Publishers, Survival is not a right!

Eoin Purcell

Craning for a book (From Flickr user: gaspi)

Craning for a book (From Flickr user: gaspi)

Noble thoughts, but misplaced
I read an interesting blog post the other day about the demise of print publishing. It was written by Indie Publisher, Barbara Philips of Bridge Works Books on the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency blog. The ideas were worthy and valid (if pervaded by a sense that publishers have a RIGHT to exist) and in fact will work for a while, but overall the post was totally misguided.

For the record the suggestions were:

1) change immediately the pernicious practice of Returns. Speaking of buggy whips, bookseller and wholesaler returns of unsold books to the publisher for full refunds is an anachronism that should be stopped immediately and all publishers, large and small, should rally against it and set a date, say January 2012, after which no returns will be countenanced.
2) Make life easier for the beleaguered publisher. I’ve often observed there seem to be more writers out there than readers. If an author wants her book to be published by a legitimate publisher, with professional editing, distribution and publicity, she might consider becoming a partner with the publisher who signs her up, either by giving up advances on royalties or royalties altogether and taking a cut of the profits. This would be especially good for first-time authors.
3) Continue to expand other venues for book selling, and find new ones, for instance, publishing simultaneously in offset print and digitally. Right now, as we wrangle, a few large publishers are trying this method out.

Dealing with them one by one
Killing Returns is a double edged sword. Yes it will save publishers from the practice of retailers and wholesalers paying for new books by returning old unsold ones, but equally it will force publishers to cut print runs (reducing margin) and find better ways to sell books than stacking them high and hoping display does the trick (as it often does). I’m not saying this is a bad thing, in fact both these things would be good for publishers, it’s about time we printed the right amount of books rather too many and connecting with the audience properly is well worthwhile in the medium to long term.

Changing the publishing deal. This is eminently sensible. HarperStudio seem to be making some waves by following this strategy (Combined with Killing Returns). The problem, as I see it is that this remains a short termist strategy.

As the cost and difficulty of becoming your own publisher crashes (the last barriers remain access to bricks and mortar bookshops and distribution) more authors will take their self created platforms and followings and become their own publisher avoiding entirely the traditional distribution channels and selling online.

Being against Selling in more ways is like being against Apple Tart (Pie) or (Cotton) Candy-floss. Sure everyone wants to sell the same content in as many possible formats as we can, but what if consumers don’t want to pay anything like the were willing to pay for the print version?

The Traditional Publishing Model

The Traditional Publishing Model

These are not strategies, they are tactics
None of these moves are actions that will change the fundamental reality of book publishing for Indie or Major publishers. There are real strategies that might work (no-one knows though). You can delve into a niche like Osprey, Tor or Adams media. You can try and be the best marketer of general books as I believe HarperStudio is. Even better you can buy the best assets (Seth Godin‘s Purple Cow(s)) there are and use them as the foundation of your publishing business like Bloomsbury is doing. But the rest is just window dressing on a collapsing superstructure that cannot hold.

What The Digital World Enables

What The Digital World Enables

If you don’t trust my judgement on this, read Seth Godin’s recent post on competing with the single minded, read Mike Shtazkin on vertical niches, read Tim O’Reilly’s archive on publishing.

The world has changed. Publishers should certainly try and embrace a new way of business, but it needs to be entirely more radical than just killing returns, changing contracts, selling through more channels and sharing profits with authors. The industry needs to embrace the reality that power has shifted away from publishers and get on with figuring out if we can survive this shift the impact of which is only gradually being felt. Eventually everyone will realise that it has happened (Amazon and Google have certainly figured it out and so have Apple) and when they do, the change will become much more rapid. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SURVIVAL.

I am the proud owner of Season Two of Mad Men in DVD, sadly Season Three is already started, I am destined to be behind the curve in that show!
Eoin

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5 comments

  1. Maybe it is just me but those diagrams are barely readable and just too small. The diagrams are mostly text anyway, perhaps you could representing them as ASCII art instead?

  2. “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SURVIVAL.”

    Clearly stated. Thank you. I hope a few publishers understand before it smacks them in the face.

    Peace.

  3. Ignoring the big point (which is obvious in any case: no business has an automatic right to survival — we have to continuously earn it) to concentrate on a small one, on the scale of things: a sensible change to returns would be partial credit, rather than full credit — the problem at the moment is that 100% of the risk is taken by the publisher and 0% by the retailer, when it comes to irresponsible ordering (as seen by most booksellers, who ignore the real costs incurred to them by returns). Even changing it to 75% credit would see a huge shift in behaviour, particularly towards the end of promotions etc.

    Ivan

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