Hard times for publishers

By Joe Moore

In her post yesterday, my friend Kathryn Lilley asked, "I’m also wondering how the book publishing business is going to survive in general?"

Like so many other segments of American business, publishing is hurting from the economic downturn. Publishing houses are downsizing, merging, laying off employees, and in some cases, temporarily halting the acquisition of new titles. Assuming that a congressional bailout is not in the cards, are there any other ways publishers can take action to save money and stay in business? Here are a few suggestions I think could help.

During the Great Depression, Simon & Schuster was the first publisher to offer booksellers the privilege of returning unsold copies for credit. The idea was to allow bookstores to take chances on new titles and help get unknown authors onto the selves. The practice has been in place ever since. With another possible depression on the horizon, maybe it’s time to change that practice. What if publishers offered stores incentives not to return books? Or eliminated the practice altogether? It would greatly reduce cost on both ends; the house could cut down on the costs of handling returns while the bookstore could take advantage of deeper discounts and rebates to increase their margins. Just because that’s always the way it’s been done, doesn’t mean it’s still the right way.

depression1 How about eliminating ARCs? Rather than facing the small-run, high printing costs of advance copies, put the galleys online and send an email to the reviewers with a private link to download a PDF to their computers. Even better, give the reviewers an ebook reader like the Amazon Kindle and let qualified advance readers download and read as many galleys as they want for free. You only have to give them one reader but it would be good for hundreds or thousands of downloads. It’s a cheap, green solution to the high cost of printing ARCs.

And to attract more readership cheaply, what about publishers using inexpensive social networking to market titles to increase their market share? Set up Facebook or MySpace pages with links to sample chapters of new titles and catalogs along with author interviews and book trailers using YouTube-style videos. Include the ability to click to purchase ebook or order a print version on the spot.

The bailout isn’t coming, but tweaking the publisher’s marketing and selling business model could reap results right away. Any other ideas out there to help publishers survive the hard times?

12 thoughts on “Hard times for publishers

  1. Joe, as a reviewer, I would love it if someone handed me a Kindle or made a galley that was readable on an iPhone/Storm/Android. Even a PDF would be fine. I could sneak small looks at one at work between tasks.

    Not only would it reduce costs, but as a reviewer, I wouldn’t have to periodically cart a stack of books off to Goodwill or a books-for-soldiers program. (Downside: I wouldn’t have anymore books for soldiers, but I buy enough anyway to warrant sending them some.)

    It also eliminates that pesky question of “What do I do with a galley when I’m done since I can’t sell it.”

    We all know some of those ARCs end up on Amazon.

  2. Agreed on the ARCS. Many times my hardcopy ARCs after review go to contest winners at my blog because then they have a good home. I have a few authors who sent me pdf ARCS and I lurve it. I can highlight passages to come back to and easily access it from any of my computers.

    I’d like to see better pricing of ebooks and ebook readers so more people can get on that band wagon.

    I’d also like to see a change in how advances are done. It drives me nuts every time I read about some celebrity type being given a 7 figure advance which they’ll NEVER earn out and means that a double handful of midlist authors can’t be paid as much and new authors can’t be tried at all because all of the money was thrown into one effort. It seems it’d make more sense to add more into what can be earned after publication instead of all upfront.


  3. I like the ARC idea. I review quite a few books each year, and I’d even be willing to buy my own Kindle for this, even though I have no desire to have one myself.

    I think the buggest problem in the publishing industry today (aside from the seven-figure advances paid for books that will never earn out) is panic. Publishers Weekly says unit sales in 2008 were only down by 0.2%, and that adult ficiton sales were actually up 0.4%, so it’s essentially a flat industry. Maybe a time for caution; wholesale retrenching hardly seems to be necessary.

    I think the powers that be in publishing have a similar to many fledgling writers I know, who like the idea of being a writer much more than they actually like doing what it takes to be a writer. These guys like the idea of being in the publishing industry, if it weren’t for all those damn books.

