This post examines the latest quarterly financial reports from the big 5 book publishers and tries to draw some conclusions from the data. The big 5 are, of course, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. These companies are often seen as emblematic of the state of traditional trade book publishing in the United States. (more…)
February 23, 2011
Last evening I wrote to a colleague who runs a regional association of trade book publishers. I thought I would share the letter:
I thought of you when I read this just now in today’s Wall Street Journal:
I think it’s a very good article just because it presents the unvarnished truth about ebooks in American libraries today. The author, Katherine Boehret, is wide-eyed and open-minded and just checking what’s out there. Several things trouble her:
- the small selection.
- little availability of bestselling titles (for borrowing).
- difficult to find what is actually available from her library.
- unnecessarily complicated registration requirements.
- tight limits on how many books you can borrow and how long you can borrow them for.
I’ve found an additional challenge not discussed in the article. Patrons need to go through a wide variety of disparate digital portals to get at ebooks. In my local library the current number of portals for Ebooks & Downloadable Audiobooks is 14! Right now the library catalog doesn’t help much in navigating around these (although they’re trying to build a new online catalog), and if I found separate registration networks for each, then aaargh (eventually there will be one point of access, but…).
This is the big worry that I mentioned at our lunch a couple of weeks ago. Libraries are being marginalized by the shift to ebooks because their existing infrastructure doesn’t enable ebook lending. They’re receiving only tepid support from publishers, none from authors, and none from Amazon. The email I showed you that I’d received from the Massachusetts librarian demonstrated his efforts to prove that publishers and authors benefit from having their books available in libraries. That’s important for publishers and authors to realize. Amazon would I think be thrilled if public libraries failed in lending ebooks, not because they’re worried about theft (OverDrive, ebrary et al, protect their ebooks with more robust DRM than Amazon does). Amazon wants to sell ebooks in volume at low retail prices to the broad public, not just single copies that public libraries can lend multiple times.
I believe that publishers and Amazon are content to take advantage of this ebook confusion to undermine the public library system.
When you read Mike Shatzkin’s recent post about the rapidly increasing sales of ebooks (and the commensurate decline of paper book sales) you can see a fierce storm cloud forming.
Meanwhile 8 of the 20 top paid Kindle books in the U.S. are .99, $1.99 or $2.99.
If you look to the right of those inexpensive Kindle ebooks you’ll see another column demonstrating how many free ebooks are available. Who needs to engage in the fruitless frustration of trying to borrow ebooks from a public library when there is such a variety of free titles available, and many more for $2.99 or less?
A Google search on Amazon AND “public libraries” delivered links to several books about libraries for sale on Amazon. It also delivered the pages the next images are clipped from.
Added February 27: If you don’t think publishers will be happy to see ebooks kill public libraries read: HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations
In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.
Good commentary here:
Update, April 20, 2011
July 5, 2010
I uncover some unusual sites and blogs because I have a Google Alert for “future of publishing.” I can’t imagine I would have found it otherwise.
Andrew Shaffer is the author of the forthcoming Harper Perennial Paperback Original Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, to be published January 4, 2011. (Unusual exactitude for a big publisher. However the fact that a completed manuscript won’t be published for another six months is in keeping with one of the big complaints about traditional trade publishing from those authors who bring out their handkerchiefs).
HarperCollins Publishers, one of the largest English-language publishers with sales over $1 billion, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Last fall it launched authonomy, ostensibly a sort of social networking site, where authors could submit 10,000 words or more from an unpublished book (or self-published) and the devoted and literate members of the authonomy community could read this stuff, and comment on it, and rate it. HarperCollins editors would keep an eye out for which submissions seemed to be getting the best member response, and decide whether to make a publishing offer to the author.
Today marks the publication of the very first book to result from the experiment. According to a release I received from authonomy the book is called The Reaper, and written by Steven Dunne. It is described on the web site as a “combination of Silence of the Lambs and The Poet set in Derby. A long dormant serial killer strikes again and the hunt is on.”
Apparently the book “was picked up by HC late last year,” so with the speed typical of traditional publishing houses, in took seven or eight months to get it into print.
Well, I for one don’t think it worth the wait, nor a strong indication of authonomy’s promise. The first chapter is available to read on the site, and I offer this modest selection from the prologue:
The cat froze, suppressing its instinct to run, and peered into the swirling gloom towards the noise. To break cover, even in this fog, could be its undoing. That’s what its own prey did. That’s when it had them. The animal stared, unblinking, head locked in the direction of the approaching footfall.
From the gasps of fog a figure emerged as though exhaled from the bowels of the earth. The boy was tall and though his clothes were baggy, he was identifiably lean as the cold breeze folded his roomy, low-slung trousers around his legs. He scuffed his Nikes along the rutted pavement, as though wiping something from them, before stopping to sniff the air. The peak of his grimy baseball cap came up as he looked around, sensing the animal nearby.
For a second he stopped hunching himself against the cold and looked toward the cat. He saw its eyes and stood perfectly still.
Softly the rumble in the boy’s throat grew until his armoury was fully loaded and he let fly. An arc of spittle landed near the cat’s front paws, splashing its legs. The cat tensed then leapt to the side, wide-eyed. To banish any chance of feline forgiveness, the boy darted towards the animal and aimed a kick at its retreating rear.
“Here puss puss,” coaxed the boy bending down to click his fingers, scouring the dark ground for missiles. Surprisingly there were none. The boy had alighted upon the only spot on Derby’s Drayfin Estate that wasn’t crumbling.
Well, there you have it (or the first part of it). I doubt it makes you want to read on. Perhaps it was the sentence, “From the gasps of fog a figure emerged as though exhaled from the bowels of the earth” that put you off? Or was it the Nike product placement in the second paragraph? The repulsive description of spittle in the fourth? Or the obscenity in the sixth?
Some commentators are more impressed by HarperCollins’ authonomy effort than I am. I conclude this entry by noting that like most large publishers today, HarperCollins no longer accepts unsolicited manuscripts directly. The famed “slush pile” of yore is not to be found there. What is to be found is a web site where the unpaid public are given the chance to read through the slush for HarperCollins, and the company can pray that a few bestsellers emerge. The one aspect that would qualify as social networking is that all of the folks who voted for chapter one of The Reaper are strong prospects to purchase the finished book, and feeling a certain ownership of the process whereby it was published, will read it with more generosity than I can summon, and quite possibly recommend it to their friends.
I’ll be continuing to follow the experiment.