books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 11, 2012

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.



THE RETURN OF THE BIG SIX
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: 

  • “Writers only self-publish because their work isn’t good enough to be published the ‘proper’ way.” 
  • “All indie books are crap and full of typos.” 
  • “Amazon will become a monopoly and destroy culture as we know it.” 

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—

  • “Any successful trad pubbed writer could make more on their own, if only they weren’t so stupid.” 
  • “No trad pubbed writer who has gone indie has ever returned to the trad publishing fold.” 
  • “Any indie can distribute anywhere around the globe thanks to Amazon—and get 70% royalties for doing so.” 

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 cafĂ© 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:

  • Penguin e-book revenues were up 106% year on year, equalling 12% of total Penguin revenues worldwide, with 20% in the USA. Penguin have recorded 50 million apps and ebook downloads since 2008.In 2011 Penguin launched more than 100 apps and enhanced e-books and the digital-only publishing programme, Penguin Shorts. Penguin also continued investment in direct-to-consumer initiatives including aNobii in the UK and Bookish in the US, both new digital platforms for readers. In Australia Penguin acquired the retailer REDgroup's online business, and Penguin's websites and social media channels now have a global following of more than 11 million.
  • Simon & Schuster reported a similar feat in February: they’re making more money from declining print sales, and other publishers will be doing the same.
  • Scholastic this past week announced beta trials of its new digital store. According to Publishers Weekly: “After more than 18 months of development, Scholastic has begun beta tests for Storia, its proprietary e-book platform for selling and distributing its trade titles as well as digital editions of titles from other children’s houses.”
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.

Why?

  • Because Amazon blocks downloads to countless countries (I live in West Africa and am blocked from buying your or my ebooks from Amazon)
  • Amazon also imposes a $2 surcharge per sale on countless other countries.
  • Add to which the fabled 70% royalty suddenly becomes 35% if the sale is not from an Amazon-approved country (the Kindle countries and a selected few others).
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. 

45 comments:

  1. A huge thanks, Anne. I've been waiting for this for the last two years. Mark, I am so grateful that someone has been thoughtful and thorough enouch to break down this mad "hype" everyone has been sucked into. Finally a POV that is not tainted by the self-serving need to "sell."

    To borrow from Oates, "They" sell dreams, they sell nightmares. Take your pick on any given day and you'll get a fair dose of either. I have believed for a long time that there are way too many predictions print publishing will go the way of the music industry.

    As Anne knows, I have talked about this many times. I believe in traditional publishing, and I think there will now be a place in "indie" publishing for many writers. The choices we have are better, the attention this has brought to writers and most of all to the needs of readers, can only benefit everyone.

    Thank you once again, Mark :)

    **Note: Hey Anne, maybe Porter Anderson will include this in his weekly "novella" length Writing on Ether. Ether being what we all need :)

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  2. Even though I chose to self publish, I don't want to see traditional publishing die or bookstores. I think it's an exciting time, but with all major change comes the uncertainty of it all. Great post.

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  3. Interesting points!
    I don't forsee big publishers dying either. As you said, they are just bigger ships that take time to turn.
    Amazon does have competition from B&N's Nook. They also have competition from Apple, as iTunes is still the biggest platform. (And Apple now the biggest company.)
    It will be interesting to watch all of the changes.

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  4. Hi Mark thanks for the interesting round up/overview.

    The biggest problem in BOTH worlds (as you knows) is that each one focuses almost exclusively on the BIG book. The 2 Amandas are an example: Amanda Hocking from the e-side. On the other side, Amanda Knox who was offered 2 million for the true story of her Italian trial and the acquittal—a book I don't think is even written yet.

    As long as some publisher (e or trad) continues to guess right and win the lottery now and then & keep the ship from sinking for another years or so, the competition will go on.

    Another problem is that no one has a crystal ball and can predict what the future hold for the book stores. Will they continue to disappear? Will they find ways to profitably change? Will special stores like Powell's & Archivia (http://www.archiviabooks.com/) lead the way?

