Tag Archives: Book Publishing

Why Are Publishers Happy About Missing Out on the Digital Revolution?

The chart you see above is from Gallup and Pew measuring the percentage of adults in the U.S. who have not read a single book in the year measured.

It was 8% in 1978 and has been hovering at 23-27% in recent years. This is not a trend one associates with a growth industry. Meanwhile, I see newspaper editors, authors, and book publishers celebrating the death of the ebook without looking at this long-term trend of reading decline.  Are they dancing on their own graves?

It seems likely that print book reading has been in decline since around the time the Internet came on the scene because of new entertainment choices.  We know from many studies that people are spending more and more time engaged with content provided on a networked screen: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Facebook, Instagram, streaming sports, and so on.

Yet in the traditional book publishing industry, the collective decision was made to raise ebook prices to about what paperbacks sell for to save the old industry. And in the process kill the only networked screen innovation the book industry could participate in, the digital book for Smartphone and tablet reading. Vested interests across the supply chain published stories about the inferiority of reading books on a screen. How people remember less when reading digitally. An active campaign was undertaken to ward off innovation by The Establishment. (Them again!)

The inclination in the face of change is to duck one’s head in the sand and hope you can make it though the storm.  Maybe YOU can make it, but what about future generations who want a viable book industry? This is analogous to the old wooden ship builders deciding not to enter the iron age. Or the suits at Kodak who smugly looked at industry-funded Photo Marketing Association research, ignoring what was happening in the larger world. Just as with AAP research, the photo industry research ignored the emerging players and their market growth quietly occurring outside the normal competitive landscape.  Do you remember when supermarkets sold food but didn’t make it available to eat in the store? Someone smart decided competition was happening all around them at restaurants so along came Whole Foods, where people now eat right next to where others pay.  Brilliant!

We know from looking at traditional publishing financial results that publishers gave up easy profits when they chose to ignore the future of the ebook and hide in the print past. The only way the old business models have survived is through continued consolidation, which means pumping through more titles in lower volumes to fewer readers to just about stay even. For now. When the next recession comes, that will change again. Those higher number of titles coming from fewer traditional publishers with less staff  has to translate into a poorer experience for authors as a byproduct.

Crossing the chasm from the old, which provides most of the current income, to the new is nearly impossible. This is why competition almost always comes from the outside, from new players who have no investment in the old ways so are free to seize opportunities while the old plays a difficult balancing game. I experienced this firsthand when the 35mm photo industry had huge investments in obsolescent technology and equipment, while needing to  also invest in the digital new, the sum being a very expensive, unsustainable business model, which was too much weight for the likes of Sony, Konica, Kodak, and Polaroid.

The publishing industry seems to have throttled back the digital new more than was needed. No one I speak with in the book industry can answer the important question: “How many sales did you lose when you raised your ebook prices to the same as paperback?”  If you apply the strategic thinking of dividing customers into clusters of Most Engaged, Somewhat Engaged, and Not Engaged, I would expect many in the Somewhat Engaged group bought fewer books once ebook prices went up to the current high (I would say absurd) levels.  Yes, the Most Engaged are stepping up as they always will in continuing to support the old print business and indie booksellers, but can publishers survive well into the digital future in a highly competitive screen-based entertainment marketplace with just the Most Engaged?  I doubt it.

A possible better way to straddle the change would be to launch the hardcover edition that all publishers currently offer for those Most Engaged customers, and hold off on both the ebook and paperback editions until a year later when released simultaneously.  Price the ebook at $9.95 intended for the Somewhat Engaged shoppers. The $16-$20 paperback sales should not be hurt much by this change, as those who prefer to read in paperback will pay $10 more. And the net margins should be higher, without returns and printing costs. Bookstore sales should stay flat, especially when Barnes & Noble is out of the mix. The smart indie booksellers can do well in this overall environment that allows publishers to play a new game, as well as an old one.

I hear authors and industry insiders blaming Amazon for lowering book prices and reducing everyone’s profits as a result. (Same thing they said about Barnes & Noble back in 1986.) They claim this is now (ironically) why Barnes & Noble is on the ropes. I disagree. Barnes & Noble is on the ropes because they are caught in the middle, too large to compete with indie bookstores and too small to compete with Amazon. The core issue is not Amazon and lower book prices, but an overall shrinking market for book reading. That is the challenge people should be focusing on, not whining about how the shrinking pie is being affected by unfair competition. Ebooks were that path forward, as a new competition for other forms of digital entertainment, but pricing ebooks at $14.95 will never attract those less engaged potential book buyers. Duck and cover is not a winnable long-term strategy. You can’t go home again. You can be progressive or regressive.

