What Will Book Publishing Look Like in 6 Months?

There’s an old joke about a guy who goes to see his surgeon. The surgeon has bad news: they’re going to have to operate. The guy says he can’t afford the operation. So the surgeon says, “No problem. For a hundred bucks I’ll touch up the x-rays.”
Right now a lot of people think touching up the x-rays is the way to save traditional publishing. They know that major surgery is required but have no idea where to cut, what to look for, or how to make it better.
It’s really no one’s fault. Stuff happens. In this case, the stuff is e-publishing/reading, and it has exploded faster than most thought possible. And big industry is not built to change on a dime. It’s not even built to change on an open road, especially when there are all sorts of trails and byways it has never explored, or even been equipped to explore.
Meanwhile, a bad business spiral only increases in speed.
Bookstores are closing. Revenues for print books are way down. That means fewer books published on paper. Even those that are P-published have fewer places to go. They sure ain’t going to Borders.
The trend line for print is not good. According to the American Association of Publishers, in January of this year hardcover sales were down 11.3% and mass market paperbacks down 30.9%.
Further, the old way people used to find books –- browsing and being hand-sold by trusted folks in physical bookstores — is over. Gone. Finito.
The big publishers didn’t want that to happen. 
But it has.
And we have to acknowledge the reality and not get out the Sharpies to cover spots on the x-ray film. (see also, “Sand, Ostrich Head In”)
The ever insightful Mike Shatzkin sums it up:
I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.
The next 4 – 6 months are critical for the survival of traditional publishing in some form. It will not look like it does now. And it will never again be “the only game in town.”
Meanwhile, writers write. We know there is money to be made in self-publishing e-books. I’m experiencing that now with WATCH YOUR BACK.    
This pleases me, because it is the most elemental of transactions, just like when Og the caveman got a year’s worth of fox furs from the tribal chieftain for telling stories about heroic fights with the killer mastodons. We can go directly to readers, who can download us directly to their devices. 
There are many, many things traditional publishers do well, and have for a long time. But that is a bit beside the point. Typewriters did many things well, too.
Here’s the $64 billion question: Which traditional publishers will turn out to be like Apple and which like Underwood? What will the new industry standard look like? 

46 thoughts on “What Will Book Publishing Look Like in 6 Months?

  1. I have no predictions but I am certainly bewildered by all the rapid changes. I also hate that it frequently comes down to arguments (literally) on blogs and websites about traditional vs. self pubbing.

    Publishing, like healthcare, is a humongous cumbersome entity. I may not be on the inside of the publishing world, but I am on healthcare and the analogy is the same–it has become so screwed up that nobody knows how to fix it.

    The patients are the ones who suffer in healthcare. But in the case of publishing, while trad publishers may not all come out on top, the changes that are occuring are better for readers, and I think for writers too.

    Personally, it is highly unlikely that I will buy more fiction in paper form–I’ll save my bookshelf space for non-fic. The world of e-books has enabled me to read more because I can afford more books.

  2. How does the future of publishing look?
    Well, it has a purpley-blue mohawk, big red bloodshot eyes, yellow fangs and garlic breath. Instead of shooting sulphurus napalm-like snot fire it squirts dollops of marshmallow flavoured goo out of its nostrils that while seeming to be tasty by all initial appearances ends up being sickeningly sweet and generally unsatisfying to those brave souls who dare to attempt to eat things that come from dragon’s noses.
    In other words, I think it is going to be something quite different to what the twentieth century created. Perhaps more reminiscent to the industry of the 1850s instead of the 1990’s.

    Whatever form it takes, it will be as always hungry for profit. I just hope it doesn’t eat the little guys like me.

  3. How about e-only publishers so authors can have editors and someone who can design cover art and format manuscripts into ebooks. They can still be selective in the work they represent, but will not have the financial commitment they have with paper production, and can do distribution and marketing on the web.

    Plus they can pay their authors a larger percentage. Plus there is a place for agents and I like mine.

    The future of publishing doesn’t scare me, it perplexes me a bit, but it also excites me. There is great opportunity here for a lot of new people, as well as older authors that didn’t sell enough books to warrant the attention to authors who had a following that just wasn’t impressive to the bean counters.

