Home » Big Publishing, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » One big change in book publishing is that it does not require you to have much of an organization to play anymore

One big change in book publishing is that it does not require you to have much of an organization to play anymore

30 September 2019

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

More than two decades into its digital transition, book publishing has evolved so that a capital-intensive infrastructure is no longer a requirement to successfully develop a book, or a list of books, and bring the books to market. This has resulted in a self-publishing segment, so far almost entirely author-driven, that is substantial in reach and readership and which offers ongoing competition to the commercial publishing business largely because of its ability to price its ebooks below what would be survival levels for commercial publishers.

. . . .

What publishers do, over and over again, is the business of “content” and “markets”. Each book is unique content and is individually delivered to its own unique market. So publishers need to stick to content and markets that they understand in a contextual way. That is usually done by sticking to genres in fiction and topics or “audiences” for non-fiction. But people who live in any of many non-fiction “worlds” could well be as well-equipped as any publisher to grasp the content-and-market equations in those environments.

The discrete tasks are:

1. Creating the content, which requires domain knowledge (the world of the content) and, of course, the ability to discern good and effective writing and presentation. And a knowledge of the content world implies a sense of any particular project’s uniqueness and timeliness.

2. “Packaging” the content in a form that is reproducible. That means different things for print and for digital. And it is more complicated for books that are illustrated or annotated with charts or graphs.

3. “Marketing”, or making potential readers aware of the book. This takes in what we used to think of as publicity and advertising, which in the “old days” largely centered around book reviews and the sections in newspapers that carried them, but which is now much more about search engine optimization and social network marketing.

4. Connecting with the avenues of distribution: reaching the sources of printed books their customers might use — bookstores, other retailers, or online merchants for consumers and wholesalers or distributors for those intermediaries, print and e. You have to sell to them and serve them: persuade them to carry or list the book and then deliver, bill, and collect so they can.

5. Selling rights where you can’t sell books. Because many books, no matter their origin, have the potential to gain additional revenue and exposure through licensing for other languages or placing chunks of the book’s content in other venues (what was very simply “serialization” in the all-print days), rights sales and mangement is another activity that a book publisher has to cover.

How have the avenues for sale to end users changed in the past two decades?

Before digital change arrived, which for trade publishers we could say began when Amazon opened in 1995, publishers sold most of their books in stores. The books got there because their sales reps persuaded the stores to stock them. Reps and stores are still a part of the delivery system, but they are no longer the only path to an audience that can deliver a book’s author substantial revenue.

In the past 20 years, online sales of print have moved from under 5% of the total units to certainly 40% of units, perhaps 50%. And it can be much more for some titles.

In addition to print, publishers sell ebooks and those are exclusively online. Twenty years ago, sales were zero. Now they appear to be 20% or more of the sales for big publishers. Once again, there is a range across titles and types of titles and there is a whole new segment of digital-first publishers for which the percentage of ebook sales is much higher, sometimes approaching 100%.

. . . .

Twenty years ago was probably the peak of the big bookstore chains — Borders and Barnes & Noble. Two decades ago, those two retail behemoths were more than 30% of many publishers’ sales. Today, Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble has shrunk, and their sales are less than 10% for most publishers. The number of chain stores is fewer than half of what it was, but shelf space for books has shrunk even more.

As a result of the diminishing bookstore space — shrinking and disappearing chains and despite a recent resurgence of independents the growth from them hasn’t nearly replaced what’s been lost — the opportunities to put printed books in front of consumers have shrunk. So the shelf space in mass merchants, like Walmart and Costco, is especially important for the big books.

. . . .

At the same time, the general interest book clubs have pretty much disappeared. Publishers used to be able to move thousands of copies of big books through those direct mail channels. They’re effectively gone.

And all of the above is really attributable to the fact that the sales have moved to Amazon. Twenty years ago they were probably not as much as 2 percent of book sales. Now, if you include Kindle sales, they are almost certainly 50 percent of the sales. For printed books alone, they are over 40 percent for most publishers.

