Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Demise of Print Publishing--A Publisher's Commetary

Yes, the book business is in dire straits. Wylie-Merrick has posted lots of stuff about it, including ideas that e-books be provided free, with advertising. As an indie publisher, I maintain that books give more to life than soap or pencils.

Books have prestige. In this context, I believe that “free” generally spells garbage. Publishers cannot pander to readers whose attention spans would cause them to throw down a free book in a New York minute for a little Face Book time, and I will fight to my last breath for old-style print books with a price tag on leisurely enjoyment. Still, I realize that the advent of digital publishing makes change inevitable, and we publishers better start right now to get into the cyberspace groove, before it’s goodbye glue and ink and hello cell phone reading. Only the opthalmologist will profit from that.

As for the proposal to sell advertising in ebooks, exactly who is going to drum up this so-called financial asset? I envision a book world of Viagra ads in romance novels or hatchets and butcher knives in murder mysteries. Yucch!

Here are three ideas I believe will keep offset print books viable: 1) change immediately the pernicious practice of Returns. Speaking of buggy whips, bookseller and wholesaler returns of unsold books to the publisher for full refunds is an anachronism that should be stopped immediately and all publishers, large and small, should rally against it and set a date, say January 2012, after which no returns will be countenanced. 2) Make life easier for the beleaguered publisher. I’ve often observed there seem to be more writers out there than readers. If an author wants her book to be published by a legitimate publisher, with professional editing, distribution and publicity, she might consider becoming a partner with the publisher who signs her up, either by giving up advances on royalties or royalties altogether and taking a cut of the profits. This would be especially good for first-time authors. 3) Continue to expand other venues for book selling, and find new ones, for instance, publishing simultaneously in offset print and digitally. Right now, as we wrangle, a few large publishers are trying this method out.

Any thoughts?

B. Phillips
Co-publisher, Editorial Director
Bridge Works Publishing


Anonymous said...

Good ideas, all of them, especially #1. Of course, the brick-and-mortar book stores will be as fond of this radical atrocity as the insurance companies are of the Public Option, because they might actually have to take an occasional risk (unless they decide to only carry books by Stephenie Meyers and Dan Brown.)

Anonymous said...

hmm...giving up advances on royalties, I don't know about that, ha ha. BTW, I'm following you on Twitter and waiting for you to have at least one good day, so I can send you my query :-)

Jim MacKrell said...

I too believe that "print publishing" will never go away, just like CD's with the advent of Itunes there is still going to be a market. What I didn't understand about your post is an outline of what publishers are willing to offer writers. You listed a couple of things you believe are well done by traditional publisher, "professional editing" "Publicity" "Professional marketing" etc. All of these things are available to the independent writer now through what I call freelance or cottage industries. If traditional publishers would start looking at the canvas as an opportunity of change for the better, instead of telling us why they are not doing a better job..then all of this would be worthwhile..

Scott Jensen said...

B. Phillips wrote: As for the proposal to sell advertising in ebooks, exactly who is going to drum up this so-called financial asset?

Authors and agents.

As for your three ideas (and addressing them by their numbers)...

1) If you don't allow bookstores to do returns, are you then willing to sell your books to the bookstore at a fraction of what you sell it to them now? That's what they will demand and should get since then they're taking on more risk.

2) I really don't think any successful author would ever consider giving up royalties for a cut of the profits. And I'm sure everyone (but publishers) will warn first-time authors not to do this. If you want to know how writers have been screwed by this, read up on how screenwriters have been by Hollywood studios. A famous case was Buchwald v. Paramount. Essentially, Paramount promised a cut of the profits to Art Buchwald and, when money rolled in, declared there weren't any profits. The film made over $128 million at the box office and yet didn't make a single penny in profit. This is called "Hollywood accounting" and would be expected to happen to authors as well.

As for giving up advances while still getting royalties, I could see first-time authors being willing to do this. Not successful authors though.

3) But who owns the ebook then? You or the buyer? If the buyer, can the buyer then donate it to their library? Sell it on eBay? And how would you prevent copying? This is what I believe is wrong with trying to selling ebooks and why I believe free ebooks (supported by advertising) is the answer.

