Disintermediating the Publishers

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Current Affairs, Economics

Selling is hard work.  In Sales 101 you need to learn that every customer objection is not a demand for a lower price, though that seems to be SOP for more companies these days.  Sometimes a customer gripe is actually of the variety that says this doesn’t meet my needs.  At that point what amount of discounting is appropriate to induce an otherwise sane person to buy a product?

The book publishing industry is one of those old school marketplaces where vendors compete on price when all else fails, which happens often.  Thus we have the discounted book, the paperback, the eBook and countless remainder bins and second hand bookstores.  If the originally published book didn’t sell, perhaps it was mispriced; there must be a market!

We are witnessing a particular or peculiar form of this logic in the book industry right now.  According to an article in today’s New York Times, Justice Department is suing publishers and Apple for colluding to fix the price of books sold and delivered electronically.  It gets complicated or even Hobbesian as the eBook has become the publisher’s way of selling another electronic book reader, content be damned.

So we have a bizarre situation in which Apple set the price for eBooks in its store and thus set the standard for the industry.  Publishers and book sellers, competing on price decided they needed to be the low cost producers or die trying.  Some have done both, RIP Borders.  Now the titans of the book world along with the DOJ are trying to figure out whether ten or fifteen bucks is the right price level seemingly regardless of content but amid all this an important constituency has been over looked.  How about authors?

Books aren’t a commodity capable of being mass-produced and sold off at close to the cost of running the presses.  There are real costs associated with making a book like the year or longer it takes an author to conceive an idea and thrash it out.  And that’s not even accounting for the latte bill, all those cigarettes and, if you write fiction, the beret, the cold water flat on the Left Bank and those French lessons.  But I digress.

Here are some fun facts to consider.  The standard writer’s contract with a publisher is an 85/15 split and no, that’s not why writers get rich.  A typical book might sell ten thousand copies.  Most publishers I have dealt with have their own proposal template that they want filled out when you propose a book idea.  Along with describing what the book is about and chapter outlines, they ask such literary questions as, how big is your social network, how do you propose to market and sell this book, do you have a website and more.

For 85 percent the publishers do very little to market your book.  They employ editors who should be able to help you improve your idea but much of the time an editor is simply a taskmaster.  I am not going to go on.  For the full experience you just have to put book writing on your bucket list.

The point of this piece is that publishers with the help of the DOJ and book sellers are squeezing the authors.  Too often lowering the price of a book doesn’t do much to increase sales so you can forget making it up on volume.  Less is simply less.

So if writers are going to get a diminishing piece of the pie, why do it?  Why write a book?  Why does Rice play Texas?  You do it because you can’t imagine an existence where you don’t do it.

The good news is that thanks to the internet there is a growing industry concerned with helping people publish their books.  Of course, with such democratization you can expect quality to suffer, but that’s not the point.  If you have a good book and you know what you are doing, you can publish it with any kind of covers, even electrons, and you can sell it.

Self-publishers do the hard work of securing the sacred ISBN number and bar code that enable a book to be inventoried and sold through all outlets and they do the printing.  Better yet, the self-publishers have their own on-line stores.  So consider this.  If you have to put together a sales, marketing strategy and build a website and promote a book to your social network, why bother with a publisher at all?

Book publishers abetted by the DOJ are trying to consolidate the publishing industry into a walled garden in which the publishers set prices that they think the market will bear, regardless of the effect on writers.  But there is a big open gate in the wall through which writers will escape.

You can argue that book sales are not the way most writers make a living and that books are just an introduction to the world of public speaking, teaching and other forms of writing or thought leadership.  To that I say, right!  So if a writer has to be self sufficient in all those other ways, why bother with a publisher at all?

So, what did you think?

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