The winds of change

The publishing industry has, apparently, weathered the erevolution with remarkable ease. The transition to e-books appears to have broadly levelled off, at around 1/3 of the trade fiction market. Publishers remain profitable. Sales remain comfortable. The change seems to have happened, and everyone’s OK.

Winds of change

That’s certainly the view of Tom Weldon, the bullish CEO of Penguin Random House UK, who says:

Some commentators say the publishing industry is in enormous trouble today. They are completely wrong, and I don’t understand that view at all. In the last four years, Penguin and Random House have had the best years in their financial history. Book publishers have managed the digital transition better than any other media or entertainment industry. I don’t understand the cultural cringe around books.

And you can see his point, particularly when you contrast the robust health of publishing with the devastation inflicted by the e-revolution on the music industry.

But don’t speak too soon, ’cause the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no telling who that it’s naming. Although it looks like the digital transition is largely complete, there are real hints that things are still changing and it’s impossible, at this stage, to rule out a landslip of sudden change. That landslip could be triggered by one or more of the following factors:

  1. A collapse of the flagship bookstore chains in one or both of the US or UK. Waterstones and Barnes & Noble are both loss-making. I can’t speak so much about B&N because I don’t know the industry there, but Waterstones is now very well-managed and has a patient owner with real love of books and a belief in the long-term. So all is certainly not lost, but all is certainly not saved.
  2. A continuing encroachment of self-pub on the digital side. It’s bizarre, but those stories about how the e-book revolution has come to an end simply ignore the scale of self-published work on Amazon. Basically, publishers stick ISBN numbers on things and that data can be tracked. Self-pub authors don’t use ISBN numbers because they have no reason to do so, so e-published books by self-pub books simply don’t figure in those “the e-revolution has flattened off” stories. I think that if the grey market numbers were properly accounted for, we would certainly see that e-publishing is continuing its increase – and conventional publishing is claiming a smaller share of the total market.
  3. A gathering revolt by traditionally published authors when it comes to the terms and services offered by their publishers.

There’s not enough discussion round any of these points, but the first one is, at least, on publishers’ radar. I think if you polled them about the chances of a big book chain collapse, they’d probably guess the odds were 30-50% in the next few years: scarily large, anyway.

On the second issue, there’s very little discussion, and post Hugh Howey, I just can’t see why those issues aren’t right up at the top of the agenda, at any rate in the US where the data is better.

But on the last issue – the putative authorial revolt – there are, I think, some interesting straws in the wind. The current issue of The Author, the house magazine of the Society of Authors, has this to say:

  • On ebook royalties: “In many cases, what the publisher brings to the deal will be substantial, at least in a work’s first couple of years, and in return authors will often be happy to agree to a traditional division of income. [ie: roughly 75/25 in the publisher’s favour] However, if/when a publisher is only doing the minimum (making no upfront, or no continuing investment in the work, merely facilitating its existence as an ebook and/or POD) we believe the publisher should retain no more than 15% of any income generated – as would an agent for performing the same, or a rather more active, service.” [my emphasis.]
  • On termination: “If at any time the work is available only as a print-on-demand and/or ebook, the Author [should be able to] terminate on one month’s notice.”
  • On e-only publishing: “We advise authors to be very wary of any publisher which undertakes only to publish a work as an ebook in return for … a sizeable chunk of income [usually 75%] for any significant length of time. In almost all cases, an author is likely to be far better off self-publishing as an ebook.” [my emphasis.]

The Society of Authors is hardly a bunch of wild-haired anarchists, yet these comments are, collectively, of revolutionary import.

I myself have two books that have earned out their advance, where the publisher is doing bugger all to market them, and where they are still retaining 75% of net receipts. That is, in my eyes, an abusive relationship and I will never conventionally publish such titles again: I’ll self-publish them, have more fun, keep more control and make more money. Any switched on author should think the same.

Likewise, I have plenty of books that are POD/ebook only, that sell in miserable quantities for their current publisher and where I know I could do a better job. I signed a contract which was perfectly standard for the time, but which means I have no option but to watch the slow death of those lovely books. I will be highly reluctant to sign such contracts again in the future.

And I was offered an ebook only deal by a big 5 publisher that I turned down in favour of self-publishing. It’s kind of thrilling – and strange – to hear that the venerable heads at the Society of Authors are actively recommending that same strategy.

Publishers, collectively, make large sums of money from lazy publishing that could be perfectly well done by authors self-publishing their own work. I hope authors simply walk away from those relationships, until they are offered a much, much better deal.

And these little creaks – Hugh Howey’s earnings reports, the quietly revolutionary comments from the Society of Authors – could yet be the sounds of something large: the heave of snow moving and compacting and getting ready to avalanche. I like conventional publishing, but I’ve never liked the way it so often excludes the author or pays so many of us miserable amounts. Tom Weldon is right to call attention to the industry’s success in managing the transition so far, but this game ain’t over – and that Fat Lady isn’t even clearing her throat.

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  • Excellent post, Harry. Kudos to Tom Weldon for his breezy navigation of the new publishing paradigm, but one might point out that the bottom line of RHP is one thing and the health of book culture is quite another. It continues to astound me how rarely I hear in these conversations anything about the care and feeding of authors. Big 5 publishers are doing well by paying authors less while expecting them to assume more of the work and expense of marketing. Meanwhile (setting aside the literary 1%ers), the big advances are going to no-brainer reality TV books, trusty if unimaginative blockbusters, and the occasional self-pub breakout. So yes, Mr. Weldon, American publishing is doing fantastically well — if you don’t care about writers or books.

    As a ghostwriter consistently working in Big 5 houses and an indie handling my own books, I’m familiar with the dynamics of both worlds, and I see no reason other than Stockholm Syndrome for established genre authors to remain with corporate houses. Disenfranchised mid list novelists like myself don’t leave much of a scar when we jump ship, giving up the craft validation (coughrealhousewivescough) of a publisher’s brand to make better money as indies, but sooner or later, more blockbuster authors will clap on to the fact that their own brand is more valuable than the publisher’s.

  • Lili-Ann Berg

    I would like to know the initial cost of e-publishing ? How to do it successfully without compromising your reputation as a professional author and where to get such information. Very grateful for any hints.