Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


BookExpo America (BEA) and BookCon are folding. The shows’ organizers are blaming the shutdown on SARS-CoV-2, but the mask slips a little when they add, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.” That’s corporate doubletalk for “The shows were both in trouble before the virus, and the virus was a plausible excuse to shut them down.”
I used to go to BEA every year. (I’ve never been to BookCon, which is a sort of combined fan and publisher gathering in NYC, targeted at consumers and mostly about fiction.) BEA was useful in a number of ways, not least of which was to see how our competitors were doing in the ’90s. I kept going for a few years after Coriolis folded, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and spot trends. That pulse has been harder and harder to find in recent years. Ginormous publishing conglomerates are merging. This generally means that the smaller one is in trouble, and the bigger one wants their cash flow. Penguin Random House is buying Simon & Schuster, assuming antitrust challenges don’t emerge. What used to be The Big 5 is about to become The Big 4.
Two (related) things seem to me as behind publisher consolidation and the loss of big trade shows like BEA:
  1. The large publishers never wanted ebooks and don’t know how to deal with them.
  2. Independent publishing (indie) is catching on in a very big way.

The business model of traditional book publishing is complex, and weird. (Weird, even to me, and I worked in it for fifteen years.) The biggest single problem is that large and very large presses are fixated on hardcovers. This fixation goes back a very long way, and cooks down to the notion that hardcovers are books, and everything else (primarily ebooks and paperbacks) are secondary markets that depend on hardcovers to exist at all. It’s true that if you go back to the 1800s, vitually all books were hardcovers. Granted, there are exceptions: I have a paperback edition of Oliver Twist from 1882, which indicates that cheap books on cheap paper were there in the shadows all along, but were all too often slandered as “dime novels” that corrupted young minds. The money and prestige were in hardcovers.

Paperback originals emerged as a force in the 1950s, roughly concurrent with the emergence of the mass-market paperback (MMPB.) Because early MMPBs were reprints of hardcover editions, the notion of paperbacks as a secondary market was logical. When paperback originals emerged, larger presses used them to build the audience for their hardcovers, and to a lesser extent, a midlist from which promising new authors could be promoted to hardcover. Hardcover pricing was what kept the doors open and paychecks going out. Secondary markets were gravy.

Various forces are now turning the hardcover-centric business model on its ear. The single most important force here is not simply the ebook, but the fact that you can read ebooks on smartphones. Ebooks were dismissed early on because “nobody’s going to buy an expensive gadget just to read books on.” Well, dedicated ebook readers are no longer necessary. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because it’s easier on my eyes, but I’ve read plenty of books on my Galaxy Tab S3 and three different smartphones. Today, everybody has a smartphone, which means that everybody can read ebooks. It’s no longer a niche market.

This scares the crap out of traditional publishers. They have kept the cover prices of ebooks close to (or in some crazy cases higher than) hardcover prices, insisting that it costs just as much to create an ebook as it does to create a hardcover, dodging the truth that it’s all about physical inventory, returns, and unit cost. The unit cost of an ebook is zero. Inventory and returns no longer exist.

The second most important force is, of course, Amazon, home of The World’s Richest Man. Amazon did not create the notion of ebooks or ebook readers, but the Kindle Store allowed the emergence of independent publishing, more on which shortly. And the smartphone, in turn, created the market for the Kindle Store.

Amazon has systematically undermined the hardcover price point by allowing a nearly frictionless market for hardcovers that were read once and then sold through associate accounts for a third the cover price–or less–of the same book new. Amazon Prime created all-you-can-slurp shipping, and with improvements in logistics allows a book to be ordered in the morning and delivered in late afternoon. Why bother fighting traffic to get down to the last Barnes & Noble in town, when you can get the book just as fast (and more easily) with a few taps on your smartphone? (Yes, I’ll miss bookstores. But I won’t miss tchotchke stores.)

And last but by no means least, we have indie publishing. There are a number of platforms on which ebooks may be published, but realistically, it’s Amazon plus debris. They have wisely combined ebook and POD print book publishing into one entity. (90% or more of my sales are ebooks.) The system is straightforward enough to allow anybody with half a brain to publish their own books and short items on the Kindle store.

