The sky’s not falling – Part II

Last week, I told everyone not to worry. The publishing sky isn’t falling, despite the gnashing of teeth and beating of chests by some in publishing after figures showed e-books sales outpacing hardcover sales. I was subsequently taken to task in the comments section of the post by Andi Sporkin (Association of American Publishers) for a number of things. I don’t normally spend an entire post responding to a comment but, after discussing this with several of my fellow mad geniuses, I decided that is exactly what I’m going to do.

First, Ms. Sporkin noted that I was not quoting directly from the AAP report on the first quarter sales by their members. That’s true. I tried. I went to their site and looked for the report. Guess what, I couldn’t find it. When I went back this morning to see if I’d simply overlooked it, I still couldn’t find it. The only report listed on their home page is for overseas sales by U. S. publishers. I looked through their site and still didn’t find it. I’m not saying it’s not there. It may be. But it isn’t easily available and, quite possibly, is only available if you are a member of AAP or pay for the report. Whatever the case, that leaves me to rely upon information presented by other sites, respected sites, such as GalleyCat for the report.

So, yes, I did rely upon information from other sources. However, I did attempt to verify the information. Perhaps if AAP made the information easier to find. . .

As for the link provided, it was changed to link directly to AAP’s home page. Ms. Sporkin was right. I did link to the worldwide report. She is also right in that it does show growth for most areas of sales overseas by U. S. publishers. However, if you read the report, it shows – again – how e-book sales growth is outpacing that of the other areas. So I stand by my statements in the post in question, and in others, that e-books are more than a flash in the pan and deserve greater attention from legacy publishers.

If that was all I had to say regarding Ms. Sporkin’s response to my post, I would have done so in the comments section. However, that was just the beginning. Now we get to the heart of matter.

Ms. Sporkin: While the ebook phenomenon is certainly true, there remain seasonal buying habits in books and the Q1 figures fully reflect that. We always see strength in Q1 figures for e-formats because of e-reader sales at the holidays and people buying books (mainly in January and February). We see hardcovers and paperbacks dominate in other quarters. That will certainly continue to happen.

This is an interesting opinion. I’ll even admit she has figures based on membership sales to support it. I’m no statistician, however, I’d bet most would say you have to take into account the change in technology available, the change in age and demographics of your buying public and the change in availability of options before you come to conclusions such as she’s made. You also have to look at where your figures are coming from.

You can see a list of AAP members here. If you look at it, you will see AAP represents both major and lesser-known publishers. So, how do they get their figures? Some will be getting them through Bookscan, and we know those figures aren’t accurate. We don’t know how the others are reporting their sales.

Also, because AAP represents publishers, and this is a voluntary group, their figures don’t include sales from non-members or from self-published, or “indie” authors. That might not mean much in the grand scheme of hard copy reporting. But in the reporting of e-books sales, it means a great deal. Of course, that is one of the many reasons so many in publishing would like to see Amazon disappear. It opened the e-market to small presses and indie authors in a way it had never been opened before.

You also have to look at how people are going to want to read books in the years to come.  What I’m seeing is that the aging reader is finding that it is easier to read on a Kindle or Nook – or their tablet – than it is to read a print book. Why? There are a number of reasons. One is that the standard e-book reader is lighter than a book, even a paperback. That makes it easier to hold. Another reason is that the contrast on an e-ink display is easier on eyes than light bouncing off a print page. Then there is the fact you can adjust the size of print on an e-book reader. As a personal note, I can attest to the fact that my mother’s eye specialist has recommended she read on her Kindle whenever possible to avoid eye strain.

But there are the kids and young adults who are now becoming the book-buying public. These are readers who have grown up with computers and cell phones. They are tech savvy and more comfortable with a tablet or e-book reader than with a printed book. This is the main buying public of the future. Do you really think they will give up what they are comfortable with to maintain the buying trends of the past? I don’t.

There is also the financial aspect to look at. For a minimal investment, you can buy a reliable e-book reader. In fact, you can buy one for less that the price of three or four hardcover books. Once you have that e-book reader, you have thousands of free books available through any number of different sources. These can be the classics you grew up with a loved. They can be newer books, offered as free promotions by their authors or publishers. You can carry hundreds of books around with you in a device that weighs less than a pound. Add to that the fact that hardcovers now cost $20 or more (unless you order from Amazon or have a discount at Barnes & Noble, etc) and buying two e-books at $9.99 or more for less makes financial sense. This, too, will continue to impact sales trends over the coming years.

Ms. Sporkin: Finally, two assumptions you make are simply baffling. First, publishers are among the strongest advocates of booksellers, particularly independents, since they are our partners in encouraging the joy of reading and literacy. Our work with them, both public (such as bringing World Book Night to the US) and private, supports that statement. And there are numerous reports and analyses out there, including from AAP, that independent booksellers weathered the recession and digital transition with renewed strength due to expansion into e-commerce themselves as well as other innovative branding and marketing.

