Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Changing Face of Publishing

Things seem to be happening quickly in the publishing world. Quickly and, unfortunately, not optimistically.

I'm currently in Florida, having just spoken at a mystery writer convention. They flew me here to talk about ebooks. And people were excited to hear what I had to say, both newbie authors, and professionals.

It seems like a lot of people are being dropped by their publishers. In the past week, I've personally spoken to six authors this has happened to.

I've also spoken to three authors whose publishers are releasing "enriched" ebooks of their upcoming work, involving video, interviews, and extras.

I'm sensing a shift. And this shift will likely prove fatal for many of the parties involved.

If, as I suspect, publishers are going to print fewer books, that will result in a death spiral. Fewer books printed means fewer sold in bookstores, who will no longer be able to stay open. Without bookstore orders, publishers will print even fewer books. And so on.

Publishers might be looking at enriched or enhanced ebooks as their new big-ticket items to replace hardcovers. But the major ebook retailer, Amazon, isn't set up for video. Kindle isn't even able to do color yet. That leaves Apple, and according to my numbers Apple is a very small part of the ebook market. I sell 200 ebooks a day on Kindle. On iPad, I sell 100 a month.

Enriched ebooks seem expensive, and I don't see the money pouring in yet.

But if print goes the way of the dodo, publishers will have to rely on ebooks. Plain old non-enriched ebooks. And if they keep offering authors 17.5% royalty on the cover price, they soon won't have any authors to publish. After all, authors can get 70% on their own. And it doesn't take 18 months to release it. Plus the author gets to pick the price, cover, and title.

I know an author whose book debuted on the extended NYT bestseller list, who was told that more than half of her sales were Kindle sales. If this author had self-published the title and sold it at a reasonable price (other than $9.99 set by the publisher) I bet the ebook sales would have been quadruple.

My friend Henry Perez currently has the #1 ebook on Amazon, Mourn the Living. His publisher was savvy enough to give it away for free. As a result, his first thriller, Killing Red, is selling very well, and broke the top 100 Kindle downloads. The novella we wrote together, Floaters, is also selling better than it ever has in the past 18 months.

Update: The freebie promotion for Mourn the Living has ended, and Henry is currently the #1 overall paid Kindle Bestseller. Take that, Stieg Larsson.

And yet, even though Henry kicking ebook ass, this success doesn't appear to translate to his paperback sales--they're both ranked in the 200,000s and 400,000s.

We might be looking at the beginning of the end of print.

Naturally, people are bemoaning this. Here are some of the things I've heard so often, they're becoming cliches:
  • I love print books
  • I'll never get rid of my book collection
  • I enjoy seeing a book on the shelf
  • I like the tactile experience of paper
  • Print books don't run out of batteries
  • Ebooks hurt my eyes
  • Ereaders are fragile and too expensive
  • I love the smell of paper books
But these protests and professions of love apparently aren't being followed up with ACTUALLY BUYING PRINT BOOKS. All these folks are complaining and insisting that print will be around forever, yet I've read from several sources that ebooks are currently 8.5% of the total book market. By the end of the year, they may be over 10%.

A growing ebook market means a shrinking print market. Those who want print to stay had better start buying more books.

Writers also seem to be defending the status quo. Very few believe, or want to believe, that the old gatekeeping system is crumbling down. They insist that publishers will somehow adapt.

Maybe publishers will adapt. Maybe bookstores will survive. Maybe print will persevere.

But it's important to look at this coldly.

It doesn't matter what writers, publishers, readers, and bookstores say they want.

It matters what they're doing.

Right now, readers are voting with their wallets. They're making the ebook market grow at an incredible rate; up 6% in just 12 months. That's over a 200% sales increase in ebooks.

Publishers are publishing fewer books, dropping authors, and seem to be pushing forward with ebooks with no real business plan. They price their ebooks too high, give authors too small a royalty, and are adding movies that can only be played on devices that people aren't using to read on, like the iPad.

Bookstores are selling fewer and fewer books, and are trying to get into the ebook market to save themselves.

And writers, brainwashed through years of Stockholm Syndrome, continue to have faith in a broken system that seems ill-equipped to weather the oncoming tsunami.

Everyone may want things to stay the same.

But you can't always get what you want.