How I Think Publishing Works
by Bethany Maines
As the author in residence to my friend’s and family, I frequently receive questions about the publishing industry. Well, let’s be honest, frequently is stretching it. More like occasionally, but I still get them and usually it goes something like this…
Them: You published a book? That’s cool. How does that work?
Me: Well, you write a book, try to get an agent, and then the agent sells it to a publisher.
Them: Yeah, but after that, how does it all work? And what’s this thing with Amazon that I’ve been reading about lately?
Me: Uh… Does any body need more salsa? I have to go get more salsa.
After awhile I just couldn’t eat anymore salsa, so I did some research and I thought some of you might be interested in what I found out. This, in broad strokes, as far as I can tell, is how books get to you. Don’t worry, I’ve also included a handy infographic. If you feel that I am incorrect in some way, please comment and let me know. This information is relatively hard to get in a linear progression, so I’ve had to piece it together as I come across it - I welcome all input.
Agents select manuscripts and sell them to publishers. At the same time Publishers also seek out manuscripts on their own – either from celebrities or from their “slush pile.” A manuscript gets selected to become a published book. The publisher has a couple of options for distribution; either they have sales reps who sell the book directly to booksellers and club stores (like Cost-Co and Sam’s Club) or they sell their books to distributors and wholesalers. Distributors and wholesalers sell books to bookstores, club stores, and they also sell to the non-bookstores like Fred Meyer, Target, gift shops, airports, and grocery stores. Publishers set the release date and release e-books at the same time that a distributor sends books to bookstores. Bookstores buy books at a 40-50% discount and sometimes have as much as 6 months to return books (if they don’t sell) to the publisher or distributor/wholesaler for either cash or credit against future purchases. Which is how an author’s sales can look great the first week after publication, but not so great months later after “the returns” are in. Publishers and booksellers also provide an internet location to buy the book. Then you, the reader, buy the book and/or e-book.
Now we get to Amazon. Amazon decided that it did not need wholesalers and most distributors… because they didn’t. They get their books directly from publishers or from distributors that represent publishing houses that don’t handle their own sales. Wholesalers and distributors are mad at Amazon because Amazon has essentially cut them out of the business. Bookstores are mad at Amazon because they feel that Amazon, due their deals with the publishers, can undercut bookstore prices, thus driving them out of business. Amazon has also offered a service to writers that let them self-publish (also known as vanity publishing) print-on-demand books and e-books; writers, of course, took to the process like a duck to water. With that much content floating around, next Amazon decided that it doesn’t need publisher’s either, because they can buy their own manuscripts and sell them. So… publishers, distributors, wholesalers, and bookstores are all mad at Amazon. So far the only people who aren’t mad are the consumers and the content providers – readers and writers.
Interestingly, I looked at the prices for print-on-demand books through Amazon a year or so back and I remember the number as being about $9 a book. Which, I thought, was a little high, but manageable if you were selling the book at $15. I recently looked at Amazon’s print-on-demand options and saw that they had raised the prices significantly and added additional fees for “expanded distribution.” Which leads me to speculate that Amazon may be attempting to let the air out of the self-publishing balloon. After all, why would they let self-publishers provide cheaper (and possibly just as good) content on Amazon distribution channels when it would be a direct competition to their own publications?