The Type Of Competition Big Publishers Want

Since the huge shift to online purchasing and e-books, a common meme is that there is some kind of “discoverability” problem in publishing. The funny thing is readers don’t seem to have any problem finding books they love.

This post is from 31 May 2014. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open.

Any readers I talk to have a time problem – reading lists a mile long and never enough hours in the day to read all the great books they are discovering.

The real discoverability problem in publishing is that readers are discovering (and enjoying) books that don’t come from the large publishers. What these publishers have is a competition problem not a discoverability problem.

Amazon regularly gets slated for purported anti-competitive actions, but it has done more to create the digital marketplace than any other company. It has also done more to open up that marketplace to vendors of all shapes and sizes than any other company. Small publishers and self-publishers, for the very first time, have a level playing field with large publishers.

In other words, Amazon has fostered huge levels of competition that rarely get spoken about. Because Big Publishing doesn’t want actual competition. It hates actual competition.

What Big Publishing wants is the faux-competition that existed before the digital revolution – when they had a lock on distribution, reviews, chain stores, supermarkets, and airport bookstores. (Seriously, does anyone aside from James Patterson want a return to those days?)

Today a small publisher or self-publisher can publish e-books cheaply and match the distributive reach of the largest publishers just by uploading to a handful of sites. This is what an open market looks like and Big Publishing hates it.

They have reason to. I had a stab last year at estimating how much of the e-book market self-publishers have grabbed in the US, pegging it at around 25%. The much more rigorous Author Earnings reports have confirmed that estimate, showing that self-publishers had captured 30% of the unit sales on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Big Publishing might like to think it’s above the law but its speech and actions follow a very familiar pattern that is witnessed any time a cosy club is being disrupted. By ushering in the digital revolution, then opening the marketplace up to anyone and creating a level playing field, Amazon has poured cold water on this garter snake breeding ball.

Large publishers have proved adept in one area: getting their message out. Sometimes it feels like they spend more on corporate PR than breaking new authors, and you need a bullshit dictionary to parse their statements.

So when large publishers say that the discoverability puzzle hasn’t been solved online, they are really expressing despair at retailers recommending books not published by them.

And when large publishers say that online retailers haven’t matched the experience of buying in physical stores, they mean that they wish there was some way to relegate all that stuff from small publishers and self-publishers to the warehouse, and have tables piled high with James Patterson and Snooki.

This is why you get hilariously awful attempts to build a discovery site for readers like the failed Bookish. As the Huffington Post reported in February last year, despite claims from Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei that it would be “completely independent and autonomous” and not “a mouthpiece for a specific publisher,” the site only pushed books from Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster – the same publishers who founded Bookish.

You don’t see Amazon doing the same thing with Goodreads, despite fears expressed at the time of the purchase. In fact, it’s interesting to note that Amazon stocks many items from companies it’s in direct competition with, such as iPhones, iPads, Nook e-readers and tablets, and Kobo devices.

And you don’t see Amazon fiddling with its own algorithms to favour the books it publishes, despite a 2013 prediction from Robert Levine that, within two years, Amazon will exclusively recommend its own books. Here’s a prediction, since “the industry” seems to love them: Robert Levine will be about as right as Ewan Morrison.

The fear-mongers always forget Amazon’s core philosophy: recommend the product the customer is most likely to purchase. It’s interesting to note that this is the exact opposite of traditional co-op: recommending the book that the publisher wants purchased.

While it’s revealing to look at sites like Bookish and consider what Big Publishing would do with retail or discovery, we already know what it does with self-publishing. Exploitative vanity press Author Solutions runs self-publishing companies for HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Harlequin, is owned by Penguin Random House, and is now recommended by Publishers Weekly.

Large publishers want to decide what gets published, what gets distributed, what gets recommended, what gets discovered, and what gets sold.

Amazon – and the digital revolution it instigated – has made that impossible.

Anyone can publish. Distribution has been blown wide open. Large publishers have lost power over what books get recommended and discovered too, with the agnostic approach of sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and BookBub. And large publishers have definitely lost control of what is getting sold: self-publishers have grabbed a huge chunk of the market, and more and more writers are beginning to realize they don’t need a publisher to reach readers and make money.

This is the real reason why Big Publishing hates Amazon. Large publishers face real competition for the first time and they don’t like it one bit.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.