Mark Terry

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Traditional Book Publishing Is NOT Dead

February 8, 2011
And from what I can see, it's not even feeling sick. (That does not, however, apply to Borders, which may very well have a terminal disease).

From an article in The AtlanticWire.

Book Sales Near All-Time Highs: "According to Nielsen's BookScan—a sales-monitoring service widely regarded as representing 70 to 75 percent of trade sales—Americans bought 751,729,000 books in 2010. Excepting 2008 and 2009,"--read worldwide recession--"when sales reaches 757 million and 777 million, respectively, that's many millions more books sold than in any other year BookScan has recorded. (Five years earlier, in 2005, the total was just 650 million.)"

And from an article in McSweeney's, which apparently is at least a partial source for the Atlantic story:

"The good news is that there isn't as much bad news as popularly assumed. In fact, almost all of the news is good, and most of it is very good. Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high. The good news goes on and on.

But still, perceptions persist that in a few years there will be no books printed on paper. That e-readers will take over the industry, and perhaps soon after, some other trend will kill books dead.

Sales of e-books still represent a small percentage of the overall book market. Depending on who's counting, the portion of the market is between 8% and 10%. When Amazon reports that their e-book sales are now larger than their paperback sales, it's easy to extrapolate this to encompass overall reading trends. But that would be a mistake. Amazon is an internet company, and it follows that their sales would favor electronic delivery of text. They are but one of many ways people get books, and the ratio of printed books to e-books changes drastically with each venue."

And for those of you in need of snide and sarcastic in your daily reading, may I link you to Paperback Writer, who rather humorously responds to a SPAM trying to help her self-publish:

I have worked with traditional publishing houses, and I have self-published. Quite frankly, I have found that self-publishing is more fun, more satisfying, and more lucrative!

Really? Because we're both published authors, that means I, too, could have more fun, more satisfaction and make more money self-publishing. Wow. I should call New York right now and tell them to tear up my latest contract. Tell you what, you hold your breath while I do that.

And far be it from me to ignore Joe Konrath, who, naturally, will probably disagree with these articles in time, but presents his POV here:

"Kindle readers are still buying overpriced bestsellers because that's how they're used to shopping. However, the many of the ereader owners I've spoken with are changing their buying habits."

Which makes me say, "Wow! You mean I bought a $9.99 e-book by John Gilstrap or Lincoln Child and Doug Preston or any number of other writers simply because that's what I'm used to, not because I think they're f***ing great writers and wanted to read their books on my Kindle? By all means, let's just give up all our reading habits and favorite authors and buy books by unknowns simply because their books are cheap!"

Honestly, I'm not against self-publishing on the Kindle--obviously, I've done it and expect I'll continue to do so. I also hope to continue publishing books in paper and through traditional publishers, big and small. There are good reasons for both, I think, but maybe we could keep all the hysterical smugness to a minimum while we do it (ha, like that's going to happen).

Well, I don't have all the answers and today my publishing crystal ball is cloudy and my Ouija Board keeps saying, "Sorry, this number is disconnected."

Anybody out there have all the answers? Please, share them with me.


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Here's my take . . . unscientific at best.

There is a core, DEVOTED Kindle base of readers, and of that, a core RABID base of readers who are ALSO self-pubbed writers and are loudly trumpeting the way. Outside of that sphere, in (unscientific sample) my circle of women friends (in a ladies' book group) and neighbors with Kindles (I know three, all AVID readers), not ONE, not ONE (!!!!) has EVER (!!!) bought a self-pubbed title. They're buying habits are the SAME. Old faves, best-selling authors, buzzed-about book-club books, and so on. And not one (!!) has ever bitched about paying $9.99. I don't know ONE who would pay $2.99 for an unknown--they still want their tried and true faves, their Tess Gerritsons, their Pattersons, their whomever. Now, do I think that prices will come down, that we will see the big houses make some pricing shifts. Yeah. But I think OUTSIDE of the little rabid fishbowl of blogs and so on, most people don't give a crap. And yes, after a time, when there are breakout best-selling self-pubbed Kindle authors, sure . . . people will buy them--but that will be AFTER they build significant buzz so that people with busy jobs and lives and car pooling kids and so on, in book clubs and doctor's offices and so on, have HEARD of said book. Because most people? Are too damn busy. WE hear about new names and buzz because we're in the biz. But the average folks? Not so much.

