Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Are Publishers Plagued By a Public Perception Problem?


Publishers have been taking some rather unpopular stands lately. The agency model for e-books raised the price for many e-books, they have removed e-books from libraries, and they spend millions of dollars on the latest celebrity memoir even as great midlist authors go unsupported or get dropped entirely. Accordingly, I see a whole lot of angst against publishers around the Internet, especially in social media.

Are publishers going the way of record labels in the public's eye as greedy dinosaurs who failed to keep pace with the times? (To be clear: I like publishers a great deal. But I see a lot of complaints out there.)

What's kind of amazing to me is that the "shop on the corner" effect usually favors the old timers against the newfangled upstart, but in consumers' eyes I'm not sure publishers are winning the sympathy battle against Amazon and others.

And there are real consequences to a failure of public perception: Consumers may find it easier to justify pirating from those Big Bad Meanie Publishers if they feel they're being treated unfairly. Readers may not care as much about supporting the traditional publishing system and curation. And authors faced with a choice between working with publishers and going on their own may choose to eschew traditional publishing.

Do publishers have a perception problem? And if so, what should they do about it?

Art: "Kätzchen im Boudoir" by Carl Reichert






75 comments:

Kim Batchelor said...

My sense is that most readers aren't really following all this like we writers (and those in the publishing business) are. Maybe when they want to check out ebooks at the library and run into limitations, or or more broadly realize how they can't really share ebooks with friends like they used to.

Mr. D said...

It's in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. Some are better than others, no doubt, and each reader and each author will have his/her own opinion on that.

Jory said...

I'm not entirely convinced that it's the publishers' fault if public perception of them is poor. They can raise e-book prices and remove them from libraries because people will still buy e-books.

If the publishers don't receive any kind of repercussions (other than negative blog feedback - and lets face it, with the ever expanding blogosphere, it's hard to tell who is creditable and who is not) they're going to continue to do what makes them the most money.

I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing, just pragmatic.

Rashad Pharaon said...

Some bad decisions by the Big Six here and there, but I think the self-publishing bubble will burst soon enough. Not that it won't be there, just not as loud (ie like the .com bubble). As for the price points, I don't think people keep track of a few dollars difference. I've seen women splurge far more on shoes and martinis, and men on shirts and beer. What's three dollars?

Amber Lin said...

Among writers or very active readers, maybe. But I think the average consumer is still a busy person who picks up 1 book a month at the grocery store or from the central kiosk at Barnes and Noble. That person has very little notion of publishers. After all, books are sorted according to genre and author, not publisher - why should they care?

angel said...

I say yes, they do have a Public Perception Problem. They know what THEY think sells. They aren't really listening to the buying public. For so long, they've been so big, they didn't have to. There weren't a lot of alternatives, unless you wanted to go with the Vanity Scam places, of which we'll leave unnamed.

Now, you can self publish in a few great places, where once you had to have a "real" publisher to get in.

It's time for the publishers to wake up and relize that the game has changed. There are new options that make much more sense to authors AND to readers. Independent publishing is great for authors who are finally seeing royalties that they should have seen for decades, but didn't. It's great for readers, because many authors are offering deals publishers wouldn't consider, unless of course, you're one of the "Big" name authors.

They need to figure out that it's time to lower the digital book prices to a reasonable level for authors to make money, and readers to get a deal. They need to publish the digital books either a week/two BEFORE the print comes out, or at the very least within two weeks AFTER the print comes out. Give the readers a choice. Promo both with the same gusto.

Okay. My $0.02.

Dan Holloway said...

I don't know whether they do amongst readers - do readers really see an ebook priced higher than ahardback (just to take one oft-cited example) and think "darned Simon & Schuster" or do they just think it's a generic pricing weirdness? I don't know.

There are clearly perception problems for writers (one of which, most like the music industry of the 80s but which we don't hear much about, is locking people into multi-book deals and demanding that each book be "more of the same"), but that's not the thing here.

The problem big publishers have *is* the same as one that big record labels had, namely the regular fans of big-label artists tend to be fans of the artist, whereas a lot of fans of artists with smaller independent labels will show almost as much loyalty to the label as a band. Small presses have built up small but devoted followings very successfully by focusing on a particular type of product and reader to teh extent where in the UK publishers like Peirenen and And Other Stories can comfortably sell subscriptions to their year's titles. No one is going to do that with Hachette. And that's part of what makes big publishers vulnerable both to poaching and to self-publishing. If a Melville House author self-published, no one would stop buying titles in their Art of the Novella series because customers' primary loyalty is to Melville House. When James Patterson talks about self-publishing, Random House probably have palpitations, because people who bought his last book will buy *his* next book and it wouldn't occur to them to ignore it in favour of something else from Cornerstone.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, I do think they have a sour attitude about some of the changes, and yes, it can be compared to the indie music scene where the distribution models changed. That said, we still love and need the big publishers, as they are the sieve that separates the good writers from those who still need work.
Beyond all of that, I think ALL of the players are being little bullies. Amazon for sure ALTHOUGH they did have the vision and the hutzpah to shape a new system, and that new scaffold supported and continues to support many great writers, who either were midlist or simply fell through a hole in the sieve. B&N too, is a bully for saying they refuse to shelve any Create Space titles. Who suffers? The indie author! Grow up, you guys, all of you and play nice in the playground, or take your shovels and pails and go home for a time out!

Beautifully Pure said...

I think publishers have a huge problem. I think they're not keeping up with the times and not realizing that they are not a monopoly anymore. People have other options. People can go other places - and still do well.

