks" could earn $2000--a year's salary in those days! Sadly though, rates paid for short stories have changed little despite inflation. A writer for the pulps could expect 1-3 cents a word, meaning a check between $20-200 (same as today) depending on the story length. In 1940 the average salary was $40/month so it was possible to pound out a living at the typewriter.  And consider that back then there were around 500 magazines paying for fiction.

What killed the pulp market and put the squeeze to the short story writer? Two things.

The first chop to the neck fell in 1939 when Robert Fair de Graff convinced Simon & Schuster to help him start Pocket Books. He repackaged the "book" into a smaller, cheaper format with hard stock paper vs cardboard covers and just as importantly, made the new pocket book available in places like drugstores, supermarkets, bus stations, and airports. Before then, if you wanted a book, you'd have to trek to a bookstore and fork over $2.50 for a hardback. Now you could pluck a novel off a spinner rack for 15-25 cents and stash it in your...pocket. Suddenly, people were reading books everywhere. De Graff's successful foray into what we now call the mass market paperback was followed by new publishing lines, some of which you may recognize and others that have since gone extinct: Avon, Dell, Bantam, Pyramid, Checker, New American Library, and Ballantine. The first paperbacks were reprints until Fawcett Gold Medal decided to print originals and then cherry-picked established short-story authors to fill the pages. Writers such as Louis L'Armour and John D. MacDonald. Not only were the more well-known writers migrating to paperbacks, but these novels were crowding into newsstands and competing directly with the pulps. Why buy a magazine when your favorite author had a whole book to himself?

Chop to the neck number two. The Second World War brought paper rationing to the U.S. publishing industry. Already seen as literary pariahs, the pulps got axed and most were never resurrected after the shooting stopped.

Second Big Shift: I smell money.

In 1968, the insurance company National General bought the hardback publisher Grosset & Dunlap, which owned half of Bantam Books. Later that year, Intext bought Ballantine Books. Then CBS bought Popular Library. Warner Communications bought Paperback Library and begat Warner Books. The staid publishing industry morphed into a stew of mergers, sell offs, and buy outs, stirred by conglomerates with no interest in books except as commodities. While such business strategies can be argued as leveraging resources, eliminating redundancies, and exploiting economies of scale, in reality a corporate takeover siphons profits from the core business to feed a new layer of bureaucracy and fatten executive salaries. With such a focus on profits, the emphasis shifted from cultivating a stable of authors and their books to finding The Mega Hit. Something like Airport, The Godfather, Shogun. And writers who you thought had hit their stride still managed to get cut off at the knees. Good sales were no longer good enough.

Which brings us to the situation today. A miniscule short story market pursued for publishing credentials and prestige because obviously, the money ain't there. A publishing industry owned by international conglomerates whose bean counters bring a used-car salesman approach to the book business--What's the immediate ka-ching!--which remains oblivious to the slippery logic of the literary market: who really knows what's going to take off? There is no magic formula. Quote me one rule and I can counter-quote you with an exception.

A new scary place to be.

Faced with a shrinking and more competitive traditional market, we writers have to consider ebook self-publishing to survive. Even NYT bestselling authors feel the edge of the publisher's scalpel. We are well aware that the self-publishing road is lined with pot holes and snake-oil vendors. But the best of us will persevere, just as we always have.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

A great post and so true!

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent piece, Mario. Thanks so much for posting it.

Mario Acevedo said...

Irene and Rick: Glad you liked it.

Karen Duvall said...

Great article, Mario! A wonderful history lesson in the big bad world of publishing.

Mario Acevedo said...

Thanks Karen!

Cindi Myers said...

Terrific analysis, Mario. We live in interesting times.

Anonymous said...

One big problem is, they're too busy looking for books they think will be blockbusters, while missing tons of novels with real potential.

Meanwhile, something like "Fifty Shades" sneaks in under everyone's radar and sells boatloads. So much for "predicting" best sellers.

Same applies to the music and movie industries.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Another blow to mass market book-selling came when the number of distributers dropped in one year's time. Racks in filling stations just disappeared.

Wicked Christa said...

You should consider self-publishing to thrive, not just survive. The snake oil salesmen are an easy solution - do everything (with the possible exception of the cover) yourself. The only pothole is discoverability, which you must face whether self-published or trad-published.

Kick around a bit at kboards dot com in the writer's cafe. Join Marie Force's yahoo group ( /selfpublish). You can ask nuts & bolts questions on either. If you don't want to do everything yourself - you can also ask for recs on copyeditors, typesetters/converters, etc. (But you really do not need typesetters or converters. There are plenty of easy-to-learn, free software programs that will take your word file and give you an epub and a mobi file (likely most of the converters are using the same programs).)

And if no one answers your posts, email me (except for recs as I don't use anyone for anything). :*

Mario Acevedo said...

Christa: Thanks! And will do.