Putting things into perspective
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last, oh, ten years, there’s a war going on in publishing. No, not the war over the Hugos. That is, at best, nothing more than the publishing world’s version of a military campaign. Yes, it is part of the overall war in publishing but it is only one part. The publishing world is changing, like it or not, and it is impacting not just publishers and their employees but also agents and authors. There have already been casualties and there will be more. The only group that will win in all this are is the readers. Why? Because there is a greater selection of reading material out there than ever before. Sure, some is dreck and should never have found its way out of the author’s computer. But there is also a plethora of new material out there that never would have gotten past the gatekeepers and yet is not only well-written but in high demand.
I’m not going to spend a great deal of time explaining why publishing has come to the state it now finds itself in. There are any number of posts about that, not only here on MGC but elsewhere. However, what we are continuing to see is that this war is playing out in ways that continue to hurt the industry and the authors who are at the heart of it. Business practices that should have been amended and adapted years ago. Attitudes by editors, agents and authors that have alienated one time friends and has now extended to the fan base.
The attitude, or at least one of them, that continues to act contrary to current demands is that there needs to be a gatekeeper to decide what books should or should not be released into the wild for people to read. The critics of indie published books continue to throw out the premise that there are just too many badly written books being written and self-published. They tell us Amazon or B&N or whichever platform an indie publishes on should have some sort of minimum bar that must be reached before these dastardly upstarts are allowed to pollute the literary pool.
Now, the problem with this stance is multi-fold. First, the gatekeepers used to be the publishers. Then, as profits started decreasing and publishers started cutting costs, they turned much of that role over to agents. Okay, that might be well and good but there is one problem., no matter who is the gatekeeper there is more demand for books than there are traditional publishing slots per month. Add into that the fact that what people want to read isn’t necessarily what the publishers are putting out there and, well, you have the beginnings of the perfect storm for the publishing industry.
But it goes further than that. The Big Five in publishing have been involved in a long running battle with Amazon for years. This battle mainly focuses on the e-book market and it is perhaps the best example of just how out of touch with the buying public too many traditional publishers happen to be.
The first indication of this is this article from Digital Book World. Overall sales dropped more than 5% January through May. Add to that the information from this article in the Wall Street Journal and it is easy to see that publishers are not doing themselves and their stockholders any good by continuing to try to hold onto the old business model. A little modern background. In the latest round of contract negotiations between Amazon and major publishers, those publishers got what they wanted. They have the right under the contract to set the price of their e-books on Amazon. No more discounts that the publishers hated. All should be good, right?
According to the WSJ, “Three big publishers that signed new pacts with Amazon— Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers and CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster—reported declining e-book revenue in their latest reporting periods.”
Hmm. They get to set the price. They raised the price. E-book revenue down. Who would have predicted that?
Me and a bunch of others, that who.
Looking deeper into the article, you get this nugget of information: “A recent snapshot of e-book prices found that titles in the Kindle bookstore from the five biggest publishers cost, on average, $10.81, while all other 2015 e-books on the site had an average price of $4.95.”
Now, the publishers will and do blame this on Amazon. No surprise there. After all, Amazon is the source of all evil according to some in the industry. But the truth is, yes, Amazon did let us get used to the $9.99 price point for traditionally published e-books. However, it is more than that. Readers are not nearly as dumb as some publishers seem to think. We know that there isn’t nearly as much money needed to produce an e-book as there is a print book. For one, unlike what a certain publisher said years ago, you don’t have to re-edit a book for digital release. Then there is the whole fact it is nothing but data as compared to a physical entity. That means you don’t have to buy the raw materials, pay to have them put together, shipped, stored, etc. All you need is someone to convert to the proper format and a server to store it all on — oh, and internet access. Big difference in the financial end. So most readers do not and will not pay more for an e-book than they will for a paperback.
Now, here is where the industry and its double-talk about e-books and e-book pricing comes back to bite it in the rear. As the WSJ article notes, there is debate about whether the decline in sales/profits for the traditional publishers is because of the increase in e-book prices under the new contracts or because of a crop of lackluster titles. Hmmm. Is that an admission that the gatekeepers aren’t doing their jobs? Or maybe it’s an admission that the gatekeepers did but that the editors have lost touch with what readers really want to read. No matter which it is, it is clear that traditional publishing, at least among the Big Five, is out of date with what the buying public wants.
In case you need another example of how the industry is losing touch with the buying public — and this is also an indication that the same thing is happening in the entertainment industry — is the new “official” Star Wars book. I’m not going to rehash the disbelief, angst and anger Star Wars fans had when, after buying up the Star Wars franchise, Disney tossed out the Expanded Universe. Fortunately, those books — especially the ones by Timothy Zahn — are still available for purchase. But years of plots and characters are gone from the official storyline.
This month, as an intro to the new “official” timeline and to promote the upcoming new movie, Aftermath: Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been released. Written by Chuck Wendig and published by Random House, it is priced at a whopping $13.99 for the e-book. 400 pages for basically $14.00. Hmm. No.
But it isn’t even the price that draws the eye of the potential buyer. It is the review rating for the book. As of right now, there are 287 reviews on Amazon for a cumulative rating of 2.5 stars. Yep, you read that right. I couldn’t believe it either when I first saw it. So, I did what any informed reader would do. I looked at the free preview and couldn’t believe it. My eyes glazed by the end of the first page. I honestly thought I was reading a comic book without the drawings. I kept expecting the next line to have a “ZAM!” or “BAM!”
It wasn’t the present tense of the writing. It was the quality of the writing. So I went and checked to see if this was recommended for young children (hard to believe at the length but . . . ) and no.
So, I turned to the reviews and picked a couple at random. The very first one, one of those voted most helpful, begins with this quote, “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”
After I quit laughing, I started again, this time with the old jingle “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” sounding in my brain.
And this is what Random House and Disney have chosen to introduce their new Star Wars Universe.
In trying to make the universe its own, Disney — and by contract, Random House and Wendig — have alienated a huge number of fans, fans who would have been introducing their children and grandchildren to the new movies and books. Poor decisions, bean counters, poor decisions.
I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear. The Big Five are still trying to cling to old ways while ignoring what their customers, the readers, want and are willing to pay. If they don’t start listening to the public and start paying attention to more than just the oh-so-inaccurate BookScan numbers, things will only continue getting worse for them. But that doesn’t mean books, printed or digital, will disappear. The small press and indie revolution has shown that books are here to stay and I and thrilled. I’m even more thrilled to know that I can find books that I want to read now and not have to wait and wait and wait.
Readers win. Big Five loses.
Edited to add: Don’t forget that you can list your suggestions for the 2016 Hugos here. Simply choose which category you want to make a suggestion in, then note the title, author, and a short description of why you think it should be considered.