Monday, July 21, 2014

Big Publishing Adjusts to Self-Publishing's Rise on Amazon - But Not Really.

While cries of "books are dead" are probably at least as old as shouts of "print is dead," the truth is that books are doing pretty well in the Internet era. It just happens, though, that the winners are not necessarily established publishers. It turns out that what YouTube did to video production and consumption Amazon is now doing for book publishing - enabling anyone to put a book out that can find an audience effectively and inexpensively. And as TV and movie producers sidestepped the impact of YouTube's emergence, the strength of self-publishing was politely ignored or finessed by many publishers for many years.

Now, however, data is beginning to show that a tipping point is indeed upon us for self-publishing ebook sales via Amazon, the best proxy for the ebook industry in general, to be sure. Author Earnings has published some new stats on the types publishers selling ebooks through Amazon, which show that leading self-published titles now outnumber titles from the big publishers comfortably (25% vs. 16% of available ebook titles on Amazon) and total unit sales for self-publishers are doing pretty well also - 31 percent of unit sales for self-publishers and 38 percent for the big publishers. Revenue-wise, the bigs still rake in the lion's share of income with 57 percent of Amazon ebook sales revenue, while self-publishers are trailing at 17 percent.

Given the significantly higher and well-protected price for the average big-house book, though, that's actually not such a huge gap in revenues. If you consider the net revenues actually paid out to authors via ebooks for self-publishing versus the relatively scrawny income that most receive from royalty income via big publishers, your average successful self-publishers is well ahead of what they'd likely receive from any large publishing house for their ebook sales. In other words, self-publishing is growing not just because it's easy, but because it's how to make money most effectively as an author now.

Major publishers are certainly aware of these trends, and they all have their own tools and programs for self-publishing to one degree or another. But publishing programs is not the same thing as a publishing platform that consumers are aware of or desire. Today's reader appreciates the universal search and recommendation capabilities of a service like Amazon or Google for finding today's ebooks, making the rationale for self-publishing through a major publisher harder to justify. Hence the debut of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription all-you-can-eat ebook service, which provides access to 600,000 ebook titles for a $9.99 monthly fee. Notably absent from the new Kindle programme so far: the big five publishers. So what Netflix has done for videos, Kindle Unlimited now promises to do for books - make the discovery of popular and niche "long tail" content far easier, and build up the brands of both mid-tier publishers and self-publishers. It's paid advertising for books, you might say, as well as incremental revenues.

OK, so the big publishers don't want to bite on Kindle Unlimited, What's their solution for better ebook marketing? Well, HarperCollins, for one, wants to push sales from its own Web portal more strongly for both ebooks and print books - something that's not likely to make retail bookstores very happy, nor portals like Amazon, but it's certainly fair game - and only about ten years overdue as a marketing strategy. Had book publishers agreed then on a good way to market books through their portals via search engines in a universal ebook format, then they would not be in anywhere near the pickle that they find themselves in now. They could have subsidized print-on-demand hardware and online cooperative marketing and reviews infrastructure for local bookstores and created a magnificent win-win scenario for book retailers. Didn't happen. Ah, well. Now the majors are just another name in the background at Amazon and other online retailers, with little to distinguish their offerings other than a handful of high-profile authors who are increasingly aware of self-marketing.

Book publishers are just one of many types of media companies trying everything they can think of to defend old distribution models and distribution channels - instead of doing everything that they can to adapt to and define the new ones to fit consumers' tastes. When they see new technology, they march out the old-skool dealmakers to try to tame it and pump out press releases that sound mighty impressive on the train home, perhaps, but mean almost nothing in terms of stemming the tide of publishing history. Empowering Amazon to protect book publishers from Google was Plan A: now Plan A turns out to be the primary source of competition for the old guard. Maybe in the decade ahead they'll give Plan B a real try - book marketing that really works in an open, mobile and signal-driven Web. We can only hope.