Friday, June 06, 2008

The bigger you are, the harder you fall

The Bookseller online edition reported about 2 weeks ago that the now infamous Amazon had removed the buy buttons on books published by the UK's largest publishing group, Hachette Livre, and now it seems that Hachette CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson has upped the ante by sending a strongly worded letter to authors affected by the embargo.

Amazon are reported to be doing to Hachette what they have been doing for some months now to print on demand publishers in America, namely demanding extortionate terms, and when the publisher refuses to give in, using Peter to rob Paul by going to the next publisher, and claiming that the first has given in, in order to make sure that the second one follows suit. Their plan has though been rumbled, as in publishing news travels fast, and it is if nothing else an industry built on communications, communications which I feel will ultimately prove to be Amazon's undoing.

Hely Hutchinson's letter, a copy of which has been sent to the Bookseller (although not published on their site) explains Hachette's position in regard to this dispute, which has seen Amazon remove the buy buttons from key front and back list titles published by Hachette, including Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, Stephen King's Duma Key and James Patterson's The Sixth Target.

The letter reportedly tells authors that Amazon's actions could "prove to be a catalyst for Amazon starting to lose its popularity with the public" because it is reducing its range and service to customers. It goes on to say that despite advantageous terms, "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", before affirming Hachette's intention to stand firm against these bullies.

The response from Amazon was predictably lukewarm with them refusing to comment and insisting as always, that they are committed to offering the broadest range possible to their customers at the lowest possible price, through a range of outlets, both direct on their own site and through re-sellers.

Agents are also expressing their angst, since this affects the careers of many of their authors, whose careers they oversee. It also of course affects their own income, since they take a proportion of what their authors earn. Anthony Harwood, who represents Chris Manby, said his client has been dealt a "double whammy", as both her new hardback Spa Wars and her first book written under the name of Olivia Darling, were affected. Anthony said "It's incredibly frustrating; the author suffers while these disputes rumble on."

The Economist, which has had some interesting articles on publishing in recent weeks, pulls no punches when it says that those in the publishing industry are running scared because of the rise in new technology brought about by the Internet, but also through the rise in print on demand and electronic publishing (e-books). Amazon is of course also at the forefront of this, in America at least, with the Kindle e-book reading device and their attempt to control the print on demand sector through demanding that print on demand books be printed by their own printing arm, Booksurge in order to be listed directly on Amazon's site.

From the outside, to the author at least, book publishing seems like a closed shop, which is impossible to penetrate. The author has to jump through many hoops and pass through many gate keepers on their journey to publication, and on the way, most of them do not pass go and do not collect £200. 411,000 new titles were published in America last year, and more than 3 billion books sold. The industry saw a growth rate of 4.3 percent in the adult sector, yet reading as in other westernised countries, is actually down. Since 1985, books' share of entertainment spending has fallen by some seven percent.

Paper book sales may well be in decline, but sales of e-books are reported to have tripled since 2005. Some say that they may eventually surpass printed copies, although personally apart from academic titles, I cannot see this happening. There are though advantages to this method, especially to the author, least of all, the removal of all the middle men who are all too keen to take a slice of our hard earned cash. E-books after all are a direct route to customers that have the potential to bypass both traditional book stores and online ones, as the author can publish them for relatively low cost and sell direct to the public via either their publishers website, or their own, as indeed I do. All books published by Authors OnLine are also available as e-books; that is why they chose the name Authors OnLine, as that is how their business began. The paper copies came later, after the introduction of print on demand into the UK 10 years ago.

It is in my opinion, print on demand that has the potential to change the industry much more than e-books could ever do, for not only does it enable authors to publish their own works at low cost, circumnavigating the gate keepers, but the costs also continue to come down. The cost of paper and shipping has gone up so much in recent months that it is now cheaper to print 1200 books via print on demand that it is by traditional means.

The article in the Economist wisely says that publishing has only two indispensable participants: authors and readers. Like the music industry, any technology that brings these two groups closer makes the whole industry more efficient, but hurts those who benefit from the distance between them. Those that stand to gain the most are therefore the small players traditionally left out of the loop by practises that prevent their books from being stocked on the same terms as those issued by the larger publishing houses. Those that stand to lose the most are those who have helped to support a system that encourages this to happen, which seems to include just about everyone except the independent authors and publishers themselves. Our time it seems has finally come, as the big boys are now learning that what goes around does come around, and what you do to others does have an effect that comes back to you in hard lessons to be learnt. Whether they will see this and understand remains to be seen. For what it is worth, the response from Hachette does seem to be encouraging, and I applaud them for taking the stand that they are. I just hope that it doesn't come back to haunt them, as the bigger you are, the harder you fall. Amazon would be wise to remember this.

