Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Thoughts About Publishing

Last week, I purchased 6 books.  The total at BN.com was $88 pre-tax, with free shipping, and I am not a member of B&N's discount club.  I haven't purchased anything from Amazon since mid-May, as a form of protest over the methods with which they're carrying on their fight with Hachette.  It's not the negotiations I'm against, it's their tactics, which harm authors.  On a lark, I logged into Amazon and added the same 6 books to my cart to see the price difference.  I wanted to see how much more I was spending by not shopping at Amazon.  As it turned out, the pre-tax price at Amazon was $101.  I also get free shipping there since I'm a Prime member.  The real kicker is that 2 of the 6 books had a 2-4 week lead time.

Amazon does some things that bother me.  Their Kindle T&C is frightening, and when I do purchase Kindle books, I immediately strip the DRM and store them on my computer to make sure that the books remain mine.  But they've also revolutionized on-line retail.  They've turned buying and shipping into freaking magic.  They've caused other retailers to severely scramble to up their game.  But I'm loathe to let any one retailer become so powerful.  It's never ever good when one company has too much power.

Look at the cable companies.  They've got near monopolies over TV and Internet, and Time Warner and Comcast rank dead last in customer satisfaction surveys.  They're the worst.  Amazon, has some of the absolute best customer service I've ever seen.  However, this tiff between Hachette and Amazon has proven to me that Amazon is willing to set aside its "customer first" mantra in order to chase higher revenues.  They're a company, and companies are in it to make money, so it's only customer first so long as it doesn't hurt their bottom line.

And I don't want to crap all over Amazon either.  When S&S (full disclosure, Simon Pulse, an imprint of S&S publishes my books) got into it with Barnes & Noble,  B&N severely limited the number of S&S books it ordered and stocked, and decreased S&S's visibility in their stores.  They abused their power as the only large brick and mortar retailer in the nation, and I "boycotted" them during that as well.

And let's not forget publishers either.  With the exception of Random House, the publishers pled guilty to price fixing e-books.  While I understood their logic in wanting to stabilize the ebook market, their methods were wrong, and they deserved to be punished.  The Big 5 have made huge mistakes when it comes to giving Amazon so much power, not being forward thinking about ebooks, and a host of other things.  While I often find Hugh Howey a little bit hyperbolic in terms of how he talks about traditional publishing, he makes a lot of valid points about their steadfast refusal to get with the times and in their treatment of authors.

I fear for the future of B&N.  Their megastore concept is unsustainable.  I fear what will happen if Amazon becomes the sole major retailer for books.  I worry about more publisher consolidation.

I'd really like to see some changes happen in the book space.  Barnes & Noble should give up their megastores and open smaller, more focused boutique stores.  In my hometown of Jupiter, there is no bookstore.  Period.  You have to drive thirty minutes north or twenty minutes south to a B&N.  The only indie bookstores are 90 minutes north or 2 hours south.  Jupiter is a pretty affluent town these days, and it's continuing to grow.  It certainly can't support a huge B&N, but a tightly focused store could do really well there.

B&N also needs to work on its online presence.  Ordering those six books was a bit of a pain.  I ordered them on Friday, but they're not shipping until today.  Amazon usually ships them the same day.  I'd also like to see them offer a format that would allow users to side load Nook books onto Kindle reading devices.  Sure, they'd have to give up DRM, but DRM is bullshit anyway.  Rather than fighting device and format wars (which Nook has lost), they should be fighting to put their books onto every single device possible.

Publishers, for their part, need to get way more competitive with ebook royalty and pricing.  Not just offering lower ebook pricing, but flexible ebook pricing.  They would also be well served by selling direct to customers in a big way.  They could offer authors higher royalties on books sold directly from the publisher, and create an experience tailored to the desires of readers.  When I go into a bookstore, I don't shop by publisher, but I do recognize that I buy more from some publishers than others.  Publishers and imprints shouldn't shy away from that type of branding, they should embrace it.  They should fight to stand out.  The imprint of S&S that I write for, Simon Pulse, is always great at publishing edgy teen fiction.  I know exactly what to expect when I buy a Simon Pulse book.

Publishers need to stop letting Amazon decide their fate, and do it themselves.  They need to experiment with offering ebooks bundled with regular books.  They need to offer content that you can only get through them.  They need to be willing to go where the readers are and be willing to innovate the hell out of books.

Publishers offer an experience that is hard to duplicate.  None of my books would be even half as good as they are if it wasn't for the input and guidance of my editors, copy editors, design team, and marketing folks.  But it's not good enough anymore.  Amazon is killing them, and they're allowing it.

Maybe publishers can't offer the same speed and convenience as Amazon, but they can innovate in other ways.  Imagine if I order a book from S&S.  It'll probably take 48 hours to ship and another 2-3 days to arrive.  Why not offer the ebook free so that I can get started reading it while I wait for the physical book?  I love physical books, so I won't ever go all digital, but if it's a book I really want to read, I'd be willing to begin it on my e-reader and finish it when the book arrives.  And that would definitely win me over as a customer.

As for Indies, I think they also need to specialize.  Books of Wonder in NYC is one of my favorite bookstores.  They only sell children's books, and they do it so well!  They bring in authors for signings and talks.  They're a great example of what indie bookstores can accomplish.  They need to become hubs of the community.  They need to look into POD devices so that they can offer indie books for print while you wait.  They need to partner with Google and other ebook retailers so that they can sell ebooks and earn money for it.

Often, in these discussions, I feel like it becomes Us vs Them.  Amazon vs Publishers, Indie vs Traditional Publishing.  But that's stupid.  We're all readers.  We all love books.  There doesn't have to be a winner, you don't have to pick a side.  This is an exciting time in publishing, and we're lucky to be living through it.


  1. I wish imprints were more like record labels. Or at least more like indie record labels were in the 90s when I worked in the industry. You always knew what you were getting when you picked up a Stones Throw release. You might not know the artist, and of course it wouldn't sound exactly like other artists on the label, but it would always have that Stones Throw sound.

    I don't really see that with imprints. It sounds like you see it with Simon Pulse, and that's great. I do think I see it a little bit at Carolrhoda Lab. You don't know exactly what you'll get, but it will always have that Carolrhoda stamp.

    I don't know. I'm probably just bitter and don't pay enough attention to imprints when I pick out books. Maybe I'll take a closer look at it when I list all the books I read this year.

  2. I totally agree. And though Simon Pulse definitely isn't as unified as all that (Orson Scott Card's Pathfinder series and Deathday couldn't be more dissimilar) it does have a certain vibe.

    But you're right that imprints should be like record labels. With self-publishing adding more books than ever to the shelves, publishers should really be distinguishing themselves and creating brand loyalty. Angry Robot Books is actually a much better example of a publisher doing it right.


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