But will they learn?

This isn’t the post I was going to write this morning. I had it all planned out. Then I made the mistake of dropping by The Passive Voice and one of the stories there caught my eye. Okay, it did more than that. It had me beating my head against the wall. Not because of the content but because of how it the data it referenced will be interpreted by traditional publishing. In other words, like politicians, they will twist and turn the data until it meets their preconcieved notions and writers and readers will be the losers.

For years, those of us here at MGC have written about the inequities in the royalty system traditional publishing employs, especially when it comes to e-books. There is no reason the percentage earned by authors shouldn’t be higher–much higher–than trad pubilshers are willing to give. Just as there is no reason, other than to choke the market, for e-books to cost as much as they do. Most folks will pay $4.99 for an e-book without batting an eye. There are authors they will pay $9.99 for a new release. But above that, most readers will wait for the book to go on sale.

The truth of the matter is, traditional publishing has never really accepted e-books as a viable part of the market. They don’t want to change the operating methods they’ve employed for decades. Hell, they’d probably be happy if they could turn the clock back and the only books published were hard cover.

And that brings me to today. The article I saw over at TPV pointed to this report story about Hachette’s latest sales numbers. Oh, the publisher is just ecstatic about its digital sales. In this time of Covid-19, e-book sales were up 31% and audiobooks were up 17%. They loves them some digital books right now.

But. . . .

You knew there had to be a “but”, they don’t see the forest for the trees. While they admit the sales from their print divisions were down due to bookstore closures thanks to Covid-19, they aren’t looking at what happens when things open back up. How many of those bookstores will actually open their doors again? How many readers will go back, especially after realizing you can find what you want easier and often cheaper online?

And how many folks who didn’t read e-books before this so-called crisis now prefer e–books over print?

So, instead of lowering e-book prices to a price point that will invite even more folks to buy the product, Hachette will, in all likelihood, continue on its current course. Hell, knowing the mentality of trad pub, they may even raise the prices. After all, people are buying them so they must be priced too low.

They won’t look at the fact that people could have been buying print versions of their books via online stores or taking advantage of the order online and pick up at the stores that many booksellers were offering. Instead, people took advantage of the ease of simply ordering an ebook and having it delivered instantly to their e-reader.

What is it about trad publishing, especially the Big 5, that precludes them from embracing this no not-so-new advance in the means of delivering a product?

As other publishers start releasing their numbers for the quarter, it will be interesting to see if they follow the same trend. It will also be intersting to see how they spin it.

I don’t know about you, but there are very few traditionally published authors I buy any more. Of those, only one or two are hard copy purchases and that mainly because I have all their other books (or books in a given series) in hard cover. Most of my book purchases come from small presses or indie authors. Probably 99% of my annual book purchases are either e-books or audiobooks. I rarely pay more than $4.99 for a book any longer.

Why?

The answer isn’t as simple as I initially thought. Part of it is because indie authors and small presses are publishing books I want to read. There might be a message in the story but it is woven in deftly enough that it is subtle and not hitting me over the head like a sermon. Part of it is cost. At $4.99 a book, I can buy four or more e-books for the price of a hard cover or two for the price of a paperback.

Then there is the fact that traditional publishers have basically slit their own throats when it comes to my money. Too many of the authors I enjoy have been cut loose by publishers. Either the author wasn’t a big enough “name”, even though they always earned out and the publisher could count on at least a certain number of books being sold with little to no promotion. Or the author was “inconvenient” because of their political beliefs of the fact the woke crowd decided to go after them for not being enlightened. Then there are the authors who woke up and realized they could make as much–or more–if they went indie. After all, they were the ones promoting their work–not the publisher. They were having to make sure the work was well edited before sending it to the publisher because what passes for editing on most books these day is laughable. So why give up the majority of monies earned to a company that no longer has your back?

As a result, I can count on one hand the number of traditionally published authors I buy either through pre-orders or on release day. I have many more indie and small press authors I do the same for. My book buying budget isn’t any less than it use to be, but my dollar stretches further because I rarely pay the inflated prices demanded by traditional publishing.

Here’s hoping Hachette actually learns something from these new sales numbers, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Featured Image by Nicole Lu from Pixabay

48 comments

  1. “What is it about trad publishing, especially the Big 5, that precludes them from embracing this no not-so-new advance in the means of delivering a product?”

    Because publishers knew, and know, good and well that the reason why they were able to act like ridiculously evil caricatures of capitalists was their control of access to the means of production and distribution of hardcopy books. Epublishing massively undercuts that, and as such severely decreases the rents they are able to obtain because of said control. Looked at from that perspective, small wonder that they react to epub the same way most European aristocrats did to the Industrial Revolution.

