The Future of Publishing …1

5. Welcome to Rome, 475 AD – September 9, 2012

A friend of mine recently sent me a link from the Los Angeles Review of Books featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital self-publishing and why it’s not completely a shameful vanity play. I read his article with interest and recommend it as one view—not necessarily the only view2—of the current publishing market. My immediate response to reading his article was, “Welcome to Rome in 475 AD.” Let me expand …

The “eternal city” doesn’t look much different now, in 475 AD, than when the Emperor Constantine moved the imperial offices away to Constantinople about a century and a half ago. You can still see a few guys in red cloaks walking around with shields and spears. A few more people on the streets are speaking German or something like it. But the water still flows in the aqueducts. The grain harvest still arrives in port at Ostia. So what can go wrong?

The world of book publishing is in much the same state these days. The big print publishers are still doing their million-dollar book deals, though not so many as before. The New York Times still publishes its bestseller lists. Barnes & Noble is still chockablock with new hardcover titles and perennial favorites in paperback.3 So what’s wrong with this picture?

Simply put, the publishing business model is cratering around our ears; the barbarians are well inside the gates; but everything still looks the same. Joe Peschel’s article in the LA Review of Books is from the viewpoint, in Roman terms, of an old-family patrician, although no longer a senator, soaking in a cracked marble bathhouse. Everything all looks just so normal. (And tell me, print book reviewers at the Post-Dispatch or the Star Tribune, what’s your in-print newspaper circulation look like these days?)

Book publishers, and the industry of agents and book reviewers who support them, are dealing with impossible cross-currents. On the one hand, while we have more people in the country and more college graduates every year, the real level of education in terms of what-you-know and what-interests-you is sliding. On top of that, new diversions like movies and videos, computer games, internet browsing, and social media exchanges are cutting into the time that busy people used to put into reading books. Some children are growing up with a view of physical books akin to their interest in long-playing records: their parents’ thing, not theirs.

On the other hand, the economics of printing, binding, warehousing, distributing, shipping, shelf stocking, unstocking, re-shipping, re-warehousing, and ultimately pulping paper books—all subject to a tax structure hammered by the Thor Power Tools legal decision (for which see Kevin O’Donnell Jr.’s excellent article from the SFWA Bulletin)—are under attack by the ereader explosion. You just can’t compete economically with paper production when every step in ebook handling, beyond the original editing and book design process, is done quickly, seamlessly, and virtually without expense. You can tell readers that nothing feels or smells like a new book, but words are words, stories are stories. Life isn’t fair!

In this shrinking marketplace of dedicated readers—the sort of person who stacks books by the armchair, books on the night table, books in the john and reads at least one full book a week and usually has two or three going at once—everyone by now has an ereading device. And consider this fact: while the Sony Walkman, which changed how people listen to music, rode piggyback on the already existing market for cassette tapes (themselves inheritors of the eight-track experiment), the ereaders are something new in marketing. The Walkman was sold as a brand-new and stylish profit-making device into an existing media marketplace; ereaders are sold as loss-leaders, enablers of a new marketplace for a specialized and virtually cost-free medium. Sony prided itself on the Walkman’s advanced design and honed its capabilities; for Amazon, the Kindle’s design and features were practically an afterthought because it was, and still is, a vehicle for other sales, not a desirable object in itself.

With the city walls falling about their ears, are the book publishers doing the one or two things that might save them? Are they investing in finding and developing new talent, devoting editing time to making their books really superb, and marketing the hell out of them? Well, no. Authors are expected to show up at their doorstep with a finely crafted, fully edited book.4 Authors are expected to market themselves by arranging their own book signings, appearing at conventions, getting on radio interviews, and sending postcards to their 1,500 best friends, in addition to using social media contacts and thinking up new, yet-to-be-discovered marketing methods for themselves.

