Saturday, September 02, 2006

JA Konrath Saves Publishing

Good news! I was rummaging around in the attic today, and came across this old brass oil lamp. I gave it a good buffing, with the intent to sell it on eBay, but after only a few minutes a genie magically appeared. He gave me six wishes (normally genies only give three, but I gave him a really good buffing.)

Being the unselfish guy that I am, I have decided to use these six wishes to save the publishing industry. By happenstance, this also saves the bookselling industry, and manages to save midlist authors as well.

Here are my wishes:

1. Eliminate returns. Returns cost too much money, both in the printing and the shipping, and this cost is absorbed in the price of the product. If there were no longer returns, the prices of books would drop. It would also mean that stores don't stock double the amount of bestsellers that they expect to sell. This extra shelf space could then go to smaller midlist books that aren't normally stocked.

2. Eliminate offset printing. If the major publishers used POD technology, there would no longer be a need for warehouses or distributors. Another drop in price. Plus, books never go out of print. Authors have the potential for royalties indefinitely.

3. Bigger royalties for authors, to correspond with the smaller pricetag on books.

4. Extra content on books without extra cost. Books could come packaged with the audio version and Palmreader version bundled with the print version on a single DVD. It could also include interviews, pictures, perhaps even video.

5. Equal discounts. The indies pay the same amount as the big box stores, no matter how many are ordered. That will mean a drop in the sales at big box stores, but it would be a boom for the indies and the chains.

6. Bookselling is taught in college. How much would it benefit authors, bookstores, and people who love to read, if you could major in book sales? Book stores could hire people with specialized degrees, people who were extremely well-read and know the dynamics of the book business. I've met booksellers who have literally handsold thousands of books. What if every bookseller was like this?

The genie assured me that these wishes will come true, but he hemmed and hawed a bit about how long it was going to take.

I have faith, though. Lots of faith.

In the meantime, I'm searching my attic for another lamp, because the music industry is really a disaster.


Maria said...

I think it would help even if they limited returns to 5 or 10 percent total--start the bookstores in the right direction, but still make them think they have an out for something that truly doesn't sell. It would force them to think harder about what to buy/what to stock.

As for the book/DVD idea--you are soooo right. That would be Most Excellent.

If there is a course in college...make sure you get a print deal on your blog. It would make an excellent textbook for the course!!!

Anonymous said...

Joe, sounds like you got buffing down pat.

Lisa Hunter said...

I too am mystified by the returns business model, but I wonder if more mid-list authors would actually get shelf space without them. It's possible that, without a risk-free arrangement for bookstore, ONLY potential bestsellers would ever get ordered, no?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I worry about the idea to use POD technology, simply because it's my understanding that the books produced this way aren't as high-quality as books printed with an offset press. As someone who trades and passes books around quite a bit, I'd like them to survive that process.

Christine said...

Please, PLEASE don't let the PublishAmerica people see this - they'll think you're championing their business model. The first three are on their list of reasons why they're changing the industry. What they need to do is stop printing the slush, of course, but...

I agree with the last three. I actually kind of agree with the no over-ordering policy, where more shelf space is used for midlist (or even small press) books. Returns, however, I fear are here to stay. Until people actually read parts of the books they buy before they put down their money, you're gonna have them. It's a customer service issue. And the customer is always right.

My small publisher uses a digital printer, and I think the quality is excellent. Like with anything else, there are good and bad of everything.

Mark Terry said...

I find the returns policy in publishing to be idiosyncratic and anachronistic, to say the least. I'd like to get rid of it, as well. That might inspire booksellers to actually TRY to sell the books they have in stock, rather than passively wait for customers to show up. (Damn, that sounds familiar).

POD technology is coming. The latest, I think it's called Espresso, looks like a model that might actually even the playing field between small stores and chains (if small stores can afford the technology) because then actual space isn't an issue. In fact, you could set up an Espresso anywhere with a limited amount of room and print books. Has the real potential to revolutionize bookselling.

Mark Terry

JA Konrath said...

If the bookstore ordered fewer books, would that really result in less books sold?

Look at the auto industry. A dealer orders x number of cars, then has to sell x number of cars.

