Print Book Publishing: DOOMED

Sorry to say I’ve forgotten who it was on Twitter that pointed me to writer L.J. Sellers’ blog, where she published: The End of Publishing (as we know it). I read her post and left a comment.

Her post was a reaction to a major article in the latest New York Magazine: The End: The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world. (I recommend this printer-friendly version; it’s long!)

Some excerpts with the usual sniping:

But first, a horror story. Debbie Stier, Miller’s No. 2 at HarperStudio (as this little imprint is called), has been collecting videos for their blog. “You want to see what happens to books after they go to book heaven?” she asks. On the screen of her MacBook, a giant steel shredder disgorges a ragged mess of paper and cardboard onto a conveyor belt. This is the fate of up to 25 percent of the product churned out by New York’s publishing machine.

Emphasis added by me.

That is a rather misleading characterization. It sounds like one-fourth of everything winds up shredded. The fine-grained truth: some entire runs of a book will get shredded, with not one copy being sold.

There’s the floundering of the few remaining semi-independent midsize publishers; the ouster of two powerful CEOs—one who inspired editors and one who at least let them be; the desperate race to evolve into e-book producers; the dire state of Borders, the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble; the feeling that outrageous money is being wasted on mediocre books; and Amazon.com, which many publishers look upon as a power-hungry monster bent on cornering the whole business.

Emphasis added by me.

And:

By the nineties, five big conglomerates were divvying up the spoils and their lucrative backlists.

A “desperate race?” Desperate in what way? I see absolutely no “desperation.” I see gouge-us pricing and a refusal to put books I want to buy in eBook format.

Publishers must be really, really bad at math. Amazon is one company. One giant behemoth. It can be brought down — or at least made to heel. You’re really telling me five global corporationsand many, many independents — cannot defeat one dotcom company? Five-plus against one are bad odds?!

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Emphasis added by me.

Let me decode that shit: Publishers are taking writers who are otherwise good and are ignoring, bleeding, and then discarding them. I know some of these writers too. They never got any sort of push, despite the fact their publishers have done multiple books with them. It’d be one thing to drop a new writer after one book — but to fuck up someone who can actually write and whose books, one after the other, have been sent into the world without any press at all? There’s a word for that: sabotage.

[Dale] Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. “When you get $100,000 for a novel,” he says, “you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

Emphasis added by me.

Hey, baby, I wish I could afford that rent. So do the majority of people reading this blog!

Note this:

[Dale Peck] rarely sold more than 10,000 copies

And exactly what is “literary” fiction anyway?

Oh wait, Charles Bukowski knew. It’s all that boring shit that puts readers to sleep and deforms the brains that try to make sense out of it. A far, far cry from classic literature — Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, et al, — all who knew how to tell a story and did it well. Today’s litterateurs — note the extra T, for it’s even spelled pretentiously! — are absolute ass by comparison. Balzac would laugh in your face and Poe would piss on your feet in contempt. (And note that neither one of those immortal writers could afford a $2,500 per month rent, either!)

It’s inherently risky, though. You have to wonder about the prospects for one new book that Elberse had her students case-study—Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Grand Central, inspired by the best seller Marley & Me, is betting on the new mini-genre of cat-related nonfiction. Grand Central initially offered $300,000, then went up to $1.25 million. Gobs more will be spent on marketing. You’ll likely be hearing about Dewey when it comes out this month, and if half a million of you still feel that you can’t get enough heartwarming pet stories, it just might earn back its advance.

Christ, even I have heard of Dewey. And I love cats. But this was done and over with after Cleveland Amory did his cat books. How many times are you going to count on cats to save your asses?

One key advantage of corporate publishing was supposed to be its marketing muscle: You may not publish exactly the books you’d like to, but the ones you publish will get the attention they deserve. Yet in recent years, more accurate internal sales numbers have confirmed what publishers long suspected: Traditional marketing is useless.

