Thursday, June 22, 2006

More on protectionism

After I posted my correspondence with Jerry Pournelle I got a couple of comments from one of my most faithful readers, Susan H. in Kentucky. Since she refuses to get a Blogger account so that she has a proper signature, I just know it's her. So, when you see "Anonymous" below, think "Susan":

Anonymous said...
I wish I could remember all the "jobs" I've had over the years. And here I am, pushing 50 and learning a new trade because computer publishing is on the wane. My market doesn't have the same ramifications of global exodus as many manufacturing industries, but technical publishing is definitely in trouble. (It will fix itself, but not in time for me.) Why protect those in global bubbles, but not me? Personally, I don't want the protection, but the question's valid.

Steve Erbach said...Susan (at least, I presume it's Susan),
When you say the technical publishing is in trouble, do you mean that fewer hardcopy books are being published, or that fewer copies of books are selling...? I subscribe to Safari Books Online and I find that it's very handy. The publishers, I'm sure, get some pittance every month for every book of theirs that winds up on subscribers' bookshelves. Looks to me like the Safari model might be a model for, say, new fiction or cookbooks, too. Yes, one has to have a computer to access the books, but as wireless becomes more prevalent and portable e-book readers get lighter and more convenient, there'll be fewer books in the brick-and-mortar bookstores.

I'm going to quote from a correspondent on Pournelle's site regarding the changes in publishing. He was reacting to my job exportation post:
In my view, book publishing has already changed. Conventional book publishing is a mass market phenomenon, which seeks to satisfy all initial demands by choking every channel of distribution. The result of this is overprinting of those few titles that do make it through the marketing department's gauntlet of what they think will sell. (Forget about literary merit. That has been delegated to the professional agents who must pass on all entries to this race and have exclusive rights of presentation. Since they can only make a living by presenting 'best sellers' the midlist has disappeared, as has the careful nurture of new talent for the long term. Maxwell Perkins is very dead at this point.) This crisis especially affects fiction, which is forced into defined genres that must meet these same expectations, and a marketplace where non-fiction is the preferred flavor. Since the incremental cost of printing another book shrinks as the the quantity goes up, the result is a glut of books.

Because of the doctrine in law called 'First Sale', no further author royalties will be paid, and because of the disintermediation provided by the Internet, a secondary market in used copies quickly springs up, driving the price on some as low as a penny when the new copies cost as much as thirty dollars. This puts authors in a nice little squeeze. Selling the next book depends very much on whether or not the advance for the present one has been 'earned out'. Complicating that is the fact that the size of the advance dictates the size of the promotional budget. If that is not adequate, then unsold copies soon crowd the remainder sales table. No one maintains a backlist anymore. For tax reasons, as well as the fact that storage costs.

The disintermediation in the marketplace provided by on-line booksellers has led to the gradual disappearance of the small independent bookstore. Only chains have the economies of scale to survive the costs of direct retailing and their selection pales next to that of Amazon and the rest. Indeed, the 80/20 rule applies here, with most of the books on the shelves selling so seldom that they are known in the trade as 'wallpaper'. Retailers cannot make up the difference with special orders or even better coffee. If one is going to go to the trouble of ordering a book, then the Internet provides a much easier and more convenient method. And people who used to sell books to used book stores now have found that Amazon and eBay give them a much more diverse and profitable channel. So the used book store has retreated from the street to the spare bedroom, with a marketplace that is open 24/7. I do this myself a little, and most of my stock comes from library and other charity sales. Most of it is work long out of print, so the canard that used book sales on the Internet hurt those of new books is not entirely accurate. Again the 80/20 rules applies.

The future of publishing may be changed by the advent of 'print on demand' books. Many small presses have already taken this route since it allows them to closely match supply to demand. E-books will continue to be a niche category because they really have to be printed out to be read with any ease. (I speak as the publisher of these.) What e-books do provide is another form of disintermediation by eliminating the conventional publishers from the equation. As they demand more perfect, ready to sell, texts, the advantage in small publications shifts to the author who is willing to to make a more direct connection to the consumer. Amazon Shorts is a case in point. I am not the only author who is serializing a novel there, and one was recently dropped in six parts at once. The genius of this program is that it allows everything to be printed out and gives authors a much higher royalty than conventional publishing. with its multiple levels of distribution, allows. My current novel, in 14 parts, will ultimately pay me a better per copy royalty than conventional hardbound publication probably will. And there are no remainders. It is no coincidence that Amazon now has its own "Print on Demand" book printing company.

So what is to be done, is for authors to become better business people and embrace these changes in the marketplace and the technology for delivering text to customers and give serious consideration to not letting old school publishers and agents dictate the terms by which their work is published. Supply and demand is a sword with more than one edge.


Francis Hamit


Steve Erbach
The Town Crank

Anonymous said...
Nice analyzation, but the question was about protecting markets, not making it in the publishing industry. :)

Everything changes -- I've never had a job where we all sat tight and repeated our mantra day in and day out -- you adjust, change, or you die. I just haven't been fortunate enough to be in a business that didn't have to adjust to changing technology or the market. I don't see why anyone would want to protect a global market from the innovations forced by the market.

Steve Erbach said...
Nice analyzation, but the question was about protecting markets, not making it in the publishing industry. :)

Heh! I admit that I focused only on your remark about technical publishing being in trouble.
I don't see why anyone would want to protect a global market from the innovations forced by the market.

I don't see how anyone could protect a "global market"! There's a global market for automobiles, so, I suppose, the individual companies and countries that benefit from that market are interested in shutting out competition for personal transportation.

Say that somebody invented a really practical, safe, inexpensive, and roomy hovercraft that could not only glide down city streets but could scoot over water and rough terrain. I imagine that the existing lobbying muscle of the auto industry could see to it (since the legislators are covered with auto industy pocket lint) that hovercraft were subjected to extraordinary regulatory requirements that would raise the bar for hovercraft manufacturers and make it tougher for them to make headway.

Is that what you're talking about? If not, would you care to expand?

Steve Erbach
The Town Crank

I'll add to this if there's any more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm famous!!

My statement was a challenge to Pournelle -- that's all. :)