Book publishers and authors are abuzz with the news that representatives of online retailer Amazon.com have been approaching high-volume publishers utilizing the print-on-demand services of Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI) to get them to set up their titles for printing by Amazon.com's own printing company, BookSurge, or have the "Buy" buttons removed from their books' listings at Amazon.
PublishAmerica 's March 27, 2008 press release confirms that Amazon.com gave the company an "ultimatum, demanding the right to print" its almost 30,000 titles or else Amazon.com "will retaliate by disabling the 'Buy' button on all of its PublishAmerica listings."
In other words: Let us print your books --and collect more money from you -- or we won't sell your books any more.
The "Buy" buttons to many if not all PublishAmerica books listed on Amazon.com disappeared late this week.
PublishAmerica says it "will not comply with Amazon's ultimatum, and will not allow that company to dictate who will print PublishAmerica's books, and at what conditions."
Angela Hoy of Booklocker broke the Amazon.com story publicly yesterday in her Writers Weekly e-newsletter. Click here to read that article and find links to further reportage, including articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly.
Some in the industry are referring to it as an "offer you can't refuse." Terms like "strongarm tactics" and "bullying" are also being used -- and, admittedly, come to my mind.
The threat carries punch especially for small publishers and subsidy publishers (the latter including companies like iUniverse/Authorhouse , Lulu, and Booklocker) because Amazon.com is the biggest online book retailer, and it's difficult for small publishers and subsidy publishers to get their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Print-on-demand (and short-run digital printing) is a relatively new development in the publishing industry, but it has boomed in the past few years. Small publishers often use print-on-demand and short-run digital printing by companies such as LSI to cut down on the costs of printing and storing inventory. Instead of printing thousands of books at a time (for thousands of dollars) and paying to store them until sold -- and destroying or remaindering them if not sold -- print-on-demand technology allows printing of only one copy of a book at time, if desired, which means a book need not be printed until it is sold/ordered.
More than 50 percent of all academic presses utilize print-on-demand printing, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even the big commercial publishing houses use print-on-demand technology to print "backlist" titles.
While several printing companies offer print-on-demand services, LSI is the largest. It's attractive to publishers largely because of its affiliation with Ingram, the large book wholesaler.
It's difficult for small publishers (and subsidy publishers, no matter what their size) to get their books carried by Ingram or other wholesalers or distributors. But most bookstores want to buy books wholesale through Ingram or another wholesaler or distributor, not directly from publishers. They want to place one order for a shipment of books, not hundreds of orders from hundreds of different publishers.
Utilizing LSI for printing allows small publishers (as well as subsidy publishers and academic presses) to get their books listed for sale through Ingram, which makes the books available for sale through online retailers as well as (usually through special-order) brick-and-mortar stores. Even the "big boy" traditional commercial publishers often use LSI for "backlist," slower selling books to keep them in print without having to maintain piles of such books in inventory.
Pearlsong Press, the publishing company I founded in 2003, uses LSI as our printer. We haven't been approached by Amazon.com (yet?) about switching to BookSurge because we're small potatoes, with 13 titles in print and 2 more being published in April and May. (But we're very tasty small potatoes, I might add.:-) Subsidy publishers like iUniverse/Authorhouse and Lulu have thousands of titles in print. Booklocker alone has 1,500.
What does this mean, exactly, for publishers? And authors? And readers?
There are costs in time and money to set up books for printing at BookSurge as well as at LSI. BookSurge uses a different file format than LSI, so existing book files would have to be reformatted to their specifications. Book interiors and book covers are separate files, so each title would have 2 files needing reformatting. PublishAmerica, for instance, would have to reformat almost 60,000 files to set up all its titles for printing by BookSurge.
Such reformatting would take time, attention and money away from preparing new books for publication. That will affect authors as well as readers -- fewer books accepted for publication, fewer new books being published. Not to mention less income for publishers (and smaller royalties for authors) as sales decline during the interim in which publishing energy is directed toward meeting BookSurge's specs and Amazon.com's demands.
New titles will incur a setup fee. BookSurge also demands a higher discount from publishers than LSI does, so publishers will make less money from each book printed and sold through BookSurge/Amazon.com...unless they raise the price of said books.
I don't know yet how this will affect Pearlsong Press or other small publishers who use LSI for book printing but aren't subsidy publishers. (Subsidy publishers -- aka "vanity presses" -- are publishers that charge authors to publish their books. Traditional publishers, whether they use print-on-demand technology or not, don't charge authors for publication. It should be noted that PublishAmerica considers itself a traditional publisher, but most in the industry consider it a type of subsidy press.)
I do know, though, that I don't like the way Amazon.com is reportedly doing business. (Even if its representative is quoted in the WSJ as claiming they're just trying to "better serve" their "customers and authors.")
This small potato isn't interested in being masticated by a corporate behemoth more interested in making money than ensuring the viability of independent presses.
And I personally am planning to cease making any purchases from Amazon.com until -- or unless -- the company quits its bullying.
In the meantime, Pearlsong Press books ARE still available for sale at Amazon.com....but also at BarnesandNoble.com (which also offers free shipping options, by the way), and the independent bookseller Powells.com, as well as other retailers. And you can also, of course, purchase our books directly from us -- many of them autographed -- via our website (www.pearlsong.com).