Monday, June 02, 2008

What goes down, must go up!

I know there is hope for the world, and in particular the book world, when I see comments such as those on the blog of Neil Denny, editor in chief of The Bookseller magazine. On his blog, Neil calls for an end to the practise of high discounting in these times of economic uncertainty, in order to protect the interests of both publishers and book sellers. He points out that the price of books, like anything else, can go up as well as down.

During the last decade, since the abolition of the net book price agreement, we have seen the prices of books plummeting, with both book sellers and publishers, not to mention of course authors, working harder and harder for what seems like less and less. When I did my own accounts yesterday, I was shocked to see that despite all my hard work, my income from book sales for 2007-8 was just over £800, which is not a lot to show at all for all that work. Of course it would have been a lot more had the book not been on sale or return for such high discount, but then again, would I have sold as many books as I did? Somehow I think not, and so in the scheme of things, I am still better off, as although I earn less now per book sale, at least I have the chance to make some sales!

Perhaps though for the book trade as a whole, it is time to have a re-think on the discounting issue and begin to charge cover prices again, or at the very least, reduce the discounts that we have in store to a more reasonable level.

Since 2001, the date at which the sales figures first became truly comprehensive, the average sale price for books in the UK has fallen from £7.81 to £7.57. This may not sound a lot, but by the time you factor in inflation, it is clear that the price of books has fallen way less than it should be. In real terms, prices have dropped by almost 20 percent.

It may seem strange to be discussing this move at a time when consumers are already struggling with higher bills and fuel costs, yet as Neil Denny points out, increases such as these are creating a climate where consumers actually expect prices to go up, across the board.

If other businesses pass on the cost of their higher bills to the consumers, then why should the book trade be any different? Books after all need to be printed and shipped around the country (if not the world) and with the way that oil keeps going up, sooner or later, these costs will have to be passed on.

Companies are under pressure, as staff push for wage increases in order to compensate for higher prices. By increasing their own prices, and thereby their profit, book sellers will be in a better position to give their staff that raise, at the same time injecting life into their business which they can use to invest in training and better facilities all round.

Books are vastly underrated in our western society, and absurdly cheap. In a climate where some paperbacks cost less than a pint of beer, a cup of coffee or a magazine, then what does that say about the value that we place upon them? Customers at the store that I work in think nothing of spending £1000 on certain items, yet baulk at the price of books. I can imagine a world without much of what we sell, but I cannot imagine a world without books. Books educate and make us think, they make us laugh and cry, they take us outside of the ordinary realms of our existence, guiding and inspiring us with their wisdom and their insights. The world would be a much poorer place without them.

Lower discounts would be good news for the industry all round, not least of all the small independents, many of whom are struggling to compete with the chains, and let's not forget, are vital to the success of the book trade as a whole.

While the cover prices of certain types of books have crept up in recent years, the cynic in me says that this is in response to high discounting. If a publisher sells to book stores at 50 percent discount, it is in their interests to set higher cover prices, as 50 percent of £8.99 is a lot more than 50 percent of £5.99.

If books were not so heavily discounted and under valued in the first place, then this would not be necessary. It would be far better to control the level if discounts, keeping this to a sensible level, and allowing new releases at least a few weeks to be sold at full price. It is increasingly common though to discount at launch.

The solution then is not to increase cover prices, but to lower the discounts offered at point of sale. Of course some would say that consumers will just buy online instead. Although online book sales are increasing year on year, the majority are still bought in stores, as nothing can replace the feel and atmosphere of a book store, browsing the shelves. If customers truly want a book, then they will find the means to buy it - we cannot hold back doing what we know is right simply through fear of the competition. Someone somewhere has to make the first move, and personally I will be straight through their doors buying all their stock when they do - as like attracts like, and if I wish to be abundant, then I have to support others. That is the way of the world.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The rise in print on demand

I have become aware this morning of two articles extolling the virtues of print on demand, in two of the UK's most influential publications, The Economist and the Sunday Telegraph. Both make interesting reading, and are worth detailing here.

The first article in The Economist, is entitled Hard Pressed. The author, whose name is not mentioned, states that he has spent 35 years working in the publishing industry listening to the moans and groans of printing presses at work. Most commercial presses he says, these days use offset printing, but that is rapidly changing to digital (for this read print on demand). As distribution costs have sky rocketed, publishers have set up satellite printing plants to deal with regional markets (this is actually how Booksurge who are at the centre of the Amazon debate began). The economics of offset printing do not lend themselves well to short print runs. This is where print on demand comes in.

