It’s time to start blaming publishers for the troubles of the publishing industry, by Nico Vreeland

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Every time Amazon makes the news for predatory business practices or just downright meanness, independent booksellers call on the general public to rebuke them. It’s about time we held publishers’ feet to the fire, too.

Here are a few things publishers have been screwing up recently, whether through incompetence or greed.

  • Publishers are hanging indie bookstores out to dry. They control the prices of every book they print, and they allow Amazon to sell books for up to 50% off the cover price. Retail bookstores buy their books, wholesale, for more than that. Remember when the Big Six banded together to renegotiate the prices of ebooks? They fought tooth and nail to get Amazon to agree to an agency model pricing structure that actually made them LESS moneythan Amazon’s existing $9.99-across-the-board pricing scheme. They could do the exact same thing with Amazon’s regular books, and they should because Amazon’s prices are a greater threat to indie bookstores than $9.99 ebooks were to the future of digital publishing. But publishers will not fight Amazon over this, because publishers do not care if indie bookstores go extinct. 
  • Their hardcover-first business model is archaic. I’ve said this before, but it doesn’t get any less true. Forcing artificial price inflation by selling hardcover editions which are obviously cheaply made is a terrible way to go about bookselling. It also increases the financial risk of overprinting, so publishers sometimes get caught with their pants down. For most of December, it was impossible to buy print copies of such bestsellers as The Hunger Games, Steve Jobs, The Art of Fielding, Thinking Fast and Slow, and many more. For much of the month after the release of the movie Hugo, on November 23, and before Christmas, Scholastic was out of stock of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. You could not buy the book in any store, and because they refused to make it an ebook, that meant you couldn’t buy it at all.

Publishers know they can get away with this because you don’t buy books from publishers. You buy the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel, not the new Random House book. Books are not commodities, and they are not interchangeable. People have no favorite publishers (although Random House is the least backward), and boycotts would be impossible to organize. But that works both ways: if big authors jump ship to Amazon or elsewhere, readers will follow them. If the Big Six collapse entirely, most readers will not care, provided they can still find decent books to read.

So publishers: it’s time to embrace technology, put your customers first, and entirely revamp the logistical architecture of the your industry, or Amazon’s publishing arm will do it for you (and nobody wants that).

(Via Chamber Four.)

6 Comments on It’s time to start blaming publishers for the troubles of the publishing industry, by Nico Vreeland

  1. I agree with this article for the most part. One point of disagreement is whether books are commodities. As I have stated before, I think they are commodities in today’s marketplace. If James Patterson stopped writing, we would quickly find a replacement. In a few years, no one would even remember James Patterson. There are a few exceptions, but how many of us can name the top 10 authors of 1960 (no fair looking up the answer) or even of 2000? Authors come and authors go and the reading public rarely notices.

    Publishers’ biggest problem is that they do not know how to treat their friends; they treat them like enemies.

  2. Not worth taking issue with some parts of the rant and supporting others at this stage. The fact is that indie bookstores are heading for the cliff one way or another. Anyone in the business should be changing business model drastically, or moving out of the business asap imho.
    The whole business model of publishing is in high flux. Old style publishers are facing a five year period during which, it seems to me, they will be out of business or thoroughly restructured.
    Amazon is here to stay and unless someone, including the independent publishers and online resellers, gets together to compete with them then they will have handed the market away and cannot whinge and whine about it. Also they cannot whinge and whine about putting customer needs first. They are not acting in the readers interest if they hand it all to Amazon either.

  3. I agree with many of these points. I think the overall problem though is that ‘publishers’ (or whatever term you want to use for the mainstream industry) are confusing ‘failing to serve their readers’ with ‘feeling upset that Amazon is evil.’ One thing that this article is correct about, people buy the author—they don’t buy the publisher, but they don’t buy the store either. So why are people buying from Amazon? Because Amazon is doing the best job of serving their needs. If someone else was serving their needs, they would buy from them too. So, rather than fight Amazon, how about serve the customers?