Salespeople at car dealers earn a commission, to guarantee cars sell.

I know that chains have a bonus system in place for managers if they meet sales goals. What if this were taken a step further, and individual booksellers got a percentage of each sale? The money spent doing returns and shipping them back could instead go toward these bonuses.

No other retail business allows for returns on the scale that bookselling does. I bet, if returns suddenly disappeared, and equilibrium would be reached, and sales wouldn't be affected.

Instead of ordering everything and hoping it sells, bookstores would order what they needed and then sell it.

If the big houses got behind POD, it would quickly become as cheap and attractive a technology as offset. Just as digital video is replacing 35mm film.

JA Konrath said...

Tess, I'm all for bookstores taking a chance on a new author. But stockign one copy on a shelf spine out for 90 days, then returning it for credit, isn't really helping new authors.

Unless you're on the coop table, or have a name and a fan base, it is doubtful any reader will find you.

But if bookstores bought what they believed they could sell, and trained and/or rewarded their employees for selling, I think new authors would benefit. Not only wouldn't they be returned, but sitting on a shelf would mean that someone in the store specificlly ordered that book.

At least, that's what the genie told me.

As for Americans reading less, I wonder about this. Every day, more people are being born. I plan on living for another 40 years, so many of the people being born today have the chance of being a fan of mine someday--a fan who buys books.

People are also living longer, so a 65 year old fan of mine can be buying my titles for 15+ more years.

Every day, someone retires. Some of them will take up reading for pleasure, even if they hadn't earlier in life.

There are also 4 billion people not in the United States. Lots of potential for new readers in the world.

In ten to fifteen years, all of the kids who are Harry Potter fans will have jobs. Some of them will still read for leisure.

I have faith the written word will perservere.

David J. Montgomery said...

Yes, yes, yes. The current system of returns is an outdated practice that benefits large retailers at the expense of publishers and authors. The whole consignment system for books is an anachronistic relic of the Great Depression and it's high time for it to be scrapped.

Aimlesswriter said...

And when the genie finished laughing what happened????

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't look to non-returnability as a panacea. The comic book industry went that way in its direct market a couple of decades ago and the industry has had some tough financial times, with retailers being caught with all of the risk and all of the burden. Many are petitioning (and have been) for some sort of returnability.

I would spend some time examining that market before proselytizing a non-returnable book market. It ain't all roses.

Christine said...

I take that back...
I agree with number 3 too. Bigger royalties. Woo Hoo!

Returnability allows stores to order books from unknown authors and feel good about it. Going back to PA, many stores refuse to order even a copy or two because they are non-returnable. Don't sell, they're stuck. Not only that, but their discount and returability policy stinks.
Of course, most also know about PA's quality control. But take that to a small press and an untested author. Without returnability, the stores would be very nervous about ordering anything outside the known sellers.
In theory it works, practically is another issue.

If you sent people to school to learn to sell books, they'd want more money, and then the stores would have higher overhead and demand deeper discounts, forcing the publishers to either a) raise cover prices or b) lower royalties.

The Espresso is another idea that sounds good, but will probably not fly. Imagine waiting at holiday time while the fifteen people in front of you chose their books then waited for them to be printed and bound? Lines would be out the door. For a small business it would work, but volume would eventually make it less than practical.

JA Konrath said...

Returnability equates no accountabilty for sales.

There becomes no effort to sell, or to even become familiar with the product you are selling.

Anonymous said...

>>Returnability equates no >>accountabilty for sales.

>>There becomes no effort to >>sell, or to even become >>familiar with the product you >>are selling.

Again, I encourage you to look at comic books, where non-returnability encouraged this to the degree that stores focused only on top sellers and mastered those titles, then poured all of their money into them, making it harder for other titles, talents, and publishers to succeed.

Non-returnability is NOT a cure-all. The idea of limiting it to a percentage is VASTLY superior. That allows the stores some leeway to experiment and take risks without losing their shirts and/or deciding to focus on bestsellers as sure-things.

Allison Brennan said...

Um, I don't know if I can agree on everything. Eliminating returns is good. But POD is much more expensive per unit than offset printing when you get into the higher quantity numbers. You couldn't offer a POD book for less than a $6.99 or $7.99 mass market.

