I ran across this blog by the author Kristen Lamb:
…while reading this article by Rachel Kramer Bussel in Salon magazine:
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or who has read any of the essays I’ve written in the past on copyright laws and online piracy that I generally agree with Bussel’s stance and disagree with Lamb’s. But there are some issues involved that Bussel doesn’t address which I think are actually more important than the ones she does. Another way to put it is that I don’t think she goes far enough. The essence of her argument is that the situation is more complicated than Lamb presents it as being, and is not an either/or situation. While it is true that a book sold in a used book store may represent an immediate loss to an author, it can be made up for in the long run by exposing more people to that author.
Bussel is right, but she doesn’t take it far enough. In truth, it is an “either/or” situation, just as Lamb says. The problem is that Lamb has the whole relationship standing on its head. She sees used book sales—I would presume she feels the same way about people reading a book checked out of a library or borrowed from a friend—as an infliction of harm on authors because it deprives them of income. But the reality is the exact opposite. The correct way to view the relationship between sales which bring direct income to authors and sales which don’t, is that without the latter the former would dry up to a trickle within a rather short time.
I will spend the rest of this essay supporting that thesis. But let me begin by establishing my bona fides on the subject.
These are two-fold. First, I am and have been since 1999 a successful full-time fiction author. I have published almost fifty novels—all of which are still in print, by the way—and over two dozen pieces of short fiction. I have also edited about the same number of anthologies of short fiction, which also bring me income both as an editor and (in some of the anthologies) as an author. And I also derive income from publishing the electronic magazine, the Grantville Gazette.
Secondly, I am one of the founders and ongoing instructors of Superstars Writing Seminars. (http://superstarswriting.com/) This annual three-day seminar is the most prominent and important seminar on the business of being a writer in the United States, and has now been in operation since 2010. I am the instructor who gives the opening talk, which is an overview of publishing as a business.
The central and most critical aspect of publishing as a business, seen from the vantage point of an author, is that the market involved—call it the book market, if you will—is possibly the most opaque sales market in existence. It’s certainly one of the top ten most opaque markets.
What do I mean by an “opaque” market? It’s a market most of which is invisible to its customers. Hidden, in this case, not by subterfuge but by sheer volume of product. The characteristic that all entertainment industries share, and which makes all of them very opaque, is that each individual product has to be unique. Every book has to be different from every other book. Every song from every other song, every movie from every other movie—and every painting or sculpture or art photo from every other one of that type.
That is very unlike most markets. If you take the automobile market for comparison, there are not all that many auto manufacturers and each of them produces a relatively small number of products—perhaps a dozen models; not more than two dozen. So anyone seeking to buy an automobile can research the entire market fairly quickly and fairly easily.
In contrast, every year in the English language somewhere in the vicinity of one and a half million new titles are produced in the book market. Even if you narrow the market down to a specific genre, the scale still dwarfs that of most markets. To use my own genre as an example, the number of new titles in fantasy and science fiction coming out in the English language every month exceeds the number of automobile models coming out in an entire year.
Walking into a bookstore to look for a new book you might be interested in buying is analogous to walking onto the lot of an automobile dealer and being presented, not with many slightly different versions of a few models, but with thousands of models—or tens of thousands, in the case of big superstores.
Nobody can keep up with this scale of production. Not even professional book reviewers can do it, much less the average reader. It’s like being caught in the middle of a blizzard, except the individual particles are sales products instead of snowflakes. That’s what makes the book market so opaque.
The inevitable response of customers is to be very conservative in their buying habits. Some book-buyers (thankfully for new writers) are more adventurous than others, granted. But it’s still the case that the vast majority of books purchased are books written by authors with whom the reader is already familiar. That’s especially true in the fiction market, where there are many fewer “signposts” than there are in the non-fiction market. What I mean by signposts is that someone interested in reading about, say, the history of New England in the 19th century can do a search using those words and if they turn up a book titled The History of New England, 1812-1905 they’re off to the races. There’s no guarantee that book will be one that they like when they read it, but at least they’ve gotten a start. There are very few such signposts in fiction writing.
And that’s the whole problem with Lamb’s approach to the subject. She fails to consider the question: How does anyone know about your book in the first place?
The answer to that question is complex. I make a habit of asking people who tell me they’ve read and liked one of my books how they ran across it. It’s not surprising that people who’ve already read something of mine and liked it would go out and buy another book of mine. But what got them to start reading my work in the first place?
