Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wednesday already?

Wow, so it's Wednesday already, and I've been seriously slacking on the blogging duties.

Part of this is pure exhaustion, as I've been trying to wrap up a bunch of deals, and welcome a new client into the agency. At the moment, this blog post comes to you courtesy of Abba and The Monkees, which is what Pandora is playing for me right now. The energy of music!

The other part, is that like everyone else in the world.... I've been just the tiniest bit depressed about the economy. It seems to be, let us say, in a wee bit of trouble. And really, who wants to write yet another blog post, about how the world might go to hell in a handbasket? I veer between pessimist and realist, and so trust me, I'm not turning cartwheels right now. That said, a lot has been happening in publishing lately, some of it involving very good people getting laid off, which always makes me sad.

For the purpose of the following argument, let's assume that Borders is going to be gone very soon, at least as we know it.

I think that the way publishing currently does business is sorta broken, especially concerning returns. So tell me, my dear readers, how should we go about fixing it? E-books are not the entire answer. There has to be some way to do away with the concept of booksellers being able to return unsold books, without penalizing authors by giving them much lower advances. What are your ideas? I want to hear them! Harper Studio is certainly trying to do away with returns, but whether that will actually work is anybody's guess.


Also, Book Block coming tomorrow! =)


Dara Edmondson said...

This might be naive of me, but why can't publishers do smaller print runs and charge just a little more per book? If a B&N in New York doesn't sell much of one particular book and a B&N in Atlanta sees more demand for it, why can't they have a network and send books from store to store? Probably too radical and outside the box ... just a thought.

Jenny Rappaport said...

I'm not sure why publishers can't do that, Dara.

And totally, come at me with your out of the box thoughts! I want to hear them!

Jenny said...


The economics of printing are that the smaller the run, the more expensive the book. So if you print 500 books, the unit price might be $4.50, where the same book would be $2.00 if you ran 3,000 copies and maybe $1.50 if you ran 10,000. Print that same book POD and it might be $8.00 a copy. (Very rough estimates for illustration purposes only.)

But that means very small runs are too costly and don't leave much room for author royalties, shipping costs, overhead, and wholesaler discounts. Even with returns, a publisher often earns more sending out a lot of books than they would printing fewer expensive books.

Nonfiction sells very well via online bookstores because people know what they are looking for and will find your book if you know hot to get Google to help. So you can do well with shorter runs or even with non-vanity POD sold only through online stores. But that is only true of topic-oriented nonfiction. I have yet to work out how to sell fiction that way, and I have been working on that idea for a while. It is just too hard to find your buyer and get them to buy fiction over the web.

I rarely buy books in stores any more because the kinds of books I read--and I read 4 or 5 a week, are not "Top 40" books and often don't show up in the mass market stores. I find my books at public libraries in the small rural communities around where I live, where wonderful reference librarians purchase them after reading Library Journal reviews.

I wonder if some kind of return to the Lending Library concept might work. It did for much of the 19th century. We devoted readers would pay a library membership fee. Books would be much more expensive, per unit, allowing decent profits to publishers who would only publish the books after receiving the library orders, which would allow them to calculate more closely how many to print. No returns, of course.

Authors would get a BMI/ASCAP type fee every time a book was checked out which would allow them to profit from a book's success.

Only if a book succeeded in the library system would it move into the mass market paperback format in stores so buyers could own a copy.

Julie Butcher-Fedynich said...

We need to start with the children. Raise a generation of readers again. I think the recent surge of middle grade and YA titles is a start. All readers remember the first book that caught their imagination, the one that compelled them to beg their parents for the next book. I wish publishers would make a discount for parents buying an entire series, I wish they'd make a website available to parents with ideas of series to tempt their children to read. I had a heck of a time finding the teaser book for each of my children. (Well, I have 6 so I had a harder time than most). But, all of my children are readers. If we raise a generation of readers again, the industry won't have these problems.

Jodi Meadows said...

Jenny said: "I rarely buy books in stores any more because the kinds of books I read--and I read 4 or 5 a week, are not "Top 40" books and often don't show up in the mass market stores."

One could always order the book through a store and give them a reason to stock books that aren't necessarily "top 40". They stock what's popular because it sells easily. By calling up your local B&N and asking them to order such and such title for you, they'll know they have an audience for it, and might stock an extra one. Who knows, you might get a stranger to read a book they wouldn't normally see there.

But most folks buy books online these days, so bookstores can't afford to stock much besides what's currently selling like hotcakes.

Jodi Meadows said...

Eee, I just have to post again because the next word verification is...


(Yay books. *keepin' it on topic*)

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forwards to a time when the whole publishing paradigm is different. Just as the internet, via myspace and iTunes/iPlayer etc has transformed the way a musician can reach their audience, I think at some point in the hopefully near future there will a similar change for the written word.

I don't think it will necessarily follow the music model, but I do think it will be internet driven and it won't include specialist e-book readers like Kindle etc - why would I need another piece of techno gubbins when I already have a PC, a laptop, a mobile, an iPhone, or any other piece of tech that can hold software? All the readers really offer are better displays and they will come anyway.

I also don't believe it will come from within the industry - established industries tend not to innovate well because what they really want to do is maintain the status-quo.

Maybe it won't happen, but I hope it does. There area lot of obstacles, mainly of perception of the value in writing.
And I could go on a lot more, but will stop here.

NewGuyDave said...

I recommend three things:

1)Drop the return system and sell books to the bookstores. They should have to buy and hold inventory like every other industry. This is how things are done in New Zealand, and they did not collapse.

2) Give smaller advances to celebs and bestselling authors. Seinfeld, doesn't need a 7-digit advance on his next book. Let him be paid in quarterly installments when the sales come through. This will free up cash flow for running the business.

3) Promote reading. If the publisher themselves are not willing to spend marketing dollars to expand their audience then they should work with the new Head of Education to make reading a main focus in schools. Regardless of how, publishing needs to expend effort on increasing their audience.

I have never heard of an industry that didn't try to expand or control costs. I am baffled.

On the bright side HarperStudios and Borders are working toward no returns.

Ryan said...

I agree with Newguydave's point about returns. The return system simply does not exist in most industries and in my opinion everyone except the bookstores are getting the short end of the stick. The message that is sent through this system also depresses me. It says that fads run the industry, and if a book/author goes out of style, then their writing is no longer worth to even be offered to the society. Yikes.

My other thought is that book prices have risen to high. Books shouldn't have to be an investment weighed and stressed over. A paperback should cost 5 bucks at the most. People shouldn't feel bad about approaching the counter with four or five books. In the long run a price drop would break down the barrier to entry and increase sales.

Just my thought.

-Ann said...

Following on with Julie's comment on kids and reading - does Scholastic or whomever still do the book-buying program through schools? When I was a kid in Ohio, we got a little flyer each month with the books for sale at reasonable prices. (It was a really slickly produced things, with thumbnails of the books and short descriptions.) Then you could order the books you wanted and they'd arrive in a few weeks.

This easy access to cheap books was like having a Krispy Kreme store in the lobby of your building. In no time at all, I was hooked. Seems like with the Internet, the turn-around times could be even quicker.

Jenny Rappaport said...

What other countries don't use returns, other than New Zealand? Does anyone know?