On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Books Are No Longer Produce

What in the world do I mean books were produce? Well, they have been. And before you go shouting at me because I just insulted your golden book and said it was a banana, let me try to explain what I mean.

For a long time, since about the time of the First World War, the release of a book has been treated as an event. The book would have a set release date, and all the push and promotion would be aimed at selling as many copies as possible in the first week or few weeks of the release date. (Bestseller lists are built on velocity of sales, meaning how many books sell in one week, not how many books have sold overall.)

For a number of decades up until the 1960s, with a moderate number of books being produced, this never really caused many problems. Authors’ backlists stayed in print and readers could find new copies of books to buy long after their release date.

Then about thirty plus years ago this started to change until finally the book as event reached seriously large status with the release of the last three Harry Potter books.

In the last twenty years, publishers with computer tracking and stores with computer tracking took the importance of book as event a little too far. Books that were what are called “Word of Mouth” books, or slow builds, never really stood a chance in this thinking. If you didn’t find a book in the first week or the first month, look in a used bookstore or lately in a used store online to find it. Because no regular store would still have it.

And author backlists were a thing of the past unless you were a brand name bestseller.


Now, understand, in a grocery store, produce is put out to be sold quickly and then is replaced before it spoils.

Over the last twenty plus years publishers and bookstores put out books and then yanked them quickly as if a book would spoil in a week or two. They treated books exactly the same as produce. And guess what, just as with produce in a grocery story, if a book didn’t sell, it was tossed away, destroyed.

This practice has become so bad that often a book will be deemed out of print within a month of the release date because it didn’t have the orders the sales force was expecting. Or it didn’t have the number of projected sales in the first week or so. Of course, it won’t officially go out of print until all the warehouse stock is gone, but it will have a do-not-reprint order on the book from almost week one.

But the one thing modern publishers and big bookstore have forgotten:

Books don’t spoil.

So why exactly did this mentality come about? Shelf space and a huge number of books being produced, that’s why. To meet their bottom lines and pay the huge overhead of New York, publishers have to churn out a lot of books. And for decades the number of books being published has gone up.

And that shelf space in stores has become a premium, paid for by publishers with a lot of extra money being paid if a store will just put the book near the front door for a few days. Or on the shelf end cap. All common and all focused on the idea that a book has a very, very short life.

But books don’t spoil.

And readers don’t read under pressure.

—Often a reader will find an author’s book in a used store years and years after it was first published and then want more of that author’s work.

—Often a book or a series will have a slow build. It takes time for word-of-mouth on a series or a book to be spread, which used to be the top way a book would build to a bestseller list before twenty years ago. But with publishers thinking of books as produce, by the time a word-of-mouth build can happen, the readers can’t find the book. It’s out of print if it didn’t sell well. And it certainly isn’t taking up any shelf space in a bookstore, so even if it is in print, a reader has to special order it.

For example, Bantam Books put my wife’s 4th book of her popular Fey series out of print almost instantly, yet continued to publish #5-7 over the next three years. And of course, readers blamed Kris for not being able to find the 4th book in the series. Stupid on Bantam’s part, since the series was growing, but the company killed it. No logical reason other than thinking that books were produce and #4 didn’t hit some unknown number somewhere in some computer.

(Note: Great news. Kris again controls the rights to all seven of the Fey books and WMG Publishing will be reissuing them in both electronic format and trade paper editions right up to the day that Kris releases the new 8th book of the Fey, the first book in the Places of Power series next summer. Thats right, all seven of the Fey books and a new one will all be available at the same time. That has all of us Fey fans excited. Watch her site for details.)

What Has Changed in this New World of Publishing?

For New York traditional publishing, nothing at all has changed. Nothing.

Let me say that again. Nothing. The way I described books being treated two years ago is how a book is treated today and there isn’t a thing an author can do to change that if you sell your book to New York traditional publishing.

But then from seemingly out of the blue comes this wonderful new world of electronic publishing and easy and cheap print-on-demand publishing that anyone can now access. But that alone would not have been enough to make any real changes. Writers have been able to publish their own books for decades.

The big change is with the readers and the electronics available to the readers. With Kindles and iPads and the other epub book devices and smart phones, readers in this new world are quickly becoming used to getting a book NOW!

If a reader hears of a new author they want to read, or finish a book they liked by an author, they go to their computer or their Kindle or their iPad or their smart phone and look to see what the author has available. And if it happens to be a book in the same series they liked, they buy it instantly for their Kindle or iPad or Sony Reader or order they order it at once over Amazon.com and other places in the paper format to be delivered in a day or so.

Readers who never ever thought of books as produce are now being allowed to find authors and books easier with this new world of electronic communication and reading. And that’s what has changed.

Wow, as you might imagine, this is this messing with the minds of the fine and fairly smart folks in traditional publishing. When you have had all your focus, your entire business model built on selling produce, changing to selling something that doesn’t ever spoil is difficult to imagine at best.

Changing any large business model is difficult. Changing it fast is almost impossible.

