Reformation & Renaissance – the future of publishing.

I’m an optimist.

In this game, you have to be.

I’m optimistic that you’re reading this blog. Okay, perhaps not quite so optimistic you’ll ever come back, but it’s a start.

But this post is about optimism. Because anyone who has written a book, let alone submitted it or had it published, is an optimist.

It is a triumph of hope over experience to stare at that blank page / screen and start hitting keys with the intention of producing x-thousand words of coherent story that will interest and entertain a complete stranger. No sane person would even contemplate it!

But optimism is what keeps us sat at the keyboard until the very last word is in place.  Optimism is what has us sending the ms out time and again despite the cruel and heartless rejections from evil agents on a mission to make our lives a misery. Optimism is what has us stick our books on Kindle and let “real people” judge them.

So why are we so pessimistic about the future of publishing?

To be sure the Konrathian soothsayers haven’t helped. Predicting the demise of publishing is their stock in trade. And of course we all love to read Joe’s latest rant on how evil the publishers are, how paper is dead, and how everyone should rush out and indie e-publish this very second. We all love to read how Barry Eisler turned down x-gazillion dollars to be a self-published indie, etc, etc.

But sometimes we have to take a step back and make sure we’re all reading from the same script. That same Joe that is telling us paper is dead is bemoaning indie booksellers not stocking his paper books. And haven’t these two just signed up with Amazon’s new publishing venture to have Amazon produce their books both as ebooks and on paper?

Is the Big 6 about to become the Big 7?

So in fact paper isn’t dead at all. But all credit to these guys for knowing how to generate hype and get sales boosted. Who needs a Big 6 publisher to buy you a plinth in Barnes & Noble when you can have the virtual plinth on Amazon?


But the statistics speak for themselves. Paper sales are declining. And as ereaders become the norm it seems likely paper will continue to decline, to the point where it is a luxury niche market.

So is this the end for publishing?

Back in 2009 there were two schools of thought. Either this “new” epublishing fad would die a death and paper would remain king (the experience of the newspaper industry being a classic example) or the Big 6 were finished.

As one leading pundit said in April 2009, the Big 6 were not even “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – they’re staying put and ordering more piña coladas and charging them to rooms that are already underwater.”

Two years on the Big 6 are most definitely still with us, and while there’s no question they are changing, there’s little sign that they are going under. Which will be a great disappointment to Konrath, but should be a big relief to the rest of us.

But there’s no doubt opinion is divided about which way things will go. And two of my must-read bloggers have run posts recently which have epitomised this debate.

First came Meghan Ward (left) in a post called 10 Ways To Save Publishing.

I commend the post to you for its list of things we all should be doing, as readers and writers. Buying more books. Reading more books. Reading to our kids. Etc, etc.

But as I said in response to Meghan’s post, “I agree with everything you said bar the reason for saying it!”

As an aside, Meghan’s Memoir May event over at writerland is just drawing to a close, but be sure to check out her guest Rachel Howard (right) who has a post this week on writing memoir using the second person singular.

Meghan by the way is a professional editor. Surely everyone’s dream job?! Getting paid to read all the latest books before anyone else knows they exist! If you ever need an apprentice, Meghan…

Then this past week along came Lexi Revellian with a great post entitles Who Chooses What You Read?

By which Lexi meant who chooses the choice available from which you choose to read. In Lexi’s own words:

If you go to a bookshop, what catches your eye, the piles of books in the window or on a table near the entrance, or books spine out on the bottom shelf at the back of the shop? Most members of the public are unaware that the prominent books are not those the manager has selected on merit; publishers have paid a lot of money for particular books to be well displayed.

Please tell us your desk isn't always the tidy, Lexi!

Thanks for that poignant reminder of reality, Lexi.

Invariably what sells best is what the publishers put most money into to make sure it sells best.

As for the rest… The simple fact is, most traditionally published books are lucky to sell just a thousand copies.

Which is why Lexi has every reason to be delighted her latest book, Replica, which is a feel-good thriller with a sci fi element, has already sold nearly 5,000 copies, and has only been out five minutes.

Although that pales into insignificance compared to her first feel-good thriller Remix, which has sold over 22,000 copies. And no, not by pandering to the least-savoury elements of the thriller market. If you like fast-paced thrillers that you wouldn’t  be embarrassed to read out loud to your grandmother, then Lexi’s books are for you.

But despite 25,000 happy readers Lexi has yet to capture the interest of the UK agents.

Why? because her books don’t tick the right boxes to be commercially viable . Which comes back to the matter of the huge expense necessary to publish a paper book.

