Monday, October 15, 2012

A New Sort of Publishing Model

by Stephanie Osborn
with Dr. James K. Woosley

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the publishing industry as a whole and how it is or isn't growing, and whether writers are or are not competing. I've shared that discussion with friends and family, debating both sides of it. In general, I think that, especially with small presses and indie presses springing up, the growth is actually good and a positive thing. In theory we have a tremendous growth capability. In the short term, however, and in practical terms, I'm not so sure it isn't like saying we're going to fly to the Alpha Centauri system next year because some scientists have managed to develop a quantum-scale warp bubble in the lab. Theoretically it's possible, but practically, there's a few bugs yet to be worked out.

My friend Dr. James K. Woosley is a physicist and a Heinlein essayist; you'll meet him in more detail next week. But he's a hard-core, long-time science fiction/fantasy/specfic fan, and one of the friends with whom I've been discussing this issue. He's also skilled at modeling systems, down to the quantum level. Leave it to him to come up with a way to quantify this...


“It's partially an application of what I call a Sturgeon filter (because if 90% of everything is crap, then 10% of everything is worthwhile, and successive application can get to fairly decent estimates of demographics, as in 10% of people are readers, 10% of those are readers of SF/Fantasy literature, 10% are readers of more successively refined tastes, etc.

“Still, your potential reader base is X. Any individual author's actual reader base is a fraction f of that, or total number fX. Your base X has a total amount of disposable income C, and an average amount C/X, which is used to purchase reading material. The number of authors competing for that money is A, and the average number of works each author has for sale is n (where n is some conglomerate of new press and backlog, which complicates the analysis), such that the total competing number of works is N=nA. The average price of any work is P.

“Total individual items sold is thus C/P.

“Average sales per item is C/NP.

“Sales per item can be assumed (first order) to be Maxwell-distributed [an asymmetrical bell curve with one side steeper than the other --Steph] about that mean.

“The second constraint is time to read each book, moderated by the number of people who will buy attractive books that they want to read but lack the time to read, but also controlled by the fraction of people who re-read books. Assume an average reading speed (including breaks) of 15,000 words per minute or 6 hours for a typical novel, and assume further that the average reader will read one novel per week or roughly 50 novels per year, if they have the resources, but that an adult steady state reader will on average re-read 25 novels per year, so that new novels account for half of their reading.

“Assume that the book stockpiling factor is also 2. (Speaking for myself it's probably closer to 290, but...)

“The bottom line is that the non-cash-constrained market is about 50X novels per year, so that average sales computed that way is 50X/nA (where, again, n is some conglomerate of new press and backlog, which complicates the analysis). Or more simply, Sales(Avg)=50X/N.

“We'll assume cash parity initially, so that C = 50XP.

“I think a good working assumption is that X=1 million for SF/fantasy, so that about 50 million genre books are purchased each year. That is probably a maximum.

“At any time, A is about 500, with n=10 books (current plus backlog) in active publication.

“That yields a Maxwell-distributed average of 10,000 copies per book sold.

“At that level of the analysis the game is zero sum. The situation changes when either the fan base is increased, or disposable income increases so that people are more willing to stockpile books.

“And that's about it; danged if I know what if anything the analysis buys.”


Note that that's an initial analysis, and that the AVERAGE number of copies per book is 10,000. That isn't the best-seller numbers, and it isn't the bottom of the list numbers. This is how many books the mid-listers should be selling a year.

Food for thought.

~Stephanie Osborn


Herika Raymer said...

Ok, taking into consideration that I am only being published right now with short stories and anthologies I am invited to edit, I know how competitive the field is just in indie and mid-market industries. However, even knowing that I am considering and wrapping up a solo project.

But I should sell 10,000 copies a year? Erm... (whimper) Not sure I can manage that...

Stephanie Osborn said...

Well Heri, if you have been keeping up with Sarah Hoyt's and Amanda Green's blog, you will know why I say that's an interesting result. Evidently very few of the mid-listers are receiving that sort of sales, at least according to their royalty statements. You won't start as a mid-lister. You'll start much lower and gradually work up the distribution curve - unless you produce a spectacular, hits-best-seller-immediately, in which you'll shoot to the peak of the distribution.

