Let’s Think Small
April 02nd, 2008
In 1951, an editor considering buying J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings worried that it might lose the publishers a thousand pounds. His boss told him, “If you think it’s a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand.”
Fifty-five years later, no major publisher takes such a risk. Today, numbers rule. The decision to publish a new author is based strictly on the “P&L” – industry shorthand for “profit-and-loss statement.”
The P&L minimizes potential loss while maximizing potential profit. Its formula can be massaged to produce minimal risk by adjusting such factors as type size (thus altering the number of pages and therefore the cost of ink and paper), the number of copies printed, and whether to go hard cover or mass-market paperback. If the editor can make the formula work, the book is published. If not, it isn’t.
The P&L is why major publishers now routinely launch SF authors in hardcover, though with print runs of only 5,000 copies and scant promotion. Thirty years ago, SF debuts usually appeared as cheap paperbacks with print runs above 50,000. Today, the hardcover is preferred; it stays on bookstore shelves longer, and unsold copies are remaindered for a dollar each, recouping part of the manufacturing cost. But mass-markets are neither returned nor resold. After a few weeks on the shelves, booksellers rip off the covers (returning them for credit), while the defaced book goes to the recycler.
Promotion is a favourite for cost-cutters massaging the first-timer’s P&L. Most new SF authors receive no more nurturing from the major publishers than baby sea turtles get from their absent mother. The result: every year the big houses launch a new flock of first-timers in hard cover, but most do not make it to the surf – ie., they don’t sell enough copies to justify a second book. The days are long gone when major publishers allowed a new author two or three books to develop a readership.
For niche authors (and I’m one), the big houses are no longer a good fit. Fortunately, SF is now seeing a flowering of high-quality small presses, such as Night Shade, Robert J. Sawyer Books and PS Publishing (all of which, by an uncanny coincidence, are not publishing my works), plus Small Beer, Tachyon, Golden Gryphon, Prime-Wildside, Wheatland, and Edge Publishing of Edmonton. Many of their new authors are launched in affordable trade paperbacks.
If you’re looking for new SF authors – or for a second book by one of the last year’s little turtles – why not take a look at what the small presses are doing? Among these publishers who are willing to lose a thousand, future Tolkiens may be found.
Essay Date: 2007