    And then there's Home Depot which announced this week that after “over a year of intense analytical information both internally and with our book suppliers,” as well as “customer insight surveys,” it will STOP selling books.

    Additionally, for the time being, it seems clear that the productive, professional midlist writer has a better chance of making it as a self-published writer than dreaming about trad rejections turning into acceptances.

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  5. Fascinating post, Mark! Just goes to show how fast things change in the publishing world (metaphorically speaking - must be a logistical nightmare out there!)

    Still ... fascinating vision of the future you have there ... *wanders off to ponder the post*

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  6. Fascinating post, Mark! Just goes to show how fast things change in the publishing world (metaphorically speaking - must be a logistical nightmare out there!)

    Still ... fascinating vision of the future you have there ... *wanders off to ponder the post*

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  7. fOIS – Thanks. Love the Oates quote! You’re right, comparisons with the music industry, as with Kodak, are invariably spurious arguments, the only connection being the move to digital.

    Laura – “Exciting” must be the understatement of the year!

    Alex – Unquestionably Steve Jobs’ blinkered views on books were the biggest brake on Apple’s development of iBooks, handing Amazon a huge opportunity to surge ahead. From Apple’s perspective the inevitable decline in print, which was a mainstay of Amazon’s book business, presents them with a major chance to redress that error. I’m sure that behind the scenes plans are well-advanced to do so.

    Ruth - At least Amanda Hocking made some degree of sense, and will likely earn back the investment. Hard to see why anyone would want to actually buy the Knox book, though presumably an abridged version will be sold around the world to the tabloid media and recoup much of that expense. So perhaps not so dumb a move by the publishers. Home Depot’s announcement is news to me, but perhaps not so surprising. Physical books take up shelf-space that may well not see returns to justify it. Whereas an ebook store… At the other extreme Archivia’s specialist products may well be the niche that survives in print. On pro mid-list writers, there seems opportunities both ways at this stage. Both Consuelo S.B. and Catherine R.H. seem to be doing well in the UK the old way, while doing it the new way in the US. As per my post on MWi today, the UK market is heading for some major changes this year.

    Charley - So good you posted it twice! :-)

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  8. It's nice to see someone approaching this whole thing with level-headedness. Of course the publishers aren't going anywhere, they're just going to either shift or change. But there will always be writers who want publishers, and now there can be writers who feel it's best to go it alone and still be (mildly, or something hugely) successful. Options are wonderful.

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  9. Mark thanks for the great post. I know in the past you've been attacked for speaking the truth about the industry. Which is very obvious.
    We live in a age of constant change. The change comes very quickly. It was only a matter of time before the Big Six saw the writing on the wall and acted. It's more the agents who are do all the down talk on e-books, since it affects them directly. It's all about money, and the Big Six saw a chance to make money and went for it.

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  10. Fascinating post. So much information. I like the idea of the big publishers continuing to exist. I have an e-reader, a novel available as an e-book and yet, still love the sensory experience of a "real" book. And...I work in one of the last independent bookstores on the Central Coast of California. Bookstores are wonderful gathering places for communities, places to share ideas and knowledge. We have to sell a wide assortment of things other than books to survive but, survive we do! Thanks agin for all the information.

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  12. Mark (via Anne R Allen): Terrific post about the two "sides" of the publishing industry. One of the few points that you didn't cover was the short life of a traditionally published book. (I've heard a book is pulled from book stores in as little as three weeks if it doesn't sell.) In comparison, a self/indie published book can be available to buyers indefinitely. Is this right or wrong? But thank you for the insights and information.

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  13. Wonderful post! Thank you!

    I began self-pubbed, then went to a small publisher, and now am onto a bigger house. Self-publishing, while it taught me much about the industry, was exhausting. I can understand Konrath's switch.

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  14. Elisa – Options are indeed wonderful. It seems crazy that some people, having spent years bemoaning the lack of options, now want to move to the opposite extreme and swap one “monopoly” for another.

    Lee – So right, it has been the agents who have been most vocal about how dreadful ebooks are. That said, there are some very progressive agents out there too, and many big agencies have been denouncing ebooks with one hand while creating their own ebook business with the other.

