The Publishing Industry—from the Readerís Perspective

By Debbie Notkin

Let's begin with full disclosure. While by night I am (or at least try to be) a defender of writing, creativity, self-expression, respect, and fair compensation for all, by day I earn a paycheck by drawing up and reviewing contracts for a major nonfiction publisher, which is engaged—as most if not all publishers are—in the fine art of making sure that its contract takes as much as possible and leaves the writer with as little as possible.

I have to control my urge to lay out the reasons for rights-control from the publisher's perspective, to rationalize my day job and open the can of worms of writers' completely understandable and righteous indignation about who owns and profits from their work. And maybe we'll do that in this space one day.

Meanwhile, in an online conversation a few weeks ago with a righteously indignant author, I formulated a statement that, despite having spent the last fifteen-plus years in and around the publishing industry, I hadn't quite understood until I said it:

To the extent that a publisher can be said to have anyone's interests at heart other than its own, that would be the customer's/reader's interests, not the writer's.

So what is the reader's interest in the arcane, profit-driven, and often bizarre world of publishing? As I sit down to write this column, I honestly don't know. But I know enough to figure it out, especially as it relates to the world of conventional contemporary publishing. That isn't necessarily the model I like best or believe in the most, but it is the one I understand from the inside.

Writers frequently experience their publishers as their enemies. Editors commonly feel allied with writers, and often feel beleaguered or besieged by their company's attitudes. These positions are a commonplace of publishing, and create some of the tension that drives the business and keeps it alive and vital. But the reader's role rarely gets discussed, even though if you ask anyone along the chain—writer, editor, publisher, production person, publicity flak—they will all tell you that the readers are why they are there. Muddying the waters further is the fact that the publishers' big customers (the distributors that supply individual bookstores, plus Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders) can, to some extent, act as stand-ins for the actual readers. We'll get to that.

As a reader, you and I want a few clear things: 1) we want the books we're interested in to be available; 2) we want them in a form that works for us, at a price that works for us; and 3) we want good ways to decide which books we will like or will meet our needs.

Before we analyze that list further, let's get basic and look at our underlying assumptions about a "book," especially since that's one of the definitions that's changing. Aside from the paper and the covers, a book can be read multiple times by the same or different people, can be borrowed and loaned freely, and shared with other people. In the finest legal sense, we don't have the right to photocopy our books for anything other than "single copies for personal use," and, as the result of some successful lawsuits, photocopying businesses will remind us of those limitations and try to enforce them. Nor do we have the right to extract more than short quotations from them for publication, something none of us were particularly likely to do before the Internet; but we may now very easily scan a few pages onto a website or blog, thus breaking the law. In addition, we think of a "book" as something we can buy once and own forever; if we don't sell it or give it away, it will likely outlast our own lifetimes.

Now let's pay more attention to the things we want from a book. Having the books we want available means having a wide selection to choose from. Common statistics, which may or may not be based on actual research, inform us that the average American buys one or two books a year and the average American house has six books (or similar numbers). Most people who are buying books in those quantities are buying very specific books for very specific purposes: Poker For Dummies or Getting the Love You Want, or just possibly Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So there have to be thousands of different kinds of how-to and self-help books to accommodate the millions of people who only want one or two such books and only want exactly the ones they want. If I go into a store looking for Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, I am very unlikely to be seduced by How to Cook Everything. Add to that the multitude of professional books that no one outside of a specific audience would ever buy, and even before we get to fiction, we have a book buying public that is interested in literally tens of thousands of different titles a year.

The Internet intensifies this situation: there's a website for whatever we're interested in, no matter how specific the topic. So if there isn't a book on that exact topic, we won't buy books at all; we'll just rely on the web. In fact, we might rely on the web anyway, and never even look to see if there's a book. With the quality of today's search engines and the depth of information available on the web, I need a pretty deep interest to actually go out and buy a nonfiction book. From the publisher's perspective, this is a problem; from our perspective as readers, it's a Really Good Thing.

Next is preferred form. Industry studies show that most people still don't like to read on screens, and e-books haven't really caught on. (Ask me some other time about an argument I had with Greg Bear in the mid-1980s where he took the position that in fifteen years no one would be reading books on paper.) Nonetheless, you're reading this column on a screen and you most likely found it because you read short fiction on a screen. So you're an "early adopter." Again, it's in our interest as readers to have reading material available to us in more than one form, so it's in the publisher's interest to provide as many forms as possible. This takes us back to the authors' rights issue, because the author (for very good reasons) wants to be paid more for the right to publish her book in various formats, and the publisher wants to be able to provide those formats to you and me as inexpensively as possible.

As far as preferred price goes, again, the Internet's practice of providing so much information (of extremely varying quality) for free, and more and more fiction for free as well, gives us readers a lot more choice before we spend any money at all, and keeps the pressure on the publishers to provide as much added value as possible at as low a price point as possible.

The third prong of the reader's interest is good ways to figure out which books we want to buy. This means that if we're looking for fiction, we probably want good "mating signals" so we can recognize the kind of fiction we like (notice that this applies to me if I have a yen for reading cookie-cutter military wish-fulfillment yarns, and also to you if your taste runs to highly stylized literary fiction, or anything else in between). If we're looking for nonfiction, we want it to be clearly packaged as to what it's about, and for it to offer good information, helpful advice, or both. We also want a lot of ways to get other readers' advice and feedback, making sites like Amazon and barnesandnoble.com extraordinary sources of information. I buy exclusively from smaller stores, but I use Amazon extensively as a research tool. The book review is slowly disappearing from magazines and newspapers, but the reader feedback tool on the Internet is at least as valuable to readers. "The Long Tail" is a superb article from Wired on how this is changing the world of all entertainment, not just publishing. And pause for a second to notice how easy it is for me to suggest that article to you, and that you have free access to it if you're interested in my suggestion. Neither of those things has always been true.

