The Old Media Toilers Help Themselves to a Heaping Slice of Schadenfreude Pie

You can just about sense the delight dripping off the words of this article from the Boston Herald: “Publishers say few hits on blog books”. Apparently all those bloggers out there have been striking out when it comes to turning their blog celebrity into book celebrity, or at best hitting singles when they should have hit home runs. Case in point, for the story anyway, is Stephanie Klein, who was reportedly paid half a million for two books, but whose first book, Straight Up and Dirty, isn’t justifying that sort of moolah in the sales department.

Yes, well. Let’s have a moment of bracing honesty here and ask: How many books and authors could? If one is going to evenly distribute this advance across two books, Ms. Klein would need to sell 100,000 copies of both books in hardcover to get back that kind of advance money, or some other even larger number of the books in paperback (the publisher needs to sell rather fewer to make back its money, but isn’t that how it always is). I don’t think you can blame Ms. Klein for taking that sort of money if it was offered to her (I’d find it hard to pass up myself), but whoever offered her half a mil was having a true moment of fiscal brainfreeze. Likewise the person who ended up paying Ana Marie Cox $275,000 for Dog Days. In both cases, the issue is not the quality of the writing or even the sales, but that someone on the publishing end started shoveling money before engaging his or her brain.

This is something I’ve mentioned before, of course: Outside of genre, publishers get idiotic with their money. It makes perfectly good sense for an author to hold out for a lot of money, since then they can eat for a nice long time, and then the publishing company is obliged to spend a nice amount of money promoting the work in a desperate attempt to get back all the cash it’s just thrown out a window. But honestly, I’m still mystified at the publisher who looks at the proposal from a first-time writer who is not already appallingly famous and thinks to himself, well, I just happen to have five hundred large burning a hole in my pocket, might as well spend it here. I try to model this sort of thinking in my head and it simply doesn’t compute. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for publishers giving their writers a decent amount; eating is fun. But at a certain point things get silly, and giving an untried writer half a million for two books is way beyond that certain point.

Of course, a publisher could have this excuse: We thought being blog famous was the same as actually being famous. This is understandable, I suppose. If bloggers are good at anything, it’s self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and giving the impression that we’re fighting above our weight class. But, look. Being a blogger is a bit like being that lady in the supermarket who hands out free samples. You see her, you stop and have the tiny piece of sausage she’s got speared on a toothpick, you might chat for a second, and then you move on. You like the sample lady — she’s giving you free sausage! — and you may even seek her out (“I could use some free tiny sausage right about now”). But no matter how much you or anyone else likes the sample lady and are glad to see her and her tiny sausage chunks, the number of people who actually reach behind the sample lady to buy the product she’s offering you a taste of is a pretty low percentage.

Now, a really successful blog pulls in a couple thousand visitors a day. How many sales can you genuinely expect from that? You can expect some, to be sure — I happily stand as testimony of that (thanks, guys!) — and certainly having a popular blog is a plus in the long run. But expecting every visitor to a site, or even a significant proportion, to pick up a blogger’s book seems to be wishful thinking to me.

Indeed, if you want to sell books online, converting your own audience into book buyers is a secondary tactic — you want to have other bloggers recommend you to their readers. The person who moved the most copies of Old Man’s War online was not me — it was Glenn Reynolds, who the Instapundit readers saw as a trusted recommender, giving a thumbs up to something he really liked. A secondary cascade of recommendations came from other bloggers who picked up the book from his thumbs-up. My own readers were in the mix as well, of course, but I don’t kid myself as to who sold more of my book, me or Glenn.

Going back to the article I’m linking to, one of the things I find interesting is that in all the gleeful whacking on bloggers’ books going stiff, there’s no mention at all about the fact that there are indeed bloggers whose books are doing pretty damn well — and those bloggers are science fiction and fantasy writers. To roll out the (to us) usual names here, you’ve got Scott Lynch, whose Lies of Locke Lamora has been optioned for a movie and has been translated into scads of languages, Cherie Priest, whose fabulous new book Wings to the Kingdom is only a couple of weeks away now, and, uh, me. I’d also personally lump Jo Walton in here, because she came to the attention of editors through her online writing. Chris Roberson just sold a book he’d put up online. I know there are at least a few more now as well.

