Tuesday, January 12, 2010

ill-considered thoughts on publishing

I've been following the Game Change saga with some interest.  Not the actual book - I have no particular intention of reading it - but the issues surrounding its publication.  The book itself is a sensationalized account of the Bush-Gore election.  It was initially scheduled for a moderately-large print run but received a lot of publicity in the week before it was released.  Now, thanks to the reviews of pundits and ensuing controversy, the books are selling out, and the publishers are ordering more.  But since (1) it takes time for books to be printed, and (2) much of the demand is attributable to the publicity, it is entirely possible that many of the books being printed now will not be bought.  Buyers will not necessarily wait a month to buy this book, since in a month something else will be abuzz and they will want to buy that.  So the publishers will possibly lose out on sales and have extra books.

The reason there is so much controversy about this issue is that there is no electronic version of the book.  That's pretty unusual for new books of this magnitude.  Electronic versions aren't universally accessible, of course, but they have obvious distribution benefits (instantaneous shipping and ~zero marginal production cost).  In a publisher's perfect world, everyone would want the physical book (in hardback) but be willing to buy the electronic book if it weren't available; that way a publisher could order a conservative print run but still capture all the excess demand and part of the excess profit.  In the real world, people are increasingly unwilling to pay $25 and up (hardcover price) for something to read.

I think it's true that electronic distribution, if and when it percolates fully, will reduce profits on certain kinds of books.  More frightening for the literati, it will destroy the mid-list.  In the current system, mid-list authors (those who don't have a famous name or the full backing of their publisher's publicity machine) are chosen for quality and marketability.  Those authors need publishers to edit their books and turn them into physical products, and we as readers need publishers to find good books and make them better.  Formatting an electronic book for publication is easier, and as e-readers percolate, marketplaces for e-books will become more open.  It will be harder for the casual reader to distinguish between a "professional" book (i.e. one that has been selected by an editor, that has gone through an editorial process, and that has been packaged for readers) and an amateur book (which could be just as good - or could be the accumulated rantings of a lunatic), and so the prices of the two products will converge.  There will be some gains, as writers are able to reach their audiences without going through the filter of a publisher.  But there will be (many more, I think) losses, as the market is flooded with low-quality product and readers begin to rely increasingly on the few books that have been selected for heavy promotion (i.e. the ones you see on the tables in the front of the bookstore), which may not be the best books but at least have a certain guaranteed level of professionalism.  

This will all even out over time.  Readers will become willing to pay a premium for a book with a known publisher's imprint, and publishers and editors will regain some of their power and profit margins.  Self-publishing authors will need to improve or promote their product for it to be successful.  There will be more fluidity in the whole process, and eventually everything will be better.

But one thing that will be lost is inefficiency.  The tens of thousands of remainder books that are returned to publishers and pulped every year - there won't be nearly as many.  Physical books will be printed only for blockbusters, or mass-market evergreens (romance novels, etc.) for which demand is predictable, or on demand.  This will be good for profit margins, and it will reduce the potential loss of publishing a book (allowing quality to be a stronger determinant of publishability relative to marketability).  What it will be bad for, and what I will miss, is the supply of $5 books - quality novels and former bestsellers and last year's social science fads - stocking the discount shelves at Barnes and Noble.  It is also possible, although I think unlikely, that I will also miss Barnes and Noble itself.


  1. Coming from a publishing family, my thoughts are:

    It turns out that the actual physical book is not at all the expensive part. A trade paperback book costs something like 30¢ to the manufacturer—that includes the printing and the shipping to the manufacturer's warehouse. Electronic publishing will save that 30¢, but nobody wants a 30¢ discount on a book just because it's electronic.

    And the mid-list argument, I don't think, is an important one. The value publishers provide them isn't really the editing or the typesetting—it's the promotion and the access to the market. Editing and typesetting will still be important, but things like the kindle make typesetting somewhat irrelevant (it's far less flexible than the traditional book, so it's harder to make bad decisions).

    Marketing will be what changes. I think about music—it used to be that the big music stores controlled what was popular music, working with the labels. Now the market is online, fragmented, and spread across a lot more plates...

  2. Then why do they charge $30 for a hardcover??

    I think what publishers provide to mid-list authors is mostly the appearance of having provided something. Most people are simply not very good writers, and most of the books they write are not very good. In order to be published, a book has to be among the best (on some metric; perhaps not a metric you are interested in). The publishers filter out the worst books; without that filtering mechanism, I think fewer people will be willing to spend $15 for something that could very well read like the output of a freshman writing seminar.

  3. I would be concerned if I actually read books.