A recent article in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/technology/amazon-rewrites-the-rules-of-book-publishing.html made many interesting points about publishing in the 21st Century. The article, by David Streitfeld, talks about amazon.com’s move into the book publishing industry and how traditional publishing houses have reacted to this latest intrusion into their long held fiefdom of authors. At the same time it gave some very interesting statistics about e-book sales and unknown authors going viral on the net.
Can Amazon secretly create its own best sellers? “The Hangman’s Daughter” was an e-book hit. Amazon bought the rights to the historical novel by a first-time writer, Oliver Pötzsch, and had it translated from German. It has now sold 250,000 digital copies.
“The great and fascinating thing about Amazon’s publishing program is that there can be these grass-roots phenomena,” said Bruce Nichols of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which republished the novel this summer.
With the advent of new book publishing technologies and the growth in e-books the traditional publishing houses have been feeling the pinch. The article also has an interesting quote from Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives, who said;
“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”
Clearly amazon.com stands squarely between these two groups and intends to take the fullest advantage of their position. For publishing houses this is probably a bad thing as many won’t have the funds to compete with amazon.com but is it bad for writers and their readers?
Traditionally, between the author and his readers there has been a plethora of people loosely referred to as the publishing industry. From the writer’s perspective, contact with this world of publishers was via an agent and perhaps a couple of editors. On the reader’s end the publishing houses made their exchanges through bookstores via any number of marketing people and publishing agents. That ends up being a lot of people in the supply chain for a paperback novel to reach its audience and that is one of the things that is making the current revolution in publishing so vital and interesting.
For centuries authors had two options for getting their work into print; they could publish their books at their own expense or they could find a publishing house to handle their book. The cost of producing even small run books made the self-publishing route prohibitive for all but the wealthiest writers and even after printing methods fell dramatically in price in the 20th Century the traditional publishing houses tainted such books as being unprofessional and the publishers that produced them as “vanity publishers’. During their period of complete dominance over book publishing these traditional houses instituted strict guidelines for which books they would handle, editing and, to a degree, what was written in the book and even what a good or well written book actually was. Because most of these guidelines for publishing are driven by financial motives they mean that great or important books which don’t have a mass appeal will often be rejected over and over again. With the assault on the balance sheets of these traditional publishers that has occurred lately they have become even more conservative in their choice of books that they will invest in and so a new author has a very poor chance of selling their work. Instead, these bastions of the book world will continue to grind out populist rubbish like ghostwritten celebrity books and new titles by their proven authors and new talent will look elsewhere for their opportunities.
Already Print on Demand publishers around the world are picking up the slack and their services are becoming better and cheaper all the time. Companies like Lulu.com offer POD services direct to the author at the lowest possible price per book and will ship one or one hundred thousand copies to any address in the world. Similarly, the explosion in e-book readers has meant that many writers are by passing the whole printed book concept and just producing e-book copies of their work. It is possible for any writer to create and market his work through a site like Smashwords.com and they will put it on all of the e-book sales sites including amazon, Barnes & Nobel Apple and Sony. All that and not an agent, editor or publishing house in sight.
Detractors will point out that a lot of poorly written books will be produced but not all of the books that are produced by the traditional publishers are good either, nor successful. In that respect this revolution in the book world won’t change anything but it will no longer be a small group of editors and assessors that judges whether a book is good enough or not, it will be the reading public. Good books will sell; bad books will still never make it into print.
Perhaps the thing that is changing most is the connection that the modern writer can make with his audience. The NYT article says amazon.com is “introducing the sort of one-on-one communication between authors and their fans that used to happen only on book tours” meaning that writers can now sell their books directly to their readers easily and effectively. The readers that I have communicated with via this route have all been delighted to have a note from the writer and I have myself felt that same inclusiveness that comes from being replied to by an author whose work I have enjoyed. In the end the only ones that seem certain to be worse off are the old publishing houses and the bookstores that haven’t kept up with modern trends. And, there has never been a better time to write.