Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fixing the Publishing Industry is No Mystery

by L.J. Sellers

Jean asked if I was worried about the downturn in the publishing industry and what I think can be done about it. The fix isn’t a mystery at all. Three basic steps would change the industry’s business model to improve sales and cut costs.

1. Move away from the hardback fiction book. Publishers could simply not print hardbacks and let libraries and collectors laminate their own copies of trade paperbacks, or they could print very limited hardback runs with the bulk of the first printing done in trade or mass market paperback. Then the first run of each novel could be bigger and priced to reach the whole market. Publishers win by reducing their print costs and minimizing the number of returns. Readers win by getting a book they can afford when it first comes out, and writers win by reaching as wide a market as they can on the first publication. And if publishers produced an e-book version at the same time, it would open the market even further. And writers who didn’t hit the big numbers would never be stuck with a book that is only available in hardback—which is a spendy version that’s hard to sell at book fairs and special events, and limits sales even further.

2. Change distribution to a nonreturnable basis. This seems like such a no brainer. Approximately, 25 % of all books printed are returned and shredded. This is an unsustainable waste of time and resources. Once the new policy was in place, bookstores would have to be conservative about how many books they ordered at one time, but it would simplify the bookkeeping for everyone involved—especially authors who often have their royalties held back against returns.

3. Print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders. Yes, there is a discount in volume, but if, in the long run, the model isn’t making money, it only makes sense to pay a slightly higher per-unit printing cost and have fewer returns. Money (and trees) would be saved from not printing, shipping, processing, and shredding books that never sale.

If all that happened, bookstores would have fewer returns to process and they could make money by remaindering books on their own premises. They could offer discounts and buy one/get one free deals to keep product moving. Publishers could cut their printing (and shredding) costs and spend more money on promotion for more authors, not just the bestsellers. This would take the pressure off each novel to perform to a certain standard and allow more novels to come to the market through traditional publishers.

Of course, this advice is aimed at the major publishers, which still control the bulk of the market. Many smaller publishers have employed these ideas. But they can’t work on a large scale unless they’re widely adopted. As long as the hardback book carries a certain prestige, publishers (and authors) who are in paper versions only will remain at a disadvantage.

(Reprinted from an earlier post, but still relevant.)

Bestselling author L.J. Sellers writes the Detective Jackson mystery/thriller series, which has twice won the Readers Favorite Award, as well as the Agent Dallas series and standalone thrillers. Her novels have received high praise, and she's one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon.
L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon, the setting for many of her novels. She's also a Grand Neal Award-winning journalist who founded Housing Help, a charity dedicated to preventing families from becoming homeless. L.J. enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. To learn more about her, visit her website:


Anonymous said...

All good, sound ideas. And there's no reason for the BIGs not to POD, is there? Just on a much larger scale, but why print a bazillion copies and HOPE they all sell?

Tony Burton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

LJ, It's good to hear that someone else has the same sermon notes as my own! I've been preaching this for months and months. What gets me is how so many authors don't like the ideas! "It'll mean smaller advances!" they say.

You know, if a publisher goes out of business, or if they cut down on the number of manuscripts they buy, that means less money in authors' pockets, too. The present business model of "print tens of thousands of hardcover books so we can see IF they sell" was bad business before, but is ruinous in this economy.

With my small press, I have printed only ONE offset, hardcover title thus far, and you know, I have yet to recover my costs on that one. The rest have all been trade paperback, and profitable.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for weighing in, Tony. Authors need to move into sustainable mode, stop worrying about advances, and think more about long-term sales from multiple, widely distributed books.

Anonymous said...

Your business model makes sense to me, L.J. I always wonder about the cheaper hardcover versions the book clubs print. Are books of that quality a viable alternative?

Joe Moore said...

How about eliminating ARCs? Rather than facing the small-run, high printing costs of advance copies, put the galleys online and send an email to the reviewers with a private link to download a PDF to their computers. Even better, give the reviewers an ebook reader like the Amazon Kindle and let qualified advance readers download and read as many galleys as they want for free. You only have to give them one reader but it would be good for hundreds or thousands of downloads. It’s a cheap, green solution to the high cost of printing ARCs.

Henry Hutton said...

I couldn't agree more. After having worked at for a while, it soon became clear that POD was the most efficient and cost-effective model for book distribution, and that it was inversely related to the bookstore return model. Solve one and you solve the other.

Regarding hardcovers, before long they'll be like outdated music LPs--few and far between. The Kindle may even influence that demise more than we think.

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

Advances are justified by authors' organizations on the grounds that authors deserve something for all the work they put into the book. Because the current system usually means the author never earns out the advance, the advance is looked on as cash-in-hand.

Many if not most independent booksellers have such poor cash-flows they can only stock new titles if they can use credit issued on old titles returned.

In other words, the current mainstream industry is essentially a welfare organization, and as such has come to be seen as an entitlement by those on the poles--the authors who create the work and the booksellers who dispense it. Neither seems able to grasp what the other Burton stated: that if publishers go out of business nobody will be there to act as the bridge between the poles.

Of course, all those authors could then go to the subsidy presses they now sneer at as being beneath any self-respecting writer, and among which they include any publisher opting to use print-as-needed technology. But they won't. They're addicted to the status quo, and like all addicts they rationalize their addiction.