These authors and these books are doing perfectly well, thanks, but I suppose they’re not on the radar because a) they’re working in genre and b) their publishers didn’t offer them incredibly stupid amounts of money for their books. And why let the skiffy geeks get in the way of a good story?

What we can say is this: Offer any first-time author a ridiculous amount of money for a novel or two, don’t be surprised when you take a bath, regardless of what their writing experience was beforehand. Don’t blame it on blogs; blame it on the bad business sense of the publishers.

48 thoughts on “The Old Media Toilers Help Themselves to a Heaping Slice of Schadenfreude Pie

  1. Out of curiosity, John, what are the odds of the publisher eventually making the money back on the “long tail”? While the advances seem silly, could they be rationalized on the theory that the book will still sell copies in five years? (And if the blog is still active over that course of time, won’t the blogger be providing free advertising, either by actual links to the book on Amazon or simply by continuing to be the “sausage lady” for that whole period?)

    I really have no idea and would be curious as to your thoughts, if you have any. Thanks.

  2. Eric:

    “Out of curiosity, John, what are the odds of the publisher eventually making the money back on the ‘long tail’?”

    I think that depends on the money involved, really. Also, the fact of the matter is that books have pretty high turnover in the stores — there’s always new product to jam into the shelves — so the books that are going to stay on the books are the ones whose sales are already pretty decent. Amazon and other online stores are helpful to some extent, but it’s easy to overestimate just how many books sell through Amazon because its ranking system is so opaque.

    Which is a long way of saying that the “long tail” scenario is possibly overstated.

  3. Eric:

    “Out of curiosity, John, what are the odds of the publisher eventually making the money back on the ‘long tail’?”

    I think that depends on the money involved, really. Also, the fact of the matter is that books have pretty high turnover in the stores — there’s always new product to jam into the shelves — so the books that are going to stay on the books are the ones whose sales are already pretty decent. Amazon and other online stores are helpful to some extent, but it’s easy to overestimate just how many books sell through Amazon because its ranking system is so opaque.

    Which is a long way of saying that the “long tail” scenario is possibly overstated.

  4. Esquire just panned the new book from Charles Frazier, the guy who wrote Cold Mountain. On the success that first book, he was given an $8 million advance. (Esquire headlined the review “$20,000 a Page.”) Yeah, Frazier has had a great deal of success, but I’d sure love to see the P&L where someone said an advance of that size was justified.

  5. I think that every so often, publishers (and movie studios, and television networks, and other content providers) try to jump onto “the next big thing.” They’re looking for the big hit that will synchronize well with the popular culture. The only problem is that there’s a significant delay between acquisition and publication, so there’s a certain amount of guesswork as to what will be “the next big thing.”

    Because it’s speculative, the content providers don’t mind dropping a few fat paychecks on good possibilities, because if they guess right, that investment will pay back significantly. And if the publishers in this case had guessed right, we wouldn’t be talking about how much they had paid the blogger-authors, but how much money the publishers were raking in.

    K

  6. The article also leaves out the mega-bloggers, like Kos or Instapundit, who have had pretty succsesful books (or at least one would think they were successful the way they’re talked about on their blogs…).

    On the other hand, the “bloggers with successful books” that you refer to strike me more as “successful authors who also have blogs,” which is a much better bet for a publisher, no?

  7. Well, Brian, I was trying to limit to people who sold books through (or because of) their Web sites. Certainly there are lots of authors who blog — indeed, now more than ever.

    Re: Kos and Instapundit — I do think their books have sold well, indeed. But I also suspect their advances were in line with their sales, i.e., not stupid.

  8. On the other hand, the “bloggers with successful books” that you refer to strike me more as “successful authors who also have blogs,” which is a much better bet for a publisher, no?

    I’m not entirely convinced by this; surely, the more successful you are, the more likely someone is to think of you as a “successful author with a blog” as opposed to a “blogger with successful books”?

