Once Again, The Future of Publishing

psychics-1026092_1920It happens every year or so. A bigwig from the traditional publishing world takes a look at the data—usually some sort of downturn in the industry—and writes a piece predicting the future of publishing.

Recently Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette, took a turn (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015. Link may expire). It’s always good to hear from inside the walls of the Forbidden City. Mr. Pietsch begins thus:

I’ve been hearing about the demise of book publishing since the first day I stepped through the doors of a publisher back in 1978. But here we are still, publishers like Little, Brown, with histories going back 100 and 200 years. What other American industry has companies still in existence after two centuries, evolving and modernizing but still doing much the same work? The most recent variant of the death watch: A digital revolution would cause e-books to replace printed ones, authors would overwhelmingly choose self-publishing, and publishers would follow carriage makers into oblivion.

Mr. Pietsch then notes that e-book revenue for major publishers has “topped out” (this datum has been misreported in the media as reflecting a downturn in the overall e-book market. Such is not the case).

What of the boom in self-publishing? Mr. Pietsch gives it a nod, but also notes:

But writers like to be paid, in advance, for their work. Publishers are investors and risk takers. And a publishing company with longstanding media and marketing relationships is far more capable of getting attention for a new book than a writer working alone.

This deserves a closer look. Writers like to be paid period. And they like payments to be a fair exchange. Currently, big publishing is holding firm with its contracts, the boilerplate of which hearkens back to when the industry was an oligopoly, “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.”

Indeed, the Authors Guild has begun an initiative that seeks more equitable contract terms. But this effort is running into the merciless force field of big business, which is electrified by the need for profit. And an enterprise does not generally increase its profits by raising its own costs.

So a writer looking at a modest advance (the norm these days) must make a decision. Yes, a big publisher can get a book “attention.” But not for every book. Not even for most books. And a book that does not get the big push and doesn’t sell well means the author will probably be let go—without, by the way, retaining the rights to his work.

Still, there are writers who want to spin that Wheel of Fortune. If they win, they win big. If wheel4they lose, there is at least an alternative for them that never existed before. As indies they’ll be starting from square one (or maybe square two or three, with a bit of a readership), but at least they won’t be outside the walls of the Forbidden City, in the cold, blowing on their hands, begging to be let back in.

Mr. Pietsch insists that a publisher’s “essential work” is “identifying, investing in, nurturing, and marketing great writers.” I would ask: how much of an investment? How lasting the nurturing?

Sometimes a deal pays off and a book is a smash and the author moves to the A-list. But this doesn’t happen often. And it doesn’t happen at all for midlist authors who are dropped by their former nurturers for lack of numbers.

Yet many of these midlisters are now making good money by going indie. Some have secured rights to their backlist (though publishers are digging in their heels these days)—or they are being productive with new work on a consistent basis.

On the future of the business, Mr. Pietsch says:

Ever-larger retailers and wholesalers bring significant margin pressure, which will lead to continued conglomeration. Social media will continue to expand the writer’s ability to connect with readers; publishers will deepen their relationships with writers, but they’ll also create content of their own. As runaway books sell ever-larger numbers, publishers will earn more on their biggest sellers—which will keep driving up the advances they pay for potential hits. At the same time, publishers will need to innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.

I would like to hear some details on how publishers can “deepen their relationships with writers.” I have a large number of professional writing friends, and for all of them the relationship with a publisher has been based, over and above all else, on the counting of beans. When the beans are flowing, the author and publisher are a regular Mike and Carol Brady. But when the beans dry up, it’s Al and Peg Bundy … usually ending in divorce.

This, by the way, is not a knock on publishers. It’s simply the way things are, and always have been, for big business. You can’t keep sinking dollars into a widget that isn’t selling. And in this day of market disruption and volatility, there is no longer the patience to hang on to a once-promising author to see if he can make a comeback.

Which is why Mr. Pietsch is correct that the only way forward for the industry is to hope for more “runaway books.” I just wonder about the assumption that they will sell in “ever-larger numbers.” And how many times a big bet can be placed on a “potential” hit.

In any event, I do think a robust, traditional publishing industry is a good thing to have around. When it scores, it brings books and authors the attention they deserve.

But the landscape is now in a permanent state of disequilibrium. Meaning, yes, that big publishers must “innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.”

Kind of like the ever-increasing corps of authorpreneurs who have been writing and innovating for years.

So what is your take on the future of the publishing business? Can the Bigs survive in their present condition? Will self-publishing continue to provide serious revenue to enterprising and productive authors?

