If you read mainstream publishing news, like I do, occasionally your head will explode. Or you’ll run around in a panic, turning into one of those long-haired barefoot New Yorker cartoon characters, carrying a sign saying that the world is about to end.
For many in traditional publishing, the world is ending. Their clout is vanishing and their ability to understand what is going on is vanishing with it. They’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, wondering why it has suddenly gotten so cold. Yeah, they may survive in the future, but they’ll always remember the night they hit that iceberg—and the surprise they felt.
Case in point: The annual dinner that the Authors Guild holds for its members in connection with Book Expo America. This year, the attendees talked about how evil Amazon is, and how the Department of Justice is “one of our antagonists” in the words of Guild President Scott Turow.
We all know how misguided the Authors Guild is about Amazon, but what made me the saddest was this paragraph in Paid Content’s write-up of the event:
“A number of the evening’s speakers, who also included writers David Rakoff and Sarah Jones, made obligatory digs at 50 Shades of Grey, an erotic work derived from Twilight fan fiction and derided as ‘mommy porn’ that has inexplicably topped the New York Times bestseller list.”
So…let me get this straight. Not only is the Authors Guild fighting a company that has put money back in the pocket of thousands of writers, but it also derides writers for writing something successful that the Guild disapproves of. I guess E.L. James won’t be joining the Authors Guild any time soon.
Turow and his little cabal of “poor, poor, pitiful successful me” writers aren’t the only ones talking about antagonists and worrying that the sky is falling.
According to The Los Angeles Times book editor, Steve Wasserman, writing in The Nation, independent booksellers are in serious trouble, because of the big bad, Amazon. Wasserman rightly notes that twenty years ago, there were 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States, and now there are less than half that. He also notes who killed the indie booksellers—outright murdered them, in fact. The chain bookstores did the deed, particularly Barnes & Noble (and, to a lesser extent, Borders). Barnes & Noble opened bookstores next to successful indies, discounting books and offering a wider selection. (See the movie You’ve Got Mail to understand how this phenomenon felt at the time.)
But, Wasserman states, “And now, even the victors are imperiled. The fate of the two largest US chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—is instructive: Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 and closed its several hundred stores across the country, its demise benefiting over the short term its rival Barnes & Noble, which is nonetheless desperately trying to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the considerable real estate occupied by its 1,332 stores across the nation.”
Well, no. This goes back to last week’s post about how you can take a number and interpret it any way you want. Borders went down because of internal mismanagement, and Barnes & Noble is having similar problems. I’m not the only one to complain that B&N doesn’t believe in brick-and-mortar any more . Just last week, media consultant Ruby White pointed out why a bookstore that doesn’t want to sell you books (i.e. Barnes & Noble) isn’t worth your time or your attention.
B&N is actively leaving the bricks-and-mortar business. Borders murdered itself. And yet, Wasserman believes that Amazon is (and apparently always has been) a bigger threat to the book business than either of those companies ever were.
He’s invested in traditional publishing—folks who used to decry B&N, and now back it because it’s not Amazon. He believes that Amazon—which he begrudgingly admits has a better business model than all of traditional publishing combined—is going to ruin everything. And to think he used to support them back in the bad old days when he was young and stupid and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Or so he says in this article.
Okay. That sarcasm is probably uncalled for, but I’m getting tired of this, especially in the face of the news coming out this week—news that I must say really isn’t news at all, but things that anyone who has been paying attention should know. (And you’d think the book editor of one of the country’s biggest newspapers should have been paying attention. Yeah, yeah, more snark. But just sayin’.)
On the eve of its biggest conference, the American Booksellers Association noted that its membership rose for the third straight year. Not every independent bookseller belongs to the ABA, but many do. The association grew by 55 members in 2011, 102 members in 2010, and 9 members in that awful recession year of 2009.
Since Borders closed, and B&N stopped carrying all but the latest bestsellers in its brick-and-mortar stores, the independent bookstores have grown. I have a hunch they’ll continue to grow in the next few years, because people do like browsing books in bookstores. And remember 80% of books sold are still paper books, and likely to remain so in the near future.
Yes, people might order a lot of books online, but book people gravitate to bookstores like moths to light. Book people like to see what they’ve missed in their online browsing. They also like to hold a volume in their hand, feel the heft of it, and decide if it’s for them.
