Saturday, May 21, 2011

Publishers be Crazy...or Desperate

This guest post is by April Hamilton, founder of Publitariat and managing editor of Kindle Nation. It's reposted from her personal blog. 

I just read this article about, a new joint venture being launched later this summer by Hachette Book Group, Penguin USA and Simon & Schuster. Per the article:

"The site intends to provide information for all things literary: suggestions on what books to buy, reviews of books, excerpts from books and news about authors. Visitors will also be able to buy books directly from the site or from other retailers and write recommendations and reviews for other readers."

The publishers — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group USA, and Hachette Book Group — hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit for reviews and information. A couple of sentences further down, you'll read:

“There’s a frustration with book consumers that there’s no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need to try to recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment, but which we don’t believe is currently happening online.”

There are three problems with Ms. Reidy's statements.

First, there is NOT "a frustration with book consumers that there's no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors," because in fact, there are several sites that offer one-stop shopping for author/book information. Perhaps Ms. Reidy just hasn't heard of such obscure, underground sites as,,, and

Second, nobody needs to "recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment," because for the average consumer, discovery of new books NO LONGER HAPPENS IN THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT. Once again, it's Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari and LibraryThing to the rescue here, not to mention genre-specific online communities like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and format- and device-specific online communities like Kindle Nation Daily.

Third, Ms. Reidy and her compatriots don't "believe [this is] currently happening online." Why not? How is it possible that publishers are THAT FAR out of touch with book buyers? I'll tell you how: traditionally, publishers have viewed booksellers as their customers, and book-buyers as the customers of booksellers. They have little to no idea what's bouncing around in the head and life of the typical consumer, because they haven't had to know those things to run their business at any time in the past —past being the operative word there.

So these three major publishers are sinking massive amounts of time, effort and money into a huge new initiative that I think just about any typical book-buying consumer on the street could tell you today is destined to fail. And how do you suppose they'll be financing this new initiative? Certainly not by reducing the prices of their books, or signing more new, unproven authors, or keeping books on physical shelves longer to give them a better chance of catching on, or giving individual authors more marketing money.

I'm sure the publishers would say this initiative is all about supporting their authors and marketing books in a cost-effective way, so kudos to them for good intentions. But while they may know book and author marketing today is all about author platform, they clearly don't understand that author platform is all about community, and community is about making personal connections and feeling like you're part of a movement. Which do you think a fan of Stephen King would rather visit: Stephen King's personal site and online community of fans, or the obviously corporate umbrella site, content will necessarily be vetted and vanilla, so as not to hurt the corporate images and reputations of its backers and to avoid offending any site visitors. Anyone who wants the raw, unfiltered version of musings from their favorite authors and opinions of others in those authors' communities won't bother with when they can get the straight scoop right from the horses' mouths elsewhere.

I hate to sound so negative and dump all over publishers like this, because it's a good thing that they're finally willing to try something new. But at this point, they face the same problem Microsoft did with its Zune MP3 player: Apple got there first with the iPod, and they did it very well. If you're going to enter the marketplace with a new product for which the demand has already been fulfilled by someone else (or several someone elses), then your product has to be so incredibly, amazingly compelling that consumers will feel they're missing out by not switching to it. Microsoft tried it with the Zune; I think by now we can all agree they failed to capture enough of the MP3 player market to even make Apple break a sweat. And Microsoft has decades of experience with technology and marketing direct to consumers.

So gets an A for effort, but a goose egg for vision and sustainability.

Publishers: maybe you're looking at this all wrong. Maybe instead of trying to supplant the Amazons, Goodreads and Shelfaris of the world, you should be looking for ways to leverage what those sites and communities are already doing, and doing very well: crowdsourcing.

Let them tell you what the readers want to see in print and ebook forms. Listen to consumer complaints about ebook release windows and pricing, and respond accordingly. Switch to POD book production so you can offer a much wider variety of titles at a much lower cost; grousing about the lack of variety and fresh, new voices from mainstream pub is so common as to be a pastime in reader communities. Stop chasing after blockbusters and start tuning into the pre-existing discovery network to locate your new literary stars. Keep your ears to the ground for breakout indie authors, and sign them, knowing they're already proven commodities. Get and keep a bead on technologies consumers are excited about (color ebooks, interactive book apps, etc.) and invest in those technologies.

Your role as arbiters of taste and gatekeepers is a thing of the past, and the position of Reader Community Leader has already been filled. Own it. Restructure your businesses and legacy thought patterns to embrace this new reality. Now, your role is to find out what consumers want in print books, ebooks and emerging media technologies, and give it to them. Period.


