A cappuccino, a latte, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. No sprinkles on the Atwood.

Nathan Bransford this week has been posing the question more and more indies are struggling with:  do they need a publisher at all?

With agents and publishers turning away new writer after new writer more and more authors are self-publishing and proving there is a market for the work the gatekeepers rejected. At which point the gatekeepers come knocking at the door, kindly offering to represent us.

But by that time it may be too late. The author has experienced the true freedom being an indie can bring, and even if a publisher can make them more money (which is increasingly not the case) fewer and fewer authors would be willing to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of a contract.

For established authors with a back-list like Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, Blake Crouch, Bob Meyer, etc, the rewards of indie publishing increasingly outweigh anything a trad publisher can offer. More and more established authors are moving to the indie side.

Nathan says,

I think publishers are going to have to think long and hard about what exactly they will actually be providing authors in an e-book world. There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented “You’re lucky to be with us” mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented “What else could we possibly do for you” mentality.

No more books that get dropped in the ocean without publisher support. Embracing and investing in new marketing tactics for the Internet era. Becoming an integral part of how consumers find books.

And innovating with new ideas and experiments and models. Some publishers are, yes, but is it enough?

Authors should want to have their e-books published by the traditional publishers, not be forced to grudgingly give them up in exchange for being published in print. Big authors are soon going to have a choice, and publishers are going to need to make themselves indispensable once again.

Meanwhile prospective thriller writer Jake Hardman was wondering on his own blog about the future of ebooks vs paperbacks. Jake diagrees with me and others that the future of paperbacks is bleak.

If you only read one or two books a year it’s probably not worth buying an e-reader. It makes sense, however, for an avid reader to own one. Electronic books are generally cheaper and easier to get hold of than paper. What’s more, there’s the growing range of exciting books that are only published electronically. These reasons, however, don’t stack up for the occasional reader who’s unlikely to review the book blogs or buy on-line via one-click.

You can’t pick up an e-book (and probably never will be able to) in a supermarket, train station or airport, which is where I believe most occasional readers buy books. When placed by the checkout, cover facing outwards (something most authors can only dream about), paperbacks have the potential to attract their attention. E-books don’t. My guess is that avid readers who haven’t yet moved over to electronic formats will do so shortly, but the vast majority of occasional readers may never do so.

Traditional publishers – selling a limited range of blockbusters – will, for this reason, I believe continue to dominate the occasional-reader market.  Promoting their books in the aforementioned outlets, the death of the independent bookshop won’t affect their market, but they will lose a slice to the indie authors.

Jake makes some interesting points, but I disagreed on some things here. I did try and debate this over at Jake’s site but Blogger ate my comment, as happens all too often. However, the points Jake raised, especially in view of Nathan’s post, deserve a wider discussion. Do publishers and paperbacks have a future?

Anne R Allen ran a post on publishing ten years down the line. She predicted the following will survive:

Top-Selling Superstar Books in Hardcover, Suitable for Gift-Giving

Humor Books

Coffee Table Books

Impress-the-Guests/Keepsake Literary Books

Bibles and other Iconic Religious Books

Decorator Books

Books for Small Children

And of course, Snookibooks

No sign of paperbacks there. I’m not privy to Anne’s reasoning for the demise of the paperback but suspect it will be something like this:

Jake’s right that the occasional reader and impulse buyer is going to be tempted by the high-profile elite the trad publishers have paid to promote. Those are the books you see on the plinths, in the window displays, and in the supermarkets.

But bookstores have no future, and nor do supermarket book sales. At least, not for paperbacks. Because it won’t just be the independent booksellers that fall. It will be the giants like B&N and Waterstone’s. Sure, they may still exist in name, just as WH Smiths exists in name as a book seller in the UK. But the token array of books they sell will diminish and diminish until it’s just those books identified by Anne that survive.

The paperback, even for the mega-names like Patterson and King, will fade into oblivion. Perhaps lasting a year or so beyond the rest, but they cannot stay afloat on their own.

A common argument of the anti-epub brigade is that only a minority will ever own an e-reader. This is true.

But e-readers per se are not the future of ebooks. Tablets are. Or whatever the next generation of e-reading smart mini-computers may be called. If dedicated e-readers were the only way of reading ebooks then the digital future would be bleak. But dedicated e-readers like the b&w Kindle are already all but obsolete.

