The publishing business as we have known it is not going away anytime soon
Regular readers, please pardon me for the unusual length of this post, but it covers a lot of ground that I think is necessary to make the point.
A friend who has actually been working fulltime in the book business since I was still in college and who remains active was speculating at BEA about the “next big disruption” in our business. He’s expecting it sometime pretty soon.
I don’t think I am.
Gareth Cuddy is one of the most practical service providers in the industry. His Vearsa ebook distribution company is providing global services to publishers large and small and he is a pioneer in reading and sales analytics. He recently wrote a piece that concludes “whatever emerges from this next phase will surely be a complete departure from what we understand today as an industry” with timetables around it wondering whether 2016 will be too late to respond and whether we’ll have an unrecognizable industry in 2020.
I don’t see it.
One of the disruptor-authors, one who studies the industry trends closely with special attention to indie author growth, told me he “is pegging 2019 as the year that major media outlets cover the collapse of the major publishing houses the same way they started reporting on newspaper declines last decade”.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a merger or two by then, but “collapse”? I don’t see that either.
The industry has a myriad of sales stats that are not rationalized in any way and don’t talk to each other:
BookScan (print sales, reported by select retailers)
BookScan data is compiled from reports of print sales by most, but not all, retailers. That data includes all the ISBNs (but perhaps not retailer- or indie-published books that don’t have ISBNs), but not all the sales. BookScan covers an estimated 85% of the print retail market in the US and 90% in the UK. (See the “About Nielsen Book” section.)
PubTrack Digital (ebook sales, reported by select publishers)
The PubTrack Digital data, compiled from reports by publishers, doesn’t include all the ISBNs — only those from reporting publishers — but they do include all the sales of those publishers’ ebooks.
AAP (cross-format sales, reported by select publishers)
The AAP tracks sales across all major channels and formats. Like PubTrack, AAP stats are based on reports by participating publishers. (Though all of the Big Five houses report in both cases, other publisher and distributor participation varies.)
Consumer survey data (purchases, attitudes, and behaviors, reported by consumers)
Other survey data
Additional surveys, particularly of authors (e.g. DBW’s author survey, Harry Bingham and Jane Friedman’s author survey) help fill in some of the blanks. But as the survey organizers frequently note, these are not representative samples, so the conclusions that can be drawn from these surveys are limited and primarily directional in nature.
Proprietary data (publisher and retailer-specific)
We also get regular reports from publicly-traded companies and whatever data accounts happen to reveal to the public, which can provide useful benchmarks and comparison points. (The sales data from the accounts themselves includes self-published or retailer-published books that other two sources don’t, but no by-book sales numbers told to the public.)
Bestseller lists and scraped data
Author Earnings tries to translate ebook sales rankings (which are publicly visible at retail, and therefore “scrapeable”) into actual sales numbers. (The now defunct DBW Ebook Bestseller List, powered by Dan Lubart’s Iobyte Solutions, was based on similar principles.) And the major bestsellers lists (like USA Today and NYT) provide at least some context for relative sales performance.
And as a sign of how complicated it all is, the DBW Ebook Bestseller List was discontinued at least partly because the “noise” from Amazon reporting “sales” on ebooks distributed and read through their subscription service was making the bestseller status of many titles a bit contentious.
Despite and because of all the sources, the data is incomplete and scattered. There is inevitable ambiguity in interpretation so that a variety of conclusions can be reasonably drawn. From the big publisher perspective, it would appear that sales are about flat and that the ratio of print and digital sales has become pretty stable. This is true in an environment where publishers have experimented with even higher ebook prices and, for a variety of contractual and commercial reasons, discounting of ebooks has diminished. But that’s been true for a relatively short period of time, and the ebook reporting is routinely delayed by three months, so we don’t have enough evidence to know for sure that higher ebook prices are sustainable in this marketplace. And even if they are sustainable today, that doesn’t prove they will be in three months or a year.