Again, unscientific. But I tend to agree with you, Mark.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Here's the thing I don't think I've talked about anywhere. I've never bought anyone's self-published book except one of Joe's as a favor to make sure it was downloadable to the iPad. Let me step back from that statement a moment--I've never yet bought someone's self-published book who wasn't already a published author. I bought a nonfiction book by an author I know that's a collection of her blog posts on a single subject. I've bought one of David Morrell's. I've bought a couple reprints of out-of-print books.

But for me to just go wandering through Amazon looking for cheap books by people I've never heard of before? No, that's not how I roll. Maybe some people do and I'm grateful for the people who buy my books on Kindle, but based on the real number data, I'm fairly certain that what's happening is that people who've read The Fallen in hardcover went looking for the first two books, The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss, couldn't find them, so they bought them as Kindle books. Then, because they like me as a writer, were willing to at least take a look at Edge and Hot Money. The two kids books don't sell much comparatively, even at 99 cents.

But unlike some of the louder voices in the blogosphere, I'm reluctant to extrapolate my experiences to the entire publishing industry.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Stacie said...

I bought a series of self published books by a Mid Michigan author on her family history - life in the 1890's. Great stuff. I heard about her through the local paper and hunted her down at a flea market where she was selling them at a small table.
I don't make my reading choices based on price or NYT best seller list or what Oprah says to read. I don't belong to a reading club either, but often share and receive recommendations from like minded friends. Through the course of following my own interests, I have bought many many self or small independant publisher books.
Do I own a Kindle? No, but they look kind of fun. However, I am usually disappointed in the quality and long term value of major electronic purchases. My Blackberry is a perpetual source of irriation. Why would I want to irritate myself with an ereader? Once I buy a book, hardcopy, it is mine mine mine forever; no change in technology can steal it from me. Unless I drop it in the bathtub.
If I were you though, I'd upgrade from the crystal ball and Ouji board. Try text messages to ChaCha for answers to your questions. :)

7:52 AM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

I decided a while ago to not even bother trying to prognosticate about the fate and future of the publishing business. My guess is that it's wasted time ...

That said, I think periods of disruptive technology are unsettling for everyone involved. The Konraths of the world go too far in predicting the death of print books, while others whose livelihoods depend on the status quo go too far in trying to pretend that the disruptive technology isn't, in fact, disruptive.

I also agree, Erica, that most people won't have a problem with the $9.99 price point for e-books, especially from authors they love. But just based on a quick glance at the Top 100 paid books in the Kindle store right now, I don't agree that it's just an isolated few people buying self-published e-books. At this moment, two out of the top three titles, including the number one title, are all self-published. Number four was published by Amazon, and it's not until #5 that we get to Stieg Larsson. My guess is that these books are being bought by "average folks" who don't know ... or care ... that they're buying a self-published title.

I'm not one of those people who believe traditional publishing is about to collapse, and my strong desire is still to sell a book to a major traditional publishing house. Like the article pointed out, there are more books being printed and bought than ever before. If anything, the bookstore industry overbuilt and is going through a correction. But the evidence is also wide and deep at this point of a sea-change in the way people—all people, not just publishing types—buy and read books.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think it's a big deal for writers. I'm not sure readers even notice, for the most part, although a Sisters in Crime (I think it was, or maybe RWA) did a survey and the majority of readers surveyed found that $2.99 made them uneasy because they thought they were too cheap. That'll change, though, if iTunes .99 cent songs are any indication. And frankly, given that I can buy an entire season of a TV show through iTunes for about $25.00 and individual episodes from $1.99 or $2.99, then I really don't think that $2.99 for an e-book is that far off the mark. It sort of comes down to consumer programming, which is one reason traditional publishers are probably freaking out about the $2.99 prices so many "indies" are listing, because they want to program consumers to expect e-books to sell for $9.99 or higher.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

My thinking on this has evolved, no doubt ... and I agree with this: "I'm not sure readers even notice, for the most part."