So can we assume the publishers only publish books they know  will sell? Far from it.

Another tragic reality of traditional publishing is that most bookstores stock “new” books for maybe three months before returning them. To be pulped. Yep, brand new, unread books, many still in their packing cases, being pulped. Those that escape this ignominious fate go to the discount stores, having been bought up in bulk for a pittance by an optimistic reseller. There simply isn’t enough room in even the biggest bookstore to stock everything

The fact is, publishers print far more books than they expect to sell, just in case they have a successful breakout book on their hands. They expect to have substantial returns, even on big names, and budget accordingly.

Put simply, most books fail to sell. Fact.

Yes, the majority of books that pass the gatekeepers’ test and get into print are then rejected by the true gatekeepers: the buying public. Although again, by reject I mean that in most cases the buying public just never knew these books existed.

So one can understand the pessimism of both Meghan and Lexi about the future. Paper sales are plummeting, giant bookselling chains like Borders are in liquidation, and Konrath and co have already written the orbituaries for the Big 6 and are there, spades in hand, digging their graves.

But I disagree. I simply cannot see the end for the Big 6 or for publishing.

Just the opposite in fact.


No question there is a revolution in publishing taking place. It is a Reformation unparalleled in publishing history.

But far from seeing the death-throes of publishing I think we are seeing a painful rebirth. A revival – dare I say a Renaissance? – on an unprecedented scale, where every author who has a good quality book will, in the near future, have a chance to reach an audience.

Of course, those that are unwilling or unable to adapt will go to the wall.

Yes, there will be casualties along the way, and real people will lose real jobs in publishing, printing, book-selling, distribution, et al.

But get real. The days of carting shed-loads of printed blocks of paper around the country so people can buy them is coming to an end. The loss of huge stores like Borders is of course a tragedy, but dinosaurs become extinct.

Are less books being sold since Borders closed? Less paper, perhaps, but e-books are surely more than countering that, and ebook sales will increase exponentially as technology improves and the range of available titles is widened.

The epublishing revolution opens up huge new opportunities for those willing and able to take advantage.

Agents and editors will need to adapt and change, for sure, but their skills and service will still be needed. More so than ever before as the indie movement finds that quantity alone cannot compete with quality.

The big publishers are investing massively in digital, however much they try to appear aloof from it all. They have the financial muscle to do so, and at the end of the day they will make more money, not less, as the industry stabilises in the new world where paper will be the luxury niche.

The future for readers, writers and those publishers willing and able to move with the times, is brighter than at any time in history.

How so? Consider:

Traditionally an author’s chances of being published were governed by one single factor: can the publisher hope to get a return on the huge financial investment needed to bring a book to market.

For those that get the coveted place in the window display or on the plinth, yes. But unless you’re a celebrity, a mega-selling author, or are sleeping with the CEO the chances of that happening are remote.

If you are published, your fate will inevitably be a few book signings in your local store and then a place on the shelf, spine out, among however many hundreds of thousands of other books that are in the store with you.

And this is why, day after day, week in week out, perfectly good books are being rejected by agents and publishers across the globe.

The points Lexi makes about being an anonymous spine in a bookshop are exactly why so many perfectly good books are rejected. Former Big 6 editor turned million-selling author Ruth Harris spills the beans about reasons why agents may reject your book in her guest post over at Anne R Allen’s blog.

Of course agents rightly turn away appallingly written manuscripts by the hour. But they also turn away perfectly good ones. And the key reason for that is quite simple:

It’s because they are not commercially viable.

That doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.

Let’s hear that once more: It doesn’t mean no-one will buy them. It means not enough people will find them and buy them such that they will recover the tens of thousands of pounds / dollars outlay required to publish in the first place.

But now, with epublishing, there’s suddenly infinite shelf space for infinite categories and sub-categories, and the most intimate niche markets can be catered for with negligible outlay by the publisher.

Far from being less books, publishers can now reproduce their entire backlist of everything they’ve ever published (if they have the rights) and once that happens readers will be able to read that book they loved as a child, long since out of print, or a novel previously only available in some far off land.

And prices will come down.

Publishers will only need to pay for the time of the editor, proof-reader, formatter and a few other key staff.

Cover design is now a simple front page. No back cover or spine to worry about.

No time and resources spent physically producing, storing and distributing  heavy books.

No collecting and pulping the unsold titles. In fact, not a single wasted product.

Whether it sells a single copy or a million copies the production cost is identical (bar the author’s advance, perhaps).

