Are the Big 6 Publishers Really Dying?

Today we have a different kind of post. And yes, it's long. But our guest poster, author and publisher Mark Williams, has a lot to say. 

Mark is the co-author of the thriller Sugar and Spice —the most popular self-published book in the UK for 2011. He has also started a wildly innovative publishing business of his own, which has published three of my books. I pay attention to Mark’s observations because, as a publishing professional outside of the US (he lives part time in London and part time in West Africa) he can see a bigger picture than most of us.

I asked him to write this post because I find his predictions very hopeful. I’ve heard from a lot of you who are still hanging onto the traditional publishing dream, and you’re scared when you hear all the doom and gloom about the death of bookstores and traditional publishing.

The truth is, we have lots of reasons to be hopeful. As writers, we now have more options than ever. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, as Nathan Bransford said in an encouraging blogpost this week. And now Mark tells us traditional publishing is learning from the ebook revolution and they’re coming back—better and smarter. 

Best of all, Mark sees a role for bookstores in our future. A happy thing for readers everywhere.

by Mark Williams

First off, a disclaimer, I am not anti-Amazon. 

I’m part of a writing partnership (known as “Saffina Desforges”) that owes much of its success to Amazon. We applaud the role Amazon has played in liberating writers from the shackles of the old system and look forward to their global expansion. 

So why the disclaimer? 

Because it seems that anything other than obsequious praise for “the Zon” and unadulterated glee at the widely-touted imminent demise of the “Big Six” means you must be the illegitimate child of a high-ranking CEO at Simon & Schuster, a moron with your head in the sand, or rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, depending on which day it is. 

Sadly, the debate about publishing has gradually descended into a slanging match between two opposing camps, led by vociferous and high profile minorities on both sides, who actively encourage literary apartheid among the writing classes.

1) On the one side we have the snooty gatekeepers set, the stereotype trad publishers and agents who think they know best what readers should read and writers write. You’ve read the rants: 

2) On the other side we have the self-appointed spokespeople of the self-publishing revolution, who are busily digging the grave for traditional publishing. You’ve probably read them, too. As the Grave Diggers busily hammer nails into the coffin of the Big Six, they gleefully explain how—

None of the above statements are true.

Which brings us back to my opening disclaimer. As the title of this post suggests, I don’t think the Big Six are facing imminent demise, and Amazon isn’t going to become a monopoly.

Not that I think the old system was working. Anyone who has read my past posts over at MWi and elsewhere will know my feelings on the publishers who pay royalties as low as 7%-15%, reject perfectly good books on a whim, and have probably destroyed far more writing careers than they have created. I’m no apologist for trad publishing’s many downsides. 

And yes, it’s very easy to point to the books the gatekeepers rejected that became big indie successes. 

We know. We wrote one. 

We have a whole wad of rejection slips from the gatekeepers for the novel that went onto become the eleventh best-selling ebook (trad or self-pubbed) in the UK last year. 

Yes, it’s easy to mock after the event, and so very tempting. Examples are plentiful, and they don’t come much bigger than the gatekeepers who turned down Harry Potter. A story about wizards? In a boarding school? And how long?! Get back in that café where you belong, demented wannabe-writer. Trying serving coffee. You’ll never sell this drivel. 

Of course we all love stories like that. It’s what keeps us going in those dark hours when it seems the years spent slaving over a manuscript have been wasted. The countless rejection slips of John Grisham, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are part of literary legend. 

And how we all applauded last year when J.K. walked away from her publishers to set up Pottermore and self-publish her ebooks like us mere mortals. That surely was the final nail in the coffin of trad publishing?

Not at all. 

In spite of the Grave Diggers’ boast that no successful trad published author ever went indie and then returned to the trad-pub fold, that doesn’t seem to be true.

1) J.K. Rowling just handed her latest book over to the gatekeepers rather than publish as an indie, because she valued their expertise and marketing abilities. I think we can safely say the size of the advance was not a major factor here. And can we hear the sound of coffin nails pinging free? 

2) Stephen Leather, multi-million selling trad published author who stormed Kindle UK in 2010-11 with his self-published titles and then announced he was giving up self-publishing because he could make more money for less effort with the gatekeepers. And yes, that link does take you to Joe Konrath’s blog. 