Truly, I think most readers don't care and probably couldn't name three out of the Big Six publishers if you hung them over a lake of fire and their lives depended on it. The trick to selling books has always been getting books in front of people—whether it's on Oprah, a front-table display, or Amazon's predictive ranking system. It's all the same. You get that title in front of people, give them the chance to buy, and a percentage of them will make the purchase. If enough of them like it, they will recommend it and sales will grow.

As for the pricing, I don't think it's settled. I've read the same thing about readers being uncomfortable about $2.99 books—and it gave me pause when it came to pricing my own book. But from the other end, publishers are also facing a reader's revolt over e-books that are priced too high. There are literally dozens of threads on Amazon with readers bitching about high prices. They also leave dozens of 1-star reviews on writers' books if the e-book is priced too high. I think you can find plenty of knowledgeable people who will say either "$2.99 is too low" OR "Readers just don't understand that it costs virtually the same to produce an e-book and demand unrealistically low pricing."

To me, the salient statistics are the trend lines. If you were doing a market report on publishing and looking at growth in one segment of 110% annually (e-books), and growth in another segment of 3% annually (print), where would your trend lines lead you in three years, five years, ten years? To me, this isn't about traditional publishing versus self-publishing as much as it's about a new, paradigm-shifting technology.

It's also worth noting, I think, that we've only barely seen the potential in e-books. They're still black and white, for jiminy's sake. They have lousy illustrations. They aren't linked or indexed well. What do you think will happen when publishers can produce nonfiction and textbooks with gorgeous illustrations, links to more content like glossary terms and sidebars, and are instantly searchable? These kinds of materials are not really appropriate for self-publishing because of the effort involved in creating a book like that, but I have a hard time believing it won't also be a sea-change in the way people consume textbooks and nonfiction.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I like my Kindle, but there are things about it that really annoy me. My wife has the iPad and I love it as a toy, but as an e-reader it's ridiculously overpriced. What I'd love to see on the Kindle?

Color. We lose out on the cover art. Also, I've been reading some nonfiction books on it for research and I highlight, but you get lines under it--it looks far better on the iPad's Kindle app.

Non fucked-up layout. Let's face it, when you change the font on the Kindle, it screws up the layout and it's like reading a manuscript.

Page numbers! Duh. Yeah, yeah, I know the problems, but gimme a break.

A bookmarking function that works consistently. Egad, using the Kindle as a research tool for a manuscript--it's almost a bigger hassle than it's worth. You go to your own highlights, then you can't page back to earlier material without it returning you to some other part of the book, and I've had some problems with going to the notes sections and back... ack! For that, gimme paper. Really. And say what you want, in my experience the Kindle search function is practically worthless.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

I agree totally. I ONLY read trade fiction on Kindle. With the way it is right now, the Kindle is basically the equivalent of a cheap paperback in terms of print quality and user-friendliness. I wouldn't dream of using it as a reference material in its current form.

But all that stuff you mentioned ... it's coming. If not on the Kindle, then on another e-reader. Remember the old DOS days? When was the last time you saw a non-graphical interface?

You know ... I was thinking during lunch about my own thinking and what happened as I pondered this issue over the past year or so. Ten months ago, I was as anti-self-publishing as anyone could get. The idea of self-publishing BILLIONAIRE (now Zig etc.) was as far from my mind as you could get. If you had told me then I would someday self-publish it, I would have laughed.

But to digress for a moment ... I graduated college in 1994 with a degree in journalism. I was trained in print, and in print I was determined to remain. I watched the advent of the Internet and thought, "Waste of time. Crappy content and poor quality. I would never, ever, ever risk my family's well-being and my own career that way." And I didn't. I refused any thought of pursuing the Internet job frenzy.

Over the next few years, about half of my friends bailed out of print and went straight for the Internet. Here's a smattering of what happened ... two of them got in one the ground floor of Internet start-ups and during the IPOs, made $150,000 and $17 million respectively (yep, that's $17 MILLION). Another started a business that was later bought out by a huge technology fund and has spent this year sending Facebook posts from Geneva, Panama, and all points between. Another went from zero to $20,000 a month in affiliate marketing on his site in his six months and neither he nor his wife have worked in 8 years.

