Culture & Conversation

Publishing Reborn

We’re not even at the end of Q1, and 2011 has already been a rough year for the book retailers. But while retailers struggle and fold, there might be new opportunities on the horizon for publishers and authors alike, and a publishing phoenix just might still rise from the ashes of yet.

In February, Borders filed for bankruptcy, saying that it would close about a third of its stores. And despite its major competitor on the rocks, Barnes & Noble stock continues to drop.

But the thing about these trends is that they’re affecting retailers more than anyone. In fact, both publishers and authors seem to be adapting to the new landscape of book publishing.

The New Publishers

The emergence of ereaders, tablets, and smart phones has fueled the growth of ebooks, and publishing is re-inventing itself. The line between books and the internet is vanishing, and while publishing houses are adopting new business models, new digital publishing houses are even emerging to challenge these incumbents.

In July 2010, ebooks started outselling hardcovers on Amazon (but not paperbacks). So it’s not surprising, then, that publishing houses are moving to embrace the ebook more wholeheartedly.

Amazon eBook Sale, July 2010

Perhaps publishing houses learned from the example of the recording industry, which clung to CDs too long. But they’re actively embracing digital formats, and many publishers have changed their pricing model to accommodate the new retailers — i.e. ereader, tablet, and smart phone vendors.

And it doesn’t look like publishing houses are moving too soon. The economics of ebook publishing has already attracted some new market entrants: publishers that specialize in ebooks for ereaders, tablets, and smart phones.

But these economics have not only inspired publishing houses to rethink their business model and new competition to take them on. It’s also created a new, independent breed of author.

The New Author

In January, 2010, the Huffington Post drew attention to Amanda Hocking, a 26 year-old self-publishing fiction author who has written 17 novels, published 8, and sold over 185,000 copies since April 2010 along. Hocking also topped the list of Kindle indie authors in December 2010, selling 100,000 copies in just one month.

What’s most interesting about this list is that only six of these authors had previous print deals with major publishers. This means that it’s very realistic to not only make a living from self-publishing, but become a veritable commercial success. As Novelr pointed out

it’s no stretch to say – at $3 per book1/70% per sale for the Kindle store – that she makes a lot of money from her monthly book sales. (Perhaps more importantly: a publisher on the private Reading2.0 mailing list has said, to effect: there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own.) [emphasis not my own]

Indeed, these new writers can not only succeed without a traditional publishing house backing them, but can be even more of a success. They’ve jumped the gate the publishing houses have erected around distribution and retail, and in the process, successfully cut-out the middleman.

Back to Market Reality

Of course, the success of these new indie authors are constrained by two market realities. First, these authors are early adopters. That is, just as TechCrunch was able to grow into the tech reporting powerhouse that it is because it started out before blogging was mainstream, these authors are pioneers who will get to claim a disproportionate stake of the frontier.

This brings us to the second reality: the publishing houses are moving in. Just as big industry moved West and brought law and order with it, so will the big publishing houses muscle in on the ebook racket. And as they do, they will flood the marketing with more titles, meaning that any aspiring author will again rely on a big backer for one thing they can’t do on their own: the marketing.

Essentially, as the ebook market gets crowded, standing out in the crowd will be that much harder, and the value proposition that publishing houses will offer authors will be less about distribution and more about marketing & promotion. Now, this doesn’t mean that publishinig hasn’t change permanently to favor the struggling author a bit more than before.

Indie authors will still be able to sell directly and that’s important for two reasons: there will always be some writers that are lucky and/or talented enough to side-step big publishers altogether, and other authors now have a shot at attracting the attention and support of big publishers by starting out as a self-publishers of moderate commercial success that publishers subsequently see an opportunity to tap into and exploit.

Either way you look at it, these are the twilight years for brick & mortar book retailers. Physical, print books will probably always exist as novelty items. But for the great majority of their sales will be probably be driven by online orders. Neither book publishers or authors need them to get their titles into the hands of readers.

First published on ReveNews.

  • 2 Responses to “Publishing Reborn”

    1. elise

      This article, while I'm sure sincerely intended, is full of half-truths and wild conclusions. The fact is, the only segment of the economy making real money from e-books is the people who drove their development: the makers of e-readers. Publishers didn't adapt their pricing to the e-book market because they were so excited about e-books, they did it because they were forced by Apple and Amazon and other e-book reader vendors. In fact publishers as a rule are still struggling to figure out how to monetize e-books, and in fact rather than expanding that product, some publishers, notably Harper Collins, have started to limit access to e-books for libraries so as to stem the flow of lifeblood through the e-book channel. As for it being "very realistic to not only make a living from self-publishing, but become a veritable commercial success" this is laughable. That's like saying Warren Buffett did it, so can you. To hold a 26-year old who has written 17 novels up as an example that can "realistically" be followed is sweetly optimistic, but ludicrous. If it were as simple as selling your work online for pennies, the mainstream publishers would have been doing that for years already. (And I've yet to hear from anyone who has read one of these books. Maybe they're great, but have they even been edited?) Amanda Hocking's situation is clearly exceptional. Her success is due to marketing, not just format: how did she amass an audience of 185,000? That's the real question. And then, even if we could each follow her example and collect 185,000 readers, are there enough readers for all of our books? And what of poetry, literary fiction, academic works, genres that typically have smaller audiences but have a disproportionate impact on the culture?

    2. bob aubery

      Well yeah, sure there are thousands of Macdonald's franchises around the world but I've never eaten in one.


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