This blog post is the third post of an ongoing series by Rosie Johns, exploring the challenges and opportunities involved in book publishing in the current 21st Century environment. These posts are being written as part of Rosie’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.
The digital revolution in publishing has been gathering pace for nearly two decades now. Back in the late 1990s, many publishers began investing large sums into the development of technology which would enable the digitization of material. Now, in 2014, the eBook is a well-established alternative to the traditional paper-bound product. Consumers are eagerly lapping up this digital material, often at the fraction of the cost of paper copies. Just 33 months after eBooks went on sale at Amazon.com, founder Jeff Bezos gleefully announced that his customers were buying more of the new digital product than its age-old, material alternative.
Book publishing has been turned on its head – the product is changing, the production methods are changing, everything is changing – and publishers, writers and consumers are all (understandably) asking, what does the future hold?
In my interview with John Adler, we discussed the challenges and opportunities he sees for the book publishing industry in the current 21st-century environment.
Is publishing a lucrative business?
I think publishing is a rough trade. It’s very hard to make money out of it due to there being a lot of fierce competition, and people are not prepared to pay a realistic price for a book.
How is the relationship between publishers and the large corporations who have begun selling the products?
Some companies expect a vast number of books at a very low profit margin. They expect high discounts, which can sometimes be seen as a waste of time [for the publishers], economically speaking.
What do you see as the impact of large corporations like Amazon taking over the role of selling books (and now eBooks)?
Corporations can be ruthless and greedy. What more do I need to say? But it would be quite difficult to drive them out of business.
How do they decide the pricing of their books and eBooks?
The price that you pay is the triumph of the powerful. In the old days, they used to have a fixed price for books, so small businesses could survive. Now it’s the law of the jungle. It’s like how Supermarkets have driven the small shops out.
At the forefront of the digital book publishing revolution stands Amazon, the global superstore turned product manufacturer turned book publisher – a corporate giant whose yearly revenue in 2008 was around twenty billion US dollars (a figure larger than the combined takings of all other bookstores). In 2012, Amazon was valued at approximately $100 billion (US) and this figure is not expected to fall any time soon.
Many are seeing Amazon as an identifiable threat to the book publishing industry. Whole articles have been written around questions such as, ‘is Amazon Single-Handedly Destroying Book Culture?’ and ‘is Amazon bad for books?’
But can we only see Amazon and other corporate giants as threats?
In The Bookseller, Emma Goode cites Kay Peddle (Vintage editor) as arguing that so-called ‘threats’ can be turned into opportunities – Vintage have launched a number of new, digital projects such as an e-magazine, podcasts and apps, and are thus engaging directly with the digital revolution in publishing.
Ken Auletta suggests that ‘publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise’ in his article Publish or Perish, featured on The New Yorker. What is true is that the publishing industry has exited a state of continuum:
‘Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price.’ (Publish or Perish)
But now, the rock-bottom eBook prices and the sales tactics of the large corporations are driving prices down. Amazon, and others, are demanding higher-than-ever discounts, and often selling what they purchase far below the recommended RRP.
The question of whether publishing companies will remain an essential part of book production chain is being raised time and again, and the tentative reply seems to be that their survival depends upon their engagement with technological change, their commitment to creating new products, and most importantly, their ability to grab the public’s attention.