Sure, it hasn't been all ups. My friend who made $17 million got hurt bad when the tech bubble burst and gave a lot of it back. But not all of it—you should see his house. My other IPO friend has been through two jobs and just got axed and is currently job searching.

But here's the thing ... you know what happened to those of us who didn't recognize the Internet for what it was? Nothing. I've still got plenty of friends who are writing at daily newspapers, including the Detroit papers, and are freaking out every day about keeping their jobs. I don't know any print journalists who made a killing.

So ... I vowed to myself that I'd never make that mistake again and miss a transformative technology when one came along. At first, I thought self-publishing was nuts, and it was. I work for the big POD presses. I know it from the inside. But gradually, I became convinced that e-books ARE that transformative technology. So I don't know where it's gonna end up—just like I had no idea where the Internet would end up, or that one day, it would account for more than half of my income—but I think it's a dangerous game to dismiss it.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't dismiss it at all. I'm doing it, after all, and I've got two projects planned for e-self-publishing this year, one probably at the end of this month, beginning of next month. And I expect I'll have AT LEAST one more this year alone. But I also have a traditional novel coming out in June, I'm finishing up what I hope will be another traditionally published novel, as well as a manuscript proposal that I hope will get a good solid traditional book contract. AND I've got an agent just starting in on marketing a nonfiction book proposal that I hope will be traditionally published.

When I look at Konrath's numbers and others, I'm surprised to some extent, but not in other ways. They're also assuming a continued growth and I think that's a risky assumption (it may be so, but they're riding a wave right now, so it's tricky to predict). Alternately, I would be delighted if my e-books brought in something closer to a decent percentage of my income, rather than what it's bringing in now (yes, I'm spending it). And I think it has the potential to.

And although at the moment, as today's post indicates, traditional publishing is healthy (sort of), I think that the big conglomerates are going to face a big problem in the near future over e-book contracts and rights, because they're going to have to convince midlist authors they're providing something for them. We're starting to see some midlisters walk away from traditional publishing contracts over e-rights and I have a feeling publishers don't think that's a trend, but it could be and it could be a trend that really damages traditional publishers in a major way, simply because professional writers aren't going to want (or need) to deal with unfavorable publishing contracts in this arena unless something like solid marketing, tours, favorable royalties, etc., get tied into it.

And yes, I agree with you. I know Bezos said that if they did color they'd have to raise the prices, but I think it's only a matter of time, because they're going to get hammered by everyone else if they don't. I can't come up with a single reason to read a magazine on the Kindle, but the Vizio magazine app on the iPad is terrific. Overall, I vastly prefer the aesthetic reading experience on the iPad on either the Kindle app or the iBooks app, but I do find after using the kindle that the weight of the iPad seems a little tiresome (like a hardcover). But I see an awful lot of choices for this in the next couple years.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

Okay, don't kill me, but I'm taking a break this afternoon from serious work and I'm between projects. I checked out that Sweeney's article more closely ... and look at this. Here're the total book sales for the last three years, according to Nielsen:

2010: 751.7 million
2009: 777 million
2008: 757 million

In the article, they say the large drop-off in 2010 was due to a "crippling recession," except that's not true. The US economy actually recovered throughout 2010, albeit unevenly. We posted growth. Consumer spending didn't totally recover, but it certainly didn't record a 5% or 6% drop, which is what the publishing industry experienced from 2009 to 2010. Obviously, other factors are at play ...

Keeping in mind that Nielsen doesn't include e-book sales in its figures, here is my loose estimate of e-book sales over the same period, using the generally accepted rate of sales:

2010: 10% of the market (75.2 million)
2009: 5% of the market (38 million)
2008: 2% of the market (15 million)

So purely based on McSweeny's own figures, in the same one-year period that print experienced a 6% overall decline, e-books experienced a 95% increase.

Couldn't the same headline have read: "Did e-books kneecap the print business?" Because while they article is wrong about the recession in 2010, the authors overlooked the obvious fact that the Kindle exploded in 2010.

