Reformation & Renaissance – the future of publishing.
I’m an optimist.
In this game, you have to be.
I’m optimistic that you’re reading this blog. Okay, perhaps not quite so optimistic you’ll ever come back, but it’s a start.
But this post is about optimism. Because anyone who has written a book, let alone submitted it or had it published, is an optimist.
It is a triumph of hope over experience to stare at that blank page / screen and start hitting keys with the intention of producing x-thousand words of coherent story that will interest and entertain a complete stranger. No sane person would even contemplate it!
But optimism is what keeps us sat at the keyboard until the very last word is in place. Optimism is what has us sending the ms out time and again despite the cruel and heartless rejections from evil agents on a mission to make our lives a misery. Optimism is what has us stick our books on Kindle and let “real people” judge them.
So why are we so pessimistic about the future of publishing?
To be sure the Konrathian soothsayers haven’t helped. Predicting the demise of publishing is their stock in trade. And of course we all love to read Joe’s latest rant on how evil the publishers are, how paper is dead, and how everyone should rush out and indie e-publish this very second. We all love to read how Barry Eisler turned down x-gazillion dollars to be a self-published indie, etc, etc.
But sometimes we have to take a step back and make sure we’re all reading from the same script. That same Joe that is telling us paper is dead is bemoaning indie booksellers not stocking his paper books. And haven’t these two just signed up with Amazon’s new publishing venture to have Amazon produce their books both as ebooks and on paper?
Is the Big 6 about to become the Big 7?
So in fact paper isn’t dead at all. But all credit to these guys for knowing how to generate hype and get sales boosted. Who needs a Big 6 publisher to buy you a plinth in Barnes & Noble when you can have the virtual plinth on Amazon?
But the statistics speak for themselves. Paper sales are declining. And as ereaders become the norm it seems likely paper will continue to decline, to the point where it is a luxury niche market.
So is this the end for publishing?
Back in 2009 there were two schools of thought. Either this “new” epublishing fad would die a death and paper would remain king (the experience of the newspaper industry being a classic example) or the Big 6 were finished.
As one leading pundit said in April 2009, the Big 6 were not even “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – they’re staying put and ordering more piña coladas and charging them to rooms that are already underwater.”
Two years on the Big 6 are most definitely still with us, and while there’s no question they are changing, there’s little sign that they are going under. Which will be a great disappointment to Konrath, but should be a big relief to the rest of us.
But there’s no doubt opinion is divided about which way things will go. And two of my must-read bloggers have run posts recently which have epitomised this debate.
First came Meghan Ward (left) in a post called 10 Ways To Save Publishing.
I commend the post to you for its list of things we all should be doing, as readers and writers. Buying more books. Reading more books. Reading to our kids. Etc, etc.
As an aside, Meghan’s Memoir May event over at writerland is just drawing to a close, but be sure to check out her guest Rachel Howard (right) who has a post this week on writing memoir using the second person singular.
Meghan by the way is a professional editor. Surely everyone’s dream job?! Getting paid to read all the latest books before anyone else knows they exist! If you ever need an apprentice, Meghan…
Then this past week along came Lexi Revellian with a great post entitles Who Chooses What You Read?
By which Lexi meant who chooses the choice available from which you choose to read. In Lexi’s own words:
If you go to a bookshop, what catches your eye, the piles of books in the window or on a table near the entrance, or books spine out on the bottom shelf at the back of the shop? Most members of the public are unaware that the prominent books are not those the manager has selected on merit; publishers have paid a lot of money for particular books to be well displayed.
Thanks for that poignant reminder of reality, Lexi.
Invariably what sells best is what the publishers put most money into to make sure it sells best.
As for the rest… The simple fact is, most traditionally published books are lucky to sell just a thousand copies.
Which is why Lexi has every reason to be delighted her latest book, Replica, which is a feel-good thriller with a sci fi element, has already sold nearly 5,000 copies, and has only been out five minutes.
Although that pales into insignificance compared to her first feel-good thriller Remix, which has sold over 22,000 copies. And no, not by pandering to the least-savoury elements of the thriller market. If you like fast-paced thrillers that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to read out loud to your grandmother, then Lexi’s books are for you.
But despite 25,000 happy readers Lexi has yet to capture the interest of the UK agents.
Why? because her books don’t tick the right boxes to be commercially viable . Which comes back to the matter of the huge expense necessary to publish a paper book.
So can we assume the publishers only publish books they know will sell? Far from it.
Another tragic reality of traditional publishing is that most bookstores stock “new” books for maybe three months before returning them. To be pulped. Yep, brand new, unread books, many still in their packing cases, being pulped. Those that escape this ignominious fate go to the discount stores, having been bought up in bulk for a pittance by an optimistic reseller. There simply isn’t enough room in even the biggest bookstore to stock everything
The fact is, publishers print far more books than they expect to sell, just in case they have a successful breakout book on their hands. They expect to have substantial returns, even on big names, and budget accordingly.
