Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A questionable practise

Going on from what I said yesterday re the Espresso Machine and how Blackwells are embracing this technology, I sent the information on this to Richard, who is of course the boss at Authors OnLine, and he sent an interesting response to the effect that in time this could cut out not only the middle men, such as wholesalers and the like, but also the POD providers themselves. After all, these machines hold the entire inventory for all books available through Lightning Source, the largest print on demand printer in the UK and North America (Booksurge take note), so it should be theoretically possible to bypass the POD providers and just print out books in store.

This may sound noble and full of appeal, but authors will always want and need to have paper copies to sell themselves, and also need the expertise and help that only an experienced publishing company can provide. Richard has many useful contacts who have helped me in various ways, whom I would not have had access to otherwise. It is true that I may have found other ways to form such contacts, but it would have taken considerable time and effort on my part, time which since I returned to work, is in short supply.

Print on demand is in the news this week in more ways that one, since Random House are embroiled in a dispute with some of their authors regarding new contracts for such books. This echoes the dispute in America last year with Simon and Schuster.

The controversy hinges on the definition of the term out of print in the new digital environment, since technically, as long as the publisher pays their annual fee to the POD printer to maintain their files, print on demand titles never are out of print. These new contracts state that rights will only revert back to the author if the publisher cannot supply a physical (paper) or electronic copy of the book within one month, or if there has been no royalty payment for one year.

In other words, the publisher may no longer be actively promoting the work, and may not have sold a copy in over a year, but as long as they can produce a book within a one month cycle, then the author is unable to terminate the contract. Print on demand may have its advantages, but a contract such as this will favour no one except the publisher, and certainly not the author.

A spokesperson for Random House said "When we acquire a new title, we commit to the author to do the very best job we can to publish and sell their book. Understandably, we believe we should have the right to continue to sell that book for as long as there is a viable market for it and responsibly take advantage of all new digital technologies. "We continue to work closely with the author and agent community to implement terms that are fair, but also reflect the fast-changing nature of the modern publishing industry."

What though is a viable market? I think that most would agree that a book has to sell more than one copy per year to be considered so. It does not take a genius to work this out. These proposed contracts then benefit no one except the publisher, who will do basically sod all, locking the author in to a contract which offers no benefit to them at all. They would from where I am sitting, be better off going to a POD provider like I did, and paying to have their work published, as they stand to earn a lot more money. Furthermore, most offer non exclusive contracts which state that if the author wishes to terminate the contract for whatever reason, they can do so with three months notice.

Random House have obviously learnt nothing from Simon and Schuster's example, and I think they will find that they too are forced to backtrack, as no sensible author or agent for that matter, would endorse these contracts.

Monday, July 28, 2008

News from the publishing world this week

There are several interesting stories circulating around the publishing world at the moment, not least of all that concerning the Amazon versus Hachette Livre dispute. The Times reports that the dispute is showing no signs of diminishing, and looks likely to drag on til at least Christmas, if not longer.

None of this is really news at all, since we all saw this happening a long time ago. It started with the abolition of the net book price agreement in 1995, and has got steadily worse since. Those within the industry warned at the time that this would bring nothing but disaster, so I am told (this was long before I began to write), but as per usual, no one listened.

The Times reports that back in the 1980's, a man with a background in the grocery business told a group of publishers: “In the trade I come from, if the retailer says, ‘Jump’, the supplier asks, ‘How high?’,” and the audience looked at him as if he were talking rubbish. Twenty years later, they know exactly what he meant.

Publishers admit that they should never have allowed discounts to get so high, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. The fact is that when an order from a retailer makes the difference between hitting and not hitting targets, and the consequences of rejecting that order is to see the business go elsewhere, then it is very hard to so no, even on such unfavourable terms.

This situation is not confined to publishing, as we see it throughout the retail trade - especially with the supermarkets and the shameful way in which they treat their suppliers - some of whom are forced to sell at a loss. Still, it is heartening to see such support from authors, across the board, it is in our interests really though, as the lower discounts become, the more money there is to pay us with.

It is as usual all about market forces - and what consumers are prepared to pay. It is the same old story, that the public want good quality goods and good service, but are not prepared to pay for it. I see this in my own job on an almost daily basis; it is why my company were forced to equalise shop and Internet prices earlier this month. The result of this has been that there is now so little profit on certain items, that it is hardly worth selling them at all without at least 2 add ons.

It is we are told business, and nothing personal. Tell that though to the members of staff at branches such as mine, who are being forced to close because they are no longer viable. Tell that to the children and dependents of those who work there. The Times states that any negotiator wants to screw out of the market as much as the market can take, but the fact that this happens does not mean that it is morally or ethically right, as everyone has the right to earn a living and maintain a certain lifestyle, where at least their basic needs are met (and beer and cigarettes are not basic needs). Book selling, in fact, publishing in general, makes very little money - Waterstones made a profit, so The Times says, last year, of 2.9 percent, while Hachette’s profit margin was 11.2 per cent. Are they then in a position to negotiate and dictate terms? Maybe not. I do know though that if we do not stop this slide, in retail in general, and not just publishing, then we will be hearing more about Amazon in the months to come, and it will not be long until they drive us all out of business.

Against this backdrop, it is somewhat depressing to read that Amazon has almost doubled its net profits over the last three months (ending June 2008) to $158 million. Sales of books, CDs and DVDs rose 31 percent, while electronics and general merchandise sales were up by 58 percent. City analysts report that the company are benefitting from high fuel prices, since consumers have less money for shopping trips and prefer instead to shop from home. Those consumers should try living here in good old blighty, where our petrol costs almost twice what theirs does!

On a happier note, it seems that the Espresso printing machines, which I mentioned on here some time ago, are finally set to arrive in the British Isles, being rolled out to larger Blackwells stores in the autumn. The machines - nicknamed the ATM for books, are capable of printing and binding books, while customers wait, in a matter of minutes, with a choice of over 1 million titles, many of which are rare or otherwise out of print.

The Espresso Book Machine’s backers claim that it combines the virtually unlimited choice of the Internet with the packaging of a conventional book, which has the potential to make the most obscure of titles easy to buy.

Many readers, especially students, and remember that Blackwells is the leading academic chain, complain that book stores are top heavy with piles of heavily hyped best sellers and celebrity dross from the big publishers, while the independent and small presses,including self publishers do not get a look in. This then will help to equalise things as never before, and can only be a good thing, for both authors and book buyers alike.

The machines, which are 9 feet long and 5 feet high (as I am also- high that is!), allow customers to type in any title that they want, and after seven minutes out pops the book, neatly trimmed and bound, for the same price as the equivalent book off the shelves.

The finished product is like any conventional paperback, although critics say that the illustrations are poor quality, and the books have a rubbery feel. As time goes on, I am sure these problems will be ironed out, and I am also sure that customers will be more than happy with the speed and convenience that these machines afford.

Other chains are less circumspect, stating that they will wait to see how the technology develops and improves, and how popular it proves to be with Blackwells customers.

Good news indeed, and one to watch. I for one will eagerly anticipate the arrival of the first machines, and if I find one near me, will willingly pay for a copy of my own work just to see how it does work, and what these books are like. I will report back on what I find.