Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Important Book - What Makes a Novel Respectable by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

The Important Book
Part 1
What Makes a Novel Respectable?
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Last week, we heard from a self-publishing Historical writer who has incorporated a ghost into her series on the Gold Rush which she self-publishes.


This series on The Important Book will present some perspective on the place of the e-book and self-publishing in the coming world.

At inception, this Tuesday blog series began to answer the question, "Why is Romance, and particularly Science Fiction Romance, not accorded the respect it deserves?" 

The answer started by analyzing the writing craft of the Romance Writers who first broke the "no science fiction" barrier.  And we then went into detail about the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction, and all about commercial Marketing of these genres.

All the while, the e-book revolution has reshaped the field of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing of fiction.  That revolution is still spinning, and I think gaining speed.  There's a long way to go yet, but writers who can extrapolate where the process will be 5-10 years from now will be able to reach world-wide sales in the millions of copies. 

To extrapolate, one generally starts with a deep look into history.

In this case, since the topic is The Important Book, we need to look at how "important" books used to get published, see where they are now, then look up to chart where they may go next.

From the dawn of publishing (think Gutenberg or even hand-copying), creating copies and distributing them was hugely expensive.  Only Barons and the elite could engage in such a useless hobby as buying books, or writing them and getting them copied.

The mechanism of making copies and sending them around the landscape (think The Royal Mail - dirt roads, saddlebags, and books on parchment with leather bindings that weight 10 lbs or more each) can be thought of as "overhead," the expense of business.

The IDEAS inside those books, suggested by the black squiggles on the pages, are the Payload.  The ideas are what is being sold, what is valuable enough to make the cost of a copy worth while to the buyer.

Today's e-book innovation has reduced that overhead to the cost of a computer and word processor (some of which are free), the time invested to write, hiring an editor, a copyeditor, and a publicist to polish the text and prepare the formatting. 

All of that writing time and editing effort was expended on those early books, too, so that's not a change.  The change is only in the expense of making and distributing copies.

While the e-book innovation was just beginning, traditional publishers encountered increasing costs for paper, printing, warehousing, distributors went bankrupt not paying publishers what was owed, and salaries of editors, etc., costs of publicity (ad prices; good ad-writers) skyrocketed due to inflation and international trade agreements (tariffs).

It's that international component that causes me to point your attention at international affairs, politics, and silent tariff wars.  The international climate was a huge factor in destroying the old publishing business model of doing several "Important Books" a year.

When all this caused a huge shift in the business model of publishing that I've written about here several times, what you saw on the shelves changed.




The shift, put simply, is from a Tax-write-off business model to a Profit-making business model.

Up until that shift-point (which had little to do with e-books because there were no screens comfortable to read on), big companies owned publishing companies as a Tax Write-off. 

The publishers were supposed to lose money by publishing Important Books, books that would grab attention, be talked about, referred to, win prestigious prizes, and enhance the reputation of the company that owned the publishing house.

In other words, all traditional publishers were vanity presses except that the vanity being stoked was of the corporation owning the publisher, not of the writer whose work got published. 

After that shift point, the "bean counters" (accountants) took over and monitored publishing profits.

Publishing companies got bought, sold, traded internationally (corporate control of publishing in the USA no longer resides in the USA), and kicked around like a football all over the globe.  Then consolidation set in, with publishers being combined into larger publishers, with fewer and fewer editors making the decisions on which books to publish.

The editorial decision making process went from being in the hands of a specific individual acquisitions editor to being in the hands of committees composed of some editors, a lot of publicity, promotion, art department, legal department etc etc departments. 

The editors would find a few books to bring to a meeting to "pitch" (30-second description) at the committee, and the committee would vote on which of all the books to publish.

Keep in mind that the decision makers had not read the manuscript they were voting on, just as Senators and Congressmen have not read the bills they vote on.  All they know of the subject is in the pitch, and all they are interested in is whether that pitch will be popular enough to generate profit of some kind.

That publishing committee process took hold because it did seem to enhance profit-making potential, but simultaneously we saw the "death of the mid-list." 

The mid-list book is a book that is not a "lead title" -- does not get any budget for publicity except to be noted in the list of books published each month, does not get review copies sent to newspapers, and does not get a person in the publicity department booking the author into Guest Spots on TV.

Lead titles get all that and more -- a huge number of copies printed, banners and "dumps" in book stores, extra fees paid to book stores to get the book put in the front window and placed at eye level on shelves. (these days they pay Amazon to feature a book)

Mid-list books do not get any of that.  They are buried in the midst of all the other books, right above the list of reprints. 

But while a Lead Title requires a huge overhead investment by the publisher, it is a huge gamble.  Very often Lead Titles don't turn a profit.

Mid-list titles on the other hand could be counted on to break even because the readers of that type of material followed the authors, searched out and bought the books regardless of reviews. 

Mid-list titles were bread and butter for Tax-Write-Off publishers, and paid the rent for Indie publishers (there were a few Indie or Start-up publishers, but they were forced by economics to contract with big houses to get distribution.)

So, prior to this shift, Important books got chosen by a single, well read, widely-read, well educated person (very often a Literature Major, or Art History Major, or English Major, sometimes Theater Major) who had read the manuscript all the way through.  This person knew the world and the market and understood the Ideas presented in the book (e.g. the theme).

This person knew how to find a "theme" inside fiction, and how to judge how relevant that theme might be to the readers buying that publisher's book.