And of course, the book will never again be “out of print”, “not in stock”, only available in if you live in a big city, or any of a thousand other reasons that buyers previously could not buy a book they wanted.

Far from turning away perfectly good authors because their book is commercially unviable, publishers will be queuing up to find new authors with a decent product, because any good book wll be commercially viable.

And it won’t matter whether the author or reader lives in New York or New Zealand. Don’t tell Barnes & Nobel, but there’s a whole wide world outside the United States. (When will it occur to them that’s why Amazon is leaving them standing?)

A revolution is taking place that we are not just witnessing, but are participants in. It’s up to us how far we get involved, but burying our heads in the sand is no longer an option. Peer-review sites like authonomy and youwriteon, are you listening?

It may take a few years to stabilise, and there will be casualties along the way. But when it does settle down there will be a whole new world of opportunity for both readers and writers.

Not to mention the publishers…

The glass is half full!

The future is bright. The future is digital.

PS Literally just having posted this article my attention was drawn, via the above mentioned Lexi, to a post over at The Daily Beast where Dale Peck has a very different take on the future. Check it out. Join the debate!

  1. Thanks for the mention, Mark. One part of the problem is a disconnect between what publishers think is commercially viable, and what will actually sell given the chance. Publishers are certain they know best, with very little evidence for this view.

    If I, doing my own editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design and promotion, can sell 22,500 copies of Remix, how many might Penguin or Harper Collins have sold?

    The US small publisher Agatho in his blog Mysterious Matters said this week that 90% of the books published each year sell fewer than 1,000 copies. I doubt the numbers are very different over here.

    • It does seem at times like some people in the industry are in denial. They’ve spent so long dissing self-publishers and equating that with vanity press products that they cannot take a step back and now and re-evaluate.

      It seems the British publishers are that much further behind when it comes to dealing with this. Which is understandable given that it is only really Amazon that has made ebooks viable this side of the Atlantic.

      B&N are supposedly looking to allow international buyers, but at the moment they are a closed shop, and no matter how fancy their next nook they cannot compete with Amazon if they can’t trade outside the US.

      I suspect had you targeted the US market and managed 22,000 sales with just one title over there you would have had serious interest from agents by now. But in the UK ebooks are still seen as second-rate.

      In the US ebooks have their own list on the New York Best Sellers rankings. In the UK the media barely acknowledge ebooks exist.

  2. I agree with you. In fact, the hubby & I were talking this morning about how bookstores are paid to display books. It has nothing to do with individual taste.

    However, once upon a time I managed an indie bookstore and every single book we displayed on the sales counter or put in the windows (we had lots of window space) was a book we liked.

    I’m not a fan of big box bookstores and while I never want to stomp for the demise of anything, I would really, really, really, really like to see indie bookstores survive as the sole place to buy paper books.

    Oh, and I’m okay as a failure at the traditional publishing route. I’ve found so much happiness as an indie author. ❤


    • “A failure at the traditional route”?

      I prefer the term “pre-discovered”.

      They’ll find you eventually, and hopefuly come up with an offer that will help you reach a far wider audience than you can on your own.

      A good publisher can help with translations and foreign sales that few if any indie publishers could cope with.

      And with a bit of help from Hollywood who knows where Anathema might be in twelve months time.

      BTW for anyone into YA fantasy without the vampires and stuff, Meggs Anathema comes with my highest recommendations! One of the best and most original YA books I’ve read in a long time.

  3. Great post!

    I think you are right – once the smoke clears this will be a win/win for everyone – readers, writers, editors, agents, and yes, even publishers!

    And now back to writing…


  4. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for anyone willing to take their fingers out of their ears and stop going “LALLY LALLY LALLY EVERYTHING’S THE SAME AS IT ALWAYS WAS LALLY LALLY LALLY” this is an age of tremendous opportunity; the best time in the history of the world to be a writer. It’s the beginning of a golden age for writers AND publishers, at least for those willing to embrace change. It’s an especially exciting time for those of us who are far from New York and London. I highly doubt I would have even been published if not for Amazon and e-publishing, simply due to the huge added hassle of distance and geographical isolation. With the difficulty of ‘distribution’ removed, everything becomes so much easier.

  5. Thanks, Ben.

    For those not in the know Ben is in New Zealand and has a raft of wonderful books for tweens that the rest of the world would probably never have known of without the epub revolution.

  6. I do love your posts, Mark and I especially relate to the replies.
    When I first POD-published my fantasy The Stumpwork Robe in 2008, I was very lucky. I had radio and print media coverage and a central plinth in a major bookstore. The upshot was that the store had the most sales for an unknown author ever. After that the book was relegated to the fantasy section, but still front side out. Still sold. Then it went to spine out. Sales declined. The one advantage for the booksellers’ was that being POD, they never over-ordered and never had to return and nothing was pulped.

