Thursday, December 04, 2008

The sky isn't falling

What a day. What a week! What a month! And it's only the 4th!
Yummy!

It's been an interesting year and the onslaught of layoff news yesterday, that caused more than one normally balanced writer to use the phrase "Black Wednesday", was the icing on the cake. Remember when Borders decided to turn more books face out on the shelves last spring? That meant publishers got a deluge of returns: less space, fewer books. Then the credit crunch. Then the automakers took a nose dive, then the retail season reflected all that.

Yup, publishing responded by cutting the quickest thing to affect cash flow: jobs, salaries, expense accounts.

Oof.

It's not been fun. Friends are losing their jobs, authors are getting orphaned (the acquiring editor leaving the company), all of us are standing around thinking "what the hell is going on here, and more important, when is it going to end."

I've been in publishing a long time. I've never seen anything like this. But that's mostly a reflection of the new instant news cycle. News that would have taken days if not weeks to filter out and get passed around (telephone calls, lunches, party gossip) is now instantly circulated to everyone in the industry.

The Random House reorganization memo was released this morning. Within ten minutes it was emailed to everyone, literally everyone, on the Random House data base. Ten minutes after that it was on Twitter, ten minutes after that it was on blogs, ten minutes after that it was on PW and Pub Lunch, and ten minutes after that every single client emailed or phoned their agent, even as the agents were phoning editors at S&S to see who was still employed.

Ten years ago, HarperCollins did a MASSIVE reconfiguration and cancelled more than 100 contracts and laid off 420 people. It was a real bloodbath. It took hours if not days for people to hear about it outside of the immediate circle of those affected.

This instant news cycle intensifies everything: the speed we hear about stuff, the sense that the sky is falling.

Well, the sky isn't falling. Calm analysis just takes longer than three minutes. In the days and weeks to come we'll get a sense of what all this means. Some of it won't be good, of course, but we're at the start of the worst economic downturn in 80 years. Of course there was going to be something like this. Random House has a new guy in charge. Of course there was going to be something like this.

So, don't panic.
And try not to worry any more than you have to.

45 comments:

Esther Jade said...

I think the other thing to remember is that the current problems are not unique to the publishing industry. The US economy is in a recession which means industries have to become more economical. In boom periods, there is a tendency for over-expansion which has to be compensated for during slumps. And this is a pretty bad slump.

I think, on the whole, the book industry will probably be less affected than other industries. To some extent, it's an industry with what economists would call a "lower income elasticity of demand" amongst entertainment goods. Because books are relatively cheap compared to other types of entertainment, sales should decline more slowly. There may even be strong substitution effects where people consume more books as their incomes drop - though this seems less likely.

Anyway, that's my two cents.

Ann Victor said...

Hear, Hear, Janet!

There's no denying that publishing times are tough and may get tougher. But, hey! Adversity breeds strength, doesn't it? Cliches become cliches because there's some truth in them. I believe that, as painful as this is on an individual level (friends losing jobs, people suffering anxiety), if one looks at the "big picture" of the publishing industry I think this all-fall-down can create fantastic opportunities for new growth for everyone from unpubbed authors to the biggest publishing houses!

Just as long as we don't panic...! :):)

December/Stacia said...

Thank you so much for this. I've been saying this for a while. People are not going to just stop reading; people will always want and need books. Yes, the economy is stumbling and things aren't great. But we've had recessions before and the world keeps turning. As Esther so astutely said, when things boom, industries over-expand; like a rubber band, they have to snap back to a supportable level. It's awful and it's scary and my heart goes out to those who have lost jobs or editors. But the world has not ended, and things will turn back around eventually--they always do. The important thing is not to lose hope.

Joyce said...

Thanks for such a common-sense post on this subject. I agree with December/Stacia that people will always want and need books. It's tough out there, but it's not the end of the world.

Miriam S.Forster said...

Thanks for the reassurance, Janet It was a little depressing yesterday to hear the words "Black Wednesday" bandied around so much. It's good to have some more perspective.

Okay, I won't dwell and I won't panic. I'll just keep writing...

ICQB said...

Maybe we can all hole up at the library until this blows over.

BJ said...

Better yet, hole up at the bookstore...

Fred Limberg said...

Okay, things are tough all over. Everyone agrees on that.

It's almost as if every industry has the need to "out woe" each other, and it's getting stale.

The auto industry seems to be in the biggest trouble and are begging for handouts in Washington, but they're doing something else too.

They are advertising like I can't ever remember; prices slashed, low MPG cars featured prominently, 0% financing or very low financing.

Maybe you folks in New York have lots of ads for books in the newspaper and on TV or on the radio, but we sure as hell don't here in flyoverland.

And I'm not necessarily suggesting that B&N or Borders should hire an inflatable gorilla for the parking lot, though it would be nice to see some price incentives.

Okay, the gorilla would be cool too. Every time I see one it makes me want to by a car.

It'd be nice just to see what's new out there. What's available. What's got the buzz going. And not for industry insiders or bookaholics like me, but for the book or two a year readers or folks with worrisome Christmas gift lists.

