The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing

December 14th, 2009 · 33 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

For your reading enjoyment, I have compiled a list of about a dozen things that will not save publishing. I have also created a brief list of things that will save publishing. As always, neither list is comprehensive, and I reserve the right to add items if I think of something while I’m in the shower.

For what it’s worth, publishing is alive, well, and bigger than ever! It’s obvious we’re seeing more creativity, more innovation, more ways of connecting people and reading. When we talk about “saving publishing”, we need to be very clear. We are talking about book publishing as we know it, and we are talking about a specific element within the traditional publishing business model.

Things That Will Not Save Publishing

  • The Mythical Apple Tablet, aka The Unicorn — So Apple will release a tablet in the coming year. Or not. If said tablet materializes and is priced at the current rumored $1,000, that turns it into a pricey ereader, so the number of hardcore readers who think, “Wow, this is the reading device I’ve been waiting for” will be limited. I’m not discounting the potential for visually beautiful books, but the Unicorn will not save publishing.

    Apple is an aggressive company. Apple is a tech company. And publishing people don’t necessarily get Apple. Last week’s breathless rumor about a 70/30 split (70% to publishers) was the tip-off. 70/30 is the standard Apple split! What is missed in the fine print (what is it about fine print that makes us always overlook it?) is that this split is on sales price, cash receipts, whatever you want to call it. Apple will not (unless I seriously misjudge their business acumen) be less aggressive on pricing than Amazon and likely won’t subsidize prices. I suspect Apple will not get into bed with book publishers unless book publishers play along.

    If anything, the Unicorn will be part of an interesting and diverse digital reading mix. Of course, we already have one of those — you’re using it right now — and very few publishers are exploiting the potential of what already exists. The Unicorn won’t be running an exotic new platform with magical capabilities.

  • Ebooks — Even if ebooks become 50% or more of the market, they’re not going to fix the fundamental problems of the publishing industry. If ebooks can somehow increase the number of new-to-books readers by 50%, then we’re talking. I thought there would be potential here, but am not convinced because most publishers seem to see ebooks as the same thing as print books and/or competition for the existing business model. Which they are, sure, but I guess it’s easier to do business as usual.

    So ebook customers are pretty much regular book customers, transitioning to a new format. Some of us are buying more books because of a mix of price and ease-of-purchase. But as long as ebooks are treated the same as every other book out there, I’m not feeling the love.

  • Enhanced Ebooks — I’m not convinced the general reading world wants these as much as publishing people do. Some books can and should be enhanced. Others, not so much. I can assure publishers that there’s great potential for enhanced ebooks, but I worry my meaning is lost. Enhanced does no mean making a rough around the edges (and everywhere else) PDF scan of the print book and adding some extra and not really useful text.

    Enhanced ebooks require thought, execution, and a plan. Right book, right audience, right approach. Win!

  • Ebook Windows — Withholding ebook releases to protect, to preserve, to illuminate the hardcover window won’t do anything for hardcover sales and it won’t save publishing. It will, however, positively impact the bottom line of those books that are available when the consumer is at the point of sale and can’t get what she wants.
  • Vooks — See “Enhanced Ebooks”, but add a twist. I admit, I’ve been hot and cold on Vooks over time, but I’m getting it. Vooks have a place in the publishing ecosystem. Pay attention to them.
  • Hardcovers — Unless they are written almost exclusively by Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown. Together. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I’ve recently concluded that most hardcover books are priced too high for their target readers. Yet because those customers have been purchasing at deepesque discounts, this has been largely invisible to publishers.

    This is not say publishers don’t know this, but they haven’t felt it; I think this is at the core of the unstated-but-obvious desire to punish Amazon via ebook windows. It was like Amazon ripped off the band-aid covering the pricing lie without warning the patient. The truth is hard, it’s messy, and it’s easier to avoid. As a human, I understand this. As a person who loves books, I’m a bit frustrated.

  • Ebook Backlist — I originally had this in the “Save Publishing” group, but realized it belonged in the “Not Save” section. In the print world, backlist is bread-and-butter. In the digital world, it’s like magic: people rebuying their print libraries in digital format. Get this right, and you will achieve both your CD moment and your iPod moment. (Hence, the recent aggressive erights posture asserted by Random House.)

    However, this is a one-time offer. Sales will skyrocket for a time, then settle back to dull roar. As with DVDs and CDs (and their precedents and antecedents), consumers are only willing to convert their libraries so often before they get cranky. And since they’ve done a few conversions over the years, they have a good idea of what works, what doesn’t, the positives, and the negatives. To make this work, publishing needs to proceed with street smarts.

    Getting it right is the big stuff, like recognizing that these books cannot be priced like they’re brand new, first-time purchases (though some will be first-time purchases). You’re already profitable. It’s the little stuff, like not throwing a cheap scan conversion on the marketplace and calling it a day (hello, Simon & Schuster: at least update your corporate URL to the current, favored one, though kudos for mapping the abandoned brand!).

