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The Publishing Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Last week a friend of mine pointed me toward something I might otherwise have overlooked: Fiction editors at big NY imprints are quitting their jobs at a boggling rate. There was evidently a Twitter meltdown back on March 11 about the Big 4 (or is it 3? 5? 2.7343? ) losing editors and not being able to find new ones. The trigger was evidently a junior editor at Tor (the SFF imprint of Macmillan) writing a longish note on why she was quitting. Molly McGhee loved the work and did it well, but there was far too much of it for what she was paid. And so she quit.

She was not alone. This appears to be a trend: Fiction editors at NY imprints are bailing in droves. A number of other articles on the topic have appeared in the days since. (Beware: Google the topic and you’ll find a lot of articles about editors resigning due to racist accusations and other weird things, but that’s all old news, going back to the last years of the oughts. This is something much more recent, and completely different.) People aren’t screaming about racism or sexual assault. It’s all about too much work for too little pay. The New York Times asks, “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?” (paywalled) What they don’t ask is why they’re starving their young to begin with.

Indeed, there is this peculiar air of mystery hovering like a grim gray cloud over the whole unfortunate phenomenon. Why are the big NY imprints treating their staff so badly? Nobody seems willing to even venture a guess. Question marks buzz around these articles like wasps from a poked nest. Want an explanation? I can give you one, an explanation that none of those articles mentions at all:

Indie authors are eating NY’s lunch.

And their hors d’oerves. Not to mention dinner. And their bottomless bags of Cheetos Suzettes. It’s the publishing problem that dare not speak its name: Basically, Kindle is detroying the NY publishing business model. So far it’s just fiction. Technical nonfiction can be a gnarly challenge for ebooks. But I’ve also read a lot of indie-published textual nonfiction ebooks in the last couple of years. For titles without a lot of diagrams or source code, it’s no greater a challenge than novels. Once you know the tools well, a reasonable text-only ebook can be laid out in an afternoon. (I do it all the time.) It doesn’t take weeks or thousands of dollars of hired help. The NY presses lie like rugs: Ebooks are not as costly to produce as print books. And once produced, there’s no printing costs or warehousing costs. Unit cost for the product is zero. Sure, indies have to pay for freelance editing services, and probably cover artists. I maintain that anyone who can write can lay out their own damned ebooks. Lots of people I know are doing it all the time and have done it for years. The cost of entry isn’t zero, but it’s a lot less than New York City.

A huge part of this is the peculiar business model that has grown up around hardcover editions since WWII. I’ve written about this at some length. We had to cope with it at Coriolis back in the 1990s. We did as well as we did for as long as we did in large part because we were not located in luxury pestholes like New York City. Publishing is a low-margin business. It cannot succeed in the cores of monster cities. Rent is soaring in most large cities. You can’t pay staff enough to afford local rents. These days, a publishing company can be spread out among several small towns, or anywhere Zoom-capable broadband is available. NYC culture is its own worst enemy: Smaller cities don’t have the nightlife that huge urban centers have. People who demand that nonstop nightlife won’t be happy in Des Moines or Omaha–much less Flagstaff. But those are the sorts of places where publishing can thrive in 2022.

Will Molly McGhee move to Omaha? Somehow I doubt it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. Big companies need to pay their people well, or staff will quit and start careers in other industries. Amazon has trained its customers to feel that ebooks should not cost more than $9.99, You have to operate somewhere that a $10 ebook will pay your bills. That is not NYC. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Alas, it probably isn’t Phoenix anymore either, though it certainly was when I created Coriolis in 1990.

There are other issues: Spreadsheets now run traditional publishing. Editor instincts matter a lot less than they did 30-40 years ago. The people who make decisions at big publishers (as a friend of mine said years ago) are people who don’t read books. There is also a sort of near-invisible good-ol-boy/girl network in NY that decides who gets promotions and plum positions. It’s gotten to be more who you know than what you know. Choosing the right parents and getting into Harvard now matter a lot more than talent and hard work.

