The publishing industry is imploding


(Things I wish I’d known about writing from the start, Part 2)

We live in a world in which change is rife, entropy is king and civilisations and species are faced with a stark choice: evolve or die. The 21st century has thus far been a time of immense change and unsettling insecurity. Technology is advancing at an incredible rate and a global economic downturn has created a whole new set of challenges and struggles. Few industries have been unaffected by the widespread societal changes taking place, and the publishing industry is no exception. I deliberately chose a provocative title for this blog and I stand by it. The past ten years have seen perhaps the biggest challenges to the publishing industry since its inception.

When I was growing up I had a slightly romanticised notion of what it was to be a published author, although it did have some basis in fact. A writer would be given a good advance and the necessary time, space and resources to write a (hopefully) amazing book. The book would be edited, published and promoted and the writer would then move onto his or her next book. Rinse and repeat. Those days are now gone. My experience of the publishing industry was a cold, hard slap in the face. Looking back, I can see how naive and idealistic my outlook was. The industry is cut-throat, and I suppose it has to be. It’s driven by money–and these days it seems there’s not much of that around.

Here’s what I wish I’d known before I became a writer. A publisher doesn’t really care about your book. They care about your book’s ability to make them money. Every week publishers are bombarded with manuscripts and many of them are indeed of publishable quality. They’re not looking for good literature however; they don’t necessarily care how well-written your book is, how meaningful the story is or how it could possibly impact the lives of readers. They are looking at it through a filter of marketability. How well is the book likely to sell, is it the right length, does it fit in with current market trends and popularity? If it’s a post-apocalyptic novel or a book about horny teenage vampires you can probably skip forward a few places in the queue.

Publishers don’t really care what you as a writer have to say. To the writer it’s all about the book; about bearing one’s heart and soul and creating something special and unique, something inspired by some deep and persistent yearning; something the writer simply had to create and share with the world. To the publisher it’s about product. It’s not about the writer at all, it’s about the reader and the market forces that compel that reader to buy certain types of book.

There’s no judgement or blame in this. It’s simply the way the game works. If I was a publisher struggling to stay afloat, I’d be no different. Publishing and releasing a book is a tremendous investment of money, time and energy. If there’s currently no market for a certain genre or style of writing, then that investment is simply not going to pay off and the publisher will go under, as many have.

The digital revolution has changed things in so many ways. As I explored in my previous post, books (and authors by extension) have become significantly devalued. Anyone can knock up a book and publish it that same day. The gross oversaturation of the book market has driven ebook prices to almost rock bottom. Even established, best-selling and award-winning authors are struggling in the current climate. In order to make a living many are forced to signficantly ‘up’ their output: to write more and sell it for less.

By all accounts, publishers are becoming more ruthless with their authors. I’ve heard that a number of publishers no longer offer in-house editing. That is now the responsibility of the author, who must hire his or her own editor (which, let me tell you, is not cheap). In many cases, marketing and promotion also now largely falls to the author. The author does most the work, yet the publisher takes most of the money. That was certainly my experience!

It’s a cutthroat industry and something of a zero sum game to boot. If you want the prestige of being a published author, you have to pay the price. You no longer own the rights to your own work and you’re only going to see a small percentage of the profits. That price is worth paying it if you can shift enough copies. But these days if your book fails to sell a thousand copies or so in the first week, you’ll find that you get short shrift from the publisher. I know some authors who were treated terribly by their publisher. It can leave a pretty sour aftertaste.

Industries are driven by money. When the pursuit of money is running the show, other things get compromised. The mandate ceases to be about people; about helping people in some way and contributing to the betterment of society and the world. Ideals are left by the wayside; and often morality and ethics are too. The corporate money-grabbers have little conscience and little soul. This is why the world is in the mess it is today.

It’s fair to say that I’m disillusioned with the publishing industry. But I’m not angry or bitter in any way. It simply is the way it is. The industry is driven by money and shaped by market forces. But I, as a writer and a human being, am not. I became a writer because I had a vision, I had stories I wanted to tell, and as ostentatious as this sounds, I wanted to change the world.

Writers are like that–and I mean the proper writers. We don’t become writers just to make money. Anyone even contemplating that needs a reality check. Go study law or something instead! Few writers will ever get rich from their labour. And people don’t realise what an immense labout it can be! Writers don’t just have to wrestle with words, they must wrestle daily with self-doubt, fear, uncertainty and the intensely solitary, often lonely nature of their vocation.

But writers, true writers, pursue their calling because something within them yearns to be born; stories must be told, words must be shared and ideas must be brought into the world. A true writer isn’t driven exclusively by money or market concerns. They want to bring something into the world that will better the world in some way. Ideas want to be clothed in words and shared with people. And although they start off intangible and abstract, there’s nothing more powerful, for it’s ideas that shape human culture, civilisation and destiny.

