There’s a train wreck coming to traditional publishing, says experienced author and publishing industry observer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. The publishing industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a crisis that will disproportionately harm midlist and new authors, but may offer significant opportunities for independent and self-publishers—especially those who sell in ebook format.

Rusch’s blog post is very long, but I’ll try to summarize. The issue first came to Rusch’s attention back in June, when someone recommended her a good book. After reading and enjoying it, she went to buy a copy for her sister and learned it wouldn’t ship to her until September. A little further investigation revealed why.

At the start of the pandemic, the big publishers gambled that we would be over it all by fall, and pushed all their major releases back by six months. Not only does this mean that the formerly summer releases are colliding with the already-scheduled-for-fall releases, but it also messed up the printing and reprinting schedules—and that’s on top of the backlogs caused by the bankruptcies or other financial problems of the two largest printing companies in the United States. So the book Rusch wanted to buy for her sister was out of stock, and the next printing to replenish the warehouses was three months away.

The reason these slowdowns are especially bad for traditional publishing, Rusch explains, is that traditional publishing is built on velocity. The system that’s been in place since after World War II works by churning books through bookstores, making the best of bookstores’ limited space by keeping the available selection constantly changing. A big driver for this is the publishing industry’s Depression-era return system, in which bookstores can return or destroy unsold books for a full refund from the publisher.

Closed bookstores and out-of-stock books means that many unfortunate authors’ sales will be way down. And this is going to hurt them badly.

Even though it’s a stupid 75-year-old business model, traditional publishing still banks on velocity. And traditional publishing is fairly stupid about velocity. If an author’s sales numbers go down, no matter what the reason (y’know, like closed bookstores and a pandemic), that author will be offered a smaller advance next time—or will be cut loose. It’s brutal and unrealistic, and it’s on the horizon for so many writers.

Ironically, print book sales have actually been up, as laid-off or socially distanced workers have found a lot of extra time on their hands (especially with movie theaters, sports events, concerts, and other large gatherings closed). But with the aforementioned supply chain problems, the warehouses didn’t stay full for long.

But what about ebooks? Ebooks shouldn’t have supply chain woes, because they don’t have a distribution supply chain. But traditionally published ebooks have problems of their own. As Rusch notes, publishers are still pricing them at those print-protective $11.99-and-up prices that have proven so unpopular with consumers. That wasn’t such a big issue when those prices could drive consumers toward buying the print books instead, but now that the printed books are drying up, it’s just another straw on the camel’s back for those traditionally published authors. Yet another straw is that publishers’ pricing or windowing policies for library ebooks have caused many libraries to limit new purchases to bestsellers.

So, if the reader can’t get the novel that caught their attention this week by ordering it online, and if the reader won’t pay over $10 for an ebook, and if the reader can’t get the book from their library, what does the reader do?

The reader moves on to a different writer, another book, something new and different. Sales—and fans—aren’t allowed to build.

At all.

The biggest effects of the trainwreck may still be ahead of us. As fall comes, and those delayed summer releases collide with the already-scheduled fall releases, many midlisters and debut authors will find their books shoved right out of the bookstore, because there’s only so much room to fit books in.

And even when their books finally do get into the stores, their problems aren’t over. Traditional publishing’s publicity machine—which provides sales support by sending out review copies and other promotional materials—wasn’t delayed, and went off when it was originally scheduled to support the books’ original release dates. So, all the reviews that were meant to build demand for the books built that demand months before the books were even available, and now that they are, the readers have moved on to other things. And the antiquated automated ordering systems used in book sales may erroneously mark books that weren’t available as poor sellers, and not order them when they are available.

Traditional publishing reveres sales figures above all. If you don’t sell enough books, publishers don’t want more of your books. This is true even for smaller traditional presses like Baen, which will drop excellent midlist writers like Ryk Spoor when they just don’t sell enough copies. Publishers don’t care why those books didn’t sell, just that they didn’t. This is bad news for those new or midlist authors who were unfortunate enough to see their titles get caught up in the 2020 publishing trainwreck.

Rusch writes that those lucky traditionally published authors who have loyal fan bases and a good knack for doing their own promotion will probably get through this with minimal damage. However, newly published or midlist authors will either need to figure out how to make the leap to independent publishing, or else watch their publishing dreams “die a horrid, horrid death.”

However, this will be good news for independent publishers and those who self-publish. Indie presses, being smaller and nimbler than the traditional publishing behemoths, won’t be hit as hard by supply chain issues, and they tend to be more sensible about pricing their ebooks. Likewise, self-publishers’ ebooks won’t be affected at all. And when readers looking for new books find trad-pub print titles out of stock and trad-pub ebooks overpriced, they’ll turn to in-stock and cheaper indie titles instead. We’ve already seen that happen to some extent in the years since the publishers instituted agency pricing, and this year it’s going to happen in a big way.

After all that train wreckage has been cleared from the tracks, this could lead to long-overdue changes in the publishing industry to bring it into modern times at last. But that’s probably months in the future. For now, Kristine Kathryn Rusch is afraid things are going to get worse before they get better, for a whole lot of people.

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