To be completely honest, except for a handful of big authors, I'm not sure what publisher even offer writers anymore. They'll get your book into print and maybe into book stores, but the author still has to do all the marketing themselves. And with book stores going the way of the dinosaurs, I'm not sure it's even that important to have your book in bookstores anymore.

The way I look at it, if an author has the attitude, knowledge and ability to self-publish, that's the way to go now: get and ebook made and a few real books printed; set up a blog; and social media the heck out of the internet.

Louisa said...

Yes, I think publishers are starting to look bad, at least to writers. We keep hearing of shrinking advances, even for established authors, and as you say, huge advances for celebrity "authors." It seems as though publishers are becoming increasingly out of touch, and I can see why e-publishing is so popular.

Devon Ellington said...

Without writers -- their reason to exist -- publishers have nothing to publish, and therefore nothing to sell.

Friends of mine who read a lot are gravitating more towards small publishers (not talking self-publising here, but away from the Big Six) because they don't like what's out there. They don't like the mass-produced formulas or that, right now, almost all the covers look exactly the same.

They want unique stories that make them see the world in a different way. They want a combination of comfort on tough days and challenge when they're feeling like they want to make a difference.

These are people who like to read between 3-6 books per week. They're not finding them on the Big Six lists, so they look elsewhere.

Most celebutard "talked at" books (because you know they're mostly ghost-written, these people can't form a coherent sentence without help) -- get huge advances, big initial pushes, and fill the remainder tables pretty darn fast.

Publishers need to look at more than numbers out of the distribution houses. They need to start taking risks on the unique and wonderful again, instead of the safe and dwindling.

Ms. T Garden said...

Yes, they have a problem, and yes they should be concerned. Why? Because they are beginning to be thought of as irrelevant.

When more of their mid-list authors self-publish and make more than they did with a big house, guess what? People notice, and they start to talk.

When authors are honest about having to self-promote their own books and do their own marketing, people take notice.

I don't think e-books are going anywhere nor are indie authors and publishers. It's a new day and old business models just aren't going to be as profitable.

As far as removing books from libraries, there is already a petition at whitehouse.gov regarding it.

Readers have always set their own price points when it comes to book purchases. Publishers raising their prices will only drive more money away from their businesses.

As more indie authors come into the limelight, like Amanda Hocking, people rely more on what friends recommend or feedback on a book. Most people don't follow publisher recommendations. Most readers have author loyalty not publisher loyalty.

I think you'll see that they will either change their ways or be left behind like a horse and buggy at the Daytona 500.

A.R. Williams said...

Publishers have an "inside the box" problem. They keep trying to use old methods in a vastly changed industry.

Ms. T Garden said...

@ Ms. Stine,

I have to disagree with you regarding this statement: "That said, we still love and need the big publishers, as they are the sieve that separates the good writers from those who still need work."

If publishing companies had the necessary knowledge to separate the "good writers from those who still need work" then no historically great author would have ever suffered rejection. In recent memory that would include J.K. Rowling who was rejected 12 times with the first Harry Potter book.

Publishers don't have magic powers or keen in sight into what readers will deem the next success. Amanda Hocking is another example.

Amber Forbes said...

I have about three books I want to buy from the Big Six this month, but I have bought a lot of self/independent published books as of late because they offer more variety. I have been obsessed with ballet novels lately, but the one ballet novel that is published by the Bix Six, IMO, is the same tripe you hear about the ballet world time and time again: its pushy, cutthroat, and all the bunheads are catty. Well, I finally found ballet books that are self-published that manage to break away from this mold, and I haven't been disappointed.

The Bix Six have disappointed me because of these big advances they are giving to celebrity "authors." When was the last time a celebrity author ever went as big as JK Rowling? The big authors are those who publishers take a chance on, the ones the public falls in love with and remember the most. I don't ever recall a reader fondly recalling that one book a celebrity wrote. I just wish publishers were more public friendly and less about the bottom line, then I think they'd be doing a lot better than they are. But they're not. I understand they're a business. I totally get that. But there are many businesses that care about their customers and thrive off this.

They are going to have to change...and soon.

fOIS In The City said...

Nathan, it is a sad time for so many who revered the Big 6,and believed in publishers as the partner of the writer. Too much concentratin on what amazon is doing and not enough time spent on making changes to keep up with the New Millenium. Who among them will be the first to wake up and realize amazon is not the enemy, they are the Bill Gates of publishing? Not only in the book or record business, but in any business, those who adapt succeed, those who cannot, die. No one from my generation would have thought the Big Blue (IBM) would fall like a ton of ancient bricks, but alas it happened ... and it happened to Eastman Kodak, and many others as well. Who is next?

Doug said...

For fiction, at least, individual imprints and publishing houses are invisible to the public. If you asked 100 readers at random who published the novel they're currently reading, I'd imagine that the only ones who know are reading Harlequin.

As a whole, the public doesn't really think much about publishers. They're just book factories. Not much has changed in the printed-book world. Amazon still sells most printed books at steep discounts, and the public is satisfied with that.

There is some dissatisfaction among readers of e-books, mostly about pricing but sometimes about availability or quality. But in my experience, most of the public blames the bookstores. That's where books come from, right?

I think what's going to accelerate the fall of the big publishers is that the public doesn't notice them. To date, the big publishing houses have pretty much controlled what titles are presented to the public. That era's ending (especially at Amazon), and consumers are increasingly going to be buying from smaller publishers and self-publishers — without even noticing that they are.

Emma Cunningham said...

I do think many publishers have a customer service problem. I absolutely understand their anger with pirates, Amazon, etc - but they still need to put the focus on their customers. I often feel that some publishers vilify readers by implying we're all out to screw them. Maybe if they changed their focus from the bad eggs to the good ones, they might be able to alter the public's perception.

