An American Editor

January 10, 2011

Biting the Dust — Yet Again

This past week has been some week. I’ve been gearing up to write articles with a political bent to them and have hesitated (and thus not put fingers to the keyboard) because this is not supposed to be a political blog.

I was rescued, at least temporarily, by a small notice in today’s New York Times: Key Porter Books, a prominent Canadian book publisher who has been publishing approximately 100 new titles each year, “announced it would temporarily suspend publishing operations.” Another midsize publisher bites the dust. Among its better-known authors are Conrad Black and Margaret Atwood.

Although Key Porter is a Canadian publisher, what I wonder about is why such a previously successful midtier book publisher, especially one whose local competition is minimal compared to the U.S. marketplace, suddenly faced problems sufficiently grave to warrant 100% production stoppage rather than, say, scaling back? Let me state upfront that I have nothing more than personal speculation as to the causes. I also wonder whether this is the first of many major midtier publishers who will bite the dust in 2011, both in Canada and the United States. Now for my speculation, which is more broadly geared to publishing than to Key Porter.

First up is Kobo Books, the worldwide, Canadian-based ebooktailer. Not that Kobo Books isn’t making ebooks available but that it is expanding its geographic reach instead of first addressing the failures of its online ebookstore. To my way of thinking there are two major failures that Kobo needs to address immediately.

Failure one is the inability to order more than 1 ebook at a time. What a pain it is to want to buy 3 books and to have to place 3 separate orders. Neither Amazon nor Sony nor Barnes & Noble work this way. With these ebooktailers, you load up your cart and pay once. Considering that many of the more popular ebooks are agency priced, there is no advantage to buying from Kobo over buying from, for example, Sony.

Failure two is the way one gets the ebooks one has purchased. Kobo (and in this Kobo is not alone) first downloads a file that is a link to the real ebook file. I know this is an Adobe-induced problem, but Kobo (and others like Books On Board) need to gang up on Adobe and say this is unacceptable. I should be able to download directly the ePub file.

As the primary purveyor of Canadian ebooks, Kobo needs to do a significantly better job of obtaining and retaining customers. As probably the most geographically diverse ebooktailer (along with Amazon), Kobo needs to pay more attention to the shopping experience — I would think that every ebooktailer would want a customer to buy many ebooks, not just 1 ebook, so why is Kobo discouraging multiple purchases?

Second up is the erroneous belief that self-publishing is the way to succeed in today’s changing book marketplace. We are repeatedly told of the success that authors like J.A. Konrath are having by self-publishing — Konrath boasts (and provides the statistics to support the boasts) on his blog and in interviews about how much more money he is making than when he was represented by a traditional publishing house — but the one thing missing in the telling of these stories, or if not missing simply mentioned but not emphasized, is that these highly successful authors built a following through the traditional process so that when they decided to go the self-publishing route, they had a fan base to drag along. Konrath and the other former-traditionally-published-but-now-self-published-who-are-financially-succeeding authors do not come to grips with having to start with a zero fan base. It is easier to succeed if you are already successful.

Those who promote self-publishing as the way to go ignore several salient factors, not least of which is that ebooks constitute only 9% of the current market (although that percentage is growing yearly) and that a significant portion of that 9% are romance, erotica, and sci-fi/fantasy books. I don’t know this for fact, but I would bet that if you remove those 3 genres from the calculation that the market share for all other genres is less than 4% — a tiny portion of the overall book market.

Combine the relatively small market share with the high volume of self-publishing that is occurring (Smashwords, e.g., notes that it has “published” more than 1 billion words as of November 2010; I say “published” because Smashwords is really a distributor of self-published and small press ebooks, not a traditional publisher in the sense of “published”) and how do you find financial success? It’s not impossible, but it is mighty difficult. And how do you reach the rest of the market so you can build a fan base?

Kobo Books is important because it is currently the only major ebooktailer with global reach other than Amazon. But unless Kobo Books improves the shopping experience, it is more of a drag than anything else on ebook sales for midtier and small publishing houses, sales that could be the difference between being in business and biting the dust. And if small and midtier publishers do not find a way to combat the rush by better authors to self-publishing, what currently is just a small cloud of dust will become a dust storm of publishers going out of business. That will not be good for anyone — authors will have increased difficulty earning a living from their writing and readers will have increased difficulty in finding good books to read.


  1. You can only buy 1 ebook at a time in the Kindle Store. There is no shopping cart.


    Comment by Nate — January 10, 2011 @ 10:25 am | Reply

    • Hmmmm! A good reason, then, to buy at the Sony store where I can buy several books at once :).


