Random Thoughts About the Market

Faith HunterFaith Hunter
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First – Friday will be blog by Diana Pharaoh Francis . She has long been a writer (mostly epic fantasy) but this December she has a dark urban fantasy coming out. Very dark. Very urban. Not a vampire in sight. Totally new and original world. I was asked to blurb the book and got to read it. Let me tell you, it is killer! So watch for Diana’s blog on Friday, and we hope she’ll tell us all about making the switch to a new sub genre! Fingers crossed.

David was talking on Monday about the bad parts of today’s market. I am usually the *glass-half-empty* kind of person. Not that I don’t try to be positive, but our parents’ influence carries so much weight and my dad is not the most positive person in the world. In fact he’s pretty negative… Wait. Wrong blog. (slaps self) Back to David.

David was talking about the fact that the market forces change on us in terms of what we write, the names we pen under, the length of our stories, etc. It was a difficult day for him. Then on Tuesday, Catie talked about the market changes in terms of paperbacks. I’d like to build on both today, which is going to result in a pretty random, rambling blog about the market.

For once, I can really see positive aspects of the market changes. I know. Don’t pass out. It’s a shocker to me too.
But first, two small business negatives. (You knew it couldn’t last…) Borders is still reeling under financial strain and ordering very few books. They call it conservative ordering. Tomato, tomahtoh. Whatever. It negatively affects sales numbers. However, the Borders problem and possible bankruptcy is currently worked out with loan extensions, which is the glass-half-full part of that equation. Also, because of the world’s financial crisis, the publishers are holding back the numbers of reserves on all books, for some writers, up to 80%. (Reserves are the books that stores have ordered and probably sold, but no money has been paid to the distributors or pubs, or because payments were late, or whatever, and so the writer pays the price on *his* payments being withheld.) On to the gooder stuff.

I said recently that the romance buyer at B&N said the book market is starting to *really* turn around, and that book sales for April were phenomenal. Fantasy sales were right up there too, which means that everyone who had a book release for April did gangbusters. We are soooo happy with the success of the April children. *Very* happy! Really! For a totally selfish reason. Readers get on swings and keep reading. Best bet is that all spring and summer reading trends will be great. The rest of us just hope said trend will continue for our own releases. Yeah, it’s a selfish hope. But a realistic one. Swine flue and money worries mean that longer-lasting investments in the nation’s entertainment dollar is important. Lots of us don’t want to leave the house as much. Books last longer than movies and can be given or sold for more books…yada, yada, so books are a good entertainment dollar. The bright side of that dark cloud.

David’s new names… When I first met David, at South Carolina Writers Conference, his agent, (also my agent) Lucienne Diver, was getting ready to hawk his urban fantasy. I asked him if he was going to change names, and he said he’d rather not. But he knew might have to.

*I like my name* is a common refrain among writers. *I want to write this genre under my name.* Until something bad happens to the market, to the lists, to the national consciousness. Then we jump at continuing a career under nearly any circumstances.

I started out writing with a cop, police procedurals, bang-bang-shoot-em-ups. We wanted to write under the name Hunter Leveille. We wanted to write a character driven series. The editor, a new up and coming guy at Warner Books, bought the series but had other ideas. Here is what he said after signing us to write two books: Cops can’t pronounce the name. Go with something simple. I like Gary Hunter. And, your audience is male. They don’t care why the cop shoots the bad guy, they just wants to see the action. The bloodier the better.

Really. That is what he said…. So from the first day, I didn’t get my way. I didn’t get to write what I wanted, and I didn’t get to write under my chosen name. But here is what I learned. Especially for a first book, getting one’s foot in the publishing door is very important. We often have to do what is asked of us. And when the market changes, we have to be willing to make other changes. Our names, our stories… It is a business. We have to swing with it. David is a great writer. He will come out on top because of his literary diversification.

