The talk of the publishing community this morning is this anonymous letter posted over at PandoDaily. I have been saying for years that it was inevitable that we would lose one of the Big Six publishers. In fact, I honestly thought it would happen before we lost Borders, given Borders’ ability to run itself like shit for years and still survive.
I don’t believe that Amazon is setting out to destroy commercial publishing as we know it. That’s just too facile, really. Amazon didn’t set out to destroy the bookstore, either. But frankly, it realized that there were a lot of people for whom going to the bookstore was not convenient and it made it very convenient for them to get books. I think the same thing is happening with publishing. There are a lot of people for whom getting a publisher is not convenient (and we can argue about what those reasons are, certainly) and Amazon has made it incredibly convenient for them. That’s not being out to destroy publishing. That’s recognizing a need and filling it.
The fact that big publishers don’t understand that–that they still expect the parts of publishing that have always functioned as a gentlemen’s club to continue to function as a gentlement’s club–is one of the reasons they’re in trouble.
There are two other things in this letter that tell you why big publishing is in trouble.
1. They don’t know what they’re up against, even though it’s very easy to find out. “So rather than getting a 30% of an ebook (with the other 70% being split between the publisher and author), they’ll be getting a 70% cut (with the other 30% going right to the author). Funny thing is that it’s actually better for authors.” Any author can self-publish with Kindle and, if they price their book at $9.99 or less, get 70%. The assumption that an Amazon publishing contract would strike the same deal a traditional publisher would strike is dangerously naive. If I can get 70% of all digital sales of A City of Ghosts, I would assume any contracted author would at least be getting 50/50 (since presumably Amazon is arguing that their promotion costs are such that it entitles them to a bigger chunk.)
I don’t know, but I would not be guessing that Amazon is doing business like me, if I were a traditional publisher, especially if I know my business model is failing. And yet, one cannot help but feel that, even as they say that their business model is failing, they still think anybody who publishes books would follow it.
2. They don’t see the value in a dependable mid-list. Which means, folks, that Vince McMahon’s business model is better than the publishing industry’s. Let that sink in. McMahon knows the value of cultivating talent and having a lot of talented folks who sit mid-card, building up a good storyline and a fan base while earning their push to superstar status.
Publishers like to pretend that we make our money from discovering unknown talents for small advances and selling millions of their books. That’s a very small part of our business. The bestselling books are all written by celebs, by people with huge platforms, by fiction writers with a long history of bestselling books, or by people who do a proposal that’s on its surface brilliant. In short, there’s a bidding war among the publishers over the big books. We all know what the good books are–it all comes down to how much of an advance we’re willing to pay for them. The hotly fought-for books are the ones that sell. And while we might not make huge profit % on these, we make big profit $ on these. They keep the lights on by covering overhead. Better to cover our fixed costs by going all in on a few big books than trying to buy dozens of mid-list books.
How many big books can there be, though? You think Snooki is going to continue to churn out best-sellers. Publishing a book by Snooki keeps your lights on this year. It sets no foundation for how to keep your lights on next year.
And, as I have said a million times, the people who, in these times, most need publishers are the mid-list authors. It’s like music. New bands and authors can do a lot for themselves with the new technology available to them. Some can even make a living at it that never involves the corporate entertainment industry. Someone as big as Stephen King doesn’t need a publisher. He can afford to do it all himself.
The people who need publishers are the people in the middle. And that’s just who this anonymous letter writer admits isn’t worth their time.
Smaller houses and probably smaller imprints at big houses are going to have an easier transition away from this, since the blockbuster isn’t within their grasp anyway. They’re not gambling big and hoping to cover their losses with the next big win.
But you have to have a good stable of authors by whom you do right (and do competitively with other publishers) and you can’t underestimate your competition or assume that they are just like you. And you have to be able to innovate. Smaller houses will find ways. Some of the big guys may indeed break against the rocks.
But this has been an issue for the last ten years. That’s not Amazon’s fault.