PG will note upfront that this is an excerpt from a much longer and more detailed essay. He’ll have a couple of comments at the end, but doesn’t have the time to respond to every one of Mr. Doctorow’s points contained in this review of publishing history and traditional publishers.
From Cory Doctorow:
Publishing is doing great
Publishing is doing great. Despite panic at the start of the lockdown, book sales were actually up during lockdown, as people turned to books to pass the time, joining online bookclubs and finding ways to support their local indie booksellers.
But authorship? Not so great.
Every part of the publishing supply chain has undergone radical concentration over the past 40 years, starting with consolidation of mass-market distribution in the 1980s. “Mass market” books are produced for sale in non-bookseller channels —pharmacies, grocery stores, news-stands, etc (books produced for sale in bookstores are called “trade books” because they’re sold through the bookselling trade).
. . . .
Enter Sam Walton, twirling his mustache
But by 1990s, when I started selling stories and then books, that advice was long past its sell-by date. Nationally, groceries and drugstores had been transformed in a process that originated with Sam Walton, who took advantage of deregulation to expand Walmart nationwide. Walmart was followed by waves of copycats who used predatory pricing to drive local merchants out of business. Big-box stores became a fixture, and represented such an important part of the mass-market bookselling channel that they were able to restructure the entire market.
First among their demands was an end to regional distributing. A retailer with outlets in 50 states didn’t want to manage 50 distribution accounts (indeed, most distribution territories were citywide, or even neighborhood-by-neighborhood, so a national chain might need to open hundreds of distributor accounts to serve all its stores). Within the space of a few short years, the number of distributors nationwide fell from about 400 to fewer than ten, in an orgy of bankruptcies and mergers.
This had a profound effect on the mass-market. Decisions about which books would be sold where were no longer in the hands of thousands of drivers who knew their territories intimately through long experience — rather, they were centralized into the hands of a few buyers who used databases to track sales and make predictions about the most “efficient” titles to stock nationwide.
The number of titles for sale nationwide fell off a cliff, and woe betide an author whose book failed to meet sales targets. A single stumble could lead to the permanent exclusion of that author from a big box chain’s consideration. Without those big box stores, publishers could no longer profitably publish those authors. If you are a genre fan of a certain age, you’ll remember the wave of established writers who rebooted their careers by switching to pen-names in a bid to trick these all-powerful buyers into giving them another chance.
Monopolies beget monopolies
The effects of deregulation —the Reagan-initiated “consumer welfare” reconstruction of antitrust enforcement —weren’t confined to Walmart and other big box retailers. Bookstore chains devoured one another in a too-fast-to-follow blizzard that saw mall stores nationwide changing corporate ownership more often than they changed their window displays (Borders was bought by Kmart, merged with Waldenbooks, spun out again, renamed, merged with a toy retailer, expanded globally, merged with the UK chain Books etc, flipped to private equity, debt loaded and crushed; Barnes and Noble bought B. Dalton and Bookstop, went public, bought Gamestop — yes, that Gamestop — started haemorrhaging money, got flipped to private equity, and rebooted under new leadership with James Daunt at the helm).
These mergers weren’t just driven by deregulation, though: monopoly begets monopoly. With mass-market sales dominated by big-box retailers (who could use predatory pricing to discount books below their wholesale prices), booksellers’ share of mass-market revenues collapsed. Getting big enough to negotiate preferential terms from publishers — in the form of “co-op” payments to promote blockbuster titles, as well as sweetheart discounts, “incentives,” and favorable credit terms — was one way for bookselling to compete in the new market.
This was bad news for publishers, of course (it was even worse news for independent booksellers, who not only couldn’t get the favorable terms extorted by big box retailers and the Big Two national bookstore chains, but actually saw their terms get worse in this period, as publishers took their gains where they could get them).
Consolidation in both trade and mass-market retail and distributorship was met with consolidation in publishing. Publishing went from dozens of publishers to a handful that continues to dwindle to this day: the Big Six publishers of the 2010 are now the Big Four, thanks to Penguin-Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster (the full name of this monstrosity is properly “Viking-Putnam-Berkeley-Avery-Ace-Avon-Grosset & Dunlop-Playboy Press-New American Library-Dutton-Jove-Dial-Warne-Ladybird-Pelican-Hamish Hamilton-Tarcher-Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Knopf-Harold Shaw-Multnomah-Pocket-Esquire-Allyn & Bacon-Quercus-Fearon-Janus-Penguin-Random House-Simon & Schuster”).
Health-care-ificatoin of publishing
Meanwhile, both trade and mass-market retail were collapsing even further, as Amazon claimed the lion’s share of both markets, giving the final say over what books were connected with which readers to a single firm, whose executives used a mix of algorithms, superstition, vindictiveness and raw, anticompetitive bullying to determine which books would succeed or fail.
. . . .