  4. BK, I know there are places where there’s a certain advocacy going on, a delight almost, in what’s happening to the “publishing industry.” Not here. It’s just a reporting of the facts and asking some questions about what to do. You’re right that readers and writers are gaining benefit, however. And it has indeed been shown that e-reader folk do read more.

  5. Basil, I expect to see you dressed like the industry at a future convention.

    JRM, there are lots of places around now that do what you suggest. For a slice of the pie, they take care of the technicalities. Or, you can hire those items out on a one time basis and keep all the royalty income. That’s what I did for WYB.

    The companies that do this well for authors will be new, low overhead shops and will offer some sort of marketing advantage.

  6. John–some big publishers are already doing this. They offer their services of putting together a book with editors and cover art at a tiered percentage that’s up to 50% after X sales units, but the author is still at a disadvantage because an author gets paid in a six month cycle with the same old royalty accounting.

    There are others problems too, like an author is still subjected to the approval process and loses control of their rights and there’s no marketing to stores, so what does the sales dept do? And all this for chump change that’s only marginally better than the old deal of 25% because houses still control the price point that can affect sales. An author has no say on pricing. If the house gets greedy, the price stays high and sales slow or dry up, but the authors’ rights are tied up.

    It’s like what Jim used as analogy. Publishers are only amending the xrays. They seem stymied by how to make any real changes.

  7. Jim brings up a very good point about an author self publishing. If the author does it, the cost to set the book up is a one-time fee for the service providers (copy editors, cover art, format people), but the publishers offering their bundled services want a percentage as payment. That means the basic cost to putting your book together isn’t fixed. It can cost you more than doing it yourself. They are trying to justify their large overhead and passing those high dollars onto the author. It’s basically business as usual, only they’re hoping authors won’t do the math.

  8. Thought provoking post, Jim. As I mentioned in a previous comment a few weeks back, being on the ITW board of directors, I see firsthand how trends are shifting. Not only are the trends revealing, but they’re doing so at supersonic speed. There are publishers that ITW would probably not have approved a few years ago that we are seriously considering placing on our approved list or have already OK’d. We have a number of e-publishers-only already on the list. They’re legitimate, full service, fully vetted companies that do everything short of printing on paper. Electronic-only imprints of larger publishers are popping up on a regular basis.

    It’s changing so fast that at our board meeting last week, we voted on a clarification covering our active-status members work who turn to self-publishing. The clarification is totally to their benefit, BTW.

    As writers, we are witnessing a significant paradigm shift from one long-established, well worn industry to a still-finding-its-way new model, and I can’t envision it ever reversing. The inmates are gaining ground on the guards.

    How do I see book publishing in 6 months? Exciting as hell!

  9. Jordan brings up a crucial point. We all know that e-books for $2.99 massively outsell those priced at $9.99, and completely bury four figure (with the decimal in the middle) prices. Unless your name is Patterson or Coben, you’re not going to get anywhere with an e-book costing $14.95.

  10. Joe, talk about speed. Yesterday Barry Eisler tweeted about the release of his new e-book. I happened to see it and within 2 minutes it was on my Kindle.

    Are you kidding me?

  11. Jim–You got me thinking about reversion of rights too. Contracts define books considered “out of print” to be a total of all formats, including ebooks.

    This kind of definition leaves too much room for interpretation in this new world. A whole new can of worms where an author’s rights can be tied up. And we’d be stuck waiting for royalty stmts every 6 months to figure this out.

  12. I’ve seen certain quantities sold over a two stmt period–ie. If units fall below 200-400 for two consecutive stmts– but are you saying this should be linked to total royalty dollars earned for any given stmt, Jim?

    I’m still very new to this. Thx for any advice.

  13. Yes. These terms are all negotiable (ha ha, not when one side held all the leverage). Since e-books are forever “in print” the old OOP language is moot. That used to be what they had sitting in the warehouse, etc.

    Use a simple, clean royalty number for a one-statement period. Authors will want it to be a high number, publishers a low number. Agents can perform a real service here by knowing what’s going on with current contracts.

  14. Thanks, Jim. That helps a lot. I think I lucked out on my contract language reversion clause for most of my books except for a couple where the definition for OOP is murky. Not so going forward.

