If you’re a writer with any interest in indie publishing at all, David Gaughran is someone you should be following right now.  He’s an up-and-coming Irish writer with a better handle on the changes in publishing than most.  I’m about halfway through his book Let’s Get Digital, and it’s quite good.

For today’s post, I asked him if he could map out some of the major competing predictions for how the ebook revolution will play out.  At this point, no one really knows, so any person’s speculation by itself isn’t all that useful.  He responded with an excellent analysis which I think you will find quite fascinating.

So without further ado, here he is!

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Publishing in 2016

Predicting the future is always a mug’s game, as the historical advocates for paper clothes, jetpacks, time-travel, and hoverboards will tell you, if you can find them.

But Joe has been kind to me here. He’s not asking specifically for my predictions of what publishing will look like in five years. Rather, he wants diverging views of how things will play out, and the logic behind them.

I‘ve tried to be fair here, and made what I think are quite strong arguments for things I don’t think will happen, but the whole exercise is probably colored by my own views. Feel free to disagree in the comments. I’ll probably join the chorus of boos.

There are hundreds of potential scenarios, but here are two competing visions of publishing in 2016.

SCENARIO #1 – The Empire Strikes Back

Publishers were slow to embrace the digital future, but they learned. They stopped chaining the release of the e-book to print versions, instead releasing digital when ready (sometimes a year ahead of print), vastly reducing publishing time, and allowing them to build up an audience of fans, some of whom would also go on and buy expensive limited edition hardcovers, which proved very lucrative.

They also greatly increased the revenue split with authors which had two effects. First, they stopped losing writers to self-publishing. Second, writers became more motivated to go out and directly promote the book to readers – as the returns they got from each copy sold increased.

Finally, as most agents stopped accepting submissions for anything other than their publishing arms, instead scouring the Kindle Store for prospective clients, the gargantuan slush pile moved online. The ensuing decrease in quality of the average self-published book made readers actively avoid indies and cry out for some form of quality seal.

The publishers, keen to exploit their position as trusted tastemakers, banded together with furloughed newspaper reviewers to create “curation” sites, where readers could safely browse only “quality” works.

The online retailers, fearful of losing customers to the new, popular curation sites, started granting concessions and building storefronts for all the publishers, vastly reducing the visibility of self-published work.

The only indie authors that thrived were the expert self-promoters. As soon as they struggled out of the morass, they were co-opted by the large publishers, while the rest only sold a handful of copies to family and friends.

When enhanced e-books took off, most self-publishers couldn’t afford the initial investment to create all the extra audio, video, and gaming components that readers demanded. Ironically, the first indies to monopolize the e-book market – writers of thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction – suffered most.

Publishers, after merging with gaming companies, returned to their former position at the top of the pyramid, the retailers now cowed and forced to operate on the publishers’ terms, as they controlled all the top quality content.

WHY THIS WILL HAPPEN:

Once the format battles are settled and once the e-reader device war is over, the next fight will be over content. The large publishers still own most of the content, and are getting new content submitted to them every day, mostly by authors who would license it on pretty much any terms.

Publishers are locking down not just current rights, but lots of future potential rights, and e-books will never go out of print like books used to, meaning that authors without some kind of “sunset” clause will never get their rights back.

Some publishers are in trouble, but some are doing quite well out of the digital revolution. Some will learn the lessons, some will compete at lower prices, some will bring digital versions out first. And we shouldn’t forget that most of the major publishers are owned by large conglomerates with very deep pockets.

WHY THIS WON’T:

Any battles between agents, publishers, and authors are only a side-show. The real battle for control of publishing is between the tech giants: Google, Apple, Amazon. Apple are sitting on a cash pile of $78bn. Google have the resources to compete with anyone, in any area, once they make it a priority. Amazon have a lock on the market now and are investing most of their considerable revenue in aggressive expansion.

The notion that readers want “curated” selection is outdated. That has been chipped away at for years by the millions of books available on Amazon. The prize usually goes to the bookstore with the largest selection. Nobody can compete with Amazon here now, and it’s hard to see who can (outside of Google and Apple) in the future.

Readers are voting with their feet. Amazon are on the way to controlling over 50% of the overall US book market by 2012. Readers clearly want an uncurated selection.

This idea of a flood of terrible slush drowning out all the good work is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people actually buy books online. Most readers (around 80%) go to an online store with a purchase in mind (usually a recommendation, or another work by an author they have previously enjoyed).

They may add more before they pay, but these are things that caught their eye along the way (as recommended by a powerful algorithm based on their buying and viewing history). That won’t change. In fact, those recommendations will get smarter.

And I’m not convinced that enhanced e-books are the way of the future. Readers want to read a story. I think they will find those extras intrusive. Books may become like DVDs – with extras that can add to the enjoyment of a book after you are done reading, but not something that would normally make or break a purchase. Children’s books may be different, and when that generation grows up they may well have a different idea of what a book is or should be, but that’s far past 2016.