So much for the brain-drain of top writers rushing to jump on the self-publishing wagon. Yes, many are, and some are doing very well at it. But the traffic is both ways. Advances may be down (Amanda Knox aside) but plenty of writers are signing up with the trads every day. New writers. Established writers. And lots and lots of successful indie writers.

All apparently boarding a sinking ship. As the Grave Diggers tell us at every opportunity, print sales are in decline, revenues are falling and therefore the Big Six will follow Borders into bankruptcy and Amazon will inherit the Earth.

This part is true: print sales are in decline, and they’ll only get worse.

But as for the demise of the Big Six: sorry, but the Grave Diggers are hammering nails into an empty coffin. Despite the undeniable and continuing fall in demand for print books, the profits of the Big Six are up, and can only get bigger and better as digital replaces print.

Take Penguin for example. Despite the falling print sales Penguin somehow managed to make a profit last year. Penguin chairman and c.e.o. John Makinson called 2011 "the most turbulent book market that anyone can remember", but said the company's growth had been driven by "excellent publishing around the globe, demonstrated by market share growth in our three biggest markets.”

Obviously this is a one-off fluke, right? After all, everyone knows the trad publishers aren’t investing in digital, and they don’t know what an ebook is.

But let’s just catch the full statement by Makinson: …the company's growth had been driven by "excellent publishing around the globe, demonstrated by market share growth in our three biggest markets, and innovation in every aspect of our digital publishing."

A Big Six publisher? Innovation in digital publishing?
Be serious! Heads in sand, remember? Deckchairs on the Titanic, right?

Consider the recent news:

Note the key words “after more than 18 months of development.” The idea touted by the Grave Diggers that the trads are sitting about fiddling while Rome burns may bring a smile to the face of anyone who ever received a rejection slip and now hopes whoever overlooked their masterpiece will rot in hell.

But the reality is rather different. Every major publisher is investing heavily in digital, and has been for several years.

The simple fact is, change takes time. Big ships take time to turn around. And before you rush in and say “Amazon can turn on a dime,” look at the reality.

Amazon didn’t suddenly produce its e-book platform overnight. Amazon has been selling books on-line for nearly two decades. It moved to ebook sales as a logical extension of an existing business, and we’re all delighted it did.

But it didn’t lead the way. Amazon didn’t invent ebooks, e-readers, e-ink, self-publishing or even the 70% “royalty”. Sony and Apple, to name but a few, were way ahead (Apple started the 70% “royalty” and Amazon price-matched).

Amazon had everything in place at the right time. The selling platform, the customer base for books, and all importantly the books themselves. The genius of the Kindle was not in the creation of the device itself, but in being able to produce an affordable e-reader and tie it to the products it was already selling – ebooks.

Suggesting that publishers didn’t see digital coming rather ignores the small point of who, exactly, was producing these ebooks in the first place. It certainly wasn’t you and me.

Amazon didn’t invest in the Kindle and then hope that just maybe tons of unknowns would self-publish and make money for them. The fact that that’s what happened is a huge bonus for Amazon but there wasn’t any master-plan.

Just as there isn’t any master-plan now to destroy big publishing by buying off all the trad published authors.

When a successful trad-pubbed writer signs up with an Amazon imprint it makes news precisely because it’s a rare event.

Amazon may have begun as a bookseller, but books are now just one small part of its empire. Does anyone but the Grave Diggers serious believe Jeff Bezos loses sleep over indie-publishers signing with the Big Six? Or conversely that the Big Six are losing sleep over Amazon signing up the odd trad-pubbed author?

Amazon isn’t a major publisher. Yes, it has a few imprints, but in publishing terms it’s a small press, albeit with its own very powerful marketing and distribution network. Yes, the Amazon imprint authors are best-sellers and make serious money – on Amazon. But where are the Amazon imprints in the NYT best-sellers list, or on the international best-sellers lists?

Comparing Amazon and the Big Six is comparing apples and oranges. Amazon is a hugely successful book-seller that is now dabbling in publishing. Amazon takes proven sellers on its own platform and repackages them and gives them heavy promo, skewing the market, to make them even better sellers.

Nothing wrong with that. And wonderful for the authors lucky enough to be chosen. But it means that Amazon is no longer a level playing field for the rest.

