Connecting Books With Readers: A Failure

June 21st, 2007 · 16 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Let me share a sad, sordid tale with you. Be forewarned: I do not look good in this tale and admit to what some might consider an ethical lapse. If you are not willing to have your illusions shattered, read no further.

The sad thing is that the industry has the technology to get this book to me.

Many months ago, I engaged to do a joint review of a favorite book with a like-minded friend. Technically, this type of review is known as a “lovefest”. We wanted to share our appreciation of the story with the world. At the last moment, I searched out my tattered copy of the book, ready to read and refresh.

It. Could. Not. Be. Found.

High I climbed, low I crawled. I cut through thick, web-shrouded storage boxes. I stared into the terrifying trunk of the BS-mobile. I even peered into the abyss that is my closet.

No book. No problem. It never hurts to buy a second copy. Off to the bookstore I went. No book. Another store, the same ill luck. And so on. Over the course of several days, I purchased many books, but not the one I sought.

I had already turned to Amazon, knowing that my order would ship in time for a quick read as my partner and I were tying the up the loose ends of our review. It was not an optimal choice, but you know how it is with desperate people.

The book, I learned, was out-of-stock. The technical term for this particular situation is SoL.

I ordered, fingers crossed, optimism as high as an elephant’s eye.

Which is to say, not boundless but still hopeful.

The review came and went, delayed a bit to give Amazon or anyone a chance to cough up the book. I managed a respectable showing, having read the book more than once*. When Amazon contacted me, all apologies about another delay and asking if I minded waiting just a bit longer (they provided a helpful estimated delivery date), I said, “Sure. Why not.”

Another “sure, why not” confirmation happened last week. At this point, I am operating less from a desire to own this book — my need for it has long passed and I have located my original copy in the home of my sister (three hours away, but at least I know where the book is) — and more from a position of sheer perversity.

The book in question is by a living, breathing NYT bestselling author. She is the type of author whose backlist is regularly purchased by new-to-her fans. The only reason for this book to be out-of-print is economic — the cost of production and distribution exceeds perceived demand.

The publishing house must not see an advantage to reprinting this book. As far as I know, I am the only pending order in the entire universe. Or maybe the publisher is holding back the book with some grand plans of releasing this author’s entire backlist with sparkly new covers or some other grand event.

Should it matter that there is only one person clamoring for this book? One by one by one by…the sales accumulate. Given the general numbers associated with your typical “bestseller”, I think each and every unit moved matters. The sad thing is that the industry has the technology to get this book to me. What it lacks is the infrastructure to make this happen.

This is a failure on the part of the publisher and its various partners.

As I have been attending sessions at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, I have heard publishers great and small talk about the importance — the necessity — of connecting books with readers. Yet this book has not been connected with this reader. I’m a lost sale.

Amazon has its own print-on-demand business (BookSurge), Ingram has its own print-on-demand business (Lightning Books), there are a huge number of other POD services out there. Oxford University Press, according to Richard Hollick, has managed to create a very robust, profitable business by offering many of its titles as default POD offerings. In fact, as a business practice, they consider POD if a title is projected to sell less than 100 units in a year.

The cost to the consumer, in case you’re wondering, is comparable to that of other books (mass market, trade, hard cover). OUP has chosen not to charge a higher price for POD, determining that the service at a reasonable price is worth it as long as appropriate margins are maintained.

On the other side, publishers are working hard to offer books in electronic format. While the major houses still seem convinced that the e-book market is taking off slowly (we have some disagreement there), the fact of the matter is that they are digitizing backlist. There are issues of rights, prices, distribution, and whatnot. It is important, they stress (and I agree), that the author be fairly compensated for this avenue of exploitation. Of course, the book I was seeking was very likely composed on the newfangled technology called “Word”, meaning the first step toward digitization has been taken.

Over the course of many sessions, representatives of the publishing industry stated that they do not want to make the mistakes of the music industry. They inferred that this mistake was related to DRM-free music being freely available. The connection they seem to be missing is that while the music industry is now actively choosing to move toward DRM in response to intense consumer dissatisfaction, the reason the industry lost control of the online music phenomenon was because they sat on the sidelines for too long.

