Time to bring the headless chickens home to roost.

The New Renaissance

Way back in May I ran a post on MWi entitled Reformation and Renaissance: the Future of Publishing.

It was a period of gloom among many of the literati. Borders was in its death throes and sensible people were seriously talking about the demise of the publishing industry. That somehow the book world was going down the pan, and taking literature with it.

Books stores were closing almost daily. Prints runs were getting shorter. Writers couldn’t sell their latest scripts because agents were turning authors away, because publishers weren’t buying.

The only glimmer of hope on the horizon was digital.

But agents were running about like headless chickens scaremongering about e-books. Publishers were running about like headless chickens scaremongering about ebooks. Everyone, except us indies, were running about like headless chickens

There was no way ebooks could rescue the publishing industry. After all, how many people had ereaders? And what about the dreaded tsunami of crap we were all going to drown in?


Here at MWi I was having none of this nonsense.

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.

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

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

And not just in the US and UK, I said in another post, but internationally.

The digital revolution will sweep the rest of the world far faster than it has the US and UK. Make sure you’ve got a ticket for the ride!

As I said back in May, largely to deaf ears,

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.

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.

Fast forward October and Publishing Perspectives  has this headline:

Backlist Catalogue: The Backbone of Digital Publishing.

Check out the story. Agents fighting over one another to get the rights to authors’ backlists so they can turn them into ebooks. The exact same agents who six months ago were telling us all how ebooks were a fad.

You couldn’t make it up…

* * *

The other big stories from Publishing Perspectives?

Markets to Watch in 2012

The growth markets in 2011 include Russia — which, according to one agent, is “perking up” — as well as Eastern Europe, Spain and Latin America, especially Brazil. “Brazil is one of the most dynamic markets right now.”

As I said six months ago,

The digital revolution will sweep the rest of the world far faster than it has the US and UK.

Germany and France now have their own Kindle stores. Spain’s and Italy’s are imminent. Ebooks are growing worldwide faster than anyone anywhere expected, with Russia and Brazil marked as the bonanza markets for 2012. For the MWi record, add China, India, Thailand and east Europe for 2013. If things are slow…

Kobo is busy mopping up a huge portion of the European e-market that Amazon has been slow to grab. Across Europe sales of English-language ebooks are soaring (especially in Scandinavia and eastern Europe) and we can expect a similar picture to emerge worldwide given the dominance of the English language. Kobo has said that its English-language sales to non-English countries are up 300% this year over 2010, with Sweden leading the charge in Europe, up 359%.

All looks bright apart from Barnes & Noble, who are still playing the US card, crazy idiots that they are, and excluding international buyers. That said, they are making a killing with a huge collection of Spanish, German and Italian language ebooks for sale to their Spanish, German and Italian speaking American customers. Amazon missed a trick there!

* * *

Also in Publishing Perspectives yesterday:

Film: An “Emerging” Market

More than a quarter of all the films produced in the world come from books. Just think about the success of Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, Brokeback Mountain — all these films come from books. The publishing industry is getting closer and closer to the film industry, both of them start to work like a team. The cooperation between publishing, film and games is an even newer development, and it will be the next big thing in the course of the next two to five years.

Sounds familiar? At the weekend here at MWi  we were looking at Lee Chambers and how he was using his ebook to build support for the film he had already written. In the discussion that followed I said,

As with books, the future of film is in niche markets, not blockbusters. As technology brings down production costs and SFX remove the need for expensive studios and location shoots indie films will take off big time and with the KindleFire and iPad already able to play films it’s just a matter of time before we see Kindle film store and iFilms flooded with indie productions.

And of course these indie film-makers will all need scripts and books to take scripts from.

You heard it here first!

* * *

So the future is bright.

Yet there is still a pervasive air of pessimism, especially among the indie publishers. Bob Mayer summed up the issues in a post entitled The Sustaninability of an Indie Author – will self-publishers survive?

Bob knows the business well, from both sides, and it’s an article I commend to you.

But I don’t share his pessimism.

Bob is talking about the big names, like his own self, and he’s right – Things will get a whole lot more difficult to grab the top places in the charts as the trad publishers bully and bribe their way back into position.

But that was always going to happen. We were saying this on MWi way back in April.

Bob bemoans the inability of  indie publishers to advertise and buy space on Amazon. But for the average indie publisher, without a huge backlist and a twenty-year reputation like Bob has, that was never going to be an option anyway. It’s irrelevant to most of us.

I greatly respect Bob’s views, but his situation, like Joe Konrath’s and the other big names on the indie circuit, are not typical of 99% of indie authors, who have no print history, no backlists, and no loyal readers to carry with them.

What we’re seeing now is crunch time for the indie movement.

Trad-pubbed authors with no serious backlist, who have belatedly jumped on the indie bandwagon, seeing the 70% royalty and thinking it was a new job-for-life because the trad publishers were ignoring ebooks, are going to be sadly disappointed. Trad publishers have never been ignoring ebooks.