The publishing industry is struggling to adapt to a changing world. As the digital revolution continues to transform the landscape, many publishers are struggling just to stay afloat. No one quite knows where things are headed. Will ebooks in time completely replace old-fashioned hard copies? Are publishers even needed these days when authors can, and with increasingly frequency are, cutting out the middle-man and selling directly to their readers?

Publishers are getting nervous. They have been for some time. Nothing is the same anymore and a fundamental insecurity underlies everything. Some publishers are actually quite abusive to their capital: the very authors whose work they make a living from. Like most industries in our capitalistic machine, there’s a symbiotic but sometimes exploitative relationship between publisher and author. The unsettling truth for publishers is that while they need authors, authors don’t necessarily need them any more.

Here’s the thing. Writers are storytellers–and storytellers have been around throughout the entirety of human history. Even before the development of linguistic communication, primitive man still found ways to tell and share stories and ideas. This is an essential and intrinsic part of human nature. It is hard-wired into us. The publishing industry as we know it is a relatively recent development. In a rapidly changing world it’s not inconceivable that, with technology continuing to revolutionise the way we exchange and share information, the publishing industry may in time find itself obsolete. But as for writers–we’ve been around forever, and I can guarantee we won’t be going away anytime soon. The way we do it may change, but what we do will never change.


11 thoughts on “The publishing industry is imploding”

  1. I wonder whether it is possible that in future the professional story-teller may evolve? I mean the one man/woman figure who plies a trade in captivating small audiences with their stories and ideas, and who is remunerated for so doing. The music industry has had to become reliant upon live performance revenues for its sustenance, and if we remove the theatrical, big production aspects from the picture, we come down to the lone troubadour plying a trade nightly in small venues. So, in parallel fashion, the writer has the limited prospect of having their work set as part of a large scale production – film, TV, theatre – or can operate autonomously on a small scale as a professional story-teller. Could it catch on Rory?

    1. I like your thoughts Hariod! Yes, I think the publishing industry has been affected in a very similar way to the music industry. The product is now readily available digitally for free or for very little, so there’s really not much money there unless one is able to shift copies in vast quantity. I feel this will force authors to evolve, to do things differently. A lot of it depends upon how the consumer wishes to consume. I do know the human race will always have a need for stories. Stories, at their best, function as tools to help us process and make sense of reality and understand our nature and the nature of life and the world around us. The form of the stories may change, and the means of distributing those stories, but having studied the long history of mythology and storytelling, I believe it’s a core human need. I’m actually not quite sure what the answer is, or even how I am going to proceed, if I decide to proceed. It’s time to think outside the box, though. The old ways aren’t quite working anymore.

  2. I am in the middle of finishing the last couple of pages of my Break Through The Barriers of Redundancy book. Then the fun of formatting it for Kindle starts!! Nice to see you on my blog, thanks for stopping by. I noticed you like cake – I can’t eat cake myself, but I was drawn to it because I am heteroromantic asexual and it’s a thing a lot of asexual’s joke about.

    1. Good luck with the rest of your book Sandra, hope it goes well for you! I’m sure it’ll help a great many people. Yes, I am a cakeromantic myself, I managed to restrain myself today! Thinking about my summer body haha! 🙂

      1. I love that! Cake romantic ha! I am trying to hyperlink text at the moment. I have used two type of headings so hope that’s not going to create a problem with my contents linking. Plus my layout has sectioned of pieces that are formatted that way for the paper version, and if I change then, they destroy the headings so I am not sure if I should leave them for now. At the moment I could use my paper cover so for now it’s just going to be an e-Book. It’s almost 200 pages.

      2. Hope it is going well! My real challenge was formatting a paperback edition myself, and learning fairly complex new software. But I think, fingers crossed, I’m getting somewhere!

      3. 4 nights I have spent on it so far and I asked a number one best selling Author for help and he said to just play around with it. I am trying something different now, but got other stuff I have to do tonight, including teaching prep for Monday. I don’t know if you know, I now do two employed jobs as well as running my own businesses. So I wirk mostly 7 days in a row, although one of two may be part days on my days off from my 5 days a week job. Are you talking about a paperbavk for Amazon? Which software are you using? I think your book is another fiction one? I predominantly write non-fiction ‘how to’, self-help.

      4. Hey Sandra. Yeah my new book is a novel, it will be available in paperback and ebook on amazon and everywhere else. I am also working on a self help book too, the first few chapters of which I am posting on my blog. I have been using Scrivener to write and compile the books, in pdf and ebook format. I had the purchase additional software, PagePlus, in order to fine-tune the PDFs and to be able to save it in industry-standard PDFX format which is the only format the printer/distributer will accept. It’s been a learning curve! 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s