The State of the Industry
Over the last ten to fifteen years, the publishing industry has undergone a massive shift from print to digital and from the east coast to the west coast. Understanding this shift is critical for anyone working in the field or who wishes to. Taking stock can be difficult. All manner of publishing has been greatly disrupted, but it’s often hard to see because what has changed is what’s now missing from our lives. And these missing things have not disappeared all at once. Rather, it’s been a gradual vanishing.
Your glovebox is no longer crowded with maps. The lowest bookshelf in the living room no longer sags under a full set of encyclopedia. There is no phone book in the top kitchen drawer. Manuals no longer come with every device. How-to books have gone away. Cookbooks as well. Driveways are no longer dotted with newspapers. And the daily commute sees far more people staring at screens rather than anything printed on paper.
There are exceptions in every household, of course. But for most consumers, the GPS-enabled smartphone has obviated the need for maps. Wikipedia and Google replaced the encyclopedia. We connect via social media, not phonebooks. Manuals are now online PDFs. The newspaper is our Facebook and Twitter feeds. To learn how to do practically anything, we turn to YouTube. Recipes are searched for online. And well over half of fiction reading has gone digital.
Publishing is all of these things. Publishing was even the little booklets that lined our CD and DVD cases, which have largely gone away. We don’t think of all of these printed artifacts as publishing, but they were. They not only required printing, they required copywriters, editors, and layout designers. Those who used to do these jobs now work in digital spaces. And this has been the great shift in publishing, from physical to digital. And the center of publishing — New York and the east coast — is now the west coast. The Big 5 of publishing is now better thought of as: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.
This doesn’t sit well with those formerly in power, but in just about every measurable way, these have been great developments. Digital is easier to spread, which increases information equality. It’s also better for the environment, not just in paper consumption but in the polluting delivery costs. Ideas are easier to generate, which has increased the diversity of voices. News has become crowdsourced, which reduces the corrupting power of those who formerly had monopoly control of information. With a camera and a broadcast booth in every pocket, the fears of Big Brother have turned into the mediating effect of billions of Little Brothers. We report on abuses of power, taking to Twitterverse to pressure corporations, and sharing videos to police the police. And we are far more accurate and informative taken as a whole than we are on relying on lone experts.
It’s difficult to find anything to complain about with this transition, unless you are a middleman who no longer provides a service commensurable with your cost.
This is an important point, the act of offering a service that matches your cost. It gets to the heart of the disruptive force of digital publishing, and it cuts through much of the confusing rhetoric that gets bandied about. Looking just at book publishing, which has been my domain as a bookseller, a writer, and a publisher, we can see how this plays out. We can even trace the sources of these discomforts back through a trail of complaint. There is much lamenting these days, almost entirely by those who no longer provide a service commensurable with their cost, and understanding this can allow us to see through the rhetoric and understand what is really going on in the industry.
Let’s start with a list of those who are being disintermediated in the modern publishing landscape: Major book publishers, their historic retail partners, their former marketing muscle, the printers, and previously bestselling authors. We should feel empathy with those who are disrupted, as pivoting can be painful. But when the overall benefit to the general public is weighed, we understand that these disruptions are to be applauded. Again, we’re talking about greater access to information, a wider variety of voices, a boon to the environment, and a more equitable share of profits to creatives. This doesn’t make the pain of the formerly entrenched any less, but it should prevent us from making policy and purchasing decisions based on their appeals.
Trade book publishers have been hammered by the shift to digital and the west coast. Growth has only been sustained by acquisitions, job cuts, and the increased profitability of ebooks. Even with a mighty PR campaign waged against digital publishing (carried out in the increasingly insignificant print media), the major publishers have only been able to barely tread water. The number of major publishers has gone down, and several of the largest of the secondary houses have been gobbled up. Print sales are being hammered, even as this trend is spun in the press. In 2015, the only thing that saved print from serious decline was the adult coloring book fad. That craft books are counted alongside novels is revealing, both for the widget and profit-minded nature of the legacy publishing industry, and also the greater concern for sales over the culture of actual reading. 2016 will need another 50 SHADES OF GREY or coloring book phenomenon to stem the bleeding. This is a precarious situation in which publishers find themselves, especially with fewer medium sized presses to acquire. It would surprise me to see all of the Big 5 publishers standing two years from now. It would not surprise me to see a Big 3 five years hence.