The answers I get are always different, in detail. No two readers come to the same author in exactly the same way. But there is one very broad general pattern: With some exceptions—but they are a definite minority—readers first encounter me by getting their hands on a book of mine for which they did not pay me a thin dime. More precisely, from the sale of which—or acquisition of which, rather, because often there was no sale of any kind—I derived no income at all.
Probably the most common acquisition of this type is that a friend or relative recommended and lent the book to them. The other two most common are checking one of my books out of a library or buying it at a used book store. Another one—growing all the time in importance—is that I make a number of my books available for free online in electronic editions. If you’re not familiar with the Baen Free Library where I’ve posted many of my titles, go to Baen Books’ web site (http://www.baen.com/), select “Read Baen” from the top menu and then select “Free Library.”
I once had a conversation on this subject with Gene Wolfe, a prominent and long-time F&SF author. I told Gene that I estimated that for every book of an author sold in a form which brought direct income to him or her, another half-dozen people read that book in a form that brought him or her no income at all.
Gene thought I was being too conservative—or optimistic, take your pick. “Eric, I always figure that I need about ten or twelve people to read a book of mine before I see any money from one sale.”
He may well be right. If I was going to revise my own estimate that the ratio of freebie-to-moneymaking book acquisitions is six-to-one, I’d certainly revise it upward in Gene’s direction, not downward. But regardless of what the exact ratio might be—we’ll never know, of course—what is absolutely clear to anyone willing to look at the subject in a calm, cold-blooded, practical manner, is that in order for an author to make a living from the sale of his or her books in a form that brings income, those relatively small number of income-deriving book sales have to be surrounded by a huge penumbra of book acquisitions which bring no direct income at all.
And that’s only half of it. Because the other reality of an author’s existence, in terms of income, is that every author is constantly hemorrhaging readers. To put it in another and perhaps less gruesome way, every author’s fans are always drifting away from them.
I’m a little astonished at how many professional authors fail to grasp this harsh reality. Many of them seem to think that their “fan base” is something relatively fixed; established; stable.
But it is none of those things. The reason should be obvious. No author can write as fast as his or her fans can read. Sooner or later, even if a reader likes everything that you write—and very few readers do—they will run through your entire corpus of work and move on.
To be sure, some of them will stay lifelong fans and keep buying your books as they get produced. But many, and probably the majority, won’t. After a while, they will drift away from you. There don’t have to be any hard feelings involved. There usually aren’t. What’s involved is simply the familiar been there; done that phenomenon.
To make a living as a full time writer, or even to derive a significant income from writing, an author has to constantly recreate their readership base. The process is dynamic, not static. And the main way an author does so is by having that huge penumbra of free books—“free,” at least, from the author’s standpoint—surrounding the much smaller number of books which get sold in a way that brings direct income.
That’s why Lamb’s view of the matter is so skewed. She’s right that it’s an either/or situation, but she doesn’t understand that the relationship between “either” and “or” is a necessary and beneficial one.
The way she sees it is this: Either someone buys one of my books in a way that brings me income or I don’t get any income at all.
The way I see is this: Either my little world of income-deriving books is surrounded by a nice thick atmosphere of freebies or nobody reads or buys any books at all.
Grousing about this reality is just silly. It’s the nature of the entertainment business, period. Always has been, always will be. There is a direct relationship between all the different forms in which a given author’s work is distributed. Here it is:
If you sell a lot of books you will get a good income AND
A lot of your books will get passed from one person to another without you seeing a dime from it AND
A lot of your books will end up in used book stores AND
A lot of your books will get checked out of libraries—for which you will only derive income from the library’s initial purchase, not the later borrowings AND
A lot of your books will get remaindered AND
A lot of your books will get electronically pirated AND
A lot of your books will be returned unread with the covers of the mass market paperbacks torn off AND
I go could on. And on. Trust me.
I always go into used book stores when I run across them, to do two things.
First, I look to see if any of my books are on the shelves. I am pleased when they are; displeased when they are not. I would also be displeased if I saw a lot of my books on the shelves, especially covered with dust, but that’s never happened.
Secondly, I ask the owner of the book store about my pattern of sales. They’re always friendly for the simple reason that I’m always friendly—I start by telling them that I’m pleased to see they’re selling me or a little disturbed that they’re not. And for years now I’ve always gotten the same set of answer: “Your books sell well. They don’t stay on the shelves so we’re always willing to acquire more when someone brings them in. The only reason we don’t have any of your books right now is because we sold everything we had.”
That’s what you want to hear, as an author.
I support used book stores. I liked used book stores. I like to see my books on sale in used book stores.
Just not too many of them. And none of them collecting dust.
But that’s up to me to prevent, by writing books that please a lot of readers. All that used book stores do is help me get those readers.