The Industry (or How many MFAs Does it Take to Print a Book)

Making the decision to publish in the midst of dramatic change in the industry made the state of the industry an important part of my decision to self-publish.

The rule of thumb for blogging is: keep the post short. I’m going to violate that rule this time. Which calls for a four-line summary for those of you who don’t wish to plod through my conceptual, opinionated, frequently not data-based analysis:

  • The industry is changing. The easy explanation: Amazon.
  • The industry is changing. Real reason: technology.
  • Okay, Amazon helped it along.
  • The development/distribution chain is in distress and hasn’t yet figured out how to adjust.

With that out of the way and those of you with busy lives on your way, I’ll continue. I hope those of you who continue to read will straighten me out when you see mistakes.

The publishing industry is changing.  Everyone agrees.  That insipid truism is usually followed by vague attributions:  It’s Amazon, or it’s industry sclerosis, or it’s consolidation across industries.

The whining Minnesota mosquito I mentioned in my last post was asking me how the industry’s changing. It’s the direction of change that’s important to an unpublished writer like me.

My last get-paid-for-it job in finance and venture capital for (ahem) some several years taught me that the crucial part of understanding an industry in the underlying business model.  Just as the skeleton defines much about the body, a business model often explains how an industry and its component companies respond to change. The approach is usually data-based, but publishing industry data is hard to get.

A short trip through some of the data I have found:

  • The big five (Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) control about 80% of trade (print media) publishing. (Publisher’s Weekly)
  • 20 percent of book readers in the U.S. stated they read more e-books than hard copy books, and 23 percent read about the same number of hard copy books and e-books. In 2016, about 73 percent American book consumers stated they read books in any format, and about 30 percent stated reading at least one e-book in the past year. (A Publisher’s Weekly survey)
  • Print books peaked in 2007 and have declined about 12% since then. e-book revenues peaked in 2012-13 and have declined somewhat since then. Audiobook revenue has doubled since 2011. (Rough read of charts before they demanded a fee.)
  • “The Book Stores industry has had its pages ruffled over the five years to 2018. Despite a strengthening domestic economy and rising per capita disposable income, the industry continues to experience decline. While demand for book store merchandise has fallen, consumers have not ceased purchasing books altogether. Rising external competition and mass adoption of less expensive e-books and audiobooks have dampened profitability, driving many operators out of the industry. While the economy is expected to continue to strengthen over the next five years, the industry will not follow suit. (IBIS market research).

The common answer the industry’s problems is that Amazon has upended the model of publishing’s Golden Age (mid to late 20thCentury), when a dozen or more large houses held sway. Consolidation has reduced the number to five in the USA, and Amazon has crushed book prices.  A recent New York Times article (Save Barnes & Noble,  May 6, 2018) notes: “artificially low prices (from Amazon) have created a raft of problems. Fewer books are commercially viable. Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has declined. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book sales that looks permanent.”

The quote is true to a degree, I think, but the driving force is not Amazon. What really happened is technology. Today, it is possible to produce a single print book inexpensively and an electronic one almost costlessly. I think those developments are what is roiling the industry. Amazon recognized the opportunity before others. It saw the new technology all but erasing the publishing industry’s barriers to entry.

These days, ‘barriers to entry’ is a common term.  The maven of strategic planning, Michael Porter, coined it in the 1970’s. Before the single-book technology, books had to be printed in the thousands … a risky proposition requiring a substantial business organization.  In their heyday, the dozen or more bigs controlled the presses and the warehouses. Large investment (printing, inventory) raises a barrier to entry. Just as a castle’s walls protect its inhabitants from attack, the entry barrier protects a business from intrusion by a competitor.  Problem: the entry barrier often creates complacence.  No need to change how one does business when entry barriers are high.  Then along comes technological change. The castle walls crumble.

Back to Amazon:  What Amazon did was to see the change in technology and exploit it aggressively.  Amazon executives note that Bezos targeted publishing because it was the easiest industry to dominate … a combination of what technology could do (single book, electronic publishing) and how badly the industry was managed.  After all, publishing had left that last important step … retail sale … entirely to booksellers it didn’t control or support.  Most were small, independents who were unable to withstand the attack of larger retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, much less Amazon’s prices.

The result is a smaller publishing industry that has converted many editors to agents. Technology has also made it almost costless (except time) to query a book. Agents wring their hands over the ‘thousands’ of inquiries they get, but it’s been five or more years since the volume has exploded, and most have not yet figured out how to  manage the flow … surprising, since it is the core of their business. Other agent-based businesses … music and venture capital are the ones I know a little about … have figured how to do it.  Publishing agents often have not; eventually, the ones who survive will.

In any case, the industry is changing … probably not for the better in the case of authors.  The music industry went through a somewhat similar upheaval twenty years ago and survived in a much-altered state.  In music, superstars have done well; others have received easy distribution and very little money. Publishing will change, too, but will survive. People always have and always will thirst for stories.

Next chapter: Decision

Publishing, a Disturbing Article, and The Maginot Line

This morning, I’ve been thinking about platform (oops … Platform), the Maginot Line and an article I just read by Michael Wolff, “How book biz dug its own Amazon grave.”

If you’re a writer like I am, you probably fall into one of two camps: (1) Published, or at least agented; or (2) still hopeful. I am in the still hopeful group, and I am watching the evolution of the publishing industry closely. Of course, I’m on the outside, guessing at what’s going on, trying to decide whether to continue to bust my hump trying for representation or just self-publish. The scary part is that it’s clear that publishing is changing, but it’s not clear how a writer is going survive and prosper in the brave new world of heightened technology.

Business strategists intone the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe radical change to an industry, often driven by technology. They say it with such relish and optimism. Fine, if you’re a business strategist … but as a person at the nexus of the destruction wondering what to do, not so much fun.

Wolff’s article reminded me, a former coattail member of the community of business strategists, of Michael Porter, who began writing brilliantly about competitive strategy thirty years ago. In a competitive environment (this is loosely paraphrasing Porter from memory, always dangerous), businesses attempt to erect barriers to entry … tools of the trade and well-kept trucks for tradesmen, patents and software for tech companies, the enormous capital investment in a power plant for utilities … to compete effectively and protect their bottom line. A corollary is that the bigger the barriers to entry a business erects, the more invested it gets in maintaining those barriers.

Even a few years ago, publishing businesses controlled the production and distribution of books, pretty much from inception through production to the retail seller. That control has been taken away at both ends of the chain of production and distribution … many retail sellers have been driven out of business, and the publishing mechanics that formerly meant only publishers could print the end product have changed dramatically. It would take brilliant perspicacity and firm resolve to drive out of the ditch the industry is in. With that thought in The Maginot linemind, consider the Maginot Line, that WWII barrier erected by France to make absolutely sure Germans would never march onto French soil again. That was the line the Luftwaffe flew over. The scary takeaway for the publishing industry is that the noise in the sky is Amazon and Print on Demand technology flying over (soon, apparently, with drones). My question is: What happens to the lowly writer drudge? Yes, I hear the warm air being blown on The New Internet Marketing, but it’s not clear to me what a writer is to do the reach his potential readers.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.