What this is, is an indication that something may not be right in the industry as a whole. Given the anti-trust suit against some large publishers, the combination isn't a good sign.

Stephanie Osborn said...

I should have said blogS...

Links to said blogs on the side of my blog.

Herika Raymer said...

Ah ok, that makes a bit more sense. And unfortunately I have not been keeping up with their posts, other deadlines to keep track of.

But yeah, I can see how reaching that number would be a problem with the restriction of small advertising (ie only in local venues), limited travelling budget, and generally having to depend on e-publications to boost number of sales. Even though that helps exposure, if a writer hopes to do what they like for a living, then it becomes even more difficult.

Does anyone have a possible solution? Other than keeping two jobs and praying?

Stephanie Osborn said...

Well, that's not all that is going on, apparently. There are allegations that: sales are not being accurately reported; and that some sales by mid-listers are being attributed to best-sellers; and that the marketing and promo is set to sell exactly the right numbers to keep everyone where they are currently.

I don't know how true that is. I deal with a large small publisher (hoping that isn't an oxymoron!), two other small pubs, and Baen Books, which is a large publisher that feels like a small publisher in their interactions with the authors. I've not had any of the experiences that have been reported, so I cannot say. Nor am I calling out specific publishers, and I will not.

This blog post came about literally as a discussion between myself and friend-since-grad-school Dr. James K. Woosley, who is and has been for many years, a modeling expert. In the course of the conversation (electronic: Skype and email) I got the above model from him in an email. I thought it was blog-worthy, as I'd not seen anyone try to model sales scientifically before. He gave his permission provided I cleaned it up a bit to make it tidier, which I did, and here it is.

Herika Raymer said...

Yeah I had heard that as well, about sales reports and the like. However, I had also heard that the big sellers were also letting go alot of their authors because they only wanted to keep the ones that would ensure that their bottom line would remain profitable. In addition, those authors are writing under psuedonyms so it seems that the big listers have more people than they actually do - kinda unfair but makes sense when you consider they are protecting their bottom line.

However, it makes things more difficult for mid- and low-listers (not meant as an insult) because that means our 'playing field' has gotten a lot more competitive. So in addition to being concerned as to whether or not the publishing agency a writer is considering is honest, then you have the added competition of authors you know are much better and will be a bigger draw.

So, what can we do?

Stephanie Osborn said...

I have heard rumors about writers being "let go." But that's all I've heard: rumors.

As for what to do, I think my answer would be severalfold. Might be something I ought to expand into a blogpost eventually, but here goes the concise version.

1) Band together as writers. And I'm not just talking about the usual writers' guilds like SFWA and MWA and so forth. I mean actual writers' groups that are there to help support writers at all levels of the business, who are going to point out which publishing houses engage in such practices and which don't, and are going to help the newbies hone their craft as well.

2) Maybe we need to create a kind of Preditors & Editors list (or get them to add a category or page) that lists the publishers who practice these techniques.

3) Learn the publishing world in all its facets.

4) Consider indie publishing as well as trad pubbing.

Those would be the suggestions that come immediately to mind.

Herika Raymer said...

Sounds like a lot to put together - who would be able to provide reliable information? There is the fact of misinformation, wouldn't that hurt? I mean, both the author and the publisher.

Stephanie Osborn said...

Yes, and it would take someone far more skilled in politics than I am to know.

Anonymous said...

This post has wonderful timing. I was just having a hypothetical discussion with a friend of mind about publishing and ect. I sent my friend a link. :)

Stephanie Osborn said...

Thank you, and I hope it was useful. Any time you forward links to my blog or my website, *I* am grateful, lol.

EvMick said...

1.I'm skeptical about that reading speed. I think 350 words per minute is pretty fast.

2. The market is getting larger...MUCH larger. There is possibly as many as 8,000,000,000 people alive now. Assuming that English is the major world language a great number of them will read it half? (4,000,000,000) Then ten percent of those will read? call it. (400,000,000) and ten percent will read sf/f? (40,000,000)? and ten percent of THOSE will read the particular "stuff" I write? 4,000,000

nope...doesn't match.

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