Narcos, narrative non-fiction, and what big publishing still does well

I had plans a few weekends ago that involved my escaping the house with my wife to run off to a hotel room in another state and… get a lot of writing done.  This sounds a tiny bit less crazy once you understand that she was on a business trip and I was just along for the ride, unless you’re hung up on the part where I spend an entire trip to a new city inside a hotel room, in which case I can’t help you.

Anyway, I came down with a violently unpleasant cold/flu/death-by-fever thing almost immediately (the doctor called it viral pharyngitis), hardly got any writing done, and spent the entire day traveling back and forth to the hotel sundries store to buy more DayQuil and Gatorade.

(Aside 1: three of the last four times I’ve stayed in a hotel room I’ve gotten sick.  I may be medically unable to stay in hotels.)

By the time I got back home it was clear I wasn’t going to be leaving the house again any time soon, and also that I should avoid touching my current work-in-progress (it’s a fourth Immortal novel, gang, get excited) for fear of hurting it, and also maybe try not to think or speak or move very much.

So I started binge-watching Narcos.

This is a Netflix series my son has been urging me to watch since it dropped over the summer.

Narcos is about the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the efforts of various law enforcement entities to bring him down.  It’s very good, and I recommend it highly, which is something I don’t often say about things where more than 50% of the dialogue is in subtitles.

(Aside #2: this is a lie.  I’m a white American Eastern liberal who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I have to adore cinema with subtitles, or they won’t let me stay.)

Watching the show got me thinking about a few things, which ran counter to my goal of avoiding thoughts, but happened anyway.

  1. Never in my life did I think a “Netflix series” would be a thing, never mind a thing that would be described as “dropped”
  2. Narcos reminds me of Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, enough that I was surprised to not find it mentioned in the credits
  3. I really enjoy reading books like Killing Pablo
  4. I should admit that big publishing gets some things right

Let’s go through this, and if it doesn’t make sense on the other side we can blame the fever.

I’m not going to dwell on the Netflix series thing overmuch, but it’s worth noting that Netflix did something that made sense to nobody except them, and it worked.  They had data no one else had about viewing habits, so that when they started producing their own series they knew viewers would respond positively to having an entire season released at once.

(Aside #3: I don’t know where “dropped” came from as a descriptor for this kind of event.  I think it came from the music industry, possibly.  Anyway, I’ve decided I don’t like it, so I’m going to stop using it.)

This is the kind of data-driven decision-making that has made Amazon such a force, specifically (for our purposes) in the book market.

It’s also worth mentioning that a series like Narcos—a complex drama taking place almost entirely in South America, in Spanish, exploring the complicated historical nuances that made the cocaine drug trade possible—would not have existed five years ago.  Netflix can afford to take chances on direct-to-consumer products that don’t rely upon a middleman (a network) looking to measure profitability a specific way (advertising).  The economics allow for them to release a show with a smaller viewership and still turn a profit.  Again, the Amazon comparison should be apparent, and specifically self-publishing.

Anyway, the show reminded me of Killing Pablo.

For a long time, I didn’t have a word for the kind of book I liked to read in my leisure.  Sometimes I’d call them histories, other times I’d describe them as efforts in journalism, but most of the time what I was talking about fell between those two categories.

I’ll give you some examples:

  • A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman is a straight-up history book, albeit one written in a very readable style, which is more than you can say for most history books, frankly
  • Killing Pablo and Blackhawk Down, both by Mark Bowden, are works of journalism, by which I mean they are works of actual reportage by an actual reporter, originally for an actual magazine
  • The Fifties, by David Halberstam, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson, and many, many more (everything by Simon Winchester, for instance) all fall between the two extremes above in that they are clearly history books, but written as works of journalism.  (Halberstam arguably belongs under journalism, but with him it depends entirely on the book.)

The best description I’ve seen is narrative non-fiction, which comes pretty close to capturing what I’m talking about, because all of these books approach their subject in a decidedly novelistic way.

