The writing business is in an incredible turmoil right now. It has been for a long time, actually. And right now, there are doom-sayers and prognosticators all over the place predicting that traditional publishing is on its last legs and the only way to go is independent self-publishing. Some of them are experienced writers who are intelligent and articulate (see Lawrence Block, or any of a series of posts at According to Hoyt, for example); others, not so much. Myself, I’m a bit of a skeptic. If someone indicates he knows for sure what the publishing industry is going to look like in ten years, I put my hand on my wallet. If he says he knows for sure what it will look like in five years, I put both hands on my wallet, because sure as death and taxes, the next statement will probably be something like “And here’s an opportunity for you to get in on the ground floor of the New World Order.” Heh. Lord knows my spam bucket catches enough “we want to publish you” emails to prove that point.
Moving on. I’ve been trying to crack the fiction traditional publishers’ Newbie Wall since 2002. My first hardback anthology story was published in 2006 by Baen Books, with five more since then. My first novel, a collaboration with Eric Flint, was just turned in to the publisher, Baen Books in April 2012. I’m not sure I can say I’ve arrived, but I think I can see the station from here. (And “arrived” does not mean I’m a name. It just means I’ve got solid professional credits.) So my perspective on all this may be a little different from either an established author with an extensive back-list or a struggling newbie yet to make a “professional” sale.
In my skepticism, do I think traditional publishing will survive? Yes, I do. There are a lot of people out there who derive an almost physical pleasure from sitting down with a physical copy of a good book anticipating a pleasant evening of reading (myself included), and I think those folks are going to continue to demand hard copy books. And at this point, I’m not sure that the economies of scale for print-on-demand technology are going to prove truly competitive. I think the jury is still out on that.
Will traditional publishing survive in its current form? No. I think the next ten years will force traditional publishers to find a different business model. But I do think that there might be a few publisher names you recognize still in business in ten years. However, I can guarantee that they will be doing business in a very different way. Forget the governments; Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple will force them to it, one way or another.
Do I think traditional hard copy books will survive? As I stated above, yes, I do. However, I think the days of the 200,000 copy best-sellers are singing their swan song as I write this. Once publishers adopt reasonable pricing for e-books and drop the DRM security, which I think they will be forced to do by market and legal pressures in the not-too-distant future, I suspect the sheer convenience of e-books will drive the sales of e-books up, consequently forcing sales of hard copies down. (But that opinion and $5 will get you a Starbucks coffee.) What I think will happen is independent publishers like Baen and small publishers like Subterranean Press and Nightshade Books will continue making hard copy books for readers who are dedicated to their offerings and programs. Surviving big name publishers, if they can get divorced from the bean-counters who are killing them, may do something along those lines as well. 200,000 copies? No. 500 – 5,000 copies? Yes. Maybe by subscription only, but still there.
But what does this mean for the writer? Do we totally abandon the traditional publishing approach as so many are advocating? Do we totally embrace the independent self-publishing model? Do we reject it and cling to the traditional model? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between those two extremes?
Regardless of what you think, any realistic assessment of the near-future industry is going to contain e-books and a substantial amount of self-publishing. That topic has been and is almost continually being addressed in blogs all over the web, including right here at The Fictorian Era this month. But what about the writers who still have a desire (for whatever reason) to make it in the traditional publishing world, to see hard copy books with their names on the covers? What are their options? Limited, but they all have a common element, and that is getting the author’s name out there somehow in the traditional world.
To do that , I think the future successful new author will have almost certainly have to build a resume of self-published work to serve as a door opener that shows the following: number of works published, how quickly they were produced, samples of quality, and statistics of sales volumes over time-not just the initial surge, but the longevity of the sales. Whenever you’re around other significant writers, or editors, or publishers, have those files (constantly updated) on your phone or your tablet, accessible at a moment’s notice, ready to e-mail or present if someone asks for them. And work on your verbal presentations:
- The elevator speech: what can you say in 15-30 seconds that will intrigue an editor or publisher or significant writer with your ideas enough to say “Come with me,” or “Call me tomorrow.”