Regarding discounts, I do think indies need a break of some sort, but there's a cost benefit to shipping larger quantities to the big stores--they order more books and therefore shipping is overall cheaper per unit.

But I like the ideas!

Bob Farley said...

Good ideas.

Trouble with books vs cars, for instance, is that someone has to read the book to know if they can sell it. Easier to look at a car and know if you can or not. But cars can be lemons, so you take a chance there, too.

Stores should only buy what they think they can sell. It makes no sense to order double or triple on the basis of a publisher's salesperson's spiel.

But then, lots of things don't make sense to me.

Go, Joe!

Peter L. Winkler said...

1. Eliminate returns.

William Jovanovich of the publisher HBJ tried it in the '70s. Bookstores retalitaed by cutting orders for HBJ's books, and Jovanovich quickly backed off. No one's had the guts to try it since then.

2. Eliminate offset

Unworkable. Bookstores will have one display copy of a book and then you'll go to the counter and ask them to print you a copy from their POD machine while you wait 30 minutes? See my post on the "Magic Book Machine."
Every bookstore would have to have a POD machine. The cost of these machines is prohibitive, so there go the indie bookstores.

Then what happens if a highly anticipated title is announced? People rush to the bookstore and if there's even a handful of people waiting for their books to be printed-seriatim-the last guy in line could be there for hours.

David J. Montgomery said...

I would be more persuaded that returnability of books was good for publishing if any successful industry used the same model. I'm not aware of any that do, though.

We all know that publishing and bookselling are in, at best, mediocre straits. If everything were working great, I'd say don't make any changes. But it's hardly a business model that one can argue much in favor of.

JA Konrath said...

If publishers ditched offset printing and embraced POD, several things would happen.

POD would become better quality, as millions of dollars of research and development would make it indistinguishable from offset.

It would become faster and more powerful, pumping out dozens, if not hundreds, of copies a minute.

Like all technology, it would become cheaper the longer it was in use. And it would save a lot of money and time.

No more typesetting. Books could be printed much faster, They'd never go out of print. No returns would mean money saved only shipping one way. No warehouses, so bookstores would get better discounts, and the publisher would still make more money per book.

Bookstores wouldn't need POD machines in their stores---the order system would still be in place. Only the copies would be non returnable, so they'd order what they needed, just like any other retail business. And if the books didn't sell, the bookstore would discount them until they did sell.

Would that mean bookstores wouldn't take chances on new authors? I don't think so. One of the things that brings people into bookstores, or any stores, is the variety of products available to buy. More selection is in the bookstore's best interest.

Anonymous said...

On returns: having worked in bookstores for the best part of ten years, I suspect that reverting to firm sale would be devastating. Chainstores wouldn't take a risk on anything. They already buy new stock conservatively, given that there's theoretically no risk. The overwhelming attitude will be: if a customer wants a book, we can order it for them but we won't take the risk in stocking it and not selling it.

On staying in print: not necessarily a good thing. It's conceivable that it might on occasion be better for the author to get their rights back and find a new publisher.

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

As someone who has spent the last three years touting most of these "wishes," I'll address some of the misinformation I noticed.

First and foremost, there is no way for anyone save, perhaps, a professional printer who can differentiate between a trade paperback printed on an offset press and one printed on a laser press--a POD press.

However, that's assuming the design and layout of the laser-printed book is the equivalent of the offset-printed one, which is sadly not the case in far too much of the short-run laser industry. There is also the issue of editing (or lack thereof), BUT I have to say far too many mainstream-published books now suffer from that same lack.

Regarding returns, I'm finding that it's more the IDEA of having books be returnable that matters. As long as I say they can send the books back if they take them on consignment, most of the time no one does. Granted, I always counsel they only order as many copies as they think they'll realistically sell and re-order if they need more, unless it's for an author event.

Price-wise, we can compete quite well--our books have a cover price of $10-$19, well within the average for trade paperbacks. And we offer a 45% discount if the vendor will purchase them outright instead of insisting on consignment (which only gets 35%). No one would price a trade paperback at mass market prices anyway, so that point is moot.

