The Death of Traditional Publishers? A Compilation of Opinions: Part 1

The web is rife these days with predictions of the death of traditional publishing, down to the month and year when the industry will “tip” – the way the music industry did. Every day another blog or article arrives in my Inbox. For a new author, it’s exhilarating-terrifying-confusing-hopeful-and-hopeless.

So I decided to address this oh-so-current topic here. I’ve been reading, cross-referencing, and condensing what crosses my path, and will present what I hope to be a very calm and consistent compilation of several industry professionals’ opinions. (And if you can count the Cs in this paragraph, you’re a better person than I.)

I started by researching who – exactlyare the “Big 5” publishers and what are their adult American imprints. Here, apparently for the first time on the web, is that list:

Random House: Ballantine Books, Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press, Del Rey/Spectra, The Dial Press, ESPN Books, The Modern Library, One World, Presidio Press, Random House, Spiegel & Grau, Villard

Penguin Group: Ace, Alpha, Avery, Berkley, Dutton, Gotham, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, HP Books, Hudson Street Press, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Jove, NAL, Penguin, Penguin Press, Perigee, Plume, Portfolio, Prentice Hall Press, Riverhead, Sentinel, Viking

HarperCollins: General Books: Amistad, Avon, Avon A, Avon Inspire, Avon Red, Caedmon, Collins Design, Ecco, Eos, Harper, Harper Business, HarperLuxe, Harper Paperbacks, Harper Perennial, HarperAudio, HarperBibles, HarperCollins e-Books, HarperOne, HarperStudio, ItBooks, Rayo, William Morrow

Simon & Schuster: Atria, Folger Shakespeare Library, Free Press, Gallery Books, Howard Books, Pocket, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Threshold, Touchstone/Fireside

Hachette: Grand Central Publishing, Little Brown & Company, Faithwords, Windblown Media, Center Street, Yen Press, Orbit, Hachette Audio

I thought to find MacMillan on the list, given their big slap fight with Amazon over Kindle book pricing, but no. (And speaking of which, I want to digress and mention that, according to Wired.com, Amazon Kindle e-book owners are boycotting books priced above $9.99. They are using Amazon’s book-tagging system to mark e-books priced more than $10 with the tag: 9 99 boycott. If you are interested in reading more, go to www.wired.com )

Three names have come up regularly in this discussion: Michael Stackpole, Michael Shatzkin, and J.A. Konrath. Michael Stackpole is a fantasy/sci fi author who has been a successful science fiction and fantasy author for many years. Joe Konrath is a mystery author who first published in 2004. Mike Shatzkin is Founder & CEO of The Idea Logical Company, Inc., a consulting company that provides data management services to the publishing industry.

Most of what I’ll be sharing comes from these three men, and while I’m not going to give line-by-line attribution, these are the men to research if anything I post intrigues you. Then there is the blog by Rich Adin, An American Editor, where the sad state of e-publishing quality is – quite rightly – discussed at length. Some of that content will find its way here as well.

The gist of what they are saying falls into three categories:

1. How the Big 5 publishing houses can change and save themselves…

2. But who needs them anyway?

3. …IF an author can produce a high-quality book.

I have asked these gentlemen to weigh in at some time as I spout their collective wisdom; hopefully they will have the time and inclination. If not, I’ll just quote them shamelessly.

Meanwhile, be very aware of this: the publishing industry is in crisis and if we as new authors are to navigate the waters with any success, there are things we Need To Know. Stick with me as I try to make sense of it all.

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23 Responses to “The Death of Traditional Publishers? A Compilation of Opinions: Part 1”


  1. 1 ScareyAZ 05/13/2010 at 12:37 PM

    Thanks for sharing this information, Kris. Wow! What an eye opener for me. I’ll stay tuned. Million thanks for your hard work in bringing this to light!!!
    Smiles,
    Shaw

    • 2 kristualla 05/13/2010 at 1:08 PM

      I kept thinking we were YEARS away from the tipping point, but these guys are saying less than 2… It’s a wild time to be a reader / writer!
      Kris 🙂

  2. 3 Pauline Baird Jones 05/13/2010 at 1:11 PM

    The kindle tagging goes beyond the 9 99 boycott. Some books are actually priced higher than their PG counterparts, which is seriously ticking off readers. When did these publishers forget who their customers are? If you invest in an eReading device, why would they think you can be manipulated into buying print?

    I’ll be watching for the rest of the discussion. 🙂

  3. 5 Caroline Clemmons 05/13/2010 at 1:37 PM

    Excellent topic! I look forward to the rest of the discussion.

  4. 6 Anthea Lawson 05/13/2010 at 1:58 PM

    Hi Kris! This looks like it will be a great blog series. In romance, I think there’s actually a big 6 — Harlequin is certainly a powerful publishing force.

    @Pauline, above. Actually, publishers DON’T consider readers to be their customers. Part of the crisis in publishing is that publishers have, for decades, considered themselves to be wholesalers, and their ‘customers’ are the bulk buyers at independent/chain/big box stores. (Seriously, WalMart has enough clout to make publishers change their covers — it’s happened a number of times.) The reader is waaay down on the food chain, as far as publishers are concerned. Disconnect? Yes, and it’s coming back to bite them as the industry changes.

    • 7 kristualla 05/13/2010 at 6:41 PM

      Anthea you are SO right! Especially when it comes to WHAT they publish. The almighty “Sure Sale” trumps “Reader’s Variety” every day.
      Kris

  5. 8 amberscottproject 05/13/2010 at 2:30 PM

    OH goody, goody! I cannot wait for this and am all buckled in. I love your posts.

