Publishing: a golden age of chaos?

Posted: February 12, 2014 in writing life
Tags: , , , , ,

Did you know that the vast majority of popular novels sold through Amazon are now ebooks? That independent publishers are making huge inroads into the book market? That all of this is producing very heated and often ill-evidenced debate?

If you’re anything like I was five years ago then you had no idea. But the publishing industry is going through a period of huge disruption, and the choices that we make, as readers as well as writers, will shape its future.

The other name on the spine

Do you pay attention to which publisher’s books you’re reading? Or is the only name you notice on the spine the author’s? It might not sound important, but who publishes a book really matters.

Until recently big publishing houses dominated the market. As is the way with business, the number of companies was shrinking through a history of takeovers and closures. But recent years have seen independent authors and small publishers take off in a big way. While the big publishers still claim to be in control, recent well-evidenced analysis by Hugh Howey – here with commentary by Joe Konrath – indicates that the underdogs now represent around half of popular genre sales in the growing e-book market.

And as self-published authors regularly receive 70% of the price of their e-book, as opposed to maybe 12% when going through a big publisher, that’s big news for the writers in question.

Paper vs electrons

What’s that you say, it’s only e-book sales? Well, yes, but the same data indicates that over 85% of genre bestseller sales through Amazon (and by bestseller I mean top 2500 titles, not just the elite top 100) are now e-books.

Alas, poor paperback, I knew him well...

Alas, poor paperback, I knew him well…

Sure, some types of books, like textbooks and illustrated books, still sell almsot entirely in a dead tree format. And of course this doesn’t cover physical bookshops, where it’s all about pulp and print. But the books seizing the popular imagination, the Dan Browns, George Martins and bodice-ripping romances, are increasingly selling in electronic form.

Stop Knighton! It’s not that straightforward

OK, yes, the situation is far more complicated than this, and because of limits on the available data it’s also very unclear. Commentators on the issue, whether the million-selling Hugh Howey or the Mighty Mur Lafferty, make this point clear – the big publishers aren’t going away any time soon, and neither are paperbacks.

But the lack of clarity is a sign in itself. If it’s not clear what’s going on then that’s a sign of change, of disruption, of a situation that no-one fully understands because it’s not staying still long enough to map out.

What about you?

As a reader, why should you care?

Because this means that your purchases are helping to direct the future of publishing. Because the format and publisher you choose makes a huge difference to how much your favourite author receives. Because all these changes mean far more diversity of books to choose from – sure, it’s a chaotic age, but for my money that makes it a golden one.

And those of you reading this who’ve been published, whether by a company or through self-publishing, what’s your experience been like? Am I discussing interesting trends or talking rot? Has this disruption affected you? Is it good for you or bad? Leave a comment, make your voice heard.


Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

  1. sknicholls says:

    I don’t write the popular genre fiction that sells like hotcakes, the traditional crime novel/murder mystery or the gushing romance, but it is nice to know that I can put my writing out there for others to see and enjoy or not enjoy, whatever the case may be. Good literary fiction is being dominated by the commercial industry of writing whether traditionally published or independently published. Everyone is trying hard to fit into that marketable box. Even paid advertisers are looking to promote only those books out of the 20 million out there, that they truly think will move thousands.

    The biggest problem with any type of book, be it dead tree or digital, is getting exposure. Along with new ways of publishing and variety in book choices that stray from the tired and formulaic styles that the reader has come to expect, come challenges for authors to be seen and readers to discover. The greater the pile, ( and much of it slush) the harder to find that shining jewel. Online marketers are popping up everywhere for authors to promote on, but readers have not found them yet…they are still going, “What in the hell is happening here?”

    • That’s a very good point, and a large part of the benefit of big publishing houses for writers – the guarantee of exposure. It’s going to be interesting to see who emerges from this turmoil as the gatekeepers of good taste and our guides to what’s worth reading, if it’s no longer the editors of big publishing houses and the whole internet is flooded with reviews.

  2. glenatron says:

    I suspect that bringing an ebook reader under my roof would get me kicked out because my love is also in love with paper and pages. I don’t worry too much about this yet, but I’m certainly not interested in publisher rather than content. I have yet to see a publisher or imprint sufficiently attuned to my interests that I would enjoy a book because they published it, but many authors affect me thus.

    I think as mentioned above, that exposure is the challenge. This is certainly the case in music- I play in a band who I honestly believe to be freaking awesome and when people hear us play, they do tend to concur, but there are a hundred million bands in the world and all of them have music out there and how do people even find us? Books are slightly less pirateable than music ( or were- of course ebooks change that ) so they haven’t yet been subject to Google and the phone networks attempts to devalue them utterly ( the idea that content is free but you pay to download it is great for content networks and for freetards, rubbish for artists and people in that chain ) but now that e-books are more normal that could yet happen. Certainly there is time for publishers to learn from the terrible mistakes the music industry made, but whether they will be able to is harder to know.

