Home Bits of Destruction Hit the Book Publishing Business: Part 2

Bits of Destruction Hit the Book Publishing Business: Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the three big waves crashing down on the traditional book publishing business: Google Search, the Kindle and e-books, and print on demand. In this second part, we’ll try to wipe the muck from our crystal ball and see how this could play out in the future, specifically for the major players of book publishing: readers, authors, printers, publishers, retailers, and e-book device vendors.

What Will Readers Get?

Readers have the money that makes all of this happen, so they will, eventually, get what they want, which is:

  • Broad selection of titles,
  • Choice of format and device,
  • Fast delivery,
  • Low prices,
  • Freemium model.

In other words, readers will be able to order any book in the universe and have it sent to them in print wherever they want or sent digitally to whatever device they have. Readers have grown accustomed to getting their online content for free, so they will expect to get at least a degraded experience via the regular browser (the “free” in freemium).

This will take a while to play out. We live in a world today of bilateral negotiations, so different titles are available for different devices and in different bookstores. But play out it will. This is the logic of digitization. Until we reach that stage, plenty of entrepreneurial opportunities will exist to meet those reader demands.

Readers will pay more for print. They will understand that it costs more. Some readers will resist e-books as long as they live. Others will be selective, choosing print for certain titles and situations and digital for others.

Will Books Be Free?

Here is my free review of my free copy of “Free.”

Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, recently came out with the book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” So the question of whether books will be free in the future is a natural one to ask. The short answer is, No. If books became free, authors would stop writing, printers would stop printing, and electronics factories would stop churning out e-book readers. In other words, there would be nothing to read… except:

  • Free copies given to reviewers to generate free reviews. I got a free copy of “Free” when I attended Wired’s “Disruptive by Design” conference. But the practice of giving away free copies to reviewers has been happening since publishing began.
  • Free excerpts and abstracts online. Using free content to entice you to a paid version will continue. Freemium models will be the norm. People with more time than money will take the free version online through their browser, even if the paid print version or e-book is a much better experience. This is nothing new, either: people with more time than money already get free books through their local library. Enabling people with more time than money to read for free is a good thing.
  • Promotional publishing. Traditional brochures have lost all credibility and value in this online world. And everyone has a blog; blogs are no longer differentiators. So, published books are the new blogs. Consultants can charge more if they have a book published. To be credible, the book would need a published price (preferably a high one), but all potential clients would get one for free. This is just an extension of blogging as an attention-getting tool.
  • Passion publishing. This has been called “vanity publishing” in the industry. This is a pejorative term that can be translated as, “This is not real publishing because no one is paying for it.” If the author’s passion relates to a cause, funding may come from a non-profit foundation. But volume will accumulate from simple books such as your family memoir or a cookbook inspired by your vacation in Tuscany. Again, this is not much different from spending time on a blog. Free books may come with advertising, like blogs.

How much does Chris Anderson’s “Free” book cost on Amazon? List price: $26.99, discounted to $16.19. Not free.


What about people who harbor a desire to live off of their writing? After all, most writers write because they couldn’t imagine not doing it. It is not a profession in the normal sense. They feel compelled to write in the same way that painters feel compelled to paint and musicians are driven to create music. But they have to eat and pay the rent, too.

Intermediaries who mistake that urge to write as a willingness to be exploited will get their heads handed to to them. In a free market, intermediaries are always replaceable, but we need both our authors and readers to always remain motivated.

We are seeing today the early phase of intensified competition in book publishing, as is happening in other industries affected by digitization. Competition will mean, first, more choice and lower prices for readers and, secondly, a bigger share of the pie for authors.

Specifically, we expect to see the following:

  1. The end of advances. The irony is that the authors who really need advances, the new ones scraping by on Ramen noodles, cannot get them. Meanwhile authors who don’t need them, the ones living the high life off of previous royalties or whatever made them famous enough to get an advance, are showered with ridiculous advances at the end of bidding wars between big publishers. Authors will write without advances. Unlike movies, books are relatively cheap to create. In the digitized world of e-books and print on demand, authors get paid as soon as someone buys the first copy. The lack of an advance will be compensated for by a bigger share of the revenue pie.
  2. Authors getting a bigger share of the pie. It makes no sense for authors to get only 10% in a digitized world. We expect this to grow from 10% to 30% or more. Digitization takes most of the costs out of the supply chain. So, unless an intermediary such as Amazon charges monopoly-like rents, authors will get a bigger share. Amazon has amazing power today and will squeeze everyone in the supply chain. But new competition will emerge (we’ll look at this later), and keeping authors happy is critical to the success of publishers. Authors are like software developers, not powerful individually but incredibly powerful en masse (and just as ornery!). Authors will need a bigger share also because prices will be coming down. But the drop in price, coupled with globalization, will open up new markets in which to sell books and therefore generate more revenue.
  3. Authors creating the finished product. Today, authors write and publishers look after the cover art and editing. If authors were to get 30% or more, they would have to take on these two other jobs. But in a world of desktop publishing tools and social networks to organize work and editing, this will not be hard.
  4. Online marketing replacing book tours. It is the bane of the author’s life. The book tour is wonderful the first time: “Wow, I am a real author now.” But this is not the same as musicians going on tour. Musicians are performing their job in its natural environment during live shows; not true of authors reflecting on their books on stage. There are many and much better ways to promote books online.

