Debating Ten Ways to Save the Book Publishing Industry

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Jeremy Greenfield, in his piece for Forbes rebutting my Guardian article “Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry,” suggests that I base my arguments on “flawed assumptions” and that I am “condescending” towards the book industry.  I appreciate Greenfield entering the fray but I don’t think the arguments I advanced are significantly undermined by his critique. I’m taking advantage here of his generous offer of space to respond to the points he raised.

(Editor’s note: The following piece will make more sense after reading Robinson’s original post at the Guardian and then Greenfield’s response at Forbes.)

Let me be clear about one thing right at the start: The difficulties the publishing industry faces, which, in my opinion, are of epic proportions, do not derive from a lack of intelligence or talent among those running it. They are structural problems, and all the more intractable for that.

Greenfield contests whether any problem exists at all. Citing AAP figures, he points out that book sales in the first  five months of 2012 rose 7% overall, and 15% in the trade. Five months is not much time on which to proclaim a business in the ascendant. Trade sales revenue, after all, rose only 4.5% in the three years preceding 2010, barely ahead of inflation , and overall book sales declined in 2011.

But statistics, especially in the book business, an industry notorious for its numerical vagueness and secrecy, are like a lamp post to a drunk: more useful for support than illumination. And to equate the health of the business simply with its sales, or even profits, is surely a mistake. After all, if profits at the larger publishers have risen while sales have remained flat, that is at least partly a result of staff reductions, and lower advances and promotional spending on mid-list books. This in turn has contributed to the hollowing out of the mid-list, which, I would argue, is a much more telling measure of the sclerosis of the industry than short term fluctuations in its accounts. As I wrote in my Guardian piece:   “Publishing is divided increasingly between a dwindling number of big books that sell to gargantuan audiences … and a vast ocean of small books that sell to practically no one. …This is bad news for publishing, and worse still for the culture at large.”

I’m aware that such sentiments will be pooh-poohed in the boardrooms of publishing as puerile and romantic. Publishers are private companies, many publishing executives will say, answerable solely to their shareholders, not to airy concerns about the health of culture. I disagree. The primary responsibility of a lawyer is to see justice done for the client, not to maximize the profits of the law firm. A doctor’s first concern is not the bottom line of their HMO, but the health of the patient. Why should publishers be so different? To insist that those involved in the book business have no broader responsibility to culture seems to me to be Philistinism of the worst kind. Further, it doesn’t accord with my experience of what motivates the large majority of those working in publishing. From booksellers and book reps to publicists and editors, the industry is full of people dedicated to diversity and original ideas and beautiful writing. It’s what makes publishing the wonderful place to work that it is.

I insisted in my Guardian piece that the only way the mid-list could be saved was by publishers starting to sell direct to readers, redirecting the money currently spent on retailer discount and distribution to marketing. But, Greenfield counters, publishers are already selling direct, indeed sales straight to readers totaled $1 billion in 2011. I concede that the figure is growing and $1 billion is clearly not chump change, but it’s less than 10% of total trade book sales. I’m not arguing that publishers don’t want to sell direct, or that they aren’t making strenuous efforts to do so.  But in the battle to get those all important e-mail addresses and credit card details publishers soon run up against an insurmountable obstacle: their subservient relationship to the major retailers, and in particular Amazon, which will do all in its considerable powers to stymie them. The two primary weapons the retailers will use in guarding what they consider their exclusive territory are convenience and price. Until publishers stop selling to third parties at discounts that allow their own prices to be substantially undercut and make it impossible for them to afford promotion that can attract buyers to their own sites, they will not be able to displace the retailers in any meaningful way. There is little sign of this happening among conventional publishers; indeed discounts to retailers are rising relentlessly. Only start-ups will be able to avoid this vicious cycle.

Another of my 10 points was that publishers should be more selective about the books they issue. In my Book Brunch piece, on which the condensed Guardian column was based, I wrote: “Publishers will flourish when they are seen as effective arbiters of their readers’ tastes, selecting titles accordingly … Publishing in ‘strands’, meaning either successive books by the same author or books grouped by type or subject, will underscore the publisher’s authority as a curator. Further, it will allow the assembling of coherent customer databases which, over time, will become the key component of the publisher’s marketing effort”.

