The shift from horizontal paths to audiences to vertical ones is a hard concept for people who have grown up in book publishing to accept. Most resistant, judging from the questions I get when I talk to book publishing audiences, are those who see book publishing as being about “writerly” books: “non-genre” fiction, belles lettres, memoirs that don’t have a particular historical or current affairs hook.
When I tell publishers “you must focus, you must specialize in niches so that you own vertical audiences”, the inevitable question is: “what about fiction?”
Two articles picked up by today’s publishing news aggregators, each in its own way, refer back to that question, although one of the articles is not about a book of fiction.
Boyd Tonkin, a UK columnist who comments on the book scene for The Independent, observes that “the collapse in advances paid to and earnings expected from serious authors has made many far-from-obscure names feel the chill of full-time writing in a sharp cyclical slump.” Tonkin notes that it has been this way before: Proust and Henry James relied on unearned income; Joyce and D.H. Lawrence had to get help from patrons; Kafka had to work a day job.
But the message is clear and sobering. Many writers who have made a decent living, or even a lot of money, from book advances and royalties will start having to do without, or do with less.
The same chill that has frozen publishers’ spending on established authors is affecting their willingness to take chances on something new as well. That’s the story author-producer Tom Matlack wants to tell. He and his partner came up with a pretty nifty idea: assembling a collection of first person stories by men about manhood. Their proposal, shopped by “the best agent in the business” (whoever that is, and by whoever’s definition of “best”) was rejected by 50 houses. So they’ve built their own web platform, produced a companion documentary film, and are publishing the book themselves this Fall.
The piece describing this endeavor for the Huffington Post is a bit self-centered (this experience convinces Matlack that book publishing is in worse shape than any other media, because they were so dumb as to turn down his book!) And it is a bit naive: he says publishers take “85% of the royalties”, which, one presumes, he calculated because the author’s share normally tops out at 15% of the retail price (out of which also must come the 50% or more for the distribution channel and manufacturing costs, as well as book development and publisher overheads.) For some reason, he and his partner have chosen a distribution route that seems to ignore both Barnes & Noble and Amazon as well. (He’s explicit about excluding B&N; doesn’t mention Amazon.)
Aside from the fact that one might expect the 50 publishers to have reacted differently if the web activity Matlack created and the documentary film he’s launching had been part of the proposal shopped by “the best agent in the business”, his experience does suggest a lack of imagination among the publishers (they couldn’t have created the film; but they damn sure could have created the web activity!)
Both of these experiences say the same thing to me: publishers are finding it increasingly difficult to market books. They are still highly dependent on intermediaries to reach the public, so they try to anticipate what will move those intermediaries as well as what will move the public. That’s like trying to throw the football through two tires swing from tree limbs with the tires swinging in different arcs. You need to wait for the ideal moment and you have to make a perfect throw. It’s tough.
Tor and Harlequin don’t have the same problem. As long as they stick to their sci-fi and romance knitting, they have ways to reach the public and influencers of the public directly. Increasingly, the retailer intermediaries will trust them to do that, so, in effect, the two tires are moving in synch for them.
And that brings me back to the question I get when people ask me how to apply “vertical” to books that don’t seem to fit the paradigm. The first answer I give is “work with the world of the story.” If the novel is about alcoholism, find the web communities that care about that. If it is about adoption, find the right communities for that. Every piece of fiction is about something; use the community of interest in whatever that is as your springboard.
That answer doesn’t please a lot of people. So I have another answer. And that is “I don’t know.”
But I do know that the horizontal book-based marketing and sales infrastructure is vanishing. The review media is fading and, for the first time in my lifetime, bookstore shelf space in the US is shrinking (and at the very same time, ironically, more and more books are competing for the space.) As vertical subjects move to the web, it is harder for bookstores to sell travel books, cookbooks, computer books. If a store loses sales in a bunch of niches, they might not be able to pay the rent to keep the store open. Then they’re gone for fiction too.
The writers Tonkin talks about sympathetically and the publishers Matlack condemns are all suffering from a problem not of their making. Unfortunately, the natural forces that are creating the problem are not providing a natural solution.