The Writer’s Lottery

Forget ebooks and technology. The main reason you have to be stupid – not just misguided, ill-informed, or stubborn, but downright stupid – in order to pursue writing as a primary career is a structural market reality explained by a man whose career as a writer is nearing an end:

Here’s how it works. Barnes and Noble and Borders, the major bookstore chains, control the lion’s share of retail book sales. They order centrally for all their outlets together, for instance there is a single buyer for all science fiction, all mysteries, etc. How, you may well ask, can these buyers read and pass judgement on, for example, the over 1000 SF titles published in a year?

Of course the answer is they can’t. Instead, an equation makes the buys of most of the books on the racks or blackballs the ones that don’t make it that far. It’s called “order to net.”

Let’s say that some chain has ordered 10,000 copies of a novel, sold 8000 copies, and returned 2000, a really excellent sell-through of 80%. So they order to net on the author’s next novel, meaning 8000 copies. And let’s even say they still have an 80% sell-through of 6400 books, so they order 6400 copies of the next book, and sell 5120….

You see where this mathematical regression is going, don’t you? Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer’s work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.

And there’s a further wrinkle to it because what significant independent bookstores that still survive and the non-speciality outlets like WalMart subscribe to BookScan and have access to the Death Spiral numbers too and act accordingly. If there’s a book to order at all, because in many cases if the chains’ order to net equation zeros out and they don’t order at all, the book in question doesn’t get published. Back in the day, I knew of novels that were commissioned, accepted, and paid for but never published because the chains didn’t order. Today BookScan prevents such expensive mistakes from happening by aborting them at the acquisition stage.

Voila, the Death Spiral. And I too am in it.

One should never start writing with the idea that it will be one’s primary career. Ironically, I think the quality of books being published is going to improve with the end of the professional writing career. I am deeply and increasingly unimpressed with what the publisher-as-gatekeeper model produces these days. As the success of JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, and Katie Price have demonstrated, the best way to sell a lot of books is to produce cliched literary trash that will appeal to the lowest common denominator, and furthermore, it is entirely possible to do it as a sideline. So there’s no rational reason to attempt to pursue writing as a primary career unless one finds the idea of literary penury to be romantic. But if you are foolish enough to decide to play the Writer’s Lottery anyway, keep in mind that you’re going to be increasingly competing with people like me who write for pleasure, don’t expect to make money off it, and price their books accordingly.

RGD, for example, usually bounces between a rank as Amazon’s 2,000 and 5,000 best-selling paid Kindle book when priced at one-fifth the normal Kindle rate, but between its 50,000 and 100,000 best-selling book at the normal hardcover price. It’s exactly the same text, so that tells us that the price elasticity of books will permit free and low-priced books to increasingly dominate the market as the market continues to move towards easily produced electronic books and the power of the gatekeepers is increasingly diminished.