On the print side, Amazon continues to be the largest single customer for almost every publisher. And even though they have managed to increase their discounts and various marketing fees and their returns have creeped up, they are still the most profitable large account for many, if not most, publishers. Since Borders went down several years ago, Amazon has, indeed, grown, but independent stores have also thrived and become more numerous. And although Barnes & Noble still slowly shrinks in sales, it remains the most important account for “breaking” many new titles and still provides more sales to most publishers than all the indie bookstores combined.
While I’ve been working on this piece, the AAP data has been being worked through. Nate Hoffelder (whose blog has been renamed “Ink, Bits, and Pixels”) scoffed at the Nielsen claim that their hard numbers constitute 85 percent of the book market. The AAP, which like Author Earnings, uses modeling and guesstimating to get from the data they have to a bigger industry picture, sees a much bigger trade industry. The point Nate wanted to make, using the AAP data (echoed by an indie author friend of mine who believes that the indies are toppling the establishment and we’d all know that if we knew the “real” numbers that didn’t leave out all the indie success stories) is that the ebook market is not shrinking or flattening.
But if you want to use AAP figures to prove that point you have to use this year’s AAP data. Because last year the AAP said the ebook market had shrunk. By the way, the AAP data was the first to offer some insight on how much ebook subscription offerings are changing the market. The answer, so far, is not very much so far. They account for about 2 million ebook units out of a market of 500 million!
I asked my knowledgeable indie author friend what he thought the consumer dollar volume was for indies last year. He reckoned it at $459 million (I love the presumption of precision: not $450 million or $475 million, but $459 million!) Since the AAP figures adult trade fiction and non-fiction at about $10 billion (and the juvie numbers, another $5 billion, actually have some big “adult” sales in them), he is implicitly acknowledging (but would never say explicitly) that indies are 5 percent of the adult business at retail, using what I’m sure is the most ambitious estimate of indie sales you’ll see anywhere.
The reality is that the business has been actually pretty stable for the past few years, after a period — about 2008 to 2012 — when the shifts away from print and from stores were dizzying and immediately disruptive.
That’s not to say we haven’t seen a lot of change or that change doesn’t continue to be much faster than it was in the period before 2008. But not all of that change is bad for publishers.
More sales at Amazon, less inventory in the physical store supply chain, more ebooks, and the outsized impact of ebooks on the inefficient mass market channel means that returns are lower and less capital is tied up in inventory, which makes publishers more profitable.
The promise that offshore markets can be reached efficiently with ebooks (which, indeed, might be masking a reduction in ebook sales domestically in the overall publisher-reported numbers) is increasingly being realized, partly through the growth in capabilities of the service offerings from old standbys like Ingram and new entrants like Cuddy’s Vearsa.
New tools and workflows are enabling publishers to package their content for both print and digital delivery much more efficiently than they did when ebooks were in their infancy.
Techniques that make it possible for books to be “discovered” through online means — search, social referrals, and growing book- and topic-based communities — are being mastered by publishers.
And a number of factors — consolidation of the accounts, more efficient wholesalers, consolidation of the publishers’ shipping through growing distributors — have reduced costs on the back end for most publishers as well.
So the publishers have, thus far, dealt with massive changes in sales, marketing, and distribution pretty effectively. They’re selling as many books as they used to despite growing competition from both indie authors (a million titles a year or more) and from Amazon itself, whose own publishing operation reportedly intends to issue 2,000 titles in 2016.
Trying to view things from the author perspective requires one to divide them into at least three big “buckets”: successful authors who know where their next totally-acceptable contract that pays them a living wage in advance to write a book is coming from; aspiring authors who either can’t get an agent or a deal or have decided that with self-publishing working as it does that they simply don’t want one; and the ones in the middle, who might have an agent or have had a deal or two, but aren’t really making a commercial success of authorship.
For those authors who find it hard or impossible to get an agent or a deal, self-publishing is a godsend. It gives them a way to really reach the global public at minimal cost and, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past decade, they can, indeed, break through and achieve commercial success. This is only a good thing for everybody. Even publishers benefit because they get to discover new talent that is surfaced by self-publishing.