. . . .

Amazon sales reached a tipping point about ten years ago. Kindle, launched in 2007, grew fast, as the first “direct download” ebook system. (Before Kindle, the ebooks had to be downloaded into a computer and then “synched” to a device.) So when Amazon first offered the self-publishing opportunity through Kindle, they were able to “reach” an audience of sufficient size to enable aspiring authors to actually make some money. When they added their “Create Space” capability for print-on-demand, an author could readily reach half the book-buying audience with one stop.

That was really the catalyst for what has become a tsunami of self-publishing.

. . . .

The much-cheaper [indie ebooks on Amazon] were most compelling for the audiences that consumed many titles: readers of romance, sci-fi, thrillers, and mysteries. It didn’t take long — maybe a couple of years — for a very robust title selection in those genres to become available from many previously-unknown authors.

Whether it was intentional or not, Amazon’s flipping of the time-honored “razors and blades” pricing strategy contributed to their rounding up all those multiple-book readers.

. . . .

[F]rom day one, the tiny-but-growing community of Kindle readers bought an outsized number of books.

For those authors who captured readers through the combination of low-pricing and the appeal of the free book “samples” that digital enabled, the Amazon self-publishing ecosystem could be very remuerative.

. . . .

Regular publishing required an agent most of the time but it required a lot of patience all of the time. Finding an agent took effort and could take months. The publishers’ decision-making process to buy also took a long time, often months. The act of publishing took a long time, also often months. It quite often added up to years. And then the share the author got was a fraction of what Kindle would pay them.

. . . .

So by 2010, we had a very different profile of intermediaries between publishers and their readers than we had a decade or so before.

And in the decade since, the total retail shelf space dedicated to books, across chains, independents, mass merchants, and specialty merchants, has continued to decline. The share of sales being taken by online has continued to grow to the level we cited: 50 percent for most titles. All publishers, but particularly big publishers, have taken to heart that they have to market direct to consumers . . . .

. . . .

If you go back to the top to look at the requirements to publish a book, numbers one and two are the creation and designing of a book, and most publishers use freelance capabilities for that which are available to anybody, including individual authors. Number three (marketing) has many components, but there are a plethora of independent services available to deliver most of the capabilities. Number four (connecting with the avenues of distribution) is delivered by Amazon to their customers and by Ingram to the world. And number five (licensing, particularly foreign rights) can be done by a vast network of agents and digital marketing consultants that already exists. You don’t need to own any of it to play.

And, as a result of all of that, many of the structural advantages a being a book publisher have faded in importance. A person with a manuscript, a computer, and a bit of a budget has been able to publish effectively, and sometimes profitably, for the past ten years. That has spawned the current infrastructure of capabilities and services that might suddenly be discovered as a key tool by entities bigger than individual authors. On another day, we’ll explore that might mean to publishing’s future.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG has been hard on Mr. Shatzkin on many occasions in the past. However, over the past several months, Shatzkin has come around nicely (in PG’s occasionally meek and deferential opinion).

If PG were to date this change, he thinks it may have begun when Shatzkin retired (or mostly-retired, PG has no familiarity with anything other than what The Shatzkin Files have disclosed) from his work as a long-time and well-respected publishing consultant based in New York City.

As PG considered this apparent change, he was reminded of Miles’ Law, reputedly named for Rufus E. Miles, Jr., a supervisor in the Bureau of the Budget in the 1940s who told a group of subordinates that, in government agencies, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

PG has never been in the traditional publishing business (although he has been exposed to traditional publishers via helping Mrs. PG by reviewing the publishing contracts from the traditional publishers with which she formerly did business).

PG was not alone in recognizing the potential for Amazon and its general pricing practices, but particularly for its aggressive move into ebooks, to completely upend traditional publishing. He had witnessed and participated in the revolution that had significantly impacted the legal profession with the birth of computer-based word-processing and its ability to turn out perfect, custom-fitted documents of all sorts very quickly and inexpensively. When he was still practicing retail law, PG made a lot of money by building software programs that could start printing out sophisticated wills and trusts or divorce petitions and related documents while the client was still in the process of writing a check and handing it to one of his legal assistants.