The availability of reader feedback marks an interesting small disconnect between the best interests of readers and the interests of writers. Writers (and publishers) are arguably better served by published reviews, which are designed to bring their books to the attention of readers who might not otherwise hear about them. Readers are arguably better served by direct feedback on the books they are most interested in, by the audience most like themselves (i.e., other readers), especially if there's an "If you liked this, you might also like . . ." feature, as most major book sale websites provide. And certainly, struggling writers used to be able to pick up a few bucks and a lot of free books writing reviews, and those are much harder to come by now than they were even ten years ago.

This takes us back to the way the big customers can act as stand-ins for the readers. This was a lot more true ten years ago than it is today. In that period, the big customers were the primary source of information to publishers about what was going on outside their own books' sales. One big fear of publishers and editors was that the big customers would take over and they'd only be interested in handling the big-selling titles. Instead, technology has moved us in the opposite direction: publishing is all about small titles which sell modest numbers, and publishers now have access to detailed sales data for all of their competitors' titles, based on the actual sales figures of the big customers. Even tiny publishers, who can't pay for the high-tech shared sales information, can learn a lot from Amazon sales rankings, which are completely public. (The only way this change in information flow matters directly to readers is that it aids that first goal of encouraging publishers to make the books we specifically and individually want available to us, because they know a lot more than they ever did about what we actually do want, as reflected by what we choose to pay for.)

Beyond our basic self-interest as readers, we may well feel some kinship and good feeling for the author. Generally, we don't think about publishers at all, but authors often have some kind of personality and imagined reality for readers. If we aren't involved in publishing, and don't have friends who are writers, we tend to have an invisible background assumption that the $7.99 or $30 (or more) that we plunked down for the book goes mostly to the author, and that makes sense: after all, the author wrote the book, right? We likely imagine, again in a vague, unformed way, that the writer makes a good living and in the back of our brains we might well be imagining that we could all be writers too, and have a more romantic, fulfilling life.

We are very unlikely to care about who owns the rights to make an electronic version of the book, and how much they paid for those rights, or whose name is on the copyright page, or how much was spent on marketing. We don't (yet) care whether the book is going to be digitized by Google's library project, or whether it will be available as a book-on-demand after it goes out of print, let alone who will get the revenue from those sources. We probably want the writer to get more money and more control over her own work, as long as it doesn't cost us a nickel, or make any book we want less available to us on our own terms.

So, in the terms of contemporary conventional publishing, the publisher does seem to be, to a significant extent, the reader's advocate. Is that true? Are the slim pickings currently available to writers The Way Things Have to Be?

Well, yes and no.

The Way Things Are can always change. For this particular way to change, some of the essential structure of publishing has to change. And maybe that's beginning to happen.

Publishing runs in an economy-of-scarcity context for a lot of reasons: because it has always been a low-margin business; because the supply of affluent young men who go into publishing as a "gentleman's" (i.e., unpaid) profession has pretty much dried up; because reading itself is at least somewhat threatened by the proliferation of other ways to spend leisure time (do you read as much as you did before you spent time interacting on the Internet?); because moving pictures seem to have some innate popular advantages over static text; because blogs and zines and websites like this one offer quality reading of all kinds free to the reader; and more.

One thing about that low-margin business? Every time you buy a paperback book, you're paying for two. The return system, in which bookstores could return copies they couldn't sell, was a very clever and sensible way to keep publishers and bookstores in business at the time of the Great Depression. It makes a lot less sense now, especially since paperbacks are not actually returned: their covers are torn off and they are discarded. Sometimes they're recycled; often they wind up in landfill. Hardcovers and the larger-sized ("trade") paperbacks are generally also returnable, but they are more often actually returned and resold, or sold at lower prices. This is a major factor in the "low margin" nature of publishing, and what keeps it going is inertia and the unwillingness of businesses everywhere to offend all of their major customers at once.

However, just as the Internet is changing book-buying, it is also changing publishing. This site is a new model: authors are paid and the site is supported by donations and fund-raising. I know at least one authors' collective that is experimenting with how they can manage with no publisher at all. Academic journal writers, who are accustomed to paying hundreds of dollars to have their papers included in journals, are starting to push back hard. New printing technology, in combination with the availability of sales sites like Amazon, fosters the growth of small presses. So far, no one (authors, publishers, even Amazon stockholders) is getting rich off these models, but each one offers new opportunities for authors, for different kinds of publishers, and—just possibly—for better access for readers as well.

Intellectual property rights are also changing, and the forces for change come from varying directions and have varying interests. The leading edges of intellectual property theory range from the highly technical, detailed, and legalistic Digital Media Project to the flexible and author-centric Creative Commons License, with hundreds of stops in between. At this writing, no one has the faintest idea where these issues are eventually going to settle, or even whether they're going to settle at all. In any event, it seems more than likely that there will continue to be books (paper and otherwise), authors, publishers, readers, theories, hurt feelings, disagreements, and controversy.

I taught myself a lot writing this column; the one thing that stands out at the moment is a renewed awareness of a basic tenet of capitalism: if the book-buying and book-reading public isn't being attended to, no model will work and no approach will succeed.


Alan Bostick contributed ideas and references to this column, and I thank him.


By day, Debbie Notkin works for a major publishing company, acting as a watchdog to make sure that publishers' rights are unfailingly protected. By night, she engages in a wide variety of nonprofit and social change activities, including working with photographer Laurie Toby Edison on issues of body image and stereotyping, and being on the boards of the Tiptree Award and Broad Universe. She is also a consulting editor for Tor Books.