Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Publishing World Without Inventory

During the five years I've been blogging, I've made frequent references to Richard Curtis whom I described on June 9, 2008 as "a very smart man as well as a publishing industry visionary." Curtis is a literary agent and an e-publisher. I've been recommending his series of three articles titled "Publishing in the Twenty-First Century for years. Go here to Backspace to read the first one. You'll find the other articles there, too.

On Sunday, Curtis began a two-part series on his blog e-Reads that he titled "Publishing 3.0: A World Without Inventory." He began by pointing out that the current publishing model, built on the premise of bookstores returning unsold inventory for credit, is unsustainable.

In my post of April 9 here where I offered some future predictions for publishing, I talked about a new "model supported by devices like the Espresso Book Machine where they can quickly and economically print and bind a p-book on demand for a customer (eliminating the onerous publishing industry returns system) ..."

Curtis agrees, saying:
The time has come for publishers to accept the fact, now glaringly apparent to all but those in total denial, that no business enterprise can afford to sell just half or even two-thirds of what it manufactures – and to foot the bill for the return and disposal of the unsold other half.
He points out that the print-on-demand technology represented by the Espresso Book Machine will permit the industry to move from a "speculative" model where they print many more books than needed to a "prepaid" model where a book is only printed when an order for it is received ... AND paid for:
Do the math: 30, 40 or 50% returns for the speculative model vs. 0% for the prepaid. Case closed. Or so you would think. Yet traditional publishers cling to the topsy-turvy model of paying a lot of money upfront for books they believe will be hits, then making educated guesses on the size of the audience, then overprinting, then recovering unsold stock and remaindering it or sending it to a pulp mill.
Go here to read Part I of Curtis' very interesting and timely post and here to read Part II.


Peter L. Winkler said...

It is my understanding that the system of returns was born during the Great Depression to help booksellers. So the system or practice of returns has been extant for roughly 70 years. It's amazing how long the "unsustainable" publishing industry has sustained itself.

Ever hear the joke about the second book Gutenberg printed? It was about the imminent demise of publishing.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: I refuse to believe that you are that simplistic in your thinking. Horses and wagons were viable for hundreds of years until they weren't any more.

Peter L. Winkler said...

You missed my point. You can't call a system that has functioned for decades unsustainable. It's illogical, oxymoronic. An unsustainable system, by definition, fails in very short order. Yet somehow, this particular one has survived for about 70 years.

Also, and I really didn't want to go into this before, but book machines spitting out books one at a time are practically unsuitable for certain books that are predestined to sell large quantities in a short time. At the very least, there would still be a two-tier system with offset printed books for the latest Stephen King and maybe POD for a university press title.

Jesse said...

Most books are disposable. By that I mean a short shelf-life. The system takes a lot of the risk away from the brick and mortar stores and puts it primarily on the publisher.

If a bookstore had to survive on it's own (no returns), the mega-stores would cease to exist. The world of publishing has been altered by POD and e-Books. That will become clear in the next few years. Of course that is my opinion only.