From publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it.
Sounds reasonable, but then we get to the money quotes.
The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores. When that proportion was “nearly all”, the power allocation was “nearly all” to the traditional publishers.
Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.
It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals and the more powerful will be any incentives Amazon cares to offer for making the title exclusive to them.
Shatzkin’s discussion of the amount of the market served by inventory in stores is right on. But his “best choice” conclusion doesn’t follow.
Because the question for each author has to be which stores will I be in, what kind of floor space will I have, and how long will I be there? And in many cases the answers to those questions do not compete well with indie options.
For example, a lot of in-store sales come from the drug store, grocery store, airport, Walmart, Costco type venues. But it’s rare than an author getting an average deal will see the light of day in those places. Those are reserved for bigger sellers. And not very many of those. So unless you’re getting a big deal, you can’t count that floor space.
Poof. Tens of thousands of venues are now no longer part of the equation.
So you are now left with whatever number of stores the publisher can get you into at Barnes&Noble (a max of 675 stores), Books-a-Million (max of 200 stores), Hastings (max of 149 stores), non-chain stores, etc. I think the total number of book stores in the USA is around 10,000 or so. But publishers won’t get you into all of them. Some don’t carry your type of book: they’re used books stores, or kids book stores, or Christian book stores. And even if it’s a store like Barnes&Noble, you probably won’t get into all their stores. So how many stores will you actually be in?
Next, you have to wonder where you’ll appear in the stores you do get into. Will you be face-out somewhere prominent? Or will you have two copies spine-out in the back? If you’re spine-out, that’s just reduced the value of the floor space publishers offer you yet again.
Finally, how long will you be there? If you sell your two copies in a store, are you done at that store? Will your books be there longer than 12 weeks? Will they be there even 8 weeks?
James Patterson can sell millions of books because he has multiple copies in tens of thousands of stores with great display. And he’s usually there for more than just a handful of weeks. If you have two books spine-out in each of 500 stores for eight weeks, how well are you going to do?
Here’s some math on author revenue and units sold. Is selling 1,000 books with the royalties and contract terms offered really worth it? What about 4,000 books? 7,000? Are you going to be in enough stores with a decent placement to get those numbers?
If you’re going to be in thousands and thousands of stores with good placement, and the terms of the contract are reasonable, then, good golly, working with a publisher looks great. But if you’ve got a book that’s good enough to make an editor somewhere want to buy rights to it and the publisher is offering to put you spine-out in a little over a thousand stores with all sorts of contract crap, then Shatzkin’s “best choice” is really a poor one. In those situations my money is on going indie.
EDIT: It seems there are about 12,700 book stores in the USA. But that includes big-box stores, which I think are the Walmarts and Costcos.