  4. I agree with some points of this, though by and large it is just a rant trying to put the blame on someone else.

    Yes some of the big Publishers tried to cash in on eBooks by suggesting prices couldn’t go that low – however in many peoples minds, within Publishing, regardless of whether you print a book or put it digitally – everything involved from editorial et cetera is still a cost you have to implicate. It is also much the same as any other market – rather than dropping the price dramatically you stick it out for as long as your able to – thats just business. Amazon would stick a book at a high price if they thought they could – it only gets lowered when they find competition on price.

    Piracy doesn’t hurt? To be hones I can’t even comment on that as I think its ridiculous. Piracy hurts the film market in a massive way – why would it be any different with books?

    I agree with a tiny bit of this report – other than that its just a rant at Publisher’s being the devil instead of anyone else.

    As for offering Amazon dramatically better “terms” – Actually thats not true either. For us we offer Amazon at maximum 10% more discount than an indie bookstore – however it is usually about 5%. The difference between the two are simple – Amazon will drop there price and there own margin to shift more copies where as an indie book store will always hold at the RRP for as long as possible – I have found that a few brave indie book stores that dropped their margin slightly – found they were selling far more copies and thereby got themselves a better deal from us based on order sizes. Thats the difference, you know through Amazon the customer will get a good service and Amazon will shift the copies – same reason in the US Barnes and Nobles would get more favourable discounts or in the Uk WhSmiths – its based on volumes.

    Hardcovers are because quite frankly people prefer a hardcover as a gift – it looks better, it sits better on your book shelf, bigger print for people to read. If hard covers weren’t desirable why do they still persist in doing well?

    As for the idea that things go out of stock too easily – to be honest i agree with that. However I have not heard of a Publisher that wouldn’t prefer to have sold through all of there stock rather than missed the demand and end up selling things off below cost price later on. Thats a business mentality – you would always rather reprint something because demand has surpassed expectation than print too many and have to shift them off later on.

  5. It comes down to three facts:
    1- The big publishers rely on volume discounts to move their cash cow books.
    2- Volume discounts allow Walmart, Target, drugstore chains, and yes, Amazon to undercut indies and even B&N. Volume discounts is what helped Borders and B&N kill a lot of independents *and* small-store chains when *they* were top dogs. (Funny how it is only Amazon everybody rails about, as if indies dying were a new phenomenon.)
    3- Customers overwhelmingly choose to buy from Amazon, B&N, BAM, Walmart, etc, over indies. (insert justification of choice)

    When you look at the suppliers’ behavior, the successful pbook vendors’ behavior, and consumers’ behavior it becomes pretty clear that pbook retailing is all about volume and costs. Volume drives costs (through discounts or lack there-of) and costs drive pricing which drives volume. And round and round it goes. It’s a classic spiral.

    Expecting the big publishers to change is futile; their whole business is tied to volume sales. And volume (in the form of print runs) is already down. Anything they might do to reduce volume discounts will be, in effect, a consumer-level price hike. And price hikes lead to lower sales volume. Which they can’t withstand because they bet their businesses on volume as the way to cover *their* costs.

    So the spiral rolls on.

    Indie bookstores have passionate promoters, but for all the passion they generate among their supporters, that passion doesn’t generate the volumes the publishers value or prices the majority of customers value.

    When your suppliers doesn’t value you and the majority of your potential customers don’t value you, it just might be time to reconsider exactly what it is you are selling and why. It might be time to look for something else to sell.

    Hint: Indigo is doing that. B&N is doing that. Amazon has *always* done that.

  6. While it is true that before the Agency model, we only knew authors, not publishers, it is no longer true. When I read reviews in Publishers Weekly and make lists of what I want to read, now I include the publisher because it influences many things. It tells me if the book will be impossible to get digitally from the library; if it is Penguin, it tells me that the high initial e-book price will be sustained for a long time and there will be no upcoming digital library copies; and if it is Random House, all things are possible. Thanks, Random House, for realizing that library patrons also buy books.

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