5 bullshit things about book publishing and the reasons behind them
Today I launch #5BullshitThings, an industry-by-industry analysis of the whacked-out way the world works now. I’ll start with book publishing.
When rapid change hits stodgy industries you get disruption. Disruption generates cognitive confusion and threatens power dynamics. That, in turn, generates hypocrisy, and incomprehensible behavior. In other words, bullshit.
Let’s look at five bullshit things about publishing. In the comments, feel free to suggest other topics for #5BullshitThings, or email me.
1. Publishing isn’t growing, but more people than ever want in on it.
Bookstore sales are down 22% in the last five years. Print books sales are down. The industry as a whole is flat in the US. But everyone I meet wants to publish a book. They think it will boost their career to be a published author. My favorite irony is the would-be author who says “I want to write a book” but has no idea what to write about.
Why it happens: Pure jealousy. Writing books looks easy — it’s just typing. Writing quality, publishable books is actually hard. And once the book is published, you need to promote it. It’s work that can pay off if you keep at it, but the illusion of publishing a book and watching the fame and money roll in is what people are buying into.
2. Books are the ultimate insider game, but anyone can play.
The structure of book publishing is stacked against you. You can’t get on the bookstore shelf without a publisher. You can’t get a publisher to pay attention without an agent. And you can’t get an agent to talk to you without an introduction.
At the same time, the tools to create books are absurdly accessible. Research is free on the web. Everybody writes. Anyone can publish on Amazon CreateSpace. It’s so easy to write and self-publish a book that nearly half a million people do it every year.
And even with all those new books, one in four people didn’t read a single book last year.
Why it happens: Facebook and mobile phones have sucked up people’s time and shrunk their attention spans. This reduces book reading. And eBooks and self-publishing have undermined traditional industry structures. But when industries shrink, only the strong survive. Result: the Amazon/B&N duopoly and the big 5 book publishers consolidate the remaining power. That’s why the fortress of traditional publishing is so hard to breach, even when there are so many other ways to publish.
3. Publishers expect authors to do their own marketing.
Why bother with a publisher? Because they say they will market your book. Publishers are big companies with resources; authors generally aren’t. Except that any agent will tell you that a successful author needs a “platform” to promote and sell books. If they have all the resources, why do they expect you to do the marketing?
Why it happens: Remember who the publisher’s customer is. It’s not the reader, it’s the bookstore. The publisher will promote your book by paying stores and Amazon to feature it (maybe). But the squeeze in publishers’ economics means their publicity staff is limited. For a few weeks around your book release, the publicist at the publishing company will put some effort into your book. Then they’re off to the next book and you’re on your own.
4. Editors are everywhere, but no one uses them.
The mergers and general decline in the publishing business mean there are lots of talented out-of-work editors. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of my former book editors are out on their own now (and no, it’s not because I drove them to it).
The remaining editors at publishing houses don’t have time to get very hands-on. Self-published authors often forgo editors altogether. The resulting books are often crappy.
Why it happens: Nobody wants somebody to tell them they’re wrong, which is what a good editor does. But that’s pretty dumb and shortsighted. Hire one of those former book editors. They’re good, and because there is so much competition, they’re not that expensive.
5. Print-on-demand could make the whole industry obsolete.
Machines that can turn a file into a paperbound book with a color cover are spreading and getting cheaper. That’s how Amazon can turn you into a published author without owning any inventory — it prints your book only when somebody orders it. Not everyone likes to read eBooks. But every reader likes quality paperbacks.
Once you get rid of inventory, bookstores become showrooms. Amazon will never be out of stock, and books need not go out of print. Walmart could put a machine in every store and print you any book you want. Home Depot could print you a quality how-to book to go with your decking material; movie theaters could sell you the novel along with your movie ticket.
All the power in the book publishing industry comes from distribution bottlenecks and the financial clout you need to manufacture and distribute books. Once that’s obsolete, who needs publishers and bookstores?
Why it happens: Industries persist based on habits. It will take decades to dismantle today’s book industry, but it’s coming.
See also 5 Bullshit Things About Television.
Please email me at josh at bernoff dotcom with your suggestions for my next #5BullshitThings.
Hi Josh…I so agree with your points about publishing. I have had two books published by two different publishers and while it feels “Nice” to have that happen, they didn’t do any of the promotion they promised to in advance. Meanwhile I have self-published two ebooks and PODs and they sell about the same. I’m not a big promoter but do what I can. POD has changed the publishing world tremendously and it will be interesting to see where things go from here. Ultimately, if you’re a writer, you just write. Hopefully we get better as we go and find our audience. All we can do is hope people still continue to value the written word the way we put it out. ~Kathy