Yesterday I had a moment of dissonance as I clicked on Mad Genius Club. [update: fixed link.] I stared at the title of the post, wondering if I’d written it because it was titled with a Leonard Cohen song title and then went on to quote Leonard Cohen.
Which is all great because it was Dave Freer’s post, and we’re friends, but I had no idea anyone else shared my tastes in music. Because that’s not one of the mind-sets of the groups I run in. The groups I run in have other things in common. But not too much. We try not to group-think. Some of the bigger, most fundamental arguments I’ve had have been with my friends. We remained friends afterwards, but we test our perceptions of things fairly often.
If you go to the post, you’ll see it’s about mind sets, and how someone coming new to an established culture like, say, Baen might be shocked and think that everything that’s being done is being done wrong.
I didn’t have this problem, because I had arrived to most of the ideas Baen was using on my own before being bought by Baen. Things like “the first taste is free.” And “pirates aren’t really a problem.” ( Yes, I fell for the whole “book pirates must be stopped” for about six months, then started thinking through it: both the fact that no one steals from obscure beginners and that the culture of piracy is such they’ll steal books they don’t read (for the triumph of breaking the code) and that they wouldn’t buy them anyway. Also, that the loss to piracy is far smaller than the “loss” of traditional books to lending, used books and what I used to do of rescuing books from the trash in tourist hotels in Porto.)
However, particularly when ebooks were new, like 20 years ago, the technology itself was terrifying for most of the writers and publishers, who were not only older than I, but not the greatest of tech geeks. Also new technology scares people, because there’s an entire new world of things that can go wrong.
But most important of all, everyone who was talking about ebooks and the horrible dangers of piracy was of one mind. And those that had no opinion heard the entire group agree.
Publishing was a small, provincial group with no knowledge of anything outside it. Traditional publishing still is to a certain extent. They are a relatively small group of people, who constantly rub elbows, and who know very few people outside the field who read or have opinions about publishing.
There is an idea — or at least I’ve had this idea — that indie is challenging the claustrophobic nature of publishing, bringing new ideas into the closed world of the industry and exploding old notions.
But the more I read about … well, the field I work in, the more I become aware that my assumptions are wrong. No, they’re not really changing their minds, or looking at evidence, or evaluating numbers.
Among other things (and if you haven’t read the post you should) she said this:
Amazon-imprint & Indie books now make up 60% of the market, and gross 40% of the revenues.
Yes, you read that right. More than half of all the books sold aren’t from the Big Five, or the 1195 other publishers of the AAP. Congratulations, indie writers, you’re not fighting to get in the market anymore. You ARE the market.
Unfortunately (?) what those numbers also show is that the sales of ebooks from traditional venues are down — way down compared to paper books. Which means… that traditional publishers should be reconsidering their idea of pricing ebooks way above paper books. (Because I keep losing books in this house, I’m trying to go as much ebooks as possible, and I’ll pay the ridiculous prices for, say, Jim Butcher. And PF Chisholm’s Elizabethan mysteries. But that’s it. And the last one only because I was ill and really depressed about it, otherwise I’d have waited and bought the paper book used, even though I’d feel really bad about not supporting a good series.)
I assumed publishers would be reconsidering their ebook prices because, let’s face it, they can’t count their sales of paper too well. No seriously, the Nielsen numbers reflect maybe one third of books sold, and then they calculate according to some bizarre formula even they admit is not right. (BTW for publishers like Baen who make a strong showing in comic bookstores and other non-traditional venues, Nielsen is even less reliable.)
But they could look at reports and go “whoa, we’re losing money to indie. How can we compete? Perhaps not pricing ebooks higher than paperbooks?”
That’s what I sort of assumed. Because I forgot they’re a closed shop: a small, provincial group of people for whom it is more important to keep the good opinion of their colleagues than to do anything else, including survive.
These are the sort of poisonous circles in which thinking for yourself, or not singing in the choir becomes a thought-crime.
In these circumstances, it becomes very easy to blame your failure on an evil villain — Amazon for instance — which is stealing your business by totally unfair methods. It becomes very easy to join in rage-fests against this Emanuel Goldstein instead of contemplating what makes Amazon succeed and why your printruns keep falling.
And it’s really easy to think that the fall in ebook sales FOR TRADITIONAL PUBLISHERS is the same as a fall or leveling off in ebook sales.
[And I bet you not included in this is the biggest number of ebook “sales” in recent months: Kindle Lending Library. I have a membership and I bet a lot of you do. Sure. If you read more than three books a month, even at 2.99, it’s a good price. It also prejudices you AGAINST buying ebooks. Because if you can read something that is included in your subscription, it’s cheaper, and we’re mostly broke, most of us. (Trust me, I just read a modern retelling of the book of Ruth which was like having your back teeth extracted through your eye sockets, because I kept thinking “but it’s free.” Okay, I need to control that.)
The thing is, even though those aren’t exactly “ebook sales” they are, because the reader is still paying money, and the author is still getting paid (and for some stories more than they’re up for.) But none of that will show in ebook sales and most of those are not traditional, because traditional publishers won’t put books on KULL. (Though some of the romance series now have their first book in a series on KULL. I’m resisting the feeling I should buy the others, at traditional publishing prices. I can’t afford them. But it’s a great marketing technique.)]
Have you guys ever read books on “How to lie with statistics?” or “How to lie with numbers?”
Sure you have, and I’m sure traditional publishing house personnel have also. BUT the numbers are telling them things they want to hear. More than that, things their entire circle wants to hear. So there’s no one to say “what if we’re terribly wrong?” And “Have you looked at these other factors?”
John Carlton in his blog The Arts Mechanical did a round up on this subject.