Massmarket paperbacks: A lot of writers only want to be released in hardback or trade. I turned down hardback back in 1994. Really. My AKA’s Betrayal had an auction and one offer on the table was for a hard and soft deal. I turned it down at my agent’s suggestion for a MM deal with guaranteed advertising money. I had always preferred MMs as a reader because I could get 4 books for the price of one hardback. I was a voracious reader on a limited income.

Since then, I’ve been released in all the formats and I still personally prefer massmarkets for just the reasons Catie mentioned. More people will take a risk on MMs and try a new author. It is the *best* way to build fans, especially in a market crisis. My trade paperbacks of the Rogue Mage series sold okay… I sold through after a year. But a year is *way* too long in the book market. An author needs to sell through in one to three months to be considered a success. (Sell through means to sell the first printing and make back all the royalties paid to said writer by the pub.) The massmarkets did way better in the down-turning market and I made the pub money, and had reprints. They are now considering a new contract. Because of the massmarkets. So, I still believe in them.

My point in all this rambling is that a writer has to open minded about everything in his career. A writer has to keep his ear to the ground and be aware of trends in the marketplace, has to study the shelves and see what is selling and what is overselling, so he is ready for the next shift in the market. It is a business. We have to swing with it.

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10 comments to Random Thoughts About the Market

  • Christina

    Good post, Faith. That will keep us all grounded, for sure.

    Looking forward to hearing about Diana’s book. I hope she posts some info about how she broke into the business, too.

    Thanks.

  • Yeah, I like mass markets as well. They’re easier for me to cart around, easier to read in bed, in the tub, cheaper overall, etc. I think I’d probably go mass market, especially in today’s economy, if I was published. I may also go for a smaller page count in the end and just do more books in a series. I just feel like nowadays folks may prefer smaller books that are a bit cheaper and feel like they’d take a chance on an author that they’ve never read before if they don’t have to spend too much money to check them out. It might take me longer to recoup the advance, but if more people are picking it up because it’s cheaper, then it may balance in the end. Who knows.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the epic. I always have. I love the big books too. I read the Dragon Bone Chair series, including the last one that was like 1000 pages long; the last book of which the author called “the story that ate my life.” That was back in the day when I had hours and hours of time to just sit and read though. I also know that for some epics there’s pretty much no way, in a business sense that the story can be split up smaller than it is. Could you imagine the “Eye of the World” series split up into like 20 smaller books? But I also know the “Dragonlance Chronicles” was an epic fantasy, as well as “Elric of Melnibone” and “The War of Powers” and those were in smaller formats. The Elric books coming in at under 200 pages each for the most part.

    It’s funny, writing seems just as much about studying and playing the market, like investing or playing the stock market, as it is about writing quality material. Do you make smaller books hoping to get sales in a weaker economy or write larger books, hoping to recoup the advance faster? Do you change your name, hoping to get sales in a new genre or keep your name for a smaller advance, hoping that people will still stand behind the name? It’s an awesome prospect; one I wouldn’t have thought I’d have an interest in, but find myself intrigued by.

    I do like that a number of authors are putting excerpts on their websites. It makes it far easier to tell if you’re going to like a story or an author’s style, etc, without having to buy the book first. Though some excerpts I’ve read out there haven’t been enough to actually grip me, just because the meat of their story happens later in their book.

  • Nice post, Faith. And many thanks for the kind words. One of the things that bugs me about this business is that it’s so reactive and yet so slow. From the time a book is contracted, it can take a year or more (sometimes far more) for it to hit the shelves. And yet, market trends can turn on a dime. So market decisions are made, they impact book contracts, but those decisions are often obsolete by the time the book appears in print. It’s madness. One factor that is mitigating some of those good news points you made about the current market: bookstores have just gone from an 8 week turnaround on featured books and orders to a 4 week turnaround. They’ll probably switch back — they have in the past. But there is suddenly an overflow of unsold inventory in publishing warehouses. Not a good thing. Mass market paperbacks are doing well now with the economy down; just two years they were a drag on the market. Hardcover and trade were doing far better in a relative sense.

