“You don’t want to be a buggy whip salesman when everyone around you is driving Model T’s.” My Grandpa used to tell me that. My Dad reinforced it. When I wrote up the business plan for Dark Continents publishing, I opened with a similar statement. John has talked about how the big boys are becoming fossils at the speed of light. Serenity spoke of how this is a new venture in the publishing world. Tracie helped to define what makes up the horror genre now. We six have looked at the publishing world as small fish in a big and fast moving river.
Let me give you a little background about my “real” life. I’ve been a published writer for awhile now, but have never made enough money to make a living at it, with the exception of my stint as a reporter. Since then, I’ve worked in a number of industries. When this latest recession hit, I watched a number of manufacturers struggle, gasp for air, and sink under the waters to be swept away as they went bankrupt.
Why? Because they stuck with the old business model they had in place since 1940. They produced vast runs of product then relied on out-of-office salesmen to move the product. They required minimum sales of each client, and refused to lower their prices or cut production even in record low sales years. As the salesmen had trouble convincing new clients to buy, and watched old clients disappear as the old clients found new companies to meet their needs, businesses closed their doors and cost thousands of jobs.
Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like the publishing industry right now? It does to me. According to USA Today, Random house just signed the author of “Water for Elephants” for a two book, two million dollar advance. Sight unseen of the manuscripts. They have contracted a two hundred thousand book run for the first volume. What if the book underperforms? I realize Random House could probably absorb the loss right now, but for how long?
The industries I have worked in have survived by going to a Lean Manufacturing business plan. They only produce what product is ordered. They only keep their staff on long enough each day to fill each run per shift. No more guaranteed forty hour weeks. The staff can now depend on weeks of either twenty hours or fifty plus hours, depending on the order run. This cuts cost of production, reduces waste for the company, and in some cases, has eliminated entire shifts from a production plant. Yes, it has cost jobs. No I don’t like that, but it has allowed these companies to survive, and in some cases actually grow as they developed new markets.
Two determining events also took place in my life last year: I met J.A. Konrath, and I attended Bouchercon. Both of these events had a huge impact on how I perceived the publishing industry. Konrath is a huge media hound. He’s a huge self supporter. But he’s also a successful writer and an intelligent guy. We talked a bit and got to know one another. At the time we first talked, he was just playing with the idea of going to a strictly electronic format with his writing. He was making some coin on Kindle with his books, and was impressed at his profit margin. Last year, he made over forty thousand dollars on books that publishers had rejected. This year, he is on track to make well over one hundred thousand dollars on is work, and has announced he will no longer publish in a traditional paper format. Now, if you want to read Konrath, you have to buy his work on Kindle or other electronic formats.
The second event, Bouchercon, was a huge eye opener in a number of ways. Firstly, it was my first Con, and I learned a lot on how to add new things to my own event I have each year. Secondly, if gave me a good, close up look at how the publishing industry was feeling, overall. I went to a forum that weekend made up of editors and agents to talk about the state of the industry. It wasn’t the most well attended forum there, but it was crowded with a lot of people at my level, and a few of the midlist folks. Some of the biggest names from the biggest houses in New York made up the table.
After assuring us for a half hour or so that yes, the business was having some hard times, and yes, sales overall were down, the book world was still there, still selling books, still chugging away. Well, yes, but so were steam locomotives when the big electric diesel engines came into existence. It was only in the last fifteen minutes of the meeting that someone addressed the issue of e-books and what the publishing industry was doing about it. The answer was basically, they didn’t know what to do. Keith Kahla admitted that he didn’t know where things were going with e-books. Joshua Bilmes said that he never even had dealt with an e-book or sold the rights to one, because his business was to represent authors and books.
The admission, and the realization was, however, that the book business was in danger of following the path of the music business. There are a lot of similarities between the two. The music industry fought the downloading of files, fought Napster, sued homemakers for downloading music, instead of working with the people with new ideas from the outset. It nearly killed them. Now, the only way the music industry makes a profit is by concert ticket sales, and promotional items like tee shirts. They actually lose money just producing albums.
We are not the music industry. We don’t do concert tours. We don’t have a tee shirt industry. What we do have, is a handful of thinking individuals who can see the direction that we are going as an industry, and the guts to try to change it. When I put Dark Continents together, I invited some of the smartest, most talented, and forward thinking people together that I knew. Between the six of us, we’re going to do our best to show the way for the book industry to survive. We’ve looked outside the book business to see what works. We’re going to use these models to fix what’s wrong with the business. It doesn’t take tons of money anymore. It doesn’t take hundreds of people working around the clock to be a success in the publishing industry. It still takes good writing, but it takes people to think their way through problems and offer solid solutions that work. This is what we intend to do. If we make a profit at it while we’re doing it, so be it. I never wanted to work in a warehouse forever anyway.