    Christine – Long may the book-stores survive! Diversification is the key to success.

    SK – Absolutely right – print books have a very short shelf-life as new titles fight for space in book-stores. It’s one of the big advantages of digital, where shelf-space is limitless. But no question getting on those shelves for those few weeks can be very rewarding for those that get noticed. For the rest it’s the end of the line. Or rather, it used to be. Presuming these books have also been released as ebooks they will have the best of both worlds, with a chance to shine in a real book store and then the eternal presence on the e-shelves.

    Michelle – self-publishing can be very exhausting, and often for very little reward. Self-pub is no magical solution to the woes of the trad system. It’s just an alternative approach.

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  15. THANK YOU!! At the very least I appreciate reading an opinion about the publishing world that is not doom and gloom. I'm tired of people assuming that the modernization of the book market can only have a negative outcome.

    I also appreciate your clear look at the facts and figures. All of this gives a writer good reasons to keep at the hard work of creating.

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  16. Monica--I'm so with you on that! Self publishing gives us a new and wonderful option, but traditional publishing is still the way most books are getting published, and writers who dream of seeing their books in the window of a bookstore someday don't have to give that up. More options are a GOOD thing. And the Big Six are learning from the e-revolution. No doubt they were stuck about two centuries behind in a lot of things, but they are learning. The main thing we have to do is learn our craft and keep writing.

    Everybody--Mark is having some major problems over there in his mud hut. His computer battery dying, and a minor ferry boat disaster has left him with heat stroke. So keep leaving comments and he will respond when he can, and meanwhile, I'll be holding down the fort.

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  17. Great post. I also believe trad publishers will continue to thrive, but that some of their practices will gradually change as self-publishing matures. I can even see a future where traditional publishers partner with self-publishers for distribution and/or marketing deals on a regular basis, something like the John Locke/S&S deal. All that expertise will be a big pull for authors.

    All the hysteria on both sides does nothing to help readers or writers. We need to just accept that the market's going to offer more choices and that individual writers and readers will have more say in what they write and read. The biggest question is: do we want gatekeepers and who should they be?

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  18. Interesting article by James Temple at sfgate.com on e-book pricing shenanigans.
    Opening paragraph: The Justice Department has threatened to sue Apple and major publishers in
    a high-profile case that could reshape the digital-books market, driving
    down prices but also potentially shifting market power from publishers to
    e-commerce giant Amazon.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2012/03/09/MNTL1NI2B6.DTL

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  19. Jane--I agree on the hysteria. Let's hope they'll learn from Locke. He gets to call his own shots.

    SK--I'll check it out. This certainly is the source of much hysteria in the blogsophere this week. For links to Turow's letter and the Eisler/Konrath rebuttal, check out The Passive Voice. For a calmer approach, see Porter Anderson's second Writing on the Ether this week.

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  20. Hi Mark,

    I don't know if I'm one of the Grave Diggers, but I'm certainly less optimistic about the outlook for the "Big Six", or large publishers in general (aside from their current legal woes).

    I'd like to start with some of your evidence that things are rosier for large publishers than has been popularly depicted in self-publishing circles.

    1) JK Rowling. If I was in her shoes, I might well have offered that book to publishers also. For starters, she's breaking new ground with this: a straight-up adult novel. While I'm sure that there will be plenty of cross-over from her Harry Potter audience, it's still somewhat new territory. All those email addresses she's cleverly capturing through Pottermore won't be quite as useful as for, say, marketing the Harry Potter e-books. On top of that, given the huge, ongoing problems she's experiencing with Pottermore, I'm not surprised she's lightening her load somewhat. Had she boarded up Pottermore and returned to the bosom of the large publishers with the Harry Potter e-rights, I think this point would have been stronger.

    2) I think you are on more solid ground with Stephen Leather. However, the point could also be made that a big part of his strategy (and this is in no way a criticism of him), was what appeared to be an extremely labor-intensive promotion strategy of participating in all sorts of forums on a continual basis. I don't know how he kept it up so long, quite frankly.

    And in both cases, I'm sure that there various self-publishing endeavours gave them considerable leverage in negotiating better terms.