All the time their publicity departments were denouncing ebooks as a fad they were quietly throwing money into digitalization. The trad publishers are many things, but stupid is not one of them. Sure, they’ve just been slow to turn the ship around. But turning it is.

Bob says,

To think that the current business environment will stay the same and that traditional publishing will not morph into something that embraces eBooks is burying my hand in the sand.

Spot on, Bob. As I say constantly on MWi and WG2E, as indie authors we have to adapt to survive.  As indies we have to stay at least one step ahead of the game. Which is Bob’s philosophy too.

Where I depart from Bob’s view is on his attachment to the charts. As Bob says,

Traditional publishing had finite shelf space.  That’s not a problem with eBooks.  Infinite shelf space.  BUT:  finite room on lists and in placement.  So, while shelf space isn’t a choke point any more, placement is with eBooks.  There can be millions of books available on Amazon but only 100 titles can be in the top 100 in a genre or overall.  Only so many titles can be featured on a screen or in those emails Amazon and Barnes and Noble send out.  Just as shelf space was a choke point in trad publishing, placement is a choke point in eBooks.  Your eBook can be out there but if no one finds it, it does you no good.

And this is where the crunch comes. The trad publishers WILL regain control of the charts because they have the money and muscle to do so. It’s the reason why most major trad-published players will stay trad published, and why most indie authors who do make progress will join them.

It’s a trade off between the higher royalties available self-pubbed, against the chance the trad publisher will put their money and muscle behind your book and make sure it gets noticed.

As indies we cannot compete.

Sure Saffi and I have had two top 100 hits in succession, but we’re not banking on it happening again. If it does, great. It’s a bonus. But any indies  relying on chart success as the trad pubs regain their stranglehold is going to be seriously disappointed.

The big question is, does it matter?

Bob says,

So, while shelf space isn’t a choke point any more, placement is with eBooks. 

True, and for Bob, with his huge backlist and his established fanbase this will diminish his sales, which at the moment are phenomenal. Yes, Bob will inevitably see a drop in sales, because his level of success is unustainable in the current model.All ccredit to him for recognizing that and planning to deal with it.

But Bob’s success is pure fantasy for start-up indies who missed the start of the race, when it was shooting fish in a barrel,  or who don’t carry a much deserved reputation and backlist with them.

99% of indies, rightly, see selling in thousands as a major achievement. Bob’s sales numbers are pie in the sky for most of us. He will see it as failure if his sales drop below some magic number most of us would give our right arms to come remotely close to.

His pessimism is right. For him. It can’t last.

But for new writers to see this as some excuse to lurch into despondency is just crazy.

The pie is getting bigger, and for all except the top sellers in their field it’s good news.

Bob cites the choke point of placement as a major obstacle to sales.  But it is exactly the same as existed before with print.

Millions of  print books managed to sell in the olden days without ever getting into a top 100 chart. Millions of ebooks sell today without getting near the top 100. Millions more ebooks will tomorrow.

If we want the e-plinth and the accolade of top chart-positions in the future then we will need to have a huge backlist and reputation like Bob and Joe Konrath, sign-up with the money-and-muscle guys and compromise on royalties and control, or be extraordinarily lucky.

The indie honeymoon is over, sure. I said that back in April.

But the indie writer still has huge opportunities ahead, and staying nimble and thinking ahead is the key.

It’s never been a level playing field, and never will be.

But the current mood of doom and gloom is unwarranted. Indie writers just need to stay focused and be realistic.

Oh, and write good books.

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  1. Bah, sneaky Big Industries out to creep up on us again? Time to write better methinks.

    Will hopefully get some St Mall’s chapters to you by this evening – have one for Helen, but going to go a little further and write a few more to get the plot shufty-ing. We may just disregard it as rubbish, but I’ll see what I can do.

    Publishing seems so utterly terrifying from here…

    • Miriam Joy
    • October 11th, 2011

    *exhales noisily*
    Okay, so what ARE we supposed to do?

    And get on it, Spookybeast!

    • Pj Schott
    • October 11th, 2011

    This revolution couldn’t have happened in a better industry. Perhaps banking will be next.

  2. Thanks for the shot of realism, Mark. Between the rabid optimist and the doom-and-gloomers it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important: Writing good books that people love to read.

    I don’t need Bob’s numbers. I’m happy to sell a couple thousand books a month. That’s a living wage for me and I’m good with that.

  3. “Millions of print books managed to sell in the olden days without ever getting into a top 100 chart.”

    Mark, you’re absolutely right about this. In the glory days of the mmpb, lots & lots of writers made a damn good living. No one ever heard of them but their books sold—and sold. They were the writers who wrote book after book, year after year, writers who didn’t delude themselves with fantasies about “literature” and NYT book reviews and zillion-dollar-movie-sales but knew how to create great entertainment for a large audience of readers.

