Reading Notebook #14: Best Coverage of Publishing’s Current Dilemma

Kindle vs iPad

Snippets from “Publish or Perish” by Ken Auletta (New Yorker, April 26, 2010). You MUST go read the full article.

Excellent stats from article

  • Independent booksellers have declined from 3,250 to 1,400 since 1999
  • Big Six publishers account for 60% of all books sold in the U.S.
  • Breakdown of book sales in U.S.
    • 30% – B&N, Borders, other bookstore chains
    • 10% – independent bookstores
    • 45% – Target, Wal-mart, Costco, other big box retailers
    • 15% – Amazon
  • Amazon generates more than half of its revenues from products other than books
  • At end of 2009, Amazon accounted for 80% of all e-book sales

Selected quotes

From Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti:

“The real competition here is not, in our view, between the hardcover book and the e-book. TV, movies, Web browsing, video games are all competing for people’s valuable time. And if the book doesn’t compete we think that over time the industry will suffer. Look at the price points of digital goods in other media. I read a newspaper this morning online, and it didn’t cost me anything. Look at the price of rental movies. Look at the price of music. In a lot of respects, teaching a customer to pay ten dollars for a digital book is a great accomplishment.”

Asked to describe her foremost concern, Carolyn Reidy, of Simon & Schuster:

“In the digital world, it is possible for authors to publish without publishers. It is therefore incumbent on us to prove our worth to authors every day.”

Jane Friedman, former president and C.E.O. of HarperCollins:

“The publishers are afraid of a retailer that can replace them. An author needs a publisher for nurturing, editing, distributing, and marketing. If the publishers are cutting back on marketing, which is the biggest complaint authors have, and Amazon stays at eighty percent of the e-book market, why do you need the publisher?”

Ken Auletta states near the end:

“… aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.”

Go read the full article.

Posted in Reading, Writing Advice.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Simon Hay Healer

I think publishers have overlooked the benefits of lower priced ebooks. I think it's fair to say that the costs for publishers to produce and promote ebooks have been slashed. If we want more people to read then a lower price will be more effective. Everyone can make more money. If publishers use ebook sales to prop up the diminished profits from paper books then writers will be cheated. Writers can earn up to 70% royalty from self publishing an ebook. What will publishers offer? The profit margin on paper books is too small and market driven. There's no storage… Read more »


I had no idea Amazon was publishing well-to-do self published books and buying e-rights from those authors. What a crazy mess. Very eye-opening for an author to read, get a little behind the scenes. An author needs a publisher, need the relationship and the editing, but I don't think an established author needs a publisher anymore (platform, right?). It'll be interesting to se how this shakes out in the next decade, what's left after the storm. Will Amazon or someone simply create a press with editors and PR folks? Will publishers create e-divisions? Eh.