Lost and Found Cousins said...

As a "first time wanna be" writer swimming against the stream in the treacherous and "shark filled" waters of the publishing world, I connected with Agent Robert's thoughts on the possibility of "newbies" negotiating royalties and advances in lieu of being able to "share risk" with the publishers. Whew! I also take into account the warning about "Hollywood accounting" so I would recommend there be a "base payment" to be figured into the cost factor that determines profits. That would insure the writer isn't left hanging.

I believe we have two "camps" struggling for solutions. The published and successful writers and the "newbies and wanna be" writers. Allowing for the validity of "a chain only being as strong as its weakest link" I believe we are all "one security chain" for the protection of our profession, thus it behooves us to all seek united solutions "in the best interest" of all the "links".

We the "weaker links" may need to take more shared risks with publishers. We as a body need to put into place the safeguards for all published works, by whatever venue they are presented. (E-books, etc).

Thank you Agent Robert for not only being the beleaguered messenger of bad tidings during these economic times, but also the positive troubadour of possible solutions.

Tanessa said...

I read some research recently that suggested my age group (don't ask) buys mostly paperbacks. I prefer reading paperback and wish publishers would do away with hardbacks--or at least print both simultaneously. That way, readers can buy books when they are released. If I have to wait months and months for a paperback release, I lose interest (or have borrowed a copy from the library).

Joel Rane said...

I've been reading the last few weeks of commentary with mild interest; it just seems like this kind of publishing isn't related to what I write. I'm one of those who indulge in the dreaded "literary fiction", and like poets and short story authors, the last decade was very bleak. But I believe the e-book will save us...though not in the ways anyone has described.

My first book was published by an artist's cooperative in New York. The book was illustrated, in two editions, a $15 chapbook and a handmade "artist's book" with silk-screened images that went for $1500. That's right...$1500. We sold out of all copies and everyone made money.

The e-book will replace the textbook and the cheap paperback, but there will always be a high-end market for books. Books, in many ways, are fetish objects; how many books do you own that you read before you bought the book and never read again? Multiple editions? I have dozens of books that I've never read and, sadly, probably never will. But from the day the printing press was invented, people bought books as status items. These are good times for writers like me...we merely need to find the 10 to 30 thousand people who might be interested in owning our work, as a work of art; we no longer have to deal with bottom-line publishers and agents. Thank you!

Melissa said...

Your publisher failed to mention one issue that I see as a big reason for publishing's problems--the huge advance for "celebrity" authors.

I worked in bookstores for several years, and while I think the practice of allowing returns should be re-negotiated (you notice I don't say done away with), I think giving million dollar advances to the flavor of the day in anticipation of big sales should be stopped. When someone like Paris Hilton is given several million dollars to "write" a book, you have to wonder if we should even be lamenting the demise of traditional publishing. For every hot celebrity book out there, B & N has a stack of bargain remainders.

You can blame the bookstores for publishing's problems, but publishers need to acknowledge that if they didn't do a large print run and then coerce big box sellers to buy a ton of the next hot thing, they wouldn't have to eat all those returns, would they?

The other new publishing phenomenon would be the "current event" title where someone like a Jaycee Dugard is offered a huge sum to tell her story in book format. Booksellers have to carry these books because the public will come in looking for them, but the publisher doesn't have to print them. If the publishers don't want to do returns, they need to stop printing books with such a limited shelf life.

steeleweed said...

Re returns: what other business 'sells' its product(s) on what is essentially consignment? If your supermarket can't sell all its lettuce, can they return it and get their money back?

I would surrender royalties for profit-sharing but only if some reputable 3rd party trustee did the accounting. Being cynical, I wouldn't trust the publishers' accounting departments.

The future may well be a merger of electronic and hardcopy, such as instant books printed by the OnDemand system.

Scott Jensen said...


Most artistic products are sold on consignment. Art galleries operate this way. Almost always any artwork you see for sale in espresso cafes are consignment sales.

And then there are naturally second-hand shops that operate solely on consignment.