Put simply, most books fail to sell. Fact.
Yes, the majority of books that pass the gatekeepers’ test and get into print are then rejected by the true gatekeepers: the buying public. Although again, by reject I mean that in most cases the buying public just never knew these books existed.
So one can understand the pessimism of both Meghan and Lexi about the future. Paper sales are plummeting, giant bookselling chains like Borders are in liquidation, and Konrath and co have already written the orbituaries for the Big 6 and are there, spades in hand, digging their graves.
But I disagree. I simply cannot see the end for the Big 6 or for publishing.
Just the opposite in fact.
But far from seeing the death-throes of publishing I think we are seeing a painful rebirth. A revival – dare I say a Renaissance? – on an unprecedented scale, where every author who has a good quality book will, in the near future, have a chance to reach an audience.
Of course, those that are unwilling or unable to adapt will go to the wall.
Yes, there will be casualties along the way, and real people will lose real jobs in publishing, printing, book-selling, distribution, et al.
But get real. The days of carting shed-loads of printed blocks of paper around the country so people can buy them is coming to an end. The loss of huge stores like Borders is of course a tragedy, but dinosaurs become extinct.
Are less books being sold since Borders closed? Less paper, perhaps, but e-books are surely more than countering that, and ebook sales will increase exponentially as technology improves and the range of available titles is widened.
Agents and editors will need to adapt and change, for sure, but their skills and service will still be needed. More so than ever before as the indie movement finds that quantity alone cannot compete with quality.
The big publishers are investing massively in digital, however much they try to appear aloof from it all. They have the financial muscle to do so, and at the end of the day they will make more money, not less, as the industry stabilises in the new world where paper will be the luxury niche.
The future for readers, writers and those publishers willing and able to move with the times, is brighter than at any time in history.
How so? Consider:
Traditionally an author’s chances of being published were governed by one single factor: can the publisher hope to get a return on the huge financial investment needed to bring a book to market.
For those that get the coveted place in the window display or on the plinth, yes. But unless you’re a celebrity, a mega-selling author, or are sleeping with the CEO the chances of that happening are remote.
If you are published, your fate will inevitably be a few book signings in your local store and then a place on the shelf, spine out, among however many hundreds of thousands of other books that are in the store with you.
And this is why, day after day, week in week out, perfectly good books are being rejected by agents and publishers across the globe.
The points Lexi makes about being an anonymous spine in a bookshop are exactly why so many perfectly good books are rejected. Former Big 6 editor turned million-selling author Ruth Harris spills the beans about reasons why agents may reject your book in her guest post over at Anne R Allen’s blog.
Of course agents rightly turn away appallingly written manuscripts by the hour. But they also turn away perfectly good ones. And the key reason for that is quite simple:
It’s because they are not commercially viable.
That doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.
Let’s hear that once more: It doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.
But now, with epublishing, there’s suddenly infinite shelf space for infinite categories and sub-categories, and the most intimate niche markets can be catered for with negligible outlay by the publisher.
Far from being less books, publishers can now reproduce their entire backlist of everything they’ve ever published (if they have the rights) and once that happens readers will be able to read that book they loved as a child, long since out of print, or a novel previously only available in some far off land.
And prices will come down.
Publishers will only need to pay for the time of the editor, proof-reader, formatter and a few other key staff.
Cover design is now a simple front page. No back cover or spine to worry about.
No collecting and pulping the unsold titles. In fact, not a single wasted product.
Whether it sells a single copy or a million copies the production cost is identical (bar the author’s advance, perhaps).
And of course, the book will never again be “out of print”, “not in stock”, only available in if you live in a big city, or any of a thousand other reasons that buyers previously could not buy a book they wanted.
Far from turning away perfectly good authors because their book is commercially unviable, publishers will be queuing up to find new authors with a decent product, because any good book wll be commercially viable.
And it won’t matter whether the author or reader lives in New York or New Zealand. Don’t tell Barnes & Nobel, but there’s a whole wide world outside the United States. (When will it occur to them that’s why Amazon is leaving them standing?)
A revolution is taking place that we are not just witnessing, but are participants in. It’s up to us how far we get involved, but burying our heads in the sand is no longer an option. Peer-review sites like authonomy and youwriteon, are you listening?
It may take a few years to stabilise, and there will be casualties along the way. But when it does settle down there will be a whole new world of opportunity for both readers and writers.
Not to mention the publishers…
The glass is half full!
The future is bright. The future is digital.
PS Literally just having posted this article my attention was drawn, via the above mentioned Lexi, to a post over at The Daily Beast where Dale Peck has a very different take on the future. Check it out. Join the debate!