(Please note: most publishers are awesome and treat their readers with concern and respect. It's just some publishers who obviously have been screwed themselves too many times who start treating us all like thieves).

therealjasonb said...

I think they do. It's crazy to go on Amazon and see that the price of an ebook I want is MORE expensive than the paperback version. (I think this is more true for slightly older books rather than new releases.) I wrote to Amazon to complain once--wanted to see what they would say--and they basically said blame the publishers, not us.

I am not an expert, isn't the extra money (from 9.99 to 15.99 or whatever) mostly going to the publishers? It still reminds me of the record companies a decade or so ago, trying to cling to their existing profits rather than dealing with the new reality of how their business operates.

jenna234 said...

I think that the problems that Publisher's face is going to be further down the road. As an economics major I think we're seeing that the traditional price of a book is set too high for most consumers. That isn't anyone's fault, it's just a market equilibrium that was misjudged and is now readjusting. That’s going to be something that they’ll either cope with or won’t, and public perception probably won’t make a big difference.
The people that they have to worry about are the upcoming generation of talent. I’m not talking about someone whose been hard at work for twenty years and have had the goal to write since forever. I’m talking about the upcoming dreamers who are learning formatting, graphic design, all the things that they’re going to need to self-publish and are entering the publishing world at the same time as the anti-publisher sentiment is reaching it’s height. The next James Patterson, JK Rowling, or Janet Evanovich. The publishing houses will lose them even before they have a chance to try for them.

jenna234 said...

I think that the problems that Publisher's face is going to be further down the road. As an economics major I think we're seeing that the traditional price of a book is set too high for most consumers. That isn't anyone's fault, it's just a market equilibrium that was misjudged and is now readjusting. That’s going to be something that they’ll either cope with or won’t, and public perception probably won’t make a big difference.
The people that they have to worry about are the upcoming generation of talent. I’m not talking about someone whose been hard at work for twenty years and have had the goal to write since forever. I’m talking about the upcoming dreamers who are learning formatting, graphic design, all the things that they’re going to need to self-publish and are entering the publishing world at the same time as the anti-publisher sentiment is reaching it’s height. The next James Patterson, JK Rowling, or Janet Evanovich. The publishing houses will lose them even before they have a chance to try for them.

Matthew MacNish said...

I fear they do, but I have no idea what can be done. I worry it may be too late. I hope it isn't.

Anonymous said...

I think publishers have a HUGE problem (and so do agents) but most don't quite get it yet. And I don't think it's just among writers, as someone posited. When I talk to non-writer friends, even people who know nothing about the industry believe it's broken.

At this point, I believe they are merely gatekeepers. Agents are doing a lot of editing (in many cases), and my impression--which may be wrong--is that publishing does NO market research, but buys based on what is currently selling. Of course, it takes at least two years to get something to market (which is absurd in and of itself).

I think the industry is seriously changing, and a start-up (or two) that is going to revolutionize things is going to come along.

They are also taking most of the profit from e-books. That's very short-sighted, as it is going to drive people away from big publishers as more options become available. All I can say is I'm really glad I didn't get a job in publishing after college.

Wyndes said...

Ditto to Doug! I don't think readers care about publishers or even know who most publishers are. They just care whether the book they're reading is good and/or worth the money they paid for it. And I know absolutely for sure that readers don't have an expectation that every book in the world will be available in any given bookstore -- imagine the size of that bookstore!!! It'd be...well, Amazon. Ha. But it couldn't exist except online.

Quite honestly, I don't think the general public cares enough about publishers for them to have a public perception problem. Of course, that might make their survivability even more in question, because if readers don't care where a book comes from, what do the Big Six have to offer?

Ted Cross said...

It's called Capitalism. Only Amazon is bothering to compete in the new paradigm. The rest will sink unless they start competing.

Cheryl said...

Yep, the big pubs haven't a clue.

I read a lot. And people who read a lot won't spend their entire budget on 2-3 higher-priced books a month. Especially an ebook that they can't loan or give away.

Don't believe it? Check out the used bookstores and watch the people coming and going with bags/boxes of books. Used books. They have only so much money to spend, and they won't blow it all on a book they can get later for less money. Unless it's a very favorite author. Then they'll go for the hardback.

Jeremy B Williams said...

I'm not sure I would say they have a public perception problem. They certainly have some PR issues when it comes to the writerly crowd but I'm not sure to what extend those not involved with the industry have any clue how messed up things are getting.

India Drummond said...

I don't think they're having a public perception problem, I think they're having a public reality problem.

I spent twenty years working, learning, striving... and getting nowhere. Nine months ago, I decided to self-publish. I'm not only making a living, but a decent one. I can pay our mortgage and then some on my self-publishing salary.

Suddenly, the big publishers don't have anything I want anymore. I don't bear them any ill will...I'm just no longer interested in what they're peddling.

Ty Unglebower said...

The problem is multi-faceted.

The gist of it is, yes, publishers do have an image problem, and rightfully so, for all of the reasons you mention. It is clearer to writers and serious bookworms right now, but in time the attitude, (if not changed) will start to rub the average consumer the wrong way also.

Now that the big publishers have lost any right to claim they are gatekeepers of quality, (there is a lot of trash that gets through those gatekeepers these days) fewer and fewer readers are having difficulty giving self-published authors a chance. (The good-to-trash ratio is getting pretty close to even between the big houses and the self-published world, and one day, it will be dead even.)

However, we must keep in mind that there are many smaller houses that do have some semblance of art remaining in what they do. They seek to turn profit, yes, but in pursuit of quality writing. But another part of this whole issue is that the behavior of the huge houses will, if not now, soon tarnish the reputations of the smaller houses.

