Five things for June 10, 2021. That's it! That's the excerpt.
Although PubWest is meant for traditional small and mid-sized publishers, it’s probably the most accessible industry conference for serious authors interested in understanding the business of trade publishing beyond getting an agent and a Big Five book deal. The more authors understand the various levers publishers have to pull and what factors determine which books they’ll pull them for, the better equipped they’ll be to negotiate a better contract and avoid unpleasant surprises like a perceived lack of marketing, uncomfortable relationships with independent bookstores and libraries, advances that don’t earn out, and having to find a new agent and publisher for your next book.
Hyper-current events aside, 2020 has gotten off to a productive start for the Panorama Project, hot on the heels of my Publishers Weekly op-ed challenging the industry to take question of libraries more seriously. Since then, we released our annual report and announced two major new initiatives; I was a featured speaker at PubWest 2020; and I did fun interviews with Library Journal and Book Riot where I got to discuss my work in more detail.
Anyone who’s worked in media in the 21st century—particularly “traditional” magazine media and its various digital counterparts and competitors—has at some point lived through the ups and downs of expense cuts and surprise layoffs, questionable pivots and their inordinate investments. I’ve been through variations of it a few times in my career, but my second time around with F+W was absolutely the worst, particularly because I realized, belatedly, that the writing was on the wall pretty early on. Here’s four things I learned which might be strong signs your company is heading in the wrong direction.
How a publisher defines, segments, and prioritizes its audience impacts every decision it makes about every book it acquires, publishes, and markets. As I noted in the new annual report for the Panorama Project, despite the growth in ebooks and audiobooks over the past decade, there are reportedly fewer people reading books today, and fierce competition for their attention and discretionary spending. In the absence of any major consumer research focusing on how book consumption and purchasing behavior has changed over the past five years, there are many unsupported theories attempting to explain why consumer ebook sales plateaued, and then began a gradual decline. Consumer pricing, library lending, and self-publishing are believed to be among the primary factors, while little consideration has been given to the impact of other forms of digital media that have experienced exponential growth—including film, TV, and gaming.
I don't usually engage in conversations about individual books as the topic du jour is almost always something I haven't read yet or have no personal interest in, but the ongoing conversation around American Dirt sucked me in because it was such a glaring symptom of the industry's underlying illness I've raged about many, many, oh so many, times. Against my better judgement, it's dominated my own Twitter feed for nearly two weeks now, and all indications are it's going to remain a hot topic for a while longer—for better and worse. Also against my better judgement, I decided to consolidate my thoughts into this unexpectedly long, but hopefully coherent, post. Apologies in advance!
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.
Another notable factor that publishers seem to have trouble acknowledging is that books—especially ebooks—don't exist in a vacuum, competing only with other books published that month, but they fight for attention and discretionary income with every other immersive media format, too. Movies, TV, and gaming have all seen their own versions of digital disruption—not to mention other areas of publishing itself—so the idea that the one compelling villain to blame a decline in consumer ebook sales on is public libraries would be laughable if it wasn't so short-sighted and suicidal.
Things have been a little quiet for me on the library front recently—periodic Twitter rants aside—as I've been working behind the scenes on refining the Panorama Project's focus for 2020 in light of recent events, identifying areas where we can have a measurable and actionable impact and figuring out how to implement the right initiatives. While I'm excited about what's in development for 2020, it's still too early to announce any of it, but two articles I wrote recently offer a glimpse of where things are heading.
In a letter sent to “Macmillan Authors, Macmillan Illustrators, and Agents“ on Thursday, July 25th, Macmillan CEO John Sargent announced new lending terms and pricing for library ebooks, claiming library lending was “cannibalizing sales“ and impacting royalties as revenue from library sales are “a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read.” While the embargo is disappointing news for libraries, authors, and, most importantly, readers—it reinforces the need for a cross-industry initiative to identify ways publishers and libraries can continue to support their intrinsically related missions while delivering mutually beneficial outcomes.