      Comment by americaneditor — January 10, 2011 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  2. […] by Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by Biting the Dust — Yet Again — January 10, 2011 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  3. >>>Considering that many of the more popular ebooks are agency priced, there is no advantage to buying from Kobo over buying from, for example, Sony.

    This is just not true. You are ignoring the fact Kobo is a software platform too. So you can read on an iPhone, sync your place, and pick up on an Android tablet or even your desktop later on.


    Comment by mikecane — January 10, 2011 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  4. Fortunately the pernicious “It is easier to succeed if you are already successful” argument is being rapidly discredited by the dozens of first-time authors who are selling thousands of copies monthly. From Konrath’s blog, “Guest post by Robin Sullivan“: “The ‘JA Konrath is selling a lot of ebooks because of his traditional publishing background’ presumption has practically become an internet meme, being parroted by both my detractors and indie authors. This misconception makes it easy to dismiss me as an anomaly, which means people don’t have to actually examine the issue and seek more data. So I’m happy to provide that data.”

    See also Konrath’s “Response to Richard Curtis.”


    Comment by Allen Varney — January 10, 2011 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

    • I saw Konrath’s response wherein he names 25 self-published authors who have sold thousands of ebooks. I don’t dispute that they have. And they represent what percent of all self-publishing ebook authors? There has always been a small number of self-publishing authors who have been successful; there is no denying that. But in the universe of self-published authors, the percent who are successful is very, very tiny. Not that the percent who follow the traditional route is is overwhelmingly large, but it is significantly larger than the self-publish route percent. Smashwords has approximately 30,000 titles currently listed, and it is not the whole universe of self-published authors. But the 25 successful authors Konrath cites (assuming they are all Smashwords authors) represent 0.000833333333% of the 30,000 ebooks available just on Smashwords. Not a very impressive percentage.


      Comment by americaneditor — January 10, 2011 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

      • Smashwords hardly figures in the discourse of the successful authors who post on Konrath’s blog. This is the Amazon Kindle’s world, and we’re just living in it.

        Your own post demonstrates how traditional publishing has fallen way off in its ability to guide readers to new writers. Compare Amazon’s reader reviews, user-generated lists, and “Readers who bought this book also bought…” Absent high-dollar buys in major newspapers (and how long will those stick around?), very little in traditional publishing can match that.

        Your arguments depend on ebook publishing remaining small in proportion to traditional publishing, and on the difficulty of ordering ebooks. Do you expect this will always be the case, for decades to come?

        The great advantage of ebook publishing is not financial success, but the restoration of power to the author. The writer can commission a cover, copy editing, and layout and retain control over the text, promotion, and revenue. This is the really significant development – the passing of the gatekeepers.


        Comment by Allen Varney — January 10, 2011 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

      • By the way, I think your calculator may be off. “But the 25 successful authors Konrath cites (assuming they are all Smashwords authors) represent 0.000833333333% of the 30,000 ebooks available just on Smashwords.” Twenty-five authors for 30,000 books sounds more like 1 in 1,200 or so – call it 0.08%. I’m not sure 1-in-1,200 is that far out of line with the success rate of new authors in traditional publishing.


        Comment by Allen Varney — January 10, 2011 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

  5. I mean 0.8%! Crap!


    Comment by Allen Varney — January 10, 2011 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

    • Allan, I think it is your calculator that is off :). Divide 1 by 1200 and you get 0.00083333. I reran the calculations on 3 different calculators and got the same result. I’ll admit that math isn’t my strongest suit, so I may be doing it wrong, but to determine the percent in a fraction, you divide the numerator by the denominator — or am I wrong?


      Comment by americaneditor — January 11, 2011 @ 10:07 am | Reply

      • Sorry, my “correction” was wrong. The result 1/1200 isn’t a percent, it’s a decimal. To convert it to a percent, you lop off the first two zeros. So 0.0008333 is 0.08%.

        To wrestle the discussion back on topic, is that chance for success in self-publishing notably smaller than that of a first-time novelist going with a traditional publisher? And isn’t it worth the lesser chance of success to preserve your own rights to your work?


        Comment by Allen Varney — January 11, 2011 @ 10:12 am | Reply

        • Nearly all publishers today leave copyright in the author’s name or limit the term (by imposing conditions that the publisher needs to meet to retain copyright) in which the publisher retains copyright. As for whether traditional publishing or self-publishing is likely to bring greater success to a first-time novelist, I think that today the former is more likely to bring success. That may well change within the decade, but hasn’t yet changed.


          Comment by americaneditor — January 11, 2011 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

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