Thursday, September 25, 2008

The End of Book Publishing as we know it?

My next installment for today features several other articles sent to me via the lovely people at Book2Book. The first of these is a rather long article published in New York magazine entitled The End of Book Publishing as we Know It? The article is too long to detail in its entirety but it basically bemoans the state of the industry, and poses the question, is this the end of publishing as we know it, and can and will it evolve into something better? What that something better is is open to debate, and depends as always on your point of view.

From the authors point of view, it cannot really get much worse, but that depends again on who you are. If you are one of the select few who is guaranteed large advances and healthy sales for every book that you write, then you may not have much to worry about, since you have made your money, but for the majority who struggle to get a foothold at all, then serious changed need to be made, changes that will I hope benefit all, and not just those who actually sell the books.

In its heyday, whenever that was, publishing was a good industry to be working in, the author has a large variety of different houses to choose from, both large and small, and many different outlets for their work. Today things are somewhat different - most of those smaller publishers have since been swallowed up the large conglomerates - the big five publishers who collectively control around 75 percent of the market - in the UK as well as the US. It is the same with book sellers, with independents being forced out of business by the aggressive marketing of the chains and Internet retailers, most notably Amazon. The industry is no longer driven by talent, but by profit, and market forces - in other words, the book buying public, who demand higher and higher discounts. It is an endless and self perpetuating cycle - the more they get used to discounted book prices, the more they demand them, until it gets to the point that nothing is bought at full price. What this means to both author and publisher is less money in the coffers to a) promote new talent and b) spend on producing good quality books. No one is a winner, least of all the public themselves.

The biggest threat comes from the Internet, without a doubt. E-books and print on demand also play a role. Amazon has been busy expanding their share of the market and capitalising on these new trends, by buying up not just Booksurge, a large print on demand company, but also Shelfari, a social networking site, where members are encouraged to upload their book shelves and make recommendations to others. They also launched the Kindle reading device (in the United States only, although I am sure that will change) earlier this year. Editors and retailers fear with good reason that they bent on building an an inclusive publishing business where they control every aspect from sales to publication, with no middle men in sight. The first step began at the end of March when they announced that from now on, any print on demand companies based in the United States would have to use their own printer Booksurge, in order to be listed directly on This is the first step towards cutting out the middle men, and sceptics say in time, controlling the entire print on demand sector, which is increasingly used by not just self publishers, but also the larger houses to maintain their back lists, what is commonly referred to as the 'long tail'. Control this and you control the entire market. It is the same with the Kindle, why bother with HarperCollins, Borders Books etc when you can sell direct to the public via Amazon and have your books preloaded onto such a device? Certain books now are going straight to Kindle long before they are published as paper copies.

Amazon are also playing hard ball over terms with publishers. When Hachette Livre, the UK's largest publishing group refused to give into their demands for higher discounts, Amazon removed the BUY NEW button from its listings for all the company’s key books. Hachette’s CEO responded with an open letter, saying “Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours.” I know they feel, and the cynic in me says what the hell do they expect, for their have allowed other book sellers to get away with similar behaviour, demanding extortionate fees for prime placement and promotions) for far, far too long, at the expense of the small presses and self publishers who simply cannot compete.

The ultimate fear is that the Kindle could be a Trojan horse. At the moment, Amazon makes little or nothing at all on Kindle books. Pay $359 for the device and you can get e-books for $9.99. Publishers list those same e-books for $17.99, and as with paper copies, charge Amazon around half that price for the privilege. This means that Amazon make around $5 for each book, while the publishers make $9 (before overheads are taken off or taken into account).

The fear is that Amazon are doing what the supermarkets also do - offering a sweet deal now in order to undercut publishers later on. If they succeed in making e-books the dominant medium (and the signs are encouraging), then they will be in a position to pay publishers whatever they feel like, the same as they already trying to do with print on demand through the Booksurge debacle (see my posts about this on the archives from April of this year).

While some are playing a game of watch and wait, others are attempting to take matters into their own hands. HarperStudio and a few others are making ambitious plans. In February of this year, Bob Miller and Jane Friedman met at the bar of the Omni Berkshire hotel for one of their freewheeling chats. “How would you do it differently if you could start all over again,” Jane asked. Bob said that he’d try to reduce advances and returns, put out only a few books, and focus on cheap Internet marketing. “Why don’t you do that?” Jane asked, and within a week they had a deal.

Miller has worked out separate contracts with booksellers and authors - capping advances at $100,000 and reducing returns. Authors will contribute to their own pre-publication marketing.
Miller doesn’t wait for agent submissions, instead accosting writers at conferences, telling them how much more a writer can make under 50-50 profit-sharing. Of course the cynic in me says that all of this, noble as it sounds is really just another term for subsidy publishing, and why the hell shouldn't an author contribute to marketing - after all, whose book is it? When the contract is offered by a small unknown publisher is is subsidy or even worse, vanity publishing, but when the published in question is a large and respected one, then it is profit sharing ...

One unnamed indie publisher has gone a step further, expanding into print on demand, online subscriptions, and even considering a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transition period of print on demand, followed by an era in which most books will be published electronically for next to nothing. High-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become will become limited edition collectors item - the vinyl of the future.

The transition will be hard - some publishers will transform, some will muddle through, and some will simply die. One things for sure; gone are the days when authors were paid in the millions, or even printed in the millions. The industry has to find a new way of being if it is survive.

Perhaps if we really want to turn things around we should listen to Sam Leith from The Telegraph, who states that reading makes you rich and better in bed.

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