In the meantime, NY publishers who are short on cash are cancelling recently acquired books and putting more muscle behind their existing midlist. They claim (and lie, as do other businesses) that they can’t find anybody to fill positions of those who quit–and then pile the work of vanished staff on staff who remain. Not hiring people is a great way to save cash, and you can always blame the pandemic, or supply chain problems, or the Russians. (Everybody else does.) Rents are up hugely in the big cities. Editors can’t work for peanuts when rent is caviar.There’s a deadly feedback loop here that I don’t need to describe in detail. Do the math.

New York City is too expensive for book publishers. Really. There is absolutely no reason for publishers to remain there, now in the age of Zoom. The city’s fixed costs are astronomical. To make any money at all, publishers have to keep ebook prices just a hair below hardcover prices. Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts–unless you simply can’t abide the idea of ebooks and are privately terrified that they will drive those essential hardcovers into a relatively limited luxury market. Which they will. And then Boom! goes their business model.

I still see articles online claiming that ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world. Tracking indie ebook sales is essentially impossible, so a lot of publishing pundits simply ignore them. If you can’t plug a number into a spreadsheet cell, the item in question might as well not exist. My conversations with indie authors gives the lie to that delusion. They’re making money. Few are making their entire living from indie publishing–but how often did authors make their entire living writing under traditional publishing? Damned few, and only the most famous.

There is middle ground, in the form of small press. Coriolis was a small press, even at our biggest, because, well, everything is smaller than Macmillan. My hunch is that many editors who bail out of the Big Apple may be quietly hunting down jobs at smaller presses in smaller cities. (The editors are not alone.) Enough of that, and the notion of Manhattan Publishing will quietly fade into the background, obscured by the taps of tens of millions of fingers moving to the next indie ebook page.


  1. Jeff,
    You’re spot on about the indies flourishing. However, many are not getting any editing done. Dictated manuscripts have many homonym errors. I read a lot more scifi now that I am retired; and I read about a lot of “geosynchronous orbits” over Melbourne or the North pole. Does anyone take high school physics these days?

    1. Lots of people take it. I wonder how many of them learn anything from it.

      The issue of typos is significant in indie publishing. And not just fiction; I see typos and what are clearly OCR errors in a fair number of recent nonfiction books from both indies and traditional publishers. I’m guessing that big publishers have been shorting the editorial function (especially copy editing and proofing) for some time.

      Retail margins for print books have been creeping up for thirty-odd years. Last time I looked, they were 55% off cover. Half our retail shelf space evaporated when Borders went under. My local B&N is now a huge furniture store. The pandemic has forced more and more of book retailing online, and Amazon gets all but a tiny fraction of that business. Amazon has begun closing its experimental retail stores. They won’t say why, but I can guess: People and retail space are expensive. Most of the trouble in publishing walks back to that issue.

      Authors who write SF without fully understanding the science or the tech have been with us since the pulps and probably before. I’m not sure what can be done–but I need to remind people that it isn’t just the indies leaving typos in their books.

      I understand the issues, and if the story is good, I jump over the glitches and keep reading. I’m not sure there’s much else readers can do.

      1. Jeff,

        I do the same. Many of these indies are such great storytellers and develop excellent complex characters, that their ignorance of science and English grammar can be forgiven.

        1. Jeff,

          Could there be developed a new cottage industry: Free-lance editing, where an indie, not willing or unable to “clean up the manuscript” for a decent fee could polish a work for better quality?

          What about all those NY editors bailing for lack of wages? They could work from home about anywhere and be effective. This could improve the quality of indie publications. I, for one would be willing to pay for the improvement.

          There would need to be specialization in editorial knowledge skills:
          History and Politics
          SciFi (and Fantasy)

          Perhaps a certification of some type could be appended to an indie publication that it had been assessed by some reputable editing agency.
          Hopefully, this could be affordable.

          I suppose it all depends on how trashy the reading public will accept current quality and how much we will pay for improvement

          1. What you’re talking about actually exists, and has existed for at least thirty-odd years. It’s called “book packaging.” When we created The Coriolis Group in 1989, our first revenue stream came from packaging books for big publishers like Wiley and Bantam. We did the editing and the layout, and delivered camera-ready boards. We gave that up as our revenues from our magazine (and later our own books) eclipsed what we received as packagers.

