Anyone who follows publishing knows that it loves to celebrate a disruptor. Disruptor is a label thrown at anything new, and publishing is unusually easy to disrupt because it is particularly slow to change.
Back when I started She Writes Press in 2012, I was called a disruptor. I confess, I liked it. But it wasn’t exactly accurate, and whenever I spoke at conferences about what we were doing—which was growing a reputable hybrid model based on the systems of traditional publishing—I let audiences know that legacy publishers had been cutting hybrid deals for years, which was an open secret. If I was doing anything disruptive, it was encouraging the authors we published to be proud of publishing nontraditionally. As I mentioned, it doesn’t take much to be considered a disruptor in this space.
Now, nearly a decade into running She Writes Press and with more than 20 years of publishing experience under my belt, every time I see a new business model or idea being touted as the next big thing, all I can see is the giant boulder of resistance to change that defines this industry. Yes, new business models and profit-sharing and the democratization of publishing are all important, but we mostly face roadblocks to doing anything meaningfully disruptive because the major players are disincentivized to effect true change.
The major players in this case are big publishers, distributors (of which there are only a handful), and bookstores. Big publishers don’t want or need to change because they have a corner on the market, which is why the disruptor label is only ever bestowed upon indie presses. The distributors are change-resistant because they’re just trying to survive; they’re stuck between the demands of their publisher-clients to get books into the marketplace and the logistical nightmare that is the timely shipping, handling, and delivery of heavy products across a vast country and then having to accept returns. Bookstores face their own problems—primarily the fact that their inventory, their very raison d’être, is too inexpensive, the retail price of books too low, so that their profit margins are so minimal that they’re ever anxious about ordering too many books, and they seem to be constantly on the brink of financial ruin.
If we we were to truly disrupt the publishing industry, it is the system that we would need to overhaul. Indie publishers would need to figure out what would incentivize big publishers to want to change. We would need to imagine printing and distribution mechanisms that discourage waste and inefficiencies. We would need to raise the price of books across the board, and in so doing train our culture to place a higher value on books (and by extension authors).
A real disruption of the industry would involve accountability, because we are wasteful beyond belief. Most publishers print far more books than we need because we feel we must. This fall, She Writes Press, along with hundreds (maybe thousands) of other publishers, will print and reprint to get ahead of shortages and anticipated supply chain problems. It’s the equivalent of toilet paper hoarding—these actions, encouraged by scarcity, will create more scarcity.
Ours is an industry that emerged in a world where there were plenty of resources and not a lot of authors. Now it’s reversed: we have almost more authors than readers, it seems, and not enough resources. So, as we head into a climate-uncertain future, here’s how we might truly disrupt the industry and effect meaningful change:
Print fewer books, and find ways to print what we can sell. The challenge here is that print-on-demand technology is still imperfect, the quality not up to par with its offset counterpart. But the point is that we have the technology, and we need to embrace print-on-demand as a more viable solution and be invested in improving its quality and pricing.
Find better ways to distribute books to the marketplace. One of publishing’s great failures was the Book Espresso Machine, which was to revolutionize publishing by making a vast number of titles available on demand, to be printed right there at the local bookstore. It didn’t take because the machines were expensive and needed a lot of maintenance, and the book quality wasn’t that great. That said, distribution is by far the industry’s greatest pain point, and the inefficiencies and climate problems associated with shipping boxes of books all over the country is something that needs to be more publicly addressed.
Cancel returns. This will be unpopular with bookstores, but returns are a thorn in the side of every publisher, and it’s an archaic policy that pushes publishers to print more than they need because bookstores order as much as they want with no fear of penalty for returning what they don’t sell. It’s wasteful, and there has to be a better way forward.
Sell more digital and audio. Yes, this is a consumer habit, but it’s driven by the publishing industry. Print is still king because the industry has resisted legitimizing digital and audio, by not reviewing digital and audio books in the way print is and by continuing to celebrate hardcovers. We need to deglamorize the hardcover, the most wasteful and expensive of all formats, and only print hardcover for those books that absolutely merit it—such as coffee-table and art books.
Raise the prices of all books. Profit margins on books are so razor-thin that it encourages publishers to print more than we need in order to get better unit costs per book, even if that means we’re pulping excess inventory a year down the road. Difficult for indie publishers is the fact that our print runs are small compared with those of the big guys, and yet we’re encouraged by retailers to keep our prices on par. Something’s got to give.
Empower authors to work with and support bookstores. Authors want it both ways, in that they want to have tons of Amazon preorders and reviews but also have indie bookstores carry and champion their books. Bookstores are also the losers when it comes to low list prices and ever-changing policies that make it hard for them to financially support indie-published books, not to mention the near impossibility of competing against the low cost and convenience of Amazon. Publishers can do their part by educating their authors to support indie bookstores and advocating for a more diverse publishing ecosystem.
The problems that our industry faces are massive. So, too, is our collective brainpower. I’m all for celebrating a disruptor, but it’s time to truly disrupt this industry. Trading in paper as we do, and given the dire need to reduce carbon emissions, it is time, from the standpoint of global urgency, to reimagine how we do what we do, not only for our industry, our profits, and our authors, but for our future and for the next generation of writers and readers.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and author of Write On, Sisters! and Green-Light Your Book.