And what Amazon is doing hardly compares with taking an unknown name from submitted manuscript through to final product with nation-wide distribution both in ebook and bricks and mortar stores, and (where rights are available) internationally across digital and bricks and mortar platforms.

Of course the Grave Diggers will shout that any indie can get world-wide digital distribution and get 70% royalties—conveniently overlooking the fact that B&N only deliver to the USA, Apple serves about twenty or so countries and the Amazon world-rights box you tick in KDP that makes you think your ebook will be available everywhere is actually meaningless.


Now admittedly 35% is still better than the ebook royalties currently paid by the Big Six, although these are rising and will rise further.

But let’s just examine that legendary 70% Amazon royalty more closely, it being the indie’s weapon of choice in any duel.

The Amazon 70% royalty is a myth. It’s not a royalty at all. It’s the remainder from the sale of your ebook after Amazon have taken their cut.

If you stick a book on eBay and it sells, and eBay and Paypal take their fees and hand you the remainder, is that a royalty? Of course not.

Yet when Amazon, Apple, B&N or whoever do exactly the same thing and call it a royalty we immediately start comparing with the miserly royalties paid out by the trad publishers.

But Amazon and co. aren’t our publishers. They’re our distributors and vendors. It’s called self-publishing for a reason!

And just a reminder here: This isn’t anti-Amazon. It’s just spelling out a few facts that the Grave Diggers seem intent on overlooking.

I happen to like Amazon very much. Quite apart from our own self-publishing success, I own a Kindle, carry it with me everywhere, and have only read two print books in the fifteen months I’ve had an e-reader. As a non-American, B&N digital is anyway off-limits to me, even in the UK.

Which is a point worth dwelling on.

Amazon is the world’s biggest ebook seller. At one stage it was estimated to have 85% of the ebook market, yet most objective observers would now put that at between 60%-70%, and declining. So much for Amazon becoming the monopoly that will take over the world

Amazon’s biggest rival is B&N. But B&N only sell in the US. Amazon has worldwide distribution (subject to caveats outline above). As digital reading grows worldwide so the competition will increase.

The second biggest English-language market is a case in point. Kobo have just appointed a new director of British operations and is rapidly expanding its presence in the UK, operating the ebook store for the country’s second largest book retailer, W.H. Smiths.

The UK’s biggest book store, Waterstone’s (whose flagship Piccadilly store is the largest bookshop in Europe) have a small but significant ebook store, and it’s currently being revamped as part of the new look Waterstones (sans apostrophe) with a pending partnership of some sort with B&N. Just this month B&N is holding its first ever workshop in London, as it prepares to challenge Amazon’s dominance in the UK.

Important here to understand why the UK lags behind the US in terms of digital embrace. Amazon only introduced KDP to the UK in 2010, before which only US authors could self-publish with Amazon. The Kindle was unavailable in the UK until that time. When it came it was new and innovative, and a lot cheaper than the Sony option, or Apple’s iPad, so it got off to a great start among those readers at ease with technology and gave Amazon predominance in the marketplace.

But Amazon is going to have to do much more than just sell cheap ebooks to maintain that position. The UK doesn’t even have the KindleFire yet. Yep, UK readers are stuck with the old b&w Kindle, while Kobo, Apple and the rest are all selling multi-task colour devices, to which B&N will shortly be adding with its Waterstone’s partnership.

What does this mean for the future of Amazon? Rather more then you may think.

You see, the early-adopters of the Kindle and other e-reading devices were of course those comfortable with technology. If it’s shiny, new and trendy then they must have it. And once they experienced the joys of e-reading there was no turning back.

But we’re past that phase now. As print declines further so more and more people will turn to e-readers. Partly because prices will continue to plummet, and also because as print declines further, readers will have little choice but to adopt, in a downward spiral that will see the demise of print books and book-stores.

So the Grave Diggers were right after all, it seems. No print books and no book-stores means the Big Six are facing oblivion and Amazon will inherit the Earth.

But hold on, how did Amazon start out? Selling print books. How does Amazon make the bulk of its book-related income now? Selling print books.

Print is still 80% of the overall book market. If the Big Six are obliterated as the Grave Diggers gleefully hope, exactly what will Amazon be selling anyway? The vast bulk of its print sales and a substantial proportion of its digital sales come from the Big Six.

