John Lawson’s ABOMINABLE DUMP BIN™ – Culture As Content and the Ever-Changing Role of Publishers in the Digital Age

Welcome to the Dump Bin!

This is a column about the book publishing industry, but it’s called the Abominable Dump Bin. What the heck is that supposed to mean, anyway? Well, in retail the dump bin is a bulk display–at its best an attractive custom item with all the branding of whatever it holds, such as a Hogwarts-shaped Harry Potter display–placed to catch your eye and inspire impulse purchases. Okay, so now how does any of that relate to the state of publishing?

It is well-known in general society that the print industry is in a state of upheaval. The transition from old modes to new is occurring with far greater rapidity than anyone ever guessed. Revenue is flowing in different directions now, and the business model is collapsing. In the last few years we’ve seen the Borders chain go belly up, lawsuits involving Penguin suing authors to recoup advances they paid out, the massive Google lawsuit, the Justice Department going after the Big Six publishers and Apple, the Amazon antitrust suit, and Apple in lawsuits with Amazon, Samsung, and Google… When the ship starts sinking, litigation is the final source of income. The forecast is that within the next decade Apple, Google, and Amazon will be the largest publishers in the world– despite the aforementioned lawsuits and their underlying roots.

Author Ewan Morrison made a presentation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 22, 2011, in which he provided incisive analysis of the situation. Essentially he did what the businesspeople should have been doing all along by observing the impact of digital media on other industries. The trajectory, in every case, has been a race to the bottom wherein only content providers like Google, YouTube, and Yahoo rake in riches. To sum up Morrison’s assessment we have seen online news outlets rob newspapers of enough subscribers to be viable; amateur photographers in online databases have replaced pros in periodicals; porn stars only make a third of what they used to and the once lucrative field of pornographic writing has evaporated; music industry profits will drop by 75% from 1999 to 2013; the cost of international calls… What does that even mean anymore when you’ve got Skype? In short, what used to be referred to as culture is now referred to as content, and digital content tends to be free. Because the way content providers get rich is not in selling a product, it’s in selling end-users to advertisers– soylent publishing is people!

Between that and piracy–it takes less than 60 seconds to crack an eBook’s digital rights management–publishers, authors, and their middle men are wearing Milkbone underwear in a dog-eat-dog world. The motion picture industry loses over $6 billion in revenue a year from piracy, and the video game industry loses over $8 billion. Morrison applied to the book industry Wired editor Chris Anderson’s prediction is that $0.00 is the inevitable retail price for any product made digital. The response from leaders in the publishing industry, or at least those who even paid attention to Morrison, has been less than stellar.

What is the solution? On September 26, 2012, the acclaimed international magazine of cultural criticism PopMatters declared our very own IMJ columnist Jason Jack Miller the potential “missing link” in publishing’s evolution. Says PopMatters correspondent Catherine Ramsdell:

“Another point worthy of note—how the book (and the series) came to be in the first place.… Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but Hellbender may not be just another good book. I wonder if this book (and its author) represents a changing tide, a new trend in the way books, good books, move from writer to reader. Certainly Miller isn’t the first writer to move from independent publishing to the more traditional. If fact, he’s probably not even the first good writer to make the switch (or the first good writer to publish independently). But his attitudes toward the publishing process and his willingness to state, rather loudly, that ‘No matter how you are published, or who publishes you, you ARE an independent writer’ seem to make him just as original as the book itself.”

Our dear Jason has been spearheading the authors-without-agents movement, rejecting entirely the notion that an author should jump through the extra set of hoops demanded by agents. In fact, he’s not entirely on-board with the notion of publishers, or at least the role Big Six publishers choose to play– because he’s had a “big” book deal with them before.

Further support of this sea change comes from an imprint of one of the Big Six on September 14, 2012: “For the first time in over a decade, Harper Voyager are opening the doors to unsolicited submissions in order to seek new authors with fresh voices, strong storytelling abilities, original ideas and compelling storylines.” Apparently agents, driven to conservative extremes by fear of the industry’s stifled cash-flow, are bringing big publishers the same old dish without bothering to even reheat it. That, and Harper Voyager can perhaps steal some of the gems that would be going to self-publishing ventures like Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. Combined with authors opting for self-publishing instead of seeking agents we are undergoing the process of middle men being squeezed out, with literary agents now facing the same fate as brick and mortar bookstores. The elapsed time from Morrison’s predictions to the barometer provided by Miller and Harper Voyager is only one year. Within another twelve months we could well be reduced to just the authors and publishers– renowned for their friendly back-and-forth— dealing directly with end-users through Amazon, Apple, and the like, minus agents, distributors, and traditional retailers altogether.

