Is Traditional Publishing Doomed?
This is a response to Globe and Mail: Book publisher Douglas & McIntyre files for bankruptcy and the post Book-Lover’s Guilt on the blog Inklings: Another drop of book culture.
This is a wake-up call for traditional publishers in Canada that’s long overdue.
The business model that the industry runs on is unsustainable in a world of digital information glut, where the real audience for books is increasingly online, and books are free or so cheap they’re less expensive than a coffee.
Digital and print-on-demand publishers put more money per-copy into the hands of authors, they haven’t got the infrastructure support costs of traditional publishers, and they distribute hard copies to the larger book chains – in more carefully (analytics) managed quantities and avoiding some of the massive waste that occurs when traditional publishers have to write off unsold paperbacks, which are destroyed by the stores instead of being returned and re-distributed.
Add to this the fact that in North America a few huge retailers have a virtual monopoly on retail distribution of anything that isn’t a bestseller, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Giant retailers are dictating terms to even large publishers, and the publishers have no choice but to accept those terms because there’s nowhere else to go to move books in volume.
The advantage of insider press contacts and money spent on marketing campaigns is gradually being eroded by the power of social media and in-group recommendations online. Getting a post on a few blogs with thousands followers each will do as much or more for a book’s sales as a review in the New York Times, and blog reviews are a lot easier to snag.
The myth of the columnist who submits press releases verbatim instead of doing their own research and writing is actually true for blogs – they just call it a “Guest Post” and put up whatever an author gives them, many without even bothering with basic editorial oversight.
A scattering of guest posts, verbatim posts of press releases, and author interviews all over the web can generate buzz and bump search engine rankings enough to guarantee steady sales. Sales whose profits go mainly to the author, and not into the insatiable maws of publishing industry dinosaurs.
A few 5-star reviews on Amazon are worth far more than a endorsement almost anywhere else, so what’s the value of traditional marketing? I’m not saying it’s ineffective, but there’s way more bang available for the buck online.
So yeah, it’s a wake-up call.
Traditional publishers must adapt their way of doing business to become more nimble, and they have to understand that they’re going to have to give away more of their per-copy margin, charge less for online versions of books, switch to a demand-driven printing model that’s responsive to real-world analytics, and take on far more authors in order to make up per-copy and digital losses in volume.
It’s sad that we’ve lost a great publisher, but the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of management, not consumers.
It’s industry’s job to figure out what we want, get it to us how we want, at a price we’re willing to pay – and to find profitable ways to do so.
Those who do, thrive. Those who don’t, die.
The Darwinian world of the marketplace is perhaps not the best environment to promote and preserve culture – I’m not saying that this state of affairs is good and right and true to some ideal – but it’s what we’ve got.