  2. One wonders, if the big European conglomerates hadn’t bought two of the Big 5, if the slow-rolling collapse of New York City’s economy might have kicked the publishers out of their mental bunker. They’d be forced to look outside their usual habitat, which might lead to slowly admitting that e-books are not going away any time soon, and that demand patterns have shifted.

    That typed, I recall reading an agent and an editor last year, both writing to Indie authors, insisting that prices had to come up because as a group, indies were forcing book prices too low and preventing us (as a group) from making a living as writers.

    1. and of course, indie authors who are reasonably successful look at what they might possibly make per book from tradpub, and tell them ‘I don’t think you’re diagnosing the problem properly’

    2. They meant “us as agents”.

      And they can’t do math. Assuming price has no affect on sales, then moving the same number of books at $20 with 10% royalty versus $5 with a 70% royalty, the later brings in 75% more to the writer.

      And then when we tackle that same numbers assumption the math gets much, much worse.

  3. Methinks the only bookstores that will reopen, come the jubilee, are those that already were making most of their sales online, and those few who already wholly own their storefronts, so their fixed costs are low. (Tho I don’t know why anyone would evict a good tenant right now, even for nonpayment of rent… where do you plan to find another paying tenant?)

    Myself, I haven’t bought a dead-tree book in a newbook bookstore in … decades? (prices too high, selection too meh) and not in a usedbook store since 2013 (cuz that’s when I last regularly passed by one). But I have a growing TBR stack from eBay and AbeBooks, most of ’em bought for $5 or less shipped.

    1. I think I have to travel nearly 60 miles or so to find the nearest new book bookstore. And, it’s a B&N most likely . . . I know GB has one to the south of Lambeau. I think there are others there, but small, or religious only.

      1. There’s a B & N in Medford, OR, and I’ve been in the vicinity about 20 times in the past few years, but never had the urge to find it and check it out. When it’s a hotel stay, I make sure I have my e-reader.

        Until the late 1990s, they got the bulk of my book-buying budget. Haven’t been in one for over 15 years. We’ve picked up a few hard backs, mostly from Amazon, though the Kroger affiliate’s book section has yielded a couple of good picks.

        The only new-bookstore in our small city is a religious one, and they do a steady business in various bibles and other religious items. OTOH, they moved from a storefront on the main road in town to one (presumably cheaper) on a less-busy street.

        Over all categories (religious, reference, fiction and non-fiction), we’ve picked up maybe 20 dead tree books over a 15ish year period. In the past 6 years, it’s well over a hundred ebooks, almost all fiction.

        1. it’s about 8 years, maybe more, since I’ve been in a B&N. Was mostly looking for a person, and thought to look for something or other while there. Nephew’s GF and the item(s) were not there. Thought the place was rotten (more than previous iterations I visited) and never bothered to go back in one.

        2. I’ve picked up used books on Amazon and from Half Price Books, but mostly ebooks. I get a lot of reccomends for interesting books through the Ace of Spades Sunday Morning book thread. Loads of fun there, and the contributors there like indy books, and odd-ball stuff usually ignored by the Literary Industrial Establishment.

  4. I think part of it, at least, is the mindset of “this is how we’ve always done things! It worked before, therefore it will keep working forever!”

    Had a former boss like that. He’d started the business, quite literally, in his garage. 20-odd years later, he was adamant that we perform certain business practices the same ways that he’d done them when it was just him and his buddy working out of his garage. Problem was that while those practices worked just fine when it was two guys running a startup in a garage, when an established business with a nationwide (and burgeoning international) presence very obviously did things that way, potential clients would shy away from doing business with them because it made the company look like Keystone Kops Amateur Hour. Everyone who worked there knew it, and everyone could see the company starting to circle the drain, but because Big Boss owned the company, signed the paychecks, and had the power to hire and fire, everyone who spoke out against The Way Things Are Done too forcefully or tried to change things found themselves terminated in very short order.

    Wouldn’t surprise me at all if the bosses at The Big 5 all have similar mindsets.

  5. “What is it about trad publishing, especially the Big 5, that precludes them from embracing this no not-so-new advance in the means of delivering a product?”

    When you see something like that, it means they don’t make their money selling -books- anymore.

    Example, General Motors is not a car company. It is a bank. They make their money on the loans, not the cars. This is why so many General Motors cars are foreign designed, foreign built crap boxes full of Chinesium parts. (It is also why I drive a Ford.)

    So when I see multi-national mega-publisher Hachette doing everything they can to -reduce- the movement of books outside the traditional channels even during a plague year, it says to me that they don’t care if the books sell. Not really.