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Speaking of the present, the first Sister J vigilante nun novelette, FORCE OF HABIT, is FREE through Thursday on Amazon. Get in on the kicks!

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24 thoughts on “Once Again, The Future of Publishing

  1. History shows that, whenever new innovations threaten to replace a large industry, denial is a stage in that industry’s downfall. It need not be so. Publishers have an opportunity here to embrace the new technology and work with authors who want to a) sell books, b) make money, and c) become better authors. No one is in a better position to help an author fulfull his or her dream than the big publishers. Why not sign promising new authors to an ebook-only contract, offer a bit of editng and marketing, and see how he does before ramping things up? A minor investment can take an author from the verge of giving up to a successful career. We don’t seek fame and fortune, we simply want a decent living. I suspect many small publishing houses are alread thinking along these lines. It remains to be seen wheter or not the big 5 stop beliving their own propaganda and join the new market. Of course, they may be right. Perhaps the ebook fad will fade as people long for the convenience of a heavy bundle of paper that cost $15 over a portable, lightweight device that can house an entire library of $2 books. We’ll also throw out our TVs and return to the local playhouse. I pray the bigwigs will wake up and face reality. I would sorely miss them. But I won’t cry at their funerals.

    • Ron, digital-only contracts have been around for awhile from selected big publishers, though not without some controversy. I’m unaware of a breakout author coming through this system, but perhaps I just missed it. In any event, as with all business matters, contract terms are the key. An author going down this road should make sure he knows what the contracts mean, esp. regarding rights reversion.

  2. The big publishers will always be around, and that’s fine. Give the people who truly don’t want to handle the whole process of book publishing a way to get their work out there.

    The article does have several brow-raising aspects:

    “The generation of young readers now entering their adult years had a richer diet of superb books published for them than any before.”

    No doubt doubt there are tons of books being published, but I’m not sure the ratio of “superb books” is higher–and that’s no knock against either traditional or indie publishing. Few books reach the level of “superb’ and I’m not seeing some notable increase in these numbers.

    “Having grown up online, they are all of necessity writers and readers.”

    Not sure I’m convinced about this either.

    “comic versions of novels and nonfiction will become commonplace.”

    Okay, I’ll probably get in trouble for this one and sound like an old coot, but I find the above rather repulsive. It sounds like a dumbing down rather than a raising of the reader bar. If I want to read comics, I’ll specifically pick up comics. Likewise with games.

    I, too, wondered about the “publishers will deepen their relationships with writers” bit. Seems to me that was an argument for so many people going indie. Seems that traditional publishers, but for a select few, were rather superficial in their assistance to authors. That’s not going to change and will probably get worse.

    Since I am not yet published I’ve been sitting back watching this debate for the last handful of years. I’ve seen my reading habits partially change–I will only read fiction as an e-book–not shelling out the tons of money required for a traditionally printed book when e-books are (unless traditionally published–their ebooks are way over-priced) significantly cheaper. However I still buy the majority of my non-fiction in print.

    But somewhere in the years of watching this debate, I have crossed over to the decision to self-publish when the time comes. I do not see myself having the patience to deal with the big business of publishing. I’d much rather take my own crack at it. But I’m glad it’s still there for those who want that option.

    • There is a certain irony about the comics, BK. When I was a kid I loved Classics Illustrated. That’s how I learned about great literature! I read The Count of Monte Cristo, Ivanhoe, Men of Iron, Moby-Dick and on and on. Later I went on to the books. It would indeed be tragic if comics became the one-stop experience for classics.

  3. The biggest argument for value bestowed by big publishers is marketing and bookstores. But with Barnes and Noble becoming a “lifestyle store”, and Amazon testing their first bookstore, I’m seeing less strength in that argument. Plus you get negligible marketing support as a new little midlister.

    I’m seeing more and more agents asking for manuscripts that have already seen an editor. I find that chilling.

    • Kessie, you are so right about the shrinking shelf space. And the most recent financial report from Barnes & Noble is more bad news on that front.

      I love bookstores. I want them around. But economic forces are not sentimental.

  4. Jim. thanks for continuing to give us updates on this subject.

    Like BK, I sit on the sidelines and continue to watch the debate. And I don’t know enough about the subject to offer any astute observations. I will say that you are gradually moving me to the indie side, especially with the issue of rights reversion.

    I had sold my first novel to a small publisher. That publisher began to go under and asked for an extension of 8 months to publish the book. I was wise enough to talk to Joe Hartlaub, who set a fire under me to get my copyright back – before the company goes bankrupt.