    No reason at all the same can’t happen again. But the writers who will thrive will approach e-pubbing as a business. They will invest not only their time and their talent but also their money. They will want the most professional editors, the best covers, the best blurbs, the most effective marketing/publicity and, if they can’t do all of these things by themselves (and who of us can?), they will hire cover designers, free-lance editors, blurb writers–whatever they need to get the best possible book out there.

    The fact is that selling books—e-books, ppb or hc—is hard. The savviest, most experienced book people will tell you that & back it up with lots and lots of examples of books that were “sure things” but ended up in warehouses waiting to be pulped or remaindered. Be prepared to work hard, to keep learning, to keep trying. After all, what’s wrong with success with a small “s”? Lots of writers made lots of money that way.

    • Thanks, Ruth.

      And for anyone not familiar Ruth IS a multi-million selling, chart-busting author, so speaks with some authority!

      The great thing now is that there is no warehouse full of to-be-pulped ebooks, and something that doesn’t fly this year might grow wings next, But as you say quality is the key, and for all but the newest and poorest first-timers there is no excuse for putting out second-rate work.

  4. Some very sage advice, Mark. Great post. It’s sad to think that the big publishers are just going to muscle their way back in and look down their noses at us again, just because they have money. Unfortunately in this world, that’s about all that talks anymore.

    I haven’t had a chance to look over your contract yet, been crazy busy with construction. Will get to it soon.

    • Thanks Alison.

      What wil be really interesting as the trads gain confidence is how they deal with new authors in the future on a digital only basis.

      The backlists will only take them so far, then they need to seriously address new writers once again.

      i suspect trawling the Kindle charts will be the first step, as agents are already doing. But at some stage the big poublishers are going to start taking on new writers on larger scale with ebook-only deals, with the promise of placement and promotion and maybe a compromise on the royalties.

      And for most new writers that will be a good thing.

      • Fair enough; you write well, you eventually get noticed. That has always been true–it’s just true now in a different way that opens more opportunities.

  5. I think indies will continue to be important partly because the old query system is breaking down and trad publishers are looking for new authors on the Kindle lists. This is a growing trend. Then there’s Amazon-the-publisher. And soon there may be Apple-the-publisher and others nobody’s even thought about

    Indie publishing may become the “regional theater” of publishing. Some people may move from there to the “Broadway” of big publishing (and Broadway is going to look very different.) But regional theater is where innovation and new ideas are born.

  6. This post is a shot of realism for us all. We can ride some euphoric wave of ‘Yeah! we’re indies! We’ve got it all!’ But eventually the wave hits the shore and one has to paddle out ready to catch the next one.

    Of course the trads will catch up and pass us…BUT… indies are now a force to be reckoned with, no doubt. Especially with nation after nation falling to a GFC and people not being able to afford not just paper books but the e-books they continue to ask massive RRP’s for. With e-reader prices dropping, reasonably priced e-books become an economic investment.

    I think yours and others comments on this post are so valid: write the best books we can and get them and our backlists out there. And yes, Mark, MWiDP may have my backlist. I will email!

  7. Excellent post. I wrote one too after reading Bob’s post (www.JimTheWriterB.wordpress.com) and came to much of the same conclusions… writers need to do two things: The need to write and they need to plan.

    Writing is always first because it’s our product. The second step, planning, comes in for everything else. Meaning… how much do you need to make to survive? The thrive? The put away for retirement? Etc. etc. You have your own personal goals that you want to hit… and keep that in mind.

    SOme may want to be filthy rich – and I say, go for it! Some may just want to survive with a couple grand a month and enjoy a simple life – and I say, go for it! To eat their own.

    I’m well aware of how hard it is to make a top 100 list… but I’ve cared about that. I care about people reading my books and enjoying them. And like Dean Wesley Smith has preached before, it’s a numbers game. Get 100 projects out there, sell 10 of them each month, and you have a 1,000 sales. Which takes me back to my first point (and all our points): WRITE! 🙂

    • gerrymccullough
    • October 12th, 2011

    Mark and Ruth, you are so right – there was a time when lots of writers were published regularly who never made the top ten. The big thing which has been wrong with the whole publishing business for some time is that the few big publishers no longer took on writers unless they were sure their books would sell in the millions and make the said publishers a stack of money. So, as a result of this, far too many good writers had their books rejected.
    Conversely, the really good thing about the e-book revolution is that those good writers can now have their books out there, and readers have the same wide choice they used to have. So everybody wins – except the few big publishers.
    I’ve read quite a lot of e-books by new writers, and I’ve been constantly amazed by the high standard, and by the fact that these excellent writers haven’t been snapped up by traditional publishers long ago. This high standard is the proof of the complete failure of the big publishers over the past twenty or so years to do a satisfactory job of work, both for the writer and for the reader. But, then, I don’t suppose that was really their aim in most cases. I would guess that the size of the almighty bottom line was their major inducement.

  8. Superb article. Bravo!

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