    As for Penguin's year-on-year growth of 106%, that sounds impressive, until you realize that the American Association of Publishers pegged the growth of the e-book market at 117.3% year-on-year.

    Given that the AAP only measures trade publishers (and no small, digital publishers or self-publishers), not only are Penguin not doing as well as their peers, their digital market share is likely slipping significantly.

    The overall figures for 2011 from the AAP showed that large publishers' revenue is falling overall. The staggering growth in e-book revenue falls short of the horrendous drop in print. Overall trade was down by more than 4%.

    This is far from a consensus position in the indie community, but personally, I expect that figure to worsen. Here's why.

    Before a reader switches to e-books, their reading dollars are mostly going to the large publishers, which is no surprise, given their lock on print distribution.

    After they switch to e-books, those readers are faced with (a lot) more choice than ever before. Great books from small publishers and self-publishers.

    And they are buying them. Not only are self-publishers taking over the Amazon bestseller lists (and making forays into the WSJ combined lists, the USA today combined lists, and the very much massaged NYT lists, they are simply taking over the genre bestseller lists.

    If you look at the genres which went digital first - Romance, Thrillers, Science Fiction - self-publishers are taking over.

    (Cont...)

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  21. (Cont...)

    For example, a recent survey showed that around two thirds of the Science Fiction Top 100 e-books on Amazon were self-published. Out of the the third that remained, only half of *those* were new releases from large publishers (the rest were backlist).

    If I worked for a large publisher, I would find that extremely worrying. All the evidence suggests that as readers become more exposed to self-published work (and titles from small publishers), they will buy more and more of it.

    The obvious conclusion is that as more readers switch to digital, they will start spending more and more of those reading dollars on work that doesn't come from large publishers. And the proportion they spend on titles from large publishers seems to drop over time.

    Regarding Amazon, you know my feelings on the Surcharge, and the large parts of the world they don't serve at all. However, I wouldn't go as far as characterizing the 70% royalty as a myth.

    The fact is, in what are (by far) the biggest e-book markets in the world, where the overwhelming majority of all e-book sales take place (USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain) - Amazon pay 70%. Now, we can argue whether it's a royalty or not, but it's a de facto royalty, and all I care about are my monthly checks.

    And for a writer considering both paths, I think it is far to call it a royalty (whether that's strictly accurate or not) for comparative purposes.

    One last general point. When I write an article suggesting that all is not rosy in the Big Publishing garden, I'm not looking at today. Clearly the large publishers are all currently profitable. Rather, I'm looking ahead.

    And in the very near future, I see a world where 80% of all straight narrative text is sold in e-book form (meaning nearly all adult/YA fiction, and much of non-fiction). I see a world with a greatly reduced amount of bookstore chains (I think indies will fare somewhat better).

    In this world, the large publishers are no longer solely competing among themselves. They face a horde of hungry, savvy competitors, who will always be able to innovate faster, and beat them on price.

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  22. David--Thanks much for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I'm a big fan of your blog and your book "Let's Get Digital." I know Mark will have lots to say when his electricity is back up and running. As two expats from the British Isles living in very different parts of the world--you in Sweden and Mark in Gambia--you bring two different perspectives to the question. Maybe Mark, living in a more benign climate, has more optimism? ;-)

    I think there's room for both your visions. Mark sees the big guys learning from their mistakes and embracing the e-revolution. Competition is what breeds innovation, and as you say--they've got plenty of that. Will they all survive? Maybe not. But they are not monolithic, and I feel some will survive very well if they are indeed paying attention, as Mark thinks.

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  23. Hi Anne. We call them the Irish Isles, but I digress :)

    Sweden certainly engenders a gloomy disposition, which I must counter with regular Pilates and White Russians (works best simultaneously). When I'm feeling particularly down, I simply turn up the lights, the heat, pop on my shorts, and scatter some sand on the kitchen floor. That usually does the trick.

    Perhaps I should clarify some of the above. While I do think the outlook is gloomy for the larger publishers, that doesn't mean I think they are all going to the wall.

