Where I am, after 20 years in bookselling

I wrote in an email that I believe that the center of gravity in mystery publishing is increasingly moving out of New York, and was asked to explain what I meant.  What ended up spilling out is this long essay about how I view the industry today. It's not completely responsive to the question, which  is part of why I've posted it here.  The other reason it's here is that I'm looking for your feedback, because these ideas are very much a work in progress.

At some point, I need to run some numbers to quantify how much of this is really true -- this is just off the top of my head.  But I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think that at least conceptually I may be on the right track.  Much of this depends on your view of the industry and your perception of what folks in our position are actually able to influence.  I don't expect everyone to agree with me on this, but here goes.

There's a level of NY publishing that's both crazy and impervious to change: the top of the market, the relentless and idiotic throwing of big money after "hot" commercial properties that lack pedigree.  These are the first novels that get six- (seven-?) figure advances, the high-concept thrillers and suspense novels that publishers try to bully into the marketplace with big marketing campaigns that more often than not are doomed to failure -- in the sense of being a building block in an author's long-term career.  This is roll of the dice publishing, designed only to make a splash without regard to what happens next.  Because NY publishers are so bad at this kind of stuff, history is littered with failures -- Douglas Kennedy, Jilliane Hoffman, etc. -- many more failures than successes.

(Given the poor quality of THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I'll be really interested to see what happens to Diane Setterfield.  A former B&N CRM who spoke at my store recently said that they sold hundreds of thousands of copies of this book, but it's hard to image that many readers will come back for a more on their own; I think she'll only be successful again with massive publicity and massive discounting -- costly tactics that would undermine the economic case for publishing her a second time.)

We recognize how foolish all this is, but we also know that no matter what we say about this, NY publishers are going to continue to behave this way.  To some extent, they have to, but more for corporate strategic reasons than for the advancement of an author's career or the genre in general.  That's fine to an extent, and we can tolerate that kind of stuff as long as it doesn't interfere with the real work of publishing in this genre.  Star-struck publishers can have all the one-night stands they want with these glamorous properties, but the rest of us in the mystery world much prefer stable, long-term relationships.  What we want is simple: every time we pick up a book by a new author, we're hoping to fall in love. When we find true love, what we want is to be able to hang out with the character we adore, stand by him or her through change and growth -- adventure after adventure, book after book, for better or for worse.

Years ago, the very smart co-owner of a mystery small press (not so small these days) said to me that it's impossible for a big publishing company to be bestseller-oriented and still publish category midlist, that the two mindsets were incompatible.  At the time I thought he was wrong, but I am more and more coming to the conclusion that he was right, that year after year of one night stands does in fact leave these companies incapable of committing to relationships.

I'm not against bestsellers.  As I've written and said more than once in the past, I'm delighted to see good writers succeed.  It's a great thing that the book business has evolved to the point where the top selling titles can sell so many more copies than bestsellers in the past.  What I'm talking about here, though, is the way in which bestsellers are made, and the way in which the genre as a whole can -- indeed must -- be sold.  Publishers may not listen to what we might have to say about massive advances and silly marketing campaigns, but if there's a chance that we might have any influence over the direction of the business, it may be at the level of the category midlist writers, the folks whose careers would be a lot stronger if we're able to change just a few small things about the industry.  The big question is whether the big companies as companies even care much about writers at this level.

These writers might not ever become New York Times bestsellers, but their livelihoods might be significantly different if their hardcovers sold 15,000 copies instead of 7,500, and if their backlist titles stayed in print, continuing to generate income instead of disappearing from the marketplace.  And, who knows, some of these folks might become bestsellers -- Hillerman, Parker, Evanovich, Connelly, Lippman, even Dan Brown started from relatively modest circumstances, publishing-wise, and they seem to be doing ok right now.  In fact, I believe that success built on the kinds of relationships these writers have built with readers is likely to be much stronger and more durable than a fling that starts with a one-night stand.  (Actually, let's leave Dan Brown out of this for the moment; the jury's still out on where his career is going.)

The point is to figure out what went right, and to get folks to see the success of this group of writers as normal rather than fluky.  And that's where I now have my doubts about big New York publishing.  Are they impervious to change?  I'm generally a pretty optimistic person and I like to believe that business makes sense, that companies will do the right thing when it's in their rational self-interest to do so.  But this month, I've hit 20 years in bookselling, and I'm not feeling especially positive about these companies -- upon whom I depend for product to stock my store.  After 20 years, I'm starting to feel that the big NY companies are hopeless, and I'm starting to wonder why I'm working so hard to sell products from manufacturers and suppliers who are not just bent on undermining my store  but on undermining the genre itself.  Thoughtlessly rather than deliberately, to be sure, but the difference in intent isn't such a big deal when the effect is so clear.

