The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked
Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.
The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.
What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.
Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.
Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.
We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.
But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.
Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.
Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.
Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.
The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.
But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.
In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.
But you won’t have two things that really matter:
the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;
the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.
For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.
What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.
It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.
What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.
The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)
This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.
Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.
I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.
There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.