Publishing Is Not a Monolith

As I have done a lot lately, I spent the past weekend with my aunt and uncle, helping them with some household stuff. My uncle is an emeritus professor of anatomy at UCLA; my aunt ran the Chancellor’s Communication Service. Both have decades of involvement with the university, and both of them are much accomplished and smart cookies.

At one point, as we were eating lunch, I was discussing my current search for employment, and a couple of jobs in which I am interested. My uncle seemed puzzled, because most of the jobs I’m looking at play to strengths other than my writing–like herding cats and coming up with new ways to organize stuff. “But what about your major skill? What about writing?”

I allowed as how I cannot–or at least have not been able to yet–make enough money from writing to support my half of the household ship of state. And my uncle seemed very surprised. See, he published a book back in 1976 and he’s still getting royalties from it. It’s still a major contributor to their household income. To my uncle’s credit there was no tone of “so what the Hell is wrong with you,” but he was puzzled.

The book my uncle published all these many years ago (there have been others–he was the editor on a number of editions of the classic Gray’s Anatomy, for example) was called Anatomy: A Regional Atlas of the Human Body. It is now in its sixth edition. It’s the sort of text that has been on the Required Reading list for medical students and researchers since it came out. It is beautifully illustrated using plates based on an even older anatomical atlas from the early 1900s. And it is as different from a work of fiction by a mid-list author of SF, fantasy, and mystery, as cats are from iguanas. Which is to say, they’re both published works, but the similarities end there.

My uncle’s book had a built-in audience, and a renewing built-in audience: there are new medical students and researchers every year, all of them needing to know how the hip bone connects to the thigh bone. It’s now in its sixth edition, and has provided the foundation of anatomical knowledge for hopeful doctors for 40 years. It’s not a best-seller as we think of it (you need…gulp… sales of about 9,000 copies a week to hit the New York Times bestseller list), but more like a hardy perennial, likely to sell for many more years. And the baseline price of the book on which royalties are calculated is, for the paperback edition, $72.

And that’s because the needs of academic and scientific publishing are different from the needs of fiction publishing. There’s nothing unfair about it (although if you’re a parent paying for college textbooks it may feel a little unfair). A mid-list non-Stephen King hardcover novel probably has a list price of $26 or thereabouts, and unless it sells extraordinarily well the royalty rate is going to be about 10%. A mid-list mass-market paperback (and those are increasingly thin on the ground unless they’re best-sellers) might sell for $7.99, with a royalty of 6-8%. And the likelihood of a mid-list fiction book still being in print after 40 years is not high. Again, there’s nothing unfair about all this.

So fiction publishing and non-fiction publishing are different. Within those two broad categories, you can divide those into a couple of gazillion more: non-fiction contains cookbooks, history, memoir, interior decoration, travel, true crime, how-to advice, biography, comedy… and other things I can’t even think of. And fiction…there’s YA and horror and romance and SF and literary and on and on. And each one of those arms of publishing has its own rules, its own reasonable expectations, its own horror stories and stories of triumph and joy. Comparing any two of them is, as I said earlier, like comparing cats and iguanas. Add in the uncertainty factor (the publicist had a miscarriage the week your book came out; the art director had a really cool cutting edge idea for the cover which did not translate into really cool sales; your editor got a better offer and you were handed off to a junior editor who doesn’t like the sort of thing you were writing; Amazon decided to have a hissy-fit and impede the sale of your publisher’s books; there was a hurricane the week of your publication) and no two publishing experiences are going to be exactly the same.

Self-publishing is the answer for some people and some books.

Traditional publishing is the answer for some people and some books.

Indie publishing is the answer for some people and some books.

These are tough times for trying to come up with One! True! Way! I’m not saying that there aren’t things to be gleaned by listening to publishing pundits and gurus, or from friends who have good or bad stories to tell. But I’m suggesting that when someone wants to tell you how his iguana should be a model for your cat, you smile and listen and don’t panic or apologize.

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