On Monday, I published Trendwatching 2010, my attempt to gaze into a crystal ball (okay, crystal wine glass) and predict the big trends for 2010. There are times when I wish my beat dealt with shoes and purses — with freebies galore! — but I cover digital publishing. Granted, it’s the most exciting part of publishing today, but still…shoes, purses, ebooks?
I wonder if it’s too late for a do-over?
Every year since I started watching the ebook marketplace, back when I was a wee creative accountant, this year was going to be the year for ebooks. People talked about the “iPod moment” without realizing that publishing hadn’t even had its CD/DVD moment, the moment when consumers convert their analogue libraries into digital, often buying second copies of products they already owned. That is the moment I hope book publishing has very soon, and not just because I am eager to load my favorite books onto my Kindle, though, ahem, I am.
I believe digital books represent a new marketplace, and the serious pain we’re witnessing in the industry stems largely from traditional publishing’s attempt to shove its current business model into a different one. Sure, some corners slip in neatly, but others grind in a way that makes you wonder if they’ll ever get inside the space. They won’t. Digital books are not the same as print books.
This has implications for authors, some good, some bad. First, a look at the state of the market going in to 2010. I wish I were the sugar-coating type, but I’m not, so let’s get the worst of it out of the way first. When the Harlequin Horizons (now DellArt) issue broke, my reaction was very different from the authors I know. I suspect it’s because the conversations I have are different.
The conversations I’m hearing are about figuring out how to transform a business that is notoriously slow-moving before disaster strikes. These conversations are not hyperbole. The come from fear, worry. A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from a publisher; I’ll paraphrase, “Weird. Last time I heard this guy speak, back at the office, they were firing half my company.” Right now is the time for authors to look at how they can transform, too. Let me quote a friend:
The falling of barriers to entry has increased the number of these actors operating on the landscape, and their degree of interdependence has grown. So not only will things continue to change, the rate of change itself is likely to increase. We are not just in transition from one state or model to another state or model, we’re in transition to a state of permanent accelerated transition where the model is continuous rapid reinvention.
Publishing will never be stable again.
Everything is changing: physical retail space is shrinking; money is not flowing to authors, at least not in the way it used to; reader attention is fragmented; the system is broken (yet publishers will continue to make stupid deals because there is a gene that controls this function); piracy and/or file sharing is part of the mix (sorry, it’s been that way since the dawn of humanity, hmm, is piracy genetic?); consumers are vocal and sophisticated; and, Amazon wields a big stick while its bookish competitors are also dictating terms.
And that’s not even getting into the economics of parent companies and other pressures.
Publishing is entering, one hopes, a reality-based world. The world as it exists (read the article linked above, there is a true OMG moment). It’s tough out there for authors. Heck, it’s tough in the best of times. We’re not a culture who indulges in reading book-length fiction in a big way. Makes me really sad to type those words.
So, okay, here’s the deal: I’m extremely optimistic about publishing and reading. The latter because more people are reading (and writing and creating) than ever before. The latter because more people are publishing than ever before. And while I didn’t include in my trendwatch piece, this means the need for smart curators, excellent trust networks, and authoritative recommenders will become essential. There is a lot of stuff out there…someone needs to help us find it.
The difficulties outlined above will challenge authors, there is no question about it. In some ways, romance authors have encountered the first hurdle: digital first/print maybe publishing with its economic highs and lows — romance was at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution, and, much as it seems commonplace to many of us (we can set our calendars by the semi-annual RWA blow-ups over this!), this model is, shall we say?, a revelation to other parts of the publishing industry. No, really, go to Europe, talk to publishers there. You’d be amazed (and enlightened; interacting with international publishing professionals changed my thinking on several fronts).
eBook sales are skyrocketing (here’s the infamous IDPF sales chart, part of the ebook drinking game). While other book sales are, overall, meh, ebooks are selling like crazy. They’re expanding worldwide. It’s too soon to tell if new readers are really coming into the marketplace, though anecdotal evidence suggests that is the case. The combination of media hype and choice — especially the various reading applications for the iPhone — makes it easier to read in those interstitial moments, and that’s very attractive to people. We do know we’re seeing an active, concerted shift in format choice for serious (read: prolific) readers.
More entities, from Harlequin and HarperCollins to start-ups like Cursor, are looking at how they can adapt the core digital publishing principles to their own business. Not every new venture will succeed (trust me, I am an expert on this), and some might be put on the shelf for another, more logical time, but for those authors who are willing to take chances on new models, there is opportunity. I cannot pretend there will necessarily be a lot of money in these new ventures (nor can I pretend there’s a lot of money anywhere in publishing…did you see the unit sales for the National Book Award nominees?), and I suspect the ones who will accept these challenges are those who believe in their art so much they will take risks.
I am particularly enthusiastic about models lead to a true Netflix approach — where books are purchased at a slightly lower wholesale price with revenue sharing happening between retailers and publisher (and author receiving royalties on this rev share). I am enthusiastic about other book rental models, especially those that create mechanisms for purchases.
I am also particularly enthusiastic about new ebook markets. I had my mind blown — and I am not easily impressed — by a start-up targeting the sub-Saharan region. Bottom line for this project is they’re creating a methodology to use existing systems to sell books in places where no bookselling infrastructure (like, oh, bookstores) exists. Talk about opening new markets! eReaders, a new one of which seems to be announced at least once a week, are rolling out to countries around the world, while cellphone reading continues to rise.
I’ve heard far too much about Yog’s Law (money flows to the author) recently, but very few author-initiated suggestions on how the publishing industry can reinvent itself (I don’t believe it will collapse overnight, but it’s not going to be the same industry ten years from now). For those authors who insist the advance-based model is the only one they’ll accept, I say great. It’s going to be competitive out there, but that’s your business model.
For those authors who say they won’t pay anything to publish their book, again, I say great. That’s your business model. To those who engage publishing services, I say great. That’s your business model.
But for those authors who see beyond the world as it is today (which is really the world as it was five, ten, fifteen years…how long has the mid-list been shrinking?) and look at how they can make the changing landscape of publishing work for them, I say thank you. You will be providing me with books I can read, and you will be rewarded. I pay for my books. Happily.
So publishing will never be stable again, but publishing will not die. We are currently living in interesting times. Though I love purses and shoes, I think covering the publishing industry is far more thrilling. Hmm, did I just reveal too much about myself?
I should give Lauren her blog back. And I thank her for the opportunity to rant and rave.
Kassia Krozser has seen the future and it is good: more people are reading and writing than ever before. She knows that, unlike the dinosaurs, smart people in the publishing business can adapt to changing economics and reader behavior. Kassia dissects this world with love and skepticism at booksquare.com.