What’s Really Killing Publishing (Hint: It’s Not Piracy and the Agency Model Won’t Help)

Publishing is not a victim of the iPad, it’s not a victim of Amazon’s $9.99 pricing model, it’s not a victim of piracy, it’s not a victim, period. Publishing is slowly strangling itself by myopically hard-selling each and every title it cranks out, instead of nurturing the readers who sustain it.

I believe the novel is the best form of entertainment available to modern humans. Reading a novel offers a deeper, richer, longer, and more satisfying experience than any other media. I read four great novels last year (onetwothreefour). I enjoyed those four books more than any movies or TV shows I saw last year, more than any album, or live show, or play, or anything else.

But there were only four of them.

The flipside of the entertainment equation is that books are more expensive than movies, TV shows, or albums—more expensive in terms of both money and time. If you hate a movie, you’re out ten bucks and ninety minutes. A book might take up days of your time, and up to $25 in hardcover—if you read a bad one, the sting is much worse. And it gets exponentially worse when publishers overtly lie to their readers—like say, The Girl She Used to Be, which was nominated for a mystery award though it’s neither a mystery nor worth printing, let alone reading.

Publishers don’t seem to realize this, and they’ve taken a shotgun approach to bookselling: they think if they can fire enough tiny pellets of low-grade iron, one of them’s got to hit something. I’m here to disagree.

Problem: Publishing too many books, and too many crappy books

In 1993, according to Bowker, U.S. publishers released just over 10,000 books classified as either “Fiction” or “Literature.” In 2007 (the last year Bowker has a final tally for), publishers released more than 62,000 Fiction/Literature books (via; find the raw numbers here). That’s one work of fiction published every eight and a half minutes, all year long.

Since the average reader takes slightly longer than eight minutes to read a novel, we’ve got to choose. In 2009, I had a bad year choosing. I read and reviewed 31 books for C4 last year. Eleven were bad; ten were “OK, but…”; six were good; and only four were great.

Even if you lump in good books, that’s a 32% success rate. Less than a third of the contemporary books I read were worth the time and money, and that’s excluding all the books I tried to read, hated, and never finished.

Here’s an idea I don’t understand: Why—in an age where books have to compete with more TV shows and more movies and more video games—why are publishers releasing even more books? More than six times as many as just 17 years ago, which means one of two things: either six times as many publishable novels are being written, or publishers are lowering their standards. You might be able guess which theory I agree with.

Get your stupid from the TV, come to books for smarts

A billion Dan Brown fans might tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t think books do a good job with stupid, mindless entertainment. TV’s got stupid and mindless covered. Books should play to their strengths: intelligence, depth, and drama. Not that all novels should be stodgy period pieces, but neither do so many need to be vampire books because Twilight was popular, or any of the thousands of other coattail-riding knockoffs. And neither do we need thousands of plain old crappy books with half-conceived plots, pushed out to meet a pub date instead of being actually nurtured until they were good (or simply rejected).

In this piece, Jay Nicorvo says editors are putting out blockbusters and clones because of more guaranteed sales. That strategy might work in the short term; it might make more money this quarter. The downside is that it’s actively killing publishing, bit by bit.

Right, so, let’s just make all books better. That shouldn’t be too difficult, right?

Before you start poking holes in that proposal: I know that it’s a pipe dream. I know judging a novel’s quality is a subjective activity, I know that publishing is a business, and I know there are many many more publishing houses now than there were twenty years ago, all trying to make a buck. But, as a reader, I feel disillusioned. It seems like publishers are willing to release 50 mediocre novels in the hope that one becomes a hit, rather than select the 5 best and put more effort into them.

It seems, in short, like publishers aren’t culling bad novels like they should be, and then readers have to do it, which means sifting through dozens or hundreds of published novels to find just the few worth reading. And that gets old.

If we’ve got so many choices, we need a better way to choose

A while ago, I floated the idea of trial periods for ebooks, some length of time during which readers could return books they don’t like. I think that would go a ways toward reestablishing faith in the publishing industry (tag line: “Never read another bad book”), but I think to fully stabilize and grow the industry, publishers need a major shift in attitude.

Instead of publishing as many novels as possible and trying to market their way to good sales figures, publishers should focus on cultivating readers. By that I mean the first priority of a publisher should be to ensure that readers find books they love. That doesn’t mean describing every book as “hilarious,” it doesn’t mean puking out Harry Potter clones in the hope of getting a few more sales, and it doesn’t mean bending over backward to convince people that the latest stock vampire novel is actually good or different (they did that with the last stock vampire novel, and they lied). Instead, publishers should be finding the qualities that individual readers look for and pairing them with novels that actually have those qualities.

This is the kind of thing that companies like Amazon got right—as much as it pains me to admit. When publishers told Bezos to delete negative reviews on Amazon.com, he replied, “We don’t make money when we sell things, we make money when we help people make purchase decisions.”

Like Bezos himself, that response is 90% creepy robot, but he’s got a point. If you match readers with books they love, they will read more, they will like books more, and they will spend more money on them.

Publishers, for some reason, hate to match readers with books they will like. Look at the descriptions on Random House’s fiction page, and let’s play Glowing Platitude Bingo. “Dazzling”? “Wondrous”? “Lush”? “Moving”? Bingo.

