Monday, April 28, 2014

The Eye of the Storm?

Last week, one of Kris Rusch's reasons for cutting back on her business blogging was that the publishing business had entered a period of stabilization. But with the Gulf hurricane season officially starting a month from Thursday and preparation ads starting to spring up, I wondered:  Are things really stabilizing or are we in the eye of the storm?

1) Writers

The trickle of writers who had contracts for novel length works leaving publishing companies has turned into a steady stream. Many new writers are refusing to even consider  working with a major publishing house. We haven't gotten to the point where that steady stream turns into a gush, or where a MAJOR name like King, Roberts or Grisham walks away from their publisher.

2) Publishers Houses

Sure, you've got guys like Joe Konrath predicting the big publishers will collapse, but the bigger publishing houses made record-breaking profiits in 2013. There's also a lot of issues not being said.

Both Disney and Warner Brothers streamlined their print book operations so that they are focusing on materials and IP properties they fully control, e.g. Star Wars and Superman among others. Supposedly, Disney is keeping the contract Lucasfilm had with Random House to produce Star Wars novels, but I question how long that arrangement might last.

After news got out that Harlequin used contractually sleight-of-hand to rip-off writers, pitch slots to their editors were empty at the 2013 Romance Writers of America Conference. Other small publishers, such as Kensington and Ellora's Cave, are seeing a drop in submissions, and the submissions coming in are dropping in quality.

Overall, the publishing houses are reducing advances, reducing print runs, and issuing draconian contract terms to keep the writers they already have tied to them. They are also tying up reversion rights even though they seem to have no interest in reissuing the older books.

The question is at what point will the majority of writer grow tired of these shennanigans and walk way from the publishers, or writing, altogether.

3) Brick and Mortar Stores

It's been a little over two years since Borders collapsed here in the U.S. Barnes & Noble is scrambling to stay alive by cutting down on books and selling trinkets and toys. Book-a-Million and Half-Price Books only sell a fraction of what the ailing B&N sells. Walmart, Target and Costco will only sell  book on the top twenty of the New York Times bestseller list. Groceries stores and pharmacies are whacking their mass market paperback displays in a quarter of what they used to carry, assuming they are still carrying books at all.

On the plus side, many independent bookstores have arisen from the ashes of the Borders collapse and the closing of several B&N's. They've learned their lessons that they can't compete on price alone and are focusing on service and the customer experience.

Can the bigger stores afford to carry books? And if not, at what point do they quit?

4) Devices

This is where I think the most pundits are short-sighted. I've read article after article about slow down in sales of dedicated e-readers. Barnes & Noble is floundering. Sony gave up on devices totally, then sold its e-book division to Kobo. Kobo turned around and laid off 63 people last week. Yet, I still see publishing CEOs claim the slow down in dedicated device sales means adaption to e-books is also slowing.

This is where I *facepalm*.

First of all, if e-book adaption is slowing, why are the same companies claiming record profits? Sales of paper books are down or steady according to the folks who keep track of such things like Bowker.

Second of all, consumers are buying more and more tablets and smartphones. These multi-purpose devices are driving technology sales right now. In fact, tablets sales are seriously impacting Dell's laptop business. Executives don't seem to understand that you can READ on these multi-purpose devices.

Do you want a prime example? Two weeks ago, an older woman and I were sanding in line at the post office to mail Easter packages to family. I was reading on my iPhone 4. She had a HC. She didn't understand how I could read on such a small screen. I showed how I could adjust the font on the Kindle app, which led to an explanation of how apps work on a phone.

And why am I reading so much on my iPhone? Because the toggle switch on my Kindle 2 broke. While I like reading on e-ink since I spend twice as much business time on my computer than I ever did when I was a programmer or systems engineer, I question why should I spend the extra money. If my eyes need a break, I have 1300+ paper books I can read.

Even Genius Kid, who just got a Galaxy S4, doesn't think he needs another device, even though he's been asking for a Kindle for the last year.

When are execs going to understand that the loss of dedicated devices doesn't mean the loss of e-books?

* * *

With all these issues still outstanding (and I'm sure there's more I missed), I can't see any supposed stability lasting for long. The real question to me is--are we on the clean side of the hurricane or the dirty side when the storm roars past us?


  1. I got an iPad mini for Xmas. I've got 3-4 readers on it, but have only read a few books on it. I do like the convenience of downloading a book from the public library in the middle of the night, although most of what I read doesn't get bought as an ebook. I think I would prefer an e-ink reader, but that's another thing to have.