Rick Daley said...

I think the problem is that it's difficult to quickly enact change in a large corporation, let alone several corporations in an aged industry. The publishing industry is going through a rapid evolution and the publishers are evaluating ways in which to keep up with the changes.

They must hedge their bets, though...looking at what happened in the dot.com, housing, and financial industries, I would bet they don't want to jump in too fast, lest a bubble burst, facilitating the need to revert back to the old system.

They are probably moving as fast as they can.

The only thing that happens overnight in publishing is writer's block.

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Mark Terry said...

I suspect it's primarily with writers and not the majority of readers. I would also argue that writers have probably had many of these same issues with publishers for years - certainly if you get a bunch of them together with some source of alcohol the complaints aren't new. The primary difference, I suspect, is many writers kept their mouths shut about their problems with publishers lest their complaints get back to the publishers and adversely affect their careers. Now that most writers have an alternate publishing outlet than traditional publishers, well... the gloves are off.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I don't think the average casual reader knows or cares about publishing houses any more than they care who was on the production staff of their favourite movie. Or who set up the cameras at their favourite sporting event. The content is what readers are interested in, and if they can get content easier and/or cheaper somewhere else, they probably won't notice that there's a little company symbol missing from their reading. People have commented that my Createspace novel looks "real" and they didn't even think to look at the spine.

Anonymous said...

I've been seeing a lot of complaining too. Ex: http://www.goodreads.com/user_status/show/11619577.

Personally, I still like publishers too, I'm aiming at getting one to like me back :).

Katherine Hyde said...

Nathan, did you see Mary Kole's blog today (Kidlit.com)? Hint: Her title is "Alliteration Always Annoys." :) I don't find it annoying myself, but the coincidence is amusing.

Not being a member of the "public" concerned (I'm both a writer and an employee of a publisher), I can't give an unbiased opinion on the question of the day.

Shaunna said...

I can only cite my perception as a reader and a writer, which, I suppose, makes my opinion skewed, but I see them as too big to adapt. The comparison to the music scene is apt for the very same reason.

Before the digital revolution, both the big 6 and the analogous entities in the music industry held most of the cards. They were not only the "gatekeepers" but also the starmakers. The music industry may have acknowledged their ability to influence public perception of music -- I don't know -- but I have never seen the legacy publishers do that.

Their corner on the market for print books and advertising necessarily means that they are always looking for the next big seller. Why do they never seem to realize that they *create* the next big seller by choosing which authors and books to publish and promote?

Before the digital age, of course, they got away with it. Anything they didn't think would sell was simply swept under the rug. What else could an author do? But ebooks and Amazon have revolutionized the industry the same way that mp3s revolutionized the music industry.

How many people now find their next CD purchase browsing the Rock/Pop rack in a Virgin Records store? I estimate that about that same number of people will, in the next few years, represent those who do the same at Barnes and Noble for their next big seller.

I think the Legacy publishers, in wielding their gatekeeper sword with such a tight, money-grubbing fist, will find a wider margin of writers slipping through their fingers. And in tightening down because of decreased revenues, they will focus even more on what they predict will sell well, necessarily alienating themselves from a greater number of books and authors that the public, it turns out, will want to read.

Think about it. How many CDs do you even own anymore? How many of them are top 40 versus indie bands or recommendations by friends?

As the public realizes that they can no longer perform effectively as gatekeepers (because so many self-published and independent books are just as good and well-written as legacy published ones), the publishing industry will lose a major weapon. But I just don't see them taking the risk necessary to adapt by publishing a wider variety of books, by new authors, at prices that can compete with self-published authors.

The upside, of course, is that the majority of those in the publishing industry can still find a job in that industry -- with the self-publishers -- if they jump ship and climb aboard something new soon enough. The services of editors, cover designers, marketers, even printers will always be invaluable tools in an author's arsenal. I just don't think the antiquated distribution unit is going to survive.

Anne-Marie said...

Publishers should wake up and adapt before they go the way of record labels. Ten years ago, I would have done anything to land a publishing deal, but now that I've got my book(s) finished and ready to go, I've done it myself and don't regret it at all. It doesn't even dawn on me that I need to go any other route, and I suspect many writers are realizing the same thing.

Robert Gray said...

Problem is, at least from my limited POV, that the publishing industry had managed to keep itself hidden from the Reader/Writer relationship for centuries. Books magically appeared on shelves, readers bought or borrowed them, that was it. Now, publishers have been thrust into the spotlight, and, well, they didn't get a chance to clean behind their ears first. So Amazon and some others have been exploiting some imperfections. Big deal. As long as publishers address these flaws and stop pointing fingers, they'll do fine.

I also agree that the vast reading public probably doesn't care about what's going on in the industry, but it's worth noting that writers do care, and they are the most voracious readers of all.

JES said...

I'm with those who've pointed out that consumers don't care much about publishers. They don't have a relationship with publishers. They have a relationship with RETAILERS. The whole "What's up with publishers?" issue seems huge to us, because (published or not) we're on the inside.

Anonymous said...

I think publishing companies have a public perception problem with serious readers, the ones who read 50+ books per year.

Casual readers who buy one or two books per year probably don't care much about what's going on right now. $25 for a hardcover isn't a big hit to the budget if you're only buying one book per year. And if you don't read much, you probably don't own an e-reader or visit the library often.

But serious readers are price sensitive, they use the library to gain access to the books they can't afford to purchase, and they own e-readers. Inflated e-book prices and lack of library availability make them angry. I know because I'm this sort of reader myself.

