Also not shockingly, profits are up at places like Penguin and Simon & Schuster. This is due in part to the fact that, yes, e-books are cheaper to manufacture, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar who has absolutely zero respect for your intelligence.
The other major contributing factor? Publishers have been screwing authors over! If you don't have to pay your suppliers for the product you sell, you make a lot more money!
And in the past, authors have been happy to get screwed. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch notes:
Either writers give the traditional publisher 15% of gross or 25% of net [of e-books], or there is no contract. Some publishers are getting even stingier: 15% of net, not gross, and if you don’t like it, writer person, walk away.
So many writers don’t walk. Hell, I have several contracts with those numbers in them, and back when I signed them—ten and five years ago—I too thought e-books would remain a subsidiary right.
In other words, these 2011 profits you're seeing are a result of decisions made in the past. Writers had no choice if they wanted to be published, and they were generally OK with getting the shaft on e-books because those things were never going to make money anyway.
But are authors going to continue to be compliant? Some say yes, because authors are stupid. I say no, because authors need money just like everybody else does.
And making me feel even more secure in my opinion is, of all people, Jackie Collins. Bless her leopard-print soul, but it even sounds like she's self-publishing because she feels hampered by traditional publishers--she wants to write short fiction, and they're telling her no, there's no money in it. (Tell that to Stephen "It took three days, and I've made about $80,000" King.)
(Man, I wish I wrote short fiction!)
Anyway, I realize there's a big debate over whether big publishers will go under or live forever thanks to the largess of their corporate parents. I feel that, like so many debates about publishing, if you are an author, it doesn't matter. Big publishers may well live on as imprint names or as companies that cherry pick bestselling indie writers or as companies that provide services to self-published writers or as companies that specialize in elaborate pop-up books.
In any case, I seriously doubt things are going to stay the way they are. The financial results you'll be seeing for publishers in the future will be the result of decisions authors are making now. And I think publishers who may be celebrating their 2011 results have a serious sustainability problem--authors feel like they've been screwed (because they have been!), and they are making different decisions today than they did just a couple of years ago. Even writers who would rather not change and love their publisher and don't want to learn new things--well, if their advances are getting smaller and smaller, and they can't sell additional rights because they signed them all away for a pittance of an advance, and they have a life set up on the expectation that they will be making X number of dollars a year...they'll change. They won't like it, but they won't have a choice.