You can woe all you want, but increased sales make up for a lot of sins and hand wringing, not to mention fill empty desks.

My two cent worth.

Fred

Peg McGuire said...

The world is not ending. New ideas move the world forward. Publishing is an avenue for these new ideas. Publishing won't die because we, as a people, strive to better, to improve, to grow.

Publishers will have to reorganize to the new order of the world, but, as a whole, they won't die. They may morph into something else, but they won't die.

Sean Ferrell said...

I'm sure your post is very consoling, but I don't have time to read it. I'm too busy panicking.

DeadlyAccurate said...

Since the only part of this whole process I can truly control is the writing, there's not much use in me panicking. I'll either get published or I won't. (I'm working on achieving a Zen-like state of acceptance about it).

Ryan Field said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kitty said...

Will this economic news produce a different sort of book? Will there be another 1984 or another Ayn Rand?

...

Haste yee back ;-) said...

The sky is not falling, but somebody poked a hole-n-it and it's rainin' real fuckin' hard!

Haste yee back ;-)

Brigid said...

Hey, Janet,

Thanks for your post. I actually work in the financial sector (at a brokerage firm), and you have a lot of wise comments that apply to more than just the book industry. It makes me wonder if the slide would have been as quick if people didn't hear about AIG, and the housing markets, etc. the very instant they all happened.

I was actually going to send you a "Question Emporium" email because I was wondering just how agents are handling the economic downturn. It's pretty clear what publishers are doing, but what about agents? Are you taking on less? More, in the hopes that you'll have more to throw at the proverbial wall? Do aspiring authors have a greater chance of landing an agent, but a lesser chance of finding a contract?

Should I just keep writing the best novel I can, and not worry about the economy?

Just_Me said...

I feel bad for the families who've lost income. That always hurts. But as a writer right now, I'm not stressing yet. I can write. I'm spending this next year writing and editing until it looks like things are perking up.

Queries can wait for a bit.

Margaret Yang said...

In addition to instant media coverage, it almost seems like we're being coached by the media to panic. I got really mad at my beloved NPR the other day. They reported that black Friday sales, the day after Thanksgiving, were actually 3 percent better than last year. Then the announcer immediately said, "But with the economy in recession, those gains aren't expected to last."

That made no sense. Usually, however black Friday goes, the rest of December goes. The 3 percent gain was a fact, the doom and gloom was an opinion.

I don't blame people if they want to sit it out and stop submitting for now. As for me, my agent is still eagerly submitting my novel, and I couldn't be happier about that.

Janet, I hope you are doing the same. With panic in the air, we need our agents more than ever.

Cathy in AK said...

Between you and a few other agents' blogs, I'm reassured that while the industry is wobbling (which one isn't these days?), it won't tumble. As Deadly Accurate said, I can't control anything but the writing. I'll concentrate on that, hope the folks who've lost their jobs find another soon, and keep checking with trusted sources for information.

Thanks for the post.

Crimogenic said...

My response to the economic crisis is to continue writing as planned. The world will keep turning, so I must as well.

My heart goes out to the ones in many industries that have lost their jobs. That's the worse part of all this.

laughingwolf said...

i'm doing my bit, ordered three new books from amazon... yeah i know, i should use the local bookstores, and do, but these three i needed NOW

also, found a used book store just up the road from me, about 15 min walk, one way

grats on the wd award, btw

Yanni said...

Amen lady! Remember the immortal words of Douglas Adams: Don't Panic!

I have plenty of towels to share.

kitty said...

After reading laughingwolf's -- i'm doing my bit, ordered three new books from amazon -- I counted up the new books I've ordered from Amazon this year. The number is 39. I've also dropped more than a few buck$ at B&N.

So keep writing!

...

Steve Ulfelder said...

Another bullet dodged! I didn't sign a contract with a small publisher that went belly-up, and I didn't sign with an editor who subsequently got canned. It's my lucky day!

How's that for positive thinking?

Heidi the Hick said...

This has been going on in the music biz for a decade. We make our meager living there, and haven't been kicked out of our house yet, so I'm looking at this as the kind of growing pains that any industry goes through.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

I also keep telling myself that people always want their escapist entertainment. And that businesses grow, shrink, change, to keep up with the times and the audience.

No guarantees in life, y'know?

Creative Clusterer said...

Thank you Janet.

I'm getting closer to querying you, so I have to just keep going forward.

BookEnds, LLC said...

I just keep reminding my clients that they need to write good books. That's all we can do at this point. Thanks for the reminder.

DeadlyAccurate said...

I think the real fear isn't that the publishing industry is going to go under. I doubt anyone believes that. It's the fear that, "I'm not good enough to cut it now."

A publisher that was going to acquire 20 titles but decides to only acquire 15 may still be doing fine, but the author who would've been #16 is still unpublished. And the fear is that they may never be good enough to move into the fewer remaining slots.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

DA, that's one of the best arguments in a while for making darned sure our books are the best we can make them. And then applying the same standards to every pitch, query, and other contact with agents and publishers.