Even if you only read one or two books a year you will most likely soon be owning a tablet / smart phone or other device.

Paper sales will therefore continue to decline and a vicious circle of economics will render the mass paperback commercially unviable because the book stores will be either closed or just selling ebooks and coffee, and the supermarkets will want prices so low to buy-in that the printing costs will no longer be covered.

Bear in mind stores like Tesco (largest UK retail chain) has its own ebook store. Others are following suit. Presumably the same is happening in the US. Nothing too exciting now but who knows where it might be in a year’s time.

The thing is, there’s nothing to stop Tesco or any other major retailer having an ebook display of the mega names at the till.  Maybe they can listen to an audio teaser on earphones while they queue. A click of a button and the book is downloaded to the customer’s smartphone, tablet or whatever as soon as they pay for their shopping.

Books take shelf space. Shelf space is money. The supermarkets will stock books only so long as they are bringing in more than they cost to stock. Why would they waste shelf space on wads of paper that fewer and fewer people will buy when they can instead sell ebooks with no shelf space?

If I were running a supermarket chain I would be looking at a leisure-cafe instead of those diabolical shoppers’ restaurants. A leisure cafe where customers can buy expensive coffee with huge profit margins while sampling ebooks from the supermarket’s own ebook store, clicking buy and having the ebooks added to the check-out tally when they pick up their groceries.

The ONLY way paperbacks can survive is if POD technology improves to the point where in those same cafes you can order a print version of whatever book you wish and have it printed in-store, to a professional standard and at a sensible price, and have it ready to collect at the checkout.

Yes, the technology exists, but it’s a novelty toy that will never ctach on in any meaningful way.  The practicalities of operating (staff), storage (paper and ink for printing) and maintenance would leave the supermarket or bookstore little better off than before, and catering for a diehard and ever-diminishing minority of readers.

It’s a matter of time before similar browsing cafes appear at major train stations and airports, most likely by the big e-retailers teaming up with the big coffee bars already in position. Many bookstores already host coffee bars. Books and coffee are already as one in the public mind.

New technology will determine just how the future pans out, but the mass paperback is on its death bed.

Which brings us back to Nathan. Why should mega-sellers like Patterson and King stick with their paper publishers, beyond special edition hard-backs, once digital fully takes over?

Nathan said,

Publishers are going to need to make themselves indispensable once again.

I suspect one way they will do that is by buying their way into those browser cafes (Starbooks?) and making sure ebooks by their own published authors get the big promotions, just as they do now in the bookstores with paper products. That way they might just hang on to some of their big name authors, and rely on the niche paper products Anne referred to for their other income.

The big issue for the future is whether those publishers that survive, leaner and meaner, will be able to buy or bully their way into the e-distributors’ favour, or challenge them head-on.

As Amazon moves more and more into publishing it seems there are two likely futures for the major publishing corporations:

1.     The so-called Big Six get their act together to buy rival e-distributors like B&N and the smaller e-book outlets like the UK’s Waterstone’s and set up their own e-store based on known names, while refusing to supply Amazon (and perhaps Apple too).

2.     The so-called Big Six collectively come to an agreement with Apple to exclusively supply, and go to war against Amazon, B&N and the smaller outlets.

Paperbacks have no future, but let’s not write off the big publishers just yet. They have the money and the muscle to evolve.

How do you see the future of paper publishing?

  1. *cuddles her Kindle* I think ebooks are brilliant, but I do think that there will always be a niche for paper books – even if they are only the ones that Anne and Jake listed. I love paper books though, and even avid readers may still frequent a bookshop to buy a paper book now and again. Whether enough will do that to keep the bookstores alive, I don’t know. We’ll wait and see.

    As for publishers, I reckon they’ll adapt – they’re canny like that – and, though they may not retain quite the same role, they might prove useful on the marketing front, and make themselves indespensible by getting people’s ebooks noticed, thus upping the sales. Or something like that, anyway.

    • Change has a habit of creeping up when you least expect it. Hard to imagine now but there used to be a Borders chain in the UK. And a big book chain called Ottakar’s. All gone.

