Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The End is Near?

I honestly don't know what to think right now about the publishing industry. Yes, there have been layoffs in the big houses, and I've heard rumors that some editors have put a freeze on acquiring titles. On the few author boards on which I lurk I sense the wringing of hands as my peers wonder aloud if their careers are over before they have a chance to begin, thanks to the economy. Just today I'm sent this article on the growing shift in reader habits - where people are turning to the Internet to purchase from resellers to save a buck. Good for them to be thrifty in this economy, one might argue, but authors don't receive royalties on resells.

With all of this happening, however, I note that Phaze Books has had its best year yet. Other ePubs are also reporting increases over the last year. Another house with whom I'm published boasted a 40% increase, while Ellora's Cave is actively looking for more editors to continue their success. My calendar for 2009 is filling with offline engagements for signings, and despite the gloom and doom I get from one side, the other radiates only with optimism.

Of course, you might think I'm comparing apples to oranges, that perhaps the independent eBook industry doesn't count when talking about publishing as a whole. I say, why not? Many smaller e-Houses edit, proof, and format books. We attach ISBN numbers to each title and register them with Books in Print. We sell the titles through our own carts and through resellers. Some of us also offer titles in paperback and, in the case of Mundania and Ellora's for two, hardcover. If the items we offer aren't books, what are they?

I read the article linked above with some interest, but not with trepidation as I gather others have. The concept of the resale is not new, especially where books are concerned. I admit I'm guilty of it myself many times over. I've talked here before about shopping at the Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida, just a wonderful labyrinth of a store carrying titles that probably have never graced the shelves of a chain. As an author, I do feel some worry that interest in my books may be limited to readers who seek out used copies or (naughty, naughty) pirated digital versions. As the article points out, a used book sale won't net the author a royalty, but it may gain readership. Indeed, I have purchased used books in the past and later bought new from the same author. I have to continue writing with the hope that the same could happen with me.

Honestly, if used book sales could foretell the demise of publishing, the setbacks we are seeing now would have happened many years ago. I don't believe we are witnessing the end of anything, so if you're an author go right ahead and polish that manuscript for submission. This is evolution we are witnessing now, the transition of the industry into a new era. Think about the early days of literacy, and I don't mean the first Harry Potter.

I'm talking about Shakespeare and his quill, monks in a dank cellar transcribing elaborately cursive Latin over and over again. You think the people of this time were freaking out when Gutenberg invented movable type? Did you know in Colonial times when you bought a book you actually had to cut the pages first before you could open it? I can only imagine the people of that era were relieved when that was no longer a necessity.

Publishing now is not like it was fifty years ago, and it won't be the same fifty years from now. As things evolve, we must learn to adapt. If we stop changing, it probably means we are dead. I for one will not see recent store closures and layoffs as the end. I was a casualty of the dot-bomb era, yet the Internet hasn't failed. Nor will publishing - there will always be people who buy new and those who buy used, and those who sample from Columns A and B. Perhaps in the near future as eBook emerge deeper into public consciousness, we'll see Column C more often on the menu. And you know what, I'll still buy new.


Christine London said...

Great topic. Also as old as time. Every industry evolves and changes as new ways of production and distribution are invented. Publishing is no different. We are witness to the shift from paper to electronic. Of course there will be growing and shrinking pains. Those in the biz will figure out what the new 'standard' is, shysters will take advantage where they see loopholes, but in the end there will always be a market for stories and information.

The watershed moment for me came at last summer's Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Conference in San Francisco when I saw senior editor Kate Duffy of Kensington Publishing reading from an Amazon Kindle. Traditional print pubs feel the snap of e-pub teeth at their heels and are testing the waters as readers everywhere are with this new technology. The staid will fight it, the progressive embrace it, the middle of the road will probably do what most folks do--use both old and new methods to read their fiction and morning paper. Like the DVD industry, some efforts are for one time consumption and are therfore 'rentals' not kept longer than the initial viewing. Others are considered personal classics that one will want on his shelf to grab when the mood inspires to enjoy again and again.

There will always be a market for paper for these reasons and there is a growing market for electronic for ease of acquition, lower price and the saving in resources. Even if folks buy used, it had to have been purchased new at one time. The author got his royalties on that sale and will surely get further payment when the reader of his used book is turned on to his voice and thus, backlist.

I think it depends on your stomach for change. Is this scary or merely the postive version of that emotion---exciting? I for one am excited to watch as the advent of this burgeoning online industry develops and finds new and better ways to provide the story-hungry world with food---great writing.

Thanks for the provocative read, Leigh.

Christine London

Jude Mason said...

This topic has reared its head all over just lately, news stories of booksellers closing their doors because of lousy sales, publishing houses in trouble because the internet is stealing the authors, the books they want, or say they do. A couple of links if you're interested:



It's what I've been saying for years, and many others who are e-published and proud of it. When you sub to one of the big NY houses, and that's if you can find an agent to represent you, you'll still wait months, if not years for a rejection or acceptance. They've made it so difficult that many authors just aren't willing, or able, to do that route.

Second hand book stores have been around forever, and I confess to using mine a lot. I will find new authors or older books that are no longer available new. I've found new authors that way and will by their books new. The cost of new books has gone crazy, so you really can't blame the consumer for buying used.

E-publishers have given people one more option, as well as some amazing authors a chance to have their work published. I believe there's greater variety in e-books than many of the print volumes now as well. Cross genre, hard to categorize books and some very edgy stuff that the big houses wouldn't touch with that ten foot pole we see them poking at us. LOL

We're evolving, and I'm extremely happy to be in on the first stages of it.

Awesome post, Leigh!

Lisabet Sarai said...

I read that book sales over the Christmas holidays were extremely robust, especially compared with sales of other categories of gifts.

What's going on now, I think, is survival of the fittest. Publishers need to adapt or die. The ePublishing scene allows for a kind of agility completely lacking in traditional publishing. For instance, MLR Press just helped us to put together a charity anthology to benefit Lambda Legal's fight against the anti-gay-marriage proposition in California. We assembled the book, including professional-level editing, cover art, blurbs, bios and publicity material, in less than a month.

In the ePublishing world, publishers can quickly change their direction to fit market trends. Also, it's relatively inexpensive to try out new ideas.

What I expect to see is that traditional publishers will begin to learn from epubs.

I certainly see no indication that people are going to stop buying books, despite the fears that are leading to these supposed slowdowns and layoffs. In a bad economy, books are cheap and durable entertainment.

Yes, I buy from used bookstores. I view this as ecologically appropriate, and seriously, I don't feel guilty about it. First of all, the author already received his or her royalty (presumably) on the copy that I purchase. Second, it's not infrequent that I'll read something used by an author new to me and then go buy another of his/her books new.

I'd much rather have someone sell one of my books to a used book store than trash it! It means that two readers get to see my name, instead of just one.

Happy New Year!