Personally, if I was targeting a publisher who I knew was going to publish 20 books, I darned well would not be trying to be number twenty. Or fifteen, or eleven. If my best efforts aren't good enough, I'd rather know that up front, and why. And then start again...

Sometimes, plodding deliberation is every bit as good as zen-like acceptance.

Diesel said...

So... a good time for me to be trying to get a novel published then?

BJ said...

A good time to shop your best work around. But then that has never changed. If you have any doubt whatsoever, it's a good time to work on making your novel the absolute best it can be.

Margaret Yang said...

I wish Query Shark was still active. I think that would help us all make our queries, at least, as good as we could make them.

Janet, if I send you an actual, real, working Clue-by-four, will you start query shark again?

Hallie Ephron said...

Ah Janet, always good to hear a calm voice in the burning movie theater. One agent I know called it the single worst day she's ever seen in the book biz, and she's been at it quite awhile.

Dana said...

I suppose I should be terrified, and maybe I'm just kidding myself, but my initial reaction is "With chaos comes opportunity." There had to be some kind of shake out in the publishing industry. This isn't just the recession, and I don't believe it is even mainly the recession. It's publishing houses coping with new technology, it's too much emphasis on celebrity publishing (like $7 million for Sarah Palin's autobiography and Joe the plumber's book contract), it's a blockbuster mentality coming home to roost, it's a returns program that is doomed to lose money for everyone involved, it's two people at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com dictating what books are published when no two people no matter how good they are can supply what so many different readers want. All these have contributed to current events in the publishing world. Wednesday was ugly, scary, and necessary.


Of course I hope I'm not a casualty, but I'm also hoping that publishers will now realize that they've been publishing themselves out of their own market by printing so much that doesn't earn out, by neglecting to grow a midlist that does earn out, and letting the backlist go out of print. People want a good story. If they can't find it between the covers of a book (or on a Kindle), they'll go elsewhere. Nowadays there is plenty of elsewhere. An industry stripped down for positive and progressive action is the best possible result of Wednesday's events. My fingers are crossed.

Linda said...

Here, here Dana... spot on. Yes, always write your best - that is a given. But the best writing doesn't always make it to market. I can see the stuff on the shelves in two years - all the 'comfort' schlock that was accepted during the 'recession'. Ugh. I want gritty, dark, and real... Peace, Linda

The Unbreakable Child said...

Hold on, ohhh, noo, double triple noes, No, No, the sky is NOT, NOT falling.

I bought three new shinys this week! Yes, stepping forward to step up to the plate and help the publishing world. One. Book. At. A. Time. folks, all it takes, go out and buy books this weekend. I'm sure glad I did!!

Steve Stubbs said...

The sky may not be falling, but the birds are still using my car for a toilet, so something is falling and fast.

While cleaning the latest barrage I looked up at the blue and could swear I saw a jagged hole in the sky and somebody (could it be God?) peeking through it and smirking at me. Good thing for Him I have a sense of humor. Actually, He is welcome to an occasional prank so far as I am concerned. I have pulled a few myself in my day.

If you have time sometime, please tell us what agents are doing now that the markets are closed. Are they reflexively shooting out rejection letters no matter what, hoarding MSS for a better day, or what?

persistentdreamer said...

I just heard this news today and my first response was to log onto your blog, Janet. There's something so comforting about having an agent who cares enough to take the time to do this. I'm glad you're still there, and thank you.

Love to Write

B.G.D. said...
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Michelle said...

Janet, thanks for making this post and mentioning the Harper Collins reconfiguration. It's nice to get an agent's viewpoint on this situation. It lets authors know they aren't the only ones with something at risk.

As for how fast the memo spread through Random House to outside sources -- Wow. Technology is a double-edged sword. It probably created more of a panic than necessary with the news spreading that fast.

Michelle Lauren

JS said...

Especially after I just read in Time Magazine that Joe-the-plumber recently landed a book deal.

"Joe" the "plumber" (i.e., Sam the employee of a general contractor) didn't land an actual book deal.

He's publishing a book with a "publisher" who has published exactly one book before--a self-written POD volume that seems to have sold in the low hundreds.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...
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Southern Writer said...

And yet it's been six days since Janet has posted. The sky MIGHT be falling.

BJ said...

Well, she posted to the Dead Guy blog (see link under Blogs brave enough...) yesterday, so she hasn't been crushed by any of that falling sky and it seems she's survived her clients' wrath after the TG weekend fun and games...

On another note, it seems the sky really is falling in Saskatchewan - and I don't mean the snow. We had a huge, bright meteorite hit the atmosphere and light up the sky in three provinces. They've found a few pieces, but they're still looking (hmm. sounds like a scene from my current novel). Then there was a report of another one a few days later. Umbrellas, anyone?

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jill Corcoran said...

Thank you for sharing your positive outlook. This post was the inspiration for starting my ongoing post, KEEP WRITING, a gathering of publishing professionals’ reflections on how to respond to the downturn in the publishing industry.

KEEP WRITING: jillcorcoran.blogspot.com/2008/12/keep-writing.html

Happy Holidays:)