      Earlier this year the UK book chain Waterstone’s was bought out by a Russian orgnaization that has absolutely no interest in books. Why buy? Prime property in prime locations. So seventy Waterstone’s will be closing this year.

      Meanwhile gifts, novelties, games and dvds spread across the shelves of those stores that remain, along with more and more coffee franchises.

      B&N over in the US have just reported their latest quaterly figures: “B&N said that while traditional physical book sales declined during the quarter, the stores posted large increases in sales of the Nook product line and the toys & games segment.”

      (Official statement: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/48514-with-digital-up-140-at-b-n-sales-rise-loss-falls.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=b50d38a584-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email )

      Sales up 140% thanks to digital. Paper sales declining despite its biggest rival being closed.

      Christmas is coming. You’re in charge of the bookstore chain and you look at the figures. “Hey, let’s get rid of the toys and games and all this digital rubbish and stock more books like in the old days.”

      Ain’t gonna happen.

    • Miriam
    • August 30th, 2011

    Ha, my dad goes to me, “What are you reading?”
    “Oh, Mark’s doomsaying about the end of paperbacks again…”

    Anyhoo. I like paperbacks. I do. I love reading people’s bookshelves and seeing what they’ve got, and when I’m watching vlogs I’ll be looking at the books in the background and trying to see if I’ve read them. This is why paperbacks are cool…

    • Miriam, refer your dad to the B&N figures in the response above.

      Once the Titanic was holed below the waterline it was going to sink, no matter how many people thought it was wonderful.

      • It wasn’t just a hole in the Titanic, it was a gash that spread across more ‘water chambers’ (I forget the technical term) than the boat could sustain… So If the Titanic had hit the iceburg straight on it would have survived… but the boat was turned and thus the gash let in more water than the boat could handle and down she went….

        What? *looks about* I grew up near Wood Hole, I watched them discover the Titanic with Alvin… I even got to work in the Library connected to that Insittute.

        And the Titanic sunk around my birhtday (not the same year mind you… I’m not that old *giggles*).

        Still I will miss the Titanic, I mean paperbacks, I think… I do like my hard covers. As to books store chanis here going with the e-book market.. Well Boarders is gone… and then there’s B&N, and well that’s all I can think of, though I think there may be Waterstone too, but only in Malls…

        :} Cathryn Leigh

  2. I have to agree. I find Nathan’s comments very interesting, esp now he is no longer a literary agent. I think he made a very smart move and got out when he did.

    I think the big six will think of some way of grabbing their piece of the pie in the e-market but it will be interesting to see how.

    The more I read about you guys, John Locke, Konrath et al. And after what has/is happening with my own books I am so pleased I got rejected now and decided to go it alone. After reading on various blogs the average earnings/advance for a newbie author I’ve surpassed that in just 3 months on my own. I think the only thing that would tempt me to sign with a publisher now would be if it was the print rights alone (like John Locke did).

    It feels a little surreal how fast the publishing world is changing. It seems there’s some new break through contract that’s “never been done before and they said they would never do it” happening on a daily basis.

    Exciting times for us indies, that’s for sure! 🙂

    • It’s really great to find writers like yourself who haven’t had our enormous luck but are still doing well enough to out-earn a standard advance.

      Stories like yours are what really matter, not the sellers with crazy numbers. Saffi and I, like John Locke and Amanda Hocking, are outliers that many would argue are freak results that prove digital isn’t viable for the rest.

      Yet more and more authors are coming forward with inspiring stories and figures to match.

      Exciting indeed, Alison. I’ll be looking a just how exciting in my guest post over at the Writers’ Guide to E-Publishing on Sunday.

      And meantime for anyone whose telly has broken and they’re feeling bored I’m guest tomorrow over at David Gaughran’s blog, talking about writing myths and collaborative authorship.

  3. As the price of e-readers comes down faster & faster, only the specialty kinds of books Anne mentions will be left. General mainstream publishing as we have known it will just about disappear although, depending on the technology, POD might replace it to some degree. The bookstores that will be left will be museum bookstores or those few very high end stores like Rizzoli & Archivia in NYC that specialize in costly, beautifully produced books. Sort of Tiffany’s for books.


    • Agreed, Ruth. Paper will polarize.