These machines, despite their advantages do not come cheap, with the author quoting a figure of around $750,000 for one 60 foot machine. Despite the initial cost, they have several advantages. Firstly, they do not have to print thousands of copies of the same image; the
impression made on successive sheets of paper can be entirely different. This allows publishers to tailor output for different markets - say for example Sydney, London or New York.

Second, unlike the wet inks used by traditional presses, the toners in digital printers are not absorbed into the paper, but form a layer on the surface instead. The images remain crisp and clear around the edges. It also means that they can be used to print on a variety of different mediums - such as packaging, fabrics and metal foils.

The disadvantage is that the cost per page remains the same no matter how pages are printed - against offset printing, where the more you print, the cheaper it becomes.

It has also led to the rise in print on demand publishing, where authors can choose to print their own books, bypassing the traditional agent, publisher route. This is no longer confined to the self publisher, as publishers both large and small also embrace this technology.

The advantages are obvious - you no longer have to guess how many copies to print, but can have them printed 'on demand' as and when the orders come in. It saves time and money, in terms of warehousing, shipping and returns, offsetting the initial higher print costs. At a time when everyone is trying to save trees, then this has to be a good thing.

Xerox, who are according to the article, the leader in digital colour printing, have upped the ante with their new generation of high-end presses, the iGen4. This xerographic leviathan can handle runs of up to 7 million colour pages a month. Their nearest competitor, the Indigo 7000 colour press from Hewlett Packard can handle just 4 million pages a month.

While you cannot tell the difference with books, such machines the article states, do not come close to matching the performance of traditional printing for newspapers and magazines.

The Economist prints about 1.65 million copies a week, with around 122 pages per issue, using eight printing plants around the world. On average, each of these plants handle 100 million pages a month - within a few hours of each other every Thursday, so that as many copies as possible can be delivered to news stands and newsagents first thing Friday morning. The best of today's digital printers would need a fourteen-fold increase in speed in order to match this.

What they lack in speed, the new generation of digital printers more than makes up for in quality. But this too could change, as waiting in the wings are some nifty ideas for applying ink-jet know-how to commercial printing.

Earlier this week, Xerox unveiled plans for a new gel-ink technology, with the consistency of toothpaste. When jetted from the print heads, this turns rock hard when exposed to a pulse of ultra-violet light. Because they are not water or alcohol-based like conventional ink-jet materials, they do not bleed into the paper and will cling to almost any surface, just like the digital inks.

This clever technology pioneered by Xerox's research centre in Canada could provide digital printing with its biggest chance yet to crack open the $400 billion offset market and break into the newspaper and magazine market. Watch this space.

The second article, on the Sunday Telegraph website says how 'new' print on demand technology is revolutionising the publishing industry, since it means that for the first time, publishers can bring back into circulation those classic out of print books that have a relatively small audience.

A new imprint, Faber Finds is soon to be launched with this aim in mind. There have been various impediments along the way, not least of all the industry's somewhat hostile attitude towards POD. It seems that even in these so-called enlightened times, agents and publishers are fearful of what this revolution will mean, and the very real threat that this presents to the industry, as if writers can publish their own works at such low cost, why would these agents and editors be needed at all? The article does not of course state this, and there will be always be a place for such people, but the fear is still there, and needs to be addressed.

Authors though were also concerned, especially given what happened with Simon and Schuster last year, where the company attempted to lock in authors whose books were available via POD, by stating that they were contracted to S&S for as long as the book remained in print, even though they may do nothing at all to promote it, and the author could earn more money from publishing themselves via a POD provider like Authors OnLine Ltd.

To overcome these issues, Faber and Faber put the authors at the very heart of this experiment, by approaching them and actually asking them to select titles for the new imprint. Initial talks were with P D James and John Lanchester, both of whom grasped the potential with great enthusiasm. This was mirrored by the many other writers who were approached, many of whom have written pieces for the new imprint's website and are championing books and writers that they cherish, but which are no longer conventionally (for this read via book shops for large discount via conventional offset printing) available.

Faber realised that authors are also readers, and that, according to Chief Executive Stephen Page, was the final piece of the jigsaw. Faber Finds will have a thriving online community who will be able to suggest books for the list as they buy them, review books and discuss their passions and interests with other visitors to the site.

In this way the technology of online life has been married to printing technology, creating an opportunity (perhaps) that has never existed before. This will bring together many excellent books, as well as writers, readers and the wider literary community to coax life back into some of the more fragile books in our culture.

The books will be available via all the usual channels, from either book stores or online.

This does sound, I must admit, like a imprint which will be very much going places, and will add a lot to the literary world, where publisher, author and reader work together to create a unique community designed to preserve and enhance our literary masterpieces. Whether it is truly unique is as always, open to debate.