What we’ve known as “the book industry” in now collectively in the dump bin, and not the one for must-have new items– this is the dump bin reserved for damaged and discontinued goods. How does it all play out? With the desires of consumers replacing the guesswork of marketers and editors what will genre trends be? Without agents– where will the hot new authors come from? Without retailers and distributors deciding who gets shelf space– which publishers will not only thrive but define this new age of literary chaos?

These are questions future installments of the Abominable Dump Bin will explore.

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19 Responses to John Lawson’s ABOMINABLE DUMP BIN™ – Culture As Content and the Ever-Changing Role of Publishers in the Digital Age

  1. Thanks, guys. It’s an honor to be involved, and a pleasure to see the debut column. It looks freakin’ beautiful!!!!

  2. Reblogged this on John Edward Lawson and commented:
    The first installment of my column is now LIVE over at Inveterate Media Junkies!

  3. Great post! Sounds like more writers are adapting to this new publishing climate now than they were a year and a half ago. Maybe they’re just seeing the writing on the wall?

    In some ways Big Six publishing and Barnes and Noble are hanging on to some of the same character flaws Best Buy had been–unwillingness to adapt to a more fluid model and the hubris to believe they were to big to be vulnerable. I read an article a while ago (spent ten minutes looking for link) saying that Amazon basically telegraphed all of their long-term business plans to competitors like Best Buy and Circuit City, giving them plenty of time to adapt and stay competitive. Amazon touted it’s excellent customer service as an area where they lead the industry. (And anybody who has spent a lot of time with Best Buy’s Geek Squad knows they have horrible customer service and return policies.) But years went by with neither Best Buy or Circuit adapting, and look at how they ended up.

    The Big Six and Barnes and Noble (who is guilty of killing Borders as much as, if not more so, than Amazon) continue to invest heavily in the same few authors, limiting choice. They continue to ignore print-on-demand, which would make any book available at any store at any time. I don’t know how much an Espresso Book Machine (http://youtu.be/Q946sfGLxm4) would cost to purchase and operate, but the money saved by not shipping thousands of hard cover books around the country would eventually cover it, don’t you think?

    Look at what iTunes and MySpace have done for indie music. The Big Six and Barnes and Noble are the last flood gate holding back a torrent of amazing indie writers. Within a few years readers will have the same wonderful bounty of choice that music lovers do.

    • Insideman says:

      I used to go out early on Black Friday (the BIG SALES that occur the day after Thanksgiving for our NON-US readers, who may not be familiar) until I realized I could get just as many good deals online… While shopping in my robe.

      Anyway, one Black Friday I bought a Blu Ray I didn’t realize I already had. So I was back in the area THREE DAYS later and thought, “Let me pop in to return this.” There was this HUGE LINE of people and a guy shouting. “If you don’t have a receipt… Then LEAVE… NOW!!!”

      People were yelling and screaming. I just stood there calmly (I learned a long time ago to pick and choose my battles) and when I got up there– with a STILL shrink-wrapped Blu Ray AND a receipt… One of the “Geek Squad” assholes (I guess the regular store staff had drafted them to handle the crowds) attempted to give me a STORE CREDIT.

      That was the last time I purchased anything at Best Buy… Until Jose clued me into buying a PS3 from them online– when they were selling them near wholesale cost. That’s another ENTIRELY hilarious story that essentially ended up with Best Buy PAYING ME to buy a PS3 from them.

      I do not know how they stay in business.

      • Locusmortis says:

        Great article and replies. I confess I’m not one of those who are cheering for the fall of the traditional publishers. Positions like editors, art directors and printers are specialists with sometimes decades of experience. When you see something from companies like Gollancz, Orbit, Tor, Pyr, Nightshade books then you know that its in all likelihood going to be something of quality.

        • Locusmortis, I don’t think we writers really want to see the big publishers fail either, but they have some really terrible business practices that are going to put pressure on them unless they do something to change. (pulping paperbacks, paying ridiculous advances to celebrities knowing those will never be recouped, spending little on marketing the mid-list authors who earn them the money, printing hardcovers that sell for $30 only to resign the majority to the bargain table for $5 after a few months, etc.)

          By the way, I’m a big fan of the publishers you mentioned, and coincidentally I don’t classify them as Big Six, though I know Tor is part of St. Martin’s is part of…blah, blah, blah. But these are still smaller publishers who know what it means to have personal contact with their authors, but they also happen to have distribution behind them.

