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.