Publishing reporters doing wrap up stories occasionally call me for impressions. From those conversations I have gleaned that the prevailing impression of where the book business is now is of “stability”. The consensus about adult trade is that ebook sales have stalled or perhaps even receded, that print is strong, and that the big publishers have beaten back the threat of disruption from indies that a few short years ago seemed like a massive threat.
But while that picture has accurate aspects, it is really incomplete. The world of commercial publishing — even factoring in the growth in juvie books and audio — is shrinking more slowly than it was a few years ago, but it is still shrinking. One “tell” is that Amazon doesn’t believe ebook sales are reducing, they see them growing. Part of that is that Kindle is taking market share from all the other ebook platforms (except possibly Apple iBooks, at the moment). Part of that is that Kindle has titles nobody else has, as some self-publishing entities just use the dominant platform and skip the rest. Part of that is that Kindle doesn’t just sell ebooks; it provides subscription access through Kindle Unlimited that in the aggregate logs a lot of eyeball hours. And almost no big publisher commercial content is included in Kindle Unlimited.
(Michael Cader’s post describing Amazon’s current bestseller list, dominated by reads from KU, makes the point about the dominance of their output very clearly.)
The impression that big publishing is shrinking has anecdotal support. S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy (to whom: congratulations on being selected as Publishers Weekly’s Person of the Year!) recently acknowledged that romance fiction had become very challenging for conventional publishers. Of course, genre fiction is precisely the area where indie authors and Kindle Unlimited have made the biggest inroads.
The big publishers’ most treasured value proposition is still “we put books on (bookstore) shelves”. That takes organization, scale, and knowhow, so it is largely insulated from upstarts. The importance of that competitive component is the reason that big publishers fought to keep their ebook prices high enough to slow down cannibalization of the print versions. It would be irresponsible of big publishers not to protect the brick-and-mortar stores that are stocking their print books speculatively and keeping the 20th century book publishing business model and supply chain alive.
But while maintaining ebook prices well north of ten dollars may be what Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores need to keep selling printed books, those prices cut publishers off from growing chunks of the market that prefer to choose from the wealth of much cheaper books on offer from indie authors and smaller, often digital-first, publishers.
The under-reported media story of the 21st century is how well book publishers have adapted to their new world, better than their counterparts in any other print content business. Top line revenue for the majors is flat or shrinking slightly, but profits have been maintained. One big reason for that is that returns go down as sales move online, and print sales are now in the neighborhood of half online. Profitability in these circumstances underscores the point that Amazon is the most profitable account for just about every publisher. It moves half or more of the books, requires minimal staffing to cover, and has, by normal standards, very low returns.
The challenge, of course, is that Amazon has no interest in being publishers’ most profitable account. Amazon does everything they can to claw back margin from publishers and always has a looming threat with their own publishing program, which at any time could reconsider the idea it abandoned a few years ago of going after big trade books outside the genres. When might that happen? Nobody not at Amazon would have any clear idea, but certainly the day comes closer with each new Amazon store location that opens and each B&N location that closes.
There is another challenge for publishers that is looming: increased competition from institutional publishing that is nowhere near the fiction genres that have already been disrupted. Two sources of that competition are newspapers and other periodical publishers and libraries of all sorts.
A quick check of five prominent newspapers: Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and Wall Street Journal find that all of them have book publishing programs. What is probably a partial count (they don’t make it easy to see their output and tally it) shows 23 ebooks made available from the Washington Post over the past few years and 22 in a series called “TBooks” from the NY Times just this year. The Globe has a dozen ebooks listed on Amazon. Chicago Tribune offers access to more than 100 self-branded ebooks. Of course, the Wall Street Journal has an in-Murdoch publishing partner in HarperCollins, so their constellation of books is not a surprise.
At the same time, we find that many libraries throughout the country have some sort of local publishing program. Our attention was first called to this at a BISG presentation by the Ann Arbor Public Library, but since then we’ve found other robust programs, including one at the Cuyahoga County library system outside Cleveland. Academic libraries are far more advanced in developing these programs. They have even organized themselves into a consortium to share knowledge and promote their publications.
All of this material from all of these sources and others like them have not fully made their way into the publishing ecosystem. The newspapers are thinking primarily about their existing audiences: their readers. The libraries are also thinking primarily about their existing audiences: their patrons. They are publishing original “books”, but they’re not yet fully committed to the idea that they are publishers.
So their books are not routinely made available to and through all ebook channels. They are usually not hooked up to a print-on-demand capability. It seems like a common default is to publish ebooks through Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks only. In many cases, the publishing outside the library is handled by the “author” and so is limited by an author’s knowledge and ambition.
This situation will not last forever. Somebody — Amazon or Ingram or somebody else — is going to start working their way through these periodical publishers and libraries and encourage them to professionalize their book operations and make what they do universally available. Doing this requires only a tiny incremental effort over what it takes to gestate the book in the first place.
Even if all the books from all the periodicals and all the libraries were as discoverable and obtainable as the books from the top indie authors or the commercial publishers, it wouldn’t topple the publishing establishment we’ve known. It would just add another element to chip away at it a little more, as has been happening for the past two decades since Amazon first made every extant book available and Lightning started to increase the number of extant books to “all of them”.
So we are in a steady state. But it is a steady state of change. Amazon gets bigger. Publishing efforts outside the commercial world — entities publishing books primarily to make money — continue to grow. And the challenge of growing a profitable adult trade publishing operation continues to get steeper.
As my longtime readers know, I’m spending a lot of time working on climate change. I am proud to say my Four Freedoms Democratic Club was the first in the country to pass a resolution making the bipartisan gesture to support the Republican-created carbon-fee-and-dividend proposal from a group whose headline leadership includes GOP ex-Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz. Before my club endorsed, I wrote this piece on Medium advocating the step. If you need a basic understanding of the arguments and politics around taxing carbon, I created this summary.