Wednesday, December 15, 2010
You might be a writer if...
You think the publishing industry needs an OPEC moment.
Whoever thought you'd see publishing and OPEC in the same sentence. One of the most successful industries coupled with one struggling enormously. Bear with me, though. I promise, it will all make sense. Imagine what gasoline prices would be like if there were no OPEC. The countries an producers of oil aren't exactly buddy buddy. They could seriously undercut each other until they would be selling oil at a price well below what it costs to produce, just to get that sale. Sound familiar, publishing execs? The margin of profit on book sales is dangerously close to what it costs just to produce them. Hop back to oil and what do you see? For all the turmoil that abounds amongst Middle Eastern states and oil producers, they are able to agree on one thing, the price of oil. Their allegiance in this one area keeps the consumers locked into a fixed price of gas has made the oil industry very very successful.
So why is it the publishing industry hasn't gotten on that bandwagon? Returns are killing the industry. That is what common opinion has determined. It affects all aspects of publishing, especially writers. How can publishers take a risk on something new unless they are absolutely certain a book will sell? It's an awful predicament to be in. A few low sellers, and an editor's career is in serious jeopardy.
Because publishers carry all of the risk when it comes to selling books. Returns were started during the 1920s Depression to get wary booksellers to stock shelves when they were fearful they would be unable to sell the stock they purchased and thus go out of business. Publishers offered sellers a novel return policy: if you don't sell it, we'll take it back. It was the opening of Pandora's box. An offer they were unable to ever renig. Today, booksellers carry no risk. All books, regardless of the state they are in, are returnable. Publishers carry the risk. In that sense, there is no difference between big box bookstores and indies. They are consignment shops.
If, however, publishers were to band together, like OPEC, on this one point and abolish the returns policy, making their goods as sold as, say, textile or toy producers products, they would create a little more breathing room for creativity for both their editors and their writers. Maybe. Even I have to admit books, although as important to me as oil, as not as necessary as oil to our everyday lives. Consumers need not buy books.
Still, I can't help thinking that maybe leveling the playing field, sharing the risk amongst booksellers and publishers, might aid the industry overall. If nothing else, it would be an experiment that would get a sluggish industry thinking in novel directions.