  6. 9 Paisley Kirkpatrick 05/13/2010 at 3:39 PM

    I’m sticking with you, too, Kris. It seems the world of being sold is being sucked away from us by profit managers and it is so sad. Isn’t it a shame they forget without the readers, they have no business and more and more people are not picking up books anymore. You’d think they would find ways of increasing their readership. 😦

  7. 10 Tate 05/14/2010 at 6:39 AM

    Kris,
    Thanks for this – lots of work & research on the business of our business. The loss of print media & entertainment/information (books) has been the gorilla in the room that most of us ignore but worry about. I’ve met Joe Konrath, way back when he sold his 1st book – he’s young, energetic, & very knowledgeable about the business – his business. We should be, too. We will stick with you on this –
    Thanks for taking the Gorilla out of the closet!

  8. 11 Pauline Baird Jones 05/14/2010 at 10:02 AM

    the problem with seeing bulk buyers as their customers is that those “customers” can send the product back with the covers ripped off. Like I said, time for them to figure out who the real customers are in the transaction between publishing and reading.

    readers are TICKED OFF that they aren’t being listened to.

    Now I will say, I’ve seen three email surveys from major publishers this month, two about eReading and one about genre. What astounds me and continues to astound me is that they don’t seem to do the market research of other businesses. Didn’t I read sometime in the past that the RWA reader survey was first major look at what readers thought?

    Just read on another blog where, at a conference, an editor said that they don’t choose which books to publish. That sales staff does.

    So if sales is deciding what books to contract, who is deciding where to sell stuff? LOL! It’s madness.

    • 12 kristualla 05/14/2010 at 6:46 PM

      This is what I keep running into – I have trilogy set in America & Norway in the early 1800’s. No publisher wants to LOOK at it because there are no dukes or kilts. So I’ going with a small label for e-pub & POD – and learning how to market the “h-e-double-hockey-sticks” out of it myself! Then readers will be able to decide for THEMSELVES.
      Kris <–who was told by a Kensington editor last month, "Publishers like their boxes.”

  9. 13 Kalen Hughes 05/14/2010 at 11:47 AM

    Seems the same as TV to me. Their customers are really the advertisers, not the viewers. Even most cable channels have ads.

  10. 14 Pauline Baird Jones 05/14/2010 at 7:08 PM

    But tv advertisers recognize the enormous power of the viewer in the equation. And while a tv viewer may purchase cable, a book is a personal purchase. Something that each person does one book at a time. And tv advertisers don’t return the “product” if it doesn’t sell. Distributors and such are expeditor’s in the transaction, not THE transaction.

    Just look at some of WalMart’s deals with publishers. They agreed to NOT return the books, but under certain circumstances, such as dictating the price of the books. In that transaction, they are the customer, to a an extent, since they can’t send the books back.

    but in the end, the readers still impact the ultimate sales. They buy the books or they don’t. And Walmart recognizes that readers are customers, since they tried to deliver a product at a low price to their customers, whether its books or clothes or whatever. They KNOW their customers inside and out.

    Publishers (some) have called us “whiny with entitlement issues.” yeah, there’s a plan.

    the sad thing, IMHO, is that their is enough diversity, with some flexibility in thinking, they could meet the needs of all their customers. There are still readers who like hard cover and mass market paper. Digital is ony 3% of the market right now, though its growing at something like 2005 percent a year. But they are so locked into a print model business plan, they can’t see past it. It’s sad.

  11. 16 Pauline Baird Jones 05/15/2010 at 6:22 AM

    Sorry about the typo! 200% a year. LOl! And yeah, the authors are getting squeezed in the middle of it all.

    what other business do any of us know where the producers TRY to keep customers from buying what they want? I have a kindle. I want to buy kindle editions. I want to pay my money for books and in some cases, they won’t let me. It’s totally whacky.

    • 17 kristualla 05/15/2010 at 12:45 PM

      HA! Yes – 200% STILL an impressive number!

      I LOVE my Kindle! I know that there are some who think releases should be spread out – e versus paper – because the two forms cannibalize each other. NOT TRUE!

      If I see a new release I want, I go straight to Kindle. If it’s not there, I still don’t buy it in paper. And if it’s released there 6 mos. later, my interest is gone and they lost the sale.

      Sucks to be them! 🙂

  12. 18 Pauline Baird Jones 05/15/2010 at 4:52 PM

    I’m the same. If I can’t get a kindle edition when I want it, I move on. Not like my TBR isn’t enormous. LOL!

  13. 19 americaneditor 05/19/2010 at 5:59 AM

    Kris, it is important to include Macmillan in your list of the big publishers. The big group is really the gang of 6, not 5, which does include Macmillan. If Macmillan had less market clout, the agency model would not have been able to get off the ground.

    Rich

    • 20 kristualla 05/19/2010 at 9:51 PM

      Thanks, Rich! I later found Macmillan on some lists, but no one seems to be in perfect agreement as to which publishers rank where. Which brings me to another issue: book sale numbers are more protected than our borders! Why is that? When I Googled, “How many books does the average bestseller sell?” there were no answers anywhere.

      Do you have any wisdom to share?

      • 21 Stephen Prosapio 05/25/2010 at 11:30 PM

        Kris,
        I followed the cookie crumb trail to your blog. PW to J Konrath to here.

        I really want to thank you for tackling this topic. I can’t wait to read your other postings.

      • 22 kristualla 05/26/2010 at 12:08 PM

        Thanks! I had no idea there was a crumb trail 🙂

        I emailed Joe today about sharing his experiences. Michael Stackpole and Robert Walker have been writing for decades – but Joe was first published in 2004. He has wisdom we up-and-comers need to mine!
        Kris


  1. 1 2010 in review « KrisTualla's Author & Writing Blog Trackback on 01/04/2011 at 12:19 PM

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