Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Sonoma, Calif, planning retreat
For those who read my blog post yesterday and scoffed at the thought of the disappearance of physical books, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Physical books will, I believe, continue to exist. Just as TV didn’t do away with films, and films didn’t do away with radio, e-readers provide the reading community an additional way to access books. But what are the trends in physical book formats?
Hardcover book sales up slightly
Nielsen Bookscan reports that hardcover sales thus far in 2010 are outpacing sales in 2009 by .3 percent. Yup, a measly .3. I’d say that increase is so slight that we could consider hardcover sales as holding their own.
Mass market sales down significantly
Sales for mass market fell 4.6 percent, the biggest change in any of the statistics provided. Readers seem to be moving away from this format and into either hardcover or trade paper–or not buying any physical books.
Trade paper sales down
Trade paper sales fell .8%.
The total result: Physical book sales fell .4 percent.
What does this mean?
Publishers are pleased that hardcover sales are holding their own because, at this point, this is the most profitable sector for publishing. That’s important because it means publishers have a little more time to figure out how to structure e-books to be significantly profitable.
This is also good news for writers. Having healthier publishers is important not only because most writers still want to catch the golden ring of being paid royalties, but also, as a society, publishers are an important conduit of information and as contributors to our culture. (People who think deeply about a subject or spend years researching a topic will write books that we all want to read, and therefore, society is affected by these writers. Think: Malcom Gladwell, Seth Godin, etc.)
A major force that is keeping physical books flat is reading devices. Surveys show that the owner of an e-reader will buy anywhere from 34-43 percent fewer hardback books. The pattern is the same for trade and mass market books.
With this downward trend in physical books, publishers are struggling to forecast how much to pay in advances. Currently advances are based on the projected sales of physical books. So how does a publisher decide how much to offer? Or what’s a fair e-book royalty? Or whether a hardback edition should be released first, followed by an e-book, followed by a tradebook? Or should the hardcover and e-book release simultaneously?
Obviously each of these scenarios can create a different fiscal forecast.
All this translates into a fluid situation. As publishing transitions to an e-book-dominated world, the publishers’ response is to be conservative–both in terms of advances and in terms of e-book royalties. But the danger, especially in being conservative in e-book royalties, is that authors and agents will begin to rethink allowing the publisher e-rights when more money can be made by withholding those rights.
Currently lots of jockeying is occurring between publishers and agents. A few months ago, a 25 percent royalty on e-books was settled on. But agents are chipping away at that number, negotiating better terms for high-profile clients.
Then last week the Wylie Agency “went rogue” and created an e-book publisher that took many of Wylie’s most esteemed, dead clients’ works and offered them in a two-year exclusive to Amazon. The publishing world rocked. Random House declared it would not consider any new projects from Wylie and that Wylie didn’t have the rights to offer e-books to Amazon. Wylie remains adamant that it does.
What will the reverberations be? I predict publishers will become increasingly open to paying higher e-book royalties to insure that more agents keep e-rights at publishing houses.
Ultimately that’s good news for writers. It means, with the eventual dominance of e-books, that more money will filter through to the author. That is, if the retail price for an e-book goes up, but that’s another story…
The bottomline for the writer
Writers need to realize how unsettled the publishing atmosphere is. The air is charged like it is just before a thunderstorm. Publishers are trying new and innovative ways to deliver a book’s text, and agents are pressing publishers on how advances and royalties are being determined. Add to the mix the volatile affects of so much changing so fast in a slow-moving industry, and thunder and lightning are bound to result. Grab your rain gear and prepare for a real show.
Wow! What an informative post. Things are definitely a movin’ and a shakin’!
How personally ironic it is that you used the metaphor of a thunderstorm to illustrate your point. Just over a month ago, I was in a thunderstorm that blew over a 20′ by 80′ canopy/tent that I’d just left to go sit in our car. I was the only one that left that tent. God used that circumstance to release me from seeking a publisher for my blog/book. Basically, I understood that the storm hitting the publishing world was going to knock some things over and that I was to stay where it was safe. So, I decided to just leave my content as blog posts and to build readership through Twitter. So, your use of this metaphor sort of confirms what I took as the meaning of my experience.
Definitely sounds like the publishing air is charged!
What an exciting time to work in this field! Thanks for sketching the new landscape for us.
During a recent family reunion, my brother and I talked about a new school in his town. It is totally computer oriented. Each student receives a laptop loaded with their textbooks and reading assignments. Very few paper or hard back editions even in the library. We found this trend a bit scary. I have to wonder what will happen as schools step away from the use of traditional textbooks. Will the entire publishing industry follow? I don’t think paper books are dead, nor will they ever completely die. However, we must prepare for the influx of e-books and all they bring to the publishing community.
Thanks for keeping us informed.
I’ve been watching. I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged. I hope our publishing world does well.