On Seeing the Inevitable

I have nothing against Joe Konrath.

Those of you familiar with the ins and outs of publishing might be aware of Konrath as a mystery/suspense writer who’s become something of an evangelist for independent epublishing via markets like Amazon where an ‘unsupported’ author can play on a more level field with the Big Six of publishing. His arguments swivel on the dual pivots of sales numbers for his not-inconsiderable backlist and regular pillorying of the publishing industry for its poor choices.

(Which, to be fair, is pretty goddamn easy to manage when publishers make the decisions they do.)

Now, Joe makes a lot of good arguments. His analysis — both of his own numbers and the sales for other independent authors selling through Amazon — is usually pretty solid. And based on that analysis (and what I can only call common sense) it’s not hard for him to point out mistakes being made by big publishing simply by pointing out the stuff that individuals are doing that works, and the stuff that publishers are doing that yeilds less profit for their authors and more ill-will from consumers.

But with that said, Konrath’s points (or the tone they’re delivered in) do have a tendency to grate after awhile, and I say that as someone who thinks he’s ultimately correct; someone who’s predisposed toward ebooks and the technology behind it; someone who’s currently reading The Stand for the first time (finally), on his phone, unabridged.

I think he’s arguing the wrong point.

Yeah, he’s making good money selling his books at $2.99, at least in part because the lowered price means more people will buy his stuff; the simple fact is that a reader will buy five three-dollar ebooks in a clump, but balk at paying fifteen for one… and even if they ‘only’ buy one or two of those three-dollar books, that’s still more money spent than the fifteen-dollar non-sale.

But who cares? Those are just numbers, and (in my opinion) there are only a few numbers that big publishers care about:


“We sell hardbacks for 24.99, and readers have to pay that price for at least a year before they get a cheaper option. Our industry is built on that model, and we will cut a child before we accept anything that substantively affects that.”

You can find individuals in publishing who don’t feel or act that way, yes. But I tend to think actions speak a lot louder than words (especially when those words are muttered over drinks after work, where their bosses won’t hear). Look at the actual moves the big fish are making, and I don’t think you’ll see strong evidence against my assessment.

“Fine. You think he’s arguing the wrong point,” you say. “So what’s the right argument, smarty?”

In a word: History.

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Unless everyone in the publishing industry was born after 1990 (I’ve met quite a few of them — they weren’t), none of them actually need to crack a history book or dig into the wayback machine to recall a historical precedent for every single thing that’s happening in publishing today — they’ve lived through them.

I’m not the first person to point out the similarities between what’s going on today in publishing and what happened to the music, movie, and even television industries when digital formats became commonplace enough to penetrate the market. But I don’t think it would hurt anyone if I mention it again, because I will be fucking gobsmacked if anyone making decisions for the big publishers are paying attention.

And I’m not saying “there are a few indicators and patterns you can find in the painful (and painfully mismanaged) changes to, say, the music industry that might work as a kind of vague oracle for some of the stuff happening in publishing.”

I’m saying the changes are identical; each of those ‘predecessor’ industries provides flawless mimeographed blueprints in which we can see big companies working themselves into an obsolescence matched only by… mimeographs.

So here’s my call to everyone in publishing — not just publishers, but agents and writers and most of all readers:

Forget the numbers. Forget the price points and distribution methods and however things have been done in the past. Also, give up on arguing for change based on the numbers — no one other than the converted are listening.

Instead, look at your predecessors. Think back to the time when the music industry howled about cassette tapes and the fact it let kids tape music off the radio… and then howled about burnable CDs… and then unencrypted MP3s. Or think back to television broadcasters howling about VCR tapes… then DVRs.

Did it do any good? What happened?

Think back to the format wars in [pick your industry here]. 8-track. Cassette. Betamax. HDDVD. The fifty file formats mp3 annihilated. Did the money spent by companies trying to introduce their own, brand-specific, copy-protected, file format turn out to be money well-spent?

Think back to the birth of independent artists working without Big Industry Backing in those industries. Were people convinced that there was no way they could make a living — hell, even that there was no way they wouldn’t end up going bankrupt? Was industry backing touted as the only way to be seen as ‘legitimate’? Was electronic distribution seen as a fad? Was pirating of unprotected electronic copies seen as the Ultimate Poison Pill?

What happened in those industries? What continues to happen? Were the big boys ever right? Ever?

I’m going to make some predictions about publishing now, and since I think they’re pretty damned obvious, I will present them as absolutes. Some of them are negative, and some of them are positive, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which. I’m basing every single one of these predictions not on publishing, but on the industries that have already gone through what publishing is facing today, while publishing was snickering into its sleeve and making jokes like “How many formats does PAPER have? Heh heh heh.”