  15. Am I right in the opinion that the big publishers are asking more and offering less to writers?

    I recently submitted my first manuscript to an agent who asked for the first 50 pages. I was given an encouraging response, and asked if I would consider having a pro editor go over my work. The agency could set me up with a free-lance editor who used to work for a publishing company, and I could pay him for the editorial work. Further discussion revealed that from the agent’s perspective, publishers are only buying work that requires little to no editing. Since they have cut their editing staffs, this expense is now offloaded onto the writers. Is this really where it stands?

    If so, is there a list somewhere of reputable e-only publishers? A friend of mine writes for Samhain and is thrilled with them, but they do not publish my genre. My Google-fu has failed me in my search for other options.

  16. Quinn, you are not wrong in your assessment of the state of things re:editing. Because of cutbacks and so on (that bad business cycle again) there are fewer bodies in cubicles to do the actual hands-on work.

    One of the arguments in favor of traditional publishing over self-publishing has been this idea of professional services to get the manuscript in top shape. But if that’s not offered anymore, the weight shifts on the scales, does it not?

    I don’t know enough yet to be able to recommend and e-only publisher. But this landscape will be changing weekly.

  17. It’s not just having to arrange for your own editing via the trad publishing route–when I read arguments against self-pubbing, I always hear about how hard it is to market your books and find your readers. And I don’t doubt that its true.

    But if you go with a trad publisher you STILL have to do all your own marketing. So it sounds like what trad pubs offer is their publishing house’s name, cover design and *some* distribution. And even the distribution is questionable at this point.

    So as I survey the landscape, I’m thinking to myself, if I have to do all the work myself anyway, what makes trad pub such a great draw? And I’m not finding any good answers.

  18. Quinn & BK–I’ve heard authors say they can’t self-pub because editors make such a big difference for them. For the most part, that’s not been my experience.

    As Jim says, editors are overworked with fewer people doing the job. Editors don’t seem to have the time to actually edit, which makes it all the more critical to have your proposal and writing sample razor sharp.

    I would also venture to say that the other depts within the industry are overworked too–sales, marketing, PR, art. Book projects get turned over into the machine of production without much evidence of innovation or out of the box thinking IMO. This leads to their reliance on the author to do their own marketing.

    Before I sold, I had a static website that was more of a virtual online resume. And I was a member of a few writing organizations. Today my marketing efforts for each book would add up to 4-pages of efforts from online to regional emphasis, appearances, social networks, interviews, magazines, newspapers, etc. (I recently summarized what I was doing for one of my publishers when reorders came in after the first week of release.) One of my houses also has a training dept that sets up periodic online workshops & conference calls to teach authors how to tweet, manage their social networks, create an effective brand, and sell books through the publisher’s website similar to what Amazon does. It’s a strange world, but more and more work falls on the shoulders of the author who isn’t a James Patterson.

    So for someone not aware of all the marketing infrastructure that probably should be in place before a book is released, that’s a lot of work for a new author if they had to do it from scratch. But if an author has a readership and a brand name, all of this is already in motion and dollars sunk.

    Self-pubbed phenom Amanda Hocking was definitely daunted by the extra effort of marketing, but her efforts paid off for her in the form of a $2MM deal from St. Martins, winner of the auction. For a $2MM advance, St. Martins will have to invest marketing dollars to get a chance at recouping their money. It remains to be seen if Hocking’s readership will follow her and pay a higher cost for her books, after they were used to discounted prices. I’ll be watching Hocking’s endeavors with interest, as I’m sure we all will.

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Jim. Another home run.

  19. i erroneously read …..’the way old people used to find books’, instead of ‘old way people used to find books’. and then decided that could be correct also. i’m 63 years old and will lament the loss of books. but i don’t think that young people will….their thumbs are always at the ready. i am sad…but will have to bite the bullet and step into the new literary world. now, if i can just get grandkids to stop rollin’ their eyes at me!!

  20. Kathy D–You might be surprised at how you will adapt. You can enlarge the print at the push of a button–a feature I love. Some days, after I’ve stayed up doing late night edits, I need a little help.

