Mike Shatzkin has been identified here before (April 21 2005) as one of the smartest brains in the book world. He is the Founder & CEO of The Idea Logical Company and of BaseballLibrary.com. He has four decades of experience as a published writer and working in all aspects of the publishing industry -- writing, editing, agenting, selling, marketing, and managing production. This makes him well positioned to look into the crystal ball.
Fortunately for the rest of us, Shatzkin occasionally gives presentations in which he sets out his conclusions about the book world as it now as, and as he sees it developing. The perspective is mainly North American, but he certainly has a good feel for the UK market; and, as the book business is in any case global these days (one of his points), the nationality of the thinker is not as important as it once was.
Shatzkin's latest thoughts -- Publishing and digital change: what's next? -- were presented in a speech to the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. They are available online (link from Publishers Lunch), and for anyone with any serious interest, or ambitions, in the book business, they well repay study. Be aware, however, that when printed out the speech runs to 15 single-spaced A4 pages and takes a good half hour to absorb.
I'm not going to attempt to precis the Shatzkin piece. You are recommended, as I say, to absorb the thrust of it yourself. But here are a few comments on the thoughts of Chairman Mike.
He points out that, in the late 1990s, the idea that Publishers Lunch might become more important than Publishers Weekly would have seemed laughable. Well not to me it wouldn't. As an Englishman I subscribed to the US Publishers Weekly for many years, and at great expense. To begin with I learnt a lot, but I came to see it as terrified of offending anybody, lacking any hint of humour, and politically correct beyond endurance. It was typical, I thought, of an industry which seemed determined to avoid change at all costs. Even death.
The thing that really killed PW for me was its report of the Joan Collins case. During this 1996 hearing, a number of publishing bigwigs made themselves look extremely foolish, and I was hoping that PW would have a little fun with it, running to two or three pages, including some backstage scuttlebutt. But no. What we got was about a column of absolutely po-faced factual reporting, dull as you-know-what (careful avoidance of cliche). God forbid that they should ever offend, criticise, or make fun of an advertiser.
Well fuck you, PW, I thought, and I did not renew my extremely expensive subscription. I doubt if matters have improved any in the last ten years, but you can try your luck on the web site if you wish.
The reason why I go on about this at some length is that PW is the flagship journal of the book industry in the US, the world's biggest and richest book market. You can tell a lot about the tone of an industry from what such a journal is like. And at least the Bookseller, the UK equivalent, has a sense of humour.
Shatzkin is honest enough to admit that he is not always right. In particular, he was wrong to think that ebooks were going to take off in a big way; although he remains confident that the take-off will occur one day. Others made similar mistakes. In the 1995-2000 period, a number of digital or web-based book-marketing initiatives were launched, and they virtually all lost money: sometimes millions. This experience explains, but does not, in my opinion, excuse, the book world's current caution about all things digital.
Another thing which is often overlooked by the as-yet-unpublished writers of fiction, and by readers of same, is that most of publishing is non-fiction. Furthermore, it is the deadly dull bits of publishing which tend to make serious money: textbooks, hymn books, how-to, reference books which need to be bought each year, and so forth. It's worth remembering that the up-front, in-your-face stuff which fills the glossy magazines is often the side of publishing which is bleeding money.
A further point to bear in mind is that publishing tends to conform with the 'power-law distribution'. Power law says that the top titles get a bigger and bigger share of total sales. This tendency has ceased to grow, so to speak, in 2005, but this may be a temporary phenomenon.
One of Shatzkin's major conclusions is that the market for traditional books is declining, and the only way for publishers to make profits will be to become more efficient. Well, you can interpret the phrase 'greater efficiency' in many ways, and possibly bring it about in many ways. But my guess is that one popular way of achieving it will be to pay writers less.
When I say 'writers' I have in mind the little guys, because they have the least clout in the marketplace. There are, after all, quite a few perfectly competent novelists paying good money to get their books into print, so why pay very much for the 'long-tail' fiction?
As for the really big fiction writers, Shatzkin has some interesting comments. He implies that publishers are currently overpaying them. And goodness knows, he is one of the few people in a position to know. (See Tess Gerritsen's remarks in my earlier post today.) If this practice ceases, he says, the big names will find it more profitable to 'do it themselves'. He adds: 'If publishers respond to changing circumstances sensibly -- and cutting advances from current levels could well be very sensible -- then we can expect a few big authors to take matters into their own hands in the next few years.'
Once you've absorbed the Shatzkin wisdom, you will probably feel a little battle-weary. But when you get your breath back, here are a couple of links to articles which tie up with the Shatzkin world-view rather neatly.
First, Andrew Gowers in the Sunday Times explains why Hollywood is about to repeat all the mistakes made by the music business in the past five years. This is an old and familiar story now, but it seems to be taking rather a long time to sink in. It's what's known in the business world as 'marketing myopia': i.e. an industry thinks it can dictate to customers how the industry will deign to deliver the product, rather than concentrate on delivering the product to customers in a form which they are clamouring for.
Gowers, by the way, doesn't even mention the book business. But that's because books generate so little profit, or even turnover, by comparison with serious businesses, that hardly anyone bothers to notice what the book world is up to.
Next, the UK publisher Laurence Orbach bemoans what he describes as the UK book retailers 'collective death wish'. (Remember what I said above, about an industry preferring death to change?)
And third, Nigel Newton, the chief executive of Bloomsbury, proposes in The Guardian (link from booktrade.info) that we should all boycott Google in protest against its plans to scan books. In the UK, this is what passes for cutting-edge thinking. What do we need with Shatzkin, when we have visionaries of this quality in the UK? Oh, and by the way, if anyone from Google should read this, Please scan in all my books. Please?
Finally, what are the implications of all this for writers?
Well, it seems to me that anyone who sees writing books as a 'career' should think again. This seems to me to be true whether you're interested in fiction or non-fiction, but particularly fiction. Writing can be fun -- if approached in the right way -- and also rewarding. But don't look to it to pay the rent.