How will publishing survive?

David Hewson’s blog today:
Disturbing stuff.

I don’t have an answer to the OP’s question other than… change.

If it is to survive, then it will have to change and make itself appropriate to the new paradigm else go the way of all things that no longer are able to adapt to a changing climate. Perhaps it will die. But even so, Nature abhors a vacuum. Something will fill the niche.


My view is that I’d rather sell many books at $9.99 than few at 25.00 or 16.50.
If you publish a mid-list book, your publisher won’t spend a nickel on it.
So, let Amazon or Apple set the prices. Let them become publishers.
And let them buy the old trademarks like Random for a fee.
Since not much creative is going on in publishing houses these days, anyway.
Witness all of those gosh-derned vampire books! (Peace, CD) :open_mouth:

Shipping bits around is practically free. Printing and distributing chunks of dead tree is hugely expensive. If a publisher can’t figure out how to make a profit when its single largest cost went away, it deserves to die.


Hear, hear! Agreed. :wink:

In my view, publishing’s biggest problem today is a self-inflicted crushing of both imagination and responsibility. Most houses these days work entirely through an editorial-board model, where an editor who finds a book she thinks interesting brings it before the ed board (who are rarely editors), and its various sitting potentates bid on it like a game of contract whist–Ed from Special Sales estimates one- and three-year sales of 1500 and 3000; Myra from Foreign Rights gauges 750 and 1500; Marvin from Trade Accounts bids 3000 and 7000; Hyacinth from Clubs figures Nothing; Courtney from Direct Mail figures 1250 and 2500. Add all those numbers together, and you end up with estimated first year sales and estimated sales over three years. Figure the cost of manufacturing, editing, distribution, royalties, and advance, and you come up with the dreaded spreadsheet model known as the P&L–the sole determinant, for the most part, whether or not a book gets published, whether on dead trees or electrons.

But the thing is, Ed and Myra and Marvin and Hyacinth and Courtney aren’t doing anything beyond guessing. Sometimes they’ll call major accounts and say I got me another one of them teenage vampire books and how many do you think you can sell? But more often they’re just winging it–and bidding low, because very often their compensation, and certainly their job security, is based not on how well the books do, but by how much the actual sales exceed their estimates.

In other words, the system is always rigged to bid low, the result being that if a company-wide edict comes down from on high that says, Because of Horrible Economic Times and Such, nothing in the way of fiction gets signed this year that won’t advance 45,000 copies, then pretty much all literary fiction not from a previously proven A-list author is dead in the water at that particular house.

So the ed-board system, where no one has real responsibility for anything, but the plausible deniability for any failures is spread across a spectrum of worried aparatchiks, is very effective at excluding truly bad books and equally effective at excluding some truly good ones. What you get are books that can be described as being like another book; what you rarely get are books that are new or different or not like other books.

More-better publishers go back to the old model where editors have signing authority–A $20,000 advance, say, on an editor’s signature with no one peering over his shoulder saying We’ve Never Done One Like That Before, and if the book sells then everyone’s happy. If it doesn’t, and if enough of that particular editor’s books continue not to sell, then he or she is cordially shown the door.

Of course in today’s publishing world, where most of the big houses are now cogs in a conglomerate’s wheels, such swashbuckling risk-taking just ain’t gonna happen.

Which is why the smaller, more nimble and innovative publishers will probably be the ones who emerge from the current confusion with most of the marbles. … rry-potter :open_mouth: :frowning:


Many thanks for an astute, mordant, and acerbic analysis of the current situation among editors and publishers. I’m thinking that digital publication may kill off in-house production almost entirely. The level of computer literacy among publishers is surprisingly low; people have difficulty handling e-mail attachments, let alone track changes between files. The future belongs to 1 or 2 person shops, which acquire MSS and then process them entirely, all the way through mark-up and proofing. Another area of responsibility is marketing and sales; the old networks of publisher reps have vanished entirely. These are opportunities for future computer-savvy contractors, it would seem, unless the entire book trade falls into the hands of Amazon and Apple.


I had a chuckle at Ahab’s description of the editorial decision-making processes in a large publishing-house. Not so very different at all from the equivalent processes in entertainment and information industries across the board, then. Indeed not so different from the way revenue is forecast for new products in many industries.

Lucky the organisation that has decision-makers who either really can pick winners on instinct, or have the time, energy and cash to research the market properly. The TV broadcasting industry, for example, minutely researches what its audience is doing every second of the 24 hours. Yet the industry that can probably predict with a fair degree of accuracy when you’re going to take a dump, still has difficulty forecasting successful shows. Countless reputations have foundered on precisely that. To borrow and adapt a famous quotation - nobody knows much at all.

But possibly publishing houses do deserve what’s coming. In the UK, it’s not so long since many had staff whose main qualification was that their families were wealthy enough for them to be able to afford the low wages, and it was very difficult indeed to get a response to a phone call on a Friday afternoon.

