Publishers have been taking some rather unpopular stands lately. The agency model for e-books raised the price for many e-books, they have removed e-books from libraries, and they spend millions of dollars on the latest celebrity memoir even as great midlist authors go unsupported or get dropped entirely. Accordingly, I see a whole lot of angst against publishers around the Internet, especially in social media.
Are publishers going the way of record labels in the public’s eye as greedy dinosaurs who failed to keep pace with the times? (To be clear: I like publishers a great deal. But I see a lot of complaints out there.)
What’s kind of amazing to me is that the “shop on the corner” effect usually favors the old timers against the newfangled upstart, but in consumers’ eyes I’m not sure publishers are winning the sympathy battle against Amazon and others.
And there are real consequences to a failure of public perception: Consumers may find it easier to justify pirating from those Big Bad Meanie
Publishers if they feel they’re being treated unfairly. Readers may not care as much about supporting the traditional publishing system and curation. And authors faced with a choice between working with publishers and going on their own may choose to eschew traditional publishing.
Do publishers have a perception problem? And if so, what should they do about it?
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I wonder if publisher's perceive that people are buying less books so they have to be uber careful on what they invest in. Celebrity books are almost always a sure thing, but where are the exciting new writers coming from if publishers are less likely to take chances on them? That's my perception of the current scene. I'm not sure what the perception of others are as I don't follow any blogs except this one and don't take notice of what is trending. I don't think many would think publishers to be greedy monsters, more as cautious business people trying to make the necessary profits to keep going. Possibly the casual reader is unaware of most happenings in the pub. world, whereas new writers might have become less optimistic that their work will be picked up and, therefore, decide to invest in their own future. That's the direct I'd like to go in when I get more time.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I do think it's unfair that celebrity "authors" get multi-million dollar book deals from publishers. On the other hand, publishers are also business people, which is why they wouldn't offer those deals to those celebrities if they didn't think that those books would sell. Even though a lot of readers and writers are shaking their heads over Amanda Knox's book deal, on the other hand, how many of them will be buying her book? I'm willing to bet that a lot of them will, if only to satisfy their curiosity about what her side of the story is. It's a little like reality TV; we can judge producers and networks for airing trashy reality TV, and yet they would not keep doing that if people weren't watching those shows. I myself (guiltily) watch Jersey Shore even though I know it's bad for me, kind of like auditioning to be on a show like Ridiculous would be bad for me.
Having just chosen to not buy an ebook I wanted to read because it was $3 more than the paperback, I'd say that yes, publishers have a perception problem. They also seem to think that they need to spend money on doing layout and design of the print copy, but never mind how the ebook looks. When it's so easy to find "free" versions of everything online now, I can understand readers feelings that it's not worth spending the money on a bad copy of a book. If I'm going to spend money, it's either going to be for a paper copy or for something self published so that I can support the author more directly.
I do think the big publishers need a reality check. It's so disappointing to see the market saturated by 'trends' and rip-offs when what the public wants is something new and fresh. I agree with the commenter who said that they don't do any market research at all. It really is disappointing and I hope they pick themselves up soon.
Karen A. Chase says
Publishers right now bring to mind an analogy of a lovely mansion on top of a hill overlooking a bustling town.
At first the house is built to encompass the view and give townsfolk something beautiful to look up to. The townsfolk want to visit. At first a few. Then many. So many come that the mansion folk put up a fence around the house to help manage the crowds. But townsfolk keep coming because now the house seems to have some mystique.
Soon the mansion hires a gatekeeper or two, or three. Instead of becoming a haven for people, the mansion slowly becomes a fortress trying to keep them out. Eventually no one new gets in without a scheduled appointment and pre-approval.
Tired of the bureaucracy, the townsfolk stop visiting altogether. The fortress seems more sinister, remote. With the townsfolk so angry, even the view from inside looks scary, and the inhabitants of the mansion begin to feel trapped. So one-by-one the inhabitants leave. They go out on their own, find a place that is smaller and more open. So they can breathe again.
After a time, the mansion begins to crumble, and becomes a thorn in the side of the townsfolk. Soon no once can remember why it was built in the first place.
Publishers were built in the first place to help writers get their words to readers. That seems to have been forgotten by so many inhabitants–to the point that publishers are rejecting authors based on past sales, rather than the merits of the writing (the Patricia O’Brien story).
