Thursday, July 17, 2014

Where is BigPub Going?

I’m still reading a lot of blogs and news stories about the Amazon/Hachette negotiations, and what this suggests about the future of how books reach consumers in America. One insider in what can be called Big Publishing is Michael Shatzkin. He’s now a consultant to publishers, and runs a popular blog. In a post he made on July 15, 2014, he said this concerning how publishers can stop Amazon’s roll to dominance:
Can they [the government] be awakened by publishers to this concern before dramatic cases affecting public awareness and policy are documented?

This echoes what others have said, most notably James Patterson. They want the government to step in and save the publishing industry as we know it. What exactly it is that they want the government to do is never stated. Make some kind of anti-Amazon law—yes, but what form that would take or what it would do is uncertain. Limit e-book sales to some percent of print book sales? Break up Amazon as they did a century ago with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil? Or something else like that.

I’ve covered this in other posts, and will do so briefly here. It is not the government’s roll to prop up failing businesses, or to guarantee the continuation of a business climate that is favorable to a certain business or industry. Freedom of the press is not a guarantee of an audience, or of customers. Others have suggested that this drift towards requesting/expecting government involvement is a sure sign that BigPub is in trouble, perhaps in the throws of death. Only the government can save them is what's being implied.
BigPub is a middle man. The best I can say of them is that they are a value-added reseller. They buy a product, a book, that is not yet in a form that a consumer can use. They put it in that form by adding value.  They edit, format, package with a cover, warehouse, and finally ship to retailers a product that the consumer can use, enjoy, and benefit from. In their choosing which products to buy and add value to, they offer consumers a higher quality product than the average of the raw materials they considered at first.

The problem that Big Publishing has is that technology has progressed to the point that other means of adding that value can be found. Let’s say that forty years ago a writer submitted a manuscript to BigPub and it was rejected with a note, “You are almost there; keep writing.” If that writer decided to try himself to put that book before the public, it would be a difficult and costly proposition. He had to find an editor. How do you do that? Look at ads in writing magazines, answer an ad by snail mail, and try to find an experienced editor who knew the genre and could respond timely—all by snail mail. He had to have a cover made. Go through the same process with an artist and possibly a graphic designer. Had to format the book. Go through the same process with a typesetter, followed by a proofreader, revise the typesetting. Find a printer/binder. Figure out how to get it in bookstores. Or, in place of all that, pay several thousand dollars to a service who would do all that for you, though most likely to a quality standard you wouldn't be pleased with.
But now technology has changes that. E-mail shortens the process. Internet-based platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, and Draft-2-Digital have reduced the need for so many outside service providers. Even covers can be quickly and easily made. Artistic touches, when needed, can be hired out, with the process of finding the artist/designer made that much easier by communications moving like wildfire over the Internet. The rejected writer, or even the non-rejected writer who just decides to forego dealing with BigPub, can quickly, easily, and inexpensively publish a book and put it before readers in modern sales channels. Perhaps not all the sales channels available to BigPub, but it’s still out there.

So I see only two things that will cause BigPub to fall from their present lofty heights.
  1. Fail to embrace and use new technologies; and
  2. Writers, including big name writers, abandoning them in droves.
I don’t see the latter happening. Yes, more and more writers are eschewing BigPub in favor of self-pub, but these are mostly mid-list writers (though including some high up the mid-list). Even if this trend continues and grows, plenty of other writers, including many just as good as those currently in BigPub’s stable, are at the door, manuscript in hand, waiting to be let through by the gatekeepers. However, I do see BigPub refusing to embrace new technologies. They are fighting with Amazon, their biggest and most efficient sales outlet. They are fighting the whole migration to e-books, keeping prices for them high and delaying their release so as to prop up print books. They are not learning what customers want.

How long BigPub’s run will be before some kind of bubble bursts and they implode is anyone’s guess. I have no clairvoyance on that. Some people say two years, some say five to ten years. I suspect ten years is the low end. In 2020 I think things will be more or less the same as they are now, with all current trends continuing. E-books will be a higher percentage of total books sold, both units and dollars. Print will be moving toward being a niche, or a number of niches, though will still be pretty big. Publisher profits will have started dropping. Some mega-bestseller will have bolted, but not all. New writers who were previously shut out will continue to be published and will be tickled pink to have contracts, even draconian contracts, from BigPub. Amazon will still be king of the retail hill. And self-publishing will have continued to take market share away from BigPub. The business will look different, but the end of BigPub will not yet have occurred and may not yet be in sight.
So that’s my take on the current mess in the publishing world. It’s not that much different, if at all, from what I wrote before. Let’s see what 2020 brings us.

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