            I’ve thought about this. If I were twenty years younger (or even fifteen!) I think I could make it work as a service. I know a lot of editors. But, alas, I’m now just a few months shy of 70, and the energy I had back then is now hard to come by.

            That said, I’m sure that this will soon become a commonplace, if it isn’t already. (I do everything but cover creation for my own books.) The notion of a certification for editors is a good one, but I’m not sure who would administer the tests. We’ll see.

      2. Bill Meyer says:

        Ebooks seem to be released with astonishing frequency. As many are self-published, there should be little surprise in that.

        But errors!
        – Homonyms
        – OCR failures
        – Errors in number
        – Errors in case
        – Basic grammar
        – Spelling
        – Dropped words — very often afflicts articles

        I could go on, but suffice it to say that I am able, more often than not, to guess the author’s generation by the errors. Up to a point, the younger the author, the higher the error count. But I see very few authors under thirty.

        If errors are infrequent, the author is almost certainly over fifty. If they are common, then thirty to fifty.

        The vanishing use of criterion.
        Comprised used as in intransitive verb.
        Miniscule. (How can anyone avoid a basic spell-check?)
        Incorrect usage of a/an. (Failure to understand an aspirate H as a vowel sound.)

        I could go on, but why? Few who will see this are among the offenders.

        1. TRX says:

          I see a lot of punctuation problems now; leaving the final period off a sentence seems to be common now. To/too errors are so common their common use is almost reversed. Commas, if seen, seem to be randomly placed.

          In particular, one curious type of thing I’ve begun to frequently encounter is sound-similar phrases that are grammatically correct that make no sense; the kind of thing you see, for example, when you turn on Youtube’s speech-to-text subtitle function. It’s like the authors never read any books and their vocabularies come mostly from video. They know what a phrase means, but have no idea what the words are. (I’d give examples, but my mind just went blank…)

          1. My big gripe is people who don’t know the difference between “lose” and “loose.” I’ve seen that in a number of recent nonfiction books, none by well-known authors. It makes me wonder what the hell those big publishers are actually doing to get a manuscript into presentable form before publishing it.

  2. Orvan Taurus says:

    “ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world.”

    Gee, that UTTERLY FAILS to explain the vast amount of stuff (22 titles from ONE author ALONE) I have on JUST the Kindle app. NEXT!

    1. I have something like 40, and now that my old eyes are tolerating small print less well (even with custom readers) there will be a lot more in the near future. (I am about to start buying ebook editions of SF classics I’ve had since high school for that reason. That, and all the pages are falling out of them.)

      1. Bill Meyer says:

        I recently bought a reprint of a book from 1902. The content is excellent. The font is far too small for me, even with my prescription reading glasses. Possibly with a bright light… or a magnifying glass. Lately, I see that there are at least three other releases of the same title. In all cases, opportunistic publishing, as the material is out of copyright.

        I am not opposed to such books. In fact, I have considered offering some myself, but saw little point when so many are already there. Now I am reconsidering. OCR errors tend to follow a pattern, though the pattern will vary with the font, and with the scanner quality. After several pages, though, they become relatively easy to repair, and rarely send one back to the original. I have little doubt that there is a market for others who prefer a more readable size of print, as I do.

        As I am nearing publication of a book of my own, and have used LaTeX for that, I am likely to consider the same tool chain for possible publication of old material now in public domain. It is interesting to see the differences in people’s approaches:
        – Some remove front matter
        – Some remove back matter
        – Many (most?) do not reproduce footnotes, or if they do, convert to chapter or end notes.
        – Some offer facsimile publication, which I find rarely pleasing, as volumes from 1900 and earlier all too often suffer printing defects.

        Much as I love books, I have slowly come to prefer mobile devices for most non-technical reading, simply because I can have a whole library in my pocket.

        Technical content is a different matter. Flow formatting is inhospitable to much technical exposition. Source code, drawings, and equations are all problematic.

        However, for fiction, a Kindle or phone is hard to beat. And as we age, we tend to find our way into waiting rooms, where the only remedy for the appalling magazines provided is to carry your own library.

