The Bujold Nexus

Lois McMaster Bujold on Book Distribution 2000

I've been mulling over a little informative mini-essay for the general interest of the Barflies, and this seems as good a place to stick it in as any. This is all about the business of publishing, rather than the art of writing, standard writer-gossip; you may imagine that a bunch of writers discuss High Art when they get together, but I'm sorry to say they more usually bitch about money. (The less obvious reason for this is that no writer can talk about his/her own book in front of another writer with the emotional intensity they really feel; it just doesn't work, socially.)

Anyway. The publishing business as it is presently constituted consists of three parts: publisher, distribution system, and bookstores, followed at a remove by reader-customers. A publisher's actual main customers are not the readers, but the book chains, and big distributors such as Ingram's or Baker & Taylor who in turn supply small bookstores and libraries. Present conditions have the publishers trying to push ten gallons of books into a five-gallon pipeline (the distribution system) into a three-gallon bucket (the bookstores). Something has to give, and it does.

The first way to get More Stuff through is to speed it up, which is why books whip on and off the shelves with such velocity these days (category romance novels are given, count 'em, thirty days on the market before being replaced by the next batch.) What this means is, the speed of book turnover has grown to be faster than the speed of word of mouth, a slowish process formerly vital to a new book or author. All but the very first readers to buy a book thus have no way to send economic feedback messages back through the system saying, "More, please." The late reader loses a vote.

The second pernicious thing that's happened to take away readers' voices in the process occurs at the stuffing-books-in end of the distribution system. I was bewildered when I first heard of a large ad budget being spent on a book when I never saw sign of an ad in any newspaper or even bookstore. Turns out that money was being spent advertising to distributors of various ilks. Publishers have turned, in something like despair, to attempts to buy room for their books in that narrow pipeline; hence such things as paid placement at the front of a bookstore, front page treatment in book chain newsletters, various complex incentives for high volume, etc. (I won't even get into the evils of the book returns system here - that will take another essay to explain.) Naturally, publishers with deep pockets have an advantage in this Darwinian competition for space, and work like mad to pitch the packaging of their books to a harried crew of buyers who, given the volume of books to pass through their hands, can not possibly read them.

Again, the result has been to take away another piece of the readers' voice in the process. If a book - or rather, its packaging and the sales numbers of previous books by that author - fails to pass muster at the stuffing-in end of the pipeline, no reader (or very few) will ever learn of its existence in order to ask for it. Reader input is limited to an expensive and wasteful negative - readers can (and do) reject books they do see, but they have no way of asking for books they don't see.

Such was the hair-tearing state of the business in the middle of the 90's.

Then along came the Internet.

And publisher's websites such as Baen's Bar. And some short guy who had a better idea what to do with his website. And, with shelves that never get too full to hold More Stuff. And still more - word of mouth got hyperdrive through chat groups and email. Word of mouth got faster, even, than the system's book-removal rhythm.

And suddenly, publishers now have an economical way of getting the word out to the excluded people in this process, the actual book readers, of their books' existences - totally jumping over the unfortunate book-blocking nature of the distribution system. Instead of trying to push books through the pipeline, this intelligence network allows a thousand or ten thousand of you guys to line up on the other end and pull the books through - the books you want, not the ones some desperately overworked distribution exec imagines will sell.

Folks, it's a revolution. And you were here when the barricades were stormed. It's possible - we're still in the middle of the smoke and rubble here - that it may be a revolution that re-makes the book industry as profoundly as Ian Ballantine's development of the mass market paperback. Because it takes the fundamental power to decide what books appear - placed by the physical and historical accidents and necessities of the industry into the hands of people who don't read books - and puts it back into the hands of people who do.

And it's all happening by accident, while someone was trying to do something else - downright Milesian, I'd say.

All power to the readers.

Ta, Lois.

Original copy is here
© 1999 Lois McMaster Bujold
Added to The Bujold Nexus: November 16th 2003

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Last updated: November 16th 2003