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

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  • mle

    Here’s a trivia question…I don’t know the answer, maybe someone does: how long after the Postal Service started ZIP codes did they add ZIP+4? The reason I ask is this. ISBN, the book’s ID number, has been around a while. ISBN+ASBN (Author Standard Book Number) would identify the creator and her or his financial depository. Then every time a book passed through a turnstile at Amazon or eBay or Alibris, the author could be paid a nickel or two. Wouldn’t that be loverly! -mle

  • hey

    Every publisher needs to look at what Baen Books is doing. And then smash their face into their desk until they get that it is the only way forward.

    I tried to buy a book online from Ballantine, only to be told that I couldn’t buy an ebook since I wasn’t in the US. Huh? One of the problems I have is that Ballantine just isn’t getting distribution for their books in Canada. So I try to buy an e-book, which is essentially all profit to them, but I can’t. Some BS contract implications about foreign rights and what rights the ebook people have… Idiotic. Same as how shows on iTunes are released (for free!) only to US and not Canadian iTunes, where you need a US credit card to access free content.

    Far too many media companies just are not crafting their internet presence to take advantage of its characteristics and are grafting on the detritus of the offline world. There are reasons why everyone used to have subsidiaries all over the world, different rights, etc. Those reasons don’t exist or are dieing, but everyone does the charade to appease them, rather than thinking about what they are trying to do. Frustating as all hell. Not surprising given that media is a business run by English Majors and Lawyers (but I repeat myself).

  • jowfair

    hey, differential rights was just a way of making at least some money without all of the expense of researching and entering a new market. Some income was better than none or a loss. As it becomes absurdly easy to provide international services, the only (though still sizeable) barrier to content providers keeping all of their lucrative rights will be politicians.

    Jeff, please either write the book quickly or send off copies to the publishing houses’ editors / stock-holders. These ideas could’ve been implemented eight years ago, and Lord knows, I wish they had! Here in China, the majority of English-language books are badly typeset “classics” and practically nothing bothers including marginalia, appendixes, or notes.

  • steve

    Jeff, aside from going digital (that is, PDF not print), you mention but then don’t address the Times article’s main point at all — that *manufacturing* and *warehousing* a long tail of a huge number of small runs of rarely sought titles is impractical and potentially ruinous financially. the problem isnt that one cant make money off a single title — whenever a book actually sells everyone makes money and gouging folks for rapid delivery would only pile on, not create original profit. the problem is the time and finances and resources needed to get to the place where one can even offer the tiny-run book when it is requested.

    i’m guessing that you have never managed a manufacturing concern. i have. inventory production and management (of physical goods, not digital) can’t simply be dismissed by saying “jack up the price” (e.g. by gouging folks on delivery costs.) otherwise, it would make perfect sense to build huge inventories of say, very high end jewelry, and of course it doesn’t. for the resources needed to get to market and stay there cause failure long before the volume of sales activity — no matter how high margin — justify the entire exercise.

  • Steve,

    People have been offering faster delivery at extra cost since well before the Internet. The U. S. Postal Service offered premium delivery back when it was the U. S. Post Office. People will pay for faster delivery when they are convinced it is worth it.

    All Jeff is doing is suggesting that publishing firms offer what other companies are already offering.

  • Suggestion: PDF only at first. When the book has sold enough copies to pay for an initial print run, then you produce a hardcopy edition and offer the PDF buyers the first run as a free upgrade.

  • JohnnyL

    I’d buy a digital copy of a book downloadable in an instant to a really good e-book reader….howabout that one from Sony with the new electronic ink. Take that down in price and give me a way to transfer my e-book to someone else when I’m done with it just like when I now pass a copy on to someone else when I’m through with it.

    The problem with most e-books is the pricing doesn’t take into account that no physical book exists….thus none of the old-ommerce distribution costs. You end up with a digital book that costs almost as much as a physical one and no way to pass it on to someone else. If you can’t pass it on then an e-book should cost maybe 20% of the costs of a hardbound book.