It feels as if the publishing industry has decided that the person they really want to do business with is the casual reader who buys one or two expensive books a year, not the serious reader who wants to buy 50 or more moderately priced books a year.

Natalie Aguirre said...

While I'm not sure readers are following it like us, I do think when they check the library or online where they buy books and see no e-books or too high prices, that they get what's going on.

Another problem with e-books is that you really can't share them like a book. That's one reason I don't buy e-books yet.

But I do think we as consumers should have fair choices. And I think as authors there should not be any prejudice against the authors who decide to independently publish rather than go the traditional route.

Mira said...

I LOVE the picture, Nathan. Made me smile. :)

Great topic! Extremely relevant. And I thought all the comments were really interesting.

My take: Absolutely publishers have a perception problem with both readers and writers.

Readers:

I agree with many above that publishers have been invisible to the average reader, other than maybe a vague respect and impression that publishers are doing good works.

There are two dangers.

The first is that publishers will lose their invisibility and start to garner NEGATIVE attention.

They can piss readers off by doing three things:

1. Withholding e-books from libraries. Libraries! Might as well take a stand against kittens and puppies, too. The public won't like anti-library sentiment from BOOK publishers, nor the inconvenience if they can't get a book from the library.

2. Not converting their books into e-books. This pisses ME off. Every month, I go to Amazon, and click the "tell the publishers you want this in Kindle format" button for at least 20 books. Every month I push that little button harder. Surely, I'm not alone.

3. Pricing books too high will start to bring publishers into the forefront of reader's mind in a negative way.

I believe, their competition, Amazon, has a positive public image overall.

So, the LAST thing publisher need is for their invisibility to melt away and reveal them to be high price setters, who withhold e-books from readers and libraries.

Leading to general public perception: "Wow, publishers are just mean corporations. Btw, I heard they are under investigation for price setting. AND I hear they are a CARTEL! I'm going to ask my congressman to look into the mean publishers who hate libraries. And I support independent authors".

The other danger regarding public perception and invisibility is that, as Dan Holloway said, reader loyalty is to the writer, not the publisher. Which makes publishers dependent on specific authors, which is dangerous because of the writer perception problems:

Writers:

Many writers believe (whether you agree or not) that the monopoly of publisher has taken advantage of them and continues to treat them badly.

I believe this is the most serious problem facing publishers right now.

But, I'm not sure they realize this. I think they may be lured into some complacency because agents still receive thousands of query letters and editors still get plenty of calls from agents about good books.

They not taking into account how rapidly things are changing.

I believe there will be an inevitable and relatively quick movement of authors (mid-list and debut first, and eventually best-selling) toward more money, control and (most important) respect, and I believe we are seeing just the tip of the iceburg right now.

So my belief: Publishers need to avoid negative public perceptions, but even more important, they need to improve writer perceptions as soon as possible.

They could do this. I hope they do. I don't think it's too late yet.

Mira said...

Oh, so sorry to post again, but to answer your second question, what should they do about it?

I believe:

a. Start treating their authors really well, so the authors seek them and remain loyal despite the lure of self-publishing;

b. Strengthen their imprints in a highly positive way, so the public becomes loyal to their specific brand.

Anonymous said...

What about Writer Beware?? They are publishing lists of supposedly bad agents and publishers while their own hands are sullied with the likes of Charles Petit and their coverup of his scamming of the John Steinbeck estate because he was their lawyer and moderator on Absolute Write. Why has this story not been covered on your blog? It is big time! Why the silence about this extremely important publishing scam?

Marilyn Peake said...

I definitely think the big publishing houses are plagued by a huge public perception problem. Even though they continue to publish many great books, those at the top (not all the dedicated people who work for them) are driven by greed. If you look at how much money the people at the top make, it’s hard to feel sympathy when they cry the blues about worries concerning profits. And greed has led them to mistreat many of their authors. On a regular basis now, there are stories on the Internet about how an author published by a big publishing house was treated shabbily, not paid very much money or dropped completely for not selling more than mid-list numbers of books. And readers also chat on the Internet about finding typos in books for which they paid the big bucks, assuming the editing from major publishing houses would prevent that.

The happiest group of authors I’ve ever encountered are those self-publishing through Amazon’s KDP Select program. Disclaimer: I have a number of books published that way right now. Kindle groups are filled with authors breaking all kinds of sales records and cheering each other on. This doesn’t mean that Amazon’s perfect, but there are a great many extremely happy authors publishing through Amazon right now. I think one of the main perks is being allowed to experiment at Amazon. Authors are allowed to change the prices of their books whenever they want; they can also change their book covers. It’s kind of incredible, actually, to experiment with prices and book covers and observe firsthand how sales can be radically improved by specific changes.

You asked what publishers should do about their public perception problem. They would need a new mind-set to solve that problem. They would need to value innovation over greed, and to put readers and authors before exorbitant profit.

Marilyn Peake said...

I definitely think the big publishing houses are plagued by a huge public perception problem. Even though they continue to publish many great books, those at the top (not all the dedicated people who work for them) are driven by greed. If you look at how much money the people at the top make, it’s hard to feel sympathy when they cry the blues about worries concerning profits. And greed has led them to mistreat many of their authors. On a regular basis now, there are stories on the Internet about how an author published by a big publishing house was treated shabbily, not paid very much money or dropped completely for not selling more than mid-list numbers of books. And readers also chat on the Internet about finding typos in books for which they paid the big bucks, assuming the editing from major publishing houses would prevent that.