I have two issues with this statement. First, I never said publishers didn’t support booksellers. What I said is that legacy publishers are more worried about making sure the big box booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million stay in business. Sure, I’ll admit publishers, legacy or not, have a stake in seeing the local independent bookstores make it, but I don’t buy that they are “among the strongest advocates of booksellers, particularly independents”. Why? Because the indies aren’t where they see the major numbers of sales being made. If I’m wrong, prove it. Lip service by these legacy publishers isn’t enough, nor is the occasional donation for a charitable event.

My main issue with the above is with Ms. Sporkin’s last sentence. If she’d bothered to read my post, or any of my earlier ones about locally owned bookstores, she’d see that I am a big advocate of them. She’d see that I, as well as others on this blog, have applauded these stores for the way they have tackled the market, doing what they could to think outside the box and to innovate. But I still say that there is more they can, and should do.

Ms. Sporkin: Also, “legacy publishers,” as you call them, are leading the digital transition: they are the companies creating new formats and new ways to offer content, generating distinct social media marketing and reader outreach, developing new titles and cultivating new authors to serve digital readers. These publishers are creating staff jobs for people with digital skills – jobs that didn’t exist only a few years ago – and directly start-ups and other small businesses and individuals who work in digital formats. There is not one AAP member publisher that is not producing books in every print and digital format. It is unclear why you would assume that publishers would not be embracing new ways to reach even more audiences and keep the industry healthy.

Oh my, where to begin. Let’s break it down statement by statement.

“[L]egacy publishers,” as you call them, are leading the digital transition: they are the companies creating new formats and new ways to offer content, generating distinct social media marketing and reader outreach, developing new titles and cultivating new authors to serve digital readers.

Here I strongly disagree. If they were on the leading edge of the digital transition, they would have jumped onboard ten years ago when e-books first hit the market. Instead, they laughed at publishers like Jim Baen who not only was an early adopter of e-books but one of their strongest proponents. Under him, and now under Toni Weiskopff, Baen has long been known for offering their books in multiple formats that are DRM-free. Both of which had Mr. Baen’s contemporaries in the publishing world telling him he was insane, and worse.

Also, if they were leading the digital transition, they would have been developing hardware to make e-books easily read. We’d be reading books on their platforms and not on the Kindle or the Nook. So, nope, don’t buy it.

As for creating new formats, well, that is also where they are late to the game. MOBI, the format Kindles use, has been around for years. EPUB, the format the Nook and other readers use, has been around almost as long and is based on an earlier Adobe format. What other “new” formats these publishers are creating waits to be seen. I’m not holding my breath.

New ways to offer content. Such as? All of this will be dependent on the available hardware platforms, something I don’t believe publishers are developing. So they can create all they want. Unless a the person buying the e-book has a tablet or wants to read on their computer/laptop, this new content may not be available on their e-book reader.

Generating distinct social media marketing and reader outreach? That means they are tweeting and posting on Facebook, etc. They might even have an online community. Guess what. That’s not new. Baen again led the way with Baen’s Bar. It’s been around for years and has been a way for authors and their fans to connect.

The last statement about developing new titles and cultivating new authors just left me shaking my head. Isn’t that what publishers are supposed to do?

These publishers are creating staff jobs for people with digital skills – jobs that didn’t exist only a few years ago – and directly start-ups and other small businesses and individuals who work in digital formats.

I should hope so. But this doesn’t prove they are leading the e-book charge. This means they are playing catch up. If not, these jobs would have been created years ago. I work for a small e-publisher. I know what it takes to create an e-book. This comment doesn’t impress me. Not when you realize just how labor intensive creating an e-book is not, especially not if you are working with the right software. The only time it becomes labor intensive is when you have to check for OCR issues when you scan in a book because you don’t have a digital file. Considering the number of issues folks see with e-books that came from OCR files, I’m guessing at least some of these publishers Ms. Sporkin is championing don’t bother employing enough proofreaders to check those files.

It is unclear why you would assume that publishers would not be embracing new ways to reach even more audiences and keep the industry healthy.

Well, let’s see. Delaying getting into the e-book market. Continuing to add DRM to e-books, thereby limiting the number of devices, types of devices a legally purchased book can be read on by the purchaser. Treating readers, their customers, like criminals by adding DRM. Pricing e-books higher than paperback books. By doing their best to cripple Amazon. By trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes regarding the DoJ’s lawsuit. The DoJ has stated in the pleadings and proposed settlement that there is nothing inherently wrong with agency pricing. What is wrong in this case is the alleged collusion. But that’s not what we are being told by legacy publishing or by those echoing its position. By not changing its reporting of sales to authors so they aren’t getting shafted. (Sorry, but when a book is still on the shelves more than two years after it was published, that book is selling, no matter what the publisher says when it cancels the series.)

Shall I go on?

