Tag Archives: publishing industry

Who Still Buys Hardcovers?

My loyal readers (both of you) know that I keep an eye on the publishing industry, and try to make sense of pronouncements and prognostications, especially as they regard e-books and the future for those of us outliers.  But here’s something that still mystifies me:  Who buys hardcover books?

The better-half and I are book junkies.  We have far more DTBs than anyone living in a cramped apartment ought to.  But very few of these are hardcovers.  A quick perusal of the stacks shows that the b-h has more hardcovers than I do.  Mine tend to be graphic works — Mondo Boxo, by Roz Chast for example, or movie books like Lulu in Hollywood, badly damaged by certain bored kittehs who used it as scratching post.

The b-h has more hardcovers than I do reflecting his varied interests — eco-systems, travel, botany, geology, etc.

Both of us have a smattering of fiction and biography in hardcover.  Generally, these are books that were purchased used, gifts or found in the laundry room.  It is exceedingly rare that either of us buys new hardcovers.  Generally, when we do it’s a question of impatience.  The last new hardcover I bought, I purchased shortly before I got my kindle.  It was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the last of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. I came late to the series.  I’d devoured the first two books, and the third one had just come out in hardcover. I broke down and bought it after finding out that I would be 504th on the New York Public Library waiting list.

Here’s the thing: hardcover books aren’t just expensive, they are big and bulky.  I’ve never seen them as “better” from a reader’s point of view.  I bring this up because there is a constant debate on the Kindle forums regarding the price of e-books.  Much has been said about the “agency pricing” model and how Amazon wanted to cap prices for ebooks at $9.99 but got outflanked by big publishing.  Many readers complain that e-book prices for new books often exceed the paperback prices, but that doesn’t matter much to me. As a consumer, and avid reader, I’m likely to buy the cheapest version of a book I can get. I prefer to get books from the library (since I’m likely to only read a book once) or to get them used or free from my laundry room and then “recycle” them by leaving in the laundry room when I’m done.  Usually, I can wait for a book from the library or to be discounted, but on the rare occasion when I don’t want to, getting the book on Kindle at a lower price than I’d pay for a new hardcover feels like a bargain to me.

I finally paid more than $9.99 for an e-book when I decided I “had to” read Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  The initial Kindle price was $26; apparently this was an “enhanced” version, which included some old CBS footage of the Kennedy assassination.  That was more than I was willing to pay, but once the price came down to $14.99, considerably lower than the hardcover, I grabbed it.  It’s now back up to $16.99.  My reasoning was simple:  I wanted to read it.  I wanted to read it THAT SECOND.  I wanted to read it at the lowest available price and without having to leave my house or wait for a delivery.

What I don’t get, however, is who, under normal circumstances buys hardcover fiction when less expensive e-books are available?

I took a quick look at the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestseller list.  The first 17 books listed were mostly mysteries, thrillers, or fantasies, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, even the very late Michael Crichton was represented.  General fiction as represented by Nicholas Sparks came in at number seven and Janet Evonovich at number 9.  It’s safe to say that none of the books represented would be considered literary fiction or serious fiction.  So is it all people who simply can’t wait to read the next one by _______?  Or do people prefer to read hardcovers because they think they are more “classy”?  What happens to these books once they are read?  Are they resold? Given away?  Placed proudly on bookshelves for years to come?

I’m imagining that’s it’s an older demographic, but then I wonder who precisely.  Kindle early adapters skewed old, and the main selling point for the “traditional” non-backlit e-readers was that they read like print, not a computer screen, which appeals to people who grew up reading print. Given that the price of e-reading devices has come down and that e-book prices remain below hardcover prices, it would seem likely that more traditional hardcover buyers will switch to ebooks.  I’d like to know why they haven’t made the switch already.  I don’t know what the market researchers have uncovered but my guesses would be (1) they don’t like “e” anything and would prefer to just read their books (2) they like the feeling of “ownership” they get from print books, and on some basic level you don’t “own” your e-books no matter what Toni Morrison says, (3) while they might consider price, they also take into account “sharability”.  They always pass the book along and then discuss it with at least one other person, and so far e-books with DRM don’t provide a good system for doing that.