The happiest group of authors I’ve ever encountered are those self-publishing through Amazon’s KDP Select program. Disclaimer: I have a number of books published that way right now. Kindle groups are filled with authors breaking all kinds of sales records and cheering each other on. This doesn’t mean that Amazon’s perfect, but there are a great many extremely happy authors publishing through Amazon right now. I think one of the main perks is being allowed to experiment at Amazon. Authors are allowed to change the prices of their books whenever they want; they can also change their book covers. It’s kind of incredible, actually, to experiment with prices and book covers and observe firsthand how sales can be radically improved by specific changes.

You asked what publishers should do about their public perception problem. They would need a new mind-set to solve that problem. They would need to value innovation over greed, and to put readers and authors before exorbitant profit.

Unknown said...

They could start by treating authors like clients instead of like the enemy. Instead, publishers are Wall Street and we're the investors.

Natalie said...

I agree with other commenters that readers are largely unaware and/or don't care about all the antics of publishers and Amazon et al. They want to read books by their favorite authors and want to discover new books at reasonable prices. Readers are shopping for content. When is the last time you chose a book based on the publishing house?
And this is the main thing that publishing houses don't seem to have caught on to yet. They no longer have a monopoly on content.
They need to adapt (and fast) or we are going to have a new monopoly, Amazon. And that won't be good for readers -or for writers.
I'm not a huge fan of the NYC publishing monopoly, but I'm really rooting for them to get it together before it's too late.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Funny. I was just reading my "Indie Author's Guide to Self-Publishing," and how it took traditional publishers years--a decade at least, even, to create the "mid-list" of paperback books after Pocket Books came out with them and had terrific sales particularly from GIs during World War II.

They created the mid-list to distinguish between "literature" and "important books," and basically "pulp," and thus the "trade paperback" was born.

So, that they are slow to react is not surprising.

But I think it's the blatant "we have to be the ones to control this, we have to be the ones to profit from this" attitude that's causing them bad press.

Most publishing--before Amazon, and ebooks--was done by mega media conglomerates. The bottom line was far more important than actually promoting great writing. They bought display space in brick-and-mortar bookstores, they paid for reviews, and needed mega sales to justify any of it. Heck, now they pay incredible advances for "celebrity" memoirs compared to novels even by mid-list authors. And if you're an "unknown," without the flavor-of-the-moment requisite Vampire killing Zombie love story involving a loveable serial killer who just may be undead, good luck.

If you don't sell 1 million copies, if your book isn't a best-seller, if you're not making the publisher money, good luck finding anyone to publish your next one, it seems, not matter how well you write.

At least, that's part of the public perception, as noted in the previously referenced book which is, obviously, for "indie" authors.

The fact is, you can be published--or self-published--and thrust upon an unsuspecting public without the intervention of a "major" publisher saying: "this is my writer, with whom I'm well pleased." And you, the author, can make money. Not multi-million dollar advance money. But as we used to say with any job, at least enough for a six-pack of beer before the rent was due.

So, they're losing power in terms of being the arbiters and promoters of what people want to read; or, more importantly, want to buy; they're losing money trying to promote writers because, like politicians, the reading public is beginning to suspect they really only have one faith--in money.

So, yes. Publishers ARE plagued by a public perception problem. How can they change the public's perception? Maybe start by promoting their mid-list authors more, or offering low advances and e-publishing "new" or "discovered" writers--and without trying to control every step of the process and increase profit margins.

For all the talk, again, about "risk taking" corporations, mega corporations--publishers--are reluctant to take a risk. Their shareholders won't let them. But before ebooks, before paperbacks and Pocket Books hit the country, many publishers were privately held family businesses, and they published who they wanted, or who they liked, or what they thought others might like, without it having to be a million-seller.

I still have to ask: would Hemingway be published in today's market? Would Fitzgerald? Fitzgerald's first book, "The Romantic Egoist," was rejected when he was 18. He resubmitted it after working on it more as "This Side of Paradise," and a brilliant editor named Maxwell Perkins convinced Charles Scribner to let him publish it.

Where is today's Perkins? Or Charles Scribner, for that matter?

You want people to like you, the public to like you, take a risk. Find unknown artists and make them popular. And for God's sake, quit whining about how a good, new, risky idea is paying off for the likes of Amazon.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like one of those new discoveries with e-books in libraries, that needs to have it's bugs worked out. With the fall of the economy at the moment, having the option to check out an e-book at a library is awesome--for a reader. For an author, my work is out there even more, but I don't get anything for it. In respect, it's the same with a book...you can get it at the library for free. Which is how it's always been, correct? So, to be fair, getting an e-book shouldn't be any different. If publishers force libraries to take away e-books, they're forcing readers to BUY the e-books...which, thankfully, are cheaper than the actual book. Who wins in this senario? It should always be the reader. Yet, without authors & publishers making any kind of money, they too can suffer. How do we make it work for everyone? I don't know. But like I said, it's a bug to be worked out. =]

Terin Tashi Miller said...

In other words, what Mira said...:)

wendy said...

I wonder if publisher's perceive that people are buying less books so they have to be uber careful on what they invest in. Celebrity books are almost always a sure thing, but where are the exciting new writers coming from if publishers are less likely to take chances on them? That's my perception of the current scene. I'm not sure what the perception of others are as I don't follow any blogs except this one and don't take notice of what is trending. I don't think many would think publishers to be greedy monsters, more as cautious business people trying to make the necessary profits to keep going. Possibly the casual reader is unaware of most happenings in the pub. world, whereas new writers might have become less optimistic that their work will be picked up and, therefore, decide to invest in their own future. That's the direct I'd like to go in when I get more time.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I do think it's unfair that celebrity "authors" get multi-million dollar book deals from publishers. On the other hand, publishers are also business people, which is why they wouldn't offer those deals to those celebrities if they didn't think that those books would sell. Even though a lot of readers and writers are shaking their heads over Amanda Knox's book deal, on the other hand, how many of them will be buying her book? I'm willing to bet that a lot of them will, if only to satisfy their curiosity about what her side of the story is. It's a little like reality TV; we can judge producers and networks for airing trashy reality TV, and yet they would not keep doing that if people weren't watching those shows. I myself (guiltily) watch Jersey Shore even though I know it's bad for me, kind of like auditioning to be on a show like Ridiculous would be bad for me.

christinaggaudet said...

