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.