Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Blockbuster Phenomenon

Nathan's post from yesterday regarding Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has gotten me thinking about the blockbuster model for book sales in general. Why does the industry invest millions of dollars in a tiny percentage of books that they hope against hope will turn a huge profit? Why do fewer than 1% of books pay for the acquisition of the remaining 99%? Why are the likes of James Patterson, Sarah Palin, and (saints preserve us) The Situation running the show?

Part of the reason is, as I've mentioned before, a sort of singlemindedness endemic to the industry that assumes anything that has worked in the past will continue to do so in the future. If Esteban Fancypants' novel The Art Dealer's Wife becomes a huge hit, he may well end up with a seven-figure offer for his second (or second and third) books. True, it's not entirely fair to blame the industry for this; time and again, consumers have returned to a brand (read: author) they love, and if enough people hear great things about (and later buy) Mr. Fancypants' first book, he's got an established audience for his future titles. Publishers throw money at "sure bets" because publishing has been and always will be something of a gamble, and if there's any indication that leveraging an author with a proven track record can produce more profit, they'll be all over that deal like a monkey on a cupcake.

HOWEVER. Simply because Mr. Fancypants' first novel sold 5 million copies doesn't mean his second and third novels will perform similarly, and for every story of the out-of-the-blue début novelist whose first book sold millions of copies, there's a story of an out-of-the-blue début novelist whose second book tanked. Maybe the second book received bad reviews; maybe it was so different from the first book that it alienated his or her established audience; maybe it comes to light that the author is a terrible person and nobody wants to be caught dead reading his or her book; the number of reasons is potentially infinite. Thing is (and it is fair to blame the industry for this), publishers 1.) perpetuate the blockbuster cycle by driving prices up at auction to patently absurd levels, and 2.) tend to chase losing brands by throwing more money at them long after the authors' audiences have either stopped caring or died.

What, then, can be done about this, mes auteurs?

Well, publishers could consistently include and enforce clauses in contracts stipulating that authors whose books fail to earn out their advances must return the balance of the advance to the publisher, but that's not going to happen unless the industry adopts this policy across the board (not to mention it's not really fair to authors who receive little in the way of marketing and co-op dollars).

I'm interested by this NPR article from last year, which mentions HarperStudio's experimenting with publishing two books a month, neither with an advance of over $100,000, and attracting authors by promising a 50/50 split on the book's profit. While I'm not sure this exact model is a solution, I think programs like it may offer a way out of the boom-and-bust, all-or-nothing blockbuster model that prevails in the industry today.

What say you, gentle readers?


  1. I know it has been frustrating to me if I were to publish traditionally and feel like a complete failure because my book only sells so many copies when another person I know is selling millions. That, and if my book does tank, knowing my career has probably tanked as well. It seems many authors are set up to fail by a lopsided business-driven system. I have nothing against traditional publishing, but I'm increasingly drawn toward small presses and self-publishing these days.

    Thanks for sharing that NPR article. That's really interesting and may be a step in the right direction.

  2. Publishers create the risks associated with publishing: they like to take control, but aren't always entirely effective in the way they take control.

    Some books succeed thanks to their publishers.

    Some books succeed in spite of their publishers.

    All books that are published by publishers and which fail, fail because of their publishers.

    I think we're going to see more epub books published that will have iAd style advertising embedded.

    The costs and risks of publishing will be relatively low, the returns potentially great for authors (and their publishers - if they work with a publisher).

  3. Monkey on a cupcake! LMAO! Eric, it's time to write your book.

  4. I think it is a great idea to find ways of encouraging publishers to take on a wider variety of new authors. Why not have smaller initial contracts that have built-in incentives should the book do better than expected? Or, something along those lines. I'm not in this to make money, so I don't care about an advance. I do care about my agent getting enough to feel that I am worth having as a client, but other than that I just want to see my books published.

  5. The 50/50 split of profits is intriguing, but there would need to be controls in place to make sure the no one uses the same accounting practices as Warner Bros when they claimed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lost over a $100 million despite taking in over $900 million.

  6. I agree with the fist part of what Ted Cross said. There has to be a way to take the "fear" out of publishing a first time author if his or her writing is wonderful and he or she can write an equally wonderful plot. I am more concerned about the "imbalance" of what writer's like to write and what publisher's "think" readers want to read. Maybe their still buying werewolves and vampires because publishers are glutting the market with them. There are a lot of us writer's who don't want our "round writing" forced into publishings "square holes". Give the buying public a little credit. I, for one, am waiting for someone to drive a silver stake through the heart of this genre - or at least drive it far enough in to give other genres a chance. If you publish it - they will read.

  7. I don't feel it makes sense to expect authors to return part of their advance. It's out of the author's hands at that point. As arpleopid says, the publisher has nobody but themselves to blame if the book fails; even if it was poorly written, they're the ones who chose to put it out there. Even if the author misrepresented the work or themselves, the publisher has responsibility for a certain amount of due diligence.

    I have faith that I can find an audience, and I would be glad to trade a smaller advance in return for a larger cut. Recognizing that my agent (once I find one!) probably has a more objective view, I'd probably take their advice, though.

  8. I think the models for publishing are just starting to change, but there has to be some shift in the sharing of risk and reward.

  9. The 50/50 split is intriguing. It just might work!

  10. As a debut author, I would waaaaaay rather have the 50/50 split, than a larger advance. I work hard to reach out to my target audience & engage them. I feel that's necessary, but I really enjoy it. Sharing the success of those efforts to whatever degree that transpires is much more meaningful and rewarding. I prefer to be paid on results, rather than speculation and it would probably encourage me to work even harder. It's a great idea, a win-win, and nobody's left holding the bag.

    Rai Aren, co-author of Secret of the Sands

  11. I'm finding now that I read a lot of 'first books' in series but avoid the rest. I don't mind series that are designed to continue (my fav being The Belgarid by David Eddings) not the ones that are a 'story in a book' or at least not the ansgty ones. After Twilight I can't stomach anymore angst ;p

  12. I too find the first part of what Ted said interesting. What if something similar to split advances--you know, where authors receive 1/3 of their advance on receipt, acceptance, and release--were built into the contract, but over a longer term? Instead of a huge advance up front for these blockbuster books, there's the promise of a certain sum once the book reaches so many copies sold? A tiered system of advances, if you will. Your book sells 10,000 copies, you get a lump payment based on how many more the publisher expects to sell--and like an advance, you have to earn it out before collecting additional royalties. Reach 50,000, get another lump sum as an advance against the next however many copies the book is expected to sell. That way, publishers wouldn't blow ludicrous amounts of money on advances for books that tank, but there are still nice lumps coming in every once in a while if the book does well.

    Haven't really thought this out, obviously, so I may be missing some key point of economics. It's late in the day, so I'll use that as my excuse.

  13. I agree that it needs to be thought more, but why should it be so hard to come up with ways to make taking on new writers a win-win situation? I really don't think it should be difficult, as long as publishers and agents are willing to take a fresh look at how they draw up contracts for new writers. Allow room for growth and surprises. Tackle those who don't fit the current trends but produce fine work. Print them with smaller print runs to see if they do surprisingly well. I don't know; I'm not the expert, but I do think trying new contract styles can work.

  14. Publishers who think that the current blockbuster lead-title model is the best path to profit should remember: we think of the ocean as deep but in reality its massive volume derives primarily from being wide. Relative to its breadth, the ocean is very shallow.

    In the same way, a broad and shallow marketing strategy spread out over all of a publisher's authors can ultimately out-compete a narrow and deep one for volume (and therefore profit) even if it doesn’t produce spectacular best-seller successes.