This person was in the editing business because they wanted to publish Important Books -- and very often because Important Books were Respectable Books.

Think Gutenberg again.  It wasn't until the Dime Novel and the Penny Dreadful, the pulp era, that books got published just because people wanted to read them.

With expensive overhead, publishing was, like the Sport of Kings, something only the well educated and innovative thinkers were involved with, decision makers who decisions affected thousands.

Publishing was entirely the realm of the scholar, the person who lived their life in the rarified atmosphere of thought. 

An Important Book to them was a book with a New Idea (Isaac Newton) -- preferably an Idea they could argue against at dinner parties.

Yep. All of publishing was just a big fanfic website!  An in-group. 

The exchange of Ideas has never been shown to turn a big profit.  In fact, the effort required to find, formulate and convey a new Idea is far greater than any possible return.  Idea-exchange is a hobby done for the fun of it.

Until, after Newton's era, after Sir Francis Bacon's era, people noticed that innovative ideas generated innovative technology that turned a profit.

What is a profit?

A profit means you get more OUT of a process than you put INTO the process.

For example, the cotton gin -- a machine that could separate cotton balls from the seeds faster and more efficiently than human hands could.

Keeping slaves to do that work is very expensive.  Hiring ex-slaves to do that work is maybe a bit less expensive, but still a huge expense compared to what you can sell the cotton for.  Running a machine to do that work -- a few maintenance workers, mechanics, handle-crankers, and production volume went up while expense went down.


"Business" is all about profit.  Without profit above about 10%, no business can continue.  That's why the history of human civilization on this planet is stagnant up until Gutenberg, starts to move with Columbus and sea-going vessels improving, but is very slow up until the cotton gin. 

Each era's innovation speed can be traced alongside the penetration of reading skills and book distribution.

Some of the "Important Books" that ushered in change form pivot points.

So in those days, Important Books were Respectable Books -- books with ideas in them that people had to discuss with each other, saying, "How did this guy ever think of that?"

And they'd take that idea and think it for themselves -- resulting in more new ideas, and new ways of doing things. 

So, prior to the shift of publishing from Tax-Loss to Profit Making, Important Books were Respectable Books.

After that shift, Popular Books were Respectable Books because they made a quick, easy profit using the innovative technologies that reduced the cost of production of a book and increased the distribution.  This was not a big change.  It only continued the shift seen with the Dime Novel and the Pulps.   

Romance has always been popular, and sales are predictable.  In other words, most Romance novels like Science Fiction novels and other genres, fall in the "Mid-List Category" -- and got hit hard by this shift to profit making.

Profit became the key to Respectability.

This was not invented by the field of publishing. It reflected a shift in our general cultural values.  Another such shift is in progress now.

As the Important Book - the book about Ideas (remember Science Fiction is known as The Literature of Ideas) - has become unpublishable, the e-book revolution has gained steam.

Why is the Important Book unpublishable?  Think about the percentage of people who buy and read books.  It's usually hovering around 5% to 10%. 

Of those who read, even fewer actually want to find a new idea, an idea that contradicts what they already believe.

Adventure into strange ideas is an acquired taste.

So to people who don't want new ideas, the Important Book is the book everyone they know just read.  Popular is important.

New Ideas are never popular because they are new, so nobody has ever heard of them and when they do hear, they don't understand or see any use for it.

So what is "Respectable" to one reader is not worth the cover price to another.

With their huge overhead expense, Traditional Publishers can no longer afford to publish Important Books.

No Important Book is going to have a broad enough appeal to sell to a wide enough audience to break even, given that huge overhead expense.

Important Books, by their idea-rich nature, have a narrow appeal.  But those few people who absorb those ideas and put them to use can, indeed, change the world.

That's why the books are Important -- they change the course of History.

Most books don't do that. 

Even most Romance Novels don't change the course of all history.  But a Romance Novel read at the right point in life can change the course of an individual person's life, and thus is an Important Book to that individual.

Science Fiction -- as a field -- has now been seen to change the course of history.  Star Trek was a big influence, and it built on Science Fiction writers' ideas (which Gene Roddenberry was aware of).  It hit big in college dorms, and those college kids went on to invent the internet (the Web was invented in Europe), fuel ambitions for N.A.S.A. and today the search for livable exo-planets.

Simultaneously, we have seen a cultural values shift that has popularized the notion that the HEA - the Happily Ever After - ending to a Romance is unrealistic, that such things don't happen in real life.

Here is an idea to mull over. 

The HEA ending to a Romance Novel might be the contribution to changing the course of human history parallel to Science Fiction's contribution of the internet.

If that contribution can be made, Romance might become both Important enough and Profitable enough to become Respectable.

So if you have an Idea for explaining to the scoffers why the HEA is plausible and attainable, you have an Important Book.

Where, in this world of publishing-by-bean-counter can you publish any Important Book?

It's the e-book field, self-publishing and/or very small press publishing.

That's where the Important Books that I've been seeing lately are turning up -- not from the traditional publishers.

So if you've written a good book, but get turned down by all the traditional publishers (via agents), you might consider whether it is an Important Book and has been turned down because it's Important.

Would this book have been published in 1890?  Or rather, would the theme that is the core of this book have been publishable in 1890?  Does the book say something that people need to hear but don't want to hear?  Does it say it in a way that makes readers want to hear what it's saying? 

If so, you may have to consider self-publishing or going with a small press that specializes in e-book.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this perspective, JL. Really helpful.