As competition in publishing has faded, the deal for most writers has gotten worse. We’ve seen a rise in odious contracting terms, from binding arbitration waivers; to “joint accounting” that allows publishers to drain money owed for a successful book’s sales to cover the failure of another book; to non-negotiable inclusion of ebook, foreign, graphic novel and audio rights (with no increase in advances); to the abolishment of rights-reversion for out-of-print books. Advances and royalty rates have stalled.
Books are doing fine, authors (and publishing workers) are not — just as health insurers, hospitals and pharma companies are thriving, while patients and medical workers’ fortunes are growing steadily worse.
The decline in the author’s share of the pie is directly attributable to a decline in competition among publishers (which, in turn, is directly attributable to a decline in competition among retailers and distributors). In a world with four large publishers, if Publisher A passes on your book or makes a unacceptably low offer, you try your luck with Publishers B, C, and D, and, if four decision-makers all make no offer or a poor offer, you’re done.
This situation is bad for writers, readers and publishing workers (the same dynamic plays out for publishing workers — if you don’t get a job at Macmillan, Harpercollins, Hachette or Random Penguin, then you have been rejected by every major publisher). Many things have been tried to fix this system.
The myth of the benevolent giant
First came the search for an alternative to publishing itself (just as the mass-market was an alternative to trade publishing). Writers, readers and editorial workers sought out other sectors who’d get the books they wanted into the hands of readers. There were a lot of startups that tried to fill this niche, but apart from some religious publishers, the only one that attained liftoff was Amazon, which leveraged its dominance in every other area of publishing to create a successful alternative to the publishing industry itself.
But while Amazon produced some high-profile wins for indie writers, and a port of call for editorial workers shed by the major publishers in post-merger layoffs, the honeymoon was destined to be short and end bitterly.
After all, the reason companies in concentrated industries treat their customers, workers and suppliers badly is because they can. Google doesn’t shower its tech workers with stock options, free kombucha and massages because of its generous spirit —if the company was a champion of labor rights, then these same perks would extend to its low-waged workers, too. The fact that these workers are misclassified as independent contractors and paid through a staffing agency cutout reveals the true predictor of how Google will treat you: how hard you are to replace.
When the options for writers dwindled — as publishing concentrated into fewer hands — the treatment for the writers who defected to Amazon also declined. They became replaceable. Right on schedule, the company embarked on a program of wage theft that stole tens of millions of dollars from the indie authors who’d shackled themselves to Amazon’s platform.
The only way that the mass of disorganized readers, workers and suppliers of an industry can get a fair deal is for the industry itself to be disorganized — to consist of competing firms that have something to lose if we walk out of the door. Trading one monopolist for the other in the hopes that it would look more kindly upon us was doomed from the start.
The writer-friendly mid-tier
In parallel with this effort to pit one giant against another, many publishing workers embarked upon upon a very different project: to fill the gap between self-publishing and the Big Six^H^H^H Five^H^H^H^H Four publishers with “boutique” publishers staffed by publishing veterans and bright young publishing workers, scooping up the fantastic authors who had been turned away from the big publishers.
This project has been much more successful than the giant-seeking expedition that ended with Amazon devouring the writers who’d helped it build its indie platform.
Today’s publishing landscape boasts a very exciting mid-tier of publishers, some organized as nonprofits, others as commercial entities. Several of them — Canada’s Raincoast, the UK’s Bloomsbury — have been able to grow to regional juggernauts thanks to their willingness to publish JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel after it was rejected by major publishers.
These scrappy publishers are doing marvellous things, and the internet has allowed them to connect with audiences in unique ways, while a new tier of distributors have cropped up to serve as a bridge between the mid-tier and the nation’s struggling, tenacious, and utterly vital indie bookstores.
I’ve dealt with several of these mid-sized publishers and I can report that they are great to work with. To be fair, they can screw things up just as much as the big publishers (whom I also work with) do, and it’s true that from a writer’s perspective it doesn’t matter if something bad happens to your book because a giant publisher’s bureaucracy failed it or because a small publisher didn’t have the staff or ready cash to capitalize on an opportunity. But they can also score wins with books that the big publishers can’t or won’t figure out how to get into readers’ hands, and they represent a competitor and hedge against further intensification of the Big Four’s squeeze on writers.
The endangered mid-tier
But the existence of this thriving mid-tier doesn’t change the overall dynamics of publishing. The squeeze on workers and writers isn’t just the result of an industry dominated by four publishers — it’s also the consequence of an industry with one major distributor (Ingram), one major brick and mortar bookstore (B&N) and one major online bookseller (Amazon, whose audiobook dominance through Audible is even more extensive than its dominance of print and e-books).
The one advantage that the Big Four publishers have that the mid-tier of publishing does not is that they are big enough to push back (with limited effectiveness) against Amazon and Ingram’s worst practices. Lacking this might-checking-might, the mid-tier is in a precarious place indeed.
Amazon, recall, is the company that once created a “Gazelle Project,” to “approach the small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue sickly gazelle,” to get them to accept unfavorable terms for their books in the Kindle store. That was in 2004. Does anyone think the company has gotten less willing to play hardball since then?
