More than two decades into its digital transition, book publishing has evolved so that a capital-intensive infrastructure is no longer a requirement to successfully develop a book, or a list of books, and bring the books to market. This has resulted in a self-publishing segment, so far almost entirely author-driven, that is substantial in reach and readership and which offers ongoing competition to the commercial publishing business largely because of its ability to price its ebooks below what would be survival levels for commercial publishers.
What does it take to publish a book?
What publishers do, over and over again, is the business of “content” and “markets”. Each book is unique content and is individually delivered to its own unique market. So publishers need to stick to content and markets that they understand in a contextual way. That is usually done by sticking to genres in fiction and topics or “audiences” for non-fiction. But people who live in any of many non-fiction “worlds” could well be as well-equipped as any publisher to grasp the content-and-market equations in those environments.
The discrete tasks are:
1. Creating the content, which requires domain knowledge (the world of the content) and, of course, the ability to discern good and effective writing and presentation. And a knowledge of the content world implies a sense of any particular project’s uniqueness and timeliness.
2. “Packaging” the content in a form that is reproducible. That means different things for print and for digital. And it is more complicated for books that are illustrated or annotated with charts or graphs.
3. “Marketing”, or making potential readers aware of the book. This takes in what we used to think of as publicity and advertising, which in the “old days” largely centered around book reviews and the sections in newspapers that carried them, but which is now much more about search engine optimization and social network marketing.
4. Connecting with the avenues of distribution: reaching the sources of printed books their customers might use — bookstores, other retailers, or online merchants for consumers and wholesalers or distributors for those intermediaries, print and e. You have to sell to them and serve them: persuade them to carry or list the book and then deliver, bill, and collect so they can.
5. Selling rights where you can’t sell books. Because many books, no matter their origin, have the potential to gain additional revenue and exposure through licensing for other languages or placing chunks of the book’s content in other venues (what was very simply “serialization” in the all-print days), rights sales and mangement is another activity that a book publisher has to cover.
How have the avenues for sale to end users changed in the past two decades?
Before digital change arrived, which for trade publishers we could say began when Amazon opened in 1995, publishers sold most of their books in stores. The books got there because their sales reps persuaded the stores to stock them. Reps and stores are still a part of the delivery system, but they are no longer the only path to an audience that can deliver a book’s author substantial revenue.
In the past 20 years, online sales of print have moved from under 5% of the total units to certainly 40% of units, perhaps 50%. And it can be much more for some titles.
In addition to print, publishers sell ebooks and those are exclusively online. Twenty years ago, sales were zero. Now they appear to be 20% or more of the sales for big publishers. Once again, there is a range across titles and types of titles and there is a whole new segment of digital-first publishers for which the percentage of ebook sales is much higher, sometimes approaching 100%.
Twenty years ago was probably the peak of the big bookstore chains — Borders and Barnes & Noble. Two decades ago, those two retail behemoths were more than 30% of many publishers’ sales. Today, Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble has shrunk, and their sales are less than 10% for most publishers. The number of chain stores is fewer than half of what it was, but shelf space for books has shrunk even more.
As a result of the diminishing bookstore space — shrinking and disappearing chains and despite a recent resurgence of independents the growth from them hasn’t nearly replaced what’s been lost — the opportunities to put printed books in front of consumers have shrunk. So the shelf space in mass merchants, like Walmart and Costco, is especially important for the big books Those are high-volume sales locations, but they are also high-returns. So selling books through brick-and-mortar has become more difficult and more expensive.
At the same time, the general interest book clubs have pretty much disappeared. Publishers used to be able to move thousands of copies of big books through those direct mail channels. They’re effectively gone.
And all of the above is really attributable to the fact that the sales have moved to Amazon. Twenty years ago they were probably not as much as 2 percent of book sales. Now, if you include Kindle sales, they are almost certainly 50 percent of the sales. For printed books alone, they are over 40 percent for most publishers. (I know no hard figures to precisely document this; you learn what you can anecdotally publisher by publisher.)
Amazon, eBooks, Self-Publishers
Amazon sales reached a tipping point about ten years ago. Kindle, launched in 2007, grew fast, as the first “direct download” ebook system. (Before Kindle, the ebooks had to be downloaded into a computer and then “synched” to a device.) So when Amazon first offered the self-publishing opportunity through Kindle, they were able to “reach” an audience of sufficient size to enable aspiring authors to actually make some money. When they added their “Create Space” capability for print-on-demand, an author could readily reach half the book-buying audience with one stop.
That was really the catalyst for what has become a tsunami of self-publishing.
The economics Amazon could offer looked very attractive to authors. Following on the publishers’ formulation from “agency pricing” that the content owner got 70 percent and the retailer 30 percent of an ebook sale, Amazon created an ecosystem where authors could clear $2.10 on an ebook priced at $2.99. That was equivalent to what an author would get for a $15 hardcover or a $20 paperback. So, if they’d read digitally, a reader could get more money into the hands of their favorite authors at a price that was a fraction of what they paid for print.