It’s the same old question: do you see digital as a threat or an opportunity? It is in fact both, so don’t forget about the opportunities.

Missing out on the digital revolution is not an option for book publishers who want to operate well into the future. Actively promoting and celebrating the decline of the one new good thing that has come along to make the industry competitive with all other entertainment options, strikes me as self-defeating strategy.

The Future of Small-Batch Publishing

(This post first appeared on the BookBusiness Website.)

One of the great backlashes in our era of conglomerates is the steady growth of small-batch businesses. These are very small businesses that cater mostly to customers willing to spend more for a seemingly better and more controlled product offering.

There are many happy consumers who will buy a four-pack of local brew for $16, which when you think about it, is only $4 for a very good can of beer.  Compare that to the bar. I live in Maine where we have many small-batch breweries, and one of the things I love about these business owners is their commitment to buy local even though it means paying more.

For instance, Maine’s potato farmers now grow malt barley for local beer production, which is used by many of the state’s breweries even though the cost is far higher than buying “from away.” The farmers also make more on this new crop versus potatoes. The positive impact on rural areas struggling to compete is significant.

Lately I’ve been pondering the future for small-batch publishing, which is what I am doing with my company Publerati.  Identifying as a small-batch producer immediately shifts a lot of the norms for how products are acquired and produced. I have extensive background in the “pile them high and watch them fly” mass-market retail product areas. This method makes a lot of sense for high-volume mass- market products, including bestseller books.

Offset printing huge volumes of a title that will sell in huge numbers, and accepting that 20-30% of them will be piled high but never actually fly, is a reasonable business proposition for all concerned along the supply chain, from author to publisher to printer to bookstore to remainder company.

The problem arises for those books that do not warrant a large offset first printing, so are not actually represented by agents and published by the conglomerates. If you agree, as I do, that many of them should continue to make their way to readers through a traditional publishing gatekeeper process, it seems logical to conclude that the methods and rules need to change.

For me, so much of this small-batch publishing revolution hinges on two key developments: the increased use and access to inkjet printing of small quantities to ship; and the ability to get a fresh book printed at an in-store book machine, similar to what Espresso Books offers.

Fresh Beer… Fresh Books

Putting my small-batch consumer hat on for a moment, I like the idea of buying a book that was printed and bound in minutes while I was enjoying a coffee in the store. No one else has thumbed through it. I know it is new. Fresh. I also like the idea that this means there will be less waste going into landfills, or at least I think a reasonable consumer would assume so. This also allows the store to decide how many copies of a particular title to print to meet their local demand. They can print and display some on their own dime, so to speak.

Most consumers (other than writers) don’t think about this next point, but I also like knowing books are being kept in print that otherwise would not.  Many major publishers continue to be reluctant to offer their out-of-print backlist books through networks like the Espresso Book Machine, most likely feeling they will make them available on their own “down the road.” It’s the typical gorilla mentality, and one that does not benefit consumers in the here and now.

I like knowing the publisher of a particular title, like the maker of that local cheese, produces fewer products and devotes more time and attention to each one.  It’s the individual attention and care given to the creators of the products—the authors—where so much potential exists for small-batch publishers.

I was never comfortable working for a publisher knowing we did not actually produce the products (the content) that paid our bills. Across the spectrum of all products produced and sold, this is not normal. The risk is that more and more authors are shut out from the conglomerates and so look for someone more eager to show some love. This has been happening for years now with publishers like Coffee House Press and the many university presses that have published books thought to be “too learned or narrow” for the lay reader. They have done a great job filling a void.

Ironically, as we consolidate more and more into the “large-few,” it’s the “small-many” who continue to proliferate faster than we can keep up with. Both can live happily together, serving different customers with differing expectations. The large-few have many advantages of scale in distribution and labor. But so do the small-many, as long as they stay true to who they are. Acquisitions of smaller companies by larger ones can be a disaster, as I’m sure many readers here have experienced.

The processes of the huge factory are not the right ones for the small shop, and vice versa. I continue to be hopeful that the efficiencies of scale we are already witnessing in printing and distribution will allow all publishers to operate more efficiently in serving their customers: authors and readers.

