Many of you will now have been made aware of the success of John Locke, the first independent (i.e. self-epublished) writer to sell over 1,000,000 books in the Amazon Kindle format. Many people are wondering how they feel about this news, and I’m gratified to find that there isn’t the universal decrying of the ‘death of culture’ that I had expected when this news was to, inevitably, in some form or another, break.
These are the thought from a writer and industry insider, currently under contract and anticipating the print launch of his first novel.
I think it’s great. This is only just the start of a boom for efiction, and a year from now, the list of 1 million sellers will be in the high double digits. This is the best way forward for the industry since it moves the balance of power back in favour of the writers and the readers who will decide first what they are passionate about writing, and next what they are passionate about reading.
In the last twenty years we’ve seen the decision for what comes out of a publishing house move out of the hands of editorial and into the hands of marketing. I was last published in 2003, and my next project is coming out in this year, 2011. In those eight years, I’ve had to suffer many rejections from dozens of publishers and editors who really enjoyed and were excited my project proposals, but on the advice of marketing decided to turn them down, not being judged market viable. Whereas before marketing would receive their marching orders from the publisher and editorial to sell what they believed to be art of a good quality, it is now market analysts and salesmen who are calling the tunes that the whole industry must dance to — writers and readers alike.
It’s probably not the worst system, but it’s not ideal. Occasionally you would hear tales of authors going against this system, somehow beating the odds through self-publication (G P Taylor comes to mind, the vicar who sold his motorcycle to print the first 300 copies of the very excellent Shadowmancer), or sheer bloody-mindedness (J K Rowling’s Harry Potter was apparently rejected by everyone except the 8 year-old daughter of the publisher that eventually signed her), but they were the gross exceptions.
Epublishing has the potential to turn these exceptions into the rules. I believe I am the last generation of authors to operate under the system that’s been in place for, roughly speaking, the last 150 years, since just after the time of Dickens and Dumas.
This isn’t the first innovation to hit the publishing industry. Printing books these last ten years has been cheaper than ever. Computers mean that plates no longer have to be hand type-set. Printing on demand, or ‘index printing’, has been in place for almost fifteen years now, meaning that books on backlist can be very cheaply printed and shipped out without costly storage considerations. Books are just kept on file. In the last 30 years, the cost of actually manufacturing a book has dropped at least 50%, and yet this has not been reflected in the money given to the creators of the art. [NB: At the time of the transition away for hand-set type, a group of writers came together to ask that, by submitting their work on computer disks they were effectively setting their own type, and a monetary bonus should be considered for this, they were roundly ignored.]
All of which is to say that we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the publishers who have been riding high on a wave that by all rights should have crashed long before now. That’s not to say that they’ve been living fat and lazy off of it. There is very much needful work that they do in terms of quality control and promotion that is very valuable to the industry, but it is characteristic of the rigidity in the industry’s thought which will destroy them if they continue as they have and see epublishing just as something that must be weathered instead of something that must be adapted to.
Because make no mistake: this isn’t just an innovation, it’s also a paradigm shift. It will now be up to the readers to sift and decide for themselves what they wish to read. It will be harder for them since we will likely see a fivefold increase of books on the market — and almost all of them, realistically speaking, of very poor quality. The onus of spelling and editing (what is currently often three people’s job within a publisher) will fall more squarely on the creator’s shoulders, and it’s no light burden. Also, the marketing and business sides will be a larger consideration, and creative minds aren’t always suited to such tasks, although the internet will give something back in this respect. There are even now independent book review sites that exclusively review self-published eBooks, may the Lord forever bless them, and the trend towards ‘viral’, where information is referred rather than sought, will enable readers to refer a book within seconds and for a new reader to buy that book, direct from the author just seconds later, for more money than they are now getting from any publisher.
So what is the future of fiction publishing, in real terms? The future, as I see it in the next 10-15 years, is that paperback sales will be gone. Good news for the rain forests. Cheap classics, airport and supermarket thrillers, holiday fiction, et al, will be replaced by ebooks. Manifest, tangible books will still be printed, but will almost exclusively be hardback and of a high quality, with good paper stock, very well illustrated, and often in limited editions. Books, in other words, that give a reading experience beyond something that can be reproduced on an eReader. Digital ink eReaders will be in colour, larger, and 1/3 of current price. Publishers themselves will take a body blow and have to decrease by 50%, but this will be nothing compared to what the bookstores, sadly, will have to endure. There may be some quick trade in second-hand books, so hopefully we’ll keep some of the best independent sellers, but the reality will be that there will no longer be a bookstore in every city. (As for libraries, who can say?)
We’ll lose a lot of what is the current culture of reading, but what will remain will be a passion for story and literature that has always transcended paper and ink and has been the mainstay of culture and civilisation for over 4500 years.