Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The (Publishing) House Is Burning, Part IV

In the previous posts in this series, I've focused on the New York publishing houses and the impact the new technology is having on them.

Today I'd like to talk a bit about the impact of the changing publishing landscape on authors.

Let's talk first about the Dead Trees Method (DTM) of publishing: Under that system, if you're a published author, your book has a print run. Your publisher prints seasonal catalogs that their sales force uses to persuade bookstores and libraries to purchase the book. Buying a supply is a no-risk proposition for bookstores because they can return the hardcovers and trade copies (and the covers of the mass market paperbacks) for credit if they don't sell.

Your goal as a new author is to achieve the highest sell-through rate possible. Newbie authors are told they need a 50% sell-through (the percentage of copies actually sold versus the percentage of copies that were shipped) to get another book contract.

Your book is on bookstore shelves for a limited period of time. After that, it is either returned to the publisher, put on a discount table, sent to a consignment retailer or pulped. Soon, the only place that book is available is in used bookstores. The publisher and the author receive no income from used book sales (although new readers may discover the writer that way).

The industry, which was once dominated by wealthy families who handed the business down to their heirs, has become very centralized--the bulk of the New York imprints are now owned by the Big Six houses, which in turn are all owned by large media conglomerates.

Corporate ownership has had consequences for authors and editors:

  1. A focus on short-term profits. Books are simply another product in the array of product lines owned by these large corporations. Remember: When you are a publicly traded company, you have a 90-day mindset. Every quarter you must answer to your stockholders, which keeps the focus on the bottom line. And keeps the pressure on the writer to sell.
  2. A reluctance to take chances. A natural offshot of that focus on profits is a reluctance to gamble. Given a choice between a well-known, popular writer or an unknown newbie, can you blame publishers for preferring the popular writer? With everyone vying for those top authors, it's easy to understand why advances have grown exponentially. The real chances are being taken by independents and e-publishers. It's no accident that the "new" genre of erotic romance started online. Once the genre proved popular, New York was all over it. But the reluctance to take chances makes it tougher than ever for a newbie writer to break into publishing.
  3. A reluctance to change. Everyone admits that the large advances and the "returns" system are strangling publishing, but change has been slow to come. The tendency to cling to the status quo makes it difficult for the people currently running the industry to reinvent themselves and their houses.

Meanwhile, the Internet, print-on-demand (POD) and digitization are changing the nature of the business. Remember when we talked about the DTM above? Let's talk about how that is changing.

Think of the Internet as a virtual bookshelf with unlimited space. A book that is digitized can be offered for sale forever online.

Go visit the Google Book Search site here. Note that when you click on a book--whether it is in the public domain or not--Google offers you a link to purchase that book. If you or your publisher agree to have your book scanned and posted to Google Book Search, it need never go out of print. You can continue to see that book sold and you can continue to earn royalties on those sales.

With a digitized file and POD technology, if a reader clicks on your book, it can be printed immediately and shipped. No huge print runs, no warehousing, no returns. The book is only printed when an order and payment arrive.

The reader of the future has choices. S/he can order the book online from a link provided by Google or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or a publishing house and it will be printed and shipped.

Or the reader could run down to his local bookstore, order and pay for the book, and then wait five minutes for it to be printed on an Espresso Book Machine.

Or finally, the reader could choose to order the e-book to be downloaded to his/her e-reading device.

All of this is about the reader and the many options that will soon be available.

So what should an author or aspiring writer be thinking about these days?

  1. Recognize that while the ownership of the publishing houses (and of bookstores) has centralized, the audience has decentralized. The Internet has permitted the development of all kinds of niches. Pay attention to your genre. Become familiar with the places where your readers gather. And make your presence known.
  2. Let the technology work for you. Develop a website, Tweet on Twitter, join Facebook.
  3. Pay special attention to your contracts. Be sure the definition of "out of print" is one you can live with. Be very certain that it is written in a quantitative way so that if the publisher is not actively marketing the book, the rights revert to you. By actively marketing the book, I mean set a minimum number of sales each year. If those sales do not occur, your rights should revert to you.
  4. Discuss your career with your agent and make certain that if you want to write for e-publishers in addition to print publishers, your agent's contract does not prohibit that. Obviously you cannot sell the same book in different mediums to separate publishers, but keep your options open when possible so that if you want to write a novel for the e-market you can do so. This also means you need to understand the "options" clause in your publishing contract and what it commits you to. Remember the lessons of Dara Joy (see the post here if you don't know what I mean).
  5. Watch the royalty percentages you are being offered for e-books. Be sure you can live with whatever commitment you make. Depending on the contract you sign, you may have to live with that commitment for a long time.
  6. Stay abreast of the news of the industry. Learn everything you can. Don't hesitate to ask questions. And don't stop asking until you get an answer.

Most of all, keep on writing!


tkersh said...

Thanks for your always informative blog!

Do sales from the discount table or volume discounters count as sellthru?

Maya Reynolds said...

tkersh: No, because they are usually sold very near cost and make no profit.