While they engaged in this discussion and that meeting and explored this partnership or that, the music industry ceded control of their business to entrepreneurs who saw the need and filled the gap. Everything they’re doing now falls under the rubric of “catch-up”. The mistake the publishing industry should avoid is not one of Digital Rights Management, it is one of caution to the point of paralysis.

Because, sad to say, I do have one more choice when it comes to the book I want. I can hunt down a used copy. This does not help either the publisher or the author.

* – This is the ethical lapse; I should have reread before writing. It is is unpardonable to review without reading. I have been punished for my sins.

[tags]TOC07, Tools of Change, Tools of Change 2007, print-on-demand, POD Google, MSN, Yahoo, publishing, books[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

16 responses so far ↓

  • Shirley Jump // Jun 21, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Well said! I have readers e-mail me all the time wanting back list books that are out of print. My husband is in the printing business and thinks it’s a no brainer to make POD part of the publishing business model. Let the reader get what he/she wants when they want it. Simple as pie, IMO. I just see it as a win-win all around. I sell more books, readers get hooked on the last few books in the series (and then buy the new ones when they come out), the publisher sells more books…

    Where’s the loss in that?

    I for one am a total bookaholic. Won’t read e-books, though I have tried. I’m a book owner, not a book borrower, so I don’t do libraries much (though I support them heartily, I just have trouble giving books back, LOL). So as a reader, too, I would LOVE this for books I want to buy and keep–because I also like to buy new books.

    It’s just one of those DUH things to me. But, then again, as my husband reminds me, I don’t run the publishing world ;-)

    Shirley

  • Heatseekers // Jun 21, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Print-on-demand is a bad solution. I’d love a new copy of Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, but the print-on-demand copy doesn’t have the lovely old typeface and Rackham illustrations of the (relatively) new edition using the original plates that came out some time in the 1990s.

  • Brenda Coulter // Jun 22, 2007 at 5:23 am

    Looking at this from the perspective of a publisher like Harlequin, POD simply isn’t worth their time . Harlequin keeps afloat by dealing in volume, and POD does not fit with that business model. It’s a shame, but there it is.

    It must be said, however, that Harlequin can usually be counted on to rerelease books that have done well. That’s good for authors.

  • Kirk // Jun 22, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Heatseekers – there’s nothing to keep POD from delivering exactly the edition of Irish Fairy Tales that you imagine.

    Brenda – It’s all about the long tail. Given the size of Harlequin’s back catalog POD would likely add up to a SUBSTANTIAL number of sales — which would definitely be worth their time.

  • Alex // Jun 22, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Last Fall I was placing book orders for courses at the local university. One of the titles was an excellent book on mythtelling for an adolescent literature course. I placed the order with Oxford University Press and waited.

    Weeks went by and I was getting antsy because this was the largest course I was carrying books for. I called OUP and asked what was going on and they informed me that I had stepped in just as they were switching the book over to print-on-demand. The books arrived three weeks late and were useless to me.

    The typically terrible OUP service aside, I know for a fact that this is a well-regarded title of which they sell significantly more than 100 copies a year. I think that POD will have its merits, but the publishers have been rather weak in their implementation of the process.

    Over the last few years I’ve had the increasing sense that the major publishers are making fatal business decisions left and right. They are going to have to embrace technology more competently or I firmly believe that it is going to rapidly pass them by.

  • Brenda Coulter // Jun 22, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Believe me, Kirk, if Harlequin thought for a minute they could make money in POD, they’d be all over it!
    ;-)

  • Kirk Biglione // Jun 22, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    The problem is not that there isn’t money in POD. The problem, apparently, is that Harlequin doesn’t think there’s money in POD.

    Really, POD should be like printing money. Especially for a publisher like Harlequin.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 22, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Brenda — you know I love arguing with you. Truly. You make it fun (g).

