Saturday, November 19, 2011

The publisher bypass operation

I just read an article in the latest issue of Wired about the new breed of subscription music services--companies like Spotify, MOG and turntable.fm. The problem with these services (and for that matter, conventional purchase services like iTunes) is that artists get a very small share of the revenue. Most artists are now getting the majority of their income from live performances, not music sales. Where concerts once served to promote album sales, now digital music promotes live performances.

Online video distribution has had a similar impact on movies, television and original video. Most of the revenues from movies and television shows sold or rented by Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc., goes to the studios and distributors, not to the original producers. Original video produced for YouTube and other services is incredibly hard to monetize; only a few series, like "The Guild" and "Easy to Assemble", have sponsorship or distribution deals that directly compensate the producers. Most original video has to make do with a trickle of advertising revenue, modest sales from iTunes, or nothing at all.

That brings us to books, where the situation for independent authors is very different. Amazon will pay as much as 70% of the revenue from sales of eBooks to self-publishing authors, and other resellers will typically pay 35%. Compare that with the typical 10% to 12% royalty on wholesale price paid by publishers, and self-publishing starts to look very appealing. Yes, the self-publisher has to pay upfront for editing and design, but many publishers recoup those costs before they start paying royalties. In addition, unless you're a top author, publishers will do little or nothing to promote your title, so you'll have to hire a publicist or do the work yourself.

It's true that print still represents the majority of book sales, but the market is quickly shifting to eBooks. Some of the most popular titles are already selling almost as many copies of eBooks as print, and heavy book readers are adopting eBooks faster than any other group. The majority of book sales are likely to come from eBooks by the middle of this decade.

So, where does that leave publishers? Penguin, for one, is getting into the self-publishing business through its Book Country online service. In addition to charging upfront fees for formatting and designing eBooks, Book Country demands a hefty fee for distributing self-published eBooks to online bookstores--which self-publishers can do themselves. Other publishers are experimenting with "augmented" eBooks--containing audio, video and animations--which they believe are beyond the ability of self-publishers to create. There are two problems with that approach:
  1. Companies such as Vook are launching eBook creation tools that will allow self-publishers to make augmented eBooks, and
  2. Sales figures to date suggest that there's not a big market for augmented eBooks. For example, Vook's original strategy was to publish augmented eBooks itself, but the company couldn't sell enough to sustain its business, so it's now focusing on licensing its platform to others.
To be sure, publishers still provide valuable services, especially for top-tier authors--but book publishing is the first industry where creators (writers) can compete effectively with distributors (publishers). In the near future, the big publishers will likely find themselves focusing on two categories:
  1. New releases from "A-list" authors that can command high prices and sell tens of thousands of copies in print, and
  2. Milking their existing backlist for eBook reissues, bundles, and other ways of delivering "old wine in new bottles".
Some mid-tier authors may find a home with smaller specialty publishers, but almost everyone below the "A-list" will have to self-publish. We're likely to see some self-publishing authors join together in "United Artists"-like organizations to create "quasi-publishers" that perform some of the functions of existing publishers, such as design, publicity and promotion. The participating authors could serve as editors for each other.

By mid-decade, we're going to have far fewer and smaller "old-style" publishers. On the other hand, we'll have far more self-publishers and quasi-publishers that are performing most of the tasks previously done by publishers themselves. The industry power will reside with resellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., and their equivalents in other countries around the world.

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