Mass-Market Paperbacks: Ubi Sunt, and All That?

Yesterday, The Passive Voice  linked to these Association of American Publishers figures via GalleyCat:

2012 vs 2011 YTD revenuesGalleyCat’s comments highlight the fact that ebook revenue ($282.3 million) has surpassed hardcover revenue ($229.6 million), but also gives paper its due by quoting the AAP report: “Trade Paperback remained a clear #1 in net sales revenue despite some erosion” (accessed 6/18/12). Yeah, I guess: $299.8 million is bigger than $282.3 million. Another way to look at it is that ebook revenue is less than 6% lower than trade paper revenue. Is that a “clear” lead? Well, it depends. In a U.S. presidential election, 6% is a blow-out. In a horse race, you’d better have a camera.

At any rate, what I find striking, here, is the almost 21% decline in mass-market paperback sales in just one year.

The days of the mass-market paperback are, perhaps, numbered. I say this because, as I understand it, profit margins on mass-market paperbacks are very low. They make money because they move en masse. How much mass can you lose before mass-markets are just not profitable any more — at least not at their current low price points? And once that $7.99 price point becomes a thing of the past, ebooks will look even more attractive in comparison. Vicious cycle ensues.

And notice the 10+% decline in trade paperbacks.

I imagine larger-format, higher-quality paperbacks will hang on a lot more tenaciously than mass-markets, since the genre-fiction categories that are ebooks’ bread-and-butter (romance, mystery, etc.) represent less of the total. In fact, I think they’ll “hang on” permanently, since there will always be people who want to read on paper. Still, I wonder just how small that niche might get and what percentage of larger-format paperbacks will be POD books, ten years from now.

Dean Wesley Smith on the Biggest Myth of Traditional Publishing

The Passive Voice showcased this great article by traditionally published “old-timer” Dean Wesley Smith on the many ways traditional publishing is claimed to be superior but actually isn’t. The biggest myth of all? The selling a book to a publisher means you’ll end up a published author. Just because you sell a book to a publisher and get paid your advance for it doesn’t mean that book will ever see print. The publisher might just say, “You know what? Never mind.” How many times has that happened to DWS? S-E-V-E-N-T-E-E-N.

Holy moly.

Fifty Percent of Book Market Electronic by 2016

This prediction is being reported by paidContent, which was given access to Pricewaterhouse Cooper data and forecasting. Since, according to this prediction, “total book spending in North America” will remain “relatively flat, ‘1.1 percent compound annual rate’ of increase between 2011 and 2016” accessed 6/13/12), almost all the growth in ebook  sales will come at the expense of print sales. I’d say brick-and-mortar book stores are in real trouble.

MM: Eggcorns

Ah, they’re tricky little buggers!

An eggcorn is a word or phrase that speakers and writers tend to get wrong because the wrong version (which always sounds a lot like the right version) sort of makes sense. “Eggcorn” is the eggcorn for “acorn.” You can see the sense of it, right? An acorn is a tree’s seed, and a seed is a tree’s equivalent of an egg. Perfectly reasonable.

Some eggcorns show up a lot. It’s not “intensive purposes”; it’s “intents and purposes.” It’s not “tender hooks”; it’s “tenterhooks.” It’s not “a tough road to hoe”; it’s “a tough row to hoe.” And so forth.

Unfortunately, there’s no general rule for fixing eggcorns. They have to be hunted down individually. Your best bet may to find a long list of eggcorns and read it through. Maybe you’ll discover you’ve been eggcorning something. I thought it was “in like flint” for the longest time (it’s “in like Flynn”).

The main thing, I think, is to maintain your sense of caution, never assuming that what you think is right must, in fact, be right. If you have the slightest doubt, just feed the questionable phrase into Google with the word “eggcorn.” If you Google “doggy-dog world” and “eggcorn,” you’ll get your answer right away (it’s “dog-eat-dog world”).

A final thought: sometimes no one really knows which is the acorn and which the eggcorn. Is it “hone in on” or “home in on”? The mystery remains.

The Agency Model: Not So Bad for Indie Authors?

Today paidContent is reporting on Barnes & Noble’s letter to the Department of Justice on the price-fixing suit against Apple and five large traditional publishers. The points B&N makes aren’t new, I don’t think, but they did get me thinking about another way in which the agency model may not be a bad thing for indie authors (an idea I blogged about  a few weeks back).

As was illustrated during the PayPal fiasco (when PayPal tried to pressure online book retailers, such as Smashwords, into cutting certain erotica titles out of their offerings), indie authors aren’t really independent. We’re actually highly reliant on a few major companies: those that process payments and those that make our books readily available to readers. Any one of those entities can make things very difficult for us at the drop of a hat.