        1. Yup. Waiting rooms. Uggh. Nothing like a Keith Laumer ebook to make the tedium disperse.

          I brought back a couple of 19th century books on Old Catholicism, by scanning them, OCRing them, and then re-laying them out in a layout as close as possible to the original. It was good practice in InDesign, and I sold a surprising number of books. What surprised me most about both of the old books I republished is that they did not have modern indexes. So I indexed them myself.

          A lot of books back then carried a catalog of the publisher’s other titles at the end, which I ditched, as the publishers have been extinct for most of a century. I added a new foreword, to let purchasers know what the original was and how I enhanced it. I spotted some OCR errors, sure. There are probably a couple more hiding in there somewhere. I did what I consider due diligence. The books were well-received, although for what I got in sales I probably earned fifty cents an hour putting them together. That’s ok. It was excellent practice.

          1. TRX says:

            Laumer is nearly forgotten nowadays, other than the pimped-out Dinochrome shared-world thing.

            Lots of interesting reviews of Laumer’s work on the web, nearly all babbling on about misogyny, patriarchism, etc. And quite a lot of reviews of his Retief stories, where the reviewers seem to have confused Retief with James Bond.

            I would have expected stories like “The Last Command” or “Thunderhead” to have raised their ire, but perhaps the characters’ mindsets are too alien for the Woke to get a grip on.

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  4. greatUnknown says:

    There could be interesting sociological fallout from this. What happens when the peons at the major publishing companies actually move out into flyover country and [re]discover America and its values? And realize how disconnected corporate management, which still remains in the progressive bubble, is?

    1. TRX says:

      What happens when they find out Flyoverland isn’t going to pay New York wages?

      1. They may be happy if they choose a smaller city with cheaper rents. The bigger problem is that many such people are totally addicted to “city life,” which includes going out for kimchee at three ayem, dancing half-naked at raves, and loads of recreational sex, none of which is going to be abundant in, say, Bettendorf, Iowa.

        Some of that culture may be found in college towns, sure. But I’ve also found that housing in college towns is generally lots more expensive than non-college towns of the same size. There may be no pleasing such people. I don’t know. Now that investment firms are buying condos and houses for rentals, all bets are off.

  5. RickH says:

    There are tons of people self-publishing. And there is a lot of self-publishing editors for hire – and cover creators, and book formatters (for print). All of these books are being self-published on Amazon (mostly), and other ways. Amazon has the lion’s share of that market.

    But although self-publishing is relatively easy, and you don’t need external editors – although they are helpful, a careful person can self-edit – marketing is hard. Covers have to catch the eye within a second, you have to hope that people will click through to your blurb, so the blurb is somewhat more important than the actual book.

    But getting people to view your cover, or read the book, requires marketing. And advertising on social media (FaceBook, TikTok, etc) or Amazon’s advertising, which is also hard to do effectively. And then the author has to have a newsletter, or a blog, or both, and then figure out a way to get people to subscribe to their newsletters so people will hear about the books, hoping that the person will click through to your book because the cover or blurb is interesting. And create and maintain an author web site.

    And then there are reviews, which are very important. Consider the last time you browsed through books on Amazon. How often did you skip the book because there weren’t very many reviews? So you have to get reviews. Maybe with advanced review copies (ARCs), a ‘beta’ reading team, or more. All of which you have to keep track of.

    All this has to happen while you are writing the next book. Because a single book is not going to get you readers. You need to have several books ready, and keep publishing more books to keep them interested.

    It can be done – there are people who are making 5+ figures a year, but they are spending 20-30% on marketing. Or they are like me – write and publish a book, make your own cover, write your own blurb, and hope that you can get more than friends of family to buy it.

    There are many Facebook groups to help out, and lots of good advice in many of them (one is “20 Books to 50K” that is excellent).

    But writing is hard, and marketing is harder.

    1. Well, yeah. I wouldn’t be writing (and self-publishing) my fiction if I weren’t on Social Security. All of what you say is true, and people, if they’re serious, generally figure it out on their own. I haven’t done a great deal of marketing, true, but the people I know who are doing it are selling a lot of books.

