Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Current Publishing Struggles Are Not The Fault Of Just One Side

The publishing struggles currently going on at all levels of this business really are a "chicken before the egg" type of problem and frankly, writers, publishers, book buyers and many others really do need to stop and consider what they say before they even start placing the blame on the others in this struggle. Book sales are not soaring like they did before the economic crunch hit 5-6 years ago and the fault cannot lay at the feet of one single group in this publishing business.

In an April, 2013 article in Publisher's Weekly by Jim Milliot, he highlighted a few numbers that can certainly be a starting point to work with.

  • Total book sales rose 1.0% in 2013 over 2012, to $15.05 billion
  • Adult e-book sales rose 3.8%, to $1.30 billion
  • Hardcover sales increased 9.7%, to $1.52 billion
  • Trade paperback sales fell 9.3%, to $1.36 billion
  • Mass market paperback segment sales fell 7.7%, to $373.1 million
  • Downloaded audio had a good year with sales up 18.6%, to $131.6 million, while physical audio sales were basically flat at $78.4 million

Now look, I understand we can take a look at these numbers, and like a great baseball statistician, we can manipulate those numbers any number of ways we want to make our own personal claim. There are some who will try to claim that decreases in one area are the direct result of the increases in another area. Unfortunately, these are conclusions that simply cannot be drawn from that data. What we can say is that numbers are simply not where we want them to be, and this goes for everyone in this business - the agents, editors, writers (self-pub, traditional, independent, e-pub and the like), the publishers and the book sellers.

In an editorial for Publishing Perspectives, from a guest writer, Tanja Tuma, director of a Slovenian Publishing House, Zalozba Tuma (forgive the spelling of the publishing house. I can't figure out this AM how to get the computer to get the special characters for Slovenian), she noted several things that demonstrate this placing of the blame and missing things that I would consider falling in the "big picture" element of the argument:. She notes "brick-and-mortar bookshops are important cultural centers. On their shelves, they foster literary and popular literature under the wing of the famous. It’s a mixed calculation. Without this, the literary tastes of the readers being offered only the most popular and highly ranked writings cannot personally grow. They run the risk of becoming shallow, maybe so shallow that they don’t want to bother with reading any books or texts whatsoever."

I fully agree that the brick-and mortar bookshops are "important cultural centers" but extending the argument to claiming the limited offerings are preventing any personal growth or that readers will not want to "bother with reading any books or texts whatsoever" is a bit too extreme.

She does try to justify this with a comment drawn fro the now infamous "Open Letter to KDP Authors" that these bookstores " It is particularly painful that the brick-and-mortar bookshops claim that because of physical and material reasons." Let's think logically about this, shall we? A store has so many square feet. There are currently more authors (of all ranges of ability and quality) out there than shelf space. Sorry but this is true.

And this is happening not just with the brick-and-mortar bookstores, but for any place that had, in the past, provided book space. The Walmarts, grocery stores and so forth are now replacing the book shelves with things that are selling. Remember, they too are businesses attempting to make money and if the space is being taken up with something not being sold, what better solution than to remove the non-selling product and replace it with something that does sell. Don't we do this with our garages? We get rid of things that haven't been used and are "just taking up shelf space"?

Now, with that said, I have always believed that many of those brick-and-mortar stores did take up that coveted "book space" with things that probably had a better place. Even today, walk into a Barnes and Noble and consider how much floor space is being taken up by the display and the staffing to sell their Nook devices? Just something to consider.

Tuma, like many others in this battle are also trying to argue that this is still that traditional vs self-pub battle. She also noted in her article, "the traditional publishers and booksellers neglect the newest trends and completely ignore the self-published market of electronic and paper books."

There are several things to consider here. Again, if we think about the retail community in any business, we don't represent and sell everything. If you open a store that sells, let's say lingerie, what will you sell in your store? The odds are there will not be shelf-space devoted to hammers and nails, or for that matter, milk, eggs and bread. Why? Well, according to Tuma and others like her, it is because you as a store owner are neglecting newer trends and ignoring the hardware and nutrition markets. 

I do know, however, that many of the traditional publishing markets are far from ignoring these markets. They, like everyone else in this business today, are looking at ways to increase those sales of books. This does include incorporating e-publishing models, working with independent publishers and even trying different formats of books. To add to this, as many in the e-pub world know, they are also buying up many authors who started on their own and then guiding them to even greater successes.

I really don't want to come across as just another person placing blame. I also do not want to make it sound like Tanja Tuma and other writers are 100% off the mark. They too are expressing concerns that I think we all share. This market is struggling right now. It really doesn't matter which side of the argument you sit on, things are tough. 

Personally for me, I think we might be missing the biggest contributing factor - the readers. We are the producers and they are the consumers. If they don't buy (for whatever reason) then we don't make money. I don't care what type of pretty package we put our books in, or if we end up attempting to sell our books from a hot air balloon, if the readers aren't buying, then we don't make money.

Maybe, just maybe, if we stop trying to place the blame and look for "real solutions" we might be able to get out of this. But also consider this. It took a while to get into this and the solution, I can guarantee, will not be one that happens overnight. Like everything else in the publishing business, it will take time.

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