    If Harlequin isn’t looking at POD as a solution, then they are not serious about publishing. Simple as that. I agree that they are a front-list company. But as markets get squeezed (Wal-Mart’s recent decision to cut shelf space, for example), the importance of backlist grows. It’s clear that Harlequin takes their backlist seriously — but it’s not always economical for them to do major print runs. I believe they’re exploring this. If not, then, well, how are they seriously looking to expand the market?

    A long time ago in a galaxy far away (btw, there are many, many Buckaroo fans out there — you’d be shocked and pleased!), the home video market was stymied by slow manufacturing. Truly. The inability to get units en masse, cheaply to customers was hurting the market. The sell-through explosion that hit in the early nineties (I feel like such a pioneer!) was due largely to rapid, cheap manufacturing. Prior to this, the market was limited to high-priced “rentals” and very limited.

    Consumers want choice (though not too much) and reasonable pricing. They also want immediacy. I should note that the book I’m still waiting for is from Pocket. Yeah, I’m naming names!

    For you, the author, it’s a question of rights reversion or making sure your backlist is available. Think about July 15 — when you win the RITA (hey, I love knowing the cream of the crop). Are all your titles readily available? What if, two years from now, someone starts collecting all RITA winners or nominees or…?

    I do believe that the current POD systems are meeting a production gap. And the price is not so out of line with other prices.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 22, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    Shirley, yes.

    Heatseekers — it sounds to me like you’re dealing with a production issue rather than a technology issue. It’s unclear who owns the original artwork and/or typeface (fonts are often copyrighted). Without knowing more details, it’s hard to say where the fault lies. However, reproducing a book, note-for-note (if I may), is not generally a technology issue.

    Alex – wow, I don’t know what to say. Except that Hollick commented that their financial system is SAP. I’ve had more than few rounds with SAP. Integrating a new business is hard in any system. No excuse, of course, but from the other side, I feel.

    As for your final comment, you are so right. Good business decisions, embracing the right choices. I’ll be discussing this more because you’ve really touched on something that needs to be said. Loudly. In public.

    I am sorry that your books didn’t arrive in time, SAP notwithstanding!

  • Brian Guerin // Jun 23, 2007 at 4:42 am

    I was of the same opinion as Shirley on this issue up until recently. My mind was changed when I had a long chat with the production director of a publishing house who I was sure would benefit greatly from POD. They have a very large backlist of craft and hobby titles that were out of print, but not irrelevant to their market. The PD told me that they were watching the technology very closely, but it was still impossible for them to print POD with enough profit margin for it to be worthwhile. In defence of the publishers, POD technology has to get cheaper before POD makes business sense.

  • booktwo.org Notebook » Stop Press for June 26th // Jun 26, 2007 at 5:31 pm

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  • Team Coverage of the O'Reilly TOC Conference | Oxford Media Works // Jun 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm

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  • Sheila // Jun 27, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I have a question, perhaps a stupid one. Why don’t publishers publish all their books “on demand” instead of taking a chance on big print runs?
    As the orders come in, you print the books on a machine like the Espresso Book Machine.
    Why would they do both? Can someone enlighten me please? What are the advantages to traditional print runs?
    Sorry if this is a dumb question.

  • Clive Warner // Jun 28, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Sheila, I am a small publisher and I use POD because large print runs are the death of small publishers.
    To answer your question, I will use the new Citiria novel, ReBody, as a price example.
    This SF-satire, to be released in October, has a production cost such that, after giving a 55% distribution discount (as required by Amazon etc), I have precisely $2.60 left to pay Citiria’s expenses and author royalties.
    If I were running a big publisher and had gone to a 5,000 off print run, my profit per book would “appear” to be $4.85 due to the lower printing costs.
    Unfortunately that profit would be wiped out by the dreaded “returns’ from retailers. (Usually they return books in a damaged and unsaleable condition, too.)
    Now is it surprising that big publishers have an operating margin of a miserable 6%?
    Frankly this whole industry is a big dinosaur like the music biz. It won’t progress until the whole wasteful retail practice of overproduction followed by returning most of the stock, is finished with.

  • Localizing Print on Demand - Tools of Change for Publishing // Nov 27, 2012 at 5:25 am

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