“From the consumer perspective, shopping at Amazon (or any online retailer working with the Ingram database, which includes other big brand merchants) gives them the choice of any book, whether the publisher has a good sales force or not. With more titles competing for sales and the advantage of blanket coverage by the big publishers diluted, it is no longer true that every title on a big list achieves a substantial minimum sale. Big publishers are having the experience of three-figure unit sales — and sometimes even less — on books they issue, and not infrequently.”
The idea that publishers are fretting over losing a few past-their-prime bestselling authors is the least interesting aspect of Amazon’s growing “traditional” publishing operation, but it sure has been driving a lot of chatter—and presumably clicks—this week. Several think pieces and a ton of tweets have been written about Amazon recently snatching up another couple of recognizable authors and what it means for the publishing industry, the latest twist on a decade-long story (remember J.A. Konrath and Seth Godin?), but it’s just another symptom of an illness corporate publishing has been suffering from for years.
Mike Shatzkin’s recent look back at the big changes in the publishing industry is a good read on its own merits, but it’s essential if you’re trying to understand what publishers should actually be fretting about, and how much of it connects back to one thing: chasing bestsellers.
“Despite arguing that they provided necessary intangibles to the book publishing process, they have spent the last decade gutting their marketing and editorial departments… Dean Koontz no longer has to go to a big publisher to have his needs met; Amazon and Bantam, his former publisher, are drawing from the same talent pool.”
Partly to maintain margins and partly due to consolidation, corporate publishers have steadily cut back on editorial and marketing operations over many years, effectively creating a cottage industry for freelancers that eventually leveled the playing field for smaller publishers and self-publishers alike. As expertise became more widely available thanks to continued layoffs and consolidation, it also became more affordable as competition increased—ironically resulting in more credible competition from exponentially more competitors.
As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.” Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.
The bestseller list—from NYT‘s curated version to Amazon’s algorithmic panacea and every iteration in between—has always been an important part of the corporate publishing business model, but it wasn’t the only lever they had to pull. In recent years, though, it’s effectively become bestseller-or-bust for the Big 5, and many mid-list authors have been left to fend for themselves—whether to market their books themselves when they didn’t make the publisher’s A-list; find a different publisher with a mid-list-friendly platform; or go the DIY route.
Where corporate publishers saw famine, mid-list-friendly publishers and individual authors found opportunity, especially in Amazon’s arms. Amazon has steadily lowered the barriers to entry for everyone—along with the perceived value of books, in general—and their own competitors have offered a variety of complementary services that has helped level the playing field for distribution, and not just for ebooks. Nowadays, even self-published authors can make their print books easily available to bookstores and libraries through Ingram—an opportunity authors signing directly with Amazon give up.
The only real competitive advantage corporate publishers have left is the ability to throw big advances at potential bestsellers, but in many cases, those advances are made possible by the increasingly less predictable revenue from robust backlists.
Backlist title decay — lower sales in each format for most titles year after year — is still a fact of life; a backlist beating last year’s sales is only an occasional event. There will be an end to audio sales growth for publishers as the available backlist is exploited and those available to be acquired also are diminished in number. And the non-commercial portions of the business will continue to churn out new titles to compete with the output of publishers.
The growth of the competing title base will not stop.
Corporate publishers have found themselves in a street fight they provoked but their business model wasn’t prepared for, and they’ve been playing rope-a-dope for years now, periodically punching themselves in the face.