THE STATE OF PUBLISHING AND BOOKSELLING
This is a series of blogs I wrote on the current state of publishing and bookselling and how that affects writers and readers. I focused on genre novels.
Sources for the information I used include "Publishers Weekly," "Shelf Awareness," "Publisher's Lunch," and various professional trade blogs.
My credentials: I'm a publishing news junkie of over thirty years, and a published author of over ten years.
First, an overview of what's happening in the business.
Not surprisingly, the problems with the economy are hurting the sale of books. If it's a choice between food and gas or books, books are almost always the loser.
Even romance, which has always been considered an economy-proof genre, has struggled recently although it remains healthy with steady growth.
Readers are borrowing books at the library and buying used books. Neither venue is good for the author bottom line.
If a reader has a choice between a "name" favorite author and another author for a new book purchase, she will buy the name author. New authors' books tend to be bought used.
THE BOOKSTORES, CHAINS, AND BIG BOX STORES
The current trends in bookstores and other physical locations is more books by just a few authors.
Target and Walmart which sell large numbers of books have cut down the amount of books by around fifty percent in the last few years. The books added to the shelves each month are almost always that month's list leader -- the publisher's lead title for that month, and it's usually a name author.
They believe they make money by having more space taken up by more books by a few bestsellers than with a wider range of authors and books.
Meanwhile, the chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders are putting out more authors and titles, but they, too, no longer carry most of that month's books by the major publishers.
Borders has started a series of concept stores which display books cover forward. So far, they've seen an increase in sales although they have cut the number of titles displayed by thirty percent.
Independent stores are dying at an alarming rate, and those which remain often keep themselves afloat by selling used books.
Still, a vast majority of all books sold are in brick and mortar stores.
Amazon remains the Godzilla of online book sales in both new and used books while Barnes & Noble online, etc., eat the crumbs.
Amazon gives readers an incredible selection of books not found in brick and mortar stores so they are the place to go for serious readers. A month's entire line of books by most publishers is available at Amazon, and their search functions as well as their Listmania and "if you like this book, you'll like that book" features, and reader blogs help readers find books and authors they won't find elsewhere.
Used book sites like Alibris are a major force in book buying as readers search for bargains, and Amazon displays the used book right beside the new book in their search results.
PRINT ON DEMAND BOOKS
Most major publishers do large print runs of their titles and store the books to sell through bookstores, etc.
A large print run requires a large expense up front in the printing followed by the cost of storing and moving inventory. For massmarket (standard-sized paperbacks), books not sold at the bookstore have their cover ripped off and returned while the book itself goes into the landfill. The publisher pays for the shipping in both directions.
Obviously, this is a serious waste of money and resources, but the bookstores and publishers seem addicted to this model.
In recent years, print on demand books (POD) are becoming an important part of the paper book process.
POD books are printed, one at a time, to order and shipped to the store or the buyer. Large publishers use POD for backlist, and small publishers and individuals who can't afford large print runs also use it.
Recently, a major publisher used POD to catch up on unexpectedly high demand of a nonfiction title.
Most of the major book distributors have their own POD company as does Amazon.
Ebooks are as much a part of the publishing scene these days as paper books. Most genre publishers offer the ebook version at the same time as the paper book, and backlist is being converted to ebooks at an incredible rate.
Ebooks continue to be the primary route of distribution for smaller publishers.
Most of the major book distributors have their own ebook distribution system, and Amazon is using its ebook reader, the Kindle, to make it as much a leader in ebook distribution as paper book distribution.
Ebooks are the primary growth area right now for most publishers, but the so-called "tipping point" in their popularity hasn't been reached according to most pundits.
Used book sales are a profit hemorrhage in the publishing industry.
The publisher and the author make nothing on used books so the industry is being starved by used book sales. This is a particular hardship for authors who don't have as diversified a number of titles as the publisher does.
This means that the author makes little money, the publisher loses sales on that author, and the author is less likely to sell another book to that publisher.
In other words, the big publisher and name authors with lots of backlist like Nora Roberts are hurt by used book sales, but the smaller authors and small publishers can be killed because they lose more than they gain.
Publishing is like investing, the more diversified you are, the better the chance for survival and profit.
The Internet has made used books an even greater problem because so many books can be found used.
The old belief that a buyer will choose new after discovering a new author through a used book is less true because it is so easy to find a used book within hours or less of the book hitting the physical shelves. Some books, courtesy of book clubs and advanced review copies, can be found used weeks or months before they hit the shelves.
AMAZON, THE 900 POUND GORILLA
Some writers see Amazon as the writer's and reader's friend, but, increasingly, Amazon is showing its ugly profit-is-everything nature.