Having just chosen to not buy an ebook I wanted to read because it was $3 more than the paperback, I'd say that yes, publishers have a perception problem. They also seem to think that they need to spend money on doing layout and design of the print copy, but never mind how the ebook looks. When it's so easy to find "free" versions of everything online now, I can understand readers feelings that it's not worth spending the money on a bad copy of a book. If I'm going to spend money, it's either going to be for a paper copy or for something self published so that I can support the author more directly.

Anonymous said...

I do think the big publishers need a reality check. It's so disappointing to see the market saturated by 'trends' and rip-offs when what the public wants is something new and fresh. I agree with the commenter who said that they don't do any market research at all. It really is disappointing and I hope they pick themselves up soon.

Karen A. Chase said...

Publishers right now bring to mind an analogy of a lovely mansion on top of a hill overlooking a bustling town.

At first the house is built to encompass the view and give townsfolk something beautiful to look up to. The townsfolk want to visit. At first a few. Then many. So many come that the mansion folk put up a fence around the house to help manage the crowds. But townsfolk keep coming because now the house seems to have some mystique.

Soon the mansion hires a gatekeeper or two, or three. Instead of becoming a haven for people, the mansion slowly becomes a fortress trying to keep them out. Eventually no one new gets in without a scheduled appointment and pre-approval.

Tired of the bureaucracy, the townsfolk stop visiting altogether. The fortress seems more sinister, remote. With the townsfolk so angry, even the view from inside looks scary, and the inhabitants of the mansion begin to feel trapped. So one-by-one the inhabitants leave. They go out on their own, find a place that is smaller and more open. So they can breathe again.

After a time, the mansion begins to crumble, and becomes a thorn in the side of the townsfolk. Soon no once can remember why it was built in the first place.

Publishers were built in the first place to help writers get their words to readers. That seems to have been forgotten by so many inhabitants–to the point that publishers are rejecting authors based on past sales, rather than the merits of the writing (the Patricia O’Brien story).

As a writer in author-town, the fortress of the publishers seems impenetrable, and I'm hoping someone comes along and remodels it soon before it crumbles completely.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that there are no posts in defense of publishers. Where are they? They do have an image problem.

Anonymous said...

They do have a perception problem. And the only thing they can do about it is clean house, get in new blood, and start catching up to what indie authors, small publishers, and other pioneers have been doing. In other words, stop being the divas and start communication. The good old days of summer Fridays off are gone now.

Gael McCarte said...

The whole industry is in turmoil, publishers are not omniscient. They have had their power base and strangle hold on the what shall and what shall not get published eroded. They can be expected to thrash around. Just keep your distance so you don't get pulled under with them. Their poor reputation is not new, its just the topic that has changed.

Jo Eberhardt said...

Are they plagued by a public perception problem? Amongst writers, certainly. But the average non-writer (whether they read or not) has no idea who or what the "Big Six" even is, let alone how the publishing industry actually works.

The entire debate reminds me of my days at university (about a billion years ago) where I spent a lot of time with IT geeks. Oh, the heated debates about the evils of Microsoft vs the integrity of Apple and the stability and geek-chic coolness of Linux as an operating system. Start an IT geek talking about reverse engineered operating systems and you'd be treated to a veritble diatribe proclaiming the inevitable end of draconian companies in the light of open-source alternatives.

But fast-forward to today and Microsoft is still around. Why? Because all the general public wants is an inexpensive, user-friendly computer system that allows them to check Facebook and watch videos of cats.

As long as traditional publishers provide a quality product at a reasonable price, through expected distribution systems, the "public perception problem" is going to remain largely confined to writers.

Anonymous said...

Jo Eberhardt said: "Are they plagued by a public perception problem? Amongst writers, certainly. But the average non-writer (whether they read or not) has no idea who or what the 'Big Six' even is, let alone how the publishing industry actually works."

True, but the average non-writer only reads and buys a certain amount of books, and so the "Big Six" has an additional problem when they continue to set eBook prices high when readers can find comparable books for free and under $3 from Amazon and other online book sites.

Anonymous said...

Neurotic Workaholic said: "I do think it's unfair that celebrity 'authors' get multi-million dollar book deals from publishers. On the other hand, publishers are also business people, which is why they wouldn't offer those deals to those celebrities if they didn't think that those books would sell."

However, some celebrity authors are experimenting with self-publishing, and that will once again change the publishing field if they find success that way. Jackie Collins is experimenting with self-publishing some of her novels and she has enough good business sense to price those novels at $2.99 or less: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/jackie-collins-news_b47734

London Crockett said...

"fOIS In The City said...
No one from my generation would have thought the Big Blue (IBM) would fall like a ton of ancient bricks, but alas it happened ... and it happened to Eastman Kodak, and many others as well. Who is next?"

IBM's market cap is larger now than it was when it was the largest company in the world. They're ability to shift business models is an example to anyone facing a changing business environment.

Amazon has made some huge, front-page blunders and are starting to act like Microsoft right before their peak and long struggle to regain relevance. They're giving the Big Six plenty of time to get back in the game.

I'm not convinced that anyone has a crystal ball for the next five to ten years of publishing.