    Even if all I have outlined comes to pass, I expect that we'll see a round of consolidations, mergers, and downsizing, and *something* will survive.

    Those of us with a more negative outlook for larger publishers mustn't forget that they are still sitting on mountains of valuable content that is tied up for quite some time.

    I think some of them will survive, even thrive, but it's hard to turn these big ships around, especially in stormy conditions, and I expect the smaller, nimbler small presses to outperform them (relatively).

    And, of course, nothing is nimbler than a self-publisher - especially after booze-fueled Pilates.

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  24. David--I'm all for booze-fueled exercise--something northern peoples have been perfecting for millenia. And speaking as a Yank of mostly Irish-Scots ancestry, I'm happy to call them the mostly-Celtic Isles. :-)

    Mark writes that his electricity came on just as he was going to bed, so he'll have to write in the morning. I think mostly he's warning us not to get too complacent. The T-rexes of the Big 6 may seem to be madly running in the wrong direction, but that doesn't mean they won't eventually turn around, ready to gobble us indies for lunch.

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  25. An enlightening article from which I've learned several things.

    I did know about that surcharge, which makes me think twice every time I have to pay $2 more than the going price on Amazon. Also didn't realize that the royalty paid depends on location.

    Also didn't realize that B&N only services the US. It does pay to learn as much as possible about the publishing industry if you're a writer.

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  26. Great post, Mark. Thanks Anne for having him.
    I have seen a big shift in the big six and agents for that matter. Recently I did take representation from an agency after months of offers from others. I accepted this particular agency because they encourage me to continue to self-publish as I want. It's a different agency/client contract between us. Being in contact with editors from big six publishing houses has also proven positive. These industry professionals are excited with the platform I have made for myself and want me to continue to use that brand. There are even a couple of novels that I have self published that they'd like to publish the following books in the series traditionally.
    This is progress to me. This is where I still have control over my career and travel all journeys to publication (fill up my publication passport!). It's really been a pleasant surprise.

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  27. J.L I wasn't aware of the royalty discrepancy either. People in the US can be so insular in our outlook. We forget the writers and readers in the rest of the world.

    Tonya--What great news! Getting an agent who's forward-looking and understands the new publishing paradigm is the best thing possible. I wish you even more success in the future!

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  28. Really interesting post, thanks for writing it. It's essentially the opposite of most things I've read lately, and maybe I'm a bit of a traditionalist but I like hearing that it's not all doom and gloom in the publishing industry. Lots to think about here.

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  29. adelaide--I'm tired of the doom and and either/or talk, too, which is why I invited Mark to post here. Some people think we either have to be all-indie/all-the-time or all-Big-6/ all-the-time, as if monopolies on either side were good for authors. A lot of authors I know are thriving by self-pubbing some books and trad-pubbing others. Options are good for all of us, and I'm glad we're getting more all the time.

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  30. Oh my goodness--this was SO refreshing. Nice to see some optimism on this subject. Thanks guys!

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  31. Oh my goodness--this was SO refreshing. Nice to see some optimism on this subject. Thanks guys!

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  32. David G. - Irish Isles???!!! You’ll be calling that puddle between us the Irish Sea next!

    The Grave Diggers term is reserved strictly for those who road to prominence on the back of the Big Six and now continue to reap the rewards while denying they had any role. Your own brand of pessimism, while sometime far too bleak, is at least reasoned.

    Agree totally that Rowling’s reasons for returning to the fold are sound and sensible. But she, of all people, could afford to make it happen independently had she so chosen. The fact remains that the Grave Diggers are stonily silent on this major blow to the “we don’t know any…” rhetoric.
    The mess-up with Pottermore may have been embarrassing, but has apparently been resolved and will proceed as planned, albeit somewhat late. Safe to say if this had been a mess up by the trads the Grave Diggers would have been gloating at further proof of their incompetence.

    Penguin’s growth maybe 5% behind the AAP figure of 117% but Hachette recorded a 250% increase. Penguin was cited as just one example. The key point is that growth is taking place despite the allegations from the Grave Diggers that the Big Six are in denial and are sinking fast. And as the burden of costs reduces with the digital shift so the profits will rise. If I was into share-buying my money would be firmly on the Big Six.

