As I prepare for two upcoming workshops, I’m impressed again by how much the publishing industry has morphed in just the past few months. Publishing has never been so challenging, nor the myriad of options available so overwhelming, and yet the industry has also never been so exciting for brave and innovative authors. The game has changed. The odds are much worse, but the returns are potentially much higher.
Think back for a moment and consider just how much change there’s been. Not all that long ago, if you wanted to read a book you had relatively few options. You could borrow one from a library or from a friend, or you could buy one from a book store. That book store would likely have been an independently owned affair, or at most part of a regional chain. And the books would have been, well, books. Printed, bound, releasing the tantalizing whiff of new-book smell when you first cracked the spine.
Nowadays, you are probably not buying your books from your local bookstore or borrowing them from your local library. In March 2013, Digital Book World reported that e-retailers had overtaken physical retail stores in sales volume.1 And libraries now have to compete with an explosion of different subscription services accessed at a very low cost through your phone or e-reader.
In addition, the very definition of “book” has changed. E-books accounted for 20% of all book sales in the first six months of
2015.2 This isn’t yet the wholesale takeover many people anticipated: in some past projections, e-books were supposed to be outselling print books by now. But 20% is fully one fifth of a multi-billion-dollar market; impressive when you think that ten years ago, no one had even heard of a Kindle or an iPad.
Plus, the days when e-books were the default alternative to the print book are over. Audiobooks are growing strong.3 There is always a delay in publishing stats, so 2014 figures were only released and reported by Publishers Weekly in August 2015, but in that most-recent report on the audiobook industry, the Audiobook Publishers Association reported a jump of 13.5% in U.S. sales dollars, year on year, and a 19.5% increase in U.S. sales units, with total U.S. retail sales of more than $1.47 billion.
And now, coming to a store near you, are print books that do not exist until you order one up. Print-on-demand has already enabled self- and independent-publishers to advertise their titles in online stores and incur production costs only once the book is ordered. Deep in the bowels of Amazon or Ingram, a machine prints and binds that ordered copy and spits it into the mail. Now, closing the circle, print-on-demand is coming “offline.” Espresso Book Machines are coming to the drug store, supermarket, or big box store near you—and, surprisingly, to your local book store also.4 While they are still in the pilot phase, switching partners like square dancers, I am excited by the idea of print-on-demand machines wherever people buy paperbacks. Instead of a rack of maybe twenty titles, you will be able to choose from a list of more than two hundred thousand. Who knows how long the coming of this reality will take, but from title selection to your new book dropping out of the slot would be around five minutes.
But how, you ask, does all of this affect the author? Well, it fundamentally changes the business you are in or trying to get into. Where before there was a publishing path—manuscript,agent, publisher (or if you were a picture book author: manuscript, publisher)—now there is a publishing labyrinth. Should you self-publish, and if so by which of many options? If you choose “traditional” publishing, what kind of publisher? Five years ago, there were:
1. The Big Six as they were called then;
2. Everybody else that was big;
3. Small presses;
4. Vanity presses.
Now you need to add to that list reading platforms, digital-first publishers, audiobook publishers, partner or cooperative publishing, and crowd-funded publishing.
All these new options mean a lower barrier to entry. Anybody, and I do mean anybody, can now publish a book with the investment of only a few hours and at most a few dollars. In 2012, according to the latest confirmed figures available from the industry watchdog, Bowker, traditional publishers released around 300,000 titles in the U.S. while non- traditional publishers released more than two million.5 And this does not count the millions of public-domain e-books available. Your book now has to compete against many, many more titles.
Excitingly, a handful of self-publishers have proven that it can be done. Fifty Shades of Grey, first self-published as fan fiction and then as an e-book and via print on demand, famously changed the paradigms of publishing when Random House bought the rightsand sold 70 million copies of the trilogy in nine months.6
The Martian started off equally humbly, being serialized for free on author Andy Weir’s personal website before progressing to a self-published e-book, then to an audiobook that rocketed to the number one spot on Audible—and then, of course, to a print deal with Crown/Random House and a movie with Matt Damon playing the lead.7
This new playing field affects even the largest publishers. It’s been called Blockbuster Syndrome. Publishers now look for every chance to “guarantee” sales: self-published books that are already white hot; big name authors; movie, TV, or video game tie-ins; established series; celebrities who can bring their own audience. How well the book is written is often not the critical factor, and that shows in the advances. Donna Tartt, who went on to win a Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, received a $450,000 advance for her first novel A Secret History, placing her well into the major league for literary debuts;8but Bill Clinton received $15,000,000 (fifteen million just in case your eyes cannot quite absorb all the zeros) as an advance for My Life.9
Who can blame them? Publishing companies are businesses run for profit and have to be responsible to their shareholders and responsive to the market—us. We are the people who gave James Patterson sales of 300 million copies worldwide,10 while Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, after it had won the Man Booker Prize (which I agree is the mark of “fiction at its finest”), was considered a literary blockbuster at only 225,000 copies in hardback.11
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if good books would find good sales; if good books would rise to the surface despite publishing’s increasingly labyrinthian challenges; and if good books would find their audiences not by marketing muscle but by merit? This raises the question, who is to judge a book’s merit? Well, this is my blog, so let me rephrase: I wish that all the books that I would think were good will find good sales.
Until then, happy writing!
1. Digital Book World, March 18, 2013.
2. Fortune, September 24, 2015.
3. Publishers Weekly, August 7, 2015.
4. The Digital Reader, September 2, 2014.
5. Bowker ISBN Output Report for 2002-2013.
6. Christian Science Monitor, March 2013.
7. Publishers Weekly, September 11, 2015.
8. The New Criterion, October, 1992.
9. New York Times, April 5, 2008.
10. Business Insider, April 15, 2014.
11. themanbookerprize.com, The Man booker Effect, November 13, 2012.