    (This is of course not to say that causality *can’t* run the other way–Neil Gaiman being the obvious example.)

  9. I suspect popular bloggers inside specific genres or subjects generally have better book sales than ones addressing a broader audience. I’d be really surprised if some of the knitting bloggers with books (especially Stephanie Pearl-McPhee) weren’t doing reasonably well sales-wise, since I can think of three or four of them who have been offered a second book contract after the first was published. So maybe the issue is that the long tail doesn’t work the way that the publishers are expecting. Maybe there needs to be an existing external community of “people who like that sort of thing”.

  10. I suspect popular bloggers inside specific genres or subjects generally have better book sales than ones addressing a broader audience. I’d be really surprised if some of the knitting bloggers with books (especially Stephanie Pearl-McPhee) weren’t doing reasonably well sales-wise, since I can think of three or four of them who have been offered a second book contract after the first was published. So maybe the issue is that the long tail doesn’t work the way that the publishers are expecting. Maybe there needs to be an existing external community of “people who like that sort of thing”.

  11. What happens if a book tanks and the advance isn’t made back? Is the author on the hook for the difference or does their income stream from that book go away and the publisher writes off the advance?

  12. Interestingly, though I read Instapundit regularly, I must have missed when Glenn recommended your book. I found out about your writing via Penny Arcade, when Mike/”Gabe” did the cover for the Subterranean ATTS. I read the book online (um, while at work ;) ), loved it, ordered a copy, and later tracked down OMW at the bookstore. So you’re getting sales from several different parts of these tubes.

  13. My concern would be for the writer when s/he can’t earn out that advance. What happens then? Oh, a pseudonym? Well, I guess one can laugh about it all the way to the bank.

  14. My concern would be for the writer when s/he can’t earn out that advance. What happens then? Oh, a pseudonym? Well, I guess one can laugh about it all the way to the bank.

  15. What happens when you can’t recoup an advance: Nothing much, at least not immediately. Unless you’ve signed a very bad contract, the advance money is yours; the publisher can’t take it back.

    In the long run it can mean that it becomes more difficult to sell subsequent books. Some people get over that; some people start over again using a pseudonym because their real name has been tainted by the stench of failure. It all depends.

  16. Audrey: the thing about the knit-blogger books is that while people like Pearl-McPhee and Wendy Johnson may be getting contracts and advances based on their blogs’ popularity, I don’t think they’re getting massive dollars. Wendy still has a day job; the Yarn Harlot still worries about working enough to pay the bills, plus she seems to be touring constantly.

    I think the same may be true in the SF community. I bought books by Elizabeth Bear and Jo Walton specifically because I liked their writing on LJ, and I suspect enough others did to make it easier for them to get those book contracts. BUT I also don’t think either author is exactly rolling in it from humongous advances at this point. (I get the impression those huge advances are rare in the genre anyway.) So that may explain one reason that blog success can translate into book success in this field: the numbers are lower all around.

  17. Hi John,

    As always, you put things just right. Of course, there are times when the big advance is seen as part of the PR – everybody look what we just paid for this, it must be important!

    Not that this isn’t still silly.
    Lou

  18. I get the feeling that a few publishing execs (and many Hollywooed producders) should have regular drug testing based on huge advances. Or maybe the media gets too caught up in its own hype about what’s the new big thing so small trends look like paradigm shifts to them.

    Multi-million dollar advances for memoirs of politicians/celebrities also often seem to go sour. They might be famous but how many of them are liked/hated enough to sell 2 million copies?

  19. I get the feeling that a few publishing execs (and many Hollywooed producders) should have regular drug testing based on huge advances. Or maybe the media gets too caught up in its own hype about what’s the new big thing so small trends look like paradigm shifts to them.

    Multi-million dollar advances for memoirs of politicians/celebrities also often seem to go sour. They might be famous but how many of them are liked/hated enough to sell 2 million copies?

  20. The Boston Herald is in the business of selling newspapers and the writer had an agenda going into the article. Why no mention of actual sales numbers? No call into the publisher? Why an anonymous “One agent says…” to say the advance was dumb?