  1. Enjoyed reading this. The gates have burst, and the world is being flooded with eBooks :). BJ

  2. Thanks, April, for this excellent, thought-provoking post. I love this: "Your role as arbiters of taste and gatekeepers is a thing of the past, and the position of Reader Community Leader has already been filled." That about says it. Time to let the readers decide.

  3. Exactly. Publishers have no clue how to sell books to readers and to try to do so now is too late. They have been too consumed with trying to place books with their consignments outlets for decades. And now they think they can do what they have no experience at-- instead of teaming with their authors to promote, they think they can promote on their own. I recently got an email from my "publicist" at Simon & Schuster about my book on Special Operations after the recent raid. The only reason I figured out she was my "publicist" was her email address was from S&S. She told me to let her know how she could help me when I was contacted, as I was, by media outlets. Forgive me for being naive, but should she be the one (who never contacted me at all despite my attempts during my book release) who is finding these media outlets? And how would she help me?
    Publishing PR is in the dark ages.

  4. April, thank you for sharing this post on CFC. Unless many of the traditional, a/k/a old, roles in publishing redefine their pupose, they'll find themelves remembered as relics. Can you imagine the uprorar from readers if things went back to the way they were?

  5. It's probably just me, but every time I see things like "author platform" or "crowdsourcing" being used, I want to scream (and not in a good way).

    Ms Hamilton advises publishers to "switch to POD book production so you can offer a much wider variety of titles at a much lower cost." Unless POD books have undergone VAST improvements, I hope the publishers don't listen. Not all of us are only concerned with price, and some of us are also collectors. POD books as they are now are, sorry, cheap pieces of crap whose covers, if they are paperback, are already curling up before you even start to read them, and the hardcovers I've seen are not good quality either.

    Also, I'm guessing that the "lower cost" she references is for the publisher and not the reader, because right now, books that are POD have a *higher* selling price than those traditionally published.

    Bottom line: the day publishers switch to POD is the day I'll quit buying books and rely on the library for everything.

  6. Things in the eBook/Kindle Nation world are moving too fast for brick and mortar publishers; they have not one clue as to what is going on, much less what they can and cannot make a difference in. As it is, my relations with trad publishers has been severed a couple of years now - and they are trying to sell books with my name on it at the same price as the paperbacks were priced!! Despite two years of my telling them it won't work. Finally, they are "experimenting" with one title to see if a reduction will prompt the sales, as sales at the silly price have netted about as much sales as we see with pet rocks nowadays.

    Furthermore, publishers are writing into their iron clad sections of the contracts with authors that all ebook rights be turned over to them, yet they know not what to do with such rights. I contracted with a Hollywood agent an option for my Instinct Series which gets renewed each year and I WROTE in the contract that I retain all eBook Rights and the right to continue working with the ensemble of characters in MY BOOKS. They had no problem with that at all. I don't intend losing control of my ebook rights ever again or the right to work with characters I created.

    At KDP - kindle community forums - my thread there entitled "What Mioves Kindle bks. off the Shelf" has grown to 34,000 views and soemthing crazy like 1200 comments, 78 pgs. This is how hungry people are to know what is really going on in ebook/kindle marketing, PR., ideas that work to create Visibiity on Amazon where all the real action is at right now and likely in the future.

    Robert W. Walker

  7. April, I think what you said about readers wanting community and to be part of things is brilliant. I don't pretend to have any idea how traditional publishers will make use of all that is new, but I do believe they offer something unique themselves. I hope the best of both worlds can coexist somehow. Great post--not pessimistic, just realistic.

  8. April, I hope the publishers see this and "get" it. Publishers haven't really had to talk to readers without the filter of distributors and bookbuyers for a long time. Now they ought to be looking at Goodreads and LibraryThing (and newer places like Figment and Readmill) for partnership potential, just like they did with bookstores and Publisher's Weekly. Publishers know the business of putting out a beautiful, well-edited book. They just need to work on figuring out how to get the news to the new arbiters of reading.

  9. Kelly, with all the cutbacks in recent years, I've noticed that a lot of published books, even bestsellers from big-name publishers, aren't nearly as well-edited as they could be. I guess they just can't afford to (or aren't willing to) pay for a thorough editing job, anymore.

    And agents and publishers are not working with newbie authors like they used to. Now they expect to receive a manuscript that's already been well-edited and polished. Which is good news for freelance editors like me.

  10. My sense is that publishers are loosing their foothold in an industry that's fast-changing. The key to change in any situation is learning to reinvent. I haven't seen that. What I have seen is them constantly scrambling, constantly playing catch-up. This is just one more example of too little, too late. For so long, the industry has ignored the reader and put their emphasis on distribution. They've forgotten who the real customer is: the reader. E-publishing has forced a drastic shift in that direction and has left mainstream publishers in the dust, scratching their heads.

