Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

I discovered today that there are around 3.4 million different titles for sale on Amazon. The number is rising by one book every five minutes.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.
A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A proportion of these are written by bots – compilations of data, really, rather than books. But still, these figures underscore the democratisation of publishing. And the difficulty of discovery.

It also underscores a sea change in the publishing world. That’s been particularly evident here in New Zealand a 25 percent compound drop in sales has done for many of the major houses, who have been pulling out of Auckland in droves. And the old days when deals were done over a publisher-funded dinner and spouses came along for the ride are long over.

Actually, the money was never there anyway. Writers – even famous writers – haven’t had anything like the average income of their rock musician equivalents. Ray Bradbury’s house was up for sale recently. An old-ish house, large but not mansion-like, asking price $1.49 million. That’s just over double the average asking price in the area, Culver City. Not bad. But remember that Bradbury was a writer of world stature not just in SF but also literature generally. The house has also been described as out of the reach of many authors, but reasonable by US standards.

The Bradbury experience underscores a point. For every Dan Brown there were 10,000 other authors who didn’t make it big – but who got publishing contracts. Publishers worked by averages – they’d run a dozen titles that might break even or generate a loss, knowing a single winner would make all good. They had to run that way because nobody knew which book would work. And they also needed a range of books to be viable in the marketplace.

The advent of self-publishing hasn’t changed that, because – setting aside discovery of individual authors and looking at the industry as a whole – the limiting factor is the disposable income of potential readers. But it has spread the available money over a wider area. Publisher responses have involved classic big-business downturn tactics – becoming risk-averse and re-trenching.

To find an answer – laterally and creatively – we have to re-conceptualise the problem.

The problem isn’t the shift of readership from print to e-book or the democratisation of publishing. It’s getting the disposable income that anybody – not just book readers – has to spend from their pocket into yours. A point underscored by where the readership for Dan Brown best-sellers, Harry Potter and (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It wasn’t traditional book readers. These titles broke into the pockets of a wider slice of populace.

Next challenge – how to make that happen reliably. And yes, I know that’s about as practical as dividing one by zero (I double dog dare you to try that bit of math…) But hey – we’re into re-conceptualising here. Playing with ideas. And until you’ve explored the impossible, you can’t find out the limits of the possible – can you?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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5 thoughts on “Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

  1. This is an interesting post. Self-publishing is obviously growing, but there is still a lack of a “gate-keeper” type role. I’m curious to see what will develop into that. I have a hunch that publishers (or at least the new versions of them) will be involved in even the self-publishing process one day. It won’t stay two segregated sides for much longer. The roles will start to bleed into each other.

      1. True. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hybrid entity comes out. Like a reputable publisher who allows the author to retain some/all rights, helps pay for some of the costs of putting the book together, then featuring it somewhere online. Not a vanity publisher, but you get the idea.

  2. Another major factor in trying to sell books (well, novels anyway) is the competition for the consumer’s attention from so many other sources of entertainment – social media, online games, TV on demand etc. A lack of time is as much of a deterrent as the cost of a book. Customers are reluctant to spend time trying a new author even if the book is free.

    Non-fiction on the other hand is easier to sell and commands higher prices. Lucky the chap who writes reference books and educational non-fiction volumes that are indispensable to libraries, schools and educated households!

    1. That’s what I write, but I’ve found – alas – that these institutions find my work quite dispensable. Quite unnecessary, in fact…sigh…I think it’s true, though, that certainly here in NZ the market works best for non-fiction, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve done it – the opportunities were there.

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