If the large publishing houses do go, maybe enough industrious and imaginative small shops will arise to fill the gap. But as David Hewson says in his blog, there’s a big difference between printing and publishing. And will small houses have the the heft to challenge the market-power of Amazon, Apple and the other mega-retailers?

Perhaps also cheaper books will result in more sales that more than compensate. If so, so wonderful. But reading books is a time-extensive, minority past-time. Will there be more readers? Some (thanks, JK Rowling). Will existing readers read more books? Possibly, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Will lower prices mean existing readers buy more books that they don’t read? That I think is more likely. Just as we stuff our refrigerators with cheap, uneaten food from which we select, possibly we will stuff our iPads and Kindles with cheap, unread books. That may be the way forward for the economics of mainstream fiction.


Curiously enough, I went to a former colleague’s retirement party last night, and got caught up on just how bad things have gotten in big-time publishing. We’d been editors together (he hired me) at a small and prestigious specialty house, bought a year after I arrived by a midsized wannabe that was almost instantly swallowed up by a vast NYC-based publishing conglomerate. I lasted through only six years of Manhattan ed-board meetings, but my friend stayed until yesterday, stubbornly doing battle with the forces of dimness for 16 more years and publishing some pretty good books despite the parent company’s best efforts.

And now he’s retired, an editor’s editor, one of the best I’ve ever worked with, and what will he do, retired with a pension and grown children in his 50s? Thinking of starting up a one-man publishing house to go where the corporate publishers won’t: No advances, 50% split of profits, he’ll handle all the editing and design and production and early publicity and distribution–all those things self-publishers think they can do and very definitely cannot (the bulk of a tree-based book’s expenses aren’t the costs of printing and distribution but of editing and design and layout and all those many slow and expensive things that are hard to automate and thoroughly indispensable for a real book’s success). He’s thinking e-publishing only at first (on the several platforms) for a given title, then if demand for a specific title proves sufficient, a print-to-order, then if further demand from the buzz requires it, printing a full print run. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a scheme like this from a publishing escapee. Perhaps this is the new bidness model?

The party talk was hilarious–wish I’d recorded it: the behemoth’s national accounts manager was there, one of the good guys in the company; a former executive from Borders was there–back when, she said, there were about 10 people in the office in a warehouse, and they made their own decisions and didn’t have a thousand vice-presidents; wild tales of sales conferences and ABAs–remember that time Dr. Ruth tugged on our trousers and asked where was Bill Cosby? Remember that time the head buyer from Barnes & Noble came sniffing around the booth and looked at our poster for a book about William Bligh, and asked who was this guy Bligg? Remember your first sales conference at Big Publisher’s, when your presentations were like Cheech and Chong at a Mormon funeral? Remember when we had actual marketing and promotion budgets?–all that good old publishing blather, and all of it very much feeling like old broken down bluewater sailors hanging around the wharf and talking about rope splicing and Cape Horn gales and fisting frozen topsails into the bunt while uniformed no-nothings in steamships puffed unconcernedly past. A gathering of dinosaurs, for sure, but fun.

I lucked out in escaping to a magazine where, as long as readers keep re-subscribing and critics keep fawning and the better writers keep submitting, I get to do what I want, and don’t even have to talk to the advertising weasels.

So according to what I heard last night from a whole roomful of industry insiders, Druid hits it square with the future belonging to computerly deft mom-and-pop shops with real publishing experience. Dru–you would have loved it (and your own current publisher, an alumnus of which was present, was very much snickered about under its owner du jour).

Brave New World.

Another piece of evidence in this chain: from today’s London Telegraph.

Moral: Don’t quit your day job (unless you’re trashy or brilliant or both).

Sound of veins opening.

What is bleak for the distribution chains is not necessarily bleak for the authors, in fact for many it could be a blessing. Keep your veins intact!

Indeed. It’s not like the pre-Internet status quo is/was exactly Paradise on Earth for the authors. Especially for the mid-list and niche types who are most likely to benefit from low-cost forms of distribution.


Peter Olson, ex Random House CEO and currently proffing at Harvard Business School sounds quite negative (from a publisher’s perspective):

Although with the news that Ross Kemp (aka Grant Mitchell) has a fiction deal with Harper Collins, I see that all is right with the world. Then again, I don’t have P&L responsibilities for HC.

An interesting read–particularly the part about publishers’ primary function being editorial rather than distributional. That’s always been true; it’s just that publishers managed by businessmen with MBAs seem to forget that.

It all reminds me of my first real job after the military, right there at good-old HBS, typing then proofing and finally editing those case studies in business administration. After figuring out, to paraphrase a Jamaican friend, “just where them MBAs heads rest,” I moved to Maine and became a lobster fisherman.

Less than half of adults read anything after leaving school, ever. That is hard to believe. I do realise I live in a city where books are much more prominent and important than most places, but still. Then the majority of the other half only read one to two books a year? I wrote down all of the books I read last year; did small one-line reviews on most of them, or more extensive ones on the better books. I was curious to see what all I read in a year and how much. It turns out I read close to a hundred books a year. This is quite rare. I get most of them from the public library though. I wonder if these people are counting how many books people buy in a year as how many they read.