So grab yourself a fresh brew and curl up with that just-printed book bought at your local store.   — Caleb Mason.

Ten Helpful Tips for Novelists

Let’s face it, writing fiction is a daunting undertaking. It’s heartening that so many people want to write novels, and we want to help you before you get too far along, by identifying some of the most common areas for improvement we see in submissions as well as in published works.

First, a lesson from the Japanese. This may be the most important word to keep in mind when working on your novel and living your life:

Kaizen (改善), is the Japanese word for “continuous improvement.” In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to assembly-line workers.

So when you find yourself tearing your hair out working on a first draft, or tearing your remaining hair out when revising, keep this important concept in mind. Everything, including your novel, can be improved.

Here are Ten Areas for Improvement:

  • Strive to be Original. The vast majority of submissions we receive are poor imitations of work already done very well by popular writers. Much of this imitation is subconscious, so pay careful attention to your premise when first setting out. Has it been done before? If so, then why bother?
  • Find Your Own Voice. Related to the above, try and write in a tone and attitude that is uniquely you. Much of the writing we read has no distinctive voice at all, but is just words strung together on the page lacking flavor. Like a bad soft-serve ice cream cone. Insipid. It might take you much of your life to find your voice. It will take plenty of practice runs with much work tossed in the trash before you finally start getting the hang of it. Listen to this voice as you walk around town. Finding it is a bit like hitting a baseball: you cannot try too hard or you’ll miss. It’s a delicate mix of passive and active living and effort, paying close attention to your subconscious mind.
  • Be Fearless. You must be confident enough in the mysteries of the creative process to not judge yourself as you write. Just start writing and go with the flow. Even though you cannot see over the next hill, you need to at least get to that hill, which means moving forward. Kurt Vonnegut described it as driving in the fog. What are you afraid of, anyway? If you don’t make the drive, someone else will. So go for it. Life is short. We’re all going to be dead soon enough. Let yourself go and become the characters on the page. It’s fun and rewarding, despite all the difficult work.
  • Read Great Works. The books you read while writing will influence you. So try and read great literature or non-fiction you admire, and study all the problems of fiction: what point of view (or points) is the story told in? How does the author handle time? What do the characters smell, hear, think, taste? How you tell your story is as important as the story itself. Maybe you have noticed this at the movies. The filmmaker and camera have a unique way of telling the story. Maybe we go into the future, then back into the past. Maybe a different character tells the story in each chapter, so the story itself becomes murky, conflicted, fascinating. How is Thomas Hardy telling his story as you read along? Virginia Wolfe? Jane Smiley?
  • Write an Original Metaphor on Page One. You’d be amazed how many submissions do not have a single striking metaphor anywhere within them. Yes, there are hackneyed ones, the ones stuck in your brain because they’ve been drilled in so many times over your lifetime you don’t even think about them as you put words on the page.  Metaphors allow us to better see inside our characters. A favorite example we cite is the recovering alcoholic, just out of rehab, who drives to the ocean.  “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.” This is great because it helps us understand how difficult it is for the character to just gaze at the ocean without thinking about the allure of a cocktail. Hit us over the head with an original metaphor on your first page.
  • Create Your Own Analogies for the Writing Process. This is how you think about and approach your writing. For instance, some writers consider their initial draft to be more of a sketch than a watercolor. But one needs a great sketch to create an even greater watercolor, with all the details filled in as you circle back over and over again, adding texture, detail, and depth. Another analogy is . . .

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New Ways for Authors

(This first appeared on Book Business, under a different title.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of new technologies is how they open doors for new business models. And this is very true in the evolving world of book publishing.

The book publishing model has many challenges, most notably how the established system of author advances, large superstore pre-orders, and returns limits what will be published. Consolidation has made it more difficult to gamble on new authors, so a significant portion of publishing has become about pumping out more of the same from the well-known writers with celebrity status.

Let’s face it. The best authors throughout history were not celebrity personality types! Writers and readers tend to be people eager for the contemplative life. I have been cringing while reading recent audience-driven articles about producing shorter works to feed increasingly distracted tastes. Great works have not been created to feed reader tastes. They have been written because the author had something important to add to our understanding of human existence.

I’m basically an optimistic pessimist, which means when all hope seems lost, mankind rises to the occasion with something better. And for many authors, publishers, and readers, I think print-on-demand is that meaningful, lasting innovation (along with ebooks).