“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent. Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want—and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them—remains a hotly contested issue. You don’t have to look further than the pages of The New York Times Book Review or the shelves of Borders to see that the market for fiction is shrinking. Even formerly reliable schlock like TV-celebrity memoirs doesn’t do so well anymore. And “the next thing,” as Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson notes drily, “is not bloggers writing books.

Emphasis added by me.

Well, first: a big Fuck You for the blogger snipe, bitch. You wish all books had the readership of the biggest blogs! Now to address the rest …

“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter[.]”

What media? What reviews? What blurbs?

Where are you advertising these books? Probably on sites — or, forgive the term, blogs — that cater to a niche audience of book readers. That is, book fans, instead of the entire totality of possible book readers. There’s a strategy for continued FAIL. Turn books into something out there on the margins. (And I don’t mean “margins” as in cool — I mean “margins” as in retarded.)

Reviews? Do you know how many books I discovered via the New York Times Book Review? Probably less than ten. Because the so-called “reviews” were invariably more about the reviewer and how allegedly “smart” he (and it was always a he) was than the book under review. Face the fact that the NYTBR was — and still is — nothing a but a circle-jerk fanzine for your little clique. It had little to do with gaining new book readers.

Blurbs? Hey, I discovered new writers because of blurbs from Ken Bruen and Victor Gischler and others. But I think I know the kind of blurbs you mean. Blurbs from those you deem literary and the rest of the world deem boring assholes. Such blurbs are like anti-recommendations to everyone else. Yeah, keep trotting out those Big Names who are actually irrelevant to everyone else outside your little club.

Marketing a book these days is like playing a slot machine; hitting one 7 won’t get you a dime. “There has to be this constellation of events,” says Daniel Menaker, whose departure was tied in the press to the low sales of Benjamin Kunkel’s much-ballyhooed debut novel, Indecision. “Not only a Times Book Review front cover but Don Imus talking about it and Ellen Pompeo actually reading the book on-camera. And Barack Obama has just bought it.”

How did Ayn Randa short, frumpy, heavily-accented self-alienated drug-addicted madwoman — manage to have The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged turned into the foundational bibles of the pre/post-Reagan neoconservative movement without Imus, without Oprah, without Obama?

Further: How is it that despite getting glowing reviews, just about all of the writers who were contemporaneous to Raymond Chandler are today out of print and forgotten while his works are back in print and now hailed as “literature?” (“The high critical regard in which Chandler is generally held today is in contrast to the critical pans that stung Chandler in his lifetime.” I quote from the wikipedia entry, with emphasis added by me.)

Lastly: Ellen Pompeo — who?!!? (Oh, Christ. That was a joke, right?)

Editors insist that plenty of books get skipped [instead of being bought by Barnes & Noble]. Richard Nash, head of indie publisher Soft Skull Press, estimates that one in twenty are passed over, though ten to fifteen copies are shipped into their warehouses in case there’s a special order. Many more are getting smaller initial orders than ever. That’s a very long, very skinny tail.

I went to Soft Skull Press’s website. They seem to have a semi-savvy grasp of things. But — and this is important — where are the eBooks?! Don’t whine to me that you can’t get your stuff out to readers through the dying print outlets. You’re allegedly an independent publisher, dammit, so why are you playing by the established all-against-you rules? Small and indie publishers should be leading the way with eBooks. This is an area where all of you can actually set the rules. Kill the price-gouging, for one. Second, you’re Net savvy, but why haven’t I heard of anything you’ve published until now, via what’s virtually an extended obituary for print publishing? Third, heard of Perseus Book Group’s Constellation service? (If that has too high an entry fee, test the waters on your own.)

Editors and retailers alike fear that [Amazon is] bent on building a vertical publishing business—from acquisition to your doorstep—with not a single middleman in sight. No HarperCollins, no Borders, no printing press. Amazon has begun to do end runs around bookstores with small presses.