So here are my prognostications on book formats and pricing:

DRM will continue to have a negative impact on e-book sales since it’s still much easier to share your DTBs, and even circulate them within your family or non-virtual social network.  While having all your books in a “cloud” somewhere may be great insurance in case your devices are stolen or destroyed, there’s something off-putting about a company like Amazon controlling your cloud. It’s not irrational for consumers to be concerned, not just about sharing, but that someday Amazon (or a competitor) will simply scoop up your “books” or impose a new rule: “Henceforth, you will pay to us the sum of $100 a month for “storage” or we will hold captive and eventually destroy your entire library.”

Possibly Amazon’s hedge against this is that we are moving toward what AOL founder Steve Case, referred to as a “sharing economy.” While entrepreneurs like Case, believe that younger consumers are more interested in “use and experience” then ownership, the model that has made Zip Car profitable, might not work for books.  Books have almost always been shared, passed along between friends, stored on shelves where guests were welcome to them.  They are available for free at libraries.  Like movies, most be people don’t mind sharing, and  we may only experience the same book once.  Yet unlike movies, people want to “own” their books, and “ownership” seems to add value even though the same book will probably only be “experienced” once by the same consumer, and most books won’t be resold.  It’s not that people don’t want to “share” the experience of reading a book; it’s simply that they want to do so without the interference of a big company, or with a big company getting a cut every time they share.

It wouldn’t be against Amazon’s self-interest as a publicly “consumer-oriented” company to create a different system.  They could probably even figure out a way to make money from it.  How’s this: Instead of a virtual lending system that is amazingly complex and restricted, why not a DRM that sells you a license that still can’t be copied, but can be removed from the “cloud” and lent a limited number of times before it self-destructs?

Right now Amazon “storage” is free because this sells more books.  People can buy ebooks and read them with the kindle app whether they own a Kindle or not.  That would still be the case.  The difference would be that people could remove books from this “virtual” library without having to have Mother’s permission to do so.

If you could, in fact, actually “buy” your download, then Amazon could, without raising too big a ruckus, actually charge a storage fee. They might offer different pricing schemes for this — book recovery (in case of device loss or damage) for any ebook purchased through Amazon and not purposely removed from the cloud by the consumer, could remain free, but the ability to read books on multiple devices could have a fee that could rise with the number of devices.

Like the current used book market it wouldn’t be so great for publishers or authors, but consumers would love it.  Let’s say you limited a book to five moves before it self-destructed. That would be pretty similar to what happens when you loan someone a book and they loan it to someone who loans it to someone. While that might lead to some online swapping systems that would cut into profits, it could also work out for sellers and publishers.  The “books” themselves would be more valuable (and Amazon could charge more) because they could be loaned or resold, and there’d be no danger of Amazon coming to reclaim them. Amazon could as it does now, get a cut on resales or become a direct seller.

Just as there are now different formats for print books with different pricing — hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, there could be different e-formats as well — a “first run” that comes at a higher price with bonus features (as was tried it with 11/22/63), a lower-priced version that comes out later without the bonus, and a third run, equivalent to “mass market” that’s considerably cheaper but maybe with a more limited number of loans or no free storage.

Granted, the Internet makes a lot of things easy, and it might be very easy to set up a “used e-book” website and offer people money to sell e-books that still had loans (just as it’s almost as easy now to became an online used book seller). But how much would that actually cut into sales given that “used” e-books would have fewer if any “loans” available and couldn’t be stored free or used on multiple devices?  Amazon currently makes a large profit selling used print books, and could continue the trade with e-books.  Publishers and authors could demand something they don’t currently have with print — resale rights and restrictions.

In short, it could be done in a way where almost everyone wins, except of course brick and mortar bookstores.  I have also ideas about that, but I’ll save them for another post.

