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The publishing industry is imploding

digital-self-publishing

(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.

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Why Books Have Become Devalued

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These are interesting yet precarious times for fiction writers. Although the digital revolution has given authors an unprecedented opportunity to share their work, it has come at a price.

The landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. It’s much easier to ‘be’ a writer now. Anyone and their uncle can churn out a book and have it published on Amazon Kindle that afternoon. In spite of this, it’s actually much harder to ‘make it’ as a writer, due to complete over-saturation of the market. Something in the range of 4,000 books are being published every single day. Competition can be a good thing, but it also has its downside. What happens when a market is oversaturated? The product in question inevitably becomes devalued, and so does the supplier of that product.

I believe the devaluing of fiction started off with supermarkets and online stores such as Amazon artificially slashing the prices of books. Publishers were in many cases willing to make only a marginal profit (if any) per unit in exchange for selling in greater quantity. I always suspected that mass market paperbacks had an adverse effect on other publishers and lesser known authors unable  to sell their product at such low prices.

In terms of Amazon Kindle, the leading ebook store by a wide margin, what I’ve seen happening is authors and publishers pitching their products at the lowest possible prices in order to stand above the competition. While this is good for the consumer in many respects–they can afford to buy more ebooks!– what it means is that artificially low prices have become the norm.

The reader clearly isn’t to blame. If there are so many books out there at 99 cents/pence or less, why should they be willing to pay more? The publisher of my first novel, Eladria, doesn’t seem to know how to deal with this, having charged everything from 99p to £6.49 for the ebook. I can’t see many willing to pay the latter price for a book by a first-time, sadly quite unknown author, even though the book in question took three years to write and garnered pretty impressive reviews. The only exceptions to the “pay cheap” rule are the big-name authors and they have the backing of big publishing houses behind them. And even a number of them are struggling in the new publishing landscape.

Again, this is good for the reader in the short term. It’s a buyer’s market without a doubt. But I fear that in the long term everyone may suffer. Writing is and always has been a very labour-intensive process. Some writers have the ability to churn out book after book in a conveyor belt-like process. If anything I’m a little envious of them. But I contend that the best books take time and care to write; not weeks, but months and possibly years. Unfortunately, authors who invest such time and care in their work are struggling to survive. The new model of cheap fiction is only viable if an author can release a LOT of work, very often.

I’m concerned that what the digital revolution has seen in terms of fiction is a shift to quantity over quality.

Unless they already have money in the bank, writers can no longer spend years on a single project. The focus is now on producing more, more often and selling it at knock-down prices. It’s inevitable that the quality of the output will suffer in some way. This looks set to continue and perhaps even get worse. Is the publishing industry on the verge of disintegration or can it, by picking itself up and adapting to changing times, create a radical new renaissance?