          SIDE NOTE: I would add Angry Robot to your list. 😉

          And, I wouldn’t deny that SOME editors, art directors, and printers have decades of experience behind them. But that doesn’t always mean quality in writing. I’ve read more indie–take that as small press or self-published–books this year than anything else. In very rare cases can I see a difference between the quality of writing, editing, and formatting, especially on my Kindle, than with books put out by the Big Six. Perhaps it is what I’m choosing to read–I take total advantage of the sampling button on Amazon and can’t understand why others don’t too. You can tell if you’re into a book by 20%, so there should never be a review out there that says, “I couldn’t get past chapter one of this book.” But I digress. 😉

          My point was meant to be that there’s this idea that has become law that indie books weren’t written well enough to be published by the big guys. It’s a bad myth that becomes perpetuated by a couple of poorly written self-pubbed books here and there. The main reason books are not picked up by Big Six publishers? Luck, with marketing a close second. But most people don’t like to deal in abstracts. They want a concrete reason.

        • Duuuuuuuuuude. Trust me, it would be so much better if we weren’t in this situation– in a lot of regards. I wish that model were going to continue, because such great things *can* happen with it. At the same time I see where Jason’s coming from; as one of the gatekeepers myself, I just can’t publish all the deserving material out there. If only there were a way to balance things out in order to get more work into the hands of the reading public, without the free-fall scenario we’re in.

          • As a gatekeeper, what are the primary bottlenecks to publishing more (if not all) of the material you like? I have some ideas concerning your response, but I’d like to hear from you first.

            • As with any other small business operator my chief restraint is resources. Even if I had the money to pay all the authors what they deserved, and to sign them to multi-book deals, I still wouldn’t be able to allocate time for everything–meaning I’d have to set up an accounting department, a legal department, a graphics department, a publicity department, and an editorial department. Right now Jen and I split those activities, and have assistance from volunteers, as opposed to employing people. But we could be putting out 30 to 50 killer books every year, instead of 10 or so. Easily.

      • I’ll admit I tend to buy only from the local shops that sell used CDs, DVDs, and the like. However…if my credit card issues a “cash back” gift certificate to one of the big box stores I’ll shop with those. As fr the PS3: GOOD FOR YOU! That’s the way to do it.

    • Wow! Jason. Very detailed and well-thought response! Thanks so much for taking the time. I’ve considered what it would take for us to have an Espresso Machine here on site to handle all the libraries, stores, and customers who want to order directly from us instead of going through regular distro channels. Not happening, for now anyway, but for retailers…I don’t see why not. And you’re absolutely right about Amazon telegraphing their punches. As with the collapse of most monopolies it wasn’t entirely because Amazon was so good, it was because those at the top grew worse and worse. All of these things are covered in that book I mentioned in my presentation at In Your Write Mind, Monopoly Rules by Milind Lele. Amazon exemplifies almost every aspect of the monopoly rules detailed in the book, which is why it has effected almost every retail industry. I hope some publishers out there are reading this conversation–I say that as a fellow publisher. Get on yo scrilla grind.

  4. @JasonJackMiller, @bizarrowriter – According to an article from The Atlantic, Mar 13 2012: “The main obstacle for booksellers is the cost of the machine. Buying it outright could be as much as $150,000, I was told, so a five-year lease option is widely preferred — but even that can run well over $5,000 a month, plus a variety of add-ons for personnel and basic supplies.”

    The whole thing:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/with-this-machine-you-can-print-your-own-books-at-the-local-bookstore/254431/

  5. ed2962 says:

    Very informative article!

  6. Sally Bosco says:

    Great article, John! As a writer, it’s difficult to know which way to turn–go for the dream of an agent and big six publisher, publish with small press or go indie. I kind of wish traditional publishing wasn’t imploding, but it is, and things have to change. The question is, how will it all shake out for writers. — Sally

    • Thanks, Sally, for stopping by to read and also for the comments! When I first began to seriously compose genre fiction back in the late 1980s I had that dream: to get an agent, and have a publishing deal with the “big” publishers. Probably not one of the absolute top publishers, but still. And there is a part of me that to this day still clings to that dream. *However*…working behind the scenes, and communicating with other editors (with larger publishers) I am privy to all sorts of information, none of which is looking hopeful. At the same time literacy is not coming to an end, so there will continue to be books. As you said it’s just a question of what brunt–if any–authors will bear. Clearly there will continue to be giants of our industry, they just won’t be the original Big 6, or even originate in the publishing industry at all, so it remains to be seen how much they will value authors and/or books.

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