Kay: The Train Wreck of Traditional Publishing

Did you ever wish you had a traditional publishing contract? Count your lucky stars. Since our pandemic began, traditional publishing has gone off the rails.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch breaks it down for us on her blog. It all began when she tried to order a book in June and was informed that the book would ship in September. Surprised that it wouldn’t arrive sooner, she looked into why that should be.

And guess what? It turns out that traditional publishing isn’t all that nimble when it comes to crises. Here’s the story.

What the heck happened?

When the pandemic hit and bookstores closed, some publishing companies moved their biggest spring and summer releases to the fall, hoping that the situation would have recovered by then. But as the pandemic dragged on, the schedule fell apart, because the fall schedule was already mostly full.

So with the delayed spring/summer titles, if the publisher expected a book to do well, they moved it to an available, later slot on the schedule (but not November). If the book was a standard midlist volume, it got any random date that was left over (maybe November), the goal being just to print it and send it to bookstores—which had placed their orders pre-pandemic, the numbers for which might be way off. And the bookstores still might not be open.

Velocity—the 75-year-old publishing strategy

Rusch describes how book publishers rely on velocity—the practice of turning books over quickly, a strategy developed after World War II when bookstores were rare and most books were sold in department and drug stores. With limited space for stock, retailers churned books, stripping covers for full refunds after a month or two and replacing those books with new inventory.

Traditional publishing still works on this principle. So what happens in a pandemic? With all the books pushed back to fall or even later, the number of fall releases has increased exponentially and books last even a shorter time on the shelves. In the UK, a much smaller traditional book market than the US, on one day alone—Sept. 3—almost 600 books were published, an increase of one-third over the previous year. How can they hope to get any attention? And, of course, there won’t even be room on the shelves for all those books. The blockbusters will get space, but the midlist books won’t. And what happens to the books that came out Sept. 4?

A double whammy

But wait, there’s more. Two major web press printers in the States went bankrupt. So the capacity for printing books is way down, worsening the backlog. Many books lost their original release date—sometimes more than once—because the publishers can’t reserve time at the printer.

Rusch notes that she couldn’t order the book she wanted for three months because the warehouse didn’t have any copies and the reprinting wasn’t scheduled until then. But that September printing was probably ordered in May when the book was released and interest peaked. Three months later, readers might not want it anymore.

Imagine how interest could wane for a political book, especially after the election, if readers had to wait three months to get it. If a publisher had placed an enormous reorder, they might have to eat many of those copies (because Stripped Covers). That’s a hit for both publisher and author. And if an author’s sales numbers go down, no matter the reason (such as a pandemic, closed bookstores, bankrupt printers, and stripped covers), that author will get a smaller advance next time—or will be cut loose.

Timing is everything

Rusch has a couple of horror stories about how the failure to release a book on time can damage an author’s current and future income. She cites the example of a book whose publisher sent out advance review copies, which garnered that book a rave review that was timed to the book’s original publication date. So the review ran, but then the book’s publication date changed. To a year later.

Those books will get to the bookstores eventually, probably. The book’s a year old by then, the review forgotten. Will the bookstores open the boxes? Will all those bookstores even exist a year from now? Will the publisher redo their original promotional efforts for that book?

No, they won’t. Will that book tank? You bet, unless the author takes on a massive promotional campaign. And even if that happens, there will be another Book of the Minute by then.

But what about ebooks, you ask?

Rusch thinks that traditional publishers have ruined this market for themselves by overcharging for ebooks. Who wants to pay $15 for a digital copy of something? (Not me, that’s for sure.)

But publishers charge a lot for ebooks because they want readers to buy hardcovers, usually their most profitable format. When publishers charge too much for ebooks, they ensure that ebook sales remain flat, which punishes authors. And risks their contracts, too, for underperforming.

And because of the way traditional publishing has handled ebook sales to libraries (i.e., really, really poorly), many librarians stopped ordering all but the biggest blockbusters from those publishers. Instead, they’ve turned to indie booksellers for midlist and genre books.

Who will survive?

