Waking up the Brigadoon book business

The book business can be so exasperating. In today’s Times Book Review, an editor there, Rachel Donadio, writes about how book publishers just can’t figure out how to make money on the long tail…. even though book publishing is the long tail.

Sometimes, you just want to pick publishers up by the scruff of their J. Crew collars and shake some sense into them.

The first step, which the Times essay misses entirely, is that the internet lets new people find books that are relevant and necessary to them that they could not have found before, greatly expanding and extending the market for backlist books at no cost. But the people will find those books only if the books can be searched…. and only if they have permalinks allowing others to link directly to the interesting ideals and valuable information in them.

And then, as a few publishers points out, yes, it is tough to figure out how to stock all these books:

Books require storage, and it quickly becomes impractical for publishers to keep low numbers of thousands of titles in their warehouses. “The costs associated with printing small quantities of many different titles and of warehousing those many different titles and of fulfilling single-copy orders . . . are so onerous that it’s not a model that I feel works for publishing today,” said Terry Adams, the director of trade paperbacks at Little, Brown. Susan Moldow, the executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, agreed. “It only works if you’re employing some kind of print-on-demand,” she said, referring to a technology that allows publishers to print a few books at a time, as they are ordered.

Well, let me suggest a model, learning from both Amazon and eBay, where instant gratification costs more but patience pays off (which is also proven by Netflix.com). So:

* Charge the most for immediate delivery, which is enabled because you either stock some number of books in inventory or use more expensive print-on-demand. This is the equivalent of eBay’s ‘buy it now!’ and of Amazon’s overnight shipping. Let’s say that costs the reader $25.

* Charge less if the reader is willing to wait — depending on demand — one to two weeks. Over that time, you collect more orders for the book and can print it in larger batches (especially as print technology improves). I wait two weeks or more to get stuff from Amazon with free shipping. Let’s say that costs the reader $20.

* Charge less again if the reader is willing to take the book as a PDF and read it in that mangled, inconvenient form or go to the expense of printing it themselves. Let’s say that costs the reader $15.

* Charge less again if the reader just wants access to read the book online — a subscription, in essence. Let’s say that costs the reader $10. There is also a growing market in book rentals. My father uses a Netflix for books called BooksFree. What if the publishers starting running such a service themselves, creating a subscription market for books in print or online. So rebuild the old book club business by selling subscriptions to authors, topics, bestsellers, and so on: Pay a flat monthly rate to read as much as you want! Or pay $100 for a lifetime subscription to Anne Tyler. You now have an annuity and pay-in-advance customers.

* And if you want to get fancy, involve your current channels of sale in the deal: Buy the copy of a book in the bookstore right now for $25 or get one delivered to you — with the bookstore getting its cut — for $20. Thus, the books on the bookstore shelves become retail samples and you don’t have to take the inventory risk and cost to fully stock those shelves. And the bookstores can stock more sample books, selling more titles. The tail grows.

* Get yet fancier and involve your long-tail partners — search engines and blogs — in your sales with affiliate deals that — shhhhh, don’t tell anyone — cut out the current retailing middlemen and give you higher margins.

* Now let’s get crazy and follow the NewAssignment.net model: Pay for a book that you wish someone would write. If enough people anty up and pledge to pay, say, $10 each, I’ll write my Dell Hell book (or perhaps some would pay me not to write it) or the Dummies guys would commission Dell Returns for Dummies only if they saw sufficient demand or Tom Evslin, capitalist that he is, would be motivated to write a sequel to HackOff.com or get it translated into French.

The Times essay also complains that the internet is making it easier to buy used books, which cuts into backlist purchases. Well, the answer to that is to follow methods such as the ones above to make original purchases easier, quicker, and in some cases cheaper. You will also cut used-book sales when you extend the in-print life of books by these methods. Obviously, today, the only way readers can get most book titles is by buying used books; the publishers create this market for used books by taking books off the market. That doesn’t have to be true anymore.

Why am I giving away this advice for free? Well, I was thinking about writing a book about this and the necessary upheaval in the book business as a poster child for the explosion of media. But my agent warned me, quite rightly that someone else is pitching a book about books. Well, with very roughly 100,000 new books a year in the U.S. and 200,000 in English, that should be no surprise. This is the long tail, damnit. There can and should be four different books with different viewpoints. But this is the way the book business works. This is how they do, indeed, think. And that is one of a hundred reasons why it seems to take a hundred years to publish one of the little suckers, only to live on a shelf in relative obscurity for four weeks before hitting the remainder tables and then the used-book store and then complete obscurity forever. So maybe I’ll just write it as an online manifesto and screed (or maybe you’ll pay me not to).

It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. The internet is not the enemy of books, authors, publishers, and ideas. The internet is your friend, damnit. As with other media, these guys think shrinkage when they see these new challenges because it affects their old business. They should be thinking expansion: what opportunities are created for new business.

But first, the publishing industry has to rethink what it is. When I spoke at the Guardian’s management offsite a year ago, they had in the president of Kodak UK to talk about what it was like to have to convert an analogue company into a digital company overnight — because the Guardian realized it must do that, too.

Well, publishers don’t need to decide to be all digital overnight…. yet. They can still print books, especially beloved blockbusters. But they do need to realize that they are long-tail companies, that the more content and the more demand they can create and satisfy for it in for more niches with longer life and greater efficiency, the better off they will be. Is the business the same as the one they have now? No, of course not. It’s not the same business it was 25 years ago, either. So stop trying to just protect the old and figure out how to invent the new.

: LATER: Add print-on-demand. Aka POD