The used book shown with the new book in search results is one example of this. Amazon makes more profit by acting as middleman for used booksellers than it does by selling new books.
Amazon's current attempt to force publishers to use their POD provider is an even more frightening example of its methods.
In recent years, as bookstores have carried fewer books from big publishers and almost none of the small publishers, Amazon has been seen as the even playing field by many writers and publishers. If you had a book to sell, Amazon was there to sell it.
A few years back, Amazon made it much harder for small press to sell on Amazon, and some publishers went out of business.
Now, Amazon is tightening their grip on the smaller publishers by telling them they have to use Amazon-owned Booksurge for POD.
Amazon's contract says that Amazon will control the price of the book sold, its price cannot be lowered at any other venue including the publisher's site, and it will control the look of the book and its quality.
For the right to have a "buy now" on their books, publishers will be at the whim of Amazon in most aspects of their product.
With Amazon moving aggressively into epublishing with the Kindle, publishers may lose all control of their product if they knuckle under to these tactics.
Amazon justifies all this as a means to make it simpler for them to ship books all at once, but they don't say that POD books printed through Ingram's Lightning Source and other POD providers are shipped the same day with the Amazon label attached so the buyer can't tell who has printed it or shipped it.
For complete details on this situation and the class action lawsuit by some small publishers against Amazon, go here http://antitrust.booklocker.com/
Only small press is the victim of this current Amazon contract stipulation right now, but, if the publishing industry doesn't stand firm against it, the Amazon gorilla will squash the rest of the publishing industry.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
For authors, in the short term, all the news is bad unless you are already a "name" author. Midlist paper books are disappearing in bookstores and box stores.
According to my writing friends, a novel at Walmart accounted for almost thirty percent of all their books sold. Now, their books aren't available there. Their publishers are also losing out on those extra sales.
With bookstores also taking fewer titles in a publisher's line each month, some titles are available nowhere but a few independent booksellers and online.
If already established bestselling authors are the only ones sold at the major venues, where and how can an author build an audience big enough to join this exclusive club?
With most of the time and expense of promotion falling on the author's shoulders, how will the author manage financially? How will the author be able to produce the number of books needed yearly to grow their audience?
For publishers, if they can't find many places to sell that month's entire line of books, what can they do?
Do they drop most of their authors and only print "names?"
Where do they grow their talent to add to that list of names?
Do they start a farm system similar to major league baseball where new authors rise up through the ranks via ebooks?
Do they only recruit authors already building a name with small publishers?
I imagine we'll see a number of different "solutions" to these questions as authors and publishers try to survive this new hostile environment to selling books.
Any solution to this problem depends on what the readers will do.
Will readers be willing to only buy the name authors they see at Walmart and other places where they usually shop, or will they start depending on physical bookstores?
Will they be willing to buy online?
If they can't get paper books, will they move to ebooks?
If history is any indication, a majority will stop buying paper books. When science fiction disappeared from those dimestore racks years ago, the market plummeted, and the market has been rebuilding ever since.
On the other hand, when readers discovered erotica which was almost exclusively available as ebooks, the market expanded to the point that publishers like Ellora's Cave became multimillion dollar companies, and authors made money envied by their paper-published contemporaries.
Readers of erotica and romance are voracious readers, though, and smaller markets like science fiction haven't had the same online success even proportional to the number of readers of paper books.
Those of us who love to read and write can hope others will follow us online and into digital format, and I imagine some will, but will the numbers be enough to support the publishers and the authors?
WHAT ABOUT EPUBLISHING?
Right now, few authors can make a living at epublishing. Even erotica, the growth industry of epublishing, no longer pays the bills as it once did.
The market has become glutted with books from other small publishers, and the major publishers have moved into the market in ebook and paper formats.
Venues for ebooks like Fictionwise are currently being glutted with backlist from major publishers so that unknown authors can sink in a sea of books quite fast. Romance is particularly prone to this.
The authors who are successful in epublishing are prolific, produce quality books of one kind so they build their sales through backlist and loyal readers, and they market constantly to sell that first book to new readers.
Of course, this is the primary survival means in paper book publishing for most authors right now.
HOW DO THE READER AND THE WRITER FIGHT BACK?
The reader is the writer's best friend. If the writer educates her readers about the publishing business, the reader will help the writer fight back.
Here is the "Book Biz 101" fact sheet, I share with readers.
•Thank the bookstore manager for carrying the kinds of books you like.
•If you can't find a book, ask the bookstore to special order it for you. If enough people do this, they'll order the author's next book.
•Don't pass around new books to friends. A bookstore and the publisher can only tell how popular a book is by the number of copies sold. If you share your one book with six friends, the publisher and the bookstore won't know this. Get those six friends to buy the book themselves. And give good books good word of mouth so others will buy it!
