I am returning this September to speak at Digital Book World, a conference I helped to found and then programmed for its first seven years. (One motivation to go back is to promote my new book.) The occasion calls for some reflection. DBW itself has changed, having passed from book publishing company ownership to tech-information company ownership. Our original focus was clearly on the commercial book business. The new DBW is well aware of “corporate” publishing, a term they use to describe the increasingly frequent occurrence of non-publishing companies and entities issuing their own books (and not necessarily with the primary objective being to make money doing so).
This inspired me to make a list of Big Changes since 2009. It did not take long to come up with quite a few.
The arrival of the IPad and ubiquitous smartphones and tablets
Pretty universal broadband
Nook: big arrival on the market, large uptake, fairly rapid sunset
Successful, as in producing dollars and reaching readers, self-publishing
Disappearance of Borders
“Resurgence” of independents (and its limits)
Diminishing of B&N
Growth of Amazon from less than a fifth of sales for most publishers to over half
Through Ingram, a full POD and distribution infrastructure available to anybody
Audio has become ubiquitous (fastest-growing segment; smartphones; Audible)
And publishers’ practices have had to change along with it.
Ten years ago: Pub date was the key organizing point for the assignment of a publisher’s budgeted and conscious efforts on a book. Generally, publishers marketed six months around pub date.
Today: Any book can pop at any time. This has had a very visible impact on budgeting and marketing resource allocation, but it also adds a new challenge: monitoring the world to make the best decisions about what books to put effort into right now.
TYA: “Direct marketing” to consumers was the work of specialists.
TOD: Every publisher builds and maintains email lists, with widely varying degrees of expertise applied to using them.
TYA: “Competition” was defined as other books aimed at the same audience or serving the same purpose.
TOD: “Competition” could be a specialized website or a YouTube video (and, of course, either might be a marketing platform too). And, in fact, it would appear to the naked eye that YouTube has knocked out a range of women’s hobby how-to books. Would you rather learn a knitting stitch from a free video or trying to hold the pages open of a book?
TYA: Popular reference books were enduring backlist for book publishers. I know, because in the 1980s I created a compendium of baseball biographies called “The Ballplayers”, trying to appeal to the same audience of the perennial bestseller, Macmillan’s “Baseball Encyclopedia”.
TOD: You wouldn’t think of going to a book for either of these things. “The Ballplayers” had a life online as BaseballLibrary.com before Wikipedia mooted it. And the encyclopedia was effectively replaced long ago by baseballreference.com.
TYA: “Sales departments” moved the books, mostly through intermediaries, and “marketing departments” supported their efforts.
TOD: “Sales departments” are shrinking and the force of marketers keeps growing. Most of the interaction with major accounts requires marketing information and skillsets.
TYA: In order for a book to sell, it really needed to be distributed by a “legitimate” publisher, because it was a requirement to be on sale in bookstores to move the needle and only a publisher could get books stocked across a wide range of outlets.
TOD: There are big categories of books (mostly genre fiction) that have a vast number of crowd-curated self-published titles that are available at prices no commercial enterprise can consistently match. And anybody with a worthy title can buy their way into full distribution without having to persuade a publisher to give them a contract.
TYA: The books big publishers did were almost exclusively submitted to them as proposals by agents. It was only occasionally that an editor might get an inspiration for a book and go find the author who could do it.
TOD: A start-up called Callisto Media has pioneered the notion that the social graph tells a publisher where commercial book opportunities might be as a guide to what should be developed and published. At least two mainstream publishers are pursuing a similar strategy for a portion of their output.
And, as a result of all of this, what we know as the publishing “industry” is shrinking. Relatively flat sales mask a scarier fact, which is that the new titles issued by established publishers, in the aggregate, are selling fewer and fewer print books every year, and almost certainly represent a steadily diminishing percentage of book sales at Amazon and perhaps even at Ingram.
Fortunately, there is ballast. People still keep reading books. People still keep reading lots of backlist, which are books contractually tied to existing publishers. And many people still seem to prefer reading their books in print rather than on a device. These three realities are protection against rapid or sudden erosion of solid commercial publishing enterprises. But figuring out how to create “growth” at a commercial book publisher in 2019 is a problem I do not think anybody has solved yet.
And between the time this post was started and when it was finished and published, another sign of disruption took place. Amazon Publishing signed the bestselling author Dean Koontz to a multi-book contract. At the beginning of this decade, Amazon Publishing had ideas about signing up big authors. But they were stymied then by the pretty stubborn refusal of the rest of the supply chain to stock books published by their biggest retail competitor.
But that was when Amazon sales were about 20-25 percent of the market. Now they’re probably over half, and well above that for many books. Whether they will successfully sell Koontz beyond Amazon remains to be seen, but their no-middleperson structure enables them to pay far more of each retail dollar in royalties, so half the sales or more can generate more income to the author than a publisher without its own retailing capability can deliver selling a larger number of units.
If this is a sign of things to come, and it is hard to see why it wouldn’t be, some profound changes might be just around the corner.