Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why Print On Demand Technology Won't Transform Publishing

Why are so many people, especially writers, determined to save publishing, as if it is about to fall into an abyss? A blogger name Maxine posted her thoughts on how publishing can be saved by Print On Demand technology. Her post is filled with questionable assumptions about how publishing actually works and her recipe for saving it won’t work and will never come to pass. This is Maxine’s critique of the current publishing system:

My basic and oft-repeated point is to wonder why the "mainline" book publishing industry operates on the huge advance/remainders system, as the quest for the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code is losing them (on average) a lot of money. These days the big publishers won't look at books unless submitted by an agent, so they aren't even experts at selecting the books any more; they have become marketeers, trying to catch a commercial trend rather than being innovative and original. Hence this Christmas, one can't move for books with titles almost identical to last year's "surprise hit", "Does anything eat wasps?" and last Christmas it was the same for piles of books called, with minor variants, the same as the previous year's bestseller, "Eats, shoots, and leaves".

In the last couple of years, I’ve repeatedly read that 150,000 books are published yearly in the United States. If we think of all those books as a pyramid, then all the books by branded authors and the rest of publishers’ frontlist titles - the books publishers have high hopes for, which received large advances and concomitant advertising budgets - only represent the tip of the pyramid. Most authors receive advances somewhere in the range of $5-10,000 dollars. This is anecdotal, but the book proposal I sold, for a book on Lotus Notes to be co-written with a friend, received a whopping $8,000 advance from Digital Press. And we had an agent who specialized in computer books.

Science fiction writer Tobias Buckell has been conducting a survey of sf and fantasy authors. Here are his results:

The median agented advance is $6000 (the average is $7500)

The range in unagented advances is from $0 to $15000

The median unagented advance is $3500 (the average is $4051)

Here’s sf writer Charles Stross on what the life of a professional freelance writer is really like.

Here’s Maxines new publishing system:

The idea is that most titles would be selected for publication by the publisher, but not actually printed. Instead they are "marketed" by the publisher's web site (lots of traffic via advertising and so on), and copies sold print-on-demand.

The few authors that get published now would not, in this system, get the big advances unless they were already established, but many more perfectly good and interesting authors would get published by this method even though they won't sell millions or even thousands of books.

Out of 150,000 books published last year, how many did you read? If 150,000 “perfectly good” authors are insufficient, how many more do you want published? Books are already hugely over supplied. That’s really why most books only sell, per BookScan, an average 2,000 copies per title per year. There are already far too many books published, dividing the limited attention of reviewers and readers into such tiny slivers that only about 2,000 book a year in the US are reviewed in any periodical. The result is that the vast majority of books are shipped out to bookstores, never to be noticed by anyone and never heard from again until they turn up in remainder catalogs. Increasing the supply of books will only exacerbate this problem.

In the POD system, the publisher isn't losing oodles of money on gambling on a few potential big sellers and ignoring the many other good authors whose themes don't fit some preconceived market demand. On the contrary, by using a combination of a big marketing budget for promoting a programme, and a POD system for providing the books to order, the publishers can take advantage of the proven economic benefits of the long tail.

If publishers took the big advances and ad budgets they now lavish on a small number of books and instead distribute it equally among many books, then each book would receive little more ad support than in today’s system. M. J. Rose once recounted her lunch with a publishing executive who told her that it takes $250,000 in promotion to "break out" a book.

Really, I grow weary at the naive fantasies of people who think, despite all the considerable evidence to the contrary, that web sites and the internet are a marketing magic wand. Just put up a web site and Poof!, multitudes will beat a path to your door. We all know that isn’t true. How’s this magic web-based strategy going to work? Is a publisher going to have one giant site which they’ll flog the hell out of? Publishers of all sizes already have web sites. And for the most part, they are infrequently visited. I don’t discover new books by going to publishers’ web sites, because I’d have to spend too much time systematically visiting sites and reading through all the entries on new books I have no interest in just to discover the rara avis that tickles my fancy. I’ll have to set up an new account with each new publisher. Why bother? I already have accounts on Amazon and B&N. They also aggregate the information for all books, old and new in one place.

There must be something wrong with this utopian vision because it hasn't happened. Publishers are still churning out "celebrity" books "by" Victoria Beckham and a host of other people I've never heard of --- which go direct from Christmas stocking into the remainder bin. Lots of excellent authors are not being published at all.

This constant harping on celebrity authors as the root of all evil makes me suspect that Maxine is an author who has been unable to land a book contract. I find that all the pie in the sky optimism about POD and e-books and self-publishing emanates from writers who have been on the losing end of transactions between agents and editors.

POD technology might have an effect on the problem of returned books, but I really doubt publishers are going to start acquiring books with very limited sales potential even with POD. Publishers have finite resources. For a book to be published in Maxine’s brave new paradigm, some editor has to give it a glance. Then it goes through the same process that book’s go through today - contract, typesetting, cover art, cover copy, etc. This requires employees who must be paid. And then, ideally, money is spent marketing the book. Simply removing the obstacle of the cost of physically producing a run of say, 10,000 copies of a book and wharehousing them doesn't make it possible for a publisher to keep acquiring an infinite number of books. More books acquired require more resources to be allocated to those books.

The real answer to the problem of returns is for publishers to make books unreturnable. The immediate effect would be that bookstores would order fewer copies of fewer titles, and publishers would start publishing fewer books every year. Which is as it should be. There is just no way that 150,000 books can be published every year without most of them being ignored.

There’s another problem with Maxine’s system. The dreaded literary agent. Where are publishers going to get all those wonderful new books from? From agents. But agents are commissioned salespeople, and they make their money from a percentage of the advance. Maxine’s utopia cuts back on big advances for all but those writers whose success and drawing power are already established. Cut advances and agents will stop representing many of the book they now represent. So the very type of book with a micro-market will never find their way into publishers hands, POD notwithstanding.

Finally, there is the matter of what readers want. Readers don’t care how a book is manufactured or distributed. They want what they’ve decided to buy delivered as cheaply and conveniently as possible. That’s why bookstores still have useful, pleasant functions. You can browse, make discoveries and take the book home on the spot. Why will buyers want to order all their books online and wait while a POD machine pushes it out and it is shipped, or wait by a POD kiosk for thirty minutes for one to be made when they can have most books right now?

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