Anyone who has followed publishing and the current battles between publishers and retailers, first Borders and Barnes and Noble, and now Amazon, will realize there is a fundamental shift going on in the publishing world, each side claiming the high ground and righteousness in the unending quest for more profits. If you dig a little deeper into the quagmire, the name Shatzkin will pop up. I’ve been following Mike Shatzkin’s blog for several years and it’s become obvious, as a consultant for the publishing industry, he looks at the world through their eyes. When a comment I made on the blog regarding changes I thought needed to be made in the publishing industry to maintain profitability, he simply dismissed most of it by saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and recommended this book, by his father, Leonard, who had worked in the industry for many years, and whom Mike had a tendency to quote perhaps a bit too often given the radical changes now occurring more than a decade after Leonard’s death.
“In Cold Type” is very good. Written for the layman as well as the industry --I’m a primarily a reader although as a librarian and micro-micro-micro publisher whose uncle was president of Silver Burdett, I have been fascinated by the economics of publishing all my life,-- it’s a wealth of contrarian information about the industry as it existed in 1982, just before the cataclysm began to occur. Indeed, it comes with its own publisher’s disclaimer, not so unusual now, but then, before everyone became afraid to even remotely associate himself with any kind of idea, rare, indeed.
First, my biases. I’m a reader, and therefore have an interest in a vigorous and competitive market for books. I’m also not wedded to any particular format, being primarily interested in content. It’s what’s written that makes the book, not whether it’s used, hardcover, paperback, clay tablet, or ebook. My preference currently is solidly in the ebook camp since I can carry around my whole library on any number of electronic devices. (Did I mention I love electronics, too?) I think ebooks have many, many advantages for authors and their incomes.
So I remain astonished at the continued inefficiency of the publishing world and its resistance to change. The remainder system is stupid. Even in 1982, Leonard saw that: “For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder-- a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim. And it's truly insane.” That particular inefficiency raises costs for everyone, but it has an even more insidious effect as it removes accountability from the buyer for trying to estimate how many copies of a title s/he might be able to sell. If there is no penalty for over-ordering, what the heck, order tons.
Another of my biases is warehousing, particularly after the IRS decision that products warehoused would be taxed (the infamous Thor decision.) That makes storing stuff expensive. POD, i.e. printing on demand, and ebooks have the potential to eliminate warehousing; IF, publishers move away from printed copies, or change to POD. Why not have a POD machine in the bookstore. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I saw one of these deliver a bound, trade paperback with color cover in just a few minutes. Those machines are now going for less than $100,000 last time I looked. The downside to that is the cost per book remains flat, whereas, for example, the last book we had printed in a 2,000 copy run (I did say micro-micro…) provided us with a declining cost per copy over 500 copies and would have been much less per copy for 10,000. One type-setting, etc. have been costed out, the printing is really cheap. That was 15 years ago. Today, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t want inventory so POD and ebook would be the way to go and the initial investment is much less, even after accounting for copy-editing and design. That “should” permit higher royalties for the author.
Shatzkin’s first chapter is devoted to a review of problems in the industry in 1982: 1.)Remainders, which distort the market by providing for expensive distribution, a devaluation of the book when people wait for the price to drop soon after release, and competition from remainder stores that compete with full price independent bookstores; 2.) Books are too expensive, resulting from “antiquated book production methods and “poor distribution and poor production,” and he believes with more efficiency retail prices could be “half their present level.” Consumers deal with this by waiting for the book in a cheaper edition or buying remainders.; 3.) Consumers leave stores disappointed, not finding what they went in to get, from the “skimpily stocked stores that make up the majority of retail shops.” He cites surveys showing this number of disappointed people may be as high as thirty percent. 4.) Competition from chains. In those days he cited B. Dalton and Walden, both of which are now gone. Publishers like chains because distribution is more efficient and “dealing with the chains seems so much simpler and less expensive.” 5.) General lack of profitability in book publishing, where most of the profits come from selling subsidiary rights providing a stronger push toward the “blockbuster.” 6.) Not being able to provide support for excellent writers, the horrifying example of Confederacy of Dunces being an example; 7.) The short life of the trade book caused, he says, by an inefficient distribution system that means “as many as 90 to 95 percent ...are stone cold by the end of their first year.” Thirty percent of books are returned unsold and 25% never make it to bookstores, going directly from warehouse to remaindered. (Another thirty percent go to libraries, a problem he worries about but I won’t deal with here except to say that a New Yorker article years ago reported that the trade book market would collapse without libraries.) 8.) How all these factors enter in to making lousy editorial decisions, “Tens of thousands of titles published into an unstructured distribution system, millions of unpredictable negotiations between sales reps and booksellers, the happenstance of a book getting into a particular store, together with unforeseeable outside influences—reviews, attention by celebrities, quirks of public taste—lead to results in which chance is the dominant factor. The remaining chapters go into detail about each aspect of the industry and the problems he has identified.
Now what’s interesting is that the ebook revolution solves every one of those problems but one: libraries. Distribution is cheaper, no returns, online stores can stock literally everything, prices are less, and theoretically dealing with a store like Amazon solves their “simplicity” problem. The long tail and a book never going out of print means a book can technically sell forever removing the incentive to seek the blockbuster and books need never go out-of-print. With ebooks one could literally publish just about everything (that’s what’s happening with the rise of digital self-oublishing.) One can only surmise how profitable and better the industry would be today had they fully embraced the ebook revolution instead of fighting it.
There are some independent publishers opting out of the traditional morass so well described by Shatzkin. I know of one small publishing company devoted to high quality young adult and middle grade reader books, namelos.com, run by the famous editor Stephen Roxburgh of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (he was Roald Dahl’s editor) and Cricket Books who is doing just that. His new company is publishing in POD and ebook formats only. That means he has difficulty in getting his books into bookstores, but they are widely available online. Whether he’ll be successful or not remains to be seen.
Be forewarned. My view of the industry is biased. I’m a reader. On the other hand the symbiosis between readers and authors is essential. The mediation of a publisher/’gatekeeper perhaps less so. Leonard’s warnings might have helped stave off catastrophe for a while. Whether they will be heard today with a vastly different environment remains to be seen. I hope so.
P.S. I read this book on my Kindle. In one of life’s lovely ironies, the ebook comes with a big, gold QED Approved sticker promising the highest quality assurance. So not a few pages later I laughed when I saw the following: “...the methods of pofit [sic] and loss…” On the other hand, the new technology such as Amazon’s Createspace and digital delivery would permit virtually instant revision, even so far as to make changes to the purchaser’s copy in his device.
A book well worth reading.
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