Seismic Shocks and Publishing Industry Predictions

Yesterday I experienced a shock that left me deliriously giddy, one that I believe will have profound effects for readers, writers, and publishers.

I used the Barnes & Noble portal for writers to make some corrections to my book description, then checked the main site to see if the updates had posted. That's when I discovered that Barnes & Noble is selling the paperback edition of my forthcoming science fiction novel, Angel on the Ropes.


I blinked. I closed down my browser and checked again, because this did not seem possible.

Yes, it was technically possible--the paperback edition, which is printed by Amazon's Createspace, is available through two major distributors, Ingram and Baker & Taylor--but those distributors had restrictive terms for print-on-demand (POD) titles that would make most bookstores refuse to order even a single copy. I only expected the paperback to be available through Amazon and a few indie bookstores who'd be willing to deal directly with me. (The grand total for that, so far, is one.)

So how did a POD title end up at Barnes & Noble two weeks before the official publication date?

I turned to the blog of Kristine Kathryn Rusch and found my answer in her post, "Shifting Sands":

In a nutshell: the two distributors had changed their ordering policies. POD books are now treated like all other print books. Bookstores can order POD titles for a full discount with the no-hassles return policy. These titles are listed alongside their legacy-published kin.

A major bottleneck that had limited the distribution of many titles to bookstores has been eliminated. (I'll tackle the pre-release question at the end. The first question is of greater general interest.)

I've long been more aware of the effects that Ingram and B&T had on the industry than many other writers, because back in the mid-90s, I worked for Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. We ran a book distribution service for Maine books, partially because the distributors' policies kept some terrific books out of bookstores. This was before ebooks, before online sales, before blogs, before social media. If your book was not carried by Ingram and B&T, you'd be selling it out of the back of your car.

Some of the policies that kept books out of their catalogs were absolutely reasonable. They were good indicators of quality; these are both huge businesses, so they need filtering systems. Other restrictions, however, reflected their business practices and were not related to the quality of the book, and may not have been fair predictors of reader interest (the concept of niche markets didn't interest them much).

Of course they had the right to run their businesses as they saw fit. The result, however, was unfortunate. Good books were not available to bookstores, which at the time meant they did not find their way to readers. You'd have to work harder to even discover that these books existed back then.

Along came Amazon and everything changed. After my second purchase from Amazon I called my sister, who is a stockbroker, about investing in this company that had solved what I perceived to be a major problem for the publishing industry. I explained the problem I just described. "Readers," I said, "do not care about the middleman's taste or needs. If they're interested in a title, they want to buy it. And Amazon is making that possible and easy." As someone who lived in a small rural town, paying shipping was cheaper than driving to the nearest bookstore. I knew there were many readers like me who'd love this new opportunity.

Ebooks ushered in another wave of expanded distribution options. Many readers, however, prefer print, or prefer to discover and buy books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores. For those readers, some small press and indie-published titles were invisible. Now that's changed.

Here's what I think it will mean within the next five years.

For readers:
* More access to more titles. You can buy books in the format you like, from your preferred store. (And if your favorite bookstore refuses to order a POD title that you want, say, "but you can now get the full discount and no-hassles returns. It's not a PIA anymore!")

* This might be the tipping point for the elimination of the mass-market paperback. Currently, the major POD printers do not offer that format. They offer the larger sizes known as "trade paperback," which are generally just a bit smaller than a hardcover edition. There are strong financial incentives for publishers to switch to POD once their markets accept it. Since ebooks are about the price point of mass-market paperbacks, I believe many publishers will abandon the mass-market paperback and offer a trade paperback edition instead, at a higher price. Sorry about that.

* Eco-conscious readers can feel better about their print book purchases, because there will be less waste in the system. (See Kris' discussion of the concurrent change in bookstore ordering practices that has dramatically reduced the returns rate.)

* Changes in book design. Currently, some of the nifty techniques associated with commercial offset printing (spot inks and gloss, embossing, and die cuts that allow for peak-a-boo covers) are not available through print-on-demand printing. Perhaps that will change. If not, I'm sure book designers will rise to the challenge and continue to produce beautiful covers.

For publishers:
* Indie writers who take the time to produce a quality paperback will likely see increased sales overall. Some will become bestsellers.