The big publishers whine about how difficult it is to sell in this genre, but the fact is that they're more or less completely unwilling to change anything about how they operate to match up with what customers want.  To the extent that independent booksellers succeed in this genre at all, it's because we are close to our customers and we understand how to sell to them.  That's it, the sum total of the secret of our success.  It's not a matter of our superior resources; most of us do all this without any resources whatsoever.  We do more with less money than anyone else in any other segment of the business, and yet we're the ones who are consistently dissed by policies and practices that favor other customers.

(The really curious thing in this industry is why the big chain stores aren't doing a better job of adopting the sales techniques of the independents.  It's not like what we're doing is rocket science, and there are plenty of fairly obvious things that they could be doing to sell more books.  Which makes you think that pig-headedness isn't limited to publishing companies, despite the fact that B&N is in most other respects a pretty smart outfit.  I would dearly love to have the resources of a B&N at my command, and I know that I could sell a lot more books -- for B&N, for publishers and for writers -- as a result.  Of course, I'll never get that opportunity.)

When I think about the center of gravity of the mystery genre, I still believe that it lies in series.  Seventy percent of the titles on the bestsellers lists of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association in 2007 year to date are part of a series.  Seventy percent of these series titles belong to long-running series of five or more books.  Sales in IMBA member stores are not necessarily representative of the marketplace in general, but they are the best indication we have of what the most devoted mystery lovers are looking for.  Yet you can in fact generalize from these numbers. When you look at the BookScan mystery bestseller list for the week of 8/12/07, representing sales throughout the industry, you see that over 70% -- closer to 80%, actually -- of these bestselling titles also belong to series.

So series matter, and what publishers do with them tells you a lot about their inclinations and abilities.  I write a lot about series and the bad job that the most publishers do with them: not keeping books in print (especially the first book which is where readers want to start), not clearly indicating the order of books in series, not identifying books as part of a series, not packaging series titles with a common look to make it easier to find them on new releases tables, not timing publication of new hardcovers and paperbacks to maximize sales, not indicating for the benefit of buyers for stores a new title's place in the series, not soliciting orders for series backlist and frontlist together, not waiting months (if not years) between UK and US publication, etc.

It's not even like what we're talking about major, insurmountable problems.  The issue of properly timing the latest paperback and hardcover releases in a series is simple on every level -- easy to explain, easy to grasp, easy to fix -- and it doesn't cost a dime to make that fix. It's incredible that a new hardcover release is ever published prior to the first paperback edition of its predecessor.  And yet it still happens, over and over again. Fixing this won't turn a midlist writer into a bestseller, but it will undoubtedly sell more of his or her hardcover books. That should be a goal that everyone agrees on.

I'm not alone in raising these questions, and none of them are new.  We've been saying this stuff to St. Martin's, Berkley, Mysterious Press (R.I.P.), Random House, etc, for years and years.  Those folks in publishing whom we're talking to, they're not stupid.  In fact, when you meet most of them individually, you end up thinking these are bright, earnest, serious folks who love books too. I know that's hard to believe when you see how they treat the books, but I still think it's true. (Most of the people I meet are on the editorial side of the business.  Most of these people blame folks on the sales and marketing side for everything that's wrong with the business.  I probably need to spend more time talking to people on the S&M side of publishing, to see if their world is as divorced from reality as I'm led to believe.)

So if these people are not stupid, then what's going on?  Is it as simple as lack of interest?  Is it something more complicated, rooted in the psychology of an institution addicted to the one night stand yet so jealous of those in happy marriages that it will work to undermine them as best it can.  (In terms of the mystery genre, this relationship metaphor only gets you so far.  Since mystery fans have lots of favorites, we have to conclude that they're polygamous, which may not be where we want to be, metaphor-wise.)

Yes, I'm being somewhat facetious in writing about the psychology of publishing, but not entirely.  The fact is that in order to change, institutions (like individuals) have to want to change.  If we've been giving publishers the same advice over and over again for years and years and they're not taking the advice, maybe it's time for us to say, "Ok, you're on your own.  We're cutting you off.  Just don't ask for our help anymore.  And don't whine to us when things go badly for you."

It's not that simple, of course.  I can't tell you how insulted I've felt by St. Martin's Press and its lack of help in setting up author events in my store.  They'll send writers everywhere around me -- literally, to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky -- but not to Indiana smack dab in the middle. Except, of course, for sending the biggest writer on their list to the B&N store just 1.97 miles away without even a drive-by or drop-in here.  But it doesn't matter how my store's been treated, I still have to deal with St. Martin's because they publish so many books and authors that I love.  I place orders with them season after season, feeling worse and worse about my business' relationship with this supplier.  But I'm stuck.  (Here's where the relationship metaphors become addiction metaphors, and suddenly the metaphors aren't so much fun anymore.)

If all this were about nothing more than how I feel about particular publishing companies, then you all could feel free to dismiss everything that I've written as nothing more than the cranky complaints of crazy malcontent.  Many of you -- particularly I'm guessing those of you who work in publishers' S&M divisions -- will do so anyway.