  • Booksellers — There will be a steady stream of independent bookseller closures in the coming years. Not all of these closures will have to do with the actual profitability of the store. More consumers will rely upon big retailers to feed their book fixes. Big retailers will put the squeeze on publishers when it comes to pricing. I’m not going to say a word about title selection because I think it’s apparent that smarter ways to publish some books will need to be identified.
  • Bundling — Bundling is one of those cool ideas that only works for some books. While I might want a digital copy of every print book I buy, I don’t think I want a print copy of every digital book I buy. In fact, I know I don’t.
  • Chunking — Selling chunks of books is still a small idea waiting for good execution. It may create a lovely revenue stream related to certain books, but it won’t have huge impact in the long run.
  • Sarah Palin — I think she shot the book wad in her first attempt. Unless she writes a kid’s book. Which, you know is possible.
  • Me (and People Like Me) — I buy every book I read. New. I don’t buy used books (unless they’re out of print, and even then, I agonize). I buy to the extent my budget allows. I talk about books. I write about books. I recommend books. I give books as gifts. I encourage reading. I support literacy programs. Honestly, as a consumer I’m giving it my all.

    And I’ll keep doing it, but I’ve made my rules clear. I’m too old and lazy to make lists and check retailers like it’s my job. I seriously doubt I’m going to ever run out of stuff to read. If the book isn’t available for sale when I want to buy it, I will buy something else.

Things That Will Save Publishing

  • Publishers — Saving publishing is the job of publishers. No one thing will save publishing. Lots of little things will save publishing. I don’t doubt that every publisher great and small is trying to figure out how to run the business of now and the business of the future. Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks will be talking about this at the Tools of Change Conference to be held in New York in February. I cannot recommend this presentation enough. It may be the most clear-eyed yet optimistic view of the future of publishing I’ve encountered.

    (Note: now is the time to register for Tools of Change. Click on the ad above to get a discount. You know you want to.)

    The challenges facing the publishing industry are myriad. From corporate parents demanding year-over-year improvements to start-ups to the fact that the biggest publishing scheme ever invented — the web — is democratizing processes that formerly depended upon “gatekeepers”. As the reading public transforms and realigns, so must the traditional publishing industry to keep up.

    Nobody knows what the future will bring, but we do know publishing is bigger than ever before. So it really isn’t about saving publishing as much as it is about transforming publishing as we know it.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

33 responses so far ↓

  • HTMLGIANT // Dec 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    […] spits some logic about the frenzy for “what’s next?! what’s new?!”): ‘The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing‘ @ Booksquare. [Thanks Matt Bell.] Tags: booksquare, kassia […]

  • Andy // Dec 14, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Great rundown, Kassia. I think you’re right on all counts. The key to “saving publishing” – i.e. traditional publishers saving themselves – isn’t fancy new content presentations, or trying, via an Apple tablet or another such device, to go back to the days when they had a captive audience, and thus could charge high prices for whatever they put out. Publishers need to work harder to find and publish content that’s better than what consumers can find elsewhere. Of course it’s also important to put this stuff in formats appropriate to consumers’ needs and wants. But putting out great content will (still) be the only way to succeed in publishing. I’ve written about this in detail in my post at – would love your feedback.

  • Karen Wester Newton // Dec 14, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    What a fantastic post! The blog equivalent of a home run with the bases loaded. I think everyone should refer to the Apple tablet/iPad/whatever as the Unicorn. It makes a wonderful code name!

  • David thayer // Dec 14, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I was thinking of saving publishing myself the other day but then I went to the grocery store and right next to the day old pumpkin pie ( a seasonal delight) stood a cardboard likeness of Glenn Beck in his book cover KGB border guard outfit. Now I’m wondering if we shouldn’t rescue the grocery business first and then publishing or if the grocery stores need to be saved from the publishers. Or should we save ourselves?

  • Brian O'Leary // Dec 14, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Time to form the Institute for the Future of the Unicorn (if:Unicorn).

  • nicola griffith // Dec 14, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Good post. I particularly like the unicorn.

    Readers will save publishing–in the same way people save civilisation. That is, when civilisations fall (and they always do), others rise to take their place.

    Publishing as we know must die. Then it will be reborn. It is dying; just as the great civilisations reached their apogees before crumbling/going through paroxysmal change.

    Oh, dear. I’m getting apocalyptic again…

  • Beth Scorzato // Dec 14, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you! I wrote a post similar to this (though probably a little more angry… I tend to rant – on my publishing news site a few weeks ago and people told me I was just being stupid! Thank you!

  • ??????????? ????? - The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing // Dec 14, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    […] The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing For your reading enjoyment, I have compiled a list of about a dozen things that will not save publishing. I have also created a brief list of things that will save publishing. As always, neither list is comprehensive, and I reserve the right to add items if I think of something while I’m in the shower. via […]

  • Darryl // Dec 14, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Excellent post. Electronic media, while amazing and powerful is not all powerful. I have contacts with people in Eastern Europe and while computers and the internet have a presence, there are still so many millions of folks who do not have computer access. It has become quite invasive, but is it invasive enough to totally change the concept of print publishing? (Or will we go totally digital and create an even greater have/have not system? Is technology truly democratic? That remains to be seen.)

    I think you are spot on, though. The publishers will either save or doom publishing. What a heavy burden and exciting opportunity!

