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14 May 2007



Food. Publishers need to follow the methodology laid-down by the food industry--focus groups and test markets. First, though, authors, publishers, and booksellers must come to grips with the book business being just that: a buisness.

Erik Sherman

The problem isn't that publishers are gamblers. It's that they're so befuddled and stuck in what they've always done in the past that they don't take advantage of what could make their businesses more efficient. Here's an actual example of a business process at a major publisher that I saw as the person waiting for a check based on a writing milestone. I finish the milestone. The developmental editor tells the acquisitions editor. The acquisition editor tells the contracts department. The New York contracts department sends a payment request to Indiana, which then sends it back to New York - which send it down to accounting (all of this on paper, mind you) in New Jersey, which then cuts a check and sends it to ... New York. Where they then send it to an agent I used on a previous book but not this one.

This isn't gambling. It's being befuddled and inept. Also, I think that the publishers do know how much information some of the resellers have, but I think the sellers don't share the information. After all, why should they? The resellers order from publishers with a six month return policy. Often they will return books only to order them again, essentially keeping them on perpetual consignment. So knowing what is going on is pretty difficult for the publishers. And the publishers are now too beholding to a few powerhouses. It's like trying to deal with Wal-Mart - few companies have much if any leverage.

Art Hutchinson

The 'befuddlement' theory is hard to deny.

About ten years ago, I consulted to a major NYC book publisher on digital rights management. Ostensibly, the project was about deciding on a digital rights strategy, developing an information architecture to support it and selecting a technology solution to make it all work.

Problem was (we learned... after interviewing several of their execs), their existing method for managing rights, royalty payments, etc. was haphazard at best. It basically amounted to: if the author is a bigwig and we might get caught, then pay close attention and figure it out on a case-by-case basis; but otherwise, don't worry about it.

Moving to 3X5 cards and filing cabinets would have been a major improvement for them. I was shocked. Their potential legal liability was incalculable while their lost revenue opportunities were equally large. And this was a major 'name' publisher.

Bob Weber

Book publishing is not the only "blockbuster" industry. Movies and Music are very similar. All share the characteristic that the profits from a few blockbusters usually make up for the losses on a majority of titles. I do not believe that rationality -- market surveys, etc. -- will change these businesses very much since with a few notable exceptions, they are subject to the vagaries of evolving taste and word of mouth.

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