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August 2, 2012

The New Publishing Paradigm, Part One: It’s Not about eBook vs. Print

Sepia-toned display inside bookstore with text "How Much Do Bookstores Matter to Authors?"

The Keynote Address at this year’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) Annual Conference was unusual. Instead of sharing an inspirational or funny story about her trudge to success, Stephanie Laurens essentially gave a lunchtime workshop about the publishing industry, complete with a PowerPoint presentation.

Some were disappointed or bored and left early. I thought she was brilliant.

In the debate about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, many authors have focused on the percentage of readers who choose ebooks versus print. The typical thinking is that if most of their readers are still buying print books, authors need to stick with traditional publishing.

One of the drumbeats of traditional publishing is that publishers can get our books into bookstores more easily. That’s true (for now). The problem is that most people think “bookstores” and “print” are synonymous.

The thinking goes: if our readers buy our stories in a printed format, we need to have our books placed in bookstores. And therefore, we need a traditional publisher.

Wrong.

“Print” does not equal “bookstore.” Think of how many print books we buy online, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. We should focus on how readers are finding our books, not the format.

As Stephanie said:

“[W]hile the shift from print to digital consumption is a major driver contributing to the critical transition that’s causing the upheaval in our business, it’s not the critical transition itself – which is the migration of readers from buying offline to buying online. Whether they buy print or digital doesn’t matter – it’s the fact that readers access our works online that’s key, because once a reader is buying online, the author can reach that reader directly, and that alters one critical segment of our business irreversibly.”

In other words, we’re comparing the wrong numbers. And we’re using those irrelevant numbers to make business decisions. Bad us.

I’ve seen the breakdown of x percentage of readers buying ebook and y percentage buying print. I’ve also seen many authors look at those numbers and think they’d lose all those print readers by self-publishing. Not true.

Self-published authors have the ability to offer their stories in print form using POD (print on demand) on many of the online retailer sites, like Amazon. So the issue isn’t ebook versus print.

As Stephanie pointed out, once readers are at an online retailer, if they want a print book, they won’t pay attention to whether the book already exists in a warehouse somewhere, waiting to be shipped, or if a book will be printed and shipped when they order it. All print readers care about is whether they can get a printed book that appeals to them at a fair price from their retailer of choice.

So when we’re analyzing the value a traditional publisher offers us, the numbers of print readers versus ebook readers don’t matter beyond royalty percentage concerns. Instead, we should focus on the breakdown of readers buying books offline (like at a brick-and-mortar bookstore) versus buying books online (like at Amazon or barnesandnoble.com).

Unfortunately, I have yet to see those percentages published anywhere.

We already know ebook sales are gaining ground. If we included print sales made at online retailers, what would we see? Do those numbers change for casual readers (i.e., those we’d like to reach out to for “bestseller” status)?

By no means am I slamming brick-and-mortar bookstores here. I feel the urge to genuflect every time I pass the gorgeously huge, two-story Barnes & Noble near my house. I love bookstores.

Rather, I’m pointing out that our business decisions regarding our publishing options should not be based on our percentage of print readers, but on our percentage of readers who buy offline. There is a difference, and I hope we find a way to track down those numbers. Stephanie believes more than 50% of romance books are sold online, but other genres will have their own numbers.

Just to add more confusion to the mix, those numbers are likely to be different for each sub-genre. Jody Hedlund’s readership for her inspirational romances is probably different from the readership of Kresley Cole’s paranormal romances. Jody knows her readership includes large numbers of women who don’t even own a computer, much less use one for shopping.

Regardless of any numbers relevant to our situation, some of us prioritize publishing options that give us access to bookstores just because we love the idea of seeing our books on the shelf. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I was one of those who saw the ebook vs. print numbers and thought they were the only relevant figures, so I know how much Stephanie’s point can change our thinking. At what percentage of sales should we change our approach? Or do we want to be in stores so much that even the smallest percentage of sales is worth going traditional?

There’s no right or wrong answer. My point is that we should be aware of the real issues behind our decisions so we’re making the best choice for us. And more importantly, that we’re not making decisions based on a feeling that we don’t have a choice if we want to see our books in print.

(And come back next Tuesday for a more detailed look at how the shift to online buying affects authors.)