And right now the changes are happening so fast, it’s hard for just about anyone to keep up. But the problem is that the changes are NOT happening inside of publishing. They are happening outside of publishing, in the distribution and electronics world. And there lies the problem. It’s the readers who have suddenly forced this change.

I call large publishers huge cruise ships, cutting through the sea at top speed. They have only had to make minor course corrections for almost one hundred years now. Suddenly there are all kinds of problems ahead and big ships at full speed do not change course quickly. This thinking of books as produce is the main reason they cannot change quickly.

Everything they do, their deadlines, their sales force, their printing schedules, their promotion, their warehousing, everything is set to having a book hit suddenly and then vanish, to be replaced by another and another and another.

This is called the “churn” in the publishing business.

It’s this “churn” of one book after another that makes a publisher money in the margin. It is how every single aspect of their companies are set up. Their business model is set on the churn.

Now comes electronic publishing and reading into this mix and churn doesn’t work. Books don’t spoil. But traditional publishers can’t imagine a business model without the churn, so for the longest time, traditional publishers have fought to do one of two things.

1) Keep the books they are publishing out of electronic versions to preserve the value of their more expensive hardbacks.

2) Delay or price very high the electronic books to also not compete against their hardbacks.

In essence, they have been treating electronic books just like their paper produce books. And that thinking is just flat wrong, which is why so many smart people are saying that traditional publishing is in trouble.

Books don’t spoil.

Over the last six months, traditional publishing is losing both fights. Readers are just flat demanding the books either be reasonably priced or they are not going to buy them.

So that rebellion by readers causes another set of problems inside traditional publishing. The readers won’t buy expensive electronic books, so the feedback loop in traditional publishing is that electronic books don’t sell well.

And the authors who see the minor royalties from electronic books on their statements coming through from their publisher or from silly places like Fictionwise say that electronic books aren’t worth the fight. And thus authors who are steeped in the traditional publishing route think all this electronic publishing is just all hype and are ignoring it.

To those inside traditional publishing, the data (the sacred sales number) just isn’t there yet because they still think that every book is produce, thus it must be priced high to return the correct investment over the correct time.

But take out the time factor (the produce factor) and the accounting becomes different, very different. Instead of saying a book must make back its entire investment in two months, imagine accounting that says a book can earn money for twenty years, growing in sales every year.

A completely different business model.

So if you wonder why you don’t see quicker movement on all this from New York and why New York published electronic books are often priced over $9.99, now you know. There is a nasty feedback loop working for them at the moment.

And so to a degree, I believe that traditional New York publishing is going to have a very bumpy road in the next few years and that many of the large ships of publishing aren’t even trying to turn yet. Oh, oh… They all won’t hit icebergs and go down as some are saying, but there is going to be a lot of damage as the old produce model is replaced slowly.

Books don’t spoil.

So what’s happening outside of traditional publishing?

Basically, a huge wave is happening. Many, many authors are figuring this new model out. Many, many small publishers are figuring this out, publishers who can turn their ships quickly. Many small publishers are springing into life to fill this void with a new business model and help writers.

I have almost 150 SOLD short stories and my wife has a bunch more than that. What has happened to these stories in the past? They were treated like produce, of course. They were published in a certain issue of a magazine or an anthology and then the book or magazine issue became a relic sitting on a dusty shelf. The story, which was not produce, was basically for all intents and purposes, gone, inside a product thought of as produce.

Notice, I just brought back from the dead a number of my stories here on my web site and electronically through the new start-up company WMG Publishing. Kris is doing the same. Stories not seen outside of a used bookstore in decades are now coming to a brand new group of readers.

Is this good for authors? Oh, my, what a stupid question I just asked, huh? This is a gold mine for authors. Readers can now find my work, not just the new stuff that’s out this week, but all my work. By this time next year I hope to have every story I still think is worthwhile up and available. Stories that have not earned me a penny in twenty years are now earning regular money.

And I am finding new readers.

I will also republish a bunch of my novels. And Kris is doing the same. As I said earlier, not only can all the fans of the Fey books get them this fall and winter in both electronic and trade paper editions, but it is now worthwhile for Kris, after over a decade, to finally write the next three Fey novels, the Places of Power series. Without this new world of reader-driven publishing, no New York traditional produce publisher would touch the series because to them it had already spoiled and been tossed away.

But then, traditional New York publishers have been ignoring how readers really read and find book and new authors and new series for decades now. To readers, books were never produce. They were always something to be found and discovered and read when the time was right for the reader.

Electronic publishing and the new model for smaller publishers is finally treating books like readers want them to be treated. Readers need to be able to find any book they want at any time of the day or night.

Books are not produce to be tossed away because they didn’t sell quickly enough. And finally the New World of Publishing allows that to happen.

And as an old time writer, I haven’t been this excited in thirty years about writing new stuff. It’s a great time to be a writer. Finally our work will no longer be treated as produce and any reader who wants to find a story will be able to find it. Even twenty or thirty years from now.

And eventually, after a lot of turmoil, New York traditional publishing will be forced to change its business model and realize one simple fact:

Books don’t spoil.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery full of my writing got a lot more valuable lately and this article is now part of the inventory of that bakery.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

Even if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean