Mass-market book publishing is undergoing major upheaval more quickly than the experts expected.
Back when book publishers controlled distribution, manufacturing, sales, and marketing, the money flowed. Authors benefited because advances were fairly lucrative. Bookstores benefited because consignment sales limited their risk while local control stabilized their coffers. Readers . . . well, readers didn’t have any options, so they assumed that they were reading the best of what was available. The publisher, as gatekeeper to the means of communication, also was unquestionably the gatekeeper on taste.
It was the age of information scarcity, so gatekeepers on manufacturing were also gatekeepers on taste.
Now, digital publishing (including it’s cousin, print-on-demand [POD] publishing) — with its boundless capacity, disaggregated production value chain, and liberated distribution channels — is eroding these boundaries, and very quickly.
Last week, Smashwords announced to its authors (I happen to be one) that it has struck a deal with Barnes & Noble to become its e-book source. This is very significant, giving Barnes & Noble a way to begin competing in the e-book space with Amazon. In July, Barnes & Noble announced a partnership to provide e-books to the Plastic Logic Reader, and also plans to make its e-books available for iPhone and Blackberry platforms.
This is major news for independent authors, many of whom use Smashwords to reach a larger audience. It’s also major news for Smashwords, which now gains a major retail partner for its platform (back in February, I talked about how nifty Smashwords is).
Even the keynote for an upcoming Writer’s Digest conference is sensing how profoundly different the environment for authors and publishers is these days. In a free-wheeling blog post, Mike Shatzkin observes how digital publishing has lowered barriers to entry for everyone involved:
This ease of entry is part of what bedevils the established publishers. They’re still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it. That doesn’t mean that getting published by a real publisher is of no value; it is still the only way to sell significant numbers of copies, and it will remain that for some time to come. But most books, even those published by legitimate publishers, don’t sell large numbers of copies.
And this is where another devilish issue arises for publishers — they aren’t nearly as good at marketing as they thought they were.
When you own distribution, manufacturing, etc., you’re marketing to a resource-poor audience with few alternatives. Any marketing you do will likely work, so you begin to think you’re a brilliant marketer.
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel and claiming you’re a marksman.
But when the barrel vanishes and the fish are back in their natural habitat — when those other advantages erode and your marketing has to compete as marketing — your limitations and vulnerabilities as a marketer emerge.
And this is why publishers are now looking for help — from authors.
Doing all this heavy lifting for their publishers is one of the biggest complaints of traditionally published authors — the amount of marketing support from publishers is nearly zero, so it all falls on the author. With a small advance that probably won’t even pay out, more authors are becoming disillusioned and angry.
Part of the anger is caused by the fact that, as M.J. Rose of Authorbuzz observes, publishers aren’t paying authors for all the direct and indirect costs they’re incurring at the request of publishers:
We now have a situation where publishers are financially benefiting from the author’s efforts but the author is still getting paid the old way, without regard to how much we personally invest. There’s just no consideration for the checks we’re writing out of our own pockets for marketing or PR services. Accordingly, it’s blatantly and patently unfair for us to invest in our own books and then wait for our advances to earn out based on the same royalties rates we’ve always gotten.
So, authors are more important to publishers, have more options to reach people without using publishers, and new types of digital distributors are out-innovating publishers.
New groups, review sites, rating systems (star-ratings and customer reviews), and sharing sites provide new gate-keeping services, some — especially customer reviews — being seen as more legitimate than traditional sources.
What can mass-market publishers offer in response? They slow things down, take too much money in their cut, and exhibit dubious market judgment.
It’s a grim scenario.
It makes me glad I chose to publish my books independently. My second novel is due out in a week or two. Talk about freedom.
What lessons can STM publishers derive from this?
Gate-keeping and marketing are what the digital revolution is leaving with us. If we fail at either of these, authors will stop relying on us.