    Believing what you read is always difficult. These books have sold well including foreign rights, film, tv… The real article should be celebrating success but that doesn’t sell papers.

  21. James:

    “These books have sold well including foreign rights, film, tv… The real article should be celebrating success but that doesn’t sell papers.”

    Well, as I noted, the question is not the sales, but the advances, which give the article author legitimate reason to question the success of these books. TV/movie rights and foreign sales are neither here nor there to the book publishers unless they are contractually able to get a piece of that pie (Tor has no percentage of my foreign sales or move/TV sales, for example), so what it comes down to is whether the sales of the book itself will recoup the cost of the advance and other attendant costs. So in fact the article may be entirely correct: these books may be failures for their publishers, even if they sell reasonably well, by any other standard.

  22. I think the article is actually not about what it professed to be – it’s not about bloggers writing successful books (or not) it’s about bloggers who have been paid crazy amounts of money whose books then don’t measure up. For instance – the knit bloggers mentioned above – their books are successful just not “Da Vinci Code” successful. And consider Julie Powell’s cooking memoir “Julie and Julia” which I read for the same reason a lot of other people did – it’s very very funny (and I’m a big fan of this kind of cooking book anyway). I also don’t see a mention for someone like Cory Doctorow from boing boing who has several books out, all of them great reads and is steadily gaining in sales and popularity.

    Honestly I don’t think any of this has to do with bloggers, John – it’s that insanity in publishing factor you mentioned. I mean who gives an $8 million dollar advance to anyone? That’s just nuts!

    And as for Stephanie Klein – I posted once about her after a somewhat unfavorable article appeared in Elle about her book. I thought the whole premise of her book was strange (what tiny premise there was) and doubted it would sell all that great. She posted immediately to my site – immediately! And then a whole comments thing started with people screaming about how she and her boyfriend apparently spend all their time talking back to bloggers who say something unfavorable. It was bizarre – I’ve never been in the middle of anything so surreal (except maybe the Harlan Ellison posting at David Moles). If she put a little more time into writing her book instead of defending it, she might have done better.

  23. Kevin R:

    “I found out about your writing via Penny Arcade, when Mike/”Gabe” did the cover for the Subterranean ATTS. I read the book online (um, while at work ;))…”

    Yeah, ATTS got a week of my work time, too. It was a good week.

    I found out about OMW and TGB from SciFi Weekly when they did a review of them. Picked up OMW and read it, then Googled my way to scalzi.com, Whatever and ATTS before going back to pick up TGB. So Whatever and other author-blogs didn’t draw me to the books, but they’re definitely keeping me hanging around for news of TAD and TLC, and other future Scalzi titles.

    As for the half a mil advance… Wow…

  24. Kevin R:

    “I found out about your writing via Penny Arcade, when Mike/”Gabe” did the cover for the Subterranean ATTS. I read the book online (um, while at work ;))…”

    Yeah, ATTS got a week of my work time, too. It was a good week.

    I found out about OMW and TGB from SciFi Weekly when they did a review of them. Picked up OMW and read it, then Googled my way to scalzi.com, Whatever and ATTS before going back to pick up TGB. So Whatever and other author-blogs didn’t draw me to the books, but they’re definitely keeping me hanging around for news of TAD and TLC, and other future Scalzi titles.

    As for the half a mil advance… Wow…

  25. And this kind of reporting makes it look like huge advances are the norm. They’re not.

    The norm for first-time writers is more like 10K (if they’re lucky). Publishers throw that kind of money at a first-time writer very rarely. But you’d never guess that from the reporting.

    This leads to some people writing books because they genuinely think it’s an easy way to get rich. Fortunately, writing a book is hard and they soon learn the dread truth. And even if they manage to finish said little money spinner, they rarely sell it. And if they sell it they rarely get more than 10K.

  26. John, you can probably add me to the list of authors whose websites got them book contracts. Random House hired me to edit _Aqua Erotica_ (100,000+ copies sold, fifth printing, last I heard), and HarperCollins bought two books from me in a ‘good deal,’ as they say.