    Fast forward to my third fantasy, about to be published in the northern autumn. As I’ve mentioned here before, it was assessed by one of the best consultancies in London as commercially viable, and by an-ex Random House editor no less. The consultancy tried to sell the novel on to no avail because it is niche, I am an unknown so no moneymaking guarantees there for the Big Houses!

    What’s left for me with a book that has had the seal of approval placed on it? Not the Big Six, that’s for sure. I have to go the e-way and if I want a print copy out there as well, then the POD way. And God bless the e-way!

    As an aside, I’ve been seeking mainstream author review comment for the book for when it is published, explaining to those I approached that I was going the e-way. One topnotch fantasy writer came back with the comment: ‘Goodluck with self-publishing. It seems to be a more respectable option by the day.’ Interesting view.

    • No question e-publishing is becoming more and more respectable, even among those who don’t approve.

      It’s noticeable that the most resistance to epublishing comes from those with a vested interest in paper.

      What really worries and depresses me is how the peer review sites lke youwriteon and authonomy are deliberately head in sand and determined to pretend the epublishing option does not exist.

      There’s so much talent on those sites that will go to waste because these prospective best-sellers are unable to get a paper contract and are unaware of other options.

      Our own experience says it all.

      Sugar & Spice spent time on both authonomy and youwriteon before we epublished.

      Had we been given a paper contract we would have been splashed across the sites as another success story. Having become a UK “best-seller” we would have been doubls-splashed across those sites.

      But we are an ebook. Neither site wants to know.

      A runaway success story, with sales expected to hit 75,000 in June. What an inspiration for other new writers! Isn’t that what these sites are supposed to be about?

      Ted from youwriteon managed a form letter reply saying “well-done”.

      Authonomy do not even acknowledge we exist.

      Neither site stands to gain financially by being associated with an ebook success.


  7. The thing that really stuck out for me in your post today was this:

    “No sane person would even contemplate it!”

    Which totally explains why being a writer is the PERFECT profession for me. 🙂

    Seriously, though, if it weren’t for the epub revolution, I would still be on the query-go-round, frustrated and most definitely pessimistic. I am really grateful to have been given the chance to join the revolution. Whether the Big 6 survive or not is immaterial to me personally (Though I would be devastated if my favorite trad pubbed authors got the short stick.). Now that I’ve made the decision to self pub, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

    • Shea, judging from the opening chapter on your blog your book will be yet another fine example of a perfectly good book the gatekeepers turned away.

      The opening sentence is a great hook and the first chapter full of promise. I’m looking forward to buying and reading Kissed By Darkness when it goes live.

      Great cover, too!

      • Aw, thanks, Mark. That means a lot. One of my crit partners has been “in the biz” for over ten years and said pretty much the same thing.

        It was really disheartening to get rejection after form rejection (even when the pages had been personally requested), but this epub route has really given me hope. Because fortunately my idea of “financially viable” is a lot different than that of the Big 6.

        Plus I’m over the moon just having a really cool cover! 🙂 lol

  8. Great post. Have just RT’d and FB’d it. I think we CAN be optimistic, and your experience shows it. I agree with Lexi that what big six editors think is commercially viable and what actually sells are two very different things.

    I mean–who would buy old fashioned English boarding school book at the end of the 20th century? With Halloween costumes, no less? And soooo much too long. No kid would read a book as long as that, Ms. Rowling…

    All your pep talks are getting through to me. I think I’m about ready to take the plunge. I sure have a lot of inventory. And I’m so tired of editing all the humor out of my books because agents say “humor doesn’t sell.”

    Maybe, in the end, it will be their lack of humor–and the accompanying self-awareness–that does the Big 6 in. (With a whole lot of help from the very smart people at Amazon.)

  9. Seems like you forgot one major thing (even thought I didn’t read the last bottom half of the article, so maybe you didn’t forget it): the 25% ebook royalty rate authors are getting (but don’t want) from publishers. They are not even willing to negotiate and THIS is why they will spiral down faster than imagined. They don’t want to budge from what I’m hearing and seeing. Rowlings has already jumped ship, but if Patterson,King, et al follow (I don’t know when), publishers will start to lose the ability to pay that New York lease Stephenie Meyer has been paying for them.

    • gerrymccullough
    • December 9th, 2013

    Good to see you back online here, Mark. Fascinating and useful stuff.

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