•Buy the book new, not used. If you buy the book used, you won't be counted as a reader. It costs more money, but you will insure that more books like it will be printed.
In the days before the paranormal romance became popular, a used bookstore owner told me that the average paranormal romance was traded at least 10 times before it disintegrated. It rarely stayed in the store more than a few hours because readers were on waiting lists for these books. The readers said they couldn't find the books anywhere but at the used bookstore, and the regular bookstore said no one wanted to buy these books so fewer books were sold new, and fewer books were published. A very vicious cycle.
•Don't take a book to the used bookstore until it is no longer on the bookstore shelves. Two to three months from the time you buy it is a good rule of thumb.
•Paperback books without their covers are stolen books. Tell the person at the flea market or used bookstore that it's illegal to sell and show them the legal note to this effect at the front of the book. If you continue to see books like this sold, send a letter to the publisher and tell them.
•If you absolutely must choose two books, one new and one used, buy the "name" author used and the unknown author new. The name author can survive a few used books, the new author may never sell another story because her first book sold poorly.
•If you see an electronic version of a copyrighted novel available for free at some website or on a newsgroup, contact the publisher or author immediately and tell them. Not only is this illegal, but it is the financial murder of your favorite authors and the end of the kind of books you love.
•If you like a book or a publisher's line, write the publisher and tell them. (The publisher's address is in the front of the book.) The people who usually write are the ones who don't like that kind of book. In your letter, tell the publisher how many books a month you buy. If you are a younger reader, tell the publisher that you'll want to read these books for a long time, and you recommend them to your friends.
A fan letter to the author also works.
Authors remember to send copies of these letters to your editor and agent!
•If you hear a line is closing, write the publisher and complain. Don't let that vampire or sf romance go gently into the good night without a hardy complaint or indignant werewolf howl of unhappiness.
•Buy books from the small presses and e-publishers who are publishing the kinds of books you like. Continue to buy from these small publishers when the major publishers move into this market to keep the small publisher alive. Major publishers are notoriously fickle about remaining in certain markets.
•It may be simpler to buy all your books at Amazon or Fictionwise, but you can often save money by buying directly from the publisher's site. At most epublisher sites, the author makes a higher percentage of the sale.
Amazon is trashing the publishing industry and its authors because the buyers have given them that power. Take it away by spending your money elsewhere.
•Buy from local independent bookstores.
THE NEAR AND FAR FUTURE OF PUBLISHING
Here's my forecast on the future of publishing.
Essentially, most publishing professionals are worried about the wrong things and not paying attention to the real dangers as the publishing world changes.
It's not about too many titles, it's not about the change from paper to ebook, it's not about what bookstores are doing.
It's about the fight for the conduits of media, both paper and digital, to the consumer, and it's a fight that may already be lost to Amazon.
Amazon is doing everything right. They are bleeding publishing through used books and pricing control while doing almost everything better than brick and mortar stores, and now they are making a dramatic move to take over a major chunk of the digital arena with the Kindle.
Big publishing, meanwhile, is looking the other way as small publishers are fighting Amazon about POD and even greater price controls because the big guys don't think Amazon will go after them next.
Paper, ink, and bookstores are still here and will be here for some time, but they can't survive long term because digital books are simply too dang efficient in every sense.
The bookstores will go first because people are more stressed for time than for money, and online is easier. Before the bookstores go, they will effectively kill what is left of midlist fiction in their ongoing effort to stock bestsellers and list leaders to the exclusion of midlist.
Meanwhile, the used book industry will suck away even more of the profit from paper publishing until it collapses in a sea of red ink.
Books will move into digital format, but new books and new writers will continue to be buried under a sea of backlist moving into digital format.
Platforms will continue to be the means of success for most authors, and other authors will be relegated to niche markets and scrambling for readers.
A long story short. Sell all your stock in bookstores and publishers, and buy Amazon stock. It's probably the only way any of us will make much money in the coming climate of change.
THE FUTURE FOR WRITERS?
It's been many years since most authors have supported themselves through their words, and this will not improve.
Publishing in its usual heedless manner will use the authors' profits as a means to bolster its own bottom line as the distributors suck the publisher dry.
As history has proven, most readers will be more concerned with their own time and money than the future of writers and publishing so they will continue to frequent Amazon, one stop online digital providers, and the box stores for their reading.
WHAT SHOULD YOU, THE WRITER, DO?
Write if it's a joy, work hard toward whatever goal you have for success in your writing career, educate yourself on the business, and plan for your future as if you won't see much income coming from that writing.
Don't trade your life for writing dreams. It will be a bitter and uneven trade even if you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
And do dream. It's what makes you the unique writer and person you are.
Copyright © 2008 by Marilynn Byerly
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