From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:
An inexorable reality of today’s commercial book publishing world is that it is shrinking.Although there have been no obvious signs yet that actual long-form book reading itself has declined (even though that would seem a likely consequence over time of the changed ways we get our reading inputs), the self-publishing and indie segment of the market keeps growing at the expense of the legacy commercial business.
Although it would take data I don’t have to prove this, it certainly appears anecdotally that the big houses are cutting back their investment in midlist titles, perhaps actually cutting future title count (which, over the years, has been an often-espoused but seldom-pursued strategy) but also offering smaller advances for all but the very top books.
Sales seem to be drifting away from the established publishers as their title outputs shrink or remain static and are shifting to Amazon’s own titles and indies, which is where the title base is expanding.
When businesses are shrinking, or even just not growing, it is a normal reaction to find ways to cut costs to maintain margins and profits. And, in fact, the big publishers have generally been managing their costs pretty effectively during a period of flat or declining top line sales.
In that context, it was no real surprise when it was publicly announced last week that F+W Publishing, which recently changed ownership, will cut overheads by moving from doing their own sales and distribution to working instead through Perseus, an Ingram company.
Meanwhile, the whole legacy industry worries about the future for Barnes & Noble.
Last week a significant Barnes & Noble shareholder called publicly for the chain to offer itself for sale, apparently calculating that new (and perhaps “private”) ownership would see paths to profits that aren’t being followed right now. This follows continuing evidence that B&N’s overall sales track the legacy business, and are therefore declining. Amazon, of course, is not just the principal creator and beneficiary of the new competitors, primarily independent authors. They are also moving from being an online-only retailer to competing in B&N’s milieu: physical locations offering books.
. . . .
Amazon’s supply chain, built on a scale that the book business alone could never support, is now the gold standard. It will enable them to continue rolling out smaller stores, which is the kind of outlet that can succeed in today’s book marketplace. The stark fact today is that more than half the sales are online (and despite BN.com and the increased frequency of online book peddling from authors and various vertical organizations enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io and its competitors, almost all of those go to Amazon).
Big in-store inventories have become a pointless anachronism.
It is cheap sport to ridicule Barnes & Noble’s performance in the Internet age. They’ve made many of the standard incumbent mistakes in the face of upstart competition. They dealt themselves out of the online business by not pursuing either of the two most likely paths to success. They should either have made their dot com a stand-alone business, with pricing and growth aspirations beyond books that competed with Amazon, or they should have tightly integrated the online and store offerings to produce a hybrid that had its own appeal. They did neither.
. . . .
The shrinkage of the commercial business has other visible impacts. There is anecdotal evidence that the agents are suffering from these cutbacks. One much-younger-than-I-am publishing veteran recalled for me that when he started agenting (he no longer is active in that aspect of the business) a dozen years ago, he could live on his salary as a fledgling agent and he could really “build a list”. Neither of these things seem to be possible anymore, or at the least they are much more difficult. Meanwhile, even the older agents — those who have a list of productive authors — are finding it get harder and harder to make sales. And like publishers of a certain age, these agents don’t find their own progeny or their younger staff as willing to commit money or time to the future of the business as they would have expected them to 10 or 20 years ago.
Present trends clearly suggest that we will continue to have fewer commercial publishers signing up fewer books for smaller advances outside the handful of authors that are virtual guarantees to deliver big unit sales. And for those books that do have an assured big unit sale, publishers will tend to be willing to overpay because they need throughput to feed their fixed-overhead machines.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files
PG has disagreed with more than one of Mike’s posts in the past. In this instance, PG doesn’t disagree with the way Mike has characterized the current business climate for publishers. Mike has described the serious (likely fatal) problems of the traditional book business utilizing perspectives and information sources only a long-time publishing professional would understand.
However, as far as a solution for Barnes & Noble’s or the publishing industry’s overall problems, PG is reminded of an old business adage, “You can’t cut your way to success.”
Unless there is a reason to believe that a smaller book business will, by virtue of its size, gain access to powerful strategies, tools and talents that the larger one can’t obtain, cutting expenses is just trying to keep the Titanic afloat by tossing buckets of water overboard.
For authors, PG will repeat his harangue that the “standard” publishing contract that will last for the term of the author’s copyright – the remainder of the author’s life plus 70 years in the US and similar lengths of time in other countries – puts traditionally-published authors into a very difficult situation. They’re the only ones who can’t jump ship and take their sources of income with them.
Traditionally-published authors have signed a contract that ties up their books basically forever. The contract is with a publisher that is a corporate entity, not a person.
Although the publisher’s past record of selling books or an editor’s reputation for quality work developing other authors’ careers may have been a key element in deciding to place the author’s book with that particular publisher, the editor and the people who worked hard to establish a successful sales record are not parties to the contract. They have no obligations to the author or to the publisher. The publisher probably has no long-term obligations to the people who built the publisher’s reputation.
Cutting your way to success often means firing people with the highest salaries. Cutting your way to success can also mean ruthlessly pruning expenses so the corporation can be sold to an entirely new owner.
The author has no voice in choosing a new owner for the publisher and no ability to change the lifetime term of the publishing contract.
The new owner will undoubtedly be another corporation. That corporation may be operated by people who are experienced and skilled in the book business or the new owner may be a hedge fund that specializes in sucking the last dollar from distressed properties prior to placing them into bankruptcy where even lower bottom-feeders will pick over the bones of the once-successful publisher.
And the author continues to be an unwilling participant in the process by virtue of the lifetime plus 70 contract she signed.
Visitors to TPV can decide whether publishers operated by bottom-feeders will be conscientious about sending out timely and accurate royalty reports. And royalty checks.
If an author has an obligation to give the publisher first option on new books or is prohibited from writing books that will compete with those the publisher has already published, how likely is it that the bottom-feeder will promptly respond to the option manuscripts or agree that the new books are not competitive so the author can sell those books to another publisher or self-publish them? A bottom feeder might decide that the author should pay a fee to obtain clearance to take each new book elsewhere.
PG reflexively takes the author’s side in business transactions with others. As he has mentioned before, Mrs. PG is a long-time author, first traditionally published and, in recent years, very happily self-published.
He lays out these possibilities and probabilities not to ruin the day for a traditionally-published author, but as a warning to act like a business person who sees a big storm on the horizon and take whatever precautions are available to minimize the financial and emotional damage which is likely to occur based upon current trends in the book business.