Some Things to Consider Before Peddling Your Prose on Kindle

God might not be calling his elect up today, but something truly extraordinary is taking place.  The gray lady herself, the esteemed New York Times, has an essay in the BOOK REVIEW section extolling self-publishing.

Neal Pollack who describes himself as “midlist, midcareer” finds that for a writer in his position, “self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense.”

He plans to put out a novel that he doesn’t believe would be the “easiest proposition for mainstream publishers” as the theme doesn’t involve vampires, but Jews and basketball and the length is short.  He plans to charge $4.99 and believes this will quickly earn him the equivalent of a pleasant advance.

He thinks there may be expenses including of course cover art and plane fare if he decides to do “readings and on-the-ground media in New York and Philadelphia where the book is set.”  He mentions a “modest print run.” Good luck with that, Neal.

Neal references Amanda Hocking (of course).  He writes of Stephen King’s e-book experiments, but he seems to have no real clue about what savvy self-publishers already know.   He writes, for instance, that he wouldn’t recommend self-publishing to a “first time author.”  Yet, several first time novelists who found the gates closed on traditional publishing have done quite well on their own.

I’m not an expert, nor am I Amanda Hocking for that matter.  My own experiment with self-publishing has yielded only modest results, but I know enough to know that Neal might want to do a little more research before setting out.  If you happen to have stumbled onto this, Neal, might I ask you to examine a few of your assumptions and assertions:

Price point:  $4.99? Yes, that’s half what Amazon is charging on Kindle for your book, Never Mind the Pollacks, The Literary Music of Neal Pollack which is not exactly flying off the shelves, but $4.99 is still considered a lot for a self-published e-book even by a previously published author.  Stephen Leather and JA Konrath have turned their back-lists into gold at 99 cents a piece, and even the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean who will be entering the fray with a short work to be published with some hoopla by Amazon, will be charging no more than $1.49.   Yes, you have a following, but maybe not at the Kindle Store yet or for the type of book you are planning.  Most of the bestsellers on Kindle are genre novels — mysteries, thrillers, and those “teen vampire” books you make fun of.  Books like the one you are writing don’t appeal to publishers because the market is small, not non-existent, just modest and the gamble on a print run may be not be one publishers can afford.  E-books cost less to produce.  But there’s a glut of high quality, self-published books selling for less than $4.99, on Kindle. You may find your market there, but it won’t be huge and you’ll have to work for it.  Your competition won’t be the $9.99 bestsellers from mainstream publishers, but the already known “independents” selling at 99 cents to $2.99 a pop.

Are you really in a position to give advice to first-time authors? You advise first-timers not to try self-publishing, lest they wind up in a “virtual slush pile.” Have you read anything about how difficult it is for someone, even someone with previous publishing credits to get a contract on a first novel these days, especially something like the one you’re publishing — a book with no vampires or zombies? The gates are shut.  Yet, if you look at the top hundred Kindle sellers in the US and UK Kindle store, you’ll see many “indie” writers unknown to publishers.  And if you take a peek at the genre lists, you’ll see even more.  I’m no insider, but I am actual virtual friends with three “first-time” writers who are bestselling authors. Lexi Revellian’s book Remix, was in the top 100 in Amazon UK for months.  It’s now down to around 126, but her new one Replica is holding at 50.  Jake Barton’s Burn Baby Burn is #26 in the UK, and he has two others that aren’t doing badly.  Dan Holloway’s first “indie” literary novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, got some good reviews but didn’t take off.  His thriller, set in Oxford, The Company of Fellows is holding its own in the top 50 in the category of “mysteries and thrillers.”

Think about that “modest print run” you propose and find some alternative uses for the print books you don’t sell — doorstops, kindling, etc:  Print runs cost money.  Many successful independently published writers aren’t even bothering with them, especially for shorter books.  Those that do, generally use print-on-demand.  Traditional printing is less expensive for a run of a thousand books or more, but it’s still going to be both a huge risk and a substantial out-of-pocket expense. I hate to break this to you, but getting your independently published book into bookstores is going to be difficult.  Prepare for rejection like you’ve never seen it.   As for your plan to do “on the ground media” in New York and Philadelphia, there are tons of local authors trying to get readings at stores and to get their books onto shelves.  It doesn’t sound like you’ve thought through the pitfalls, including the 55% discount and return policies that online and brick and mortar bookstores demand.

