October 25th, 2014

Whence Publishing?

The book industry suffers. First, Barnes & Noble and Borders destroyed the independent bookstores. Then Amazon destroyed Borders and put B & N into the Ebola ward. Now Amazon is threatening the big publishers in negotiations with Hachette. The industry is changing and it will change more.

The publishing industry manufactures books and sells them, like the automobile industry manufactures cars and sells them, but there are also differences. Car manufacturers need factories. Publishers need printing plants, but they also need authors. And authors are not a commodity. Not every would-be author can write a profitable book. They look to publishers for help and guidance. Yet, despite diligent help from the publishers, many books fail to show a profit.

Pesky authors and the fickle book market have lead the publishing industry to the peculiar notion that it is an institution rather than a business.

Traditional Publishing

The components of the industry are authors, agents and book publishers. Within the publishing houses, there are editors, book designers, production managers, marketers, and book salesmen. Independent and chain bookstores and online booksellers sell the books to readers.

Agents and publishers are the gatekeepers. They only accept product from the best candidates among the horde of aspirants. The publishing companies then groom the chosen authors’ submissions into presentable books and manufacture them. Marketers publicize the books and attempt to attract attention. Book salesmen take the books around to the retail outlets and try to sell them to the retailers. If all this effort works, the book sells and everyone is happy.

Often though, books fail to attract attention or sales. Publishers say that they act as a risk pool for authors. The successful books pay for the publishers’ investment in failed books.

Recent Publishing Trends

The institution is changing. Publishers used to be relatively small businesses. A dry spell with few successes and many failures could close the business’s doors. The industry has consolidated into a few large publishers that are part of even larger conglomerates. These well-funded enterprises are more resilient, but they also pursue profit with a single mind. Consequently, they trim budgets and eliminate unprofitable aspects of the business.

Cost cutting has reduced support for non-bestselling authors to a bare minimum. Instead of the nationwide book tours of the past, unproven authors are on their own for marketing. Good books that do not show and immediate profit are eliminated. Publishers have cut down on editing. Books that require extensive editing are rejected, causing authors to hire editors at their own expense. Meticulous book design is reserved for the better selling authors. Salesmen on commission are hesitant to risk sales by pushing books that might be returned. The risk pool concept becomes less compelling as publishers reduce their risk by only investing in bestsellers.

Other factors are influencing the industry. EBooks eliminate printing and shipping costs. This dramatically lowers the cost threshold for publishing a book. An author can publish an eBook and sell it on the Internet for less than the price of a power lunch. With the decrease in support, this is an attractive alternative for many authors.

Bookstores are finding it hard to compete with online booksellers that tap a larger market, have lower overhead, and a broader selection titles. In addition, bookstores have not been able to enter the growing eBook market, which is largely limited to Internet sales.

Amazon and the Future

Even mighty Amazon faces difficulties. In their quest for ever-expanding markets, their profit margin is miniscule. This, in itself makes them vulnerable. Further, eBooks may not be as good for Amazon as they appear now. With barriers to self-publishing down, authors are tempted to go it alone. Amazon offers few advantages to publishing with them. They do not select, edit, or market the books they publish. Readers don’t have help choosing the boats they might like and authors get no help writing books that appeal to readers. An ecosystem is developing that supplies the editing and marketing infrastructure that publishers used to supply and websites like GoodReads are becoming gatekeepers. If this trend continues, Amazon may find itself selling Kindles that are loaded with books sold and promoted by independent authors and cut out of the profits from EBook sales.

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