  11. I think you're right, Jodie. I'm reading an increasing number of books that appear to have only been edited by spell-checking software.

  12. As a reader/reviewer, the last place I'd look for book recommendations is on a publishers' site. GoodReads, Amazon reviews (taken with salt), on-line digests and trusted booksellers are my best resource.

    I own a Kindle and used to love it but two things have caused me to use it much less than I originally did. First, I no longer travel for business. If I'm home, I'm much more inclined to read a physical book than use my Kindle. But even that might be less true were it not for the second fact; the price of e-books.

    When publishers decided, foolishly in my view, to control the prices, they priced themselves right out of my budget.

    Just a comment on e-books in general. Yes, e-book readers have become hugely popular and much more comment. But not everyone has one or will have one. Just as people have come to assume that everyone has a computer, for an author to limit themselves to e-book publishing is, I believe, short-sighted and leaves oneself invisible to a huge audience.

    As for publishers, what I expect from them is the release of well-written, well-edited books at reasonable prices. That is their job.

  13. Perfectly said, April. The NY publishers seem like dinosaurs placidly munching greenery while watching the asteroid streak across the sky.

    On Friday, I received a letter from an Executive VP at Random House that breaks my last tie to NY publishing. I now own my entire backlist and I'm going indie. Zero deadlines plus total creative control is an intoxicating combination.

  14. LJ Roberts, you make a good point about e-books. I've had a Kindle for a year or two, but I only use it when I'm traveling. At home, I just prefer paper books, for some reason - mostly habit, I guess. And I like to browse in bookstores and read the back covers of books before deciding which ones to buy. Easier to loan or give to friends, too. And even when buying books from, I usually get them to send them in the mail. Old habits die hard, I guess. I really should start checking out other websites more when looking for good books, though, and get into the habit of using my Kindle at home, too - the books are cheaper and take up less space! I'm probably in the minority, or soon will be, for still preferring print books over e-books.

  15. Fascinating post, April. Thanks so much. The marketplace will sort this all out, sooner rather than later, I suspect. I was in love with my Kindle until I got my iPad. Now I only read on the iPad, using the Kindle app. I prefer reading an e-book because it's easier to check the dictionary and I prefer to take notes on the electronic version. Marking up a paper book just seems wrong. Unlike my collaborators on the Crime Fiction Collective, I've stopped buying paper books because I find it much more orderly to hold the list of my readings on the device, with covers displayed. And, the increasing price of paper books has just gotten exorbitant, considering how many books I read. Plus, I feel much better abandoning a book I dislike when I paid $2.99 for it, rather than $22.99.

  16. Great post, April. I hope some of the mainstream publishers are reading!

    With regard to copy-editing, I've found that the e-publishers I'm working with these days (Loose Id, Untreed Reads, and MLR Books) are doing a MUCH better job of copy-editing and proofreading than I've received in the past.

    I think this is because these firms use freelancers who are doing the work for love (and a percent of the royalties, so their work really matters.) Kudos to all those doing this great work!

  17. Good points, Judith. Maybe I should dust off my Kindle and start using it more at home - or get an iPad!

  18. Keep telling it the way you see it, April. I think that ultimately, it's about power. Power is shifting from the old-time publishers, and it hasn't landed yet. What we need is more and more streamlined ways to find good books -- ways that don't require authors to have marketing degrees. I love what's happening. It just might save the reading world.

  19. I love my Kindle. My hands don't cramp and my eyes (unless I'm reading deep into the night) don't get wonky. I also love my DTBs. I have a collection of books I love.

    But the truth is that with Kindle, I'm buying a LOT more books. And, I'm buying a lot more books by authors who I haven't read. Who, without the Amazon outlet, I would probably have never heard of.

    Someone mentioned (elsewhere) the horrible place the world would be with Amazon as a monopoly. Well, duh. It sort of is. But I think Amazon is smart enough to know that they can't turn the tables without new competition pulling the rug out from under them.

    Power to the readers has given power to the authors, and I think publishers are trying to figure out how they can still play.

  20. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. There's no doubt we're in the midst of a revolution in trade publishing, and the dust is far from settled. I believe there will always be a role for large, mainstream publishing houses, just like there is for large, mainstream movie studios. But I also believe the doors have been flung wide open for independents, both individual indie authors and small and micro imprints, and that's a very, very good thing. More opportunity, options and control for authors, and more variety for readers: everyone can win. Whether you want the latest blockbuster or an off-the-beaten-path bit of something new from an as-yet-unknown author, you can find it. And in multiple formats!


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