He quotes this:
Publishers, seeking to capitalize on the shift, are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution. Hachette added 218,000 square feet to its Indiana warehouse late last year, and Simon & Schuster is expanding its New Jersey distribution facility by 200,000 square feet.
Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books. It added 365,000 square feet last year to its warehouse in Crawfordsville, Ind., more than doubling the size of the warehouse.
“People talked about the demise of physical books as if it was only a matter of time, but even 50 to 100 years from now, print will be a big chunk of our business,” said Markus Dohle, the chief executive of Penguin Random House, which has nearly 250 imprints globally. Print books account for more than 70 percent of the company’s sales in the United States.
The company began offering independent booksellers in 2011 two-day guaranteed delivery from November to January, the peak book buying months.
Yep. As far as publishers are concerned, their concerted effort at making ebooks too expensive is paying off. People are going back to print. Happy days are here again. Build more warehouses and maximize your ability to stock independent book sellers.
Now I know some independent booksellers are making a come back, but I can also tell you there aren’t nearly the numbers of them there were in the late nineties before the chains killed them and before Amazon ate the chains. For instance, in my old neighborhood there used to be a good indie bookseller, a good indie used/new bookseller, and a good used book seller. Of those the indie used/new bookseller remains, but their bookshelves are now mostly used and keep shrinking.
I do confess that looking at that information above, and the fact publishers are building warehouses and expanding their paper book side, I took a step back. Once I’d picked my jaw off the table, I checked my gut on why this felt not just wrong but borderline insane.
I checked things like Barnes and Noble toysellers, with an ever shrinking amount of BOOK shelf space; I checked things like the number of bookstores available in my area, or the fact that I — by any definition a power reader — haven’t been in a bookstore for… two? years, and the last one I entered (other than to pick up my friend and pet the store cats) was a used bookstore where I was buying a batch of $2 books.
And this is not because I have a grudge against traditional publishing — my grudge against them started as a reader, when series disappeared, and authors I’d just discovered had been unable to publish for three years — because I continued reading them grudge or no grudge until they made it difficult (and I still buy Butcher from Random Penguin.) And this is not because it’s what I want to see: before I wet my toes in indie publishing, watching what was happening in traditional was like standing by and watching the Titanic sink all over again. I used to tell my friend Charles “I’m at least still employed. It’s like the Titanic is sinking, but I’m floating on the grand piano.”
Speaking of Charles, the aforementioned friend who works in a used bookstore. The bookstore he used to work for went under, partly driven by Amazon offering used books. (For a while there, and this is my perspective, not his) his former boss appeared to go nuts and start tossing every book that would bring in minimum payment, not realizing the money was in the volume of plus shipping money.)
His current employer, another used bookstore is opening up as a concert and event venue and other ways of supplementing income. It’s a great bookstore, and it has cats. BUT I’m going to guess that the volume of used book buying is down, even on Amazon.
I know my volume of paper book buying is way down, and not just because we’re moving. Unless it’s research, or art or such, I’m not buying paper books. (Exceptions made for books I expect to get signed or that are not in ebook.)
Of course, I could be atypical. Except… except that the last three times I flew, I saw exactly ONE person reading a paper book. In fact, in the last five years, that one person, reading what appeared to be bestseller was the only one not flourishing phone/kindle/nook/ipad.
More interestingly, I keep seeing free bookshelves on craigslist, or really cheap ones. For years, bookshelves were hard to find used, and expensive when you found them. But not anymore.
AND most importantly of all, it’s impossible to beat the convenience of ebooks. I actually lack the romantic attachment many people my age seem to have to paper books. Yeah, yeah, the feel, the weight, the smell — bah. I’m in it for the story. And ebooks have assuaged one of my constant fears from childhood: the fear I’d be left without something I felt like reading RIGHT THEN. I mean, I had enough to-be-read books at any given time, but what if I wasn’t in the mood for anything I owned.
I don’t know what the percentage of people is who drove madly across town to Borders, went in five minutes before closing, and bought out an entire shelf of material because THAT NIGHT they wanted historical. Well, ebooks saves me that drive, but more importantly, I’m not restricted to whatever is on the shelves on that night. I can ALWAYS find something I feel like reading.
To addicts like me, who formed the backbone of the book business, THAT means ebooks win. Every time.
And so, traditional publishers look at the numbers and prepare for the big rush back to paper books.
Because it’s their culture. Because it’s the circle they dance in. I can’t find any justification for their optimism — if you can call it that — but in their circle, it’s an article of faith.
Just as I supposed it’s an article of faith in the GOP that at the last minute they can slid in Jeb Bush and everyone will be happy. Or amid the Democrats, it’s an article of faith that everyone is waiting for Hilary. (No, not to confess to felony, but to be elected.)
It’s baffling unless you realize you’re dealing with cultures, not with people, not even with groups. Cultures have these beliefs they tell themselves, and isolated cultures have really tenacious stories they tell themselves, and are really good at punishing dissenters.
So all cultures change slowly and isolated cultures — our so called intelligentsia, the publishing establishment, the DC habitues– change extremely slow if at all. Because in their circles it’s better to be wrong in objective fact than to be thought wrong by their friends and colleagues.
And this is why politics — and entertainment, and journalism, and the arts — are downstream from the culture.
And why the culture can blind people completely to what is going on beneath their noses, while they go dancing in circles, merrily, nearer and nearer the precipice, until all that you can do for them is say the prayer for the dead.
Which is one of myriad reasons that in the end we win, they lose. It’s also one of myriad reasons that despair is premature and infantile.
Be not afraid. Stay the course. It’s going to get very rough, but we can turn her around. All it will take is sweat, tears and maybe even blood for much longer than anyone should be required to expend them.
It’s been done before. We can do it too.