I recently had an email from a reader who bought a Publerati novel through the Espresso POD network and the feedback was revealing to me. “I was surprised how high-quality the book is. I thought it would be a comb-bound pamphlet.” Wow! This reminded me of when digital photo first came on the scene and was just assumed to be inferior. (Side note: I am fascinated by the twenty-somethings I meet who are reviving vinyl records. They will pay more for what they perceive to be better quality. Innovations always confront a nostalgic backlash, I suppose. Or said another way, it’s cool to be retro and “not popular.”)

So maybe we need to overcome some consumer concerns around the quality of print-on-demand editions. That will take a more concerted industry campaign. The first thing I did was make a new page on the Publerati website with a quality statement along with a list of locations offering our titles. You can see it here and I welcome comments on how to make this better.

But the big opportunity of POD is to save the many excellent writers whose books will never sell in the huge quantities that the consolidated publishing industry needs. And in the POD model, these authors don’t necessarily require an advance. Why should they? Let’s get paid for what we produce, not what we have the potential to produce. Publishers have been burned time and time again with that hyped second novel that was a dud.

By only printing what each local market will support, we have a more responsible and sustainable business model. There is no need to prematurely mark an author’s book out-of-print to stem unexpectedly high returns. Now, the author’s book can be available for as long as the publisher wants and for as long as the reader wants. Isn’t that a much better system? Is that not a benefit publishers can offer mid-list and potential breakout authors?

When I see HarperCollins providing front list titles through the Espresso Book Network, I know change is underway. Change is always underway, but we can only see it after it has happened. The benefits to those on the front-edge of change are disproportionately high. Customers remember “who did it first” and their loyalty can be an immense barrier to entry from imitators slow to the new game.

POD publishing is already opening many new doors. What we cannot see from here is how fast this change will occur and who the early winners will be. I’m hoping many of these winners will be authors who can take more control of their publishing destiny. Enjoy the ride!

Announcing “Publishing Outsights”

Someone made the mistake of asking me for my opinions on book publishing. So I will be offering them through a new blog on BookBusiness called “Outsights on Publishing.”

Why the name? It’s my sincere hope that I can share something of value to others based on my many years working in the book industry, photo industry, mapping and GPS industry, and tourism industry, each different in their own unique ways but with similar challenges brought about by rapid rates of disruption from unexpected places.

My latest post concerns the possible negative impact on publishers’ profitability due to small gains in print book sales offset by much larger losses in ebooks. The big question in a world of disruption, is how many of those former ebook readers bought an ebook from Amazon or another source outside the AAP-measured traditional book industry?

Anyone have any reliable way to measure that?

Why I Believe in the Future of Print-on-Demand Books

Back in 1995 when I worked in the photo industry, where the existing infrastructure in 35mm film, cameras, and long-life photo paper worldwide amounted to billions of dollars, many of the people working in that industry were dismissive of digital photography and the future of print-on-demand retail kiosks. The costs were prohibitive, the machines were too expensive and unreliable, and retailers would not want them. The list of reasons denying their future viability was extensive.

Today, one finds tens of thousands of these machines in chain drugstores, supermarkets, and mass merchants, albeit producing far fewer prints than in the 35mm heyday of wholesale photofinishing labs pumping out 50,000 rolls a night, guaranteed next-day or free just to add to the pressure. Back then, research showed the typical consumer was pleased with three good prints out of a roll of thirty-six (talk about progress, now they can see what they are getting before printing). That was a lot of photos that went directly into the trash or were stuffed under the bed in a shoebox, before ending up in the trash when future generations wondered just who the hell everyone was back then and why anyone would care.

The success of modern onsite digital photo machines is in great measure due to their role in bringing customers into stores knowing they will buy other goods while there. If you look at a Walgreens today, you will notice they continue to promote two services on the exteriors of their buildings: pharmacy and photo. I HAVE to go into a drugstore or supermarket every week; I DO NOT HAVE to go into a bookstore for months unless I want to buy a printed book in that way. (Sadly, in my experience lately, better independent bookstores are stocking fewer and fewer titles to make room for merchandise I do not care about, so increasingly I shop for books online or at Goodwill, the local bookstore of our time.) Sigh.