We used to offer a free ebook with the print version, but we also SELL ebooks, so that was rather shooting ourselves in the foot. So, I prefer to save that as a special marketing deal.

Is it working? Slowly. But slow is better than not, and I find it ironic the mainstream is now advocating many of the ideas I was laughed at for two years ago.

Much of the traditional publishing industry is, let's face it, a monopoly of one kind or another--Ingram's refusing to handle laser-printed titles unless printed by their own subisidiary, Lightning Source, is a case in point. I hate monopolies only slightly more than I hate the waste of talent and resources endemic to the mainstream industry. So, I'll keep working on my alternative.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Joe, I gotta disagree with this statement: POD would become better quality, as millions of dollars of research and development would make it indistinguishable from offset.

Why would anyone put R&D into it? After all, a book that falls apart faster means that someone will buy a replacement copy, right? That equals TWO books sold, instead of only one.

Not to mention that this society is even more disposable than it was five, ten years ago. When you have companies like Wal-Mart demanding that their suppliers cut their bottom line so that said companies can make a bigger profit, the only people who benefit aren't the consumers. Who in this case are book buyers. Who just might stop buying books that fall apart as soon as they are opened.

Writer said...

JA, you wrote, "Unless you're on the coop table, or have a name and a fan base, it is doubtful any reader will find you."

Isn't that where self-promotion comes in? Chances are, my book won't be on the coop table, since I'm a debut author, I don't really have a name or a fan base. Therefore, I have to promote my book so that readers will find me, even if they have to ask for my book or find my title in the stacks. Thankfully, I'll be able to use some of your tips as I promote along the way.

Anonymous said...

Good thread -

But reminds me of when the UK NBA [net book agreement] was scrapped -this was when books had to be sold at a fixed price - no discounting allowed - it caused huge chaos, but brought the price of books here down, as it introduced competition into the market - of course the Supermarkets got into sell low / pile high -

But the overall effect?

More books are sold today, but margins much much tighter


r2 said...

Book marketing seems to be so far behind the times, it is truly astonishing. I think Tess is right, not only do book publishers and booksellers need to sell books, they need to sell reading.

Anonymous said...

Keep buffing. Keep buffing!!!

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Joe:

The POD model would eliminate the needs for returns and benefit the publishers but is not to the benefit of consumers.

Why should I, Mr. Bookbuyer, go to a B&N to look at one display copy, then put my order in at the store and wait a week for the book to be shipped to me? I can already do it with Amazon without making the effort of leaving my house. If bookstores won't have POD machines in the store, then your model will make bookstore buying uniquely inconvenient-I can't think of other businesses where you look at a sample of the product, then have to wait a eek for delivery. It will kill bookstores.

JA Konrath said...

Peter, bookstores wouldn't have samples on the shelves--those would be actual books for sale.

Christine said...

I see what Joe's saying, and I kind of agree. IF you can get bookstores to go along with it.

IF bookstore only ordered, say five copies of books instead of 20, and POD technology kept warehousing to a minimum, then the bookstore can sell those five books and re-order with ease and get them quickly.

But, again, what's to say those five copies even sell? Disounting it may work, it may not, and your stuck with inventory.

Or would you advocate stripping trade paperbacks for credit, like MMP? If you've only ordered a few copies, it might work.

This could be the end of hardcovers as we know it. LOL

s.w. vaughn said...

Dear JA:

Thank you for saving publishing. I look forward to similar salvation for the music industry.

:-) These are good points. Excellent point. As usual.

And congrats again on the Rusty Nail 500-plus!

Peter L. Winkler said...


OK, thanks for clarifying your model.

In your business model, the only really significant change is the elimination of the returnability of inventory.

Bookstores will still stock a certain number of books, so publishers will still produce a first printing.

Your model replaces offset printing with POD technology to produce the books.

The real problem is how publishers anticipate demand and decide how big the first printing will be. Unless publishers simply decide to be extremely conservative in their initial estimate and hope to play catch up using POD if a particular book catches fire, then they could do the same thing today with offset printing. It's not difficult to back for a second printing once the plates are set, etc.

Seems to me that the real elements of your plan are
1. No returns
2. Very small first printings.