Have you ever seen a breakdown of offline versus online book purchases? (If so, share!) What do you think is more important to our decision-making—print vs. ebook or offline vs. online? How important to you is seeing your book on a bookstore shelf? Would you be willing to take a royalty rate “pay cut” to make that happen?

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What do you think?

49 Comments on "The New Publishing Paradigm, Part One: It’s Not about eBook vs. Print"

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Buffy Armstrong

I was one of those people that was bored at the beginning. I know, Bad Buff. I never would have left though. I was glad I stuck around because she had a point that I hadn’t thought about before. The publishing industry is changing every day. It’s a lot to think about.

Stephanie Scott

I’m fairly new to RWA, but it only took one afternoon of perusing the RWA message forums to see the tension between writers, the industry and (without mucking up too much here) frustration with a nationally known writer’s association that is hesitant to recognize successfully self-published authors. I agree, the wrong things are being focused on. As a reader, I sometimes buy print, sometimes download to my Nook. It depends; I’m not one or the other. I also still heavily use my library, which is still a way to support an author, especially when you request that your local brand acquire a book you want.

Thanks for sharing thoughts on this. I’m just soaking up all this information as I’m readying myself to pursue publication, however it pans out 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Fantastic post, Jami!!
I think that your quote: “Print” does not equal “bookstore.” Think of how many print books we buy online, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. We should focus on how readers are finding our books, not the format.” Sums up my feelings exactly…however, I didn’t even realize I felt that way until you wrote this post!
I’m struggling right now with what I should do with my most recent completed novel. I’ve already sent it to 2 of the agents that had requested the full, but in lieu of sending it to more [agents/editors] I’m wondering if I’m doing myself a disservice. Should I be working harder at self-publishing (and keeping my profits) or should I be busting my butt to submit to NY?
Hmm, I don’t really have an answer to that question.
I do know, however, that one of my dreams has always been to see my book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble or Borders.
But…Borders is gone…
So what does that say about my “outdated” dream?
I wish I had the numbers. I wish I knew which choice would be better FOR ME.
Excellent, thought provoking post, Jami!
Have a great afternoon,
Tamara

P.S.
Oh, and I can’t believe people walked out of Stephanie Laurens Keynote address. Not only is that INCREDIBLY rude, but ignorant as well. Just think of all the great info they lost out on.
Glad you got a chance to hear her speak and got so much out of her topic.

Suzanne Johnson

Another thing to consider even among bookstores. My book is in Barnes and Noble brick-and-mortar stores, but it is not in the supermarket and it is not in Walmart. How many print book buyers go to a physical bookstore per se, and how many print book buyers buy them in places like Walmart and Walgreens and Publix? So even having a traditional publisher with print books on bookstore shelves doesn’t mean you’re being exposed to the greatest mass of print-book purchasers. Like you, I’ve never seen any numbers that focus on the POS location rather than format. And I’d be very interested in seeing them! Thanks for sharing that with those of us unable to go to RWA!

Kate Wood

Excellent post, Jami!

I have always been an avid reader, so when I decided to write I was actually pretty confused about the arguments going back and forth regarding print v. e-book. Its always been online v. offline to me, and I never understood the other viewpoint.

I am a HUGE HUGE HUGE Stephanie Laurens fan. I think I’ve gushed on that enough, but her Keynote was absolutely fabulous and, in my personal opinion, she nailed the reality of publishing entirely.

K, those are my 2 cents, gotta get back to work lol

Marcy Kennedy

I can see why you found this talk brilliant. I would have been listening intently too because I have to agree–online vs. offline is much more important than ebook vs. print.

That debate even matters when it comes to how we spend our platform-building time. If your audience isn’t on social media, doesn’t read blogs, and may not even regularly use a computer, is it a wise use of your time to blog three days a week and be on five different social media sites? It makes sense for me. I’m a science fiction/fantasy writer. My audience is among those who spend the most time online. But what if my audience was rural farmers like my dad? He only uses the computer to check the weather and he doesn’t even fully understand what a blog is. If he were my audience, my time would be better spent building key relationships offline with organizations who can reach my target audience.

Stina Lindenblatt

Wow, while I was enjoying the creme caramel, you were busy writing notes. I’m sitting next to you next time, Jami. You’re a note-taking rock star!