    Thanks for the link to FORCE OF HABIT. I loved that series and wish you were writing more. I finished ROMEO’S RULES this week. Couldn’t get out of the “vortex” until I finished it. Hope there will be more in that series. I’m impressed with Romeo’s creator, he must be quite the philosopher.

    • Thanks again for the kind words, Steve. I’m happy to say that a new Force of Habit is in editing stages, and the new Romeo first draft is due to the publisher (me) at the end of the month.

  5. Jim,

    In my opinion “Big publishing” must adapt in order to survive. It will have to reassess how it views authors and its relationship with them, but in order to do that it will have to get past its current obsession with best sellers. It also will have to come up with more added value for authors, who can hire their own content and copy editors, cover artists, plan their own marketing etc.

    It will also need to change how it views public libraries. Right now, the Bigs see the public library as almost as much a competitor as Amazon, rather than another channel to reach readers. Currently they charge public libraries five or even ten times the “normal” price for eBooks, because they see themselves loosing out on replacement sales.

    For we writers I think self-publishing will remain a valid choice for the foreseeable future, but it will mean understanding the marketplace and how to reach and engage readers with excellent books. Just like now.

    • Good assessment, Dale. Key is that “value added” part. It used to be that good editing and distribution to stores were the primary advantages. But editorial staff is being cut (in deference to digital and marketing) and stores, as mentioned in another comment are facing serious challenges of their own.

      Big publishers have tried innovating (e.g., Bookish) but so far without a major change in their infrastructure or dealings with authors.

  6. I wonder what he means by “publishers will deepen their relationships with writers, but they’ll also create content of their own.” Writers will create content of their own, meaning self-publishing? Or publishers will create content of their own. In which case, I ask how?

    • I think he may be referring to “packaging,” wherein a company will bring together a team for projects based on market research. Sort of like a movie studio putting together a package with an agency to create a “hit.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the lion’s share of the profits go to the company. Authors would probably be included on a work-for-hire basis, or else a very small percentage.

  7. Big publishers are businesses first and need to innovate their business models to remain viable. I see incremental attempts at this with examples mentioned in previous comments, however none of them have yet come up with a way to disrupt the industry. The disruption came from outside with eBooks and self-publishing. My impression is that most writers (except the best-selling ones) are/were treated as commodities rather than the core talent without whom good books would not exist. I too am more and more inclined to self-publishing when that time comes–the traditional road seems paved with broken bricks right now upon which I might trip and break something.

  8. Publishing a book, and I haven’t completed one yet, appears to be a daunting task and a difficult decision. What to Do?
    Anyway, I read the first sentence in “Force of Habit” and I loved merciful Sister Justicia breaking a man’s finger at lunch…… I look forward to reading it.
    Frances

  9. I still feel that traditional publishers can offer a great deal in terms of getting exposure for your book, marketing and promotion (as well as a great editor) – but the question is whether, in reality, that occurs for most writers (probably not). I’m not sure what the future holds so I try to focus on the only thing I can control, the quality of my work:)

  10. I love this. Like many of us (here and elsewhere), I’ve been-there-been-burned-by-that. For me, it boils down to one thing really (other than the context of: “we want to make money off you, and if we don’t, we’ll dump you like a sack of old paperbacks”), it’s what I call the “home run mentality.” Publishers aren’t even playing the ballgame anymore, it’s all just home run derby. You said it well in this post: “Which is why Mr. Pietsch is correct that the only way forward for the industry is to hope for more “runaway books.”

    All hail the author who can crack the self-publishing code (social media being the new “word of mouth”)… the rest of us are watching hopefully.

  11. It shocked me to read that when a writer no longer write for a US publisher he leaves without “retaining the rights to his work.”

    My first non-fiction book was published in 2000. The publishing house never promoted it, because they were busy getting sold. I got the rights back later, though.

    I got in contact with another publishing house in 2001. The owner offered me 4% in royalties and then claimed to have sent me the wrong contract when I refused.

    Later on I wrote for IDG Books in Denmark (they were also sold and is now called Libris) but in my contracts I have the right to retain my rights when the sales drop below a certain number. I started out by getting 10% in royalties, but they raised it to 15% later.

    I’m still getting paid twice a year from them. Not much, though, and the payment is normally paid too late – I guess they are struggling. It’s hard to sell books in Denmark, because most people prefer to borrow them for free in the libraries.

    I recommend self-publishing now. The publishing houses are fine if you want to make a name for yourself faster – IF they promote your book. But if you’re in this business to make a living, self-publishing is the way to go.

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