Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

Broadway Meets Hollywood Boulevard

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Hollywood producer in his office on the phone saying: “There are two ways we can go here, 2% of the gross or 99% of the net.”

(It’s a Hollywood tradition that movie studios try to avoid having net profits no matter how much money a movie makes.)

[By the 1970s], the only major difference between the book business and the movie business was that in the book business the money was smaller.

–Former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and bestselling author Michael Korda in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, my candidate for the most enjoyable book ever written about publishing.

If you want to be a successful author, you need to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing. You also have to be able to read between the lines of what’s happening so you can figure how to take advantage of it to achieve your goals. What goes on in the film business will help you understand publishing.

Hollywood and publishing have a lot in common:

  • They are each dominated by six large companies. Two of the publishers and movie studios are parts of the same multimedia, multinational conglomerates:

             * HarperCollins is owned by the News Corporation, which also owns 20th-Century Fox.

             * Simon & Schuster is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount.

             * (Random House Films partners with Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal, on books Random publishes.)

  • They are being transformed by technology, which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for newcomers to participate. Technology is also moving the culture from words to images, from product to experience, from possessing books and films to downloads. Meanwhile, the number of theatergoers and book sales are declining, so these companies are cutting costs and reducing their output.
  • Publishers and movie makers must produce winners to make the chains happy and meet corporate profit expectations. Hollywood must have hits—“tentpoles;” big publishers must have bestsellers. “Studios want movies that are bigger than ever,” said veteran Warner producer Joel Silver in an excellent piece about the cost-conscious state of Hollywood in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times (9/29).
  • They use marketing to build and sustain momentum, but what they release must generate good word of mouth and mouse to succeed. However, they are at the mercy of subjective, unpredictable responses of critics and consumers and fail most of the time. Less than one percent of what they produce becomes as profitable as they want it to be. Because they’re hit-or-miss businesses, the hits have to compensate for the misses. It’s the “Spaghetti Factor.” You throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.
  • They spend fortunes on failures and unheralded work by independent publishers and producers strike it rich. In Another Life, Michael Korda quotes one of former S&S president Richard Snyder’s favorite sayings: “Anybody in this business who is right more than fifty percent of the time is a genius.”  If independently produced books and movies break out, the big companies welcome the winners with open arms and wallets.

In the next post, more similarities between companies that would like to monopolize your eyeballs.

Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Following the Money: Publishing 2010

“Publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise; at one major house, there is a running joke that the second book published on the Gutenberg press was about the death of the publishing business.”

This is from a must-read article by Ken Auletta about the iPad in April 26th issue of The New Yorker. It includes numbers that follow the money in publishing as it migrates to the Web. They also provide a perspective on the business and where it’s going:

P-commerce

* Six publishers produce 60% of books sold.

* 70% of the 100,00 books that industry produces a year don’t earn back their advances.

*On a $26 book, authors receive $3.90 in royalties, 15% of list price on a hardcover book. Publishers make a $1 profit.

* More than 50% of revenue at Random House comes from backlist books.

* Since 1999, the number of independent bookstores declined from 3,250 to 1,400.

(On the other hand, the San Francisco Bay Guardian just gave a Chain Alternative Award to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which has two new members this year.)

* Independents have 10% of sales, chains about 30%, big-box stores like Wal Mart, 45%, which pressures big houses, like Hollywood studios, to produce blockbusters.

* Publishers have to run two businesses at once: a traditional publishing business and an electronic business.

E-commerce

* Marcus Dohle, the Chairman and CEO of Random, said “The digital transition will take five to seven years.”

* There are 50,000,000 iPhones in the world, which O’Reilly Media vice-president Andrew Savikas calls “a great customer base” for book apps.

* Most publishers are giving a 25% royalty on e-books.

* Amazon’s 3,000,000 Kindles generate 80% of e-book sales, which Amazon achieved, in part, by selling at a loss.

* When Amazon customer can choose between a paperback and an e-book, 40% of them choose the e-book.

* Kindles users buy 3.1 as many books as they did twelve months ago.

* An Apple adviser who used Netflix to download movies compared bookstores to video stores ten years ago.

* Three behemoths–Apple, Amazon, and Google–are competing, so one of them can’t dictate terms.

* Author Solutions works with 90,000 authors.

What these numbers suggest is that publishing is going through a transformation. Old and new media companies will in time establish a business model that works for them and makes money for writers.

