So my agent sent me this article in The Nation:
The number of independent bookstores in America has more than halved in the past two decades. Amazon's low prices have forced its competitors to follow suit. To achieve such low prices retailers must seek ever deeper discounts from publishers.
Authors, too, can be added to the list of price-cutting's victims advances have dropped precipitously.
Blocked at every turn in their attempts to escape this relentless race to the bottom, publishers have seen their revenues fall, forcing many to make cutbacks and concentrate more on lead titles, the blockbusters that, accountants tell them, are the most profitable component of their business. Fewer staff and falling promotion budgets mean that books by less established authors the "mid-list" receive ever shorter shrift.
The under-resourcing of mid-list books is producing a pattern that joins an enormously attenuated tail (a tiny number of customers buying from a huge range of titles) to a Brobdingnagian head (an increasing number of purchasers buying the same few lead titles), with less and less in between.
To which I responded:
Wow. I probably have too many responses to that piece, most of them probably too depressing, but:
- I've been an Amazon customer since 1996. Sometime still in the 90s, they sent me a free mousepad. I calculated that I had spent over $6,000 with them at that point, and suggested I deserved something better - like a t-shirt. They sent me one.
- We have a fantastic local independent, Daunt Books (in Chelsea and Marylebone). They carry my books. I did a reading there. I buy stuff there. And I fear for my immortal soul every time I see a new hardcover there at full price, and go home and buy it from Amazon at 60% off. But 60% off a new hardcover is a lot of money, and my day job is hard. I don't know.
- I followed pretty closely the flap with Macmillan - and cheered when Macmillan won. And not just because I'm a Macmillan author.
- As an author, I find the 288K titles published/year statistic bottomlessly depressing. I get depressed every time I go into Daunt after a few weeks, and see another 300 new, beautiful titles proudly laid out on the display tables - knowing that A) almost all of them will disappear in another three weeks; and B) I have to compete with all of those. I've always maintained it's a very vain thing to think the world needs your fiction, much less will pay you for it. As the mother of the novelist character in the Thom Jones story has it, "You're writing a novel? What does the world need another novel? Most people haven't read Anna Karenina."
- The phenomenon of the staggeringly large sales head, and the pitifully long and thin tail, has been growing since the rise of the mega-bookstore. Faced with the paralyzing choice, book-buyers buy John Grisham. They know it won't change their lives, but they know what they're getting. There's this now old but no-less horrifying statistic that five authors - Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, Michael Chrichton, and Stephen King - accounted for something north of 60% of hardcover sales. These days, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer probably account for 80%. I don't know.
It's time, I guess, to go make a fortune. Or start writing screenplays. Or get serious about my day job.