It’s a new year, and time to purge ourselves of the old and bring in the new. For years now, long before I was even involved in publishing, the industry has latched onto the “New Year, New You” marketing motto as each new calendar begins, in the hopes of selling books to customers who have decided to make a change in their lives. This year, it is time for a “new you,” but for ourselves. It’s time we stopped beating around the bush and dealt with our issues head-on and with realistic expectations. This morning, I saw two articles juxtapositioned, the (paraphrased) headline of the first read: “Ebook retail prices continue to plummet,” the second, “Independent bookstores can increase revenue by selling ebooks.” This second article implied that indies could be saved by the enormous revenue opportunity to be had in selling ebooks … whose retail prices have been steadily declining and continue to do so.

Are we even having the same conversation anymore?

Needless to say, these think pieces lead me to converse with a few friends, some publicly, and other privately, about what is going on here, and I have compiled a short list of elephants. These issues are those that we as an industry must address, not shy away from, and talk about in the open to come to a resolution. We continue to spiral into a complicated mess of “WTH IS GOING ON HERE? WHO’S IN CHARGE?” rather than a rational, business-oriented industry. I refuse any longer to play into the notion that publishing is dead or dying. It’s been changing over many years, and continues to do so. Now is the time to address our changes; now is the time for, in corporate parlance, change management, something we’ve all known but too little of.

The Amazon Issue. If we are talking about elephants, Amazon is the woolly mammoth of the lot. It’s time we dealt with the Amazon issue that everyone refuses to talk about. Yes, Amazon is single handedly responsible for moving a (digital) metric ton of digital materials through to customers, and many users have Kindles or use a Kindle app to read digitally. Yes, the Amazon digital catalog is the largest, and thus offers the most opportunity both to us and to our customers.

However, we must acknowledge that Amazon’s practices have also contributed to the (imminent-seeming) depletion of physical bookstores. They have forced our retail prices down so low that only a company of their, ahem, girth, is able to bear the burden of really taking on major losses. Publishers simply do not have the financial fortitude to emulate Amazon in terms of financial practice.

We need to figure out what Amazon means to us, how we work with them within the industry and how we are going to work with them and our customers. If we continue on our current path, we are simply handing over customers to Amazon and being bullied, a la Wal-Mart suppliers, into accepting terms that will contribute to our own death-knell.

Indie bookstores are not ebook distributors. Discoverability is not a salable item, and thus, indie bookstores don’t really own a share of sales from ebooks. Not a single one has built the technology to distribute ebooks, because it’s not their core business, and the sales from ebooks to indies is not going to change their financial situation significantly.

To generate the revenue in order to be able to significantly change their bottom line, indies would have to necessarily become something they’re not and thus euthanasia vs. natural death.

The indies that are thriving are serving their communities in many ways, one of those things happens to be related to books and literary culture. The idea of making bookstores affiliates to the sale of ebooks as a means of saving them is so off course that it’s surprising anyone is advocating that path at all.

Digital is about ubiquity. Independent, local bookstores are about local communities. These things negate and deny each other when we force them together.

And, Barnes and Noble attempted the store-location based via-our-wifi-only Nook sales. See how that turned out for them, a giant.

We need to accept the reality of products today. Digital products are not physical products and vice versa. The are both great in their own ways and serve readers differently. It’s time to move away from doing things because “that’s how it’s always been done” and accept new products for what they are.

Everyone needs to learn about these new product and their capabilities. Only then can we step out of the dark ages, over here, and start building new, better products which organically incorporate technology. The products we use are not the same as those that we’ve used in the past. It’s a new world.

Metadata is not just about SEO. We need to grow past that notion and start building systems.

An example: Google tailors each and every one of our web search pages based on more than 50 different personality characteristics in our search history. This customizes each person’s search to the extent that there truly is no standard Google search any more. THIS IS METADATA.

SEO and web traffic is old hat. It’s okay to move on to something better.

Similarly, new financial models. Oh, please, new financial models. Today’s products require us to think past that old bundling idea and come up with some truly innovative financial models.

The agenting system is broken. We all know and love agents. But, the agenting system of yesteryear is d-e-a-d. Every agent I know reads submissions approximately 28 hours a day, and MAYBE signs 10-15 authors a year. And I am not even mentioning how many properties they sell. They do all this, on spec, because true payment comes when royalties come in. And, let’s not gloss over another gloomy, but true, fact: every agent I know has received hateful, threatening, sometimes criminal responses to them simply doing their jobs.

Let’s face it. Back in the day, agents were a small but powerful and important part of the publishing ecosystem. They were relationship managers, and were often at the center of one of those three martini lunches we’ve all been dreaming about. They were confidants of authors and editors. They were part of the book creation process. Today, it’s just not the same. The world doesn’t work according to the old boys club rules any more and we need to fix this whole system.

Agents’ roles are evolving. I know one friend who talked to me about, essentially, becoming a publisher. Creating an imprint of her own to publish those materials she believes in but can’t sell. Why? Because a year ago, she knew what she could sell. Today, she said, publishers are all over the place and walls have gone up.

The alarm bells have been ringing way to long on this one. Time for something new.

Self-pub is not our whipping boy. The self pub machine has done an amazing job painting us as the villain and the fat-cat. Hell, Tim Ferriss based his entire book launch campaign around the idea that he was going to be materially damaged by Publishing’s (with a big P) long arm into the back alleys of all business.