I’m not trying to be discouraging, Neal.  This isn’t an exclusive club. Nobody needs an invitation.  Granted, you have experience that many first-time self-publishers lack.  You’ve done book publicity before, you have a name and a following, and you are a professional.  But this is still a new game, and you’ll play better if you learn the rules before you jump in.  Your essay in the Times implies an access to media that most new independent authors lack, but I hate to break this to you, the readers of The New York Times Book Review aren’t necessarily the biggest e-book buyers or purchasers of the self-published. Your potential readers are in places like Big Al’s Books and Pals, Kindle Boards, and RedAdept Reviews.  Ever heard of them?  If the answer is no, you have a lot to learn.

Nobody Knows Anything (About Publishing)

The title phrase was of course coined by screenwriter William Goldman and refers to the entertainment industry. It is most applicable now to publishing though I thought of calling this blog, There’s Something Happening Here, but then got afraid that ASCAP would come after me.

I’m just an interested bystander, and my theories aren’t worth the paper they aren’t printed on, but I’ve been doing some reading and have listed below some interesting pieces. What’s it mean? Draw your own conclusions and by all means, feel free to drop by and spout off your opinion and relevant links.

Here goes:

Publish or Perish from The New Yorker in which Ken Auletta explains how big publishing is hoping the IPad will break Kindle’s hold on the ebook market and allow publishers to charge print prices for ebooks because of course we all know that that will save the book business. (If you go to The New Yorker’s website you’ll also see lots of blogs, letters and articles on related topics.)

The Rise of Self-Publishing in which The New York Times not only discovers self-publishing, but declares it respectable!  (which means that it’s now officially over.)

Man Bites Dog, no that’s not the name of it, but here’s an article from Publisher’s Weekly explaining why award winning writer John Edgar Wideman decided to publish a story collection on Lulu.

There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen by Jonathan Galassi. The head of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux makes a not so subtle case for why publishers should hold digital rights FOREVER. This was as the youts say a pretty lulz-worthy piece of work and led to many responses including one of my own, though my favorite was by Heather Michon in Open Salon who boiled Galassi’s point down to “There is no “I” in book.”

You could also do worse than check out The Militant Writer blog in which Mary Walters takes a hard look at the industry. One of my favorites from that site is a piece where she blames literary agents for the mess. Some of the more blogactive agents posted replies making the discussion uh spirited.

Happy reading!

(Update:  Not too many comments at this obscure website, but there is an ongoing discussion over on a thread on Authonomy.  Anyone can “listen” in, though you’d need to register on the site to participate.)

Adventures in Independent Publishing

I hope you didn’t find your way here via a search and are expecting something useful.

There are so many blogs and people I should link you to, but if I had to prepare all that, I wouldn’t have time to do the important things like take out the dog and change the cat’s litter box.

It’s probably a generational thing, but term self-publishing still sounds like the old vanity presses to me so I’m opting for calling whatever it is I think I’m doing, “independent publishing.”

The truth is the big houses are dying not having prepared for the digital age or followed what was happening in other industries affected by it. In a few years it’ll all be “independent and self” publishing and people will start referring to what is now “traditional” publishing with some retronym like “corporate publishing.”

In any case, I guess I joined the digital publishing age back in February when I put an excerpt of my novel Loisaida up on Authonomy. I’ve just taken another step and put my novella, The Death Trip on Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com). It’s free and you can download through this link: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6095. Take a look!

I’ll clean up this blog later and add some links, and in the coming weeks I’ll keep you posted on my experiences with kindle, starting my own micro-imprint, and the world of POD.

Feel free to leave a relevant comment.