2 March 2014

A Populist Yet Elitist Alt Model for the Book Biz

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:12 pm

Reading what the literary agents say they’re looking for in a novel, I’m struck by how similar and bland these wish lists are. They want excellence, which generally comes down to a distinctive voice, sympathetic characters, and stories so compelling they make the agent miss her next subway stop (several used this same image of compellingness). In making your inquiry, you should be able to blurb your book in a single paragraph and synopsize it in a single page or at most two — straightforward linear narratives would seem best suited to this sort of punchy summary. Are these really the indicators of a good book, or are they features that make a book easy to sell?

There’s no good reason why individual readers should have to pay for books. A reader does not “consume” a book: after it’s been read, the book remains intact, available to be read again and again. Public libraries use tax revenues to buy communal copies of books that are made available without charge to all residents. Electronic books cost nothing to print, distribute, and warehouse, and so the marginal cost of downloading each individual copy is zero.

Suppose that, instead of selling books directly to individual readers, the publisher sold exclusively to libraries. Each library would pay the average retail price of a new hardback — $25 or so — to acquire an e-copy of the book. Then anyone who wants not just to borrow the book but to own a copy can download it onto their electronic reading device for no charge through the library.

Let’s say that 600 libraries buy a copy of a given book: that’s $25 x 600 = $15,000. Let’s say that it costs around $3,000 to edit and format a novel: $15K – $4K = $12K net. Allocate another $1000 for informing the libraries about the new book: that leaves $11,000. There are no investors or marketing people to take a cut of the proceeds, no printers or distributors or wholesalers or bookstores to reimburse. All $11K goes to the author. That’s just about what the average published novelist makes these days via royalties, but it’s earned  on 10,000 copies of a novel printed, distributed, and sold one at a time, the old-fashioned way.

The main problem with the library scheme is visibility. How would readers find out about these books, freely available for them to own through their local public library? There would be no hard copies to browse at the local bookstore, no promotional campaigns pushing the latest titles in the mass media. Not very many readers patronize their local libraries, so library-based educational campaigns would have limited impact. On the other hand, the publisher would make its $25 per library copy regardless of how many patrons actually download the book. And if librarians acquire new titles based at least in part on the enduring archival quality of the collection, then the publisher’s sales pitch would rely more on the excellence and distinctiveness of the book than on its appeal to fleeting pop-cultural tastes.

Still, it’s not like the traditional publishing industry is going to cease and desist in order to make way for this new, less expensive, more populist yet more elitist alternative. Despite perpetual lamentations about the end of literacy, book sales in the US generate around $30 billion annually. The library-based distribution system could make those same titles available to everyone for a tenth the aggregate price. Authors of best-sellers wouldn’t like it, but there aren’t very many of those. Nearly all other published novelists would make just as much money as they do in the current system, while making their books freely available to a potentially much wider readership.



  1. Yea, anymore you’re no longer just an author, but a marketer, salesperson, advertiser, solicitor, blogomaniac, etc. These agents want you to do the work while they reap the profits… Obviously if an agent receives 500 or more manuscript proposals a week they start first with catchy titles, then the abstracts, then the opening paragraphs…. if none of these three gets past the initial “ah ha” moment, the manuscript is buried or sorted according to the editors idiosyncratic style to ultimately be fed to other sub-editors for perusal if such exist.

    My own feeling is if you are wanting to be published to make money: feed the cow – create a catch title, compress the gist of the story, theme, plot in two paragraphs, and make the opening one that cuts to the quick- it has to be memorable, stick.

    If you’re more artsy, then just self-publish and don’t worry one way are the other, send the books printed out to literary editors of whatever genre and hope for the best.

    Otherwise seek out the yearly contests for first time or other novel publishing. Plenty of contests that get you not only published but promotions, travel agendas, and allowances.


    Comment by noir-realism — 2 March 2014 @ 3:55 pm

  2. This is probably sound advice, Noir, and I appreciate it. All of these tactics are so individuated, so libertarian entrepreneurial, each writer pushing his own book, competing against other individual writers in contests. The agents don’t really represent the authors, since they’re paid directly by the publishers as a percentage of the overall book sales, not as a percentage of the author’s take. The agents are really outsourced contractors working for the publishers. But the agencies are corporate collective entities, employing multiple agents with each agent representing dozens of writers and their books. Through collective organization they can diversify their portfolio of offerings, centralize administrative functions, work on each other’s behalf in promoting the company’s products, and negotiate self-serving financial terms to the detriment of the unorganized individual authors whom they purportedly represent. So too with the publishers: multiple agencies feed them multiple titles, and through organized corporate endeavor they can achieve economies of scale and negotiating power to lower costs while extending marketing reach to increase sales.

    So I’m interested in whether authors can achieve some sort of collective presence in the marketplace so they aren’t screwed by the corporate players. Instead of competing with each other, can they join forces to push back as a worker-owned corporate entity or syndicate? And in this post I’m also interested specifically in whether readers too can gain power through collective negotiations with the publishers. E.g., perhaps libraries could secure unlimited free duplication and distribution of e-books for a price much lower than individual consumers can achieve by buying books one at a time. It’s like the internet: shouldn’t city government negotiate on behalf of the citizenry a deal with the cable or wifi company that provides internet service as a public utility, paying collectively on behalf of the residents a fraction of what they would be charged as individual subscribers?