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  33. J.L. – As Anne says, there’s a certain insularity about the view of American indies, living in the bubble of US epublishing.

    Simple fact is there’s a big wide world out there and millions of people world-wide read English, let alone opportunities for those who can get their works translated. Indies need to condemn the Big Six less for their undoubted downsides and learn a little more from what they are doing right. The Big Six make their money internationally, not just from the US.

    Tonya – How lovely to see you here! Sounds like you’re doing well.

    The US publishers are a lot more clued up about the opportunities indies offer than in the UK. US publishers snap up indies almost every day, but in the UK it’s still rare enough to be headline news. Your approach sounds eminently sensible, getting the best of both worlds. Good luck!

    Adelaidehannah - doom and gloom is the stock in trade for some. And so easy to jump on the bandwagon and sing from the same hymnbook.
    For those who value the old way there’s an interesting assessment from Mark Edwards these past few days about his experience. He and co-author Louise Voss had a rare indie success in the UK and were snapped up by Harper Collins. Mark’s latest report says he believes their book is now far better for the make-over HC gave it. Mark makes an unequivocal statement that writers still need publishers. http://futurebook.net/content/making-books-better

    Nina - our pleasure! Twice!

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  34. I love the factuality of Mark’s post. Anne’s been very good to us, showing well thought out and written pieces on both sides of the publishing ‘wall’ (cause that’s what people are trying to build isn’t it). I love the idea that there are options, though making them wonder what path is going to be right for me makes my brain curl up and cry... still I’ll make it. I’ll be published... (by 2018, I’ve promised myself, and others). :}

    I absolutely adore the Mark has described the new bookstore. Seriously, it drew pictures in my head of a place I want to hang out. I even went so far as to imagine a library filled with shelves of dusty old tombs right next to the skinny DVD like cases of new books. I like this image so much I might just work it into my science fiction. After all “When your starship’s cruising there’s nothing like media perusing.” – yes I can totally picture the MC saying that. Speaking of her, and books...

    When the Boarders near my work closed, my regional NaNo group lost one of its write-in spots. Sure the restaurant/cafeteria nearby worked, but it wasn’t the same. You can’t replace the feeling of writing in a world filled with writing. So the books were on the other side of the magazines, toys games and stationary, but they were still there.

    And to show the bookstore isn’t gone yet, it was a new bookstore that took over Boarder’s spot. In fact, when I went in to look, it looked as if Boarders got a name change (they didn’t change the layout at all). I suspect Boarders didn’t go out of business because of the ‘e-publication revolution’, but because of poor business decisions (probably related, but it wasn’t the e-books fault).

    Think about it. Have people stopped breeding horses due to the fact that we no longer use them for transportation? No, they adapted and horses are still being bred and ridden today, just differently from how they were years ago.

    Anyway that’s my analogy for the day. :}

    Glad to see Mark and his technology are back with us. I hope they continue to thrive.

    :} Cathryn

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  35. Cathryn - I love the horse breeding analogy.

    To take that further there will almost certainly be a select breed of paper books - special edition hardbacks, full-size photo books, 3d pop-up books, etc - that will survive the transition. And as with horses, these will become highly specialised to justify the price. Perhaps available alongside the DVD-case samples in stores.

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  36. I would love for bookstores to innovate like this and stay around, but Idon't see it happening. Although, I have to say I'm not a B&N fan. They're not supportive enough of indie authors, book bloggers or customers. But I would love for my indie stores to stay around

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  37. David--Mark wrote an answer to your second comment, but Blogger ate it. Luckily I could retrieve it. Here it is:

    David G. 2 - You’re right, overall revenue IS falling for the Big Six, but that’s dollar terms, not units sold. As the CEO’s are now saying with pretty much one voice, the old assessment of value as being turnover is no longer valid. Just like the Indies, the Big Six can make more by selling for less, and that is a clear trend.

