Dorchester Publishing recently announced they were dropping their mass market line and moving to an e-book/print-on-demand model. Dorchester’s president John Prebich describes his company as pioneers, boldly leading us into the electronic frontier. This has led to a new round of “print is dying,” and e-books are the way of the future. There’s an almost religious fervor to it.
J. A. Konrath suggests the end is nigh for commercial publishers, and self-publishing is the way to go. His anonymous sources claim sell-through on printed books is as bad as 20%. He describes a (hypothetical) commercially published author who gets a $50K advance and 30% sell-through, selling a mere 9000 print copies in the first year–
But wait, let’s back up and take another look at Dorchester, who’s been in trouble for a while. “Dorchester had serious cash-flow problems throughout 2009.” (Thanks to Nick Mamatas for that link.) The move to e-books/PoD isn’t as much a dramatic step into the future as it is a desperate attempt by one publisher to stay in business.
As for Konrath, he’s done an excellent job positioning himself as a champion of self-publishing. I have no doubt he talked to somebody, somewhere, who reported sell-through could be as bad as 20%. But “as bad as” generally means the low edge of the bell curve. Not the normal or the average, but the worst-case scenario.
To offer an alternate data point, my books have a sell-through around 80%. I’m not aware of anyone whose sell-through is down at 20-30%. I’m sure it happens, but to base an argument on those numbers is, in a word, silly. As for the rest of the example, well, I sell more than 9000 print copies in a year, and my advances are far lower than $50K.
I’m not saying Konrath’s example couldn’t happen. It’s possible. It’s possible to be struck by lightning seven times, too. But it ain’t the norm.
Wait, you say. 80% sell-through still means 20% returns, right? Doesn’t it make more sense to go electronic/PoD, where there are no returns and you can get 100% sell-through?
That depends. 80% of what? 100% of what? Konrath proposes that his hypothetical author will sell 5000 e-books in that first year. I’m curious where that number comes from, particularly given a New York Times report in which “publishers point out that e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent.” If I had to choose, I’d take 80% of a 20K print run over 100% of the <1000 copies my books have sold electronically.
Konrath also argues that:
“The main reason we need publishers is for distribution. We can’t get into Wal-Mart or Borders on own own. They can. So we accept 8% royalties in order to sell a lot of books. But if publishers are no longer printing books, there is ZERO reason to sign with them, because they no longer have that advantage.”
Distribution is part of what my publisher does for me … but it’s not the only thing. They pay professionals to create my cover art, and to edit, typeset, and proofread my book. They do the work of converting my books into electronic formats. They pay for advertising and promotion. Basically, they do a ton of work to sell my books, which allows me to worry about writing them.
Publishing is changing. My guess is that we’ll eventually hit a new equilibrium point between print and e-books, and I do think e-books will be a larger percentage of book sales than they are today.
I’m not bashing self-publishing, either. For some people, it’s the right choice. Konrath certainly makes it work. My friend John Fitch V sold more than 100 books last month, which is damn good for the self-published route.
Both e-books and self-publishing have their strengths and advantages. And I could be wrong — it’s possible print and/or commercial publishing are on the way out. But I’ve been hearing about the imminent death of print and commercial publishing for more than a decade, and it’s getting a little old.