The kind of storytelling these books excel in is the same kind the makers of Narcos were aiming for (and hitting.)  It’s also the kind of storytelling I’m worried may disappear if big publishing succeeds in burning itself to the ground.

I’ve been talking a lot about publishing in this space lately, but something I’ve never really underlined before is that when I talk about self-publishing I’m speaking almost exclusively about fiction, and more specifically about genre fiction.

One of the more amusing ironies about this business is that the least-respected categories of the publishing industry also happen to be the best-selling ones: romance, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, horror, thriller… these are all things that fall under the general rubric of genre fiction, and in a lot of ways they are the engine that drives the whole machine.  Why?  Because people buy them, and they read them quickly, and then they buy more of them.

I’m not going to say that genre fiction is what keeps the lights on in the New York publishing houses, because I’m not privy to their bookkeeping and wouldn’t know what I was looking at if I were.  I do know that one of the points raised in the eternal self-publishing vs. big publishing (or Amazon vs. big publishing, if you prefer) argument is that money from book A funds book B.  What I take that to mean is that the money from the kind of books I tend to write is used to fund the books I tend to read… or would, if I was traditionally published.

The problem is that most non-fiction books require research, travel, and time.  Historians may be covered for some of that by their university, and journalists are usually expanding on magazine work, but a whole lot of what’s left has to be paid for some other way.  That other way is usually in the form of an advance, from a publisher, with house money.

I’m concerned about this kind of book because there is no easy way to fit non-fiction (narrative or otherwise) into the self-publishing model.

(Aside #4: I write this knowing non-fiction self-published authors most certainly do exist.  I mean no disrespect.)

If a large amount of money needs to be spent up-front before a book can begin to earn money, the options for a narrative non-fiction writer are:

  1. get a publisher
  2. be independently wealthy
  3. acquire crowdfunding through a Kickstarter campaign
  4. develop a strong relationship with a wealthy patrician

The hope is that #3 fills the gap in case #1 disappears, because we don’t want all of our histories written by #2 and there aren’t a lot of #4’s out there.

(Aside #5: if you’re saying to the screen right now that self-publishing also requires a significant outlay of advance funds, you are mistaken.  Here’s how much I spent to publish The Spaceship Next Door: $210.  If you think that’s significant, I can’t help you.)

Not that I necessarily think the big publishers are disappearing, or at least not too terribly soon.  These are, still, some very large companies we’re talking about.  But their business model isn’t working out all that well any more in categories that are important to their bottom line, and that isn’t going to get a lot better on its own.  They’re going to have to figure out another way forward, one that doesn’t involve taking advantage of the author of book A to finance the author of book B, and one that doesn’t require that they blame their largest distributor for their own mistakes.

I don’t want them to go away, basically.  Because when they do their jobs well, big publishers do their jobs very well, and I like reading the output of that success.

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  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on April 4, 2016 at 9:31 am

    I’m with you most of the way on the points you made except that I don’t understand one part: how much money are we talking about as advances for this kind of narrative non-fiction?

    Because it takes a lot of money to do things like travel to interview and research, and I haven’t heard (not that I would) what ‘advance, from a publisher, with house money’ means. If these were significant advances, wouldn’t every writer on the planet be pursuing it?

    The disgusted Romance writers leaving, say, Harlequin, in droves were reporting very low advances as well as tiny royalty shares from a huge business volume, which was an insult to all the money they were bringing in. They took their fans – and the money – and went indie.

    So your argument (which I’m not disputing) rests on a piece of information I don’t have. Do you have any idea of the order of magnitude?

    • Gene Doucette on April 4, 2016 at 10:01 am

      i don’t believe the answer is knowable, but there needs to be a distinction made here.

      Non-fiction typically begins with a proposal for a finished product, whereas fiction begins with a finished product. A non-fiction pitch for a contract is essentially a writer’s resume, arguing that he or she is uniquely qualified to write a particular book.