I want a Netflix system for books, one that goes beyond Amazon’s linked metadata, and doesn’t require me to read bought reviews by Publishers Weekly, or dozens of customer reviews by people who might or might not know what they’re talking about. (Just take a gander at the responses our own Sean Clark got when he uploaded to Amazon a fairly even-handed review of what appears to be an unquestionably bad book.)

Another symptom of the disease: Publishers’ hatred for libraries

The root problem, again, is myopia. Publishers want to sell more books right now, not in a few years or decades. But their customer base is eroding. People have many more ways to spend their free time now than they did in 1993.

This myopic attitude was thrown into relief by Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s thoughts about libraries, which he expressed in March. He said that he wanted people to pay for library books, and questioned how libraries could possibly be good for the publishing industry.

From a certain angle, this makes a bit of sense. If people can get books for free, it must eat into profits at some point. But here’s the other angle: when I was eight years old, my parents told me they’d buy me as many books as I wanted. That lasted a couple of months before they cut me off and sent me to the library. If there had been no library, I would’ve watched TV and found something else to do with my life.

Let me say it in no uncertain terms: if we eliminate free public libraries, it will be exactly one generation before there won’t be enough readers to publish 1000 books a year, let alone 60,000. Libraries nurture readers. Publishers should learn from this.

One last plea

It’s arguable whether or not there are 60,000 publishable novels written this year. But if, as an industry, you’re going to give me 60,000 choices, you’ve got to give me the tools I need to find the books that are right for me. Otherwise I and your other avid readers will wander off into the wilderness of the millions of crappy books you’re all too willing to bring into the world.

Publishers, please. Please help me. I’m speaking as someone lost deep in the forest here; I love books, but I’m enjoying reading less and less these days. Something has to change. Quit whining about piracy and ebook prices. Fix this instead.

6 comments to What’s Really Killing Publishing (Hint: It’s Not Piracy and the Agency Model Won’t Help)

  • I came to your site, when I got the ping from your link to my blog, in the first few sentences above.

    While I agree that all too much drek is published these days, I think that there’s something you didn’t mention.

    There’s another reason why publishers may put out books that you hate. They do it because they think that there are some other types of reader who will love it. And given the $20,000 or so that is the minimum to launch a trade book (like a novel), if they’re wrong too often, they go out of business.

    Not everyone will like every book. In 1993, if you didn’t like one of a very small number of types of books, you were out of luck.

    I remember publishing in those days, and it was a very different world. There was a very small range of literary taste that got published, and an even smaller range that we could get reviewed.

    But now, we can put out books that are aimed at a much wider range of tastes, and we can do it and still make money at smaller sales volumes.

    In some sense, this may be good news. On the other hand, you’re going to have to work harder to find the ones that are meant for you.

  • I do think that judging the success of a book by how much money it makes is part of the problem. I’m not saying every book has to be exquisitely written, but I think books should be marketed honestly, and hence the kinds of books a certain reader likes would be easier to find, and people would read more books.

    I often feel lied to when I pick up a book supposed to be, say, “hilarious,” when it’s obvious the author didn’t intend any comedy (for instance, last year’s “You Lost Me There”).

  • Writing may be art, but publishing (and being an author) is a business. Obviously, no one goes into publishing for the money. You’d have to be a complete idiot not to notice that you’d do better with any other investment, and/or almost any other career. You do it for love of books, and of the field in which you’re publishing. But love doesn’t keep the lights on.

    You might want to check out the typical profit and loss numbers I posted a couple of years ago. Of course, things have gotten a little worse in the last couple of years, but they’re still not too far off. Publishers have no margin of error on their bottom line. (Unlike in their typesetting — ahem.) There’s no option: to succeed a book must at least cover costs and a chunk of overhead. Profit is important, but not all books will make one, no matter what. It’s (obviously) high-stakes gambling, where you need to be very good at picking winners, but still have to expect more losers, and then ride on the averages.

    Marketing is hard. You want to hook the right readers, and anyone on the margins of the “right reader” pool, but not the ones who will be disappointed.

    I don’t know the particular books that disappointed you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some folks who would find humor in them, even if you did not.

    Much of the targeting is done with cover design, and with the selection of blurbs, even today. It’s unfortunate that cover copy is both short, and limited in tone. Writing it is the hardest job in publishing, in my opinion. And it’s often done poorly.

    But the effort is not usually dishonest. It does no one any good to sell books to people who don’t like them. Bad word of mouth usually travels 3 or 4 times as far as good. And good word of mouth is very important to a book’s success.

    • Hi Marion,

      I understand that publishing is a business that people get into for the love of it. But I think it’s easy to get detached from your customers and try to oversell books—especially by refusing to admit that a given book isn’t all-powerful. So, for example, a book I read last year, “You Lost Me There,” was described as “By turns funny, charming, and tragic.” It’s 98% tragic, and not really ever funny. It’s not very charming, either, though it’s well written, which I guess could be confused.

      So, is that kind of thing dishonest? I don’t think it’s intended to be, but yes, it winds up lying to you. I liked You Lost Me There, but was entirely unprepared for the kind of novel it turned out to be.

      I linked to this in this post: http://www.weberbooks.com/2006/11/amazons-negative-book-reviews-and-how-to-counter-them.html

      In that piece, Bezos talks about how publishers wanted Amazon to delete all negative reviews of all books. That’s the kind of selling that hurts publishing.

  • You’re absolutely right that it’s easy to oversell a book, and end up turning off your readers. Accurate copy is important, because it helps the RIGHT readers buy and love your books.

    But, as I said, it’s very, very hard. I certainly can’t do it!

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