Luckily for all concerned the Big Six are doing just fine. Profits are up, costs are down, and the future is rosy as they continue to invest in digital, create their own platforms, and adjust their business management to the new realties. The Grave Diggers might want to pretend that isn’t happening, but the facts speak for themselves.

Regardless of this, book-stores are beyond help, right? We’re already seeing it happen. Borders has gone (bizarrely this huge loss of outlets for Big Six stock doesn’t seem to have hurt said Big Six profits too much…) and B&N are – Shock! Horror! – selling products other than books. As we all know, this signifies imminent doom. Although curiously when Amazon diversify into other products it’s sound business sense. Hmmm.

But are book-stores really doomed? Not necessarily.

I’ve not been to the US recently, but I understand B&N are doing pretty well at promoting digital in-store. The Nook is on the up and up, and B&N are being pretty innovative in their approach to balancing print and digital.

Amazon soared ahead with the early adopters precisely because it had everything in place and those readers were comfortable shopping online. But that era is over. The early-adopter phase is past, and the next stage is the reticent buyers who probably never have bought from Amazon and never will.

I’m talking about the loyal book-store regulars – the ones who currently account for a vast percentage of bricks and mortar book sales, who will, when the time comes, buy the in-store e-reader and sign-up to the in-store e-reading account, not rush off and buy a Kindle.

So can book-stores survive the epublishing revolution?

Yes, they can!

You see, I have a vision of a new book-selling era where we can be digital AND have bricks and mortar book stores.

Book stores don’t just sell books. Like libraries, book-stores are cultural centers, where the reading classes gravitate. There’s been a lot of snark recently in the blogs about ill-informed staff in B&N offering poor customer service. No doubt it’s true. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Forward looking indie book-stores and chain-stores like B&N and Waterstone’s could have a vital role in book-buying in the future. 

Imagine a book-store where you can still go and browse books, settle down with a coffee or chat with intelligent staff about the latest book from your favourite author.

You’ll find the cover and blurb on a book-sized case (think DVD cases) on the display shelves. Want to look inside? Just waive the barcode or implanted chip in front of your personal e-reader or smartphone, or the equipment available in-store, and you can see exactly what you’ll be getting.

Not silly sample pages from the first 15% but the full book, temporarily transferred to your device for examination. If you buy, it stays there. If you choose not to it is automatically deleted as you leave the store.

Maybe even in-store printable covers so you can buy the full wrap cover around and case for your shelf back home. After all, isn’t the lack of covers the big downer for digital films and music?

Book-stores can still have shelf after shelf of “books” to browse, and even plinths and window displays showing the latest releases. And yeah, those prime spots will still be bought by the Big Six for their top authors. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all…

Now factor in the back-of shop storage space and overheads that will no longer be necessary - or perhaps will be used to store paper and supplies for POD, where any title you want can be printed and bound while you have the aforementioned coffee.

And the beauty of this is that the technology already exists and is improving and getting cheaper by the day. With print still riding at 80% of book sales there’s plenty of time for forward thinking book-stores to embrace the digital future.

The Grave Diggers will tell you Amazon’s one-click ebook buying is so simple no-one will need to shop anywhere else. No question it’s a fantastic service. I love it! But Amazon also sells boots, watches, fridges, computers... Easier to list what it doesn’t sell. Everyone can sit at home, go online and have these goods delivered to their door, courtesy of the Zon. Yet no-one is suggesting shops that sell these products are all going to close.

Book stores don't NEED to close. They just need to innovate. 

Rather like the Big Six are already doing.


Blog news: Catherine Ryan Hyde’s wonderful novel, When I Found You is FREE for Kindle this weekend, and on Friday had reached # 1 on the Free Kindle books list. Anne’s piece on the “Undercover Soundtrack” that inspired her mystery The Gatsby Game is on Roz Morris’s blog, Memories of a Future Life. And The Gatsby Game is now available for NOOK! (It’s still review-less over there. If any of you marvellous reviewers wanted to copy and paste your Amazon or Goodreads reviews to Barnes and Noble, I’d be eternally grateful.)

INDIE CHICKS: This week's installment is from thriller writer Mel Comley, who lives an idyllic life in the French countryside.

Next Week: We’ll be having another give-away. I’ll be giving away one of my ebooks—your choice. 

Labels: , , , , , , , ,