Self-pub is not our whipping boy. And we need to stop playing into their portrayal of us. Get over it. People are self pubbing their books. We are not the gatekeepers and tastemakers any more. Stop automatically associating self-pub with crap, because it only plays into their game and diminishes our own industry.

You may not think it, but the more we keep this feud going, the more we are digging our own grave because, in many respects, self publishers are doing it better, faster, and more HOW THE CUSTOMER WANTS IT than us. There is a reason that Guy Kawasaki has named it “artisanal publishing” and is actively differentiating himself from “the industry.” Because the underdog will always come out on top.

Finally, Rights. I am not going to go into much detail here, because I think we all know what a mess this rabbit hole is. Rights and international sales are one of the most giant messes that could possible plague our industry, and it is doing just that.

In an age when we should be selling globally, we are paralyzed by the fact that we do not have access to our own information. Physical warehouses filled with rights information in basements, probably flooded after Hurricane Sandy, are the result of the boys club we were talking about earlier. Enough is enough. I don’t care if you burn it down and make it all up from scratch, but do something.

I hope I’ve opened the door to talking about, even if just a beginning to the conversation, these issues. Whatever we do, 2013 should be the year when we stop feeding peanuts to our elephants.


5 Responses to Elephants in the room

  1. Peter Turner says:

    Great post, Brett. I’d want to offer a meta-layer to elephants discussion. The reason why publishing is so chaotic right now is that publishing is many things to many stakeholders. What is one publishers threat is another’s opportunity. This came home to me a couple of weeks ago when I was putting together the discussion questions for a DBW panel on direct marketing. On the panel will be folks from Penguin, Avon, F&W, and Courier/Dover. What commonalities do they share? The Venn diagram on that one ain’t pretty. Two of them sell direct, wanting to build customer lists, add value, develop unique products (book and non-book), two others are collecting user data and passing the users off to third parties for eCommerce. The why of that question is complicated but it’s a clear split in industry when it comes to the function of marketing and the value one offers users, readers, customers.

  2. Barbara says:

    This is a lot of clear thinking condensed into a small essay. I will come back later to see the discussion I hope it brings.

  3. Karen Myers says:

    I can’t agree on the indie bookstore front. If indies publishers are artisanal publishing, then indie bookstores are artisanal stores.

    If anything is clear, it’s that ebooks are replacing mass market paperbacks. Bookstores of all kinds have an interest in offering format choices (hardback/paperback) and ebooks are just an extension of that with no inventory cost. Beginning with books that are available in both hard copy and ebook formats, and them moving to books available only digitally, there’s no reason ebooks can’t be part of an indie’s offering without disturbing their current roles. Intermediaries will spring up in the next year or two to supply consolidation services, I’m sure, for displaying, ordering, and store branding various ebook offerings so that customers can see ebooks in the store, send them to friends (perhaps as gift cards), and buy them from the store website.

    Why not?

    Certainly I, as a tiny publisher, would be delighted to supply our books as both ebooks and hard copies to indie bookstores so that their customers can add them to a shopping list at the local store in the format of their choice.

  4. Wait, Amazon is the elephant in the room? Seriously? Amazon is the only thing that everybody in traditional publishing seems to talk about. Amazon as bête noire, sure. Amazon as the Great White Whale, for many folks. But I don’t see how it can be the elephant in the room when no one is ignoring it.

    I agree that no one is dealing with the Amazon situation constructively, but I think you missed the one really big elephant in the room: The price-fixing scandal.

    Whether or not you think what the five publishers did was legal, by now it is obvious that it was, as they say, worse than a crime, it was a blunder. What agency + MFN did was give Amazon the chance to make Apple style margins. How could anybody think that was a good idea? And the outcome of being sued by the DoJ was a settlement that, even though it was far better than they deserved, left all the major publishers operating under conditions that work to Amazon’s favor. The whole fiasco was #EPICFAIL. And yet, nobody has the courage to bring it up. Apparently there is even some code that says you have to say “the end of agency” even though there was no end to agency, just an end to price-fixing. It’s time to stop being polite and start being truthful.

  5. Author says:

    Nice essay. I am a self-publisher and for my business, small bookstores are less than helpful. I used to love them – until I started publishing. And then I could not stand how I was treated. I bent over backwards to try and get an “in” with them, I was always professional, but the way they held their nose at me, I couldn’t believe it.

    Incidentally, there are two other parts of the business that are like this, too: literary journals and literary critics. Neither one will deal with me OR my “indie” literary fiction. I don’t have an MFA, I don’t teach at a school, I am not part of the “club”; ergo not wanted. So the journals don’t respond to my submissions and the literary critics ignore my books when I send them in. And almost no small bookstores are interested in me OR my books.

    I sell my POD paperbacks at Barnes and Noble and a few other stores, but most of the small bookstores couldn’t be bothered. I have to say that I felt betrayed. “Indie” bookstores pride themselves on their “indie”-ness, but they want nothing to do with tiny, “indie” publishers or authors like me.

    But I now make enough from Amazon to pay my mortgage. I’m in with them for the long term because they treat me well. So maybe that makes me the baby elephant in the room. There are a lot of us baby elephants, too.

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