Book Publishing Post-Amazon

By: Michelle Prado

My last semester of high school was supposed to be a breeze. All requirements were completed at this point, I had no more regent exams to take or mandatory classes; I had the ideal spring semester for any senior itching for June to roll around and all the important events to start happening obviously I’m referring to prom–true story I skipped my high school graduation. In the meantime, I had to show up to school and do something so I decided to take on an extra English Literature course where we had one project to complete which involved visiting a bookstore called The Corner Bookstore. I remember going in and just touching everything, things I had never read but was curious about. It was an experience for me. Now, 8 years later, I think I can probably count with my fingers the times I’ve visited a bookstore since. Do I still enjoy reading book? Of course, more than I did at 17, but convenience trumped my excited to make a trip to the bookstore so I rely on Amazon to get my books.

Before Amazon, bookstores were responsible for carrying the must-have titles and supplying consumers with print copies of those books. Difficult to imagine now, for some, but before tablets, iPads and ebooks, the only way to read a book—for the most part–was by visiting your local bookstore and purchasing a physical copy and probably a new bookmark, because as many teachers taught students, “one shall never fold the pages in a book.” Leafing through the stuck-together pages of a book was not a strange experience but a mundane task which most of us mastered early on. Business for publishers was simpler. But with the growth of the internet and demands for quicker and more accessible content (digital) and rise of the online retailer, Amazon, publishers have confronted a new challenge. How does a book publisher draw their customers to buy direct or from bookstores instead of the online monopoly Amazon? How can a publisher maximize its profits and thrive with the constant evolution of the web?

Web on the Rise

“How does a book publisher draw their customers to buy direct or from bookstores instead of the online monopoly Amazon?”

Trade publisher Theatre Communications Group (TCG) holds its place in the industry as the largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature. TCG has experienced firsthand the impact Amazon has had on not only them as a publisher but also on the bookstores that were once their top buyers but no longer exist. Part of the nonprofit publisher’s promise to their roster of authors is a lifelong commitment to their careers. This commitment requires publishers to publish a playwright’s works indefinitely, unless the playwright terminates the relationship. This means the publisher is constantly releasing new works and revisions of plays which often are also produced by theatres nationwide.  

After years of publishing successful works and plays as well-known as Tony Kushner’s Broadway hit (and arguably one of the best plays in American history), Angels in America, TCG solidified themselves as the publisher of great dramatic works; the books program being one of the most lucrative sources of income for the organization. Business has been consistently good since TCG’s inception,  but with Amazon on the chessboard and the urgency to provide more content digitally in order to keep up, new challenges financial burdens have been added to the pre-existing business model.

For years, theatres producing plays published by TCG have reached out to buy playscripts and bookstores order mass amounts to stock-up their shelves. Individual buyers are encouraged to sign up for a one-year membership which grants them 30% off every book they purchases along with other benefits granting them more access to the nation-wide theatre community. TCG uses standard pricing books–most paperbacks sold at $14.95 plus the cost of shipping which is around $6.50 per order. Amazon can sell TCG books for an average of $10.95 and at times waives shipping costs. Not only can Amazon reduce the pricing of obtaining the book, but Amazon can offer something to all its customers, which is convenience. For the book publishing business this has mean Amazon has absorbed a lot of their business. And why is that a problem? In order to be part of Amazon’s distribution the small publisher pays a significant sum in fees each year; these fees have become a non-negotiable item in their yearly budget.

Bookstores on Decline

Most, if not all, publishers are committed to promoting their authors and new releases. In those marketing plans, events play an intricate role in adding publishers with exposing new works to as many customers as possible. Some of the strongest relationships publishers can cultivate have been with bookstores. Bookstores, for many of us, serve the sole purpose of selling books but for publishers like Theatre Communications Groups, bookstore are the primary venue to book signings and readings.

So what does this mean when are seeing more bookstores closing without new ones opening. TCG has for years held a strong alliance The Drama Book Shop, which closed in January 2019.

As reported by American Theatre magazine, due to the increase in rent the bookshop was unable to renew their list. For the theatre community, The Drama Book Shop was a haven and a valuable resource, and for TCG The Drama Book Shop proved instrumental in gaining exposure and strengthening business partnerships. Bookstores like The Drama Book Shop were once a gem for publishers and readers alike, but Amazon offers flexibility, comfort and convenience. One can order items in one place (the website) from the comfort of their home for less. $$. I must admit I’m part of the millions of shoppers who opts for the ease Amazon offers, I even make my monthly payments to Amazon for Prime. It’s just easy. It’s easier to buy my canary’s toys, a book for school, my mom’s storages bins and my favorite lotion all in one app on my phone.

Now What?

The future is uncertain for the publishers including Theatre Communications Group who boasts of 17 Pulitzer award-winning plays including the 2019 winner Fairview by Jackie Sibbles Drury. However, adapting to the ever-evolving digital space remains a constant challenge. Being an impactful force in dramatic literature, yet unable to reach as far as they desire or draw in the amount of customers they would like to, there is a constant question of, what else can TCG do with the resources and limitations they currently have? And where or who are the next allies?

Amazon is a force, we know that, and publishing is not the only business being affected by Amazon’s power, but it is true that when I think of buying a book I go straight to Amazon. I can visit Barnes and Nobles, yes, but that requires much more time than a simple search on Amazon. It’s not enough for publisher to create digital content anymore, at this point digitizing your content should be as important getting books to the printer. The biggest challenge I see is attracting customers back to the publisher’s website. Call me a pessimist, but I think publisher need to redefine their role and embrace Amazon as their distributor. Amazon is a multi-billion dollar company with funds to marketing and to create new technologies to make things easier and offer more to customers—they also have one of the best pain-free return/claim processes I’ve ever tried. So why fight with them? The focus shouldn’t be on taking away business from Amazon, but on creating a business model that acknowledges the existence of Amazon and find ways to entice their readers.

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