The Future of Publishing

This was originally posted as part of a discussion of e-books and the publishing industry over at The OWW-SFF Writing Group. I’m cross-posting it here, since parts of it may be of general interest.

Let me outline a possible future for the publishing industry. This is based on what we already see in the music industry, plus a little bit of optimistic speculation. My basic conclusion is that the coming changes in the publishing industry are likely to be good for unpublished and newly-published authors, but it may be bad for some other segments of the industry.

First, what do we have right now? If you’ve written a book, there are three possible outcomes:

1) You don’t sell it. Nobody reads it except for your mom, and you get zero dollars.

2) You sell it to a small press, which puts it out as POD, e-book, or (maybe) paperback. You get somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.

3) You sell it to a major publisher, who puts it out as a mass-market paperback or a hardcover. You get somewhere between a few thousand and a billion dollars.

An important feature of the current market is that there’s a steep cut-off between the small presses and e-publishers, which pay very little, and the big publishers, which pay 2-3 times what you’re likely to make at a small press even at the lower end of the payscale. Plus, at the big publishers you get an advance, which often aren’t paid at all by small presses.

Now, let’s think about the future. E-readers become common and affordable, and the price of e-books drops below $5. People who are avid readers move mostly to e-books for price and convenience, and because the price has dropped they buy more of those than they would have bought paper books. Sales of physical books drop as readers move to digital formats. Casual readers, the sort who buy books for the beach or the airplane, mostly stick with physical books, since it’s not worth their time to get an e-reader that they rarely use.

The result? The market for e-books expands, while the market for physical books drops. Paper books become restricted to best-sellers and specialty items, like signed limited editions. Some of the big publishers go out of business or merge, while the number of e-publishers goes up to take advantage of the bigger market. Some midlisters are pushed out to the e-publishing market. As e-publishing loses its stigma, the accepted career path becomes to move up through the small presses building an audience, and to make the jump to paper after years of publishing, if ever. The big publishers have already delegated the slush to the agents; agents start delegating the slush to the small-press editors, and work by poaching the top 1% of small-press writers and selling them up to the big leagues.

Now, why would you like this as a writer?

1) You get something rather than nothing. The e-publishing houses have more niches, more opportunities, and more ability to take risks, so your chances of getting published are better. You’ll get hardly any money at first—but right now the most common outcome is getting no money at all.

2) Your back-catalog always works for you. As mentioned by others, you can’t sell used e-books—but when a new e-book costs the same as a used paperback, why not buy it new? And you get the royalties from those sales, forever.

3) You have a clear ladder towards fame and fortune. It used to be that writers were expected to make their name in short stories, then sell a novel on the basis of that reputation. With the collapse of the short fiction markets, that’s much less the case these days, so writers have to sell their novels to a public that’s never heard of them, via publishers that are understandably hesitant about taking these risks. The e-publishing model gives you years to build an audience in lower-risk venues before trying to move up.

It may be that it’s harder to actually make a living as a writer in this world—but how many of us are making money, anyway? I, for one, would be happy to release my books as e-books and sell a few hundred copies for the present time. It’d be a lot more than I’m making from my writing now.

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3 Comments

  1. I think you’re right on with this. I currently have three books published with a small press and one contracted with a medium-sized press. I’m making some money but I’m not getting rich. My publishers do a great job editing my books, with my covers and have helped me be a better writer. I believe the future you predict will arrive as soon as someone makes an ereader that is more affordable than the Kindle and readily available. Right now ereaders are very over priced kind of like VCR’s were when they first came out. It will come and soon.

  2. This is a bit more optimistic than my view: ebooks become like MP3 files, freely traded by everybody and the dog’s cousin. Nobody makes any money, because, unlike bands that can afford to distribute their music almost for free, knowing that they’ll get it back in concert tickets, writers seldom do concerts. I’m pretty sure nobody would pay $60 per seat to hear me read.

    When “ebook” means “a file of some sort that you can put on a reader of some sort, and not give away or post online or make a gazillion copies of,” then I’ll hold some hope for the future, but as long “ebook” includes “a PDF that you can treat like an MP3,” I’m going to say the glass is completely empty.

    I hope you’re right.

    Levi Montgomery

  3. Thanks for the article. I’ve looked into various publishing options, including online and Print on Demand, and it’s good to know that those possibilities are available.

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