The future of authors can be summed up, then, as: do more of the work and get a bigger percentage of the retail price, which will be lower.


Printers. Who loves you, baby! Predicting the decline of the printing industry is easy, but hopeful signs exist:

  • Print on demand will significantly increase the types of books that can get printed.
  • Lower prices, resulting from costs eliminated from the supply chain, will increase demand.
  • Globalization will increase demand.

It will be interesting to see how digital printing technology, the fundamental driver of print on demand, changes the role of printing over time. Today, we have two extremes:

  1. Mass-scale printers, centrally located. We even saw printing move offshore, where labor is cheaper. But this will likely reverse in a print-on-demand world, where immediacy and delivery costs are critical: printing will be done closer to the consumer.
  2. Do-it-yourself printing, also known as using the printer in your home or office. Do-it-yourself printing is both expensive (those ink cartridge costs really add up) and a hassle.

Digital printing could quite possibly move to a hyper-local network model. Orders would be automatically routed to the printer closest to the consumer. The already existing infrastructure of small-scale local print shops would welcome this model. The book would then be delivered (quickly and cheaply) to a local retailer or the consumer’s home or office. Perhaps the printer would be located in the back office of the retailer?

This fits the trend on the Internet of everything moving towards the edge. It is also an environmentally friendly model, reducing emissions from delivery trucks.

The model won’t really help existing large-scale, centralized printers, though.


NYMag has a very good article on how big old publishers are faring. It is not a happy tale. It illustrates once again the perils of financially engineered consolidation (think banks and car companies). Book publishing used to be a business in which small firms, run by passionate editors, found great authors and developed personal relationships with them. Occasionally, they struck it rich when one of their authors “caught fire” with the reading public.

Today feels like the calm before the storm. Publishers are worrying about the recession. That is a small wave and will soon pass. But we won’t be returning to normal when GDP growth resumes. The three big digitization waves — Google Book Search, e-books, and print on demand — will have a far bigger and more lasting impact.

Publishers did quite well during the first phase, when retailers got “Amazoned.” They sold more of their back catalog (i.e. they enjoyed the long tail).

On the surface, all is well with the Kindle. Publishers get the same percentage from an e-book that they get when a retailer sells a print version of the book, and their costs are lower. Amazon is playing along. But when it gets more traction, it will squeeze.

Publishers have to figure out not so much how to negotiate with Amazon (competition from other consumer electronic devices will take care of that), but how to remain relevant to authors. Even saying this seems contrarian. Publishers have had all the power till now. The bane of an author’s life has been to find a publisher. Plastering the wall with rejection letters and recounting tales of arrogant editors are rites of passage for every author.

Unbundling Publishers

But what services exactly do publishers provide to authors? Let’s disassemble the package:

  1. Advances. Newbies don’t get them, and the rest don’t need them.
  2. Editing. Do you have a social network that could give you constructive criticism?
  3. Cover design. Yes, a great one can make a book. But how much do graphic designers charge?
  4. ISBN. Here is an interesting one. To be a publisher, you need international standard book numbers (ISBNs). This is actually what defines you as a publisher. An ISBN is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies a book or book-like product that is published internationally (read more about it here). The application process that takes about 15 days and costs about $250 for 10 titles.
  5. Marketing. Some authors will say, “What marketing?” For mega-star authors, publishers have to spend a ton on marketing to recoup their advance. Authors who don’t get advances won’t expect much marketing and will end up doing a lot of the work themselves, which wouldn’t be so bad if they were getting 30%, rather than 10%.
  6. Brand. An author may realistically know that the publisher won’t do much marketing and yet still want a brand-name publisher. The reason is partly to feel good: “Wow, I am a real author now.” But it is also a rational calculation. Which is better, selling 100 books and keeping 30% or selling 300 books and keep 10%? That’s right: it is about the same. Does a brand-name publisher increase sales three times?
  7. Retailer shelf-space. Publishers take a big risk on their “sale or return” policy with major retailers. So, you might get retail shelf space, but that is changing, as we will see below.
  8. Amazon “shelf space”. This is unlimited, so your publisher will get you in here. But any publisher will get its authors in there. Technically, any entity with an ISBN is a publisher.