Fewer people are attuned to the risk of all of distribution consolidating into one company, Ingram, but this should alarm anyone who cares about publishing. Distributors are incredibly powerful, and anyone who distributes on behalf of third parties has numerous opportunities to engage in funny accounting practices whereby they cream off a sneaky share of their own.
. . . .
With all this, you may be tempted to self-publish. After all, the mechanics of self-publishing have never been simpler or more extenisve. Lulu will print beautiful books onshore, quickly, and cheaply (I ran up some “author’s galleys” for a couple of my upcoming books to use in soliciting blurbs and feedback and discovered to my delight that I could print a 6 inch x 9 inch finished, perfect-bound book with a full-color cover for less than I pay to photocopy and side-staple a manuscript at my local copy shop!). Smashwords and Bookbaby offer extensive author services and ebook distribution.
And, of course, Amazon will take your book for the Kindle store, and Ingram will accept it as a print-on-demand title available to every bookstore in the country (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).
I often hear from friends and strangers who want to know what I think of self-publishing. Here’s what I tell them:
Publishing a professional-quality volume has never been easier. Working with publishing platforms, you can contract with excellent proofers, copyeditors, cover artists, book designers, typographers — the whole stack of professional services that go into making a book into a finished product (many of them are publishing veterans, still using their skills after merger-based layoffs). You can hire as many or as few of these professionals as you need, based on the skills you bring to the table.
But that still leaves you with a serious problem — perhaps the most serious problem in publishing. All of that stuff is writing and printing, but until the book finds its readers, it is not publishing.
As my beloved novel editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden told me long, long ago, “Publishing is the process of identifying a work and its audience, and then taking whatever steps are necessary to connect the two.” That may include cover design or marketing copy or copy-editing, but it also includes the huge, ill-defined, and nebulous world of marketing, sales, and publicity.
Put simply, you need to figure out why anyone, anywhere should give a shit that you wrote a book. This is a very hard problem. Indeed, it’s the hard problem of religion, advertising and politics: getting someone else to care about something you want them to care about.
. . . .
Here’s where publishers have an advantage: they have a longitudinal view of how books and audiences find one another. They publish lots of books. They try variations on their marketing, sales and publicity with each book, see which tactics show the most promise, and refine them. They can iterate.
That’s the single largest disadvantage faced by self-publishers. You go into your marketing and publicity plan without any precedents to have learned hard lessons from. You are a data-set of one.
. . . .
Publishing is — by definition — very good at targeting readers, but when it comes to targeting the vastly larger world of non-readers, publishing’s expertise is far patchier. After all, understanding “non-readers” involves understanding the whole world, the motivations not just of people who do buy books, but people who don’t.
Mega-bestsellers are just books that a small proportion of non-readers read. “Airport novels,” books that Oprah pitches, books that get made into movies — these are all books that are exposed to groups of non-readers that are orders of magnitude larger than the people who consider themselves “readers.” And they’re funnels: the Harry Potter novels and 50 Shades of Grey both introduced vast numbers of non-readers to books, and induced a small proportion of those non-readers to become readers.
This is where self-publishing has a potential advantage relative to publishing. You may be in touch with a group of non-readers — a faith group, members of a subculture or fandom, a professional association or a political movement — that you have well-developed ideas for reaching and convincing to give a shit about your book. It’s entirely possible that you are the first person who’s ever considered the potential pathway to engaging that group of people, that is, you might be the world’s leading expert on the subject.
In that instance, a publisher brings a lot less to the table.
Link to the rest at Cory Doctorow and thanks to C. for the tip.
As mentioned at the outset, PG doesn’t agree with all of Mr. Doctorow’s ideas and opinions although there are many good ones.
PG’s main disagreement is that publishers are good at what they do. In the US, traditional publishing is a shared monopoly that has a strong connection with book distributors (Ingram and Baker & Taylor) and, through them an excellent connection with traditional bookstores, including rapidly-collapsing Barnes & Noble.
With respect to the place where the most people buy their books, Amazon, traditional publishing doesn’t have a monopoly and all the old boy networks that run through traditional publishing channels don’t mean anything.
Here’s PG’s hypothetical question – if you had to choose one of the following (and only one), which would you rather be:
#1 bestselling author at Barnes & Noble?
#1 bestselling author at Amazon?
As a matter of fact, PG thinks most authors would prefer being the #1 bestselling author on Amazon to being the #1 bestselling author on all the other book sales platforms combined.
Traditional publishing simply has not been able to make the transition to an internet-dominated book sales channel. Yes, they spend money on author tours (both virtual and meatspace) and NYT reviews and persuade Oprah to talk about their books, but they also take the large majority of all of the revenues the book generates and give the author only a small piece of the pie.
Traditional publishers are simply not able to hire and retain very smart people. Does anybody at the top of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher? Does anybody at the bottom of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher?
Does anybody who is reasonably intelligent and talented who has other employment options (and no trust fund to fall back on) go to work for a New York publisher?
End of PG rant. You may enjoy Mr. Doctorow’s OP more.