In my previous post, How Amazon Destroyed Barnes & Noble, I explained how Amazon (alone) could not be held responsible for the bookstore’s troubles.
This post addresses another common complaint, that Amazon has destroyed publishing.
Again, things are not as black and white as that. Yes, Amazon is a shark. But it was the publishing industry which made blunder after blunder, allowing Amazon to take advantage of their mistakes.
Let’s take things from the start.
A Brief History of 20th Century Publishing
As Kristen Lamb points out in her must-read post, Goliath has Fallen & What This Means for Writers, publishing worked in a pretty standard way for over a century. Writers would take their books to publishers. If their pitch was successful, the publishers would then sign them on, publish the books, and distribute them to smaller chains and independent bookstores around the country.
The leaders in charge of the publishing business knew they had three jobs:
- Protect the writers, producers of the product publishers sold.
- Protect the bookstores, distributors of books.
- Protect the readers, consumers of books.
These are listed in order of importance. If there are no writers, then there is no content: no stories, no books, no movie rights, nothing. With no distribution network, even the most avid book readers will have no way of getting their hands on books. And with no readers, there’s no way to sustain your business.
The Barnes & Noble Effect
Then, around 2006, the book business started fracturing. Barnes & Noble introduced the big-box model, followed by outsiders like Walmart. Under the new paradigm, selection and variety ruled. This meant a fight for the best shelf space. But with shelf space precious and finite, these mega-stores soon dropped extensive backlists.
Problem was, those backlists had once been the bread-and-butter for the working author. Under the new big-box model, the stores would now only stock the backlists of the top-earning authors, as those were guaranteed to sell.
In the first of four crucial blunders, the publishing business used this business reality to justify mothballing the backlists of virtually all authors who weren’t household names. This meant instead of an author earning royalties off, say, fifteen books, they could only earn royalties off their most recent title.
Many authors witnessed decades of work vanish along with the small bookstores that supported them.
Midlisters were hit particularly hard. Not only did this change mean a drastic pay cut, but it also meant these authors had no viable backlist to cultivate existing fans into future fans. There was no longer a way to truly earn their way into household name status. If fans wanted an author’s earlier books, they had to go find them in secondary markets: used bookstores, garage sales and any other place where the author wasn’t paid.
When Amazon launched the Kindle, early adopting readers found themselves in a conundrum. They had a new gizmo where they could read all the books they wanted… but there weren’t all that many books.
This didn’t have to be so. E-books offered publishers had a second chance. An opportunity to do right by their authors. Yes, they couldn’t do anything to protect them from Barnes & Noble and the rest, but they could have resurrected those titles at least in e-book form.
Publishers possessed a ready arsenal of thousands of mothballed titles; novels which had already been thoroughly edited and market tested. Many of these books had earned the coveted titles of USA Today and/or NY Times Best -Selling Book. A deal with Amazon would have meant good books for their customers to load on their new Kindle device, fresh money from non-earning titles, and income for struggling authors. Also, it would have let the Big Six gather critical data to guide future business decisions. Were e-books just a fad, as they’ve been trying to convince themselves ever since? Or were they here to stay?
A win-win-win-win situation if there ever was one.
So, what did the Big Six do? They decided that didn’t want to discount their new titles on Amazon. And, without a single shred of evidence, dismissed this e-book thing as really just a fad.
That E-Book Fad
So, instead of creating a Big Six controlled e-book division staffed with eager college grads to format books and flood Amazon with gatekeeper-approved books, the Big Six decided that e-books were evil. Readers would always want paper and a browsing experience in an oversized store with ridiculous overhead.
Authors weren’t convinced. So, they asked for the rights to their backlists. Since publishers felt these were worthless, they were happy to oblige and initially handed backlists back to the authors. They truly believed e-books were a fool’s pipe dream and a fad (though did nothing to test this opinion).
But then the inconceivable happened. Those spurned authors started converting their cast-off backlists into e-books and making tons of money. With readers desperate for good e-books, these authors started making far more income than they ever had through traditional publishing.
This e-book gold rush ignited a mass exodus of multi-published and mid-list authors… right into Amazon’s welcoming arms.
The Big Six had failed spectacularly in protecting their most valuable asset: their writers.
Belatedly, the publishing world woke up to the danger. The next generation of household names had historically been cultivated, groomed, and promoted from the ranks of the mid-list.
But the mid-list authors, after years of loyalty, got fed up with being treated so poorly and were leaving in droves.
So, what did the publishers do? Did they see the error of their ways and make an e-book division strictly for backlists? Negotiate with Amazon? Maybe even broker a deal that if enough e-book copies sold, a book/series could garner a fresh print run?
Publishers changed all the contracts to make it where authors no longer had rights to their backlist. Ever. Those backlists would remain the property of the publisher indefinitely to do with what they wished. Including nothing.