    Also, when I see retail chain after retail chain crashing and burning in Europe and North America, and Hachette is still going along as if nothing is happening, that tells me they don’t care about their retail channel. It is simply not important to their bottom line.

    And of course given the type of thing one finds in new releases from the bigs, nobody cares a damn about the customer or what they want to read. If TOR cared about readers, even a tiny bit, would the SF awards season look the way it does every year? I strongly doubt it.

    As far as authors go, my experience of TradPub is they don’t answer their email. At all. Ever. They are not even a tiny little bit interested in new authors or new books to sell.

    Therefore I conclude they’re not making their money selling books. Probably making it in real estate, that’s where everybody else is making it.

      1. They could be almost exclusively a front for money laundering of political donations, but the numbers don’t seem to add up enough. Maybe they have drug money or gambling money in there, too.

        Or maybe book production and shipping costs have gone down really low, because they’re printing the books in concentration camps in China, or they’re using the crates to ship drugs. Or both!

        (I mean, yes, this sounds all conspiracy theory, but it’s obvious that the Big 5 publishers aren’t making money from books.)

        1. I think it may be simpler than that. They’re all owned by Very Big Corporations. Very Big Corporations look for assets to depreciate. Other than IPs, what assets last for 70 years plus the life of the author? Slap it on a ledger and you’ve got a tax write off for a century that adds value to the company without any work at all. If they were smart they’d be leveraging those assets to make even MORE money for the company.

          I think it’s just Tricks with Accounting to Make The Numbers Look Good. Or, also a possibility, I’ve been too deep in trying to figure out business accounting for getting my own stuff out there and am misunderstanding things. So… salt. *Leaves the whole bucket here*

    1. Speaking of Awards Season… i think i’m not going to vote for the Dragons this year, i don’t recognize most of the stuff in most categories.

      1. I’m going to do a Wednesday Miscellaney next week with my reccys.

        BTW, your reaction is on all of us Campaigners. Minna Sundberg didn’t have GN out this year so I was not “watching the skies” for the nomination period. Mea Culpa.

        If we don’t blog and share during that time, the ballot choices are on us. Also known as “Why lefties are able to turn all our beloved things into zombie skin suits.” They’re fighting a holy war. We’re pretending we can just love our lives like normal, decent people.

        At the very least vote for someone who isn’t Tor or part of the Corporate Empire (Star Wars, etc) like Bella Forest.

        Excelsior!

      2. Yeah, it looks like mostly Puppy Kickers. I have not read a single thing nominated this year. Where’s Noah Ward when you need him, eh?
        In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’m assuming enemy action there. Amazing how fast Lefties can subvert something they find threatening.

        Dragon Con owners probably want to take a hard look at that. If you go Woke(tm) you’ll go broke.

        1. But, but, but that’s means you saying the leftists would do the evil no good thing of having slates which they assured me only evil puppies do.

          1. That’s what I loved the most about the whole Sad Puppies thing, you know? The Lefties all swearing up and down, back and forth that they would NEVER EVER EVER countenance strategic voting, or voting a slate.

            Anybody take a look at this year’s nominations/winners of the whole awards season? Talk about voting for stuff you haven’t read…

      3. Likewise. Heck, I have not seen most of them on the shelves at B&N, which is saying a lot. We [general readership] need to do a better job next year, as far as nominations.

  6. Here’s hoping Hachette actually learns something from these new sales numbers, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

    Good. Blue is a lovely color, but situationally counter-indicated.

  7. — So, instead of lowering e-book prices to a price point that will invite even more folks to buy the product, Hachette will, in all likelihood, continue on its current course. Hell, knowing the mentality of trad pub, they may even raise the prices. After all, people are buying them so they must be priced too low. —

    This prodded the economics lobe of my brain into operation.

    One reason it’s “traditional” to raise the price of a good that’s experienced an upsurge in sales is to probe for the “marginal revenue equals marginal cost” market-clearance point. The idea is that the vendor would like to sell all of the good he has on hand (restocking possibilities to the side for the moment) as quickly as possible while getting the maximum possible return. It’s a fundamental aspect of microeconomics.

    But no one can sell all of a “virtual good” like an eBook. They can be reproduced ad infinitum. So the microeconomic dynamics pertinent to physical goods fail to apply. What might take their place?

    It’s not clear. There are several factors that might participate in the decision to price a virtual good:
    — The amount and quality of the author’s previous work is significant, as is the size of his existing fan base.
    — Price is often taken to signal quality and / or prestige.
    — It’s very difficult to tell when the market for a virtual good has saturated.
    — In the case of an eBook, it’s very hard to enumerate or categorize its direct competition: i.e., the other eBooks that a consumer might buy “in preference,” should the price of this one be set too high. This would apply to other art forms, as well.