      So, if I happen to be an expert in the field of podiatry, and I have a book I’d like to write on the historical importance of comfortable footwear in eighteenth century france, I would pitch this book as something I am uniquely capable of writing.

      If I’m pitching a novel, I’m not saying “I’d like to write this novel” I’d say “here is the novel I’ve already written.”

      Advances in fiction aren’t the same thing as advances in non-fiction. And to my own detriment, I muddled ‘advances’ and ‘expenses’ together in the article.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on April 4, 2016 at 5:53 pm

        So if you don’t get enough money to fund the expenses for your non-fiction book, you don’t do it on spec?

        Sounds like one of the areas likely to go indie last – people who fund Kickstarters may not be the ones likely to fund narrative non-fiction – unless you already have a platform and a large tribe, or are doing something which you KNOW will be popular.

        I funded a number of Kickstarters to see what they were like (I have the Veronica Mars T-shirt!); some worked, others didn’t. Many folks underestimate, by a lot, how much they really need to raise for their projects.

        One of them, supported by a very well known blogger, took forever, and the final product matches the project description ONLY in the mind of the creator, because the video was dark, twice as long in every scene as necessary, and had the key dialog mumbled. Instead of a movie, it turned into a webseries (but only in the mind of the creator – it needs editing desperately). All the new movie-maker inability to cut a single foot of shot footage.

        Anyway, easy to promise; hard to deliver.

        The Veronica Mars movie has been the exception – they raised more than 10 x what they had asked for, and did a nice job with that extra support.

  2. Madeline Archer on April 5, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    I have long waited for someone to shine a light on this issue. Often those nonfiction books take years to research and write, and without advances many probably would not be written. While the advances are all over the place, I am sure, I know it is not unusual for them to be around $50,000 for relative newbies, and the well known names garner 6 figures easily. Even so, after taxes and expenses are deducted, it is not unusual for the authors to require another source of income.
    One correction to the blog. Fiction is not always written prior to being contracted, even genre fiction. That is normally only the case with debut books. Established authors of genre fiction, like myself, receive contracts that cover multiple works with advances, and the books are at times not even in proposal form yet. The contract is issued based on one’s track record.
    As for the big publishers moving away from author A helps pay for author B— it does appear that is the case. There are numerous reasons at work, including the constriction of shelf space for those genre paperbacks, the difficulties competing with very low prices genre indie works, and the end of the long tradition of backlists paying the rent. It is not clear what strategy publisher have for replacing the income in order to support author B. Hence your concern, and mine (since the majority of my book purchases are history, biography, and other long term research projects.)

    • Gene Doucette on April 5, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      thanks for the insight, and the correction. I’m impressed by any fiction writer who can sell on spec…

  3. Len Epp on April 6, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Thanks for the great post. R.e. there being “no easy way to fit non-fiction (narrative or otherwise) into the self-publishing model”, I just wanted to mention that Leanpub (I’m a cofounder) has been pretty successful at doing just that, for a particular segment of self-published non-fiction authors: those who write about technology.

    Self-published authors of technology-related non-fiction books are usually already experts in their subject. Rather than needing to do any research in advance of writing, self-published technology authors are themselves the very people a non-expert doing research on their topic would ask to interview in order to get the information they need. So, this kind of author doesn’t need to do any expensive research or spend any more time getting information: they just need to get writing.

    As an alternative to getting advances, our authors can also start earning money while they are writing, if they start publishing while their books are still works in progress. It’s a variation on serial fiction publishing, except in addition to publishing in instalments, it includes revisions to already-published work. This is especially important in the non-fiction technology space, where things move so quickly.

    Finally, our best performing non-fiction books lately have been written by popular providers of courses on Coursera. Self-publishing non-fiction books which are more or less textbooks associated with online courses you are providing is a pretty successful model. (An important detail here is that you can set a book’s minimum price to free; our most successful book revenue-wise in 2015 was a free book in this sense.)

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