- The expanded elevator speech: 1-2 minutes.
- The conversation.
You never know when an opportunity may arise. Be ready.
Here’s one final thought: I found my publishing route by participating in Eric Flint’s grand fan-fic experiment, where he allows anyone who has the desire to write and submit stories in his Ring of Fire universe, the best of which are selected for publishing in the Grantville Gazette e-magazine, with the best of the e-magazine stories selected for the Grantville Gazette hard copy anthologies. So this is a blended electronic and traditional approach, and it’s produced a number of writers, myself included, who have cracked the Newbie Wall from that platform. Eric’s approach is unique (although I hear rumors that Thieves’ World may be contemplating something similar). But the idea of finding some kind of existing program or co-op that has an established presence and fan base may have some merit. Star Trek/Star Wars/Harry Potter don’t qualify, but there may be something else out there. Look for it. Again, the goal is to get your name on the cover of something that will serve as a credential to a traditional publisher, whether New York or small house.
So, that’s my thoughts. They may be good prognostications, or they may be as wildly out in left field as the flying cars that were predicted in 1950’s science fiction. It will be interesting to look back in five years or so and see how they stack up.
First published on Fictorians.com 6/13/2012.
I agree that the industry is in tremendous flux right now and no one really knows what it will look like in ten years. However, I think that’s why so many folks are going in so many different directions – there’s opportunity on the ground floor in whichever way the market goes. Some will fall, but a lot of folks are chancing that they’ll have a chair when the music stops.
I personally prefer the visceral feel of a paper book, but they can be cumbersome and expensive. The e-book revolution has opened me up to authors I wouldn’t have tried before. The cost is better, and once traditional publishers realize they should bring down some of those prices, their market will explode – basically, they need to get that I won’t pay for an e-book what I’ll pay for even a paperback. I’ve left many a novel on the proverbial shelf at Amazon(like 1901) because the price was too much.
The key for both writers and publishers will be to figure out how to adapt, and I’m afraid I’ve seen too many who so badly want the model to remain unchanged that they’ll ignore what must be done.
Yeah, the track record of the publishers adapting is pretty pathetic. And Amazon and Apple and B&N are just as clueless as the big traditional publishers. Baen Books is the only close to big publisher who I know is doing it right: all e-books are sold at a maximum price of $6.00, the author gets more dollars out of that price than he does out of the hard copy sales, and there’s no DRM locking the text down and keeping the user from moving what he has purchased to whatever platform he wants to put it on. They’ve been using this model for over ten years, and the readers and the authors involved all like it. Lately Nightshade Books has been selling under the Baen e-book store as well.
I left one point out of the article that I really wish I had mentioned, and that is the hard copy vs. e-book contest is not an either/or situation. I know hundreds of readers who frequently buy both. I do. I have about 600 books on my Nook at the moment, and I also have hard copy editions (usually hardbacks) of about half of them. So yes, while I think wider proliferation of reasonably priced and DRM-free e-books will cause a drop in hard copy sales, I don’t think it will decimate them during the current generation of readers. That might change when the up-coming generation who do everything with a flick of their finger on their smart phones or their tablets becomes the dominant book demographic in about 10-20 years. We’ll have to wait and see.
I also buy both hardcopies and ebooks. We have pretty limited availability here in Australia in terms of the range of books available at book shops so these days I almost exclusively buy online. If a particular book is available as an ebook, I usually buy it in that format because it means I can start reading immediately rather than waiting 2 weeks for shippng. But I’ve passed over quite a few books recently because the ebook was dearer than the paperback and I wanted something to read right then. Some of those, I’ll probably buy next time I get around to putting in an order with my preferred online bookshop. Others have lost their chance to pick up me as a new reader. It’s unfortunate for the writer who has no control over pricing but I’m simply not going to pay more for an ebook than for a hardcopy.