Retailers have had it just as bad, with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble transitioning away from bookselling and into general merchandise. Independent bookstores are seeing some gains, as the former big-box wolves now find themselves stalked and hunted down by Amazon. And even here, the rhetoric is almost Orwellian in its backwardness. Independent booksellers have blacklisted titles published by Amazon, even as Amazon cleared space for them in the market. And so not only has Amazon been good for small booksellers, the stifling of information has come from the same bookshops, while Amazon publishes and sells the widest variety of offerings for the lowest cost and is accused for limiting the expression of free ideas while doing so.
Controlling this message (or attempting to) has been another outlet made irrelevant by the west coast shift. Newspapers used to matter for book sales. Bestseller lists were checked weekly, as were the arts sections and the special Sunday book review inserts. No longer. Now, the only bestseller lists that move titles are the online sales lists, primarily Amazon’s. I saw this clearly as a bookseller. Even the front page of the New York Times Book Review couldn’t budge sales. But a mention on a late night LA talkshow, or a Tweet from a celebrity, or a recommendation from Zuckerberg, would shoot a title straight to the top. And nothing is more powerful than one of Amazon’s daily promotions. The marketing muscle, the inside access, the exclusive reviews, the feeling of mattering in this grand cultural tradition — all of this has been taken away from legacy reporters. And keep in mind that these same reporters were often aspiring novelists and non-fiction authors. They have done a miserable job of covering the disruption to publishers, because they are too emotionally invested to cover these trends like they cover the rise and disruptive forces of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Google, Facebook, et al.
The authors who benefitted most from the censuring of ideas have also been hurt. When 99.99% of books were not allowed to come to market, and the diversity of voices was culled to obviate risk to publishers, these .01%ers made hay. Mostly white males, there are many of them complaining today because their power, prestige, and incomes have all declined. The new power authors are predominately female, and to cope with the reality of this transition, the media and legacy authors have had to resort to lumping them into a single genre (erotica) in order to stigmatize them. Despite the fact that these authors write romance, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction and other genres. Those who write in one of the hundreds of varieties of romance are today castigated as “smut” writers, when this has never been true.
Lately, these authors have had to team up with their advocacy groups in a PR battle against digital and self publishing. Writing letters to the DOJ, the argument here is that free speech was better served when only .01% of authors could publish their works. The share of income earned by these authors has plummeted, replaced with income heading to self-published authors. Last year, Amazon paid out over $140,000,000 to authors in its Kindle Unlimited program. That doesn’t count the dollars paid for book sales. This would be like publishers announcing a 7-figure advance every two and a half days for an entire year. The overall expenditure by consumers has only gone up a little, while the payout to independent authors has soared. That money came from somewhere. Those authors being hurt are now railing against a system that, once again, is good for consumers, for diversity, for the environment, and for creatives.
Author advocacy groups have joined the lament, as they have been hurt in reduced membership. More writers now seem to be going about the quiet business of earning money rather than paying fees to attempt to break into the industry. Agents have felt the pinch as well. Those who aren’t able or willing to work with authors to hybridize their careers have joined the chorus of voices pining for the days of reduced access to reading material and higher costs.
When we look at the above groups, and consider their complaints, one thing jumps out at me: They no longer offer services commensurable with their costs. A Big 5 published book is not 5 to 15 times better than a self-published book. And yet the difference in cost can easily be as much. Big 5 authors are harmed by the same price differential. Those who are locked in deserve our sympathy. Those who choose to offer higher priced books, and complain as their sales decline, do not deserve our sympathy. That’s a choice. Ebook price ceilings can be negotiated in publishing contracts (I know from personal experience). This means being a Big 5 author does not necessarily mean being hamstrung by high prices. High price is a choice, and the improved offering must be commensurable.