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2014 @ 7:59 pm

  3. So, in your thought experiment about public distribution via libraries, would this public distribution replace direct sales to individuals? If so, then I feel like there is another variable that we would need to consider, if we were to ponder and speculate on a more public and communal distribution system. If everyone (or most everyone) went to libraries to get their books, then the library would require many more copies. They’d have to keep a lot of books on hand for the uber-popular fiction writers, like Stephen King, et al., correct? Even for authors less popular, the 600 libraries you mentioned might want to purchase more than one or two copies, no? You don’t want people to constantly have to put holds on books that they want to read. My point is this: the amount of money to the author might be much greater than you mentioned in the post, based of course on the popularity of a book….Which I suppose leads us to think about marking…

    I don’t know if there would be a complete elimination of marketing. Libraries already sort of market new books, mostly in a clumsy way on a rack of New Arrivals. But imagine if they also had a rack with Staff Picks and another rack with Critiques Choice, and yet other choice selections in the Sci-Fi, Biography, and other genre-specific sections of the library. If libraries were all of a sudden the main hub of distribution, then there might be much more social interaction: more book clubs and discussion groups, maybe more local critics, more activity on the libraries web page, more social network interaction and discussion regarding new books and new authors, etc.

    Also, a lot of marketing of books is online now, as well. Because I’ve been living a vagabond life, I read most books on my e-reader. I usually consult the Amazon.com reviews and usually find that most of the time there is at least one fairly intelligent review. I also do a general Google search for reviews of the specific title and I usually find a review published by Guardian or NYT Books or some other major publication. So, the online marketing is another way in which the void of marketing can be filled by readers and critics rather than by big money ad campaings by big publishers.

    As I think more about, I find that I like thinking about how this publishing process might be decentralized. I’m not sure how such a thing would actually come about, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to think about alternatives. As you have suggested, a lot of the current woes in publishing stem from the inherent problems of capitalism and the centralizing of the power of distribution. So, deconstructing and reconstructing at least feels therapeutic to me.


    Comment by erdman31 — 3 March 2014 @ 4:48 am

  4. Hey Erdman, it’s been awhile — since before you headed off to Tanzania and we moved to Durham NC. I’ll drop you a line soon.

    In this little scenario I’ve sketched out, the local library doesn’t lend out its books; it becomes the source for its community members to obtain free ecopies of books. In buying a single copy, the library buys the right of free and permanent distribution of unlimited numbers of copies of its books to cardholders. No waiting, no need to buy multiple copies. In this setup Stephen King’s latest might be read by a thousand times as many readers as some unknown author, but he wouldn’t make any more money from each sale. It’s likely that a greater percentage of all libraries would opt to buy a King book, so he still would sell many times as many books as the average novelist. But each sold copy of a King novel would also be downloaded for free by a larger proportion of local library patrons than would be the case for the book of an unknown novelist. So the economic discrepancy between the biggest sellers and the rest wouldn’t be as steep.

    I just looked at a census of American libraries from the American Library Association. There are 9 thousand central public libraries in the US, 4 thousand college libraries, and nearly 100 thousand school libraries. I wonder how many of these libraries have at least one copy of Salem’s Lot on its shelves?

    I don’t know if the libraries would become more active social hubs if the new service they offer is free access to electronic books that can be downloaded from home by logging onto the library’s web page. And since these are electronic books, there would be no racks of new releases and so on to browse. I mostly reserve library books online and go there only to pick them up, rarely browsing the shelves. But yes, I think such a book distribution system would have to rely on reviews. I suspect that the big news media sources like NYTimes review almost exclusively books from the big commercial publishing houses, so it would be tough to get noticed there. This proposed new book publishing and distribution system would have to ensure that its titles do get reviewed, just so that googlers like you have something to go on. And almost surely the librarians would also need to rely on reviews to decide whether or not to buy the books. So: who to write the reviews, where to publish them…?

    No central authority could force the prohibition of direct-to-consumer sales of books and its replacement by the library-based distribution system. Known commodities like King would almost surely stick with the old system. By the way, novels by these well-known authors account for the biggest proportion of ebook sales, since the readers already know their names and will seek out the titles even without having seen the hardbacks on the bookstore’s shelves. But there are plenty of writers who acknowledge that the odds of their books actually getting picked up by a major publisher and becoming best sellers are about as high as winning the Powerball lottery, so they might be eager to participate in some alternative market that actually gets their books out there. The average self-publisher sells about 50 copies, so an alternative system wouldn’t have to offer huge sales prospects in order to entice authors. Wouldn’t you think that the new system would still have to maintain tight editorial control? Otherwise it might flood the market with a lot of half-assed books that don’t deserve to be published.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2014 @ 6:34 am

    • So, to be clear, in your scenario, libraries no longer buy physical copies of books? If so, why? Why not both continue the loan of physical books as well as giving out free e-copies? You still seem to prefer the actual hard copies, no?


