James Surowiecki is the business writer for The New Yorker, and though I usually am not one to pour over the financial pages, I find his columns fascinating. None more so than the article he wrote for the July 29, 2013 issue of the magazine. The article is titled “E-Book Vs. P-Book,” although the online version of the article is actually identified more accurately as “It’s Not Over For Barnes & Noble.” The article, which I strongly suggest you read, basically argues that with Borders gone, Barnes & Noble is actually poised to do quite well, if it would only “focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore.”
As I say, the article is worth a read, but I would like to concentrate on a few data points that Surowiecki mentions in his piece that, I believe, point to larger trends in the writing market. In no particular order: While Barnes & Noble saw sales fall last year, those losses were tied entirely to the Nook; the company’s profits actually rose in every other sector. A recent survey of readers by the Codex Group actually found that bookstore browsing remains the preferred way for people to find new reading material, and so, as Surowiecki says, “publishers have a stake in B&N’s survival.” This may also explain why independent bookstores are actually thriving right now. People want to speak with those who are most familiar with what’s new on the bookshelves. The bookstore model remains viable. Even more to the point, the rate of ebook sales growth has slowed in the last year. Dramatically. Again, citing, Surowiecki’s article, while ebook sales grew by triple digit percentages in 2009, 2010, and 2011, that growth slowed to forty-four per cent last year. And, perhaps most surprisingly, even now ebook sales account for only about twenty per cent of the book market (although that number might be a bit higher in genre fiction). Only a tiny minority of readers, fewer than one in twenty, read exclusively ebooks — most prefer to read digital for convenience, and paper for books they care about.
I could go on about Surowiecki’s article, pulling out all the little nuggets of information that he includes, among them a rejection of the supposed similarities between what’s happening with books and what happened when the music industry digitized (a comparison I have seen as flawed for some time). But again, I’ll just recommend that you read the article for yourselves. What I want to focus on now is what all this means for writers. A few conclusions:
1. The traditional publishing model is not dead. The transition from paper books to e-books has not happened over night, and it’s not going to. To quote Surowiecki again, “The truth is that the [paper] book is an exceptionally good piece of technology — easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive.” And so those companies that produce paper books — i.e. publishers — are not about to disappear. If you want further proof of this, open up the latest issue of Locus, the newsletter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, and check out the “People & Publishing” section. The listing of “Books Sold” is enormous. Writers are signing contracts for new books left and right. The contracts, most of them at least, are not for the same level of money that they were, say, a decade or two ago. But people are contracting new books every day. Writing, as it turns out, is not a dead-end profession. Because . . .
2. Technology IS revolutionizing the industry. Just not quite in the way we thought it would. One of the things you’ll notice in that issue of Locus is that many of the contracts being signed right now are with small presses. Small-press publishers are popping up all over the place. Putting out books has never been easier or cheaper, and so writers have many more options for their novels than they did a few years ago. Now, there are risks in going with one of these new small presses, the greatest being that not all of them are going to make it. And you don’t want to sell the rights to your novel to a company that is about to go out of business. But plenty of these small houses are doing all right, and they have better access to distribution and national booksellers than ever. Writers and agents need to do their homework and make sure they know which houses are on good financial footing and which are not. But for the informed writer, the market is more open right now than at any time in recent memory.
3. Self-publishing remains a less attractive choice. Yes, I know: one can still find stories of self-published first-time writers making it big. Some of these stories are anecdotal, some are true. But the fact remains that the vast majority of writers — ALL writers — are struggling to make a buck. And all the advantages of traditional publishing that I have cited in the past remain true to this day. Publishers — even some small publishers — can offer you an advance, which is money in your pocket BEFORE your book is published. Most publishers can offer you developmental editing, copy editing, art work, review copies, distribution in both e-format and paper, etc. Most important, go back to that line above about ebook market share. Most people who self-pub do so in e-format. For an individual, the investment for publishing paper books can be prohibitive. So unless you’re planning to self-publish in both e-format AND paper, you are cutting yourself off from as much as eighty per cent of the market. Something to think about.
4. Nobody is saying that it’s now easy to make it as a writer. Authors are signing lots of contracts. Small publishers are doing well, as are independent bookstores. But contracts are for smaller amounts than they once were, there are so many authors out there right now that each of us is reaching a smaller and smaller readership while struggling to be heard in a noisier marketplace, and continuing uncertainty about the market and its future means that publishers of all stripes are being cautious. What I have said in the past — that if you are writing professionally you should be doing because you love it, not because you think it’s a quick way to get rich — is still true. I love to write, and I am grateful for the fact that I get paid for doing so. But the business side of the job is no easier for me now than it was when I was promoting my first book. It’s never easy.
So there it is: Between Surowiecki’s article and my opinions on what his conclusions might mean for writers, there’s a lot here for us to discuss. Let’s talk about it.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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