As a writer in author-town, the fortress of the publishers seems impenetrable, and I'm hoping someone comes along and remodels it soon before it crumbles completely.
Interesting that there are no posts in defense of publishers. Where are they? They do have an image problem.
They do have a perception problem. And the only thing they can do about it is clean house, get in new blood, and start catching up to what indie authors, small publishers, and other pioneers have been doing. In other words, stop being the divas and start communication. The good old days of summer Fridays off are gone now.
Gael McCarte says
The whole industry is in turmoil, publishers are not omniscient. They have had their power base and strangle hold on the what shall and what shall not get published eroded. They can be expected to thrash around. Just keep your distance so you don't get pulled under with them. Their poor reputation is not new, its just the topic that has changed.
Jo Eberhardt says
Are they plagued by a public perception problem? Amongst writers, certainly. But the average non-writer (whether they read or not) has no idea who or what the "Big Six" even is, let alone how the publishing industry actually works.
The entire debate reminds me of my days at university (about a billion years ago) where I spent a lot of time with IT geeks. Oh, the heated debates about the evils of Microsoft vs the integrity of Apple and the stability and geek-chic coolness of Linux as an operating system. Start an IT geek talking about reverse engineered operating systems and you'd be treated to a veritble diatribe proclaiming the inevitable end of draconian companies in the light of open-source alternatives.
But fast-forward to today and Microsoft is still around. Why? Because all the general public wants is an inexpensive, user-friendly computer system that allows them to check Facebook and watch videos of cats.
As long as traditional publishers provide a quality product at a reasonable price, through expected distribution systems, the "public perception problem" is going to remain largely confined to writers.
Jo Eberhardt said: "Are they plagued by a public perception problem? Amongst writers, certainly. But the average non-writer (whether they read or not) has no idea who or what the 'Big Six' even is, let alone how the publishing industry actually works."
True, but the average non-writer only reads and buys a certain amount of books, and so the "Big Six" has an additional problem when they continue to set eBook prices high when readers can find comparable books for free and under $3 from Amazon and other online book sites.
London Crockett says
"fOIS In The City said…
No one from my generation would have thought the Big Blue (IBM) would fall like a ton of ancient bricks, but alas it happened … and it happened to Eastman Kodak, and many others as well. Who is next?"
IBM's market cap is larger now than it was when it was the largest company in the world. They're ability to shift business models is an example to anyone facing a changing business environment.
Amazon has made some huge, front-page blunders and are starting to act like Microsoft right before their peak and long struggle to regain relevance. They're giving the Big Six plenty of time to get back in the game.
I'm not convinced that anyone has a crystal ball for the next five to ten years of publishing.
Taylor Napolsky says
"Are publishers going the way of record labels in the public's eye as greedy dinosaurs who failed to keep pace with the times?"
Maybe. But record labels are still very relevant to the music business. So what does it matter what the public perception is?
Terin Tashi – thanks 🙂
I liked what you said about taking a risk on talent.
Neurotic Workaholic said: "I do think it's unfair that celebrity 'authors' get multi-million dollar book deals from publishers. On the other hand, publishers are also business people, which is why they wouldn't offer those deals to those celebrities if they didn't think that those books would sell."
However, some celebrity authors are experimenting with self-publishing, and that will once again change the publishing field if they find success that way. Jackie Collins is experimenting with self-publishing some of her novels and she has enough good business sense to price those novels at $2.99 or less.
Incy Black says
As a reader of 10+ books a month, I'm pissed off at the price of ebooks and have turned off my kindle. I now buy books at car boot sales. Monetary return to publisher: 0, monetary return to author: 0.
Readers aren't following what going on in the industry because frankly they don't care. They just want a book at a price that makes sense to them be that high or low.
Liz Fichera says
I don't think that the average reader really cares. They will buy (or borrow) the books they want, where they want, how they want. Publishers who don't make their books accessible to readers will fail.
John Waverly says
In a word, yes.
I hang out in technology circles and there is a feeling there that publishers are slow-moving behemoths who are greedily looking out for their own profits and slowing down progress. Of course, this isn't completely true.
Combine that with authors who are getting more and more disillusioned with the big publishers, but who also look to the big publishers as their ticket to success. It's not quite Faustian, but there are several on the fringe who think so.
I agree with what many people have already said, that the end consumer doesn't pay attention to the publisher most of the time. They focus on the author, the bookstore, or their friend's recommendation.