    We see time and again that the indie-dominated e-charts are indie-dominated by price rather than any other key factor. As soon as Amazon or a Big Six publisher instigate a drop in prices, like the seasonal sales where trad books are knocked out for a dollar a time, the indies are sent packing. Author brand recognition is key, and the trad publishers have that in spades. And of course that’s exactly why the Grave Diggers, despite their vehement denials, are in such a strong position now.

    You’re right that readers are faced with far more choice, and often better value, from indies, but on sites like Amazon that choice is now becoming skewed by self-interest as Amazon promotes its own. In the case of the imprints at least quality is preserved.

    In the case of Select it’s all about numbers, and some dire rubbish that should never have been let loose is soaring into the free charts courtesy of blind algorithmic decisions and then being bought by readers assuming ranking is a guide to quality.

    Meanwhile deserving works are being shunted to one side – especially those who chose not to participate in Select.

    A not-too-distant future may well see 80% digital, but the vast proportion will still be provided by the Big Six. Whether by accident or design they have a lock on huge quantities of material and they have the aforementioned author brand recognition that will make it sell. Indies are just going to find it harder and harder as the trad publishers adjust to the new paradigm and shunt us out.

    At the end of the day Amazon is a business. On the hour it decides indies are more bother than they’re worth they’ll be sent packing. The 70% royalty was a price match to Apple, not a gift from Amazon, and they continue to penalise authors who offer value by pricing at 2.98 or less. As Steve Jobs might have put it, “the customer pays a little more, but that’s what we all want”…

    My main point is that comparing the 70% to the trad’s 25% is erroneous. Amazon are not our publishers, When they do publish that 70% is nowhere to be seen. And the current ebook markets will soon enough be dwarfed by overseas markets in Asia. China is already the second biggest buyer of ereaders / smartphones, and cheap tablets from and within India and China will soon outgrow the US.

    Our biggest asset is our use of English as a one-world language, but ereading means that won’t count for so much in the future.

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  38. Beth--I'm with you on B&N. I watched them come in and put most of our beloved bookstores out of business, and I can't go in there without feeling some resentment. Now, of course, we're supposed to see them as the "little guy" being trounced by big bad Amazon. But I think it's the innovative indies who are more likely to survive than the big B&N's. We still have a couple in my little beach town, because they're very community oriented and provide wonderful centers for culture in the area. Only 50% or so of their income comes from books, but they cater to book-lovers in many other ways. Smart thinking like that will keep them alive, I think.

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  39. Great post Mark! I think you might like my post about the Bookstore of the Future. :)

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  40. Susan--Thanks so much for the link to your post on bookstores! What a wonderful vision. A must read, everybody!

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  41. Seems that all the talk is about how much money corporations are making. What does all of this mean to writers who want to be more than weekend hobbyists?

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  42. Anon--Mark's post is in response to the many voices in the blogosphere who are claiming self publishers working with Amazon have killed off the big six publishing corporations. (Like Bob Mayer's this week "was-march-2012-the-month-traditional-publishing-died") But not all writers are cut out to be entrepreneurs, and it's difficult to make it as a self-publisher if you haven't been trad-pubbed first like Konrath and Eisler. Mark's not saying it can't be done. He's done it himself. But he's saying that writers who want to go the traditional route can still hope to become professional writers, too. The Big Six don't expect their writers to be hobbyists. In fact they usually want at least two books a year. Advances are shrinking, but big deals are still being made.

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  43. I like your level-headed post about where things are going. Writers have options now, which is a great thing! Hopefully the slamming of the Big 6 will die down a bit.

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  44. This article straddles the line but gives the big six and bookstores too much credit. You can't pay the overhead of a large retail outlet like B&N on the sales of ebooks alone--that's why they are no longer bookstores. They are toy and gift stores. Go in and see--legos and pixar merchandise is literally pushing the books out the door.
    This article is good, but I feel that it has promoted the division rather than promote union. A real business analysis shows the big six and bookstores are failing. Rising profits do not tell the whole story. They will become something other than publishers/booksellers or they will go bankrupt. They seek to hold their once-extravagant positions and readers are suffering. No Grave-digging here; the Book Cartel did that themselves.

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