The DoJ lawsuit and settlement, Amazon’s next giant step of growth in sales, the Business Week article on Amazon pushing publishers to allow them to print slow-movers on demand, and then this morning’s New York Times story about a book driven down to a price of zero on Amazon (presumably by an algorithm), combine to raise again the questions of whether the traditional legacy publishing model is worth saving and whether it can be saved.
It really isn’t hard to appreciate the modernist, digitalist, Amazonian point of view. Trade publishing has historically been one of the least efficient businesses in existence. Most books don’t sell well; most authors are frustrated; and getting into the game requires jumping numerous hurdles to even get to the starting line.
The ebook model and online print distribution really are much more efficient than store distribution of printed books has been in reaching the part of the market that buys online. Returns really can be eliminated. In many cases, perhaps most cases, you really can just print the book when it is ordered, not on a wing and a prayer weeks or months before it is ordered.
If you start from the point that the manuscript is completed, it is easy to see why many aspiring authors would choose self-publishing, primarly through Amazon (because they reach the most customers), rather than take weeks or months to find an agent who will take weeks or months to put a proposal in shape to then take weeks or months to find a publisher. And the publisher will then take months, at least, to put a book into distribution. And that’s if you succeed. Most attempts even to secure an agent — just the first step — fail.
Failures overwhelmingly outnumber successes at every step. But, of course, they do in self-publishing as well.
You look at what the publisher will contribute, which is often described as making the book better and more saleable by copy-editing, putting on a decent cover, listing it for sale in places the industry and public can find it, and — for a while longer — putting print copies into stores. All of those things can be purchased, so theoretically you don’t have to give them up just because you self-publish, if you think they’re worth paying for.
And, of course, the author who goes the self-publishing route keeps a lot more of the consumer dollar than the one going through a publisher.
If you’ve got the manuscript in hand and you have a choice between going that route and having books to show your friends within days at just about no cost, why wouldn’t you seriously consider it? Why wouldn’t you do it? It seems like a no-brainer. That explains the conviction with which writers who have succeeded through this means, even those who didn’t quite do it themselves but instead just agreed to be published by Amazon, are so unsympathetic to the concern that Amazon’s business practices could cripple the legacy publishing business.
Inefficiency gets its just desserts.
But it isn’t yet that simple and it may never be that simple.
There are (at least) four serious qualifiers to the logic advocating self- or Amazon-centric-publishing. One is in these words: “if you start from the point that the manuscript is completed.” A second is the assumption, never explicitly stated but tacit in the recurring arguments from Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath (who are the proud poster boys for Amazon-instead-of-a-publisher), that the print-in-store component already doesn’t matter.
Third is that legacy publishing delivers an integrated business model that bundles all the services an author needs together and also includes a shift in risk from the author to the publisher. Self-publishing shifts the risk back.
And fourth, and not trivial, is that legacy publishers sell ebooks for higher prices than the self-published authors do. Expressing things in percentages might elide realities in dollars.
Requiring the whole manuscript before you start doesn’t change things for most unpublished novelists because most publishers won’t buy a first novel on an outline. And it might change little for the most established novelists because they’ll presumably make money on whatever they do, so they just keep writing.
But most other books published by the existing publishing establishment are financed from a point long before completion, unlike the situation for every self-published author. And that financing model is a risk-shifter that any author who can get it should be reluctant to relinquish.
(Yes, I know that Amazon is now publishing books and paying advances, including a substantial one to Eisler. But, remember, when they do that the royalty differential isn’t four times the legacy publisher ebook royalty rate [70% to 17.5%], it’s double, because Amazon pays 35% to the authors they sign, not 70% as they do for self-published. And there’s still no store distribution, which reduces revenue and marketing. The Amazon retail price will be lower. That may drive up units, but it also confounds the straight percentage comparison of the author’s take. A meaningful comparison between the marketing Amazon can do that nobody else can to the publisher-like marketing Amazon might do but hasn’t demonstrated yet is simply not possible until they publish a lot more books.)
Publishers actually weaken their own case when they articulate their value as “curators”. That makes it sound like they’re squeezing our cantaloupes for us. Who needs that, right? We can be our own judge of what’s ripe and what’s not!
They’re doing much more than that. Publishers aren’t squeezing the cantaloupes. They’re deciding which cantaloupes to invest in before the seeds are in the ground. They’re deciding based on the farmer and the climate and the soil and the weather forecast which cantaloupe growers get to participate in the market. And, if they don’t invest, those cantaloupes don’t get grown and they don’t get squeezed by anybody.
And although I’ve been as Cassandra-like as anyone fearing the creeping trivialization of the bookstore channel, it is definitely not dead yet. In-store sales of printed books still constitute most of the sales for most of them (although, admittedly perhaps less than half for a lot of fiction.) And experts like Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex believe that in-store discovery is still a critical driver of online sales, print and digital.
There is no doubt that a lot of what legacy publishing spends its money on will no longer be necessary in a few years. If the stores are mostly gone, or aren’t critical to discovery or sales, then printing expertise, warehouse and distribution capabilities, and all the investments and workflows required to maintain them won’t be necessary either. However, that day certainly hasn’t come yet (even if the digerati think it has!)
But, even more important, and so frequently elided in the discussions of the value of legacy publishing and whether it is worth an effort to preserve it, are the investments publishers make in books that would simply not be written if they didn’t.
If legacy publishing had been run by modern business principles, much would have changed years ago. For example, the trade would get smaller discounts on the biggest titles. After all, if part of the margin given to retailers is for “marketing” (i.e. “discovery”), they need a lot less of it for Harry Potter or the latest Patterson than they do for a first novel. With today’s computers and business acumen to work with, it would seem silly to offer the same margin across all titles on a list, when some clearly need less than others to get placed and sold.