These three thoughts have a lot of synergy. Now you have the technologists who want to get their books without big brother, you have authors who are looking for ways out of the Faustian bargain, and you have readers who don't care where they get their book from as long as it's good.
While I don't think big publishers will ever become irrelevant, I do think they risk becoming a lot less relevant.
Valerie Douglas aka V. J. Devereaux says
Personally, there are several books I wanted to buy by authors I love, for downloading to my e-reader, but I refuse to pay a dollar under the hardcover price for my e-books. That's ridiculous. Supposedly it's to offset the loss by print books but that makes no sense. The people who buy print will buy print.. it costs little to convert print books to e-books, there has to be a way to price them to make up the difference without ripping off the consumer.
(BTW I'm an indie writer, too…)
Nathan, this observation or yours stuck out…
"….and they spend millions of dollars on the latest celebrity memoir even as great midlist authors go unsupported or get dropped entirely…"
I said something like exactly like this in the blog comments several years ago and remembered you answering with (I'm paraphrasing) "Well — James Patterson SELLS, why shouldn't he get promoted every step of the way…"
I was a midlist author at the time. My YA debut, though worthy of harcover status by one of the BIG publishers, didn't even get taken to the ALA or the Book Expo, and got no other publicity except being in the publisher's catalog. The big chains opted not to stock it because "it had no publicity" (their words, not mine). The good reviews it got were somehow a moot point.
After that — with understandably low sales — the book went out of print. Though my subseqent books were grander in scale and also more commercial, I couldn't sell them simply because my debut sales were low (my then-agent's words, not mine). Oh — and my agent then dropped me as client.
I'm unsure if you are on the midlist with your MG series, but I bet you have a VERY different view of the damage that can be done by publishers when they offer a debut or even a mulit-published author no marketing support while throwing tons of money and opportunities at already heavily (and lets' face it — SOMETIMES not great writers, who sometimes don't even bother to write the book, but have a co-writer or write the same book over and over again, as noted by critics) promoted writers while the rest of us starve.
I'm not bashing success — there are many, many great writers who really deserve all that publicity, but do ALL of them deserve it at the expense of EVERY midlister out there?
I want to add something to my earlier comment (about publishers having an image problem with serious readers who read 50+ books per year). I think publishers ignore serious readers at their peril. We may not be a direct source of huge profits, because we are price sensitive buyers (we have to be because we buy in such volume), but I think we drive a lot of sales and help create the bestsellers that do produce huge profits.
For example–I checked out one book at the library not long ago. Loved it, absolute loved it. I bought the whole series (5 books), raved about it on my blog, and loaned the first book to a friend. She loved it and bought the whole series for herself and another copy of the series for a friend. Then I loaned book one to another friend, who emailed me just the other day to say she was hooked and reading her way through the series as well.
That was one book checked out from the library and lots of resulting sales, plus a ripple effect that may be still in motion.
And where did I hear about this book? From a friend.
If publishers shut out the price-sensitive volume buyers, they may be shutting down the word-of-mouth network that creates bestsellers.
Melinda Szymanik says
Publishers get salaries, authors don't. Perhaps it would help if publishers walked a mile in an author's shoes
Theresa Milstein says
Good question. They do have a perception problem. Times are changing and they can't seem to make decisions that go with it. As more people self publishing, it's going to hurt traditional publishers–especially as midlist authors (who are being dropped) self publish and have followers from their first books. Even Alice Hoffman self published and she's not midlist.
As I try to break into traditional publishing, it's disheartening.
Ishta Mercurio says
I think that within the internet/blogosphere/publishing world bubble we at this blog are all in, yes, publishers have a pretty bad rap right now. I think this might affect how writers choose to interact with publishers.
But the majority of the world is outside this bubble, and I honestly don't think they care how they get a book as long as they get it cheaply and easily. It's up to teh publishers how they choose to respond to that, and that will determine how well they do in the future, but I don't think the general public's book-reading habits are shaped by their opinions of publishers. I think these habits are shaped by their preferences in terms of format and price point, and it is those preferences that will shape the future of the publishing industry.
I don't like it. But that don't mean it ain't so.
Taylor Napolsky says
Ishta is right. Don't forget that the vast majority of people don't care 1/10th as much about publishers or the publishing industry as we do. They simply don't pay attention.
Tom Evans says
They need to move on and update.
They should become marketeers and business partners with authors – Simples !!