Thanks for the reminder of what Stephanie said. 😀

Amanda
I missed RWA12 (and I’ll probably miss next year’s conference *sad panda*) but someone in my local chapter kindly forwarded the keynote. I admit, my eyes glazed over a bit and I ended up skimming through some of it, but I got the gist-change or get left behind. I love brick and mortar stores. That genuflecting you’re tempted to do? I DO do it every time I step into Powell’s City of Books (which doesn’t happen nearly as often I’d like). I don’t own an e-reader, and I’m too impatient to order books online and wait for them to be shipped. The highlight of an otherwise crappy Tuesday was getting a call from my local Barnes and Noble to tell me Chloe Neill’s newest book (which I’d reserved) had come in a week early. That wouldn’t happen with an e-tailer. I would LOVE to walk into a giant bookstore, or a little bookstore, or hell, even a Target, and see my book on the shelf. But that’s vanity. I’m still at the point where I’ll go for vanity over sales. I seem to run into the type of people who would, inevitably, ask me, oh, have I heard of anything you’ve written? And if I tell them the titles, and they’re only available as ebooks, they’d just look askance like, suuuuure, you’re a writer. *insert eye roll here* Even with all the changes the industry is seeing, making a living as a writer, and only a writer, is a “down… Read more »
Melissa Borg
Melissa Borg

Good point! That really were the rub is for most of us online or offline, neither is wrong but you are right each genre tends to be more one or the other.
Great food for thought, thanks for the update from the keynote speech.

Melinda Collins
Jami – Thank you so much for sharing this message! And thank you for the link to the presentation! Can’t wait to read more on this on Tuesday! 😀 This is so incredibly true in terms of knowing where and how to reach our audience, and it’s such an eye-opener because like you said, none of us have actually seen the #’s related to online vs. offline purchases, so therefore we never knew that those are the #’s we should be focusing on. As much as I love going into Barnes & Noble, I usually buy my books online. I’ll go in the store and skim the shelves, find something new and interesting, then I’ll go home and order it online. This is not only because I have a Nook that I absolutely love, but also because the online prices are so much cheaper than inside the store (especially on the print books!), and that’s even with using my Barnes & Noble membership (which I get free shipping with and books normally arrive within a week). So yeah, I tend to always purchase online, and that’s where I mostly spend my time anyway, as both a reader and author. So why wouldn’t my core audience (paranormal romance and urban fantasy) also be spending a large amount of time online? To put it simply: It’s the freakin’ dream. That’s what it is. When we dreamed of being a published author, we dreamed of seeing our book on the shelves in the… Read more »
Todd Moody

Hi Jami! Extremely interesting post! POS numbers need to be scrutinized and the fact that the board voted in the PAN for self-pubbers. This is something I asked the VP of the SFWA about and she never answered me. They still have their list of vetted publishers that count as a valid sell. I hope they step into the 21st century like the RWA, it sounds like they are waking up and smelling the coffee.

Great Post Jami!

Serena
Serena

Thanks for giving those of us who want to self-publish more hope! You’ve made a good point that a lot of readers do browse online rather than in bookstores, so we shouldn’t feel bad about our books only appearing in the former. Thus we don’t need to feel pressured to do traditional publishing to be called a “writer”.

I’m still waiting for the prejudice against self-published books to be alleviated one day, and for the success of some self-published authors to be more widely known to the public. For instance, I’ve heard that James Joyce started off self-publishing, and that gave me enormous encouragement.

One reason why I don’t *really* want to do traditional publishing or to find an agent is because I’ll be forced to change my story for them in one way or another: you know how they only accept a particular genre; or if they don’t like something in your story, they’ll demand that you’ll change it–even if it twists your story beyond recognition! I’m a person who wants nobody to tamper with my manuscript, because I demand to have the plot, characters, wording, everything to be exactly the way I want them to be. Making my characters do things that they didn’t do just to satisfy a publisher or agent is simply against my morals. This is only my opinion, of course.

I can’t wait for the world to look upon self-published authors more favorably one day!

Debbie Johansson

Great post Jami! I can’t believe people were walking out during the talk. It’s not only rude, but I would have thought it would have been in their own best interests to learn more about the publishing industry during these changing times. Seeing a breakdown of offline versus online book purchases would certainly put things into perspective. I have to agree it definitely changes the ‘dream’ somewhat! 😉

Thanks for sharing your notes and I look forward to reading more next week.