A once-devoted author pool suddenly turned bitter, and for very good reasons. Not content to starve, a large portion of the traditional talent went rogue. Or, rather, hybrid. They cut their losses and began self-publishing. More than a few created indie houses of their own that were more efficient and geared toward the digital marketplace.
The authors who’d once made money for publishers suddenly became additional competition, with Amazon’s blessing, of course.
What’s insane is that, as Kristen repeatedly explains, most of the traditional authors had zero desire to leave. They’d been publishing traditionally for years, even decades. Going it alone meant a lot more work and a steep and highly technical learning curve, from a group that feared e-mail!
Most of these authors simply wanted to just write the books like they always had. But when faced with starvation? You serve the master who feeds you.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Big Six helped self-publishing transition from “shunned last-ditch of the hack wanna-be writer” into a viable and respectable publishing alternative.
Strike Four (Yes, I know you’re already out by now but the match goes on)
Having done such a poor job at protecting their authors, how were the Big Six doing with their second job, protecting bookstores?
Sadly enough, they didn’t treat the smaller chains/indie bookstores any better. It didn’t matter that small chains, Indies, and countless mom-and-pop bookstores had been the beating heart of publishing since its inception. These stores promoted authors, held events and book signings. They pushed literacy, actively sold books and made The Big Six what it was.
However, when Barnes and Noble and Walmart started sending the Big Six bucketloads of orders, they also demanded deep discounts. Which they got because, economics: the larger the order, the deeper the discount.
Caught between Amazon and the bix-box discounts, the smaller chains and mom-and-pop indies couldn’t compete. They steadily died off until only a tenacious few remained.
While this happened, the Big Six blithely continued to support the big-box stores at the expense of authors (talent) and smaller bookstores (their former allies).
Amazon rubbed its hands with glee. The Big Six had already sent Amazon their best authors. They were now destroying Amazon’s competition to boot. Unsurprisingly, Amazon continued to build its e-book empire and squeeze everyone smaller into oblivion. It even picked an ugly fight with Hachette in a clear sign of its intentions, as I warned as early as 2014.
There were so many crucial moments like this:
- As early as January 2010, Amazon removed the BUY buttons from all Macmillan titles.
- A ‘mysterious’ glitch temporarily removed the BUY buttons off ALL the Big Six titles—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Hachette.
- Amazon (allegedly) removed virtually all the discounts on Hachette titles, according to a 2014 article in Forbes.
Faced with all these red flags, publishing leadership should have thrown everything they had into innovating and making darn sure no one ever had the power to grab them by the tender bits. They should have gone back to their primary goals:
- Protect the authors
- Protect the bookstores
- Protect the readers
Instead, they alienated the authors, sending them in droves to Amazon. They destroyed the bookstores by offering deep discounts to big-box stores. They ignored the needs of their readers by refusing to sell them the e-books they craved. And to top it all off, they claimed that e-books are (repeat after me) just a fad and nothing needs to change.
It’s almost like the Big Six were trying to ensure Amazon’s rise as a publishing powerhouse.
Now, while the Big Six were busy burying their heads in the sand, Barnes and Noble collapsed.
What About Us?
While it remains to be seen whether this will be a wakeup call for an industry that’s deep in denial, what does that all mean for us writers?
For one thing, we have to hope and pray that Elliott Advisors C.E.O. James Daunt can deliver, or we might all be spelling Amazon, M-O-N-O-P-O-L-Y.
This matters. A lot. Amazon (or anyone) having total control should be scary for all authors. But, it is a particularly frightening scenario for Indies, as we lack the resources and legal know-how to fight a large machine.
Unfortunately, if Barnes & Noble doesn’t salvage something out of this mess, it could spell the end of legacy publishing.
So, will the Big Six finally wake up and realize that authors are their most valuable resources?
Will they learn from their past mistakes and remember that, besides those bulk orders which stock the Barnes and Noble, they also need orders from those mom-and-pop stores they once ‘didn’t need’ and—with help from their besties Borders and Barnes &Noble—damn near killed off?
And have they realized that, if the Elliot Advisors hadn’t ridden to the rescue, the entire U.S. legacy book industry could have collapsed? Most other investors or corporate raiders would have bought Barnes & Noble and promptly held a yard sale.
Personally, I’m not holding my breath.
Which is why, for us writers, the best advice is:
- To know the business of our business, regardless of the path we choose.
- We also have to write excellent books. The more books we write and the better they are, the more negotiating power we’ll have.
- And, finally, an author brand and platform is not an option, it is a lifeline. The only way to Amazon-proof and future-proof ourselves is to create a passionate and vested following who will buy our books no matter where we list them.
As Kristen stresses, yes, it’s a tumultuous time in publishing, but while industries change, humans never do. Humans will always want stories and information. So long as there are humans, there will be educators, inspirers, and storytellers.
Our industry might be a mess, but our jobs are secure.
For more excellent insights into the publishing world, visit Kristen Lamb’s blog, where much of the material for this post came from!