I have never said traditional publishing will die. Nor have I said that bookstores, especially independents, will disappear. What I said last week, and what I’ve said any number of other times, is that the landscape is changing and there will be some fatalities along the way. Some publishers will go out of business. We’ve already see how others are shrinking, discarding lines and imprints. That happens whenever there is a major change in technology that impacts buying trends. I’ve said the big box bookstores are going to have to re-examine their business models and find ways to think outside the box or they will go the way of Borders. I’ve predicted bookstores, especially indies, will thrive filling niche markets.

I’m a writer. I’m an editor for a small press. I’m a reader. The last thing I want to see is the death of an industry I’m so invested in. But I am tired of folks sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring what’s going on around them. As the song says, “The times, they are a-changin’.” Those who cling to old business models and old ways of thinking may not survive, at least not in the form they currently have. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But I stand by my statements that legacy publishers are anything but enthusiastic supporters of the e-book revolution.


  1. Thank you. And I agree with the “new features” problem for “traditional” presses. Zoom-able maps or having a quick-flip index are one thing. At the moment, however, a non-fiction book having moving maps, or a photo gallery in the text so you can tap a name and see pictures of that individual, location, or event, or sound (a recording of the author giving a talk, or music of the period) requires tablet computer power, not just an e-reader. So are publishers going to be willing to offer multiple e-book formats – plain vanilla, text plus some bonus graphics, and a bells-whistles-and-dancing-dog version? Thus far I’d guess no. (Which is odd, because back when printing was new, publishers did make such things, especially for religious texts.)

    1. Well, they probably will if they figure out a way to charge even more for the enhanced versions with all the bells and whistles than they do for the hardcover versions. Remember, they keep telling us that it costs as much to make an e-book as it does a printed book. Somehow, they want us to believe an e-book without printing costs, storage or transportation costs and that has already been edited, copy read, proofread, etc., is somehow as expensive for them as any other version. Yeah, I really believe they edit and proof the book twice, once in print and once in digital formats — not. So, i guess if they add bells and whistles then the digital format must cost more.

  2. Huh. I thought the publishers had supported the indie bookstores by giving the big chain stores lower prices. I’m so embarrassed! I obviously got that exactly backwards.

  3. Snort. Read the staff details at any large publisher. They have special people, at high level, for the Barny and Ig account. And for distributors… and um, someone in the mail room looks at independent inquiries… maybe. And see they get great cheaper deals, just the same as Barny and Ig. Not.

    As for ‘It is unclear why you would assume that publishers would not be embracing new ways to reach even more audiences and keep the industry healthy.’
    Gah. where to start. As you point out, the blunt evidence is that they’ve resisted and impeded every micron of the way, and have taken 10 years to learn anything from Baen. New ways? My butt. The first and most obvious new way would be to FIND OUT WHAT THE AUDIENCE IS YOU’RE MISSING. No one has done that yet. As for keeping the industry healthy – what it needs is transparent accounting and rapid settlement. Anyone done that… just Amazon.

    1. I was talking to a friend’s mother recently just after the DoJ lawsuit started. She was all up in arms about Amazon and predatory pricing on Hardbacks!

      You see she worked at a local independent bookstore (quite a nice one but a 30 min drive and horrid parking in that downtown) and she couldn’t see how Amazon was making any money selling HB’s at 45-50% off. They had recently had a giant author signing and ordered in 1K of the new title from Big Name Author (whose name I have forgotten but recognized at the time) and got an extra large discount of 45% compared to their normal discount after jumping through extra hoops.

      She flat out didn’t believe me when I told her Amazon normally gets over 50% off since they order in such large volume so really IS making money at 45-50% off. I found a NY Publishing insider blog that mentioned that fact and emailed it to her but haven’t heard back…

      1. It is basic economics. The more you can order, the more of a discount you can ask for and, usually, get. I think what gets me is that there are so many like your friend’s mother who assume that most of their loss in business is because of Amazon. It really isn’t. At least not from what I can tell. They are losing business to the big box stores and to stores like Walmart and Target where impulse buying is taking place. Also, stores like Target will give back a percentage of the sales price if you use their store credit card and you can buy other items you need around the house, sort of a one-stop-fits-all. In this day of not enough time to get everything done, that is attractive to folks.

        But what gets me is how so many of the indies are still willing to blame everything on Amazon and not mention the fact that those hardcovers can and often do sell for much the same price at the big box store if you have the big box store’s discount card. Oh well, shrug.

        1. Coming at it from the other end if the Big Publishers are so outraged at Amazon’s pricing and the way it effects small book stores (which they keep trumpeting in the press) why do they keep giving Amazon the best discounts?

          They could easily either just give small bookstores the same discounts or even just Stop Selling To Amazon. Funny how none of them are willing to do that though…

          1. Gee, isn’t it? But can you imagine how the big box stores would scream if all of a sudden they weren’t getting deeper discounts than the indies. Funny how the indies don’t seem to remember that it was the big box bookstores that initially rank so many out of business and how these are the same stores doing their best to hold onto market shares. This means they don’t want the indies making a retur.

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