  • ReadHowYouWant // Dec 15, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Extremely clearly written and well thought out. I particularly appreciate your comments on the ebooks backlist pricing. In my “Not” list I might add “Pricing will not save publishing.” Thank you for another truly worthwhile post!

  • Martin // Dec 15, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Nothing can save book-publishing as we know it. This is because the whole industry’s foundation rests on a physical object, the book itself. Distribution, the workflow of production, advertising, reading – the whole process’ foundation is being ripped away by the transformation of atoms into bits.
    The industry’s tactic of delaying e-book releases is the latest attempt to shoehorn a new medium into an old structure – “Hey, it’s like a papberback so let’s release it accordingly” – but it won’t work even in the short run.
    Every new medium changes the content it carries – the invention of the printing press created the pamphlet, an important political tool, cinema gave performing arts a whole new vocabulary etc. etc…
    As long as the efforts of the industry stay focused on distribution channels or “extending” traditional books with videos and such it can’t be saved. The only way is to embrace the new medium; for example cell-phone-novels: they are a primitive and somewhat stupid way to do this but they are very popular in Japan – and nobody saw this coming. And they are just the beginning. It is a very interesting time right now – as long as you are not a dinosaur.

  • Stop Press for December 15th | // Dec 15, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    […] The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing | Booksquare For your reading enjoyment, I have compiled a list of about a dozen things that will not save publishing. I have also created a brief list of things that will save publishing. As always, neither list is comprehensive, and I reserve the right to add items if I think of something while I’m in the shower. […]

  • Elizabeth Barrette // Dec 15, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Under “What Will Save Publishing” I would add … authors and readers. A publisher is only one part of the cycle. If authors aren’t happy with what’s happening, they’ll go do something else, like create alternative publishing models (some of which, like crowdfunding, are getting exciting). If readers aren’t happy, they’ll read something else, like free stuff online … or crowdfunding. But hey, sometimes these folks have good ideas on how to improve the publishing world, and sometimes publishers even listen.

  • Ellen Hopkins // Dec 16, 2009 at 8:01 am

    I don’t dispute the value of e-readers and other exciting new technologies. But I do dispute the idea that traditional books need to go away now. We old school book lovers often were given the love of books by parents who loved books and read to us, or by teachers who felt the same way. Today’s teachers must teach to the test, and many of today’s parents have forgotten the joy of sharing books with their children by reading to them or giving them books to read and discuss with them. A lot of those same parents are currently hooked into e-readers.

    My own books rely heavily on visually interesting formatting, some of which will likely get lost in e-reader format. It is totally lost in audio, which probably explains why the majority of my readers continue to pick up my chunky, heavy books and carry them with them to read on the beach, in the car, and even in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and under the Atlantic in a nuclear submarine. Those people are not downloading e-books. They’re cherishing traditionally published print books, and yes, that includes hardcovers.

    Publishers can only save publishing if we continue to instill in our children a love of the written word (electronic or print or in whatever form they choose it). TV and video games have become babysitters. Parents plug their children into these e-sitters at younger and younger ages. It only takes ten minutes to read a picture book with your child, and that experience will remain with that child forever. And if enough parents would take that ten minutes every day, publishing will thrive.

  • Venusian // Dec 16, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Isn’t the real death of traditional publishing the mechanism they’ve built ? Print book, give it to distributor, pass on to wholesaler, enter book store ( I’m fuzzy on the details ) – each takes 30% and the publisher makes $1.19 per book, if it isn’t returned. Isn’t that the real killer of the present publishing model ?

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  • Theresa M. Moore // Dec 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    As a publisher myself I am constantly tweaking the envelope. I can’t help it. If I fall behind on anything there is the likelihood that I will be buried under the mounds of verbage cranked out by the next author. I have embraced the new technology, and done everything to expand and advance my books. But what next? It’s true that the margin per book is actually very small, but I must sell more books to make up for it. I have also managed in the last year to recreate my sales model to shave off every cost imaginable in order to sell the book for a lower price. But if less people are reading in general, what point is there in worrying about it? Like I have said before, publishers need to evolve or die. Maybe there needs to be a mass extinction of traditional publishers in order to clear the way for the next generation. And maybe the next year will be the tipping point for the publishing model. As more publishers learn what works and what doesn’t, the hardcover may become the collectible, while the paperback and the e-book will become the new standard. That’s the way I see it, and that’s why I avoided creating hardbacks unless I see the potential for sales in that area. I can’t afford to be so wastrel in spending. And you can’t make people read; they have to want to.

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  • Danielle LaPorte // Dec 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    love it. thank you.

  • Leonie Albani-Tremaine // Dec 16, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Love your comment, David Thayer! Have to agree with Darryl, too, that most of the Europeans I know don’t even have computers, much less other reading devices.

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  • Thucydides Jr. // Jan 9, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Good article, but I have to say I am still a big fan of gatekeepers. There are tons of books written that never see print, and wouldn’t be any better in digital ink. So “democritizing processes” are not necessarily good things in most cases. More books does not mean better books, or more useful ones. Long live editors and agents.

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