Publishers are not making new markets but instead are looking at what just became popular and urging their authors to try that, ignoring the mechanics of their own bookmaking lead time. “To make it big, you need to call down the lightning. I saw lightning strike over there! Why don’t you go stand over there?” Every writer, at some point, gets told to go write like J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyers or Suzanne Collins because these authors have become popular. But in a system where it takes a year or so to write the book, another year or so to sell it to a publisher, and then a further year or so for the publisher to work the magic of book production and negotiate with print reviewers and bookstore purchasing agents, it can be three years before the book appears. In that time, something else will become the hot, new thing.5

Groundbreakers have to be first out the door with a lightning idea—not the thirty-first. Big-market publishers fancy themselves the gatekeepers of the literary marketplace with some kind of stamp of quality, but they are only proving they don’t know where the market’s going or how to cultivate it. Consider that Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and J. K. Rowling—market makers all—had a difficult time selling their first books. They were “hard sells” because their books didn’t look like anything in the market at the time. They became huge successes precisely because their work was received as new, different, and exciting. Is there an element of simple luck in this? Oh, yeah! Anyone who says he can predict the market is either a charlatan or a fool.

At the same time the old business model is crumbling, publishers are trying to raise barriers to ebooks by pricing their own digital versions just a dollar or two less than their already inflated, cost-ravaged physical book prices. They think they still command the market, can dictate prices, and so drive back the sea of ebooks. And they cling to outmoded payment schemes, where they give the author a 20% royalty on an ebook—which looks like a big improvement on the 10% of the hardcover price they usually give. But 20% is really an insult compared to the 70% that Amazon or B&N gives an independent author when retailing his or her ebook. Publisher keeps 50% of an already inflated book price—boy, that will keep the authors in the stable!

At the same time, as the LA Review of Books accurately acknowledges, the barriers to entry by new and untried authors have dropped. Rome’s wall is a down. Everyone who thinks they might strike it big—might get hit by lightning—is out there flogging their book. Witless, drooling barbarians are riding all over the landscape. Book publishing as a business is in Crazy Time, End of an Era, the Fall of Rome.

Next week, I’ll offer some perspective from my own experience on how to survive in all this.

1. For the original four entries in this series, published just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. Peschel is, after all, a print journalist and the book reviewers he talks with and about are all in printed media. They are subject to limitations of page space and edition timing (i.e., Monday’s newspaper is not going to be around or mean much of anything on Tuesday), similar to a bookstore’s limited shelf space and necessary cycling of their printed stock through the store from the “new releases” table, to the general fiction or genre shelves, to the remainders table, and then back to the warehouse or off to the pulper. Neither print reviewers nor bookstore buyers are particularly attuned to the timeless—or rather, untimed—nature of ebooks and the internet that is used to market and distribute them.

3. However, I’ve noticed that my local B&N has given up CDs and compact disks, and now sells toys and games in that space, along with cards and calendars. Nook reading devices and their paraphernalia also constitute the big displays in the front of the store, rather than that table of deeply discounted bestsellers. The physical books are now a little further from the entrance. You can just sense the preventive diversification.

4. And gone are the days when a publisher would buy an outline and sample chapters, then work with the author to refine the idea before the book is completely written. The author must write the entire book “on spec” before he or she can even start to sell it. If the finished book happens to fit some agent’s or acquisition editor’s prior notion of a marketing success—hurrah! If not—go write something else.
        That was the position of author Robert Bausch, as described in Joe Peschel’s LA Review of Books article. With six novels behind him, a downturn in sales made Bausch’s upcoming novel unmarketable with publishers. So his agent suggested he write a second novel that might somehow retrieve the first. Bausch actually complied … Patience of a saint, I say.

5. When I was trying to attract an agent with the book that became the independently published Sunflowers, the first question one prospective agent asked was, “What superpowers does your main character have?” When I tried to explain that my characters were simply engineers and fully human, he lost interest. Today, the agent’s question would be, “Which of your characters could be a vampire or a zombie?” Yech!