When it comes to books, libraries and publishers should be in it together, argues a leading marketing expert
By David Vinjamuri
Publishers are running out of space. Not in their headquarters, some of which are larger and more imposing than ever, but in retail. The number of booksellers has been dwindling since the demise of Borders, and the largest book retailer today is Amazon, which has no physical space at all.
So the question is, where can publishers showcase new books? If only there were a space dedicated primarily to reading that hundreds of millions of Americans visit annually. If only there existed a trusted space, free of the revenue pressure that necessitates displaying lightly pornographic books of debatable quality. If only there were a space largely inhabited by active readers, where publishers could showcase new authors or shine new light on talented mid-listers.
That space exists in the 16,000 public library branches in America. They’re trusted and willing, and they welcome your attention. But libraries receive surprisingly little coordinated help from publishers beyond lip service—in fact, they’re still in the middle of a very public dispute with publishers about the high prices and restrictive access libraries must contend with to lend e-books to their patrons.
The tension between libraries and publishers seems odd in a market where physical space for displaying books is quickly disappearing. How did we get here? And could libraries actually represent a much better opportunity for publishers than they are given credit for?
A History of Indifference
In the beginning, publishers and libraries were interdependent. When modern publishing houses emerged from printers in the late 19th century, public libraries in the U.S. and U.K. were often the first and only guaranteed customer for a title.
Even as late as 1950, libraries were indispensable customers for publishers. The entire output of the domestic publishing industry in that year was 11,000 titles, and the average branch of a public library purchased 14,000 titles annually. The most reliable market for many books was the 11,135 library branches operating then.
Things are different today. Publishers produced nearly half a million new ISBNs in 2013 (with self-publishers included, that total nearly doubles), though increasingly cash-strapped libraries are purchasing fewer titles. According to industry stats, the library market now represents just over 1.3% of publishers’ trade sales. But just as the crucible of the book superstore transformed publishing in the 1980s, the advent of online sellers—particularly Amazon—is remaking it today. And as the conflict between Hachette and Amazon last year proved, Amazon is both indispensable and despised as a partner to publishers.
But a new challenge has emerged from the transformation of sales channels in the past three decades: discovery. Five years, ago in 2010, just under a third of all frequent readers (who purchase 80% of all books and number 43 million) found the last book they bought at a bookstore. This year, that number is down to 17%, according to Peter Hildick-Smith, of the Codex Group—a change that gives Amazon more power than ever.
“A small group of authors control the bestseller lists,” Hildick-Smith observes. “When we indexed the New York Times hardcover fiction and mass market bestseller lists from June 2008 through June 2014, nearly 16,000 spots in total, we found that all those places were occupied by fewer than 650 authors.”
That concentration has created a problem for publishers, which Amazon has ruthlessly exploited. By promoting both self-published and Amazon-signed authors on the Kindle platform, the online retailer has come to exert tremendous pricing pressure on the entire industry. Amazon can now manipulate the products of hundreds of thousands of other authors through price reduction.
Meanwhile, the dominance of bestsellers has also put the squeeze on the marketing budgets of debut and midlist authors. Since publishers can only afford to make a few big bets per year, the route to building new franchise authors is more uncertain than ever.
Author Brands Matter
A great deal of attention has been paid to the question of so-called platform size for new authors. How large is the social media footprint of the author? How active is she on Facebook, Twitter, and