Four Reasons to Worry about Publishing

by Hugh

I was invited to do a panel on Social Media for Authors at the Writers’ Union of Canada AGM. Writer Nichole McGill was the moderator, and I was joined by the wonderful Jenny Bullough, of the visionary publishing house Harlequin. (Harlequin is the most clued-in about digital of all the publishers I know of, along with O’Reilly).

As we discussed how things would play out, it was decided that I would be the prophet of doom – describing why everything has changed, and no writer can afford to ignore the web; while Jenny would follow-up with a concrete overview of the things writers should be doing on the web.

My – minimalist – slides are below, and I’ll give a tiny bit of context below that.

Here are my Four Reasons to Be Worried, and One Reason to Be Optimistic about Publishing:

Worry number one:
There are so many damn books published every year.

[Context: from 2002, number of titles published in the USA has stayed roughly constant, oscillating between 250,000 and 280,000. Which is an astramoical number of books. But in that period, a couple of things have happened: works of “literature” have increased from ~6,000 titles to roughly 9,000 titles, without any detectable increase in readership of literature. Secondly, the number of print-on-demand, self-published books was on the order of 25,000 in 2002. By 2008 that number was 285,000 – outstripping the number of traditionally-published books. In 2009, the number of self-published titles reached an astonishing 750,000; so there were more than 1 million books published in the USA in 2009. And that’s ignoring all the stuff published without ISBNs.

Compared to the rest of the world, I am a relatively heavy reader: I read perhaps 25 books a year. So there are at least 999,975 books published every year that I don’t read. There is a massive glut of books for people to read, and your book is one in a million.]

Worry number two:
Publishers can’t support all those damn books.

[Context: most publishers have tried to address this glut in supply by doing something counterintuitive: they’ve started publishing more books. Publishing is a lottery business: most books don’t break even, and a tiny percentage are the big hits (Harry Potter) that actually finance the industry. No one really knows what the next big hit is, so the theory goes: if you double the number of books you are publishing, you double your chances of having a big hit.

But even if publishers are not publishing more books, they aren’t swimming in cash either. Most writers think they are being neglected by their publishers, but the truth is everyone I know in publishing tells me that with the web etc. they have to work twice as hard as they used to, but they are still selling the same number of books.

Whether there are villains or heroes, I don’t know, but I do know this: publishers have less time than they used to for editorial and marketing, except for a tiny handful of successful authors. Most writers are not in that tiny handful; and the tiny handful might not have to worry about the web all that much. The rest of us do.]

Worry number three:
Readers don’t have any damn time to read books anymore.

[Context: It used to be that books competed against radio, TV, bridge and cocktail parties, baseball and square-dances. Now they compete against all that, plus Youtube and Twitter, and the blogs, and Facebook and World of Warcraft and Chatroulette, and Xbox, and Wii, and and and… The competition for readers’ leisure time is fierce, and writers and publishers need to do everything they can to make sure that readers will choose to read when they have a choice.]

Worry number four:
Prices are collapsing. Damn.

[Context: There will be lots of debates about ebook pricing and cost structures and hardcover sales and Amazon and 9.99 and all the rest. The debates will rage on with different theories about how much a book should cost, where the costs are (advances and editorial and marketing), and where they aren’t (printing and distribution). But in the end, readers don’t care about any of that: they will vote with their walltes. If you can spend $8.99/month for unlimited movie downloads from Netflix — in the US — then spending $27.99 on a hardcover of a book you aren’t sure you’re going to like starts to seem a bit dear. Not to mention the quadrupling of the number of available books, and the plentiful ways you can spend your time without paying a cent online, or elsewhere.

The price of most books will drop, because books are “leisure time items” and we have a massive massive glut of leisure time choices. The pressures will be different in different sectors of the publishing business, but the short, medium and long-term trend is this: down.

No matter what you think the value of books, or literature, or your writing, you cannot fight against physics, and when you have a glut of supply, prices drop.]

Reasons for optimism, numbers one two and three:
There are more people writing and more people reading than ever before and you can reach all of them on the web.

[Context: And, after all this bad news, here is the good news: there are more readers, and more writers than ever before in the history of the universe. People who love books love them as dearly as ever. And the web gives every author the ability to connect with those readers, with other writers, with the people who love what they do in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The business side of all this will evolve, but we are about to enter a golden age of writing — perhaps we are already there — and that is something to celebrate].