I had a fascinating conversation with Porter Anderson as part of The Booksellers #PorterMeets on Twitter on Monday. The topic was Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings project (after they released the original 7,000 report but before they released the 50,000 report) which has been raising hackles and causing ruckus in publishing the last few weeks. The conversation fired up loads of thoughts about self publishing and I wanted, following that discussion, to write a post that encapsulates the discussion and the reality of self publishing now.
The problem has been presented as an oppositional one, almost a battle between self publishing and traditional publishing. I think looking at it that way is useful in many ways but also obscures other issues too. Even so, in order to make sense of the current situation I’m going to explore self publishing from three perspectives in sequence, first authors, then publishers and finally readers.
Well the truth is, if there was a war between self publishing and publishing, it’s over and authors (who are the major self publishers and hence the foot-soldiers, commanders and field marshals of self publishing’s forces) have won it. Yes, many people are still fighting that war, on both sides of the debate, and it may well be some time before the most reluctant publishers realize that their cause is lost, but the gains made by self publishing have been so pronounced, so rapid and what is most important, so irreversible, that it’s time to call it done.
To be fair, authors have had some powerful allies on their side in this battle. Most notable among them is Amazon, but the truth is that victory was in many ways assured before they even realized there was a fight at hand. Powerful forces were driving change and the industry in their direction before self publishing began to grow.
An often ignored precursor to this era of digital publishing was the emergence of cheap or free tools for digital authoring and editing and for digital packaging of content. If we were still using analogue typewriters or paper and pens, then the emergence of this vibrant field of self publishing would be harder to imagine. It might seem a simple and almost ridiculous point, but the revolution in creative tools has had a huge impact in the back office operations of publishers, made them more profitable, more efficient and lead to the creation of databases and servers of content, assets and items.
What’s more it has moved the use of such tools down the value chain from businesses and professionals to ordinary enthusiasts, amateurs and everyday writers. The first manuscript I worked on at Nonsuch Ireland was a typewritten one. We simply scanned it with an OCR scanner and worked on the resulting word file (which was not without its failings, but a hell of a lot faster than retyping it into word!). The cost to create a book in digital form is now very tiny and that means if you don’t want to create a physical manifestation of that book the capital required is negligible. There, of course, remain areas where capital can help improve the final product, but they are not needed in order to create and prepare.
Of course authoring tools on their own would not be worth a huge heap to writers unless they had ways to get their works into the hands of readers and digital distribution and e-commerce tools have made that possible, powered by a second more obvious force, the growth of the web and connectivity.
Without these forces doing most of the heavy lifting (these forces are also partly behind the success of businesses like Amazon, at least the second one if not the first, enabling the retailing giant to develop a business model that undercut existing retailers and took advantage of almost infinite shelf space to appeal to huge swathes of customers) authors and self publishing would still be clamouring for attention not demanding a place at the table.
Yet, despite their sense of achievement, authors will find that victory is not as sweet, as complete nor even as satisfying as it might appear. The main reason for this is that the very forces that are driving change and have swept them into a position of victory are opening up the doors for everyone else. As more and more writers release more and more material, the content space becomes more and more crowded. Where in print, books were as likely to be out of print ten years after publication as they were to be in print, now, with ebooks and digital publishing, they will remain available and competing forever. The reality of competing with everything that has ever been published is not going to be fun.
There will be massive winners, but there will be many, many losers, just as there were, are and will be in traditional publishing. There is simply too much content chasing a limited pool of attention. And reading faces the real challenge of gaming, movie & tv watching, music, email, messaging, social media and surfing the web brought directly onto readers smartphones. Very frequently it will lose in the face of that assault.
So while these changes have empowered authors as a class and will make superstars of a limited number of them, for the majority the reality may very well be that the revenues from their work will not grow to any great degree and in many cases, it will never materialize. Which is not to downplay the massive success of self publishing authors. They have proved that their method of publishing is valid, sustainable and vibrant. They have shown that talent DOES exist in the ranks of the self publishing authors. They have been brash and vocal and they have been part of a rapid change in the industry and they have lured big advances from the pockets of their enemies and for the winners, the field marshals, the time for reaping rewards is ahead. It is simply that in every army, there are very few field marshals and many foot-soldiers.
Ten years ago I worked for a local history publisher. We published books that were image heavy and relied on local sales to make a good return. It’s probably these early days in publishing that gave me the expectation that self publishing and authors were set to triumph. Back then, a well-connected self publisher, with decent local knowledge was our worst nightmare. Often we would contact a potential author only to have them say no, take the idea and do it themselves. They would often make more money doing it that way, if they were willing to risk a little capital up front that is, the tools for creating everything up to the point of physical printing were cheap, easy to use and widely available, the only advantage we really held was the working capital to print, ship and distribute books (and for local books, the shipping and distribution was not THAT important). Having seen locally published books outsell books we produce two or three to one I developed a healthy respect for savvy self publishers. There’s still money to be made in professional local history publishing of course, advantages of scale that even the best local self publishers cannot respond to, but it’s a tight line to walk.
The truth, one that publishers have been reluctant to admit, is that self publishing is a real threat to their position. It is the manifestation of the growth of author power that has been fostered by cheap digital creation, growing availability of digital distribution and increasing internet connectivity. These things have reduced the wrinkles of inefficiency in the book publishing industry, the very wrinkles upon which our major publishers have built their businesses.