For those authors who are working steadily and profitably for publishers, self-publishing has offered the possibility of greater control and bigger margins: more profit if they can achieve the same level of sale. This is not an opportunity very many authors in this category have pursued. That has surprised me a little bit, but probably it shouldn’t have. Being a publisher is a lot of work and no small risk. If an author is making a living doing the writing and letting a publisher handle the rest, that’s damn near nirvana. Very few in that position want to abandon it.
So that leaves the authors “in the middle”: getting deals or capable of getting deals, but not really making the living they want to make with those deals. Among those authors, if they have the skills to manage an enterprise and the personality to put themselves out there for promotion, self-publishing offers a real alternative to the legacy system. Particularly for those authors who have a backlist they can claw back rights to and use as a foundation for their efforts, this new opportunity has real possibilities.
And writing in genres, being able to deliver several books a year, and writing in a way that allows pieces of big books to “work” as self-contained smaller chunks, are all attributes that enhance the likelihood of self-publishing success. It is worth noting that, so far, publishers haven’t developed the techniques to make the most effective use of chunked stories or a voluminous output (unless you’re James Patterson!).
So another source of potential disruption — authors abandoning publishers to do it themselves to make more money per unit and claim greater control of their work and career — has also not really happened. I was among those who expected, during the era of dizzying change we experienced for a few years until a couple of years ago, that publishers could have a big problem holding on to their biggest stars.
Both the supply (authors) and demand (sales channels) sides of the equation appear more stable than they’ve been in recent memory. But there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way. The number of self-published titles keep growing by a million titles a year or more. They sell a paltry average per title, and a very small percentage sell a measurable amount at all, but cumulatively, their sales add up. Most of the revenue from that growing market segment goes to Amazon and a very small share of it goes to print or brick-and-mortar. Amazon’s growth in any way fuels their ability to be tough on terms, reducing publishers’ margins. (One big potential wild card is Amazon’s pressuring publishers to allow them to manufacture more and more of the inventory; that could be a paradigm-shifter if they succeed in making it widespread.) And more ebooks, particularly indie ebooks, and the subscription services for ebooks also tend to force down retail prices, which puts further pressure on publishers’ margins.
One other source of potential disruption — and this is one that I think many have in mind when they predict real danger for the establishment is around the next bend — would be some sort of disruptive product innovation. What if book readers suddenly demand video in books, or that stories be turned into games, or that books be enhanced by the margin notes made by prior readers? Would today’s publishers be able to compete? What would that do to margins?
There are areas of publishing outside trade where the “book” has either already become obsolete or could well be in a few years. As we have pointed out repeatedly over the years, ebooks have only really “worked” as substitutes for print books that one reads from beginning to end, narrative reading. The additional “functionality” that might be employed, such as those described above, has been pretty consistently and over a long period of time rejected — or, at least, not widely embraced — by the book-reading public.
But that’s not true in professional publishing, where books have often already been replaced by websites, online tutorials, and other uses of digital interactivity. (John Wiley, one of the biggest professional and trade publishers in the world, is largely exiting the business of “books”. O’Reilly Safari demonstrated over a decade ago that a subscription service was a great commercial proposition for professional books, long before it was even tried for consumer.) It is likely not to remain true in school and college textbook publishing, where the value of integrating testing and then adjusting what’s presented in the content delivery has enormous value and where institutions, rather than individual consumers, are in control. Predicting big disruption in these markets over the next few years seems like a much safer bet than in trade. Of course, those parts of the trade markets that look similar to those — cookbooks and travel in particular — have already seen wide-scale disruption.
Frequently, those who say they’re expecting disruptive change also promote the expectation that there will be some really substantial shift in consumer behavior. Quoting Cuddy:
So what is a book? What is reading? How will the millennials and children of the future consume stories? Will they even want to? I don’t think any of us know.
This is the big bugaboo: the death of long-form reading. That’s a reasonable thing to conjecture about, but not in the next three years or five years or even ten. In 2025, most of the books being read on the planet will be read by people who are reading them now. The most recent serious study about “designing books for millennials” (from Publishing Technology) seemed to conclude that millennials aren’t much different than the generations that preceded them when it comes to their book-reading habits.