  2. Everybody's got their personal preferences, Stu Rat. Someone (and I really wish I could remember who) made a comment that only the young would adapt to e-books, e-readers, tablets, etc. But I've seen more adaptation by older folks, i.e. people of my parents' generation who are in their seventies and eighties.

    By the way, the basic Kindle e-ink reader is on sale for $49 right now.

  3. I got an email from amazon on the sale.

    I remember people thinking the tablets would be the province of the young. But my older sister and her husband have bought several iPads, everyone on their phone pad has a smartphone and they are moving more and more of their business's office work onto the tablets. Not all though, some of their contractors still don't have email (it's a fad!). I would have figured her to be a slow adopter, but nope. She wouldn't stand in line on release day, but transitions to the new models fairly quickly.

    I have never been able to read large amounts of text of a computer. Even harder for me on the websites with black background and white text. :D

    1. Some people can't read on a screen because the eyes detect the refresh, and in some cases, it gives them migraines. I know several people with MS and fibromyalgia who can't be on the computer for long either.

      I never had a problem until I needed bifocals a couple of years ago. LOL

      I actually have an easier time seeing white on black, but I admit my brain's wiring is non-standard. I do need to update the background and title page since it's been the same for five years. Someday, I'll actually get it done.

  4. On the older adapter thing, from what I've heard, older people love the adjustable font size. Large-print books have always been scarce and expensive, but my husband, who's 62 and legally blind, loves his Kindle.

    On the rest, you make a lot of good points, but I don't know how much of that will cause major changes to the industry as a whole, or how writers do business. I agree that the bigger publishers will stick around. Even if they cut way back to only publishing bestsellers, well, those are the writers they treat pretty well, so they (the Kings and Robertses and Grishams) have less reason to bail out. The only way to get a decent contract right now, if you're not already a huge seller traditionally, is to be a huge seller on the indie side. I don't see that changing.

    More and more writers are going indie, and especially more newbies are deciding not to hop onto the agent-publisher merry-go-round. I don't see that changing either.

    Traditional markets that publish short fiction, the magazines and webzines and some of the anthologies, have always treated writers well, and have continued to do so. They're still good markets if you write short fiction. Don't see that changing. Some of the older markets might go away, especially the paper-only markets, but a bunch of new webzines have popped up in the last few years and are doing very well, plus other markets like Daily SF, whose business model I still don't understand, but who've been paying pro rates since their inception.

    There's still some shuffling among the e-book vendors, like Sony and Deisel going away and Kobo laying people off. That's still a volatile chunk of the business -- kind of reminds me of the eighties when the home computer market was still shaking out -- but really, all it takes is a generation to grow up knowing how to sideload books with no hassle, and that opens the market up to whatever other vendors want to toss their hats into the ring, aside from Amazon, B&N and Apple. My mom loves her Nook but to my knowledge has never sideloaded anything, and seems to find the whole concept a bit nerve-wracking. I'm sure there are other folks her age who have no problem with it, though, and younger people tend to be more comfortable with that kind of thing. So long as users consider it easy to load a third-party book onto a device, that keeps the market open for third-party vendors.

    Anything bad/worse the NY publishers do will just speed the flight of new and midlist writers. There'll always be folks willing to line up to sign crap contracts if they get an offer from a big publisher, or at least I expect that to be the case within my lifetime, but really, the only viable moves for the NY publishers that I can see are positive from the POV of the writers.

    So where does that leave us? We don't need NY for our novels, we still have access to decent business partners in the traditional short markets, plus indie pubbing is growing like crazy. There are scammers waiting to rip off the unwary, but that's always been the case and isn't really a change.

    In a way I hope you're right, that things will start changing again in a year or so; it might lure Kris back to posting. :) I don't really see it, though.


    1. Angie, I honestly hope you're right that the major stuff is over for now as far as publishing goes. Amazon seems to have turned its attention to taking out or taking over Netflix. But it's foolish to think Amazon is the only player in the electronic media game.

      I think the thing that could really disrupt Amazon's hold on the electronic media is open source apps that have access to open source retailers and skip side loading.

      The problem is the money involved. It''ll take another garage entrepreneur with guts to pull it off.

      Nothing is set is stone right now. Hopefully everything stays stable for a bit, and give us writers a breather.

      But then, NBA Commissioner Silver shocked the shit out of me this morning by leveling a fine equal to Clippers' owner Sterling equal to 1% of his net worth and banned him from the NBA for life for Sterling's racist diatribe over the phone to his mistress. Former commissioner Stern had turned a blind eye to Sterling's shit for years.