Since the first printing of the Diamond Sutra in 808, the business of book publishing has evolved through many permutations as succeeding developments in technology have altered the process of making and selling books. Prior to 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg built his first moveable type printing press, the production of books was a labor intensive process and books were expensive items beyond the reach of most people. By 1500 there had been eight million books printed in Europe, more than had been produced in over a thousand years since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The advent of the printing press was a revolution in book publishing, taking the control over the process out of the hands of the church and placing it into the hands of the common people for the first time. By 1500 the moveable type printing press had spread across Europe and produced in excess of 20 million copies, with that volume being multiplied tenfold in the next hundred years. When Martin Luther published his tract; Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on 31 October 1517 it was funded by his supporters and used the network of European printers to spread the reformation across the world. Within two months it had spread across Europe and by January 1518 it had been translated from the original Latin into German for dissemination to a wider readership.
Booksellers and Publishers
With sales volumes in the millions, the newly emergent industry of book publishing became big business very quickly. Generally, booksellers commissioned volumes from printers, producing their own copies of the popular books of the day. Obviously this meant that original books published by one bookseller were being copied by many others, and the original author was not receiving royalties for their work. As literacy rates improved across Europe and America the demand for new authors with original material increased, inspiring booksellers to look for emerging talent, establishing the first modern publishing houses.
The modern publishing model began to take shape early in the 1800s as steam powered printing presses dramatically increased the printing volume of books while significantly reducing the price. Perhaps the first truly modern publishing began with the introduction of the Penny Novel which first hit the shelves in the 1830s. The commercial potential of the penny dreadful, the forerunner of the American dime novel, was seized upon by the booming newspaper publishers during the latter half of the 19th century who established lucrative publishing houses to churn them out in huge numbers, taking advantage of the increased leisure time and literacy of the Victorian Age.
This led to a restricted number of printers and booksellers taking control over the book trade and the modern publishing model first really emerged. By 1880 one-third of all books published were paperbacks, often using pirated copy from European literature without crediting the original author. 1891 introduced copyright laws and by 1900 large commercial publishers like McGraw-Hill and Bantam books began to emerge as the dominant force in the publication of new books.
The Building of a Monopoly
During the 20th century, large publishing houses virtually took control over the production of books. The variety of book genres also developed and, with the boom in technical and professional publications, the largest publishing houses focused on these sorts of manuals. At the same time, the production of general books like novels became increasingly concentrated to a limited number of trade publishers. By the end of the 20th century the vast majority of general trade books came from only a handful of huge publishing conglomerates often referred to as “The Big Six”. The Big Six have since become “The Big Five” since the merger of Penguin and Random House.
These five giants of the publishing world are the Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster and today these companies account for the vast majority of traditionally published books. They do this using dozens of subsidiary companies, creating an illusion of diversity in what was to all intents a business cabal with the driving motivation of maintaining a stranglehold on their monopoly.
This dynamic changed dramatically with the development of two key technologies. First was the growth of Web 2.0 technology that made the internet accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem. The second was the dramatic improvement in digital lithographic printing that made print on demand (POD) publishing services widely available. In combination, these late 20th century innovations made it possible, even easy, for anyone to print and publish their own book and sites like Amazon.com allowed the books to be sold to a worldwide audience. By the beginning of the 21st century, publishing had entered a new era of its evolution that may prove to be just as big a leap as the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press five centuries earlier.
Printing Books on Demand
Of course the established cabal of traditional publishing houses is not too keen on seeing these sorts of threats to their monopoly on the book business. The initial reaction of the “Big Five” was to dismiss POD as vanity publishing, a common practice for centuries in which the author paid for all of the production costs and managed promotion and marketing privately. In doing this they missed the mark by ignoring the significant differences between POD models and vanity publishing.
Whereas a vanity publisher often merely acted in the capacity of printer and charged authors exorbitantly for these services, POD publishers often provided their services for free, taking their commission only on the books that are actually sold. They can do this because the digital litho printing process allows single books to be printed without the need to make expensive printing plates. Online POD services make publishing technology available to anyone with access to the internet. It is also a more efficient, environmentally friendly and cost effective model than the traditional printing process. Initially, the quality of POD books came under scrutiny by traditional publishers but as the technology improved and many of these old guard adopted POD technology for their own production processes this has ceased to be an issue.
The Big Five also missed the boat in regards to the bookselling business. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com in 1994 the major publishers never imagined that it would have such a huge impact on the industry. At the time, the largest bookstores could offer around 200,000 titles and could only carry a very limited percentage of this number in stock at any given time. Amazon.com could provide a catalogue many times greater than this and because of the lower overheads of an online business; most of those titles could be sold at a lower price point. The result was the rapid rise of Amazon.com as an economic powerhouse and the decline in the number of bricks and mortar bookstores.
The Big Five vs. Amazon.com
On the surface this should not make much difference to the bottom line for the Big Five publishers but the reality is starkly different for a couple of reasons. Traditional publishing houses had long established affiliate arrangements with bookstores that enabled them to create bestselling books by printing large volumes and dumping them into the franchised bookstore chains. The number of units shifted in this way counted as sales in the bestseller lists and allowed publishers to generate hype around a new publication by referring to its bestselling status even before the book had made it into the hands of a significant number of readers. Amazon.com compiles its bestseller lists based on the actual number of units sold, reflecting the true popularity of the book with the book buying public.
Another troubling trend for the Big Five is Amazon.com’s support of independently publish works. As many as 30 percent of the titles on Amazon.com are self published, many through Amazon’s own POD and ebook publishing services. These books are pushing the Big Five’s titles out of the bestseller charts and diverting much of the revenue from consumers that was previously spent in bookstores on their products. Supporting self publishers gives Amazon.com a constant supply of new books by new authors