The same goes for retailers. If they are going to charge higher prices, their stores and staff must offer greater service. Some do, and they thrive. Those that don’t are and should go out of business. The same is true of the media that used to curate our tastes. They did a poor job for the price, which is why consumers no longer pay in dollars or attention. They need to reinvent themselves or go under. The public should not be expected to support legacy systems for nostalgia’s sake; adapt or die.
What has remained unchanged, and what dictates at every moment the true state of the publishing industry, is two forces: The overwhelming urge felt by many to weave stories, and the companion urge felt by nearly all of us to be regaled with stories. These are the twin forces that gave rise to the publishing industry in the first place. The book trade is in its infancy by comparison. Storytelling is a critical component of what makes us human. The world of publishing is all about matching up storytellers with audiences, and this power has moved to the left coast and the world of ones and zeros. What matters most is what happens on either end, not in the middle. Can writers write? More than ever. Can they publish? Easier than ever. Can readers find and access stories? Like no other time in human history.
As a reader, the current state of the industry makes me beam with joy. I carry my Kindle with me everywhere. I have a backup Kindle on my boat in case my primary goes in the drink. I have access to nearly everything ever written. I read more than at any other time in my life, and I spend far less money doing so. As a reader, the value offered to me by the publishing industry has positively soared.
As a writer, the new publishing industry brought an infinite increase in fulfillment. And I don’t mean with income, as I never sat down to write my first novel in order to earn a penny. In the old world of publishing, my stories would have gone unread. There wouldn’t have been a blog to post them to, social media to share them by, or email to send to friends and family. There was no Kindle store to upload them to, or print on demand service to make a real book. No ACX for audio. My voice didn’t exist. Only that of the .01% did.
The old publishing industry was difficult for me as a reader and a writer. Bookstores were distant, and books were expensive. Libraries rarely had what I was looking for. It was hard to find anyone in my home town to discuss books with. Impossible to find reviews and recommendations from other readers. Like the fans of Harry Potter, I spent a good portion of my time as a child reading the same handful of books over and over again. That’s not a healthy industry from my perspective as a consumer. As a writer, it was even worse.
My recommendation to writers was spelled out in this previous blog post, and here’s what I would tack on while considering this industry and any business decisions: Team up with anyone who can add greater value than what they charge for their services. Go with a major publisher if you think the one book a year they’ll allow, and the 1/6th of royalties paid twice a year, will outweigh what you can do on your own. And factor in the time lost to querying, landing an agent, and the delay to market. By my estimate, a publisher needs to guarantee they’ll sell 20 – 50 times the number of books you can on your own before you break even. This takes into account the narrow window in which they’ll promote you and that bookstores will carry your title. If you can sell 10,000 lifetime copies, they need to prove they can sell 500,000 copies. No publisher can guarantee that. Can you sell 10,000 copies over the next 30 – 50 years? Can you write 2 novels a year? The choice gets easier and easier if you believe that you can.
This is not only how I see the publishing world today, it’s where I saw it heading seven years ago. That’s when I made the decision to leave a small publisher and strike out on my own. I’ve been blogging about that decision for a long time. These are not post-hoc rationalizations made by a fortunate individual, but the confirmation of what was then a very unpopular opinion. I’ve been laughed at for thinking authors could do better without publishers, for thinking that we don’t need agents until they come begging to us, for thinking that readers just care about a good story. I can tell you that seven years later, my thoughts have barely budged. Technology is opening up new worlds for storytellers, and readers have been greatly rewarded by our steady adoption of these tools. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. And that’s a great thing.
I keep all of this in mind as I watch readers struggle to find the next great book or series to dive into. Those challenges existed before, but they were worse. I keep all of this in mind when I sympathize with authors trying to make a living with their craft. What they had to overcome in the past was far worse. Just because things are better today does not mean they are easy; they are just easier. No one can be denied their voice. Readers can access books from anywhere in the world, with thousands of classics available for free and many new works also on a cycle of promotion. The only people who have anything to fear are those who are no longer needed or who are charging too much for their services. For the rest of us — especially the two parties who matter most — the state of the industry is rosy. And getting better every day.