I don’t know what the lead time on this article was, or what got cut out in editing, but the lack of mention of the Sony Reader astonishes me. It’ll be in four countries before year’s end (America, England, France, and Germany). It’s now on sale in probably over 2,000 retail stores (Borders plus Target). It’s the only eBook reading device that supports ePub, has reflowable text for PDF files, and which can borrow eBooks from public libraries. It is, in short, not locked into any one store or publisher. It is a viable alternative to the abominable Kindle. Yet it’s never mentioned!

The ultimate fear is that the Kindle could be a Trojan horse. Right now, Amazon is making little or nothing on Kindle books. Lay down your $359 and you can get most books for $9.99. Publishers list that same Kindle version for about $17.99, though, and—as with all retailers—charge Amazon roughly half that price for it. Which means that Amazon keeps only a dollar on each book, while the publishers make $9.

And hey, stupid, that $9.00 payment is your self-destruction. That’s what the top price of an eBook should be. What possible excuses other than brain damage or deterministic suicide are there for thinking an eBook should be priced the same as treeware?! Even a mouth-breather addicted to TV novelizations would understand that no paper, no shipping, no weight has to equal lowered production costs. Even if they can’t break out a spreadsheet to prove it, they feel the cheat.

One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

He has a clue. So of course they’ll ignore him.

creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.”

In other words, what I initially mocked Seth Godin about but have since come to embrace: A souvenir!

The overall impression of this article is the truth of their ruination. This is a small group of people who are basically a fucking snooty club who are getting their asses reamed by a changing world. And they have no clue. No fucking clue! And when they are told the way out, it gives them the goddammed vapors and they have to pop out to the Four Seasons for a mid-afternoon martini and cry amongst themselves.

Dewey the fucking cat?! That’s not publishing. What the hell does that have to do with the “civilzation” Jane Friedman righteously cries about in the article? Show me where the Renaissance, the American Constitution, the Apollo 11 moon landing were inspired by a cat! Publishing a book about a cat has one single goal: keeping their paychecks coming. All pretense other than that is stripped away by that act. Don’t bleat to me that “the money from the cat will let non-cat books be published.” It’s lazy. It’s stupid. It’s cowardly. And it’s like an addictive drug. Instead of concentrating on real books and doing the hard work that’s required to push real writers, you’ll be distracted into looking for the next non-book fix. And as you churn out Stupid after Stupid, you’ll wonder why books are dying, why the general public has become as stupid as the Stupid you’ve pimped, when it’s your hand on the pillow smothering books and your crap diminishing the minds of readers!

And all those corporate-savvy bean counters who are slowly infiltrating your ranks and changing the internal dynamics? How smart can they be if they haven’t yet realized that eBooks are the way out? Do they read anything other than spreadsheets? How difficult can it be to do the equation of Minus Paper, Minus Printing, Minus Shipping, Minus Returns, Plus Low Impulse-Buy Pricing = PROFITS PROFITS PROFITS?!

I’m absolutely certain this post will be ignored by anyone with power who happens to read it. Hey, that’s your loss, baby, not mine. Writers are entering an age where you lot are irrelevant. You’ll get limited licenses for our direct-published worksnone of which will be about fucking cats! — so you can keep crying at the Four Seasons over your mid-afternoon martinis about how you’ve been reduced to peddling printed souvenirs of eBooks.

Enjoy your self-created future.

Explore posts in the same categories: Books - Other, C.O.A.T. - Belief, C.O.A.T. - Other, eBooks, Reference - Writing, Tech - Other, Uncategorized, Writers - Living, Writing

16 Comments on “Print Book Publishing: DOOMED”

  1. raminf Says:

    Good write-up. Agree 100% (even though I’m a big fan of the dead-tree, battery-less, artifact).

    What the e-book publishing world needs is something like the AppStore — where the business of production and distribution (and to a small extent, marketing) is taken care of. The main difference between software publishing and the writing business then becomes the filtering and editing process. Not everything written is worth getting published. There has to be a mechanism in place to identify and polish promising works into brilliant gems.

    The other missing part is a funding mechanism that helps writers mitigate the risk of taking a year (or more) out of their life to write a book. What’s needed is a sort of micro-VC fund that pays advances and takes a percentage off the back.