It is partly the standard treatment across all books that is coming back to bite publishers now. Amazon doesn’t discount all titles equally; nor does any other bookseller. They give back the margin on those where it benefits them to do that, selectively. The publishers could have pre-empted that opportunity, or at least made it much more difficult, by varying the margin they offered by the sales appeal of the book. They adjust margins on the royalty side of the equation by paying advances that don’t earn out to big established names, effectively delivering them a higher percentage of the take. But they give the same margin on every title, regardless of cost or appeal, to the trade.
Sharing media attenton with the accounts of Amazon and DoJ recently have been stories about Robert Caro, who wrote The Power Broker about master builder Robert Moses 40 years ago and leveraged that success into a life’s work series of books about Lyndon Johnson. Caro was working on negative cash flow — selling his house and with his family being fed on his wife’s paycheck — until Knopf took over supporting him. If they’re printing 300,000 copies of his next book (which they say they are), that’s probably five million in billing on the first printing, plus ebook revenue, in the immediate offing. They’ll get their money back.
But they had to decide to risk it. Publishers do that every day. Sometimes they don’t get that money back.
Yes, there is Kickstarter as the new spec funding source. But how many publishers would fund projects if they couldn’t manage the creative process or understand and control the marketing and distribution that would take place when the project is finished? Even “finished’ is a complicated concept in the world of publishing. It brings to mind the saying I heard once, but can’t attribute, that “works of art are never completed; they are only abandoned.” Deciding when a manuscript is “ready for publication” is a judgment call that is essentially commercial: when will more work no longer lead to more sales?
Since Kickstarter funders won’t have that kind of control, believers in a rational market would also have to believe that projects that many publishers would fund won’t attract the investment they require through Kickstarter. Perhaps a private equity fund tied to authors would work better, but that would require margins to pay authors and acquiring editors and repay the investors. Even then, you wouldn’t necessarily have the integration of services combined with assumption of risk that makes the current system, which is so beneficial to so many authors, also work for the publisher/investor.
Publishers may never have unbundled the big books from the others in how they treat them commercially, but an Amazon-led marketplace is now doing that for them. The less help an author needs from a publisher, the more appealing the fatter margins of self-publishing look. The less value there is in the retail channel for print, the less lost by giving up the retail distribution in favor of an online-only sales outlet.
Despite that, few big authors have gone for Amazon’s money. Tell the truth: wouldn’t you have expected that with Amazon’s power, deep pockets, and an experienced book acquirer at the helm, they’d have attracted some bigger “gets” by now? I’ll admit that I did.
Besides delivering widespread print distribution and funding projects speculatively within a system that bundles services and accepts risk, there is one other thing that separates publishers from Amazon as a route to the marketplace for authors. It might be the most important thing.
Amazon ultimately only cares about sales made through Amazon and, if they were candid, would admit that any sale not made through them or an affiliate is a target for future growth. Publishers want as diverse a distribution network as possible; it maximizes sales and exposure for the books they’re charged with and, not at all incidentally, gives them a reason to exist.
This difference in perspective has big implications. USA Today, for example, considers the breadth of a title’s sales across retailers as a component of its bestseller calculations. A book that sells through only one retailer (and that would mean Amazon) doesn’t get the same consideration as one that sells the same number in multiple channels. Similarly, how would the New York Times feel about reviewing a book that isn’t available in stores or in all ebook formats? They might legitimately balk at reviewing something that many, if not most, of its readers won’t encounter commercially.
The divergence in point-of-view is illustrated in the conflict over print-on-demand that is discussed in the WSJ piece. From where Amazon sits, it is simply more efficient to print what they need of slow-movers when they need them. They can probably make an offer to publishers that looks “margin-neutral” or even more favorable. But publishers know they have to print for everybody else, and taking the Amazon demand out of the print equation — particularly for slow-movers — would really disrupt the overall economics for any title that weren’t already printing on demand. These overall marketplace economics aren’t Amazon’s concern.
So as Amazon continues, as any commercial entity would, to set prices, seek margins, and adjust practices and workflows in ways that work for its own business, it drives the industry to “efficiencies” that take the margin that finances all publishing activities — those that will fade away like print distribution and those that are indispensible like funding and developing new projects — out of the commercial equation.
That can only really improve things for authors that don’t need or want those functions. Since the most reliable big authors with savvy and competent agents are already getting 60 to 80 percent of the revenue their books produce guaranteed to them, it is not clear that even the notionally higher ebook royalties deliver a better deal than the publishers do now for that group. But the scads of authors who can’t get, or don’t think it is worth the effort to find, an advance-against-royalties publishing deal will be happy with Amazon. Indeed, they’re probably happy now.
As bookstores continue to diminish, though, it will get harder for the publishers to continue to compete for the big authors, particularly if Amazon is the one picking up the share the bookstores relinquish. That could change the status quo and Amazon might start to get big authors then. If and when enough of the big authors move on, the legacy model will break and we’ll be in a different world.
When that day comes, I’m sure Amazon will recognize it and change their margins and practices to suit. Perhaps the Department of Justice will want to reconsider its thinking then as well.
Remember, the DoJ wants to hear from us about the settlement unfortunately (in my opinion) agreed to by three major publishers. We still have several weeks to get those in. I hope this post contains useful thoughts for some people formulating their response, which I am still doing. Whenever you’re ready, send your letter to:
John Read, Chief, Litigation III Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000, Washington, DC 20530