  4. I read that groups are coming out of the woodwork for bailout money, including an organization of “environmental golf courses.” Seems as though publishers are due, too 😉
    I agree with what everyone has been saying, a large part of the problem is that the structure of the industry is dated, and it’s time to come up with some new ideas. I think ARC pdfs are a fantastic idea (since getting a Kindle, I read many books in this format anyway). I think I’ll continue this thread with my post tomorrow, seems like there’s a lot of room for discussion on this one…

  5. Digitizing ARCS and other cost saving actions are great things that could save the industry. The question is how to get publishers to swallow that and put it into action.

    From my limited knowledge and relative inexperience it seems that the publishing industry is very much like my primary employer, the US Government. Slow and bureaucratic to the point of self-imollation.

    How do we go about convincing these mega-corporations to change their way of thinking and pioneer a new course? Or is it a matter of new publishers arriving and operating in the new paradigm that will eventually push the old guard aside.

  6. I agree, Joe. There’s too much that hasn’t changed with the houses that should have, and they are bringing in a lot of people with innovative ideas and an understanding of alternative ways to promote and sell, and thank God.

    My publisher (Typesetter’s fault of course) has sent out (uncorrected) galleys with so many typos in them I cringe when I read them, and I often wonder how many critics think I’m typing with my toes. In one of my favorites, my female character said, I will call you.” In the galley it read, “I will ball you.” As a child of the sixties I laughed, and then cringed.

  7. “Survival of the fittest” has never been truer than in today’s economy. Let’s hope publishers can find more innovative solutions to cutting costs in order to survive. Thanks for all your comments.

  8. I think it’s survuval of the smartest and the most determined. Publishers need to rethink a number of their old fashioned strategies and the ARC idea is a great one. Also why not design a e-strategy with some of what would otherwise be advance money. I’d rather that they sold more books and had a real strategy to support me than just gave me money upfront and then dropped the ball!

  9. I agree with a lot of the comments. When I was making my book trailer this weekend I browsed around a few of the big publisher sites and couldn’t see how they were exploiting the new world of social networking, ebook distribution, and video opportunity at all. Some only had a few desultory interviews posted with their major authors and book trailers. Their web sites should be central hubs that serve as new-media centers that promote their books while drawing in people from other social networking sites! What’s the deal? The industry seems stuck in the last century.

  10. That’s my feelings, exactly, Kathryn. There’s a whole world of opportunities out there to market to the masses on the Internet. Just one example: I have over 900 friends on FaceBook alone that I can market to if I choose. Publishers should all have accounts on FaceBook, Goodreads, MySpace, and dozens of other social networks.

  11. While nothing replaces the feel of a book in one’s hands, I agree that electronic Advance Copies make sense. In the audiobook reviewing world (AudioFile Magazine) we’re moving toward having all our review copies sent to us digitally. It reduces costs and waste, as has already been said. But it has another advantage, it reduces time.

  12. Publishers are going to be hesitant to send out e-ARCs, I think, for fear that the book will somehow be “leaked” electronically, pirated and sent out for free. Until they can guarantee that won’t happen, they’re going to be resistant. And piracy is a big deal. Ask Stephenie Meyer.

    That being said, as a reviewer, I’d have to have a Kindle or something like it because I cannot read a “book” on my computer — gives me headaches — and I will not print out a 400 page novel just to review. Besides, I read in bed and on the bus. Loose pages and an ungainly laptop are non-starters.

    But that’s just me.

    Speaking for a small indie, without the right of return, the incentives to buy titles by unknown authors is going to have to be fairly big. Our shop is in better shape than many, and we’re not sitting pretty. It’s a month-to-month question for us these days, and we simply can’t afford to invest money in titles by unknown authors unless we have a safety net of some sort. Sad, but true. As it is, we’re ordering fewer numbers of books, but we’re still willing to try someone new because we do have that net. So, as I say, the incentives to get rid of the RoR would have to be good.

    My 2 cents, and worth just about that much, I’m afraid.

Comments are closed.