Even more importantly, PG had absorbed significant amounts of the thinking and writing of Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and well-known author of The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, a book that Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs have each said had a major impact on how they built Amazon and Apple.

The early moves of Bezos into providing self-publishing tools for the masses were extraordinarily disruptive, especially for ebooks, putting Amazon’s promotional power behind making some of those indie ebooks into big sellers and, even more important, on a per-ebook basis, paying authors far more than they would receive from the sale of an ebook via a traditional publisher through Amazon.

When you add the tools Amazon has provided for author to exercise broad control over ebook pricing plus author access to the Amazon-based advertising and marketing tools for selling books, Amazon has effectively set up an online laboratory that permits authors to experiment with all sorts of marketing/pricing strategies in an ongoing search for the best way to sell a lot of ebooks. Perhaps more important even than the money Amazon earns from selling indie ebooks, it is in a position impossible for any traditional publisher to equal, where it can watch and learn from all the various pricing/marketing/product design experimentation going on among thousands of individual authors, including some who are selling a huge number of ebooks.

PG suggests that, while good editors, nicely-formatted books and skilled cover designers are very important for most indie authors, paying for those services separately (or doing them yourself, particularly in the case of book formatting), instead of offloading those jobs to publishers and giving up far more income than even the most expensive editor or designer would charge just doesn’t make sense.

If you’re writing in a niche that benefits from quick-to-market strategies to take advantage of something that’s happening right now or soon will happen, a traditional publisher is most definitely not a smart strategy. You can make it all happen much faster (and probably  much better – most publishers’ employees are generalists, not specialists in particular market segments or sub-segments, plus everything at a publisher is subject to bureaucratic time lags) by doing it (or hiring specialists to do it) yourself.

The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

~ Laurence J. Peter

In any bureaucracy, there’s a natural tendency to let the system become an excuse for inaction.

~  Chris Fussell

Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies.

~  Honore de Balzac

Big Publishing, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

8 Comments to “One big change in book publishing is that it does not require you to have much of an organization to play anymore”

  1. This leapt out at me:

    ” That is usually done by sticking to genres in fiction and topics or “audiences” for non-fiction.”

    Isn’t genre fiction the markets in which self-published authors have done the most damage to publishers? If we’re talking about niche markets in non-fiction, aren’t most authors actually writing niche non-fiction (technical works, history) already demonstrating superior market knowledge?

  2. Those of us writing mainstream fiction instead of genre fiction, indie, will have our day. The traditional publishers have had a damping effect on what gets published, with their implied requirement of “the same, only different.”

    Mainstream indie novels usually take longer to write (if competing against mainstream trad pubbed novels) and suffer the most from quality comparisons if not carefully produced, but actively take on topics which are broader, newer, or niche. This is where they will eventually shine (we hope).

    • And a writer can respond to the next new thing and not be two or more years later waiting on the gears of trad-pub to grind.

  3. Explain this please…

    Amazon sells, more or less, half of the paper books sold in the U.S.

    Amazon says that they sell more ebooks than paper.

    How then can the U.S. ebook market be anything but at least half the size of the paper book market?

    • Yardstick.
      The establishment measures share by “reader spend”, gross dollars, or by publisher gross income, not by units sold.
      Given the price differential between Indies and tradpub or even digital tradpub and print, it is easy to obscure and minimize the true penetration of indies.

      This is necessary because, while gross revenue has been mostly flat this century, unit sales have actually declined year by year. Can’t have that story out for all to see.

    • Unit market share vs dollar market share.

      Dollar market share always lags unit market share. And then it catches up.

    • Amazon sells > 50% of all books
      Amazon sells more e-books than books

      that makes e-books > 1/3 of all book sales

      to say that this makes e-books more than 50% of all books assumes that everyone else that sells books also sells a similar ratio of e-books to books, and I really doubt that is the case.

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