Our biggest dependency is probably on Amazon. So far, Amazon has been a good partner for indie authors. In response to what they were hearing from their author-clients, they made the 70% royalty available. They also made it possible to publish without DRM. They’re also innovative, experimenting with new programs, such as KDP Select. Their publishing platform is relatively user-friendly, and if you write to them with a problem or concern, they write back.

But Amazon doesn’t have to do any of these things, and we should be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security, not to start believing that Amazon is a morally driven proponent of the indie movement, not to think of Amazon as being “on our side.” Amazon is on Amazon’s side, and we’d do well to remember it.

(Please note that I’m not criticizing Amazon for being on Amazon’s side. It’s a business: where else would it be? I suspect most successful companies become and remain successful by focusing, you know, on success.)

The presence of plausible competition could encourage Amazon to continue being good to its indie authors, and there’s no doubt that Amazon’s competition has grown under the agency model. The figures I commonly see reported are that Amazon controlled about 95% of the ebook market before the advent of the agency model and now control about 60%. Much of the lost market has moved to B&N, and some to Apple. Was this growth caused by the agency model, or does it just correlate? It seems to me the link is probably causal, since the agency model ended Amazon’s loss-leading price advantage.

The presence of B&N and iTunes (and others) as workable indie-publishing alternatives is a good thing for indie authors because they give us an opportunity to jump ship, should Amazon’s policies or behavior become less satisfactory. If the agency model is what has allowed the alternatives to emerge, maybe it’s not a bad thing for us.

I’m not pondering whether what Apple and the big publishers did was legal. I doubt it was, thought smarter people than I will have to make the real decision. The question I’m asking is, Was it good for us indies? If it kept the prices of traditionally published ebooks inflated and it encouraged the growth of indie publishing alternatives, maybe it was.

Now if only PayPal had some competition.

Rob W. Hart’s “Six Tough Truths”

In a column on Lit Reactor, Rob Hart enumerates the challenges of self-publishing. He’s careful to underline the fact that he’s “not against self-publishing. It is a legitimate option, one [he’s] considered” (“Six Tough Truths About Self-Publishing [That The Advocates Never Seem To Talk About],” accessed  6/5/12). His point is that many authors who go the indie route just don’t realize that “It’s really fucking hard” (accessed  6/5/12). I don’t think he means to discourage indie authors. After all, he says that “Anything worth doing is really fucking hard” (accessed  6/5/12). But he does want people to “Go into self-publishing with realistic expectations” (accessed  6/5/12).

I’ll just quote Hart’s list. Each of these headings is followed by several paragraphs of discussion in Hart’s piece, which I encourage you to read, since the discussions explain and, in several cases, qualify the headings:

1. Stimulating sales is hard.

2. Many self-published authors earn less than $500 a year.

3. The biggest contributing factor to sales is luck.

4. Designing a cover and editing is not easy.

5. Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye.

6. The advocates aren’t selling a new paradigm, they’re selling themselves. (accessed 6/5/12)

The Passive Voice posted on Hart’s article a few days back, and a number of the commenters there said the same thing I’m going to say: much of what Hart discusses applies to publishing in general, not just to self-publishing. Most traditionally published books don’t sell well. Luck plays a huge role there, too. If you include all the would-be authors who submit their manuscripts to agents and are rejected, most writers going through the traditional route also make a lot less than $500/year. And you certainly should include the “slush pile” writers in the traditional publishing side of the equation, since it takes more money and gumption to submit your work to agents than it does to stick it up online. (As another writer pointed out to me on Kindle Boards a couple days ago, a good chunk of the “slush pile” has now moved online, giving readers the opportunity to find [or the burden of finding] the gems on their own.)

Nevertheless, Hart is making a valuable point: indie is hard, and in all the excitement about self-pub as a great new opportunity, the difficulty of it doesn’t get discussed as much as it might. It’s not that the big proponents of indie publishing don’t know it’s tough; if you read their blogs carefully, you’ll see that they’re perfectly aware of how hard it is. But it’s not the main focus of discussion.

Why not? Well, traditional publishing and indie publishing are very difficult in a lot of the same ways, so why not talk about the ways in which indie publishing and traditional publishing differ the most: the advantages? Proponents see way more advantages on the indie side. Since that’s where (to their minds) the big difference lies, that’s where the focus goes.

The unintended result may be that many indie authors go into it not realizing how difficult it’s going to be. That matters, and not just because crushed expectations suck. Here’s why: if you don’t truly realize how difficult it’s going to be, you may not take seriously enough the message that you need to do certain things to maximize your chances of success. Why would you put yourself substantially in the red by hiring out for professional proofreading and cover design if it hasn’t been drilled into you that these are steps you really need to take?

I don’t care for Hart’s snake-oil analogy: snake oil always comes with a salesman, but no proponent of indie is trying to misinform or take advantage of would-be authors. But his underlying point is valuable, and it’s once I didn’t take seriously enough myself:

Learn before you leap. Be realistic. Do everything you can to maximize your chances for success.