During the discussion and issues raised by the issues surrounding copyright over the last two blogs, I realized that literally for years I have been pointing out that piracy is decimating the ranks of the midlist authors, but without explaining how this works in practice. I’ve heard all too many readers say words to the effect that, “my reading a pirate copy here and there won’t make any difference.” Unhappily, when thousands of readers take the same view, the results can be rather dramatic.
The example I’m going to give is based on the experiences of several midlist writers who are no longer midlist writers because no publisher will now publish their new books [unless they’re doing it under a pseudonym, which I know is not so in any of the cases I know].
Let us say that a midlist author named Aubrey [and if there is an author named Aubrey in this situation, I apologize, but I’m picking the name because I don’t know one] has sold five books. The first book lost money, but not a lot, and got good reviews. Based on that, Aubrey’s editor convinces the publisher to buy the next book, with an advance of $15,000. That book sells just over 6,000 copies in hardcover, and 15,000 in paperback, so that Aubrey receives slightly over $23,000 over essentially two years. But Aubrey works hard and can manage writing a book and a half a year… just enough to scrape by after paying her agent 10% (he’s cheap; most cost 15%). The sales on the next two books go up a bit, but only slightly, to perhaps 6,500 hardcovers, but the paperback sales drop off to around 12,000 copies on the third book (which is exactly what has been happening over the past 10 years), leaving Aubrey with about the same income, and to 10,000 copies on the fourth, which drops the income from the fourth book to less than the second book. At this point, the publisher is getting worried, because his break-even point is based on selling 5,000 hardcovers and 15,000 paperbacks. But since Aubrey’s hardcover numbers are above the break-even point, and the publisher and editor like Aubrey’s books, Aubrey gets a contract for book five. By now, ebooks have really come into play, and Aubrey’s fifth book only sells 4,500 hardcovers, and 1,000 ebooks at the initial price. From the publisher’s cost point of point of view, that’s close to the equivalent of 5,500 hardcovers, but the paperback sales drop to 6,000 copies plus another 1,000 ebooks at the paperback price. The 6,000 paperbacks are below a cost-effective number to print. That drops Aubrey’s income for that book to around $18,000. Unfortunately, Aubrey’s sales trend is down, and the publisher has lost money on the last book. Given those trends, much as he and the editor like the books, Aubrey doesn’t get a contract for the next book.
The result is that the publisher’s revenues drop some 20% on Aubrey’s books, and Aubrey’s income drops to zero. The readers who have switched from hardcovers or paperbacks to pirated editions of those books can say that the publisher’s revenues didn’t go down that much and the authors and publishers are still making plenty. No… the best-selling authors are, but the reduction in less popular midlist titles means a greater reliance on the best-sellers and the generic look-alikes.
This isn’t fantasy, or even science fiction. I could name at least five authors who have gone through similar scenarios over the past several years. In general, hardcover/’initial ebook sales have not declined that much, and, in fact for the big-name authors, those hardcover sales may have held steady or increased, but the farther an author is from the first few spots on the best-seller list, and the more unique a little-known author is, in general, the greater the decline. This also explains the rise of generic look-alike books, such as urban fantasy chick-lit, vampires, action-thrillers, etc. For mass-market paperbacks, pretty much everyone’s sales are significantly down, and some big-name best-sellers, while hitting new highs in hardcovers, are seeing sales losses in the millions in paperbacks.
For the struggling midlist author, the near-stable hardcover sales just aren’t enough to cover the huge decline in mass market paperback sales. Of course, there are always new authors, but, frankly, most of them follow Aubrey’s pattern, except more quickly these days.
Paperbacks used to be where readers picked up “new” authors, or those they had not read, that and the libraries, but library budgets and acquisitions have been drastically slashed, so that all too many only acquire the best-sellers, and not enough paperbacks of midlist authors are being printed these days to filter into used bookstores or to be widely traded by friends. The ebook situation doesn’t allow for easy browsing – except through pirating – and the result is, in general, the domination of the market by the established and popular, and their imitators, leavened by the occasional pop-flash writer, while the talented midlist writers, the ones who produced good books, or unpopular great books, are slowly vanishing. Some keep writing on the side, for small presses or self-publish, but because they must make a living doing something else, their output drops even farther… and they continue to lose readers until every wonders, “What happened to Aubrey [or whoever]?”
If pirated ebooks only resulted in a turnover of authors, one could say that it’s a matter of taste and the market should prevail… and, of course, in one way or another, the marketplace will. But the problem is that the turnover in “new” authors is accelerating because it’s more and more difficult for new authors to distinguish themselves and establish a presence, and a growing percentage of those who do aren’t necessarily the best writers – they’re the best self-promoters and the best at imitating whatever’s popular… and, as I’ve said before, even excellent imitation is never as good as good original work.
But then, given how little time so many people have to read anymore, maybe a lot fewer people really want to read good original work that makes them think.