The next statistic from the ABA bears that out. The number of printed books sold by the 500 or so independent bookstores who track such things for the ABA rose 13.4% (in units sold, not dollars sold) in the reporting year (which runs from mid-May to mid-May).
Publisher’s Lunch in reporting these statistics adds this quote from bookseller, NC Tom Jackson, “”It’s down compared to five years ago, but it went down when the whole economy fell. It’s since come back up and stayed up. Given what’s been happening with digital books, the competition from Amazon and so forth, that seems pretty good.”
Please understand that booksellers as a group of people are generally goodhearted and curmudgeonly. They don’t mince words, and they’re rarely positive. So if a bookseller has something good to say, well, then, you should sit up and listen.
I knew about the growth in indies two years ago when our local bookseller came back from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association meeting literally bouncing. The number of indie stores are up, he said, and the projections are that the number will continue to increase for years.
He’s right. If you want to start a niche bookstore, the time is now. Open a store that specializes in books on your region or a store that focuses solely on romance novels or a store that features books on railroads. Have an online presence, be open to indie books, add some used books as well, and keep your expenses low. Provided you’re in the right neighborhood (with relatively low rent), you’ll get more customers than you ever imagined.
The publishing media generally only discusses the bookstores that close, never really covering the bookstores that open. Not that most bookstores are aware of the insider journals. Maybe they know about Publishers Weekly, but they probably don’t. So the ABA figures are the only ones we have to go on—and you know they also cover the closings. So an increase of 55 members means that even more joined, considering that some high-profile bookstores closed in the past year.
You want more good news? The number of print books published in the US increased by 6% in 2011. This statistic comes to us courtesy of Bowker who issue the tracking numbers called ISBNs that most bookstores and publishers use to keep track of their inventory. This statistic does not include e-books because many of them, particularly indie published titles, don’t use ISBNs, choosing instead to use Amazon’s tracking numbers or B&N’s tracking numbers.
The statistic from Bowker does include numbers from companies like CreateSpace which will sell its ISBNs to indie publishers, particularly people who publish only one or two books per year and can’t see the point of investing in a series of numbers from Bowker.
More and more books are available in paper, which is a good thing, and since most readers have no choice but to order online these days, they have access to indie published titles as well as traditionally published titles. Fascinatingly, at least to me, was that the number of print books published by the major publishing houses was flat this year (going along with what we already know) and the number of self- or indie-published titles fueled the growth in print books.
Remember, we’re still in a recession, and our industry is growing. As readers, we should be thrilled. We have more choice than ever. As writers, we should also be thrilled. We are able to make our work available in a variety of ways not possible five years ago.
And yet the gloom and doom persists. I pick on Wasserman because his article repeats the stuff you see in the publishing media. He writes, “Readers of e-books are especially drawn to escapist and overtly commercial genres (romance, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction), and in these categories e-book sales have bulked up to as large as 60 percent.”
In other words, junk sells better in e-book format, something you hear a lot from the folks in traditional publishing these days.
Wasserman then quotes an unnamed traditional publishing executive who says, “But as Amazon’s six other publishing imprints (Montlake Romance, AmazonCrossing, Thomas & Mercer, 47North, Amazon Encore, The Domino Project) have discovered, in certain genres (romance, science fiction and fantasy) formerly relegated to the moribund mass-market paperback, readers care not a whit about cover design or even good writing, and have no attachment at all to the book as object. Like addicts, they just want their fix at the lowest possible price, and Amazon is happy to be their online dealer.”
Is it any wonder that traditional publishing is in trouble, with that attitude? The books that sell well don’t deserve (in their opinion) the respect of good covers or good marketing, and the readers certainly don’t deserve their respect. Apparently, the book collectors who predominate in science fiction and fantasy don’t care about books as objects (that’ll be news to them). Apparently people who read this junk just want their fix, like any other drug addict.
No wonder readers who enjoy genre fiction like to read it on their e-readers. The covers from traditional publishers are deliberately ugly, the writing is awful (supposedly—and if so, then what does traditional publishing bring to the table, if they publish any old crappy writer?), and the people who publish it are awfully judgmental. Best to enjoy it in private, without someone leering at the awful cover that the publishers have put on the book.
Go back to that Authors Guild meeting, note that they made fun of a book that first sold well as an indie title in e-book, and ask yourself who those writers identify with? I have a hunch it’s not those of us who write genre fiction.
So here’s the bad news, folks.
