One Foot in the Grave

... and the other on a banana peel is an accurate description of the current state of oldpub.

One Foot in the Grave

Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch plumbs the exact depth of the hole.
There’s a shortage of paper, because it comes from China. The two largest printers of magazines and books in the U.S., Quad/Graphics and LSC Communications were going to merge last summer, but something got in the way. Now, LSC Communications has filed for bankruptcy. The second largest printer, Quad, has shut its book printing facilities entirely.
In some regions, major distributors have shut down or disappeared, while although others, like Ingram, are still operating, although with reduced staff.
Not that it matters, since most bookstores are closed, and not shipping books to their customers. To make matters worse, the books that are being delivered will remain in their boxes, only to be returned for full price credit when this crisis is over. That was a policy established to help bookstores in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the policy never got changed afterwards.
You read that last part right. Oldpub still uses the return system--an arcane form of consignment sales that's a holdover from the 1930s. Is it any wonder newpub is eating their lunch?

And that's not the only archaic business practice currently hoisting oldpub by its own petard.
Remember way back when the Justice Department went after traditional publishers for price-fixing?  The entire idea behind fixing prices was to protect hardcover book sales. The traditional publishers were trying to establish a high price for ebooks, so people would buy the hardcovers first.
Even though trad pub lost that suit and the publicity wars from it, they kept a version of the pricing. Just today, as I was going through my collected research for this piece, I looked at the ebook prices for backlist ebooks from traditional publishers and only found one book—thirty years old—that had a price below $9.99. Most of the ebook prices ranged from $12.99 to $15.99. And in one case, the ebook I looked at (nonfiction, from a major press) was $23.99. Um…wow.
Regular readers of this blog will already be aware that oldpub is in the lumber business, not the story business. They bet all their chips on their paper distribution monopoly. Now along comes a crisis that stops the distribution of paper books.

Even oldpub's fallback option--audio books--have collapsed as commuters are forced to stay home.

Now their myopic focus on dead trees, to the point of purposefully trying to throttle eBook sales, has come back to bite them hard.
Ebook sales are up to what some people are called “holiday season levels.” Open Road Media, which works with traditional publishers and does backlist ebooks for established traditional authors, was one of the few bright spots in the traditional publishing news of the past week. Open Road Media’s sales went up 50%.
But it’s too late for most traditional publishers to capitalize on the increased ebook sales. Traditional publishers’ prices are just too high, and they don’t have the manpower right now to change thousands of prices on the handful of platforms where they sell ebooks.
Oldpub hasn't only missed the eBook boat, either. It's now too late to salvage their bread-and-butter print book sales.
Finally, and this is something I’ll expand on in the next blog post, traditional publishers are pushing as many books as they can to a fall or early winter release. Publisher’s Lunch is maintaining a list of the books that have had their publication dates changed from May/June to much later in the year. More books get added all the time.
But you’ll note that the changes didn’t start until books that were supposed to be released this week—and even then, there were damn few of those. You’d think that traditional publishers would have immediately halted expenditures. If they thought books weren’t going to sell, they should have moved March and April books immediately.
But they couldn’t. The contracts were already at the printer. The books were already printed, bound, and stored in a warehouse, being boxed and ready to ship…to the closed bookstores.
Oh, the returns later this year will be astronomical. I’ll wager that normal huge sellers in hardcover like John Grisham and Stephen King, who have books hitting this month, will have the largest returns of their careers.
The question hanging over these tidings of oldpub's doom is, "How will the Big Five's implosion affect their authors?"

If you're an author who's not self-published, I'd sit down before reading further.
I would like to say that traditional publishers are smart enough to know what happened, but they won’t see the actual results of this period for months. And if history is our guide, they’ll blame the authors. That’s what happened to the authors whose books debuted in September, 2001. Those writers had to struggle to maintain careers, and most failed because of a precipitous drop in sales that had nothing to do with them or their books and everything to do with the terror attacks.
The traditional publishing industry is falling into two or three years of complete reorganization. It’ll be a mess. The Big Five might not be five any longer. Viacom/CBS Corporation talked about selling Simon & Schuster before the plague hit the fan. Now, a corporation like Viacom/CBS might simply cut its losses. It might not be able to sell the book publisher. Or if it does, it might be a fire sale prices.
There will be mergers, consolidations, sales, and of course, job losses. Beloved editors will leave, and their books will be orphaned…or returned to the authors. For a while, the lists of books published every month will be a complete mess.
I have no idea if traditional publishers will even have room to buy new books for a while, with all of this pushback. Agents aren’t even sure if they should market books/authors to publishers right now. 
KKR is gentler than I am. She suggests that oldpub authors petition their publishers to split royalty payments between them and their agents. My advice is more direct: Fire your agent.

