... Scott Perkins on self-publishing, ebooks and a changing market

Scott Perkins ... Scott Perkins ...
... on self-publishing, ebooks and a changing market

On Sunday I already talked to Scott Perkins, one of the very interesting people I meet on Facebook and immensly enjoy. In his "triple qualification" as author, seminar leader and bookseller, I had questioned him on the subject in the face of the collapse of one of the largest U.S. bookstore chains.

As an author, Scott Perkins is just as interesting to talk to, especially about the "in-topic" of the US-publishing-scene: The changing market and self-publishing.

Zauberspiegel: Is this crisis of bookstores the only problem in the publishing market?
Scott Perkins: I wish that it was. There are many obstacles for booksellers and publishers, not least of all the going price for eBooks. The idea that an electronic edition of a book (or any other media) should be free, or at most $.99, isn't sustainable. Just because it's electrons, there's a perception that it didn't cost anything to create and I can't see how publishers are going to find their way out of it.
That price works if you're a self-published, independent author, but not if you're trying to sustain an industry with all its typesetters, graphic designers, editors, copy editors...

Zauberspiegel: The way you adress this, it's not only a threat to the traditional way of publishing, but also to authors and all the other professions connected to it. But isn't it a chance as well - for unknown authors to get noticed, for publishers to offer additional content by way of advertising etc.
Scott Perkins: That's certainly one way of looking at it. I'm trying to think of a way to express this idea that doesn't rely upon sports as a metaphor, because I'm not sure that the baseball idiom will translate well and I don't know a lot about football. There's an idea that's been floated that the self-publishing authors are starting to form a sort of ersatz minor league for publishing and that publishers will "call them up to the majors" if they manage to make a splash.
The problem -- as I see it -- is that we're training our customers (for want of a better term) to expect that books will cost a certain amount. A price point that won't support a publisher.
The self-published author only has to absorb the losses of their own work. The publisher has to make enough on their successes to cover the losses from the titles that failed. So they can't survive selling books for less than a dollar a copy.
But if readers are taught that the value of a book is a dollar or less... that equation will never balance for a publisher.
Or a bookstore for that matter.
That said... the art world still manages to sell paintings for thousands despite the fact that anyone can log on to Etsy and buy a painting for less than a hundred dollars.

Zauberspiegel: So this, if I understand you right, will only work if there are enough people left that buy books for the delight of holding a book in their hands.
Scott Perkins...and the delight of interacting with a real-live knowledgeable bookseller.
We're lovely people, we really are. And there's nothing a dedicated bookseller loves more than having a customer come back to them, seek them out for a recommendation because the last one was that good. There's another aspect to all of this, bookstores and publishers et al, and that's the "curator" argument.
For the last hundred years or so, our literary culture has been curated by the editors and agents and booksellers. An aspiring writer has to first get past an agent, who decides that their work is worth investing time and money in. Then an editor, who makes an even greater investment in the form of an advance on future sales. And then booksellers have to get excited enough about it to pick it up off the shelf and hand it to a customer...
For better or worse, that is going away in a world without booksellers and in a world where authors can sidestep the publishing process.
The cream will always rise to the top, as they say, and I suppose that it's true, but finding those great books among the piles and piles of unedited manuscripts being offered as eBooks is getting harder and harder.

Zauberspiegel: But isn't the fact that a bookseller can only sell what publishers buy from agents and produce? And once you are not J.K. Rowling (just to mention a real heroe of an author's biography) you won't even make it to a shop? Don't the booksellers only read themselves and sell what a representative of the publisher promotes?
Scott Perkins: No. I love JK Rowling and I sold, literally, truckloads of her books, but the bookseller is an ornery critter. We dig and dig and dig, looking for the titles that the publishers reps missed because all they wanted to talk about was the next Dan Brown book.
We talk to librarians, we talk to each other, we reach across to the rival bookstore down the street...

Zauberspiegel:  Ok ... then let's get a step further ... you won't even get published, no matter how good you are, if the publishers think it won't satisfy the market. Like many say, the business of publishing has changed. You no longer produce what you think is "good stuff" but what the market is likely or expected to "swallow".
Scott Perkins: That is very true. It's true to say that in order to be allowed to write what you want, you have to first write what THEY want. They being whoever is making the decisions. But really, that just means writing something that will fit a market or genre. Every art form or business has boundaries within which you're expected to operate. A box that you can only venture outside of once you've proven your mettle.
Here's the exciting part... that's starting to erode. Genre won't ever go away completely. Everyone has a sort of story they like, and they want to find that sort of book all grouped together. That's helpful to the marketer, because they have a target audience. It's helpful to the bookseller, because they can direct the customer to similar titles.

Zauberspiegel:  You say this was starting to erode. Do you mean that the way of fitting a book (a story) into the scheme of a genre will change? 
Scott Perkins: Yes and no. I'm going out on a limb here, but I watch the Young Adult sections of the bookstore very closely because that's our next generation of readers, forming their opinions of what a good book should be.
And for the most part, that section of bookstore isn't as sub-divided as the rest of the store is and there's a lot more cross-genre things going on that are exciting to watch.
It goes back to what I was saying about the things we teach our customers to expect.

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