    I still love the feeling I get from walking through a bookstore or library. The smells bring back fond memories, but I find that I read more now with my kindle and don’t have to drive through traffic to get to a store and hunt for a book that usually won’t be there. I end up ordering what I want anyway. Now it’s only a click away as Jim said about Barry’s book.

    And with the bargain books out there, I can stock pile my kindle in one small device without my heaping TBR pile staring at me on my nightstand. I also found that I try new authors more. And for authors I want to keep, I can still order hardcopy books for my collection at home.

    Tree saving benefits aside, I love my e-reader for lots of reasons now.

  21. I’m going to use Mimi, my fabulous 82-year-old Mom, as an example again. (She made her first appearance on this blog
    I was talking to her just yesterday, and she said that since she got her Kindle “All I ever do nowadays is read. I feel guilty about it.” Mimi finds an author she likes, then reads all that author’s books chronologically (she’s currently making her way through every book by Robert K. Tanenbaum). Mimi won’t pay more than 9.99 for any e-book, but she loves e-books because she can get them instantly, and can increase the font size. I think Mimi is the future of publishing. Publishers (be they big or small), who can hook the Mimis of the world (be they young or old) will do A-OK.

    Oh, and for the record, Mimi does not like any of the books that were written by Tannenbaum’s ghost writers. Are you listening, Bob? (grin)

  22. I haven’t read all the other comments but publishers need to learn how to market their authors online if they don’t want to lose authors to self-publishing. Distribution, reviews, and promotion are ways publishers can benefit us, but if they’re not going to sweep us in that direction, why would we fall into their shopping cart rather than push our own?

  23. Thing is, Nancy, online marketing has never been what traditional pubs are good at. What they used to have was all the distribution channels and ability to pay for prime space there (if they thought the author merited it).

    Now, it’s the author who has the advantage and can do more in the online world. Esp. with the old channels drying up.

  24. I had a publisher say that authors could teach THEM how to market. Many are clueless on what it takes to do online marketing. (And I’m talking about the PR folks.) They might even question how effective it is, even though they want authors to do it.

    Their incentives have been store placement on the shelves, but with physical stores closing, houses are floundering on how to replace that bullet in their arsenal.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea for them to devise an ebook one stop shop imprint, but they would have to do a whole lot better on offerings than the ones I’ve seen. They’ll be competing with a nimble market of smaller companies who have found a niche of services. Solo acts with low overhead. And if big publishing houses allow these companies to get a foothold–which is already happening–authors won’t see the benefit of going through a larger publisher.

    There’s also been a big stink brewing about the accuracy of royalty statements. Authors are calling for group audits conducted through their respective writers’ groups. And I’ve heard individual authors implementing their right to an audit. The more transparent and digital this industry becomes, the more accountability there will be. We definitely will see changes in the next 6 months.

  25. A question for the lot of you then. As someone who is just starting out, and debating whether to go the self or traditional publishing route, which you would do?

    This is a curious, yet exciting, time to be a new author and it’s difficult to determine which is the better course of action.

  26. Fletch, there is no one answer to this. One benefit of the traditional route, esp. now, is that you really have to work hard to be the best you can be. There’s a certain discipline in that, and it helps you as a writer.

    But then again…are you trading in a possible future (with high odds against you) for a guaranteed now?

    At the very least (if you go E) make sure you get feedback, from beta readers and a pro or two, on your writing. Then do everything first class, from cover to marketing.

    I think some traditional publishers will pick this up: an author doing well in E publishing is building what they say they want, a platform (which Amanda Hocking did in a big way). So there’s nothing to hold you back from going T if you go E.

    The question will be, Will a T contract be better for my long term career?

    What a nice development that we have choices now, as writers.

  27. Jim, a couple of months ago, I attended Sleuthfest outside of Fort Lauderdale. Also in attendance were plenty of New York traditionalists: publishers, agents, authors, publicists. I was astonished at how far in the sand their heads were buried. At every panel I attended, regardless of topic, the discussion veered into the digital explosion. They were clueless and in complete denial, unwilling to admit that the barbarians were banging at the doors.

    I blogged at length about it on my website: http://mikedennisnoir.com/sleuthfest-more-like-denialfest/1738/

  28. Thanks so much for the insight here, especially from James and Jordan. I really appreciate your help in understanding where the industry is at right now.