But I think there is reason to take this stuff seriously.  I believe that what's going on with publishing doesn't just hurt individual authors here and there, but it's hurting the genre as a whole.  Take the issue of series.  Every time readers encounter a new series, the first thing they ask is "what's the first book in the series?"  And if those readers like the first, they'll want to go on to the second, third, fourth and fifth.  Most publishers make it difficult to figure out where a series begins and how it progress.  And that's even before we get to the question of whether the books are in print and available.  The lack of information and availability frustrates readers over and over again.  Because they are so devoted to the genre, they'll keep trying.  But engendering frustration at the point of sale should not be a publisher's goal, and I believe there is a limit to readers' patience.  Get your heart broken enough times, you might stop going out on dates altogether.

I do believe in the power of the mystery story, and I know that there's a vast audience of readers out there who would like nothing more than to fall in love with a new writer and read all of his or her books.  I'd like to be the bookseller who puts those books into the hands of those readers.  So while I gnash my teeth and rant in frustration, I'm also trying to change the things that I can change.  Sales haven't been especially strong in my store lately, so we're going to have to try do some things differently otherwise, I can't afford to keep the doors open.

These are among the things that I'm thinking right now:

1) I haven't completely given up on trying to influence the big New York publishers, but it's time to change tactics a little.  I'm told that publishers are more likely to include us on author tours if we whine.  I hate the idea of having to whine, but I'm willing to give it a try.  (At least a little; consider this essay a first salvo.)

2) We're putting a somewhat greater emphasis on our used book shelves, because publishers are pushing more and more customers to shop for the books they want used.

3) We're going to shift our stocking practices a little, to emphasize the series that are available, complete and intact.  That's not necessarily good news for writers whose publishers aren't doing a great job, unless we're able to stock their out of print books on the used side of the store.  Sometimes, used is the only way we know to keep a series alive.

4) We're going to try importing more books from the U.K., in some cases to fill in holes in series, and in other cases to import series as a whole so that we have enough intact series to keep our customers happy.  (Hard to believe, given how many books are published, but some days, there aren't enough to meet demand.)

5) We've always had an emphasis on events here. If we can't rely on publishers' help in setting up author events, we will continue to work with writers directly -- and many are happy to work with us directly. But we're also going to try to come up with different kinds of events to draw folks in.  We hosted a 50-hour round-the-clock read-a-thon as a benefit earlier this summer, and this fall we're partnering with The Writers' Center of Indiana to host a series of classes on mystery writing here -- which is the first time we'll be charging for something like this too.

6) More than ever, we'll emphasize books from the small presses that we like.  These presses are making a significant and growing contribution to the genre, in so many different ways. The main thing we see is that these companies truly respect the genre and understand how to appeal to readers.  Poisoned Pen Press doesn't just publish Mary Anna Evans, it presents her books the right way.  All three of Evans' titles are in print and available in paperback; the third, RELICS, features an appendix for "the incurably curious" -- which most of us are.

Change isn't easy, and obviously the major companies still have a big stake in this business, still publishing a lot of writers that we like.  And sometimes even the companies that are least effective in this genre will still on occasions do some things right.  Simon & Schuster is not doing especially well by the few mystery series it still publishes, except it nevertheless has done a solid job with William Kent Krueger's books. So we can’t dismiss them completely; we have to stay aware of what they're doing.

The main thing going forward is to recognize that the world has changed, and that the enormous mindshare that the major publishing companies have occupied for the longest time is no longer justified.  Yes, they do in fact have all the money there is in this business (because it sure isn't with the small presses or with small book stores).  Sure, they're capable of good work and they're going to publish more than a few books that we're going to enjoy.  The irony of the publishing industry as a whole is that as bad as they are on the business side of things, they're actually pretty good at identifying good stuff in the first place.

But on their own, publishers are unlikely to change just because we talk with them. So we let them do what they do, we work with them to the extent that we have to, maybe we can nudge them at the margins, look for the few real opportunities we have to make money for each other. But let's be realistic; those opportunities are few and far between, so those big publishing companies are not worth a lot of extra effort right now.

If change is going to happen among these big companies -- and ultimately the genre would be better off and we'd all sell a lot more books if these publishers were to change -- it's going to happen either because good behavior will forced on them by their biggest customers or good behavior will be modeled by others.  The former's unlikely, but not inconceivable; as I said, I've been waiting for B&N to realize that it's possible to do a much better job of selling genre fiction (even though this epiphany would really hurt stores like mine).  The latter?  Well, that's why it's important to deal with those newer, smaller companies, to make the time to work with firms whose polices and practices are helping the genre rather than undermine it. To see if -- working together -- independent stores can help turn these independent presses into economic forces themselves.

All this means re-setting our sights, re-calibrating our business relationships and, generally, being willing to think outside the box.  I hope we're up to the challenge.

At least that's where I am in my thinking today.  There's a lot that I need to do to flesh out these ideas -- this is all still very much a work in progress, one morning's ramblings,  a first attempt at solidifying my thinking, of pulling together various threads that I've been turning over.  I'll be very interested in seeing your feedback.