Anniversary Contest Finalist #4 – Publishing in the 21st century: Are the best things in life really free?

This post, from Edward G. Talbot, originally appeared on the Edward G. Talbot site on 2/16/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission. This is Edward G. Talbot’s entry in our anniversary contest, in which the winners are selected based on total unique page views. So if you like it, and would like to see Edward G. Talbot become a regular Publetariat Contributor, spread the word and the link!

The best things in life are free. But you can give that to the birds and the bees. I want money.
-The Undertakers, "Money", 1963.

Publishing is an industry everyone loves to hate. They publish too much garbage. They waste untold millions printing and shipping books that wind up in the dumpster. They’re only in it for the money. These observations contain plenty of truth, but they also strike me as rather useless. The bigger question for me is how is the growing trend of free and low-priced fiction going to impact publishing, and by extension the price and quality of available books.

I don’t buy the oft-stated opinion that publishers don’t add value. The real question is how much value do they add? Editing, advertising, and layout/cover design are just the most obvious items. Many would argue that publishers also serve as gatekeepers, ensuring that a book which bears their imprint meets certain quality standards. From a business standpoint, publishers also take the biggest financial risks, spending a minimum of $5000 (and often a lot more) to get a book ready for production.

OK, now that I’ve defended publishers, let’s talk about how things are changing. No one really knows exactly how the dust from all these changes will settle. I personally don’t believe that ten years from now large publishers will be gone or everyone will be reading e-books. But that’s just a guess, and I’ve been wrong before.

One thing I feel certain about is that free and low-priced content is going to have a bigger impact on the market than you hear most in the industry talk about. Certainly they are afraid of it and aren’t sure how to address the issue. I think they are right to be afraid.

I’ve heard several different arguments about why people will still buy e-books for $10-$15 from traditional publishers. Those arguments may turn out to be accurate, but they rest on a couple of assumptions that I think are dangerous.

The first assumption is that giving away books for free or selling them for two or three bucks is unsustainable. It’s true that few if any individual authors without large followings will drop five grand on professional book preparation and then sell for such cheap prices. So let’s assume that most of these books will not have such work put into them. And let’s grant that even a book good enough to be published by a major will not be as good without that work.

That returns us to the question of the value of the service a publisher provides. Is all that work worth $15 to a reader instead of $2 or $3? When you ponder that question, don’t imagine yourself, imagine the typical book buyer. Obviously a lot of readers have certain authors they will pay a huge premium for (I always spring for Lee Child the day a new one comes out), but it’s hard not to conclude that many people will check out the first few pages of a $3 e-book for free and like it enough to buy it instead of paying a lot more for a better known author. Certainly enough will make this choice to have a major impact on publishing bottom lines.

That’s the "demand" side of the equation, but the supply side is where I think the publishing industry’s long-time model is coming back to bite them. Most authors make anywhere from fifty cents to three dollars per book from a traditional publisher, varying with format and a number of other factors. There are simply too many costs and too many moving parts in the system to pay them more. An author can make as much or more by listing an e-book for $2.99 on kindle and and making over $2 a book. To be fair, publishers are beginning to move to higher royalties on e-books, and this terrain is changing rapidly.

The other big supply-side problem is, as I mentioned, the nature of the publishing model. You hear all the time that 99% of writers don’t get published. Whether the real number is 96% or 99.9% doesn’t really matter. The point is that all of these rejections have been assigned a value of zero by the industry. There’s no middle ground. Most of these books stink, but if only 1% of them are decent, that is an awful lot of potential competition that the free market has said are worth nothing. As e-publishing matures, many of them will appear for little or no cost. And the argument that this is unsustainable breaks down when you consider that most writers devote hundreds of hours a year for five to ten years before breaking through. Even most published authors can’t make a living. Most writers do it because we enjoy it. There’s no practical reason we can’t do it without compensation indefinitely.

The second dangerous assumption out there is that publishers will always have a role as gatekeepers, which will reduce the impact of the free and cheap content. This assumption contains some kernels of truth. It’s true that the more books published, the more difficult it can become for a reader to find good ones in the sea of content.

On the other hand, I think this question, like the one about the value added by publishers, needs to be viewed in the context of the average reader. Even today, numerous surveys show that most readers find books by word of mouth. E-books will only accelerate that trend, as finding them featured on tables in bookstores will diminish. And most readers are not looking for the perfect book. They are looking for a good book. In the face of too many choices, they may indeed fall back on the books with a lot of advertising.

However, that means the blockbuster authors. Publishers will undoubtedly still be the gatekeepers for those books. But everyone else, from the mid-list down to the debut author, will get squeezed. If you accept that many readers will be OK without the level of professional work that publishers provide, a $9.99 mid-list book will have trouble competing.

I’m sure some of you will not accept the premise that many readers are OK without that level of production work. And you may be right. I recently heard a well-reasoned argument that a mass of books a notch below that professional level will actually help mid-list writers. I guess the point I’m making is that the actions publishers are taking at the moment are mostly predicated on the fact that the value they’ve always added can sustain prices far higher than work without it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having the survival of my business rest on that.

This topic is a complex one. I haven’t touched on issues like what an author "should" give away for free or how the brick-and-mortar distribution model is changing, both of which impact the things I have covered here. And it’s easy to pick points I have made and show how I might be wrong. I might be. But given the unknowns, many in the industry seem more certain of that than I think the evidence warrants.

What do you think?