This means that a great deal of what is published isn’t worth looking at. We all worried a lot about that. But as it happened, people are discovering ebooks they same way they discovered print books in the old days: By word-of-mouth, which these days includes word-of-Web. Discovery sites like Goodreads help a great deal, as do Web forums with a topic focus. Amazon’s reviews are generally good, though you have to read a lot of them and average things out in your mind. Some people are hard to please, and others please way too easily. All that said, I’m very surprised at how few Kindle ebooks I have bought and then hated. Sure, some were better than others. But I did an odd kind of crosstime quality spot-check on marginal ebooks and SFF MMPBs from 50-55 years ago. Pull a passage from a 55-year-old no-name SF potboiler (easier now that the pages are coming loose as you turn them) and compare it to a no-name ebook SF potboiler you took a chance on for $2.99 based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon book wins almost every time. Why? Automated discovery, via reviews and recommendations. All we had to go on 50 years ago was the back cover, and a quick flip through the pages. Now we can be as fussy as we like, or at least as fussy as we have time for.

The bottom line on ebooks is that with automated discovery and online recommendations, you no longer need traditional publishing at all. I’ve bought some ebooks from the few traditional publishers (like Baen) who embrace them. But at least 75% of the SFF I’ve read in the last year has been from indie authors. Some books were better than others. Remarkably, all but a couple that I took chances on were worth reading.

I’ll miss BEA–a little. I had fun there and met some interesting people. I will not miss hardcover culture and its attendant weirdness. If the Big 5, er, 4 can’t shed that weirdness, the reading public will shed them, sooner than later.

In the meantime, it’s a marvelous time to be a reader–and an even better time to be a writer.


  1. Eric Brombaugh says:

    I recently picked up a $28 7″ Android tablet at a local bigbox and started using it as an ebook reader. One of the authors I enjoy disappeared from mainstream publishing about 20 years ago and recently started up again with her own indie, with ebooks being the easiest way to get her work. I’ve found it quite pleasant and may ease away from paper as a result.

  2. Jason Kaczor says:

    Over the last 6 months, I have read about three dozen books from essentially self-published authors via Amazon’s offerings.

    Most have been great – some suffer from the lack of a good editor – and occasionally the writing level can be a bit… juvenile (but hey – we want young people to read, so…) – but on-the-other-hand, so much fun – niches I had never known existed… Authors with self-published series 10 books long.

    Goodreads (Amazon owned since 2013) has been very helpful in finding new material.

    1. TRX says:

      Judging from what I’ve read in a number of Big Publishing House books printed in the last couple of decades, Big Publishing is economizing on editing and proofreading, if they’re using it at all. Homonym and synonym errors, strings of word salad, plot holes you could taxi a 747 through, scene jumps that are never explained, some obvious spell checker errors… all things that they claim their “editing process” is designed to catch and correct. And, generally, *used to* catch and correct. Now, not so much.

      No guarantee an indy book won’t have all those and more, but now it’s less certain a tradpub book *won’t*.

      On the other hand – and I have a hard time getting some of the writer-types to understand this – as long as the WTFs stay within my “suspension of disbelief” limits, I can put up with a *very* rough text… if the story is good. And even then, *all* of the story doesn’t have to be all that good, as long as there’s something in there that grabs me.

      Roger Zelazny’s “Today We Choose Faces” is a good example of that. It’s a horrible book, written in a disjointed New Wave style, making most of the “mistakes” you can make in a piece of fiction. But there are some scenes in there that are so outstanding that my copy has survived relentless cullings of my bookshelves for forty years.

      What I see too much of, now, is… I call it “homogenized” fiction. X% dialog, Y% backstory, Z% introspection scenes… it doesn’t matter what genre or who wrote them, they feel like they’re all written to a handful of standard outlines. They’re technically proficient, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about them. They’re just McBooks. Maybe that’s where all that vaunted editing goes, into making them all read the same.

      1. I’m reminded of a comment by a gentleman in the Arizona Book Publishing Association 20-odd years ago, who said that big publishing is controlled by people who don’t read books. In the 20 years since, most of the old-school publishers who do read books have retired, died, or changed careers. The editing/layout function is mostly outsourced to the low bidder. Management treats books as commodities. Staff are chosen by who they know or where they went to school rather than what they’re actually capable of. They don’t know how to evaluate a manuscript. They don’t know the genres. They don’t read the product they produce. So they aim down the middle and pray. Pile the stratospheric costs of operating in Manhattan on top of all that, and you have a recipe for failure.

        SARS-CoV-2 has emptied out New York. Maybe some of those knuckleheads will finally realize that you can run a publishing company from a small office in a small town.

        Maybe. But don’t count on it.

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