Rusch thinks that some traditionally published writers will survive the trad pub train wreck, especially if they’re established. A good newsletter and existing fanbase—and luck—might keep them afloat. But newly published traditional writers will flounder, unless they’re resilient enough to learn how to indie publish their next books.

Of course, some of this industry phenomenon affects indie authors, too. Printing backlogs affect paper copy distribution of indie books as well as traditionally published volumes. But indie publishing does not depend on velocity—the speed at which books sell. And readers of indie books will have the option of reasonably priced ebooks.

What changes will the publishing industry see during and after the pandemic? Nobody’s got a crystal ball for this thing. So I guess all we can do is hang on and go for the ride.

The Footnote Section

Rusch’s blog post is long and detailed, and if you’re into this kind of information, it’s well worth reading. Check it out here. Other articles on the crisis of traditional publishing include:

Print Jam” by Alexandra Alter in The New York Times (several other articles are referenced there, too)

How does a slower post office affect booksellers who depend on media mail? “Slowed mail delivery is the last thing indie bookstores need right now” by Rachel King in Fortune









7 thoughts on “Kay: The Train Wreck of Traditional Publishing

  1. All of this is both fascinating and depressing. The pandemic has had many victims, but I hadn’t thought book publishing would be one of them. I can see where scheduling book releases months in advance caused a real problem when stores wound up closed and distribution networks took a hit. What a disappointment for those authors who were anxiously waiting the publication of their book in March or April and have had to watch everything fall apart.

    I hope the publishing industry is able to learn and pivot from this, but I won’t be holding my breath.

    In the medical industry where I work, some of the protective supplies we are purchasing are coming from printers (who knew all of the things that could be printed)–I wonder if that has had an impact on the resources available for book printing too?

    • I wonder? I read a couple articles in the NYT, and they said that the two printers that went bankrupt were Quad and LSC Communications. I used to work for a magazine publishing company that did business with Quad. They were huge—presses the size of football fields, like that. So was LSC, and when it went under, it was—get this—$1 billion in debt. The two companies had tried to merge, but they were prevented from doing that by government anti-trust actions. In any event, maybe if they didn’t print stuff for you, their competitors did. That would certainly impact book publishing.

      I know what you mean, though. I’d certainly thought of bookstores closing as a Bad Thing for publishers, but I didn’t realize how much the industry would be impacted by this epidemic, especially with how authors could suffer with their release dates so uncertain. What a mess.

  2. Australia, by and large, gets our book and magazine printing done in Hong Kong (I assume this is still the case), so we are dependent on shipping times.

    I ordered a book months ago from the US, which had tracking – the book sat in an airport in New Jersey for at least two months before I contacted the seller.

    I’ve given up on overseas book orders until things settle down, apart from Amazon – because anything ordered from them seems to glide through the system. Even when I order from Amazon Australia (which most of the time is the only way I can order these days from Amazon), things arrive way before anything ordered locally.

    I just got a box of kitchenware from a place about 20 minutes away from me (we’re only allowed to drive/walk within a 5km radius of home in Melbourne, and it’s absolutely working!), and it took 15 days to make the trip.

    Thank goodness I have the Leaning Tower of Library Books!

  3. This is so interesting! I ordered something, not a book, from Amazon a while back, and I followed the tracking. It started in New Jersey and after a week it got to Sacramento, California, which is about 80 miles from where I live. Then it stayed in Sacramento for a few days and then it went… back to New Jersey. Um, hello?

    Other than that, though, I’ve noticed that I have better luck shipping with Amazon, too. In the US, I’ve been wondering if that’s because our post office depends on them so much for revenue that they give Amazon packages priority. That wouldn’t apply to Australia, though, of course, so I wonder why you have particularly good luck there, too.

    And cycling back to books, I know that American textbooks often are printed in Hong Kong or India, I think because it’s cheaper, even with the shipping. And colleges don’t expedite shipping because they can work on a six- or twelve-month purchase cycle. Probably not these days, though.

    Congratulations on the arrival of your kitchenware!

  4. Fascinating stuff. I always thought I’d want to go traditional because I don’t have the skills to self-publish. There is so much that has to be done. Maybe when the time comes, I’ll have to re-think it.

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