Greenfield counters that major publishers are already publishing selectively, a fact he adduces, tendentiously it seems to me, from their domination of the bestseller lists. I’d argue that the big houses monopoly of the charts owes more to the polarization of readers between blockbusters, which generally command advances on a scale that only the corporations can afford, and the long tail of specialist titles that will never get a sniff of such heights. A healthier industry, in which the more mobile books of the mid-list played a bigger part, would see less domination of the bestseller lists by the behemoths.

When it comes to the injunction to “hold no stock”, also on my list of ways to save the business, Greenfield misunderstands my position, saying that I admit that print-on demand (POD) is too expensive to be a “realistic” alternative to conventional offset printing and warehousing. For mid-list publishing, where speculative risk is particularly severe, POD makes sound economic sense. It’s true that producing a single copy of a 240-page paperback , will typically cost $3.30 if produced digitally, compared with only $1.30 for the same book in an offset run of 1,000. But set against the ensuing saving of $2,000 is the reality that the publisher may well misestimate the number of copies that can be sold – indeed in publishing, an industry that runs Hollywood a close second in the stakes of wishful thinking, this error is widespread. If only 350 copies of the 1,000 printed find a customer, it would be cheaper to have printed them digitally. Further savings will be achieved by foregoing the cost of a warehouse while waiting for the book to be sold (or not), and by not tying up capital in stock. Of course, if sales of a book accelerate sufficiently to make it worthwhile, a switch to offset printing is always possible.

I propose, in my 10 points for the Guardian, that publishers should learn to “hand sell” on the internet. Greenfield regards this as condescending — “you’d have to build a time machine to find a publisher not using the internet,” he writes.  I belive Greenfield is missing my point here. The “hand selling” that is necessary to market effectively electronically involves introducing an individual reader to an individual book, based on an intimate knowledge of both. This process requires both skill and above all, considerable time. The quick fix of a facile Facebook campaign is already long a thing of the past. Because conventional publishers are being forced to cut their mid-list marketing departments to pay for ever more generous retailer discounts, they cannot begin to tackle this work in a meaningful fashion. The redeployment of a couple of sales reps as internet marketers is not going to do the trick. For the new, direct-to-reader publisher, savings in discount, warehousing, sales representation and absence of returns will account for up to 70% of a book’s price, say $14 on a $20 paperback. It’s only that sort of money that makes possible the employment of sufficient skilled staff to manage the intensive marketing that the internet demands.

The final point in my list of 10 suggests that publishers give full cognizance to the fact that “Publishing books that customers want to read demands the discernment to recognize an idea as original or a sentence as beautiful. It lies at the heart of successful publishing, old and new, and there is something very reassuring about that”.  For Greenfield, “This should not be what passes for advice to the publishing industry in a major newspaper.” I admit there is something of the truism in what I’m suggesting here but, like Edgar Allen Poe’s famous purloined letter, it is a fact often ignored for being in such plain sight. The point I’m making is that, though publishing must radically reform the way it publishes in order to take more chances with what it publishes, systemic change will never replace the need for intelligent, creative work in selecting and developing books. That’s why publishing remains an often joyful occupation.

Continue the debate at Digital Book World 2013, the largest gathering of industry professionals discussing the most pressing digital publishing and e-book issues — January 15 – 17 in New York. Register today!

Colin Robinson

About Colin Robinson

Colin Robinson is the co-founder of OR Books, and previously worked for Scribner, the New Press and Verso. He has written for a range of publications including the New York Times, the Sunday Times (London), the Guardian, the London Review of Books and The Nation.

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One thought on “Debating Ten Ways to Save the Book Publishing Industry

  1. Great debate, here and in the Guardian and Forbes pieces. One point worth that isn’t being raised quite as clearly as one might wish, is the about POD. The point you’re making, Colin, is that how you print is relevant to cost but the cost of returns are rarely really accounted for. This is a bit misleading. Returns have nothing to do with POD but with whether publishers sell their books returnable. I think Jeremy’s point in Forbes was more at whether it’s wise to sell nonreturnable, which defacto means they won’t be stocked in stores (who largely don’t want to take on the risk of inventory).

    Peter

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