Finally, owning content is one thing, but you need somewhere to sell it. And the publishers have proved singularly unable or unwilling to develop a retail arm to compete with the giants. JK Rowling may be able to do it, but few other content owners could, and anyway, many analysts feel that she could make more by distributing to all the major retailers.

SCENARIO #2 – A Golden Age For Authors

Authors were slow to embrace the digital future, but they learned. They stopped submitting to agents that weren’t reading their work anyway, and started publishing online. Armed with sales records and a proven platform, they found publishing deals much easier to come by. Some used self-publishing as a springboard to a lucrative deal, others preferred to keep going it alone and keep reaping 70% royalties.

Publishers had to downsize rapidly to remain in business. Those who didn’t went under, with the loss of many jobs. But all those editors, designers, and publicists quickly found lucrative work as consultants, advisors, and service providers to the growing band of self-publishers who made investment in professional quality publications a priority.

The publishers themselves saw the flight of the mid-listers. Those authors saw their advances and royalties dwindle as further bookstores closed, and the surviving ones morphed into general merchandize operations which happened to have a selection of books at the back. Those stores only stocked bestsellers – many of whom remained with the publishers.

Initially, forward-thinking publishers saw great success with converting indie stars to trade deals. With a stellar sales record, and an untapped audience in print, these prolific self-publishers were as close as you could get to a sure thing in publishing, and they made a lot of money for themselves and their publishers, as their readership exploded in print.

Agents had mixed fortunes. Some made money spinning off successful self-publishers to publishing houses but, increasingly, the publishers found they could do this job themselves. Others attempted to move into publishing either as service providers to self-publishers or by launching full-blown publishing companies. Some succeeded, but most did not. By 2016, “literary agent” was an archaic term.

Authors, however, thrived. After e-books began to outsell all print in Christmas 2012, their rosy future was sealed. No longer did they have to submit to the query process or struggle to get their self-published work into bookstores. Everyone was buying e-books, and those who weren’t were buying print copies online.

By 2016, e-book growth had plateaued in the US, with print only holding on to 20% of the market. However, as new markets opened up in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India, and China, authors poured in, leading to a boom in translation and local language marketing services.

This was quickly co-opted by the tech companies who hired armies of translators to clean up the text that the translation software spat out. Authors uploading to Amazon, Apple, and Google began to moan about the week it would take before their books appeared in Hindi, Mandarin, and Brazilian Portuguese.

WHY THIS WILL HAPPEN

The genie is out of the bottle. More and more authors are switching to self-publishing every day. Once they get a taste of 70% royalties, complete creative control, prices they set (and their fans love), and the ability to publish whatever they like, whenever they like, they won’t go back.

Some will get tempted by a publishing deal. However, with each bookstore closure and with each group of readers that switches to e-books or starts shopping for print online, the main reason to sign with a publishing company (print distribution) becomes less and less valuable.

Savvy self-publishers may sign a one-off trade deal to expand their readership into print. And once their new publisher does all the heavy lifting, they can switch back to the more lucrative royalties of going it alone, while keeping their higher profile and new readers.

Publishers don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. They continue to fight the digital revolution, which is like trying to hold back the tide. Instead of offering writers better terms, they are inserting rights-grabs into publishing contracts. This will come back to bite them.

E-reader ownership has doubled in the last six months. It will explode in the run up to Christmas as all those new models come out from all the major manufacturers. Readers will continue to be lured to e-books by lower prices and greater selection, and the defection of their favorite authors to self-publishing.

WHY IT WON’T

Most self-publishers saw a drop in income when Amazon ran a sale of 600 bestsellers from large publishers in June. All of John Locke’s books were knocked out of the Top 100. Amanda Hocking saw a severe drop in rankings. Joe Konrath’s sales fell by 15%. Other self-publishers reported drops of up to 50%.

Amazon covered the cost of that sale, but it was so successful that they ran another in July, with even more publishers onboard – this time sharing the cost burden. These experiments could show publishers once-and-for-all that Amazon were right, that they would make lots more money with lower priced e-books.

Publishers could drop prices across the board, removing one of the prime advantages that self-publishers have: lower prices.

And, if one of the tech companies gets a permanent lock on the retail market, and sees off all competitors, the first thing they could do is demand exclusivity and cut the royalties, leaving writers back at square one.

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David Gaughran is an Irish short story writer and novelist. His latest book Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should is available from Amazon and Smashwords for $2.99. The PDF version is available as a free download from his blog, so you can try before you buy.

Copyright (c) 2011 by David Gaughran.

3 Comments

  1. Really interesting article. It’ll definitely be interesting to see where things go from here.

  2. Joe, it’s nice seeing your results and research into self-publishing. I guess with my whole serial thing, I’m officially in your group now. I’m excited to keep seeing how you do and what I can learn from following your site.

  3. Thanks guys! And thanks to David Gaughran for the excellent post! One of the nice things about the indie writing culture is the openness and degree to which other writers go to help each other out. Things are changing very rapidly, but at least we’re figuring it out together.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Roundup: Blog Anniversary, New Releases, and a Link Party | David Gaughran

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