The much-cheaper books were most compelling for the audiences that consumed many titles: readers of romance, sci-fi, thrillers, and mysteries. It didn’t take long — maybe a couple of years — for a very robust title selection in those genres to become available from many previously-unknown authors.
Whether it was intentional or not, Amazon’s flipping of the time-honored “razors and blades” pricing strategy contributed to their rounding up all those multiple-book readers. When they launched the Kindle, they took a big risk by “paying for” the dial-up connectivity (no ubiquitous wifi in November 2007) required to load content into the device. But since they also gave out free samples, enabled searching the title base, and even allowed some pretty crude web browsing, Amazon took the risk that Kindle owners would use that dial-up and not buy ebooks. That couild have gotten expensive for them.
So they put the device out at a high price: $400. But because they priced the ebooks themselves low from the beginning (often taking a loss on what the publisher was charging for them for the file, although they always claimed they retained a positive margin across the total sales of content), the Kindle was an attractive financial proposition for the consumer only if they would buy a lot of books. So from day one, the tiny-but-growing community of Kindle readers bought an outsized number of books.
For those authors who captured readers through the combination of low-pricing and the appeal of the free book “samples” that digital enabled, the Amazon self-publishing ecosystem could be very remuerative.
But it was also attractive that Amazon made publishing both easy (just upload your file) and fast. Regular publishing required an agent most of the time but it required a lot of patience all of the time. Finding an agent took effort and could take months. The publishers’ decision-making process to buy also took a long time, often months. The act of publishing took a long time, also often months. It quite often added up to years. And then the share the author got was a fraction of what Kindle would pay them.
Sony Reader, which required the synching with a PC to get content, was in the market before Kindle, but Amazon’s superior technology, reach (to readers), and title count (because Amazon had the relationships and leverage to get titles digitized that hadn’t been before) blew past them pretty quickly. In short order, Barnes & Noble brought out the Nook and Canadian retailer Indigo delivered Kobo to compete. Google got into the ebook game. And when Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, they opened the iBookstore to put ebooks onto their devices. But largely because of self-publishing, especially of low-priced genre fiction, Amazon took a lead in ebook title selection that none of the other players, all of which had “other fish to fry” had the motivation or capability to match.
Living in a different world with more changes to come
So by 2010, we had a very different profile of intermediaries between publishers and their readers than we had a decade or so before.
And in the decade since, the total retail shelf space dedicated to books, across chains, independents, mass merchants, and specialty merchants, has continued to decline. The share of sales being taken by online has continued to grow to the level we cited: 50 percent for most titles. All publishers, but particularly big publishers, have taken to heart that they have to market direct to consumers (even if they don’t actually execute the book sale).
Perhaps the most significant single development is that Ingram has extended the infrastructure they had which spawned Amazon in the first place and offers it “by the drink” but also by the case or the carload to any book purveyor from the one-book author (through IngramSpark) or for a publisher of literally any size (through a number of discrete distribution lines). So, while Amazon offers direct access to their customer base, Ingram can get an ebook or one printed-on-demand to any bookstore or library in the world. Neither Amazon nor Ingram require the “publisher” to provide anything but the content.
And individual entrepreneurs and small companies, many staffed by recent departees from a shrinking commercial industry, are ubiquitously available to help with all the discrete tasks it takes to execute effectively.
If you go back to the top to look at the requirements to publish a book, numbers one and two are the creation and designing of a book, and most publishers use freelance capabilities for that which are available to anybody, including individual authors. Number three (marketing) has many components, but there are a plethora of independent services available to deliver most of the capabilities. Number four (connecting with the avenues of distribution) is delivered by Amazon to their customers and by Ingram to the world. And number five (licensing, particularly foreign rights) can be done by a vast network of agents and digital marketing consultants that already exists. You don’t need to own any of it to play.
And, as a result of all of that, many of the structural advantages a being a book publisher have faded in importance. A person with a manuscript, a computer, and a bit of a budget has been able to publish effectively, and sometimes profitably, for the past ten years. That has spawned the current infrastructure of capabilities and services that might suddenly be discovered as a key tool by entities bigger than individual authors. On another day, we’ll explore that might mean to publishing’s future.
Here’s a PS. At least partly because I am a hearing-challenged person, I have never listened to an audiobook. But the surge in their sales over the past 20 years (but especially in the past year or two, when penetration may have doubled) is also a big part of the story of the shifting markets, and the relatively competitive position of the publisher-without-organization. I shouldn’t leave them out.
The explosion of audiobooks rides the back of the explosion of networked phones. They solved the problems of presence and delivery in one fell swoop. This has delivered a bonanza to the big publishers, who had very large backlists that had never been exploited in audio. For most of its history, audiobook creation has had significant tech and cost barriers that eliminated a lot of books from consideration. Those barriers are down because of technology changes and service offerings. Of course, they are just another big chunk of the business that takes place online. And, just to be a bit more disruptive, they are sold largely on a subscription model, a continuation of the disruption Amazon introduced in ebooks with Kindle Unlimited.
And Amazon owns Audible.
If you are not yet acquainted with “The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know”, which I co-authored with Robert Riger and which was published by Oxford University Press earlier this year, you’re likely to enjoy it if you’ve read this all the way to the end.