I’m giving away two copies of an Ooligan Press mini-book, RETHINKING PAPER & INK regarding sustainability in publishing. Mention, ‘enter to win book’ in your comments to participate. Drawing to be held at end of month.
This is a continuation of Professor Dennis Stovall’s seminar on the publishing industry from Ooligan Press’ Write to Publish Conference. Dennis Stovall is an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Publishing Curriculum at Portland State University, Oregon.
Part I introduced the evolving marketplace of publishing, the move away from credit to cash refunds for unsold books, the growing influence of print-on-demand options leading to the increase in the number of self-published books, and the emerging importance of amateur reviewers.
Abandoned authors rise like phoenixes
The number of books that a big publishing house needs to publish is rather high. The focused influence of mega book stores pressured publishers to market to the masses. This loosened the bonds they felt to their lower selling authors, and low list authors were cut loose. Those abandoned formed their own publishing companies, and as it turns out, smaller presses can be profitable. “A new milieu of small presses representing non-fiction authors appeared, they sold fairly well, and created a new small press movement,” Stovall said.
A pool of money to support literary publishing emerged. Readers Digest Fund, Carnegie Foundation and others underwrote the cream of the crop and served out several million dollars to sustain both for profit and nonprofit small presses. The small press came into its own and emerged as an opportunity for new voices to find new audiences, a critical component of publishing. “Without the edginess of new writing you have a stale culture of writing’; big publishing aims at the lowest denominator of books that can sell, all of that edginess gets pushed aside.”
A challenge of all publishing is getting the books on your list into the bookstores. This was originally done by sales reps from the publisher who called on bookstores, understood each store’s unique audience, and knew what from their list would likely sell. The landscape altered with the rain of new tax laws that made it costly to warehouse books. Sprouting like mushrooms emerged a group of intermediary book wholesalers and distributors who gathered up a variety of houses and acted as sales reps for not just one publisher, but for many.
They offered the added advantage of allowing a bookstore to buy books from anyone they represented and more importantly, allowed booksellers to return the unsold to one site. This one site drop hadn’t existed before. Access also eased open for literary presses, and they seeped into the distributor mix. Some smaller presses still followed the old trend of making a commitment to an author because they thought, maybe this book won’t sell, but maybe the fifth or sixth will, so developing authors also found their way into the distribution stream.
Books that are sold into bookstores and libraries should all have an ISBN number. ISBN identifies one title from another, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors. Since 1996-97 the US produced approximately 11,000 new ISBN registrations annually. About twelve years ago former editor of Publisher Weekly, John Baker, estimated only 50,000 publishers were registered with ISBN, and further estimated an additional 150,000 unregistered.
Ooligan Press was surveyed six years ago by Publishers Weekly. After Stovall completed the documents he was told, ‘you don’t qualify as a small press.’ Surprised he asked, “Just how small a press do you have to be to qualify?” No, you’re not large enough, he was told. He pushed for clarification and discovered PW was not counting anyone as a publisher unless they did $1 million a year. “They were ignoring 90-95% of all publishers in the country, ignoring the cultural impact of all that publishing. ” The BISIG (Book Industry Study Group), reported in “The Rest of Us” study, that all small presses combined actually offer as much economic impact as everyone else.
Small presses were remarkable in how they opened up venues for new authors. The largest collaboration of new authors supporting each other happened in the 80’s, and reached its peak in the 90’s. “Large publishers are reluctant to take new authors until the author has ten books in print. How do you get to that point if you can’t get into the stores? As the traditional side of publishing is constricted, the new media side is opening exponentially.”
If you’re following the trade press it’s clear major publishing houses are struggling to deal with the crisis in the economy. They’ve stopped acquisitions or at minimum cut back, but according to Stovall the economic slide did not scare small presses. “There’s a little mantra we said to ourselves when the economy started going down, ‘oh boy, everyone else will suffer but not the small press.’ Large publishers are simply locked up at the moment with problems they created themselves. Superstores drive things towards the lowest common denominator. The books had to suit those superstores, the superstores depended on mall traffic, and when mall traffic goes down, book sales go down. The New York Times Best Sellers list gives the impression that there are a lot of books out there, but it’s the thinnest slice of what’s marketable to people on their way to buy shoes or books,” Stovall commented.
“Now we see a crisis in sales, Borders will not exist next year,” Stovall predicted, “Or just a few stores in a few places; they are that close to going under, and got there by a series of choices of their own. Barnes and Noble announced that they’re doing reasonably well at the moment, but if you look at their statistics they do usually well in new stores, but stores already in existence are down. They once cannibalized sales of indies, and now they’re head to head with themselves and dealing with an even bigger gorilla: Amazon.”
Amazon started on the democratic process, they took anyone. Once everyone was in the charges started, and sellers were weighted by how much money they made Amazon. “The more you make them the more prominent you are on the ‘people who bought this also bought’ position,” said Stovall, and not too unlike chains who offer the end cap, face out, top shelf position…when you pay for it.
- How does a new author enter the fray with even the slightest slice of equality with the rest of the field?
Stay tuned, stay employed, and keep writing. The next post deals with how to make money in publishing in this new environment.