Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What’s wrong with regular publishing?


For an author, the main advantage of traditional publishers is that they generally pay authors advance money up front and pay a royalty on the books they sell. They also have better distribution than self-publishers have, and are more likely to get books onto the shelves of bookstores. They have employees who know how to design, edit and promote. Their credibility makes it more likely that their books will be reviewed. The first two points are not necessarily advantages.

The system of paying advances and royalties works against new authors and authors writing for niche markets. Since publishers have money at risk, they prefer to invest in sure things.

Here’s what traditional publishers like to invest their time, money and resources in:

Authors like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Ian Fleming or William Shakespeare who have sold well in the past

Celebrities with fame and followers, that can help sell a book about almost anything (Donald Trump’s Top Dish Washing Secrets, Oprah Talks About Clipping Hedges, Brittney Spears Reveals Intimate Potato Peeling Techniques, How Princess Di Washed her Hair)

Popular topics like getting rich, getting a better job, living longer, having better sex, giving up smoking, getting organized

In addition to the gates that are often closed to new authors, there are other problems with traditional publishing:

First is the use of offset printing presses. These behemoth machines produce books less expensively than the laser printers that are used for Print On Demand, but they are not economical for small print runs. Really low prices occur when 100,000 copies of a best-seller are churned out. If a new author somehow gets a contract, the initial press run is typically 5,000 books. If the publisher can’t reasonably expect to sell most of those 5,000 books, the author does not get a contract. Most books fail, but if the publisher could economically print a few hundred books the first time around for book reviews and test marketing, there would be much less risk and more authors could get deals. The advance against royalties would probably be lower (maybe even nothing), but the chance of getting published, with future rewards, would be higher.

If the first printing of 5,000 copies does sell out pretty quickly, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is obvious. The bad news is that the publisher has to decide how many more books to print. Should it another 5,000, 15,000, 150,000? Any number is a guess, and a gamble. If too many are printed in anticipation of big demand and most are unsold, the whole project could be a failure and lose money. If too few are printed, potential customers will be pissed-off and may not want to wait for additional copies to become available. They may spend their money on other books, or lose interest by the time the books become available. People at the publishing companies who guess right most of the time are worth a lot of money. Those who guess wrong too often lose their jobs.

The quantities involved in offset printing produce other problems and costs, such as climate-controlled warehousing, shipping to booksellers, lots of people handling each book, and dealing with unsold books.

The next big problem is convincing booksellers to take a chance on a new author or subject, when there are thousands of “sure things” competing for the inventory budget and shelf space. It can take a lot of work to sell those 5,000 copies into America’s bookstores, and there’s a good chance that the books won’t stay sold.
Even as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, the publishing industry is saddled with — and suffering because of — a distribution gimmick that was devised in and for the conditions of the Great Depression that started in 1929.

Sales of books, like other non-necessities, had dropped dramatically, and were even feeling the impact of “free” radio. The few bookstores that managed to stay in business had very limited funds to spend on inventory. Publishers offered books on consignment, with guaranteed sales. Retailers did not have to pay for books unless and until they were sold to the public, and books that did not sell within several months could be returned and not paid for. Sometimes even the return shipping was paid for by the publishers.

That may have been a good solution in 1929, but 80 years later it has become very expensive and wasteful. Few if any other retail products are sold that way. A Honda dealer can’t return unsold cars to Honda. A Sony dealer can’t return unsold TVs to Sony. A New Balance dealer can’t return unsold sneakers to New Balance.

If a bookstore operator knows that sales are guaranteed, there is a good chance that little thought will go into making a purchase. This can inflate the initial sales of a book, but the day of reckoning comes a few months later. If most of the copies of a new title are still sitting on the shelves, they go get sent back to the publisher where they are either remaindered and redistributed for the buck-a-book tables, or shredded and pulped to become the raw material for new books.

The urgency that store operators feel to return books before they have to be paid for shortens the time available for a book to build a market. It takes time for book promotion to have an effect and for word-of-mouth to build for a new author or niche subject. Nobody knows how many books are considered flops, that might have been successful with another month or two or three on display in the stores.

To add to the dismal news, book reading is not as important a form of recreation and cultural stimulation as it once was. Books compete with movies, iPods, the Internet, video games, email, 500-channel high-def TV, and even inexpensive international travel and walks in the park.

And despite more competition by non-books for the eyes and brains of the people of the world, each year more and more books are published, making it even harder for each book to become a best seller, or even to be popular, or profitable.

About the only good thing that can be said about the present situation in publishing is that regular, standard, traditional, old-fashioned publishing is not the only way.

Independent self-publishing with Print On Demand provides a low-risk way to reach those eyes and brains, where success depends more on talent, time, inspiration and dedication — not on policies of publishers and bookstores formed in the 1930s.

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