    I’m sure Amazon recognizes this, but they’re too reliant on the existing book infrastructure. It’ll take a third-party with deep pockets, technical know-how, and little vested interest in maintaining the status quo to really shake things up.

  2. mikecane Says:

    There is also Sony. They’re next in my sights.

    I wouldn’t want to see an App Store for books. The brilliance of what Sony has done defies conventional wisdom: Their Reader is *not* tied to the Sony eBook Store. Any eStore or publisher selling ePub can sell to a Sony Reader owner.

    Not so with the abominable Kindle.

  3. Emma Larkins Says:

    Step 1: Steal Underwear
    Step 2: ?
    Step 3: Profit!!!

    Sorry, couldn’t help it, every time I hear PROFIT I get the soutpark reference stuck in my head.

    Phew. This is a lot to digest. I’m also a fan of the paper versions, though I think perhaps my kind is in decline (?) I think that we’re just in a period of tumult right now, the same as is going on in the music and software industries with their digial rights management. We need to find reliable ways to reward valuable talent while still making the products of that talent available to as wide an audience as possible without a lot of hassle. As someone who would like to make a living off of writing, I’m vitally interested in how to make this happen!

  4. mikecane Says:

    There will come a point in your life, Emma, when you will have to do One More Move, and you will look at your hundreds of books in disgust. Because of the packing, lugging, and unpacking. eBooks can solve that. Plus, you’ll never lose your books due to fire or flood or theft. And, if the print publishers listen to reason, you’ll be able to afford even more books! It’s really win for everybody.


  5. […] Have we read the end of book publishing as we know it? in New York Magazine, as well as an informative Mike Cane rant on the inanities of the book trade—in addition to his eBook Test blog devoted to the issue of […]

  6. MYOB Says:

    You are kind of an idiot.

  7. mikecane Says:

    And who do you work for? Random House? Simon & Schuster? Fuckwad.

  8. Cliff Burns Says:

    Strong stuff, Mike, and I have a feeling we haven’t heard the end of the discussion. Book publishing has gone to the dogs–where it used to be the province of smart, literate people, now we have an office full of morons looking for the next Sophie Kinsella. Publishers have only themselves to blame–they’ve dummied down the readership to the extent that an appearance on “Oprah” is the prize most dearly contested even by authors as fine as, gulp, Cormac McCarthy.

    The barbarians aren’t at the gates, they’re pouring over the fucking walls…

  9. MYOB Says:

    Nope- Don’t work for anyone. Just a reader who sees too much time and not enough brains. Who do you work for?

  10. mikecane Says:

    Obviously you’re a troll. Fun time over. Bother someone else.


  11. Righteous post.

    Epub is putting food on the table for authors like myself.

    Just want to note that any book offered in an electronic version can be read on the Kindle, too.

  12. mikecane Says:

    >>>Just want to note that any book offered in an electronic version can be read on the Kindle, too.

    The abominable K cannot do ePub, DRMed ePub, or reflowable text PDF (although that last might not matter with their “free” conversion service for some files). Nor can it do MobiPocket — which is what K eBook files are based on (and Amazon *owns* MobiPocket).

  13. zoewinters Says:

    Oh holy crap Mike, YOU wrote this brilliant dissertation? hahaha. OH my holy hell I love it. Especially that last paragraph. I do believe publishers are going to become largely irrelevant to writers in the future, assuming writers can stop deifying publishers.

    It’s like a repeat of the: “omg there is lightning…some god must be angry about the way I grew my vegetables.” only with writing.

    You are getting added to my blog role, Mister. (yeah I know you’re thrilled and excited.)

  14. mikecane Says:

    I added you to Bookmarks today before you added me. Ha!

    The dying dinosaurs of print have become the OPEC of words. They sit on decades of “word deposits” which could be released into eBook form. They could see how that backlist sells at impulse-buy prices. But they can’t even muster the bravery to do *that*.


  15. […] love watching the techno-geeks howl and cry about this.  I even agree with them.  Read here and here for some excellent […]


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