    I’m sure there are other considerations that matter, as well. So theories about the “right” or “best” price for an eBook will probably wrestle one another till the Second Coming of Maxwell Perkins.

    1. “It’s very difficult to tell when the market for a virtual good has saturated.”

      Not difficult at all. Just as with a tangible good, sales crash at market saturation.

      1. Come on. If someone on a bus were to ask you at which stop to get off for his destination, would you tell him, “Just watch where I get off, and get off two stops before that” — ? There is no way to know when a market for a good that’s infinitely reproducible at zero marginal cost, whose space of potential consumers cannot be bounded in space or time, has saturated! To imagine that you could know that that point is near and drop your price beforehand? That’s fortune telling. You can make a nice buck at it if you can do it consistently.

    2. In theory, since there is essential no marginal cost on the virtual good you will test to the point that maximizes revenue to maximize return on the fixed cost.

      This may or may not be the point that maximizes sales, but should be pretty close to it and the cost of finding the difference might swamp the gain in finding it. Especially if you’re looking for a cross company standard.

  8. I gave all my hardback fiction to Goodwill last week – along with the two six-foot tall bookshelves holding them. If I move, the paperbacks will follow. For now, they make a nice wall covering. I haven’t taken one off the shelf in ages. Last time was probably to find a quote from something for this blog.

    1. Eh, there’s something about sitting in tatty old armchair in which I first read the Lord of the Rings, with a book in my hand and a cuppa on the table beside me, looking ’round at all my old friends on the bookshelves lining the walls. And since that tsundere brat corona-chan struck, I’ve been re-reading a lot. And the Daughter Product has been exploring the shelves and digging into the collection…

      Nah… I may be Bucklander, but you’re too new-fangled for me. If I want to read it more than once, I want a real book. Bree tastes for Bree-folk!

      1. Also if you want to read it after the apocalypse/totalitarian shutdown/IP holder goes out of business, you’re gonna want hardcopy.

  9. The % of established companies that have survived (long-term) a major technology transition in their industry is limited, and the % that have survived *and thrived* is even more limited. For one example out of many, the steam-locomotive manufacturers like Baldwin and Lima were not the companies that made it in the diesel era.

    Is there any reason why traditional publishers should be different?

  10. As far as I can tell, lockdown politics can be explained by the theory that everyone is nuts.

    Yes, prior example does suggest to us that these people are a bit prone to error.

    I’m not sure that trying to understand their long term behavior is productive right now. That opinion of productive has enough subjective elements that I probably can’t form a conclusion for anyone else.

  11. I have heard discussions online about people who want to ensure they get stuff in paper so there is no Orwellian removal of the book from their control, so there is that.

  12. I rarely pay more than $4.99 for a book any longer.
    That’s around my price point for most books. I buy too many to spend more than that. I pick up a lot of e-books during promotions.

    because what passes for editing on most books these day is laughable
    Sadly, that’s true of some indies, as well. I just finished one that was riddled with word substitutions, double words, a couple of sentences that started and never finished, and other bits. It would go for a chapter mostly fine, then a chapter where I couldn’t go a page without at least two readability errors.

    1. True, but I don’t get gaslit by indie authors that I need to pay $14.99 for an ebook in part because of the cost of editing it.

  13. Sorry, this is slightly off topic and may be a unicorn-appearance situation. Last month I noticed a sale of one of my wife’s books on Amazon, and the royalty was too low. I contacted Amazon about the discrepancy and, after a lot of correspondence, was told that the purchaser lived in Canada but bought the e-book on amazon.com rather than amazon.ca, so they charged him the Canadian price (at the current exchange rate) and calculated the royalty against that but reported it as an amazon.com sale. My last missive informed them that this practice invalidates their whole accounting reporting. How am I to account for such things? Curious if this is a one-off instance or if anyone else has seen such a situation. I don’t aggressively change the prices on my wife’s books in non-US markets to match the current exchange rate, but her foreign sales have been minimal, so it doesn’t seem worth the time at the moment.

    Since MGC is a gathering of indies, I figured I’d ask here whether anyone else had seen this situation.

  14. Hardcopy books are all very well, but there are two problems with them: moving and shelf space. E-books have neither of those problems. Publishers had better learn to deal with it.

  15. people are buying them so they must be priced too low.

    By that logic, they are priced properly when no one buys.

    And I can see trad publishing falling into that.

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