What these numbers can’t capture is the article’s engaging, rough-and-tumble portrait of predators at play or the importance of

* publishers in discovering and developing new authors

* independent bookstores in launching them

* writers who keep the whole enterprise afloat by sitting in front of their computers creating the art that makes commerce possible

Former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein said: “When I went to work for Random Houe, ten editors ran it. We had a sales manager and sales reps. We had a bookkeeper and a publicist and a president. It was hugely successful. We didn’t need eighteen layers of executives. Digitization makes that possible again, and inevitable.”

Author Lee Foster says “This will be a golden age for content creators.” You will create your future as a writer with your head, your heart, and your fingertips. Three cheers for content, whatever form it takes!

The Building Blocks for a Writing Career

Anne Lamott begins a chapter of her wonderful book Bird by Bird like this:

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon of two men sitting on a couch at a busy cocktail party, having a quiet talk. One man has a beard and looks like a writer. The other seems like a normal person. The writer type is saying to the other: “We’re still pretty far apart. I’m looking for a six-figure advance, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript.”

If you find yourself pretty far apart from publishers, perhaps you need to consider using the following seventeen building blocks to construct your career as a successful author:

1. Read: Ernie Gaines, author of the Oprah book club selection, A Lesson Before Dying, believes that you can only write as well as you read. So read what you love to read and write what you love to read. Reading will enable you to establish criteria for your books.

Also read about authors you admire to learn how they succeeded.

2.  Establish models for your books and your career. Choose those that most inspire you.

3. Understand how publishers and agents work: You want the best editor, publisher, and deal for your books. Having a positive but realistic perspective on the business will help you find the right publisher for you and your book, and an agent if you decide to hire one.

4. Set personal and professional goals: Establish goals that keep you motivated to do all you can to achieve them.

5. Practice nichecraft: You can write any kind of book on any subject. But a faster way to build a career is to come up with an idea for a series of related books that sell each other and that you will be passionate about writing and promoting.

6. Develop your craft as a writer: Make every word count for your readers. Find early readers to help you make sure your work is 100% before submitting it.

7. Build communities: You can’t get your books right or make them succeed by yourself. Get the help you need by helping people and asking them to help you.

8. Develop your craft as a marketer:

 * Build your platform: your continuing visibility, online and off, with the readers for your books.

 * Build the communities you need to succeed.

 * Test-market your work: Maximize the value of your book by proving it will sell before trying to get it published.

9. Promote your work: Whether Random House publishes your books or you do, you will be the person most responsible for promoting them. Regard promotion as an essential part of your mission to spread your message.

10. Be passionate about your books: You want all of the people you meet to be as passionate about your work as you are. You are the well from which they will draw.

11. Make Mistakes: Jame Joyce said that “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” As long as you learn from your mistakes, you will make fewer of them. Eliminate  failure as an option, and success is inevitable.

12. Staying committed to your writing and your career: No one will know or care as much about your books as you do. So you must be relentless but professional about writing and promoting them, and about building your presence in the industry and in your field.

13. Put your life in the service of your readers: The better you serve them, the more they’ll help you achieve your goals. If you want people to keep buying your books, establish and maintain a relationship with them. You have more ways to do that than ever.

14. Be an authorpreneur: Speaker Sam Horn’s brilliant word which, for me, means:

 * having the entrepreneurial ability to create something out of nothing: an idea; a book that you can sell in more forms, media and countries than ever ; an international 365/24/7 business; and a career

 * coming up with ideas that you can sell in as many forms, media, and countries as possible

 * being responsible for your success

 * being unique by being creative in writing and promoting your books

 * being resourceful in meeting challenges

 * looking at everything you experience and reflexively wondering if there’s a way to use it to enrich your personal or professional life

 * using speed, creativity and flexibility to compensate for size

 * embracing and taking advantage of new information, technology, and opportunities created by accelerating change

15. Have courage: Believe in yourself and the value of your books. You will overcome the obstacles that await you.

16. Take the long view: A writing career isn’t one book but ten or twenty, each better and more profitable than the last. So you have to balance and integrate your short- and long-term goals.

17. Grow yourself: You are the most important factor in your success. You have to challenge yourself to improve physically, mentally, spiritually, and professionally. You have to keep learning if you want to keep earning.

You are Needed Now

Creative, resourceful people keep proving that anything is possible, that we are limited only by our ideas and the time and resources we devote to developing them. The world needs all the information, inspiration, help and entertainment you can provide. Enjoy the journey and best of luck!