If any entity with an ISBN is a publisher, then authors could act as their own publishers. Or we could see cooperative publishers emerge. Or alternative publishers, such as indie and network publishers, could grow stronger.

But let’s consider first how book retailing might evolve.


Here is a bookstore owner’s nightmare. Customer walks in; browses around; has grand old time in this temple of knowledge; peruses a book that costs $27; takes out Kindle and orders it for $17, right there in front of your nose, using your wi-fi connection. Aaagh!

You wake up sweating at 3:00 in the morning.

Have you noticed all of those best-seller books stacked up at the front of your local bookstore? Did the retailer buy them hoping to sell them all? Of course not. They are relying on a variant of the age-old practice of “sale or return.” Publisher have agreed to take back unsold ones for credit. As this article on Bloomberg states:

“Returns date back to the Depression, when publishers implemented the practice as a way to ensure that bookstores would continue stocking new books.”

Now that we are in a major recession, or micro-depression, or whatever we’re calling it these days, surely this practice will continue. Well, probably not. Digitization, whether via e-book or print on demand, makes it unnecessary. And publishers simply cannot sustain it. Approximately 25% of their books are being returned. Think of what that does to their profit margins.

How can retailers survive if they have to decide what to buy based on their forecast of what will sell? The answer is, they can’t. No one can forecast fickle consumer taste. With retailer’s profit margins being what they are, one small error could lead to an operation’s failure.

But they have to stock their shelves with something, right?

Not necessarily. Have you noticed that bookstores are becoming more like coffee shops and coffee shops are becoming more like bookstores? And that both have wi-fi?

Retail bookstores might look more like community hang-out spots in future, with the following:

  • Good (but expensive) coffee and snacks,
  • Free wi-fi,
  • A few best-selling books and DVDs (under the sale or return policy),
  • A way for patrons to order any book in the universe, while taking a cut of the transaction.

This last possibility is not hard to imagine. The customer could have the book delivered to the bookstore if they will be passing by again soon or, for a little extra (plus guilt for the bigger carbon footprint), their home.

These coffee shop/bookstores could even host virtual “Meet the author” sessions on a big screen, with back-channel chats going on via Twitter. And they could host book clubs for both face-to-face meetings and online gatherings.

If the “local printer” model becomes a reality, book delivery would be immediate. We can even imagine digital printers setting up shop in the back of coffee shop/bookstores?

That sounds like fun for readers, authors, and store owners. But for students and the unemployed, the walk to the local library seems all the shorter.

And what about big-box bookstores in malls? Nope. Sell your commercial real estate and big-box retailer stock. That will get ugly.

The E-Book Device War

Today, the Kindle rules, just as the iPhone and iPod have beaten the devices in their product classes. The Kindle is simply better for readers than Sony’s device. At least, most people think so, and that is what matters.

This dominance is threatened from two directions:

  1. The Android model. Google has not revealed its long-term plans related to book publishing, but being Google’s, its plans will be ambitious and centered on driving traffic to vendors through free content. Because e-book readers are similar as consumer devices to smartphones, Google will likely use the Android platform as leverage to bring all consumer device manufacturers who want a piece of the action on board. Sony and Google are already working together.
  2. The offline/online combo model. We tend to think of book reading as a solitary activity, but that is not how it started, and it is not how you started reading (if you were read to by your parents). The popularity of book clubs proves that it can be a great social activity. It is not hard to imagine some entrepreneur mixing online and offline to create a great social experience, and monetizing it with book purchases. There is no cost to creating the venue for that social experience, but it may be the differentiator.

Network Indie Publishing Model

The traditional publishing industry refers to its alternatives in pejorative terms, such “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing.” We prefer indie publishing. Indie movies bypass the big Hollywood studios. Indie music bypasses the big record labels. And indie books bypass the big publishers. We look at how this could play out in more detail later.

Indie publishers already exist, and we may see a lot more. With digitization, the barriers to entry come crashing down. In fact, highly trafficked niche websites could become publishers, because:

  • They draw traffic, which they could use to market books,
  • Their brands are respected, at least within their niches.

A website about food could sell cookery books, a site about cars could sell books about cars, and so on. The steps are relatively simple: get an ISBN, make a deal with a print-on-demand vendor, make a deal with Amazon and Sony, and you’re in business. Last but not least, choose good authors.

When all you need is an ISBN to become a publisher and earn 30% or more, why make do earning only 4% to 10% as an Amazon affiliate.

In this new world, we could see the pie fairly evenly divided in three:

  • Author: one-third,
  • Publisher, who also creates traffic and demand through their website: one-third,
  • Printer or e-book service: one-third.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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