What Is the Value of Traditional Publishers? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


Advice to Publishers: Don’t Fight for Your Honor, Fight for Your Lives by Len Sherman

Sherman is on the faculty of the Columbia Business School, after a 30-year career in management. He delves into the deeper, historical, and endemic issues underlying the Amazon-Hachette conflict—useful for people who may not be aware of them. He concludes:

… this dispute is ultimately not about whether Amazon is a monopolist or monopsonist. Nor is it about whether Amazon is trying to use books as a loss leader to sell other merchandise or whether the company is treating Hachette, authors or its own customers fairly. It is also not about whether book publishers as currently configured are an essential bedrock of our society.

It is about whether publishers can retool their business capabilities to maintain a vital role in adding value to all stakeholders in an industry where books will increasingly be produced, marketed, reviewed and sold in profoundly different ways.

Sherman goes on to to say this means authors will be fundamentally questioning what value a traditional publisher offers—which, of course, is exactly what’s happening. You can’t attend a writing conference any more without hearing this question at every agent and editor panel. Read the full piece.

Thoughts & questions:

  • I suspect a publisher’s value may greatly depend on the genre/category in question, and how much consumer recognition the publisher’s brand has. I once wrote a long piece about the future of the author-publisher relationship (sadly, no longer available online, though I discuss here). I speculated that marketing would be the key value, but in the literary world, editorial taste and prestige is of much higher consideration. What do you think?

Here’s How the Recession Affected Jobs in News, Publishing, Advertising, and More by Caroline O’Donovan

The New York Times recently released a stunning visualization of job growth and decline in the U.S., based on government data. Below is a snapshot of the publishing/media environment. Newspaper, magazine, and book publishing jobs have declined while internet-related publishing jobs have grown.

Publishing and Media Jobs

Thoughts & questions:

  • I’m not sure how much the recession is really related to the declines seen here (as opposed to other fields the Times covered). Technological disruption of the market is obviously a big factor—perhaps the recession sped up the decline?
  • It’s tough to envision a job recovery for either newspaper or periodical publishers. What do you think?

Breaking Free: What Happened After I Left KDP Select by Nick Stephenson

This is a practical post, with transparent data, about one author’s sales after leaving Amazon KDP Select. The Select program demands that self-publishing authors sell exclusively through Amazon for 90 days; in return, Amazon gives you 5 days out of the 90 to make your book available for free (among a few other perks).

The ongoing debate among authors is whether this program is worthwhile or not. I think the big answer is “it depends,” but either way, I appreciate Stephenson showing the data of what happened. It also gives you some insight into how many sales you’re potentially missing by only distributing through Amazon. Stephenson concludes:

I’ve found that having books out of Select is (so far) having a positive effect. With KDP Select free days, I can drum up $1,500+ of extra cash in a 48-hour period, but that’s relying almost entirely on Bookbub, and things go back to normal almost immediately. … With books up on other vendors and a permafree [permanently free] title to keep readers coming in, I’m seeing much more consistent results. … Another ancillary benefit of permafree is email signups. With a link to my New Releases newsletter in the front and back of my book, I’m getting a lot of clicks – and a lot of signups. An extra 70 or 80 per day at the moment, which adds up pretty fast. It’s getting to the point where I can sell 50 – 100 books at full price from each email (once or twice per month), which also helps keep things going.

Thoughts & questions:

  • It feels like the tide is turning against the Select program, which makes me wonder what Amazon might do to increase its attractiveness. Indie authors have long wanted the ability to pre-order through Amazon (all the other retailers offer this functionality for self-pub titles), so perhaps that will be the next carrot. What do you think?
Posted in Smart Set.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

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 co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

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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4 Comments on "What Is the Value of Traditional Publishers? [Smart Set]"

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philipparees

Very timely post for me, on the point of considering KDP Select but pausing on the brink. Since all my baskets prove to have holes very reluctant to commit all to one.

MarkCoker
Jane, great collection here. On KDP Select, I was wondering the same thing WRT preorders. KDP-S could offer preorder capability to authors, and that would be well-received, but then it becomes yet another critical merchandising tool such as FREE days that Amazon restricts while other retailers make the same tools available to all without requiring exclusivity. KDP-S may eventually backfire against Amazon, because in order to sweeten the honeypot to lure in KDP-S authors, they must also disadvantage the authors who don’t go exclusive. This is an aspect of KDP-S few ever talk about. By giving advantage to some authors,… Read more »
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