In a crisis situation where agents cannot do their sole, dubious job, authors need parasites bleeding them for 15% like they need a broken glass enema.
I’d recommend that writers who aren’t published yet start exploring their self-publishing options. Indie (self) published writers are the ones who will survive as fulltime writers, not traditionally published writers—even if they get a big payday.
Nick Cole's prophecy races toward fulfillment. The Big Five were already teetering on the brink thanks to the eBook revolution. Only their international megacorp owners kept them from plunging over the edge. Now those globocorps are slipping, too, and they'll cut oldpub loose before letting it drag them down, too.

Writing for a living is the best job in the world. The only drawback is that most of your co-workers lack the sense to come in out of the rain. Publishers do nothing but take 50-85% of your earnings. At this point, signing with a publisher amounts to jumping in the lowering coffin with them.

Keep your rights. Keep control of your career. Don't give money to people who hate you.

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier


  1. "You read that last part right. Oldpub still uses the return system--an arcane form of consignment sales that's a holdover from the 1930s."

    The system that killed TSR ...

  2. Normally if you sell something on consignment you get -ahem- paper thin margins out of it. Like, 3%. I'm going to assume book stores were getting more than that.

    1. When I worked at Borders in the late 90s, the received wisdom around the stacks was that we were working at around 40% margin.

  3. The cherry on top would be if the paper cartels were also run by climate alarmists.

    1. That would be platypus-level proof of the divine sense of humor.

    2. Cutting down forests to print books no one will actually read about the planetary peril of cutting down forests seems par for the course, really.

  4. Brian

    Hmmm.i wonder if this having a knock effect throughout the world. Canada was a major paper producer but no longer. I haven't heard the same complaints.
    Here's a fascinating article published nuvol.car about the Cstslsn publishing industry

    Pay attention the numbers they're stunning. When a customer buys a book 35% goes to the book store; 45% to the publisher. 15% to the distributor and 10% to the authour.
    All the percentages are negotiable EXCEPT FOR THE AUTHOUR'S it fixed.

    No wonder the lockdown sent the bookstore and publishers into hysterics and launched initiatives like #obrimllibreries and #obrimfinudtres. The bookstores have lost 35%/book for the past weeks

    Yesterday was Sant Jordiv Spainish publishing's biggest day. Publishers will move millions of copies during that day well as the week prior and after.

    The sales weren't great because a lot of publishers simply don't have ebooks for certain titles and the printed books can only be picked up after the lockdown is lifted. Many bookstores have refused to do home deliveries.

    Serves them right.


  5. Reading KKR's post and the comments, I have the distinct feeling that the team is tottering between understanding the wheels have just come off the carriage, and the buggy whips may be late in delivery for some unspecified reason.

    Do they realize where the fast-growing trees (3 to 5 year maturity, ugly as sin) that are used for paper pulp were developed and are still grown? Doubt it.

    LCS Communications. Only about a billion in debt, with another $100M on the way! This is an investor's dream! If only the cheap Chinese paper starts flowing again. Link

    Featured on the Quad/Graphics page, a link to a laugh riot from last year, pimping their business with an eye to the tax dollar. Yours, the Taxpayer's, of course. Note that PBS is part of the Great Society guy's legacy of pain. Link

    They can print a book, and help you market it, but they can't figure out production of the cheap ebook that would bury their market ... oops, I may have said too much already. Link

    Be sure to stock up, for all your future lumber needs! By the ROLL, no less! Link

  6. The future of old publishing is the present of the comic book industry. The main (only) distributor is sinking below the waves, and no one is selling anything. The parent companies involved must be seriously thinking about closing that part of the business that wasn't making much money even before Covid-19, and just keeping the IP. Publishers don't even have the IP to leverage, as that belongs to others.

    1. The Big 2 comic book publishers are owned by major media empires that at least value their IPs for movie fodder. The Big 5's parent companies, by contrast, couldn't care less about books.

  7. I still prefer to own (and re-read) my books in paper. Indie is pricey for that.

    But that's fine. I haven't bought (or reviewed) a Tor book in 5 years. I still review Scholastic and Fist,Second for work.

  8. Hey Brian,

    I just wanted to pop in and say congrats on Dont Give Money To People That Hate You. It hit bestseller status and I'm always glad to see people on our side doing well.

    To echo your thoughts in this article, I couldn't agree more. Any author that hands over all their IP to an agent and publisher is selling their soul to the devil. All for the empty promise of fame and wealth.

    All my books are self-published and I don't regret it. Had I opted for trad pub I'd probably still be waiting to get my first book published. And then I would likely have to change the manuscript to make it more politically correct.

    Screw that.

    I'll keep my profits and my steady releases. Thanks.

  9. Brian

    Here's Mike Shatzkin's analysis on the supply chain



  10. Agents are the new slush pile. Publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts.They now depend on the recommendations of agents. My experience with agents is that they tend to ask questions that have nothing to do do with writing. Other authors have told me that agents often never read the manuscripts before giving them to the publishers. Now you know why writing is so terrible now.

    1. Oldpub, including agents, lost all interest in quality a long time ago.