Methinks McSweeny's is engaged in a little confirmational bias here.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Chiming in here . . . great discussion Mark and Jon, BTW. I DO think it's transformative. Completely and 100%. I just think the idea that readers are going to wholesale abandon writers they love based on price point is based on ONE type of reader not average reader. We see the most VOCAL of reader, the people who really again, sorry, have a level of hostility high enough that they would pound an author with 1-star reviews (and Jon is right, I have seen it) based on an e-book price model of a big pub. Are you kidding me? You have time to do that? You're INVESTED enough to do that? So what we end up seeing are slices of a trend based on rabidity. That is never (!) a whole trend. So I think predictions are kind of nuts based on that. It IS transformative. But the hostility invested in predicting the doom or x or y is silly. As Jon said, it's the BOOKSTORES who have the most to fear.

And as I have posted elsewhere and often . . . the people who have self-pubbed best-selling Kindle books HAVE what it takes to succeed in NY. They COULD have succeeded at that level of the bar. Period. Why they didn't could be a mixture of gatekeeper, book niche/genre, trend, they didn't want it, they were always wanting to retain control of the work, they were iconoclasts, whatever. But regardless, they HAD and HAVE what it takes to succeed in NY book publishing at a certain level of writing quality. Much of what gets slapped up does not. And those people will humbly sell a few copies indicative of that.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

I hope it doesn't come across like I'm arguing ... well, at least not in a douchy way. In truth, I think you're doing it exactly right—and hopefully the same way I will be doing it. With a foot firmly in both worlds. That way, you can't be wrong :)

And yeah, I think right now the people who stand the most to gain from e-publishing, and conversely the people who are getting hurt the worst, are the midlist writers.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't perceive it as arguing at all, Jon, and frankly, wish you and I and Erica were someplace warm with a cold beverage in front of us to discuss it at length. I don't think you and I disagree much at all on this topic, if at all.

I didn't analyze the numbers in the articles too closely, and I've done enough market research reports by now to understand that one year isn't a trend in either direction, and looking at only three years probably doesn't do you much good, especially if they're as scattered as that one (and as opaque as most publishing figures are, but Christ, trying to figure out how much money and how many books are sold by US publishers is a difficult calculation. How the hell do you factor in thousands of small presses that are privately owned and don't have to reveal any sales data?)

The only thing I'm sure of this time is that e-books are here to stay, unlike when iUniverse etc., appeared and everyone predicted it would destroy publishing. I think e-books are quite different from that, but I'm a lot less likely to view e-books as destroying publishers. If anything, once everything shakes out it may provide them with lower overhead, which is something the big publishers have a horrible problem with right now.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Jane Friedman said...

In addition to previous commenters' revelations about misleading data from McSweeney's, here are a few more considerations:

Also, this post on how the future of reading/writing has nothing to do with print publishing might be the best thing I've read in months:

12:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The Writer's Digest link got eaten, so here it is:

12:43 PM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...


That's very interesting stuff, and I thought an excellent point about McSweeny's itself. I like what they're doing, and it's frequently gorgeous, but if you're looking for a potentially biased source about the value of paper and physicality, they would be it.

And Mark, I'm in Fort Lauderdale. Anytime you and Erica are in town, I'll treat ... :)

12:48 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I think all of it works, which is why I find right now such an exciting time to be a writer. For people who don't want/need the ROI of going the NY route, then make another choice. I certainly made that choice with my last few book of sales. I have a fantasy series I think would make a fine NY book. I'm also working on a standalone that I dearly pray will see a NY bigtime publisher.

I've thought about self-pubbing a chapbook of short stories; a fun giveaway for cons. I sell short stories for not much money, but it's good publicity and gives me street cred. And obviously I'm a publisher/editor myself with Electric Spec.

I won't rule out placing a self-pubbed book on Kindle, though I think I'd need publishing help. It's why I sold SENTINEL to a small press (where I think it belongs and hopefully will do well) rather than self-pubbing. I want to WRITE, not format and edit and find cover art.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Eldheni said...

This is VERY late, but I just ran across this article...and if it is COLOR you would like in an e-reader why is this confined to Kindle?
I don't know many people who enjoy reading for pleasure on Kindle, but several who love their Nook. And now Nook COLOR :) Plus the Nook is supported by an actual bookstore chain instead of Amazon.

All bonuses in its favor.
Personally, except for college textbooks and research where the Nook is a lovely alternative, I continue to prefer 'real' books :)

11:53 AM  

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