  29. Interesting pick up, Mike. I like your reference to the Mad Men episode. Seems quite apt.

    Happy we could help, Quinn. That’s what the Zone is all about.

  30. You know what’s interesting? When I wrote this post, finishing it yesterday, it seemed like there were a few insights in it. But already it feels like “old news.” It’s like we all know the change is not happening, it’s here right now, and here to stay.

    From now on, it’s not going to be about change or rate of change. It’s only going to be about what writers can do to ride the wave and what publishers can do to stay afloat.

  31. Fletch–I agree with Jim’s response. The answer to your question only a short time ago would have been that self-publishing was taboo. But today with ebooks, it’s almost just another way to get noticed if you put out a good product and build a brand or marketing platform. None of that would be wasted.

    Even for pubbed authors, self-publishing can be a way to promo your print books like Jim is doing with his latest, WATCH YOUR BACK. And it might revitalize opportunities that an agent can get behind.

    What’s not to love about having choices? This is an amazing time for all of us who share this crazy passion for writing. And readers will have more options too. It’s all good.

  32. Wow…I’m being traditionally published within the next couple months, and all I have to say is, this scares me.

  33. Congratulations Brayden! This industry can be overwhelming, but that’s why it’s important to share information on blogs like TKZ. I’ve learned a lot from contributors and followers alike in discussions like this one.

    Take as much in as you can but don’t overwhelm yourself by setting over-reaching goals or expect too much. With each book you will learn more. This goes for authors who are waiting to sell too.

    I often have to remind myself that the only thing I can truly control is my writing. It’s my happy place.

  34. Ya know, to me this whole thing kinda feels like being a pioneer. 65 years ago my grand parents homesteaded up here in Alaska. They were not part of the quick money gold rush, and never turned a fast fortune. By taking their time, doing something new, and sticking with doing things differently, even in a manner many thought was a bit crazy, they did end up making out quite nicely when all was said & done.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that whichever route you go, in time you’ll make it successful if there is any success to be had. As for me, for now at least I’m jumping into this indie thing with both feet, but I’m not giving up totally on idea that the other may work better later. Thing is, I’m not going hop back & forth deciding. Make a choice, run with it. If it fails and you hit a dead end, start over on a different track.
    Just try something. I’ve got a bajillion stories in my thought locker, there’s plenty to keep trying over and again as I slowly lay siege to success.

  35. @KathyD: I am very slow to change on ANYTHING. And I had a lot of (now I realize unfounded) doubts about going to e-books. I have now had my Kindle for a scant 4 months and I can’t do without it. Speaking to the age thing, as Jordan said, you can alter the text size. But also, it’s easy to read in bed because it is tremendously lightweight and you don’t have to fatigue your arms trying to hold up a book.

    But the biggest thing that sealed me as a reader of e-fiction? I’m in the midst of packing after 14 years of living in the same space (which includes a TON of books). That has given me great incentive to go E as much as possible (though non-fic books I buy for research will most likely continue to be paper).

  36. Brayden, dude, no need to be scared. To be published traditionally is a major deal, a great validation. Why not supplement this with a collection of stories in your genre?

    The great thing about this new world is not only that readers are going to read more, but writers get to write more. I love that.

  37. Basil, that’s it exactly. The pioneer spirit. Love it.

    And BK, your experience was much like mine when I got my Kindle. Even lovers of physical books (and most of us are) can’t deny the huge benefit here.

  38. I have a theory about the $2.99 price break: People are buying Kindles and other eReaders like crazy, and then when they get them home and go through the ‘free’ content, (Because how many times can you re-read Pride and Prejudice!) they look around and suddenly realize that they have to ‘buy’ books – with actual money. And if people are like me, they’ve long bought my books at used bookstores and flea markets 🙂 . So, anything over a ‘flea market’ price, they’re not willing to spend.

  39. Insightful post, Jim. Two years ago, heck, one year ago I thought all self-pubbed authors were really sort of, how-do-I-say-it-nicely losers! My opinion has shifted now that I have put up some of my OOPs and new short stories. And the darn things are beginning to sell! And now with the price of the basic Kindle at $79, more than ever, this is the time to be in ebook pubbing. Yes. Everything is shifting!

Comments are closed.