      Comment by erdman31 — 5 March 2014 @ 5:36 am

    • It’s true: I tried the Kindle, didn’t like it, sent it back. I’m an old dog, but presumably I can learn a new trick if I find it worth learning. The hard copies cost money to print, warehouse, and ship; they also create bottlenecks for access. Print on demand is possible, but more expensive than running a batch of five hundred, but printing in bulk requires up-front cash. E-books resolve these issues, just as e-music and e-movies do. Libraries loaning out e-books as if they were hard copy just seems like an artificial tightening of supply. Surveys of library users say that they particularly dislike having to wait in the queue for the ebook until whoever checked it out “returns” it.

      I know you like the audio book format: that format too can be duplicated for free and distributed broadly with no waiting.


      Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2014 @ 1:02 pm

  5. Would the local library prove to be a widely accessible point of access or a bottleneck for readers wanting access to free ebooks? According to one study I read, two-thirds of Americans hold library cards — a number that is on the rise. However, only about a third of cardholders actually used/visited the library over the past year. Still, cardholders read more, and presumably also buy more books, than do non-cardholders. And 75% of cardholders have visited the library in the past year, often to gain access to free internet and use of computers. So a computer-based book distribution system linked to libraries might be a good fit.

    From a Pew study:

    In our December 2011 survey, 78% of those ages 16 and older said they had read a book in the past year. We asked those book readers about their borrowing and buying habits. Among those who had read a book in the previous year, 48% say they had bought their most recent book; 24% borrowed it from a friend; 14% borrowed it from the library; and 13% got it another way. Among library card holders, a similar proportion (47%) say they had bought their most recent book, while 20% borrowed it from a friend, 20% borrowed it from the library, and 12% got it another way. Among those who read e-books, 41% of those who borrow e-books from libraries purchased their most recent e-book.

    We also asked book readers about their general preferences when it came to getting books. Fully 55% of the e-book readers who also had library cards said they preferred to buy their e-books and 36% said they preferred to borrow them from any source—friends or libraries. Some 46% of library card holders said they prefer to purchase print books they want to read and 45% said they preferred to borrow print books. When it comes to e-book borrowers, 33% say they generally prefer to buy e-books and 57% say they generally prefer to borrow them…

    Library card holders are more likely to own and use digital devices than those who don’t have cards. Card holders are more likely than others to be internet users (87% vs. 72%), more likely to own a cell phone (89% vs. 84%), and more likely to have a desktop or laptop computer (81% vs. 67%). And they are more likely than others to say they plan to purchase an e-reader or a tablet computer. Library card holders also report they read more books than non-holders. In the 12 months before our December survey, library card holders report that they read an average (the mean number) of 20 books, compared with 13 books for non-card holders. The median (midpoint) figures for books reportedly read are 10 by library card holders and 5 by non-holders.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2014 @ 7:33 am

    • It seems as though this kind of idea could actually work. You would just need a really strong cooperative of authors who joined forces to stand up to the Big Publishers in the name of getting more of a share of the profits (and consequently more equally distributing these funds among authors who aren’t the powerhouse names)…..Does that seem feasible?


      Comment by erdman31 — 5 March 2014 @ 5:39 am

    • It’s a buyer’s market, with far more writers than slots for publishing. Certainly a lot of unpublished writers aren’t good enough, but there’s reason to believe that a lot of good books don’t make the cut because they’re not deemed commercial enough. To me the harder question is whether there are readers out there for such books, and how they could become aware of the offerings.

      It might be an idea that does merit further thought before consigning it to the crackpot-schemes junkheap.


      Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2014 @ 1:06 pm

  6. Re-reading this post and comment a few years later, it strikes me now that we read books largely or perhaps entirely based on what other people are reading (and writing). Whether you only read mass-marketed paperbacks or small distribution literary fiction journals, you want to read something that you can talk about, or that other people are talking about. Maybe this is how we desire the desire of the other. It’s one of the entertaining things about kids: if someone else is having fun with a toy, they want it.

    I’m not saying we don’t find intrinsic pleasure in reading a particular book, perhaps by a new or otherwise obscure author, and of course sometimes we dislike books that everyone else seems to enjoy. But these are isolated cases. My point here is a larger one. We all want to swim in a literary lake of sorts, where we know that others are sharing this reading experience. We might delight in finding a little spot in the shade that no one else seems to know about, but most of us are social, even though reading is a notoriously solitary activity. In some loose sense, we still want to be connected, whether that means a bit of banter about Danielle Steel’s latest, around the water cooler, or being an informed member of an articulate circle of lit snobs.


    Comment by erdman31 — 8 January 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    • Sorry for the delay in response — somehow my email notifications of comments were getting sidetracked. I enthusiastically agree with everything you’re saying here. Books aren’t just commodities; they’re cultural resources. It’s a persistent question: how to leverage the reading collective, disseminating good books as widely as possible through the literary lakes, in ways that aren’t economically exploitative?

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by ktismatics — 1 April 2017 @ 7:52 am

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