Publishers, bookstores and self-published writers in the 20-teens

Publisher’s Weekly had already pretty much decided 2014 was going to be the year that self-publishing was going to mature, and to a large extent, it did.

Self-published books regularly crack the top ten sellers in e-books, and are beginning to poke at the best seller lists in the paper categories, at least, when they are recognized. Many of the more traditional press functions try to dress it up by calling it “indie.” Self-publishing has lost a lot of the stigma of the old “vanity press,” where people paid hundreds of dollars to print 500 copies of a book that ended up in someone’s attic and no one in the family ever read.fivestar

Publishers are finally wising up to the fact that self-publishing is a fertile ground for finding already proven authors, giving them hefty advances, and moving them into the more traditional publishing world. Which, by the way, has yet to die as predicted over the past decade.

“Traditional” press, however, is not what it it used to be, although it can be deceptive on the face of it. While it looks like many of the old imprints are out there, they are collapsed into six big publishers now. Only two are owned out of the U.S., Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins. Random House is owned by Bertelsmann, and Macmillan by Holtzbrinck, both out of Germany. Bertelsmann publishes under Dell, Doubleday, Knopf and many more, and Holtzbrinck’s imprints include such names as St. Martin’s Press, and Faber & Faber as well as many others. Hachette acquired Time Warner Book Group, and is owned by Lagardere Publishing, the French media giant. The Penguin Group is a division of Pearson PLC, the British corporation, and owns the Viking imprint.

Publishers certainly don’t want to disappear, and they don’t want print books to disappear, but the interesting question is, why? Publisher profit margins are considerably higher on e-books; New Republic estimates e-book profits at 75% vs. 41% compared to hardback. The reason may well be why bookstores aren’t dead yet, either. After watching Borders and Waldenbooks‘ death throes in 2011, it’s pardonable to wonder whether bookstores and, thereby, paper books will, in fact, die.  However, it may well be that whole browsing experience that is so undefinable, and that consumers seem to want and need at different levels. But publishers appear to believe it’s necessary.

It’s hard to feel bad for the big-box bookstores, when they did so much damage to the little guys.  But according to the same article, the little guys are actually rebounding, as well.  There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky articles about what’s going to happen next.  I think the small stores will always have their market–much like the stores that specialize in vinyl records–for books that can’t be obtained easily in other ways, or for those who don’t want to wait for shipping, and for textbooks and others with imagery. Millennial students have already proved they prefer paper to electronic textbooks.

However, my personal opinion is that the big box bookstores are going to experience the same thing that Walmart, Target and some of the other big box general retail stores are experiencing. It’s time, if they haven’t already, they pay attention to reviews and promotions, and snag a piece of the e-book market. It’s been proved that customers using smartphones in stores spend 25 to 50 percent more than those who don’t. The last purchase of an appliance I made in a store was a Keurig clone, and I chose the one with the lowest price for a 4.5 or higher average review. That’s pretty much my baseline. I think that’s how people will be working with bookstores as well–they’ll be on their smartphones checking the reviews for the book they’re thinking of buying in the store. We no longer believe the reviews on the jacket. And we won’t buy something no one else likes anymore–we’re crowdsourcing our initial opinions.

And those opinions are something that publishers desperately need. Publishers have always drowned in the dreck–the over-the-transom flood of stuff they get from the wannabes, those who want to write, and are trying to write. And publishers have paid someone to wade through that tsunami of awful to find that one little pearl, the one writer who papered their attic walls with rejection slips, but ended up being J.K. Rowling and making billions for themselves and their publishing company.  Honestly, self-publishing is no different. There is an awful lot of dreck out there, it’s just a different transom.

However, here’s where the synergies can happen–if publishers and bookstores pay attention to reviews, and work on the promotable aspects, the public will wade through the dreck for them. Publishers can cherrypick the writers who are already getting the best reviews and put a publishing machine behind them. The bookstores, publishers and writers can ride that serialization wave the movies are so fond of these days and feed the continuing, if not growing demand for e-books the consumer hasn’t seen yet. The consumer gets to touch the paper books in that browsing mode in the store, and check their smartphone for the review.

Then, if the reader likes it, they’ve got a customer for the series of 17 books already written and the next ones to come. The store can sell the collaterals, the non-electronics, the books that don’t translate well to electronic form. Consumers still want books. They still want to browse.  They just don’t necessarily want to walk out with a bag full of books.

Now, for those of us who write. Should the self-published writer focus on traditional publishing as the light at the end of the tunnel? There are a number of opinions on that one out there, but I’d say, keep writing.

But then, you were going to anyway, weren’t you? 🙂

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