  • Most publishers aren’t going to change much. Most — almost all — of their money will be spent on their superstars, and their midlist creators will be seen as (and treated like) dead weight, despite the fact that they make up 99% of authors and most of their revenue. The big names will increasingly become known as vapid pop-culture hit machines.
  • At least one — probably several — big publishers will try to introduce their own ebook reader or ebook format that only works and is only distributed for their products, despite the fact that popular formats exist and are already being whittled down to a few survivors. These specialized formats and branded readers will suck huge amounts of money that could have been spent partnering with existing solution providers and solving the problem with already-adopted tech.
  • A very few traditional publishers will figure out what’s going on and adapt to new models.
  • New publishers will spring up. Almost all of these publishers will be boutique-type studios (sorry, I mean publishers), founded by AUTHORS or AGENTS who figured out how to do everything that needed doing with the new technology, and who decided to turn around and provide those services to a select group of fellow artists they chose to work with… often while teaching them all the same stuff they’ve learned.
  • Artists will continue to produce their own stuff and distribute it through increasingly easier-to-use and easier-to-access avenues. Ninety percept of it will be crap (for each consumer’s own values of crap), but those with enough drive and (obviously) talent will reach their audience and grow a really devoted group of supporters. The writer-equivalents of Jonathan Coulton or Julia Nunes or Pomplamoose are out there.
  • Fans will continue to not give a damn whether someone is promoted by some big publisher or if they did all their own stuff on a Macbook in their basement, because readers don’t give a fuck about publishers and infer no added quality from a pub’s stamp on the spine — most of them don’t know who the ‘big six’ are anyway.
  • As electronic distribution (and web-based shopping) becomes more and more prevalent, and the percentage of electronic vs. analog versions of the same products continues to move toward electronic, brick-and-mortar stores will become progressively obsolete. Physical bookstores already account for less than a third of all book sales — in ten years Barnes and Noble will be the publishing equivalent of Sam Goody and Blockbuster.

Generally, all of this will be better for both the author and the reader.

For everyone else, it depends on how willing they are to see the clear and (as far as I can see) utterly unvarying patterns that came before, and how able they are to do something about it.

What I’m saying is this:

If you’re a reader looking at the options out there for ebooks, worried that the whole thing may be a flash in the pan, don’t — the growth of digital format text is inevitable. Unless you have a stunningly bad track record for selecting new technologies to back, it’s probably okay to jump in the pool now.

If you’re an author looking at the possibility of independently producing your stuff, don’t worry about Joe Konrath’s math. Look at one (or all) of these other industries that have been here already and see what kind of artists make independence work for them. Ask yourself if you can be that kind of artist. If you think the answer’s yes, then that should be answer enough.

9 Replies to “On Seeing the Inevitable”

  1. I don’t see the second point; I’m picking up big-six ebooks and seeing them in any format I want. I think that cat’s out of the bag, both because they didn’t jump on it early enough and because of the cost of getting ereader manufacturers to cope with their proprietary formats at this point. They would have if they could have gotten it together fast enough, though.

    Fourth point, I think new publishers will not be run by the writers/editors, although they may be fronted by them, but by people with an online marketing mindset…well, second generation of pubs, anyway. Some writers are going to find mad skillz as publishers, but most aren’t. We should talk Seth Godin into starting a publishing company. Dear god, it just occurred to me that I think you’d be good at it, too. Sorry if I just jinxed you. Agents? I don’t know. They tend to have a better base on the necessary skills than authors do, but I can’t imagine that many of them would find publishing as their passion. Online product–>best market niche, that seems to be the passion of marketers, not writers, for the most part.

    Last point, yeah. I don’t see much of a future for big-box bookstores. Too much strain on a fairly low profit margin. Small bookstores are more adaptable, and the more enduring ones that I see tend to involve either 1) the writer/audience experience (Tattered Cover and its Freaking Famous Signings) or 2) covering different niche markets (expertise in mystery-romances, SF, used cookbooks, books on tape, etc.).

    I think Starbucks should start selling books, actually, and start attracting reader groups; they probably won’t until after they get out of B&Ns, though. Part of what bookstores do is provide a place to hang out and have free (or coffee-sponsored) meetings – just like coffeeshops. If SBs does book clubs on a regular basis, they’ll knock a leg out from the big bookstores. Except that SBs I’ve seen tend to be too small for a group meeting (on purpose).

    I think small bookstores will keep going, though, you’re always going to get someone who wants personal service. Like a tailor in a world of Wal-mart T-shirts.

  2. Your point about small bookstores is right, I think, and remains consistent with what we can see from other industries, like niche music stores and the like.

    I’ll have to wait and see on point 4: I’m basing that entirely on the situations in music and movies and such where actors/musicians started their own studios for their own work, then expanded to help other artists produce stuff. Paisley Park, Madonna’s thing. The list goes on for awhile.

    I can’t talk about Point 2. Yet.

  3. Well, I can see some authors doing that, but it’s a huge time investment, and most creators (no matter how good they are at it) are going to long to get back into the creative side of it. See Garbage, although that doesn’t go so much for publishing as producing. I doubt that Madonna is running the whole thing so much as fronting it and providing direction.

    Nevertheless, point taken :)

    1. I could actually see that being more common for ’boutique’ agencies that branch out.

      Expand “agent” to become “agent for the author’s success”, and you might easily get a knowledgeable, smaller agency that provided ebook publishing help as one of a menu of possible options for a new author.

      “We can shop you to publishers, but this new book of yours may struggle to find an audience in a traditional market, so let’s talk about what we can do to reach the right readers with this in an ebook and POD format…”

      Either way, they’re using their knowledge of the industry to help the author, and take (appropriately) 15% as their due.
      This is just mean thinking out loud — I absolutely see this as something that could and probably will happen. By the same token, I see other shouting that it’d be some kind of conflict of interest (how, if the percentage is the same?), or that the agent is being misleading or unscrupulous, which of course may or may not be true, depending on the agent in question.

      And again, I could rewrite that whole thing using music industry nouns and verbs, and it still makes sense.

  4. That would be a good way to go. I have a much easier time seeing a large number of agents having that skillset, and it would be very valuable.

    Would I do it?

    I probably would. I’d have to beat my head against the wall and get the basics down by putting books out on my own first, but I’d love to have someone better at herding cats than I am dealing with finding artists and editors, at a minimum.

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