    As regards ebooks- if I could read them, I would still need a recommendation from someone I really trusted before I went out and invested. And I would be a trifle cautious even then. Books are a thing that are hard to take away. Bits on a disk that someone else partially controls can vanish into the air. I guess I’ll have to learn to trust the cloud better, but that is not always easy to do.

    • glenatron says:

      But to follow up what you said, Textbooks are the natural use for a digital format- large, in need of regular updates and errata, and having the ability to search the document becomes a real asset. I can’t imagine any advantages to paper textbooks except maybe the ability to write in the margin…

      • I think you’re right about textbooks in the long run, but in the short term it’s harder to shift to what’s actually a more rational model. You need to get e-readers into schools in a way where most of them won’t go missing, and that’s not worth doing until the textbooks are available in an electronic format. But there’s not much point in the electronic format until those e-readers are in the schools. Then there’s all the old habits of how you reference and what’s considered a credible source to shift. These aren’t insurmountable obstacles, but they make for an inherently conservative situation that will take longer to change.

  3. I’m self-published. It never occurred to me to try and get traditionally published, so I have no experience of that, though I have read some horror stories. Even allowing for exaggeration and bias, the way publishers treat authors seems to leave a lot to be desired.

    I don’t care who publishes a book, but I know some people avoid self-published books, believing that traditionally published guarantee a minimum standard of editing, even if there’s no guarantee that they’ll like the book’s content. Up until a few years ago, I would have agreed with them, but recently I’ve seen some shockingly bad editing, including factual errors in non-fiction books.

    Print book sales are a minority of my sales, but big enough to be important, possibly because I write non-fiction. 14% of last year’s sales were in print. That’s not much, but Kindle ebooks sold through Amazon made up 62% of last year’s sales, and the next-largest vendor sold 8%.

    • Wow, if Amazon are dominating that much for other authors that would add a lot of validity to Howie’s analysis. I’ll be interested to see what feedback he gets and where that takes the discussion. But if even for a non-fiction author like you print sales are only 14% that makes me think we’re shifting to e-reading even quicker than I thought.

      The point about bad editing is interesting, and I’ve heard it mentioned before. I suspect it’s a self-replicating problem for big publishers. Lower sales mean less money means less staff means less effective editing means less sales means…

      • I’ve seen some self-publishers say that Amazon accounts for as much as 90% of their sales.

        As for non-fiction and ebooks, I was surprised when I saw the numbers, but I’m not sure that I should be. I’ve been told over and over that ebooks are only good for fiction and narrative non-fiction, but I write the sort of books that I want to own, and I’d rather have them as ebooks, so I’m not sure why I was surprised that other people would want the same 🙂

        As for the editing, I find it really frustrating. I recently gave up on a non-fiction book about half-way in because the errors annoyed me so much that I just couldn’t carry on. It was an interesting book, but when I caught myself cross-checking things because I didn’t trust the author, I gave up on it. I almost feel like I’ve been cheated out of reading a book that I wanted to read.

        • It’s ridiculous how easily we just stick with accepted wisdom isn’t it, no matter the evidence. People say e-books are mostly about fiction, but unless it’s a picture-heavy book I’d rather have it on e-reader too. And I bet in a few years time we’ll be seeing all sorts of gorgeous illustrated e-books for fancy full-colour readers.

  4. Ben Burston says:

    I am certainly someone who cares who published the books I’m buying. I am not kidding when I say that in many cases I am buying the Publisher – not the Author. Genuinely. I am trusting the publisher to recommend the Author.

    This is a subject I could harp on about ad nauseum. Thank you for raising it. I shall try not to!

    I am hoping fervently for a resurgence of Small Press Publishers producing quality books for a discerning public. This is how Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy emerged from the death of the pulps after the second world war and this is how (some) good stories/writers/genres will survive and evolve post-Kindle.

    It is good in many ways – and bad in others.

    But I think overall the future of Fiction and the future of good books is looking up due to the technological changes which are causing such upheaval. I might well write more later – but I’m at work and due to deliver a News report.

  5. As a new fantasy author self-publishing through Amazon, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my sales…but not by my number of ratings. Low e-book prices really do seem to prompt impulse purchases, but people who impulse-purchase books might have more dollars than they have time, and thus never get around to reading! It’s a bit frustrating, but at the same time it’s nice to know that I’m in control of my own material.

    • I’ve heard mention of this phenomenon elsewhere, in terms of its benefit for authors. Cheap e-books mean people are more likely to impulse purchase large numbers of books they may never read, because it’s a low cost commitment and there’s no cost in terms of space and storage. So some people are buying more far more e-books than they read and, in theory at least, an author might make more money off a low price point than a high one.

      And I can really see the appeal of keeping control over your own material – I expect it’s a factor for lots of authors.

  6. Sheila says:

    With my professional hat on, I am concerned about the rules about e-books and libraries. The situation about lending e-books is not the same as for lending paper books, as far as I am aware, which causes problems.

  7. […] all the turmoil in publishing, it’s particularly cool to be published in a place where they’re trying something new, […]

  8. […] all the recent discussion of self-publishing, and Joss Whedon challenging business as usual in releasing his new film, the market for arts and […]

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