    It’s true that I published a fair bit of short fiction here and there first, but I had a pretty decent online reputation even before that, and I did see various editors’ and publicists’ eyes light up when I mentioned that the front page of my site had two million hits and counting…

    Of course, I started on the net back in ’95. It was a lot easier to build a rep then, since you were only competing with oh, about ten people. :-)

  27. I was just reading somewhere that some huge percentage (I wan’t say a bit more than 75) of books sell less than 1,000 copies.

    Where is the link…?

    Nope, can’t find it.

    But one would think the publishing houses are aware of it.

    TK

  28. I was reading that article earlier today. The percentage that sell less than a thousand copies is 93%. So if you sell 1001, you get an A!

  29. I was reading that article earlier today. The percentage that sell less than a thousand copies is 93%. So if you sell 1001, you get an A!

  30. I’m wondering whether that stat includes the self publishers. I don’t know any working writers whose books have sold less than a thousand copies. Hell, even a sizeable number of uni press publcations sell a thousand copies.

  31. Thanks for the plug – and as stated above, yes, the annoying thing about articles like that one is that it makes it look like big advances are handed out like Bazooka gum at Halloween. The silly implication is that since everybody gets these big advances, the bloggers are a special kind of lame since they aren’t earning theirs out.

    I don’t know. There’s just so much … *wrong* with that article.

  32. Thanks for the plug – and as stated above, yes, the annoying thing about articles like that one is that it makes it look like big advances are handed out like Bazooka gum at Halloween. The silly implication is that since everybody gets these big advances, the bloggers are a special kind of lame since they aren’t earning theirs out.

    I don’t know. There’s just so much … *wrong* with that article.

  33. One thing the Boston Herald article on bloggers didn’t mention – though Mr. Ford’s commentary above alludes to it, was the “blook”, — posting an entire book on a blog. This is a way to demonstrate both writing quality and marketability. Especially in fiction, there aren’t that many gatekeepers one can interest in a book, and evidence (and their own blogs) suggest they tend to focus most on what interests them. (I suspect their recognition of that was one reason they were hooking onto popular blogs – though that doesn’t explain the money they were tossing about)

    Posting a blook may not ultimately result in mainstream publication, but it can bring some satisfaction to the writer, and some interesting reading to those who find it. Mine has worked out quite well. (“Rad Decision” is a thriller about nuclear power, based on my many years in the atomic biz. http://RadDecision.blogspot.com )

  34. Don’t forget David Wellington – Author of Monster Nation and Monster Island. Both books were serialized on blogs online, and both are doing well in the marketplace. He’s also got 4 more books under contract.

  35. I chased down that stat, because I was having trouble wrapping my head around it.

    One of the presentations was on the state of the overall book market, and had this factoid: 93% of all ISBN’s sold fewer than 1,000 units and accounted for 13% of all sales.

    knowing that small press, university press, self-published, and other very vertical market publications are included here makes this number easier to take

  36. I chased down that stat, because I was having trouble wrapping my head around it.

    One of the presentations was on the state of the overall book market, and had this factoid: 93% of all ISBN’s sold fewer than 1,000 units and accounted for 13% of all sales.

    knowing that small press, university press, self-published, and other very vertical market publications are included here makes this number easier to take

  37. Given that it’s 93% of ISBNs rather than books, I can absolutely buy the statistic. At the university press where I work, it’s not uncommon for the hardcover of a split run to sell at most 300 copies (because we don’t print more than 300, since they’re intended for library sales). The book sells more than a thousand copies (we hope!), mostly in paperback, but if you look at it by ISBN, quite a lot of our ISBNs don’t break the 1000-copies mark.

  38. Normally my author blog reading goes in the opposite direction. Sure, there are plenty of authors whose blogs I read who I haven’t read books by, but normally if I read an author blog, it’s because I’m already familiar with his or her books and want to read the blog too. If one of those authors says that the new book is out, I’ll go and get it, but it’s not because the blog was a magical PR engine– it’s because I would have read it the first I heard of it anyway.

Comments are closed.