So now we enter the era of change for books, similar and also different to the photo industry of twenty years ago. We have early innovators such as On-Demand Books with their Espresso Book Network for printing high-quality paperbacks in minutes, and I expect they face an entrenched group of interests eager to maintain the status quo, hoping they will “simply go away.”  I believe there is nearly as much waste and inefficiency in printed books as there was with those old unacceptable (but accepted then!) “three good photo” stats in the days of 35mm film, when you could not possibly know what you were getting until you held the paid-for print in hand, excitedly flipping through them clandestinely in your car like a lotto ticket scratcher on a bender. (And apparently it was so important that those three good photos arrive the next day!)

I wonder how many books truly need to be printed on the paper they consume. Why not read a book digitally first and then if you love it and want to own it “forever” (or until your kids chuck it once you move on), buy a hardcover or paperback edition, along the lines of what happens with the books we call “classics.” (You know, like Fifty Shades of Grey, which the publishing industry rescued from the seedy world of self-publishing, thank God.)  Owning a print collection of the The World’s Great Novels or the The World’s Great Thinkers makes sense to me; owning a novel or celebrity biography that is just okay or a colossal disappointment to many (which happens all the time, just scan the reviews of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch as one example) strikes me as a huge environmental waste of perfectly good trees.

If you look at the space in a Rite Aid or the Photo Center of your supermarket, you will see most have room for a print-on-demand book machine. On-Demand Books recently announced that a hoped-for relationship with Kodak fell through, but Fuji is in fact the company with the most installed photo machines, precisely because Kodak was slow to the new game, hoping their existing 35mm infrastructure would not collapse as quickly as it did. And they had the largest global infrastructure invested in the century-old ways, racing to get those thirty-three bad prints back to you, whereas Fuji and Konica exited those businesses more rapidly instead of making further investments to gain short-term new business. The book machine at mass retail cost-justification is different than what the bookstore faces, in that drugstores and supermarkets are always looking for stores-within-stores to bring customers in more frequently and raise the average total amount spent, so the machine payback does not need to be as stringent as in the standalone bookstore scenario.

The purpose of these book machines, which will come down in price over time and become more reliable to operate, is to attract more overall business to your store. Fuji, Xerox, and Konica have large field-service organizations already servicing copiers and photo machines in mass market locations, so they can add the book machine to the list of reasons they need to be in the stores (e.g., supplying more paper, getting paid “per copy,” installing and servicing their latest machines, making money off  lucrative service agreements).

I believe this business model will be far better for society, including for many authors, who via the current business practices see their books declared out-of-print prematurely to avoid wasteful publisher returns from retail, a truly preposterous way of doing business. As bookselling consolidated power to the large chains and publishing conglomerates, the time a book other than a bestseller was given to prove itself on shelf was a matter of months, obviously not sufficient time to support a non-bestseller book launch.

Print-on-demand will eliminate the truckloads of books literally bought by the pound on pallets from publisher warehouses to be remaindered and trashed. Those making the case for how special writers are versus other product producers should witness that humbling spectacle.

I expect what will happen over the next ten years is standalone book superstores will be forced to close their doors in increasing numbers if not completely, which will continue the shift of book distribution into food, drug, and mass merchant retail outlets, as well as online. Amazon might buy RadioShack, and install a bunch, who knows?  Print-on-demand machines will become more affordable and offer wider publisher selection to match online inventories, as the machines make their way into mass merchants. The books that truly deserve to be pre-printed will continue that way through fewer and fewer independent bookstores, as well as schools and libraries—children’s books and art books most notably—while fiction and non-fiction titles will continue migrating to digital first, with more print-on-demand in the mix.

As was the case with Kodak, the largest and most channel undiversified of the current publishers will face the fastest declines when the transition accelerates, given their disproportionate stakes in old infrastructures. And similar to Kodak and Polaroid twenty years ago, I can hear them dismissing this line of thought as I type. The two greatest gifts the gods gave man: rationalization and denial, are also two of the most dangerous. Book people, of all people, should know this.

Publishers, unlike Kodak, at least control a great deal of terrific content, so their challenge will be more about managing the distribution shift over time, as well as eventually being forced to pay their authors better royalties in order to keep them from fleeing. If you accept that statement as a given, then they also will need to earn more per copy sold than they do currently, which I believe ebooks and print-on-demand can help them accomplish. Paying a reseller 55-60% of a book’s cover price right off the bat simply does not leave enough operating income to sustain most publishers or authors.

— Caleb Mason, Publerati