Jody Hedlund

Hi Jami,

Thanks for sharing what you learned at RWA. I would have to agree that a large percentage of the population is likely moving to buying most books in online venues, including print books. Yes, I still have a percentage of my readership that relies on bookstores. AND libraries. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten over the past few years from readers who’ve gotten my books at the library. So we can’t forget that aspect of building our readership. We can get “discovered” by having our print books on the shelves at libraries. And most libraries are still fairly closed to self-published books. Just something else to think about!

Julie Glover

I have looked at this issue a lot myself, and it’s why I want to be a hybrid author–some self-published, some traditionally-published. I’m glad that Jody mentioned LIBRARIES because I’ve given that a lot of thought with my YA fiction. My sons read most of their books by checking them out from the library. We do buy books but I couldn’t afford their reading habit if we purchased every single novel they cracked open. Thank goodness for libraries! I do believe that libaries will need to shift their paradigm as well, and I wonder when and how that will occur. Great information, Jami! Thanks for sharing.

Riley

Great post, Jami!

I’m thinking the POS will eventually be the driving factor and the consumer steering that car one day soon? Will be the upcoming generation. Computer and internet savvy with barely a drop of nostalgia to make them pull-over so they can go into the brick and mortar book stores. But for right now while the industry is straddling the center line? Just paying attention to the road ahead to the “where” and not the “how many” is a wise way to look at things.
Thanks for the info!
Murphy

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[…] The New Publishing Paradigm: It’s Not About Ebook vs. Print by Jami Gold. […]

Joanna Aislinn

Great summary of important information for anyone seeking or already involved in publication. Thanks for writing and posting this, Jami. You took a lot of time to share with those of us who couldn’t make the west coast.

Trad publishing takes on many forms, and the farther one gets from the big pubbers the more difficult to see the return to the author, no? Print or not?

I’m thinking it’s all about the sale. Where no longer matters to me–though I still love holding a hard copy of my debut in my hand. Sure it would be nice to hold more but, as I said, when it’s all said and done, the sale is why I will have gone back in (at least the subsequent times).

Cris
Cris

I read e-books, dead tree books, you name it. But my concern is not how the words are transmitted, but the words themselves. I’m finding the relatively sudden crush of on-line choices daunting. I can’t parse a good book from a bad book these days! (And by ‘bad’, I mean poorly written and edited.)

Where are the gate-keepers? I wasn’t at the convention but I did pop over to the link you gave for Stephanie’s information. If on-line publishers are catering more and more to the authors, what’s to stop them from being vanity presses? Doing anything they can to appease the author, including blowing sunshine up her skirt, to get her business?

I’m not saying off-line publishers are paragons of perfection, but holy smokes, there’s a lot of digital chaff to get through before a reader hits the wheat!

Thoughts on this? I could use a little guidance…

Madeleine Miles
Madeleine Miles

This is really interesting to me. I don’t write romance, but I’m assuming that anyone can go to these conferences, yes?
Do you happen to know of any closer to the great lakes? I just can’t make it all the way down to Texas and whatnot, which seems to be where many of them are held.
Or could you give me any advice on how to look them up and find out in advance where they are at, and which ones would be good for a YA fantasy writer to go to? I always hear about them afterward, in blog posts. 🙁
Thank you for any help you can give!

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[…] Last time, we discussed how our decision about which method we go with for publishing should focus more on our readers’ online versus offline buying habits than on their preference for eb…. And we bemoaned the fact that those numbers are hard to come […]

Kassandra Lamb

Great post, Jami! Thanks for sharing this perspective. As a writer who is about to take the plunge into POD, it was very timely for me.

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[…] Gold examines the new publishing paradigm in a two-part series: it’s not about ebooks vs. print and what value do publishers […]

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[…] Jami Gold discusses the New Publishing Pardigm […]

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[…] Writing Stuff Several weeks ago, we discussed why authors shouldn’t worry about the ebook versus print debate but should instead focus on their readers’ online versus offline buying habits. Shortly after […]

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[…] If you only click one link, this is the best gathering of writing links I’ve seen in a post (EVER). I warn you, it’s long! Margo Berendsen‘s Writing Tips. Janet Fitch’s 10 Writing Tips that Can Help Almost Anyone made me smile. A list of Chapter One Analyses by Moody Writing. Jami Gold’s post The New Writing Paradigm, Part 2: What Value Do Publishers Add is a great read. Click here for Part 1. […]

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