And not so niche
I wrote a post some time ago now on how Blurb was a real threat to publishers of small to medium size. I wrote then:
Using the template it is a very simple task to construct and edit a book. The ease with which this can be done is unsettling for me. I work with a publisher of limited run titles. Few rate over 2000 on an initial print run. To date, the key benefits we could offer to authors of books published through our company were quality of design, access to distribution, access to retail and other sales channels and of course we take on the risk of publishing costs and pay royalties to the author removing the dangers that self published authors have of not receiving payment for the books other sell on their behalf.
Lulu.com took away the fear authors might have that they would be left holding the baby as it were with lots of stock and no buyers, it also resolved the payment problem (As have many other online selling and payments solutions). That left the problem of design, many self published titles suffer from poor design and lack of quality. Blurb resolves that quite easily.
I’ve since moved to Mercier where although we operate mostly in a solid niche (Irish history & Biography being our core market), I’ve not forgotten Blurb.com or Lulu.com> Blurb has expanded its offering and is even hosting a directory of professional designers to help authors layout and design their books; Blurbnation and is running a photography book competition. Lulu.com is offering publishing packages and community functions on its site.
I mention this today because I was guided to a CNN story about Lisa Genova who self published [with iUniverse] her way to a deal with Simon & Schuster and whose now traditionally published novel Still Alice is in The New York Times Bestsellers list for the twelfth week. A rather nice BookVideos clip beneath this graph, it’s worth watching.
Genova is hardly a trend on her own I hear yo say and you are correct, she is not. But she does show that the fracturing of the market is such that even self-publishers have huge potential wins coming their way By dint of the large numbers now engaged in self-publishing books, some of the books will be decent at least. Some will be far, far better than decent and those books may well evade the traditional publishing route, just as the hard-working software coders of 37Signals, yet another of my favourite, self publishing, examples have with their smash hit Getting Real.
Is this really a route to market?
For non-fiction I think there will be an increasing tendency for the market to fracture by niche enabling authors at the micro and more modest level to prosper. I don’t think this will necessarily mean that no project will warrant a publisher’s investment rather that the viable ground for traditional publishing will move increasingly up the chain towards a realm where print runs are of a minimum of 4000-5000 units. Small beer for some of the larger houses but a big deal for most publishers in Ireland and I suspect worldwide.
Perhaps like Mike Shatzkin preaches we can prevent this by aggregating a niche and serving its needs (that would in essence provide other services to compensate the author for the lost revenue from self publishing. Publishers would be spending time and money on audience creation and cultivation alongside their current role of content gathering and curation. In many respects that is what Osprey are doing with Military History.
The top down problem
Of course if bottom is moving upwards, I believe very soon the top rank will move down. Traditional publishers will lose authors to outfits that are prepared to service their careers in every fashion, from events to books, to online exploitation. Andrew Keen made a point at a conference in London that I attended last year. He said that the bulk of his money came from speaking, not writing. When that is the case, why does it make sense for a top-level author to stay with a house that is primarily focused on creating and selling books?
Surely it will be in a top ranked author, the kind who can pull a crowd in any city in the world to move to a talent agency that manages everything like Livenation have started to do with musicians.
Leaving publishers either dead, the middle or adapted
I’m not a big fan of dead, so I think for now we can swim towards the middle and try and move a little bit more into the 4-10,000 unit range of publishing*. There are problems in this area and the main problem is that retailers are pushing the front list much more aggressively and the midlist is suffering. The bulk of those 4-10,000 unit books are smack bang in the midlist as far as retailers are concerned.
Adapted like Osprey then seems an attractive option but presents challenges for a diverse list without a single focus. Even if one can identify a niche where a publisher has a competitive advantage, is that niche a sustainable market likely to support the company for the future, or like newspapers will there be a period of re-adjustment which see staff loses, restructuring and deep unease within the industry?
I’m not sure anyone has the answers to this questions, and it may well be that the premise they are based on is a flawed one. Perhaps self-publishing will not successfully undermine the smaller publishers. One way or the other, any independent publisher needs to, at the very least, be thinking about what that would mean for them if it did happen! I shudder to think of what will happen to the larger trade publishers when top ranking authors start to move away from publishers in large numbers.
Let’s hope it never gets as bad as we fear it might, let’s hope the centre can hold because by my estimation that us where the market for publishers exists.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yates
*I remind you that all opinions expressed on this site are my own, see my disclaimers. Also bear in mind that in discussing numbers and trends I am focused on the Irish Market which is not, by any stretch if the imagination, a large one!