Okay, it’s a bit of a hyperbolic headline, but still, if you’re in Big Six publishing, you have to be a bit concerned about your business model.
When you look at the numbers, it seems pretty clear that Big Six publishing seems to be headed to a place it does not necessarily want to be. Publisher’s Lunch has a fascinating piece on Amazon’s effort (subscription required) to come up with a subscription service. In describing the plan, which would give Amazon exclusive rights to “to offer free access to wide swaths of backlist ebooks to Amazon Prime members,” Michael Cader writes that, for most publishers, it’s a nonstarter:
Publishers who have already declined told us the exclusive was one of the easy reasons to not even consider the plan, with one person suggesting that the scheme is directly targeted at taking customers and share away from Barnes & Noble.
The thing that really struck me was, however, this:
…most traditional publishers are trying to uphold the value of selling authors’ work at a price that supports a professional process and allows for broad investment in the funding of new work.
And then this:
For standard trade publishers who license individual works from authors (and through agents), the structural, rights and relationship obstacles are manifold.
Later, there’s a quote (unattributed) about how disruptive the scheme is “to the economics that we know are working.” Which seems to me the real problem facing Big Six publishing these days. The economics may be working at this moment, but how long this moment will last is anybody’s guess. Especially when you consider how fast sales of ebooks are overtaking trade books. In March, Hachette Livre reported that nearly a quarter of US sales were from ebooks. According to Publishers Weekly, ebook sales jumped “167% in June” and:
The major trade segments took big hits in June due in part to the closing of more Borders stores. Trade paperback sales had the largest decline, down 64%, while children’s hardcover sales were off 31%. Adult hardcover sales fell 25%, mass market sales were down 22% and children’s paperback was off 13%. Sales in all the trade segments were also off by more than 10% for the first half of the year.
This concerns me for obvious reasons — I’m a writer and my novel is about to be published by Shelf Media Group only as an ebook. How this came to be so has as much to do with serendipity as it does with any actual design. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this works out. We know that publishing is going through a major, major shift and, like global warming, that shift would seem to be happening at a faster pace than anyone anticipated.
I used to work in publishing many, many years ago. I keep saying, “I used to know how publishing worked, but I don’t anymore.” I’m guessing that’s true of a lot of people these days. Even those who do.
More to come.