      POD along the lines of Amazon’s CreateSpace service is probably the best cheap paperbacks can hope for. Amazon have the infrastructure to produce and distribute cost-effectively on a small scale and will no doubt survive as a niche providing personalised copies of ebooks for signing, for gifts, etc.

      At the other end, the elite few will have their books encrusted with jewels just because someone out there will pay.

      For the rest of us, there’s digital.

      • Mark, come the day, books will be sold by the carat. Just the way Tiffany sells diamonds. lol

  4. The thing that concerns me, having only been e-published with Amazon and Smashwords since February is the threat of the Big Six and what they will do in the end. All along I have had a feeling that the indies time is short and that we shall have to re-think our own rise and rise (for want of better words).
    Our strength IS our independence and size. It takes a long time to turn an oceanliner around, very little time to flip a motorboat in a circle. We need to keep doing that. Keep fresh, exciting, keep ahead of the flotilla. We can’t rest on laurels, that’s for sure.

    • Could not agree more, Prue.

      Complacency is not an option. The more we indies can establish our brand now the more chance we have of riding the storms ahead.

  5. The mass market paperback has been almost entirely replaced by the ebook, so I see that as the first casualty of the e-revolution. Mass Market publishers like Dorchester have gone under already.

    Trade paperbacks may survive in POD. But there’s no reason for them to survive in the wasteful, ecologically unsound way they do now.

    I do believe tablets, not dedicated e-readers are the future, which is why Amazon is coming out with a much cheaper tablet than the iPad. We may be on the verge of some huge war between Amazon and Apple, which will be kind of cool to watch. I think we’ll probably benefit.

    Nathan predicted most of this a year ago at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference–even when he was still an agent. Totally turned my attitude around.

    (Passive Guy says women love Kindles and men love iPads, probably because a Kindle fits better in a purse, but I’m sure there will be different sizes for both.)

    Corporations will find a way to grab the biggest share of the market, because that’s what corporations do, so getting into the market now, while this wild-west thing is going on is smart.

    Prue said it best: we have to be nimble. When the corporations catch on, we have to be able to move ahead of them to the next thing.

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mark!

    • That and the name iPad gives the poor appliance a stigma from the woman’s perspective, so I think…

      Then again I do prefer to keep my purse size small… *grin*

  6. Absolutely, Anne, keeping ahead of the game is the key to indie success, and any serious indie writer needs to be watching the publishing news day by day, and constantly revising plans accordingly.

    As Bob Mayer says, it’s not where publishing is now that matters, but where it will be in five years time.

    A huge war between Apple and Amazon will benefit us as writers so long as the trad publishers don’t take sides. But they cannot long stay neutral.

    With Amazon increasingly moving into the publishing arena, and Apple still making life difficult for indies, an alliance of Apple and the Big Six at some level seems increasingly likely, which would hand enormous power back to the gatekeepers.

    The coporations are using the US and UK to fight the current battle. But the bigger battle is for global domination. The Big Six and Apple are learning from their early errors that have let Amazon take a commanding lead. They won’t make the same mistakes as they tackle the BRIC and Spanish-speaking markets.

  7. Great points as always, Mark!! Our library here in Kentucky, have already installed ereader hook-ups where you can download a book with your library card onto your reader, keep it for fourteen days (like a print book), and then it disappears. It’s really no different than lending a book on Amazon. It’s wonderful! I think you will see more of those in the cafes at airports, etc…..
    I have to admit that after I got my Kindle, I read more now than ever. I barely have time to write!

    • Summer Grey
    • September 2nd, 2011

    First of all, found your blog through David Gaughran and I love what you have to say. It’s so much fun to watch these shifts in this industry that I always thought was iron clad. I never saw the ebook coming, that’s for sure.

    I love love love love my paperback books. I have an emotional attachment to them. When I was a kid I used to come home from the library with armfuls of books, stack them by my bed and go through them one by one. Nothing fills me with warm fuzzy feelings like a tall stack of paperbacks. At the same time, I’m dying to get my hands on the ipad, and I love my iPhone. One of it’s primary functions is as an ereader. I love my ebook, and I love how the power in this industry is returning to it’s two most important components- readers and writers.

    I’m hoping for a future in publishing where there is room for both paperbacks and ebooks. 🙂

  1. August 31st, 2011
  2. November 18th, 2011
    Trackback from : Kaley Bates

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