      I am grateful for my (now extinct) small-press publisher who put out the hardcover of The Cunning Blood in 2005. Once I finally got around to putting out an eBook version several years later, I sold more copies in three weeks than the small press sold in four years. It was a $28 hardcover. My ebook was $2.99. Price matters.

      I have a reputation in computer books. New York has some…peculiar…ideas about what a “platform” is. I’ve been blogging since 1998. I’ve sold half a million computer books. A fiction publisher I talked to in the early oughts made the boggling statement that “computer people don’t read SF.” Sheesh! Woman, are you nuts? (My guess is that she was casting about for excuses to reject my novel, the politics of which probably offended her lefty assumptions.) I consider myself lucky. I’ve read about what contracts are like from big publishers these days. Ebooks never go “out of print.” So getting my rights back would be impossible, and the knuckleheads could sit on my copyrights until I’m long dead. If I ever do a 64-bit version of my assembly language book, I have a list of requirements for the contract, none of which would get past any big press’s legal department.

      On the other hand, I wrote computer books for almost thirty years. It got old after awhile. I’m much happier writing suburban fantasy and drumlins books.

  6. Bill Meyer says:

    One sort of ebook is very disturbing to me. The sort which comes from an actual publisher, credits an editor, and yet, is filled with errors of grammar, spelling, and many of the items I already listed above.

    1. That disturbs me too. But I understand the problem: The New York imprints spend all their money on office space and seven-figure advances to worthless gits who happen to be famous. (No, I’m not going to publish a list.) The quality of the books is secondary to how much publicity they get, and that publicity is roughly proportional to how famous the nominal authors are. (Most are ghostwritten, which actually means they’re relatively clean, textwise, compared to some famous borderline illiterate.) If they talk about a book on The View, it’s gonna sell, even if it’s risible self-congratulation.

      1. WILLIAM H MEYER says:

        I was thinking of books which are self-published, but the author has contracted a nominal editor, who receives thanks in the preface, as well as a credit in the front matter. And on reading, I then find all the same errors I enumerated earlier.

        We are living in a time of great ignorance and illiteracy. These are the fruits of schools following the theories of Dewey. You and I are barely old enough to have escaped the worst of it.

      2. greatUnknown says:

        You left out the money laundering aspect of the seven-figure advances.

  7. Chuck Waggoner says:

    I KNOW it is not just my aging eyes that cannot read today’s print, as even my 30-something kids reach for my magnifying glass to read the directions on food packages when they visit. I suspect this miniaturization of print has a lot to do with the fact that all print used to be typeset, and there were limited available sizes. However, with computer typesetting and digital reduction, it is now easy to get the instructions on my Alfredo lunch box down to about 2pt.

  8. Jim Tubman says:

    I had an experience related to quality issues for indie books, although it was helping a friend with a self-published paperback autobiographical book. It showed me the value that editors and book designers provide.

    The fellow had been a qualified professional librarian for many years, but although he knew how to _find_ books, he didn’t know much about _making_ one. He was unaware of really basic stuff, like the order of sections like introductions, forewords, table of contents, index, etc. He knew nothing of the convention that a chapter starts on a new page, which is odd-numbered, and that odd-numbered pages go on the right side. He had to be talked out of choosing a typeface designed for computer screens, in favour of one that worked better on a paper page.

    I don’t claim to be a book designer, but I know enough about typesetting and typography to know an ugly design when I see it. I’m sure that a true professional in the field would have made a lot of other changes.

    The sorts of errors that good editors catch were also present, but others in this conversation have already covered those.

    On the one hand, this was a book that (I suspect) only a few dozen people, at most, will ever read. It is nothing that a publishing house would be interested in. On the other hand, he poured his guts into the content, so it was important to me, as his friend, that his readers be able to focus on what he had to say without being distracted by poor design and editing.

  9. Bob Wilson says:

    “Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts”
    But they have. So what are readers supposed to do? My local libraries are carrying fewer e-books. I have read on the mobileread forums that there are some libraries with good ebook availability around the country who will allow people outside their area to get accounts. This would be a good topic for one of your articles.

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