(This first appeared under a different title on the Book Business Website.) Let me preface this by saying I run a literary fiction micro-publisher operating much in the mold of how full-service traditional publishing has for years, although because my overheads are so low, I pay my authors 50% of print and 70% of ebook royalties, something I realize large publishers cannot do.
As self-publishing continues evolving, it strikes me that traditional publishers are losing one of our most important services for authors: bookstore distribution. The very distributors publishers have relied upon for years are hedging their bets (and expanding their revenues) by tapping into the self-publishing market. For example, both Ingram and BookBaby offer authors distribution to chain and independent bookstores. And the Espresso Book Network continues to expand a new retail solution for bookshops, libraries, and others. Not to mention the obvious: more and more consumers simply prefer buying print books and ebooks from Amazon.
More than just distribution, though, these new upstarts also offer the production tools needed to easily produce print books and ebooks. So there goes the production expertise competitive advantage of many publishers.
I realize many authors ardently support their publishers. I also know many are frustrated that their royalties are not higher, especially for ebooks. Traditional publishers and reviewers mostly dismiss self-published titles as “trash,” but what happens when established authors with large followings decide to go out on their own? Did you see this week that five of the top ten bestselling books sold by Apple come from self-publishing?
There are many good authors frustrated at how fast they are forgotten in the Big Houses who pump out thousands of titles per year. I would think a lot of authors would rather hire the editorial and marketing services they choose on their own dime, using a portion of the extra royalties they receive from self-publishing at both book launch and as part of a sustained multi-year effort. To take complete control of their own book’s destiny, as opposed to assigning it to a company operating with high employee turnover and low morale. (Take a look at the recent Glassdoor ratings of the Big 5 as an indication of current employee morale.)
I believe this threat is greater for books than it would be for some other product type. Authors pour everything they have, over many years, into writing their beloved books. Giving their babies away to others is a big risk, especially for those who feel burned or overlooked in the past.
All it takes to demoralize an author working with a Big 5 publisher is to lose your editor in a layoff. Without that internal champion, you are sunk. The ensuing organizational chaos that follows just makes it more painful. This is a huge gamble on a co-dependent relationship where neither side typically feels great about it all the time.
The big strategic question for publishers is increasingly becoming how much does an author need to pay you to provide equal or better services available from somewhere else? Right now, the number they are paying is larger than the newer markets demand. The one big advantage of traditional publishing to authors is the royalty advance. But the few big names are getting more and more while the rest are getting less and are in essence being asked by the publishers to fund those large advances with their reduced 25% ebook royalty rates. How long will they put up with this?
So what should publishers be doing that they aren’t already? I realize many are working to establish their own direct-to-consumer businesses, which is a good start. But I am a skeptic when it comes to this, probably because my career working in five different industries trying this same thing has demonstrated that people like to shop where people shop frequently. The supermarket. Or Amazon. Or the local indie bookstore. Remembering to buy once or twice a year from a manufacturer with their own unique reseller site is inconvenient. And in my experience, the costs to the manufacturer (in this case publisher) become actually higher than the margins they provide to resellers offering a variety of products. Those resellers own the majority of the customer transactions. The tech and staffing requirements to run an in-house direct marketing and IT team will surprise most who are new to that business model.
How about providing a sliding scale royalty on ebooks based on performance, same as done in contracts for print? 25% for ebooks up to a certain number sold, 40% after that. But I doubt this will happen and also am not sure the margin is there. The poor author, giving 15% to an agent and then 15% to themselves. The publisher and resellers are getting most of the slim retail margin for themselves. Which is why I feel the current rules of the old business are not sustainable going into the future. So do you let others disrupt you or try and do it yourself?
Worst of all for publishers, they don’t own the content they deliver. They are completely at the mercy of their authors’ decisions on how they choose to publish going forward. Contrast this with a software publisher who owns the product they make and sell. So, in the spirit of looking for new ways to survive, why don’t publishers focus more on offering content outright and sell it under their own name. The Random House Book of Birding. Random House is the author, the staff produces the book, just as software engineers do for Apple and others.
I post this in part to make sure publishers are paying attention to the services their distributors and laid-off editors and marketers are providing through new channels. This is precisely what I saw in the photo industry as customers and staff moved from Kodak and Polaroid to Epson (first digital camera), Adobe (editing), and HP (ink and paper). And then, of course, Apple, Samsung, Facebook, Instagram . . .