Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Publishing Houses on the Cusp of the Digital Age

Billions of dollars go in and out of the publishing industry each year. Money earned on titles, fees paid to printers, artists and hundreds of employee salaries. John Scalzi recognizes that with every book he publishes, he, and every other author with a current manuscript, gives at least ten people a job that year (or would it be two years as that is how long it can take to get a book to the shelf?).

But we can’t all be John Scalzi. Let’s say Del Rey buys my book. I may not get a marketing agent or a copy editor. But I will have an editor (who may not edit me at all), a cover artist, an interior designer and printer at the least. This all adds up to a large overhead per company, per year--best sellers and all the rest.

Everyone can see that ebooks are quickly becoming more popular, while fewer physical books are selling. Publishers are being forced to make decisions on a new product they are less familiar with. But I can see why the folks running the business may be uncomfortable with change. Publishers have to make decisions now for a book that will hit the shelves in two years. It is impossible to know exactly what is going to happen to the publishing atmosphere ahead of time. So any decision they make now, while uninformed, is risky--that is riskier than usual as they never know if a book will sell well to begin with. With shrinking profits, they have less room to take those risks.

But the question is, do ebooks cost a publisher less to make? And therefore will they make more of a profit off them? I think the answer is yes. Current reading trends are showing that ebooks are certainly worth their time. For a buck or two, people are grabbing them just for the hell of it, like candy in the dollar store.

Dorchester seems to be catching on to this. But perhaps, their decision is a little extreme. They recently announced that they are going electronic. Epublishing advocates everywhere rejoiced, I’m sure. The digital format is finally being recognized! However there is more to it. According to an agent from Nelson, Dorchester has recently had financial troubles. And according to the Publishers Lunch Blog, their staff has been shrinking too. This doesn’t bode well for them, and really makes me wonder about their decision to abandon physical books.

Publishers are losing control over the market. They are hesitating to give authors a reasonable percentage of ebook sales royalties. Apple and Amazon are banking on selling both reading devices and self-published books. Tech savvy authors know that ebooks are worthwhile. They aren’t even selling the e-rights of their books and are making 70% or 80% profits off their work, never including a publisher or an agent. However, their books won’t see print, or grace the shelves of your living room bookcase.

Standing between self-publishing authors of ebooks and physical books is a huge mountain of tradition, but there is a method behind that madness. Physical books require more money and space and shipping to produce. Publishers take on all responsibility for that. I think that the huge overhead makes publishers drive up e-book prices to keep their business as a whole in the black. The aren’t selling the pile of pages with a pretty cover, they are selling the hard work of all involved in addition to the entertainment value of the words.

But the self publishing authors of ebooks who charge a buck or two for their book are seeing plenty of profits. What scares me the most is the worst case scenario: Pysical books disappearing forever, driving all the publishing houses out of business, leaving the world at the mercy of self-published books only. It would be hard to find the stuff you like amid the uncontrolled flooding of stories. I’d rather have over control than none in publishing. Author Catherynne Valente saw a similar dark vision of the future.

So far, I’ve made my observations as a writer looking at the business. However, there are many readers, consumers, who are driving the decisions of publishing houses. In the end, it really is all about the readers. Many put their TRUST in publishers to find the good books, the good names of authors who will give them the satisfaction they are looking for. Some won’t even look at a book that didn’t come from a publisher, as reflected in this blog post. The bookstore customers wouldn’t buy a paperback with a glossy cover because they thought that meant it was a self published book. They didn’t read the cover blurbs or even check out the spine for a publisher’s logo. This stigma is the biggest danger for someone considering self-publication, but fortunately, this stigma is showing signs of fading.

The book has been one of the least-changed products since it emerged in the 15th century. The Gutenberg Bible doesn’t look too much different from any hardcover book on the shelf today. Perhaps that is why some are so eager to change while others are so hesitant. But it comes down to the fact that if you want your book to be on a shelf, and make a living with it, you need a publisher. If you can put your own book into digital format, then go for the profits.