Publishers still serve the huge slab of the market that is not digital, the market for print books, more efficiently and more effectively than self publishers can (even with the help of their allies and third-party services – which makes you wonder why more publishers don’t offer sales and distribution to self publishers and take a chunk of self publishers’ cash while they are at it) or will in the near future. There is certainly some fear that the largest chains are facing difficulty but there is clearly no real fear that print books will disappear in the near future suggesting that regardless of the exact shape of the print market, existing publishers will be best placed to reach it for the next while. Of course, keeping a shrinking chunk of the market is not exactly a fun proposal.
The good news for publishers is that change has been a near constant in the industry and when circumstances change, while some publishers fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, others adapt with glee and thrive. Right now the biggest publishers are making the most of their remaining power to grab great margin from the ebook revolution. I don’t expect that to last forever. They will be forced by reality to cede a greater share of that margin with their big name authors which will probably force them to cede greater share of the bounty with smaller name authors.
However, and playing to publishers strengths for adaptability, there is one big problem for everyone in the digital space, reinforced by digital trends towards more of everything, obscurity and competition for attention (as was correctly identified by Tim O’Reilly as far back as 2002!). One thing online marketing needs is hours something that can be best applied at scale. Another is depth (scale again) within and across verticles/genres/niches. One further advantage for online marketing is influence or the ability to drive conversations. Book publishers are exceptionally well positioned to use their superior capital, market knowledge (because most publishers publish more books than most single authors and so can gather data across a broader sweep) and influence to the advantage of their authors.
There is no doubt that certain brand name authors far outpace their publishers in recognition and attention stakes, but in general, for the vast majority of authors that is not the case, and even for those authors who do surpass their publisher, when the publisher can do such things more effectively, more efficiently and has a competitive advantage in doing them, the sensible thing to do is to trade some margin and let them do it. I expect as this process of digital change continues publishers and authors (some of them self publishers, some of them hybrid authors who both self publish and use traditional publishers and some of them pure line traditionally published [though I expect these to be a smaller and smaller band over time]) will work together not less frequently, but more frequently and in multiple ways rather than in the more straightforward ways of the past (the emerging value web I discus here).
Despite what is being said about them, the major traditional publishers are in the process of changing (many of the smaller and mid-sized ones are too). I expect them to become much sleeker beasts in the decade ahead, concentrating more on the biggest authors than they even do now. I could be wrong but I’d see the industry leaders becoming more like studios than they currently are, applying capital to produce and market content as best they can, at scale, it will simply be more efficient.
There will be considerable casualties for certain and it may well be some people feel that the industry that emerges from this ongoing change is so altered as to be unrecognizable. There are unknowables too, like the prospects for continued conversion from print to digital. The quicker that happens the more bloody the change will be, in particular for the smaller and medium-sized publishers, the slower it happens and, with that slower pace, the longer bookstores survive in numbers, the better it will be for all publishers. What self publishing has done is show publishers that the rules that they have worked by for a while now, are broken or are breaking. They should know when to throw in the towel and accept that and accelerate the process of change that many have already begun.
Sometimes wars benefit people who have never even taken part in a single battle and so it is with readers. Occasionally readers were caught in the broadside, like when they were stung by higher ebook prices during the agency agreement idiocy, but for the most part the emergence of ebooks, the rise of self publishing and the growth of digital creation, distribution and access have been more or less unqualified goods for them. More writers are producing more content for them at a faster pace. The price of that content is dropping and the method of accessing that content is getting easier and slicker by the year. Despite the prices decreases, there is still more than enough money in the business to attract talent into it and more than enough talent to deliver quality content of all kinds.
The only readers who face problems in the years ahead are those committed or locked into print for some reason who might face the risk of bookstores closing more rapidly than anticipated and loosing easy access. However, with Amazon and other marketplaces likely to take up the slack in such a case, it wouldn’t seem to me to be the largest of risks.
About the biggest problem readers will have is deciding what to read next, not because they won’t be able to find something they will like, but rather because they will have too many things they like to read at one time. Choice is proliferating. It’s a problem, but not the worst one in era of copious reviews and free sampling.
So the real winners of this war, the beneficiaries of the unwrinkling of the inefficiencies of the book trade, are not the booksellers (who are by far the biggest losers) not publishers (who have lost some, but not everything), not Amazon or its fellow tech companies (though they have surely done well out of this shift) nor even the writers (who have gained as a class but less clearly on an individual basis) but the readers who are saving money, time and frustration as well as increasing their enjoyment and happiness. Sounds like a decent outcome for them.
The self publishing war wasn’t and isn’t real. Just like Amazon, in many ways the growth of self publishing is an inevitable outcome of the forces that are powering digital change. Unless we want to dial the industry and society back 20 or 30 years and forgo the benefits of the technologies that are facilitating these forces then we have to accept that someone was going to take advantage of the inefficiencies unleashed by the internet and authors were going to take advantage of new distribution options. That is just how it goes. Equally you don’t have to like these changes (though personally I’m enjoying them for all they do occasionally cause some stress) but you will have to roll with them, even if the scenarios I’ve envisaged don’t pan out, change is coming, that much is true.