  • This is a topic I’m VERY much interested in! But for plays, not books.
    I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that my plays just do not appeal to most audiences or to the gatekeepers at most theatres. But there 300 million people in the USA, 6-7 billion on the planet. There are a few people do love my work– I get a fan email at least once a week from some one who has read some play(s) of mine on my webpage and wants to thank me for my writing. For the last decade I’ve been trying to figure out how to skip the gatekeepers of the (very expense indeed, in time as well as money) submission process and bring my work to the attention of people who might read and perform it. I have a huge website, well ranked by Google. This week my husband and I made podcasts of a couple of my monologues and posted them to Google and PodOmatic. The Internet and other recent telecommunication technology has made it possible to do such things: the problem is to figure what to do and out how to do it effectively. The model you laid out for “long tail” publication of niche marketable books on this blog is very attractive. My question is: Can playwrights come up with a similar model for the distribution of their play scripts, unpublished as well as out-of-print? Can we “think expansion”? I don’t need to be on Broadway to be a happy playwright. A production on an aircraft carrier at sea or in the Bangladeshi School of the Arts will be just fine, thank you.

    G.L. Horton

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  • You need to read the editorials at http://www.baens-universe.com/ especially the bit about eBooks in the current issue – http://www.baens-universe.com/articles/ed2

  • Jeff’s proposed strategies are a great example of segmenting one’s market. A bit more at http://www.focusedperformance.com/2006/08/book-business-externally-constrained.html

  • JoePub

    Book publishing companies are definitely a swamp of frustrating anachronisms. I didn’t realize just how much so unitl I stopped working at one. However, there are a few thing’s you’ve proposed that I’d like to throw my two pennies at:

    1) “Charge less if the reader is willing to wait” will never work. No one would use the cheaper/free Amazon shipping options if their projected wait time was an extra 5 days to 7 months, depending on how many other people decided to order the books they were interested in.

    You can’t look to Netflix here, because the customer isn’t going to be sent another book while they wait for the one they want. And if they are, well, then we’ve just re-invented the Book of the Month Club.

    2) Almost nobody is interested in a $15 pdf. If they were, e-books would already be selling like literary flapjacks. They’re not. Last time I checked, audio books sold better. And who the hell buys audio books?

    A really groovy e-reader might up the number of sales a little bit, particularly if Appple did one, but until we’re taught to read on screens, most people will still want their books in ink.

    Give e-books away for free to promote the hardcover. Give up on making a profit on them. Just give the damn things away already! Either in chapter size bits on the web or in their entirety with purchase of the hardcover. I haven’t checked in on Baen books lately, but they really nailed this with their free e-library a few years back.

    3) Publishers have been talking about using technology to get rid of the “current retailing middlemen” since at least the advent of the CD-ROM. It won’t happen & it shouldn’t happen. People hanging out at a B&N are a captive audience. Don’t lose them. Hell, just having a legion of cyclopean B&Ns looming over the mini-malls gives the book industry a level of exposure that just didn’t exist back in the days of the independent bookseller. Trying to build up the publishing industry by knocking down B&N won’t work.

    4) There’s no reason that two (or 12) books-about-books shouldn’t be written and available in some sort of form on the web. There’s a very good reason a publisher shouldn’t release one when another’s just come out, though: the advance. It won’t earn back quickly if the market is “saturated” when a book hits the market.

    Tell publishers you’ll forgo your advance payment and they may be more interested in obtaining an “instant backlist” title that will slowly generate revenue for both you & them over the years. You may want to leave your agent out of this discussion. ;)

    4)” The internet is not the enemy of books, authors, publishers, and ideas.” Too true. There are many things that need to change in order to make the industry more appealing to my fellow 21st-century-digital-boys & girls. I’d particularly like to see the demise of the now largely irrelevant distinction between the US/UK market.

    But at the same time, book publishers shouldn’t try to become web publishers. They need to use the net to find nifty ways to sell their sliced up, ink stained, bundles of bark, not ape the business model of whatever nifty web startup that’s captured our hearts and minds this week.

  • Eri

    Check out the model that many Print-on-Demand houses use, such as Authorhouse and others. They use the printer Lightening Source, which keeps 1 – 5 books in storage until more or ordered, then they print more volumes. It literally is printing on demand and is much more economical (Not to mention environmentally conscious) than stocking hundreds of books that don’t sell and eventually get destroyed by sellers who can’t sell what they’ve got because they can’t reach their buyers.

  • hmm, jeff. up for a little experiment?

    why don’t you just write your book, offer it online as a free pdf (or for a small fee or donation), offer it also as a pod book, and through the pod, put it eventually on ingram for global distribution.

    i’ve been dabbling in online and offline publishing for a long time. my latest scheme is to set up a colophon (basically a publishing house ‘lite’). if you are interested, you write your book and i can take it from there (or we could share tasks). let’s see what happens. it wouldn’t be like random house, though it might seem random.

    and i think i’ll also mention something to g.i.horton.

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