Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

Photograph © Moyan Brenn 2011

Gone forever?

January 7, 2013

Dark days ahead for publishers

Every New Year brings forth a glut of articles about consumers’ purchasing habits over the Christmas season – what trends were seen, how much was spent and what were the most popular items? For many years the humble book has been one of the easiest presents – small, relatively cheap and personal.

The last few years however have seen the march of the Kindle and its associated self-publishers and a growing likelihood that what is now called the traditional publishing industry will need to adapt to a changing world or face a dire future.

The normal route to getting a book published can now be circumvented should an author wish to and, arguably, it may be worth it. Having coaxed that novel from yourself, sending manuscripts to agents and publishers is still a valuable exercise but one that may leave a writer despondent a year later if nothing happens.

The main arguments for self-publishing are that it is there and it is low-cost if you have a reasonable level of computer literacy. Another is that if you’ve tried a traditional publisher and have a belief in your own abilities then it’s worth getting it out into the world to see if anyone else likes it. The possibility that a major publisher might offer a deal following success in the virtual world is always there.

Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Smashwords all offer UK-based authors a platform for their books with no initial setup fees and take less commission on each sale than an agent/publisher combination.

Smashwords, a US-based internet platform aimed at independent authors and small publishers, may be the most interesting indicator of the scale of self-publishing. Set up by Mark Coker five years ago after he failed to get a deal for his own book following years of trying, he has an almost evangelical belief that ebooks are the future of publishing. While his constant predictions of the end of the printed book haven’t come true yet, his company has seen a huge growth in the number of titles published.

In 2008, the first year of operation, there were 90 authors and 140 titles on the site. The latest figures for 2012 show there are 58,600 authors and 190,600 titles handled by a staff of just 19 people. Smashwords’ relationship with Amazon is strained but they have been profitable for the last two years and have so far retained their indie credentials, a major factor in their success.

The US has a more established self-publishing industry than Britain and hints at how bookselling will develop here over the next few years whether mainstream publishing houses like it or not. Last August several news outlets reported that seven books from four independent authors had made the New York Times bestseller list.

While this was a great headline, it has to be remembered that one of them was EL James and three of the titles were her Fifty Shades trilogy. It does however show that successes happen and another milestone was reached before Christmas when Michiko Kakutani, a respected New York Times critic, put Alan Sepinwall’s self-published The Revolution Was Televised on her list of books of the year.

Publishers are beginning to take some notice of independent authors when they become successful. EL James was offered a traditional book contract after Fifty Shades of Grey became a bestseller and this has happened to a handful of other novelists but there may be very little worth in accepting a deal when you already have a hit. Some reasons might be to gain more expertise in marketing or help to hone your writing skills plus access to a wider market by releasing a print version, but all this can now be done alone.

Print-on-demand technology will be the next great leap in self-publishing with Amazon offering a service whereby you upload your book file and anytime an order is placed for a hardcopy just one unit is printed. This service was launched in Europe late in 2012 so expect this to become as popular here in the UK as it is across the Atlantic.

Figures released by Bowker, who control the distribution of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) in the US, show that 43 per cent of printed books released there in 2011 were self-published. This is a major change in the way so-called vanity publishing used to work where authors had to print a large number of books in the hope that someone would buy a copy.

The work involved in being a successful writer before online publishing was draining – write, format, send copies to agents and publishers, wait nervously and hope to get lucky. There is no less effort required when self-publishing as many commentators argue that independent authors should spend only 20 per cent of their time creating and the other 80 per cent on promotion.

This seems counter-intuitive but without an agent or publisher to pay for marketing and a book launch, it is up to the author to create their own publicity. The cheapest and supposedly most effective way to do this is via social media, an all-encompassing term that offers so much but needs to be utilised wisely.

Paula Margulies, a US-based consultant who advises authors about social media usage, says the 80 per cent should be broken down further so that only 20 per cent is actual book promotion and the other 80 per cent is more general. She says, “Remember that readers are human beings, who long to make connections with others. They join social media sites not to receive non-stop reminders to buy, but to develop relationships and learn about topics that matter to them.” Her premise is that you need to be a friend, albeit virtually, to your potential readers in order to sell your book and it is here that new and traditional publishing is beginning to converge.

There is anecdotal evidence, again from the US, that mainstream publishers are no longer putting the same amount of effort into marketing books as they used to, preferring instead that the author handle their own promotion by insisting on a social media presence. Unless a novelist has already reached the top it’s unlikely they‘ll have an assistant to do this so it’s up to the individual to do a proportion of their own marketing.

It is here that publishers may strike a nail in their own coffin – if much of the 80 per cent promotion must be done by the writer anyway, what value is there in having a book contract? It will only take a few big name authors to get fed up and decide to self-publish for others to follow suit.

Publishing houses seem slow in embracing the idea that they may need to change to survive, choosing to follow the music industry in their denial that the internet could have any effect on their business, setting ebook prices at the same level as a printed copy even though the costs of production are lower. Ultimately if customers continue to buy then they will continue to sell but public opinion can change quickly, and if the UK follows the US further down the self-publishing road publishers may need to adapt quicker than they think.

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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

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