Taylor Napolsky said...

"Are publishers going the way of record labels in the public's eye as greedy dinosaurs who failed to keep pace with the times?"

Maybe. But record labels are still very relevant to the music business. So what does it matter what the public perception is?

Mira said...

Terin Tashi - thanks :)

I liked what you said about taking a risk on talent.

Incy Black said...

As a reader of 10+ books a month, I'm pissed off at the price of ebooks and have turned off my kindle. I now buy books at car boot sales. Monetary return to publisher: 0, monetary return to author: 0.

Readers aren't following what going on in the industry because frankly they don't care. They just want a book at a price that makes sense to them be that high or low.

Liz Fichera said...

I don't think that the average reader really cares. They will buy (or borrow) the books they want, where they want, how they want. Publishers who don't make their books accessible to readers will fail.

John Waverly said...

In a word, yes.

I hang out in technology circles and there is a feeling there that publishers are slow-moving behemoths who are greedily looking out for their own profits and slowing down progress. Of course, this isn't completely true.

Combine that with authors who are getting more and more disillusioned with the big publishers, but who also look to the big publishers as their ticket to success. It's not quite Faustian, but there are several on the fringe who think so.

I agree with what many people have already said, that the end consumer doesn't pay attention to the publisher most of the time. They focus on the author, the bookstore, or their friend's recommendation.

These three thoughts have a lot of synergy. Now you have the technologists who want to get their books without big brother, you have authors who are looking for ways out of the Faustian bargain, and you have readers who don't care where they get their book from as long as it's good.

While I don't think big publishers will ever become irrelevant, I do think they risk becoming a lot less relevant.

Valerie Douglas aka V. J. Devereaux said...

Personally, there are several books I wanted to buy by authors I love, for downloading to my e-reader, but I refuse to pay a dollar under the hardcover price for my e-books. That's ridiculous. Supposedly it's to offset the loss by print books but that makes no sense. The people who buy print will buy print.. it costs little to convert print books to e-books, there has to be a way to price them to make up the difference without ripping off the consumer.
(BTW I'm an indie writer, too...)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, this observation or yours stuck out...

"....and they spend millions of dollars on the latest celebrity memoir even as great midlist authors go unsupported or get dropped entirely..."

I said something like exactly like this in the blog comments several years ago and remembered you answering with (I'm paraphrasing) "Well -- James Patterson SELLS, why shouldn't he get promoted every step of the way..."

I was a midlist author at the time. My YA debut, though worthy of harcover status by one of the BIG publishers, didn't even get taken to the ALA or the Book Expo, and got no other publicity except being in the publisher's catalog. The big chains opted not to stock it because "it had no publicity" (their words, not mine). The good reviews it got were somehow a moot point.

After that -- with understandably low sales -- the book went out of print. Though my subseqent books were grander in scale and also more commercial, I couldn't sell them simply because my debut sales were low (my then-agent's words, not mine). Oh -- and my agent then dropped me as client.

I'm unsure if you are on the midlist with your MG series, but I bet you have a VERY different view of the damage that can be done by publishers when they offer a debut or even a mulit-published author no marketing support while throwing tons of money and opportunities at already heavily (and lets' face it -- SOMETIMES not great writers, who sometimes don't even bother to write the book, but have a co-writer or write the same book over and over again, as noted by critics) promoted writers while the rest of us starve.

I'm not bashing success -- there are many, many great writers who really deserve all that publicity, but do ALL of them deserve it at the expense of EVERY midlister out there?

Anonymous said...

I want to add something to my earlier comment (about publishers having an image problem with serious readers who read 50+ books per year). I think publishers ignore serious readers at their peril. We may not be a direct source of huge profits, because we are price sensitive buyers (we have to be because we buy in such volume), but I think we drive a lot of sales and help create the bestsellers that do produce huge profits.

For example--I checked out one book at the library not long ago. Loved it, absolute loved it. I bought the whole series (5 books), raved about it on my blog, and loaned the first book to a friend. She loved it and bought the whole series for herself and another copy of the series for a friend. Then I loaned book one to another friend, who emailed me just the other day to say she was hooked and reading her way through the series as well.

That was one book checked out from the library and lots of resulting sales, plus a ripple effect that may be still in motion.

And where did I hear about this book? From a friend.

If publishers shut out the price-sensitive volume buyers, they may be shutting down the word-of-mouth network that creates bestsellers.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Publishers get salaries, authors don't. Perhaps it would help if publishers walked a mile in an author's shoes

Theresa Milstein said...

Good question. They do have a perception problem. Times are changing and they can't seem to make decisions that go with it. As more people self publishing, it's going to hurt traditional publishers--especially as midlist authors (who are being dropped) self publish and have followers from their first books. Even Alice Hoffman self published and she's not midlist.

As I try to break into traditional publishing, it's disheartening.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I think that within the internet/blogosphere/publishing world bubble we at this blog are all in, yes, publishers have a pretty bad rap right now. I think this might affect how writers choose to interact with publishers.

But the majority of the world is outside this bubble, and I honestly don't think they care how they get a book as long as they get it cheaply and easily. It's up to teh publishers how they choose to respond to that, and that will determine how well they do in the future, but I don't think the general public's book-reading habits are shaped by their opinions of publishers. I think these habits are shaped by their preferences in terms of format and price point, and it is those preferences that will shape the future of the publishing industry.

I don't like it. But that don't mean it ain't so.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Ishta is right. Don't forget that the vast majority of people don't care 1/10th as much about publishers or the publishing industry as we do. They simply don't pay attention.

Tom Evans said...

They need to move on and update.

They should become marketeers and business partners with authors - Simples !!

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