Over the long run, things will almost certainly change in very big ways because of the inexorable forces eroding publisher margins described above. I wouldn’t be surprised to see only two or three big trade publishers as soon as ten years from now. I’d expect that the two recent plateaus we’ve reached, with ebook sales stabilizing in relation to print and with bookstores holding their own, will prove temporary. I wouldn’t expect ebook sales or online purchasing to grow by the leaps and bounds they did a few years ago, but it would surprise me if we’ve reached any long-term limit, particularly in ebook use. (The devices keep proliferating and people get increasingly comfortable reading for a long time on screens.)
More and more entities of all kinds will be using books, and particularly ebooks, to further their own missions through education or content marketing. They may not “flood” the market, but they’ll add a lot of product not necessarily priced with commercial intent that will steal sales and reader time from what publishers are trying to peddle.
For some time, I have figured that book reading might grow but that the industry that delivers books for profit might shrink. That would still be my expectation.
The biggest threat to publishers as we have known them would be consolidation among the intermediaries who sell their books. My hunch today would be that Amazon sells more than 40 percent of the books in the US. Indeed, their own publishing operation is growing despite the fact that they face continued resistance from their competing retailers to carrying their books. That suggests that books can be profitable, and authors made happy, on sales made to the Amazon audience alone. The bigger their share gets, the more that presents a real danger to publishers.
The whole point of publishers is “many to many”. They handle the output of multiple authors to give them the scale necessary to provide services to multiple sources of revenue for both books and rights. Amazon consolidated a big enough share of the audience that what they alone could sell constituted a viable market. That, combined with the elimination of inventory investment enabled by ebooks, created a robust indie publishing business. (Yes: iBooks and Nook and Google and Smashwords and others are part of it, but Amazon created it, and it might not be much of anything yet if they hadn’t!) Amazon could afford to pay a higher share of the consumer price than any publisher selling through them could and that created the marketplace in which indie authors could thrive financially and have a logical basis to express incredulity that other authors would take a publisher’s deal. During the days when both Amazon’s share and the ebook market were growing without any obvious limits, predicting that they would one day soon put a bullet in the heart of the publishing business might have been an overambitious projection, but it wasn’t entirely illogical.
But those days have passed. In retrospect, the big threat to publishers probably ended when Larry Kirshbaum’s efforts to get big name mainstream authors to leave legacy publishing in some numbers for Amazon failed, largely (I’d conjecture, we’ll never really know) because the competing retailers refused to play ball. Their outspoken refusal to carry Amazon books escalated the risk to an author’s career if they took any amount of money to be Amazon-published. That was not necessarily a deal-killer to a genre author who could reach a big share of their market with Amazon alone, but it made it just about impossible for Kirshbaum (or anybody else who might have occupied that seat) to use a checkbook to persuade an author already successful with legacy publishers to, essentially, risk their career.
Since then, despite Amazon Publishing’s continued growth (primarily in genres, not general trade) and what appears to be the continued growth in self-publishing have not really threatened the legacy publishing business. As long as the big authors don’t abandon the publishers, they’re safe. And as long as there is a complex demand chain for publishers to manage and service to pull in the revenue, they probably won’t.
So figuring out whether or when the industry turns upside down depends on figuring out whether or when the demand consolidates at Amazon to such an extent that the rest of the market can be lived without.
There will be fewer bookstores. There will be more titles competing from outside the commercial publishers. There will be continued downward pressure on prices. There will be diminishing interest in having a narrative book in printed form. And despite publishers’ efforts to add value by reaching distant markets and learning how to do digital marketing at scale, the publishing industry will, indeed, shrink.
But an apocalypse is probably not around the corner. And the book business as we see it today will still be recognizable in 2020 and even in 2025. I suspect that the business environments for all other media — music, movies, TV, and games — will change more than the business for narrative trade books over the next ten years.
Remember that we are conducting two surveys of industry opinion to inform the programming we’re doing for next March. Click here if you want to express yourself on the topics for Digital Book World 2016 and here if you want to register opinions on the program ideas for Publishers Launch Kids.