For all of the fear, I wonder if e-books could change that? If it became socially acceptable and normal (more important to most than it should be) to read books on machines, and if machines continue to permeate as they have, could these numbers change for the better? Could more people end up reading on a regular basis?

That is something I hope doesn’t happen. Does the average person even care about the extra-features model? You can hardly publish a DVD without “extras”, and those extras are only there as an excuse to push the price from a reasonable $10 into the ludicrous stratosphere of $35. Hardly anyone seems to care about the extras, but try to find a version without them. More often then not is impossible to find a cheap copy without extras. It’s not as though these surpluses are going to benefit the author, the author will likely have nothing to do with the production of extras at all. Meanwhile a digital book that costs next to nothing to distribute, has infinite inventory, and functionally zero storage space is being sold at the same price as a hardback on account of “extras”. I don’t like it.

Problem is, all the other ways of filling the time that attract the eye of the potential reader, especially the young reader.

Me too, unless the book is the literary equivalent of, say, Citizen Kane.

In support of druid’s argument that cheaper books will sell more, perhaps we have the example of software on OS X, and software on the iPhone/iPod/iPad. Software on OS X isn’t something I buy casually because it’s an investment of both cash and time (to learn) and I don’t own many applications. But on my iPod, although I’m not an intensive user, I’ve collected numerous one or two dollar applications which were impulse buys but which I’ll probably never use (although I might, and sometimes when I’m bored I play with one or two).

Same with books. I don’t buy books, especially hardbacks, casually, recognising the investment of time, money and also rather importantly, shelf space needed to enjoy them properly.

But if ebooks were as cheap as chips…?

While certainly true, there is also the other side of that: The devices that are already there and already providing entertainment are now also providing a reading experience. This isn’t just the iPad—I’ve noticed it already with the iPod Touch and iPhone. Pretty much my entire office has some kind of iDevice now with the exception of one stubborn person using a Windows CE SmartPhone. None of them ever picked up books, but from time to time I see them flipping through pages on their devices and talking about e-book reader programs amongst themselves, like the Classics library where you can pick up hundreds of public domain books for a buck.

That’s what I’m talking about. With book alternatives popping up in a delivery mechanism that is already everywhere, combine that with the notion of dollar books or what have you—and you could see the reader landscape changing.

And let’s not forget the audio book market is still thriving, I wonder if they count those as “books read per year”.

I still don’t think the concept maps well. In the case of a DVD this makes sense, and I do own a nice edition of Citizen Kane with multiple commentary tracks (one by Ebert which is fantastic) and documentaries. It’s definitely one of the exceptions to what I said earlier. I have a nice collection of Criterion discs that I treasure. I really could care less if Star Trek comes with extras, though.

With books, if we are talking the literary equivalent, then we are talking books that already have a cloud of satellite books around them. I’d rather pick up a few scholarly commentaries on Pale Light than buy it and have a dozen half-arsed things thrown together at the last minute to “value add” the product. For the same price I can get three books, two of which are extremely interesting and well written about the primary book. These Extras aren’t even going to be at the level of quality you find in Cliff Notes or similar. Logistically it wouldn’t make sense for them to be, otherwise it would be more profitable to break them apart and sell them separately.

It would make more sense to sell bundles. More books are being sold (and fringe commentaries get more exposure), and the reader gets a much better deal. Bundles are a logical conclusion in a digital market that doesn’t make a lot of sense in a paper market. Commentaries are always going to be in far less demand than primaries, so pairing distribution is difficult. With digital it doesn’t matter. There are just as many copies of some obscure author’s radical commentary on Finnegans Wake as there are of “Clancy’s” latest military porn.

Less than half of adults read anything after leaving school, ever. That is hard to believe. I do realise I live in a city where books are much more prominent and important than most places, but still. Then the majority of the other half only read one to two books a year?

I can easily believe this. Most of us word-people live surrounded by other word-people, and we self-select our friends and acquaintances in part by how much and what they read; this skews our views. But I live in a small working-class town that goes briefly upscale when the summer people are here; I’ve had varying careers over the years that had nothing at all to do with publishing, from lobster-fishing to truck driving, and I’m here to testify (In a Protestant sense) that most people I know don’t read books. Ever. And this isn’t entirely education-related. A banker I’ve known since he was three, my dental hygienist, a high-school math teacher, the checkout staff at the corner store, my car mechanic, my chainsaw hot-rodder, a nurse–none, so far as I’ve been able to determine, have read a book since school. A log-truck driver friend and a lobster-fishing friend, on the other hand, both read more than the average college student–one fresh-off-the-shelf literary fiction and the other heavily footnoted histories. But they’re exceptions: other truck drivers and fishermen of my acquaintance read no more than my banker.

My wife, an elementary school teacher, assigns this to parental reading. Kids whose parents read to them do better in school and tend to read in later life; kids whose parents don’t . . . They’re the people not buying our books–and spawning more non-reading offspring. It’s just way easier to click on SpongeBob than sit down and read Beatrix Potter.