    Daniel, I think you might be overestimating the degree of difference book length makes in book price and therefore author royalties. In terms of mass market paperbacks there is no difference at all. For instance, I have two books on my shelves, both paperbacks, both by NYT bestsellers — huge names in the field. One is just over 1000 pages (yes, 1000). The other is under 350. They were published within two years of each other. They’re both $6.99. Hardcover prices vary a bit with size but in the adult fantasy/SF market the variation tends to be very small $24.95 to $27.95. That $3.00 difference from the cheapest to the most expensive translates to 30 cents per book for an author. Even with a print run of 10,000 hardcovers (which few authors get these days) that’s only $3,000.00 over the sales life of the book. And that’s the maximum difference.

  • David, I totally agree that the markets *turn on a dime*. It is terribly frustating. When my AKA was trying to sell her medical thriller, Delayed Diagnosis, back in the late 90s, *no one* anywhere was slotting medical thrillers. It took four years to see the book in print, mainly because Mira Books took 24 months to say yes. (Typical for them at the time.) Within a year after that, three major houses were calling agents (yes, ya’ll, they do that) asking for medical thrillers, due to a trend in the market. My AKA would have done *much much* better at any of the other houses, but I had signed and the book was going to print. It was a sad lesson for me that my career was not in my hands. Until I was published in the fantasy market, I had no control of anything. Things are a bit better here. Really. Sad as that may seem in light of this week’s posts.

  • Okay, same-same, but different. I’m just thinking of it in the wrong terms, but does still make me feel as though I’d prefer MM to hard cover, which is what I’m actually thinking of. Thanks for the quick clear up. Though that does bring up a minor question. Do you get to choose how the book is brought out in the beginning? Can an author choose mass market or is the publisher in control of that matter? Right now it seems it’d be better for sales to go mass market paperback because they cost less for the consumer, which would likely help with sales right now, but be slower to recoup than the hard cover versions.

  • …you know, I don’t write under what I think of as my name anyway, so possibly I don’t have the same attachment to “writing as me” that many people do. I don’t go by CE in real life; the only reason I use it as a writer is because I never thought “Catie” would look grown-up enough on the cover of a book and I dislike being called by my full name, so when a friend suggested “CE” it seemed very sensible. So it’s my brand, but it’s not particularly /me/. Also, I started writing as Cate Dermody immediately, so I was out there with two names already. And I’ve got a (literal) list of others for genre-bouncing or if, God forbid, the CE Murphy brand should collapse.

    Daniel–the publisher is in control of that decision. Like I said in my post, I agitated for the mass market release for the Negotiator books, but in the end all I could do *was* agitate for it. It’s in their hands. In Faith’s situation, the publisher *could* have decided after the fact to release her books in trade or hardback (unless she’d actually held back the rights for those), and there’d have been squat-all she could do about it.

  • The writer gets no choice, Daniel…unless! Unless the book is so new-exciting-different that the agent selling it can bring it to auction between several houses. I’ve been there 2 times in my career, and let me tell you, it is great fun! Then the writer may have the opportunity to chose between offers, which may include not only hightest bid, but promo money, hard – soft offers, and other consideratinos like bonuses. It is a lovely experience and one to be savored.

  • Catie, our posts overlapped in post time and you said it much better than I. Squat-all is sooo right!

  • Thanks for a fascinating discussion. I write YA and it seems like I rarely see anything released in mass market — it’s usually hardcover or trade paperback. Because YA hardbacks tend to be around $16-17 (with discounts they’re usually closer to $12) and they tend to get the trade reviews, it seems like most authors I talk to really want to come out hardcover first.

  • Hi Carrie, it all depends on what the writer wants. Reveiws, building a readership, the glitz of hardcover.
    Oh — what they are offered by the pub? The writer usually wants somethng else…
    (laughing)
    Faith