1. Independent booksellers are growing in number and growing in sales. Why is that bad news for traditional publishers? Because they geared their sales force to market to only four or five customers—the chain bookstores. And oddly, that includes their “antagonist” Amazon. Now their sales force is only equipped to sell to two or three customers, and has no revenue to grow sales to independent booksellers.
2. The number of print books published has gone up. But only because of self/indie published titles. If you remove those of us who are publishing our own work, the number of print books being published has remained flat. Then if you add in e-books, which everyone knows has a preponderance of indie writers, the books being sold in the US includes a much bigger number of books being published outside of traditional publishing, books they have no control over and books they derive no revenue from.
3. Genre books are doing better than ever. Oh, heavens. America is reading junk. More specifically, America is reading junk that traditional publishers, book reviewers, and the publishing establishment don’t approve of. The world really is going to come to an end.
Let me leave you with a wonderful chart that accompanies an article that Forbes did today on Smashwords. If you want to see the future, look at this article.
The chart shows two identical stacks of books next to each other, color-coded and covered in percentages. The stack on the left bears the title “The Old Model.” The stack on the right bears the title “The New Model.”
Imagine these stacks represent dollars. Half of the stack on the left goes to a book’s distributor. Another 35% of that stack goes to a book’s publisher. A book agent takes 2.2%, leaving the author—the person without whom the book would not exist—to collect 12.75% of the book’s revenue.
Over half of the stack on the right goes to the author—60% of the book’s revenue. The book’s publisher gets 10% and the distributor gets 30%. If the writer is smart, she becomes the publisher as well, and gets a full 70% of the revenue of that book.
Hmmm. Let me see: 70% versus 12.75%
Talk to any business person and ask them which is the better deal. If you have to ask at all. Because a fifth grader can tell you which stack benefits the writer the most.
So I would think that point 4, the point no one in traditional publishing really wants to think about—not the Scott-Turow type bestsellers, not the writers who are too frightened to leave their publishers, not the editors, reviewers, traditional publishing executives, and CEO of publishing companies—is that selling an indie book is more profitable and better business for the writer.
You know, the writer. The person whom everyone ignores and shunts aside and convince that they’re unimportant. You know, the one without whom agents (who get 2.2%) and traditional publishers (who get 35%) and traditional distributors (who get 50%) wouldn’t ever get their gigantic cut of profits. Because none of those hangers-on (or middlemen, as some politely call them) can write a good book themselves. If they could, they would be writing those books—and indie-publishing them.
You can bet those three categories of people understand business. And when you understand business, you look at numbers. For the folks in traditional publishing and those who cover them in trade journals, the numbers are going the wrong way.
For the rest of us—including readers—the numbers are on our side.
Bad news? Yeah, if you run a big corporation with too many out-of-date systems and the wrong kind of employees.
Because Wasserman got something else right in his article. He quotes a so-called “prominent” literary agent (unidentified, of course. Such courage these people have) who says, “‘This is a business run by English majors, not business majors.’”
And therein lies the problem. These people have no clue what they’re doing. But they think you should be reading something you don’t like, published at prices you don’t want to pay, sold to you by stores that don’t care about your reading experience.
The fact that all of that is going away threatens their business.
The fact that all of that is going away helps mine.
So this gloom-and-doom? It really does belong in a New Yorker cartoon. And, speaking of the New Yorker, they’re starting to get it. This week’s issue? The science fiction issue. To my knowledge, the first genre issue they’ve ever done.
Looks like the tastemakers are moving over to the dark side.
No wonder traditional publishers are scared. They’ve seen the future, and in it, they’re marginalized.
Rather like writers used to be.
I inadvertently joined the new world of publishing in 2009 when I started writing The Freelancer’s Survival Guide on this blog. I was experimenting with reader-funded nonfiction because I felt the book was timely and traditional publishing wouldn’t get it out quickly enough. It turns out that you folks have kept this blog going for three years.
I’m a numbers girl, however, and I note whenever I record my income that I make the bulk of my living on fiction. So if this blog ceases to pay for itself in terms of my time, I’ll quit writing it. That puts the burden on y’all to keep the blog going.
If you get any value from this post or from the blog in general, please leave a tip on the way out. And thanks for all the support, e-mail, comments and donations that have kept this blog alive for so long. I quite literally cannot do it without you.
Thanks so much!
“The Business Rusch: “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.