* Small presses will see increased sales overall and have more breakout titles as their books become easier to find and purchase. Their profitability should increase.

* Larger publishers (a.ka. "New York/legacy/traditional/Big 5/major," use whatever term you prefer, please don't get hung up on semantics) will experiment with POD as soon as they believe that a certain percentage of bookstores and readers will order POD titles. They'll probably start with debut and midlist authors and any titles that are perceived as being economically riskier. By switching to POD, they will not incur any upfront printing or warehousing costs--significant factors that already drive publishing decisions. They'll also save money on shipping.

* As more and more bookstores and readers become comfortable with POD, more books will be produced this way. Eventually, it will affect bestselling titles.

* Titles will be available in bookstores for a much longer period of time, resulting in increased sales, profits, and reader happiness. Most readers I know will not refuse to buy a book because it's old. If the premise grabs them, they buy it. Stories don't spoil!

For writers who publish their own work:
* More sales opportunities. Better discoverability. More production work and perhaps higher costs (if they hire a professional for both the cover and interior design).

For writers who partner with publishers:
* New contract concerns. Like ebooks, a POD edition is always in print. Territorial rights and the length of the contract need to be considered.

* Certain genres are closely associated with the mass-market paperback format. Some readers will not want to switch to POD or ebooks and may wait for libraries to purchase the hardcover edition. This could result in reduced sales, especially for writers who aren't offered a hardcover edition.

* New opportunities. Writers could issue print anthologies or other special editions on their own. Yet another reason to be very careful about which rights you sign over to publishers.

As I said: seismic changes that will ripple through the whole industry.

Now, to answer my other question. How did my book end up on the Barnes & Noble website so quickly?

Most Createspace books that are included in Amazon's Expanded Distribution Channel eventually make their way over to the Barnes & Noble website. It's likely this happened quickly for my title because I'd entered all the important data at Bowker's website in advance, so my title was listed in Books in Print. B&N uses that information to set up a sales page for qualifying titles. Once my book was available through Ingram, B&N could list it.

That's not the happy answer I considered yesterday, when I thought B&N wasn't carrying POD titles at all, certainly not all that were available to them. I thought they'd selected my book. Sigh.

It's possible, however, that some B&N bricks-and-mortar stores may be considering just that. And my insider knowledge about those distributors kept me from noticing.

Unlike many indie writers, I distributed ARCs (advance reading copies), which are required by some of the top-tier review sources. I had promised myself that I would shoot for the top. Let them say "no," I wasn't going to do it for them (and at least one has said "yes"--woo hoo!). I offered electronic ARCs through a service called "NetGalley" that distributes worldwide to reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and media professionals.

I uploaded my title to NetGalley on February 15th, about four months before my launch date of June 1st. I noticed that some booksellers were downloading my electronic ARC, but I figured they were just interested as readers. None of them responded to my email messages. A small mystery that wasn't worth more attention, I thought.

Between Feb. 15 and May 6, a dozen booksellers and one book distributor downloaded my ARC. This included a few chain stores and one terrific indie who made my heart pitter-patter. A few colleagues at the Independent Book Publishers Association shared their NetGalley data with me; if that information properly reflects the larger population, I'm receiving average interest in my book. Several of those booksellers were from Barnes & Noble.

One, in fact, was unaware of the distributors' policy changes. He wrote to me yesterday to tell me that he liked my book and would be recommending that customers buy the ebook edition. I was able to tell him that could carry it in his store, too. He's going to pitch it to his sales manager.

And so it begins.

Let me finish this post as a reader and explain why I wrote so much about this when my other blogging efforts have been so slight. I want to see more books available through mainstream distribution. I want to read great books, and some of those come from indie writers, who deserve a fair chance. I knew that my experience at Maine Writers gave me insights about the distributors that other writers lack.

We need more voices to be heard. This seemingly small and boring change in a business practice can help make that happen. I know there are books out there that will change my life and the world, and I want them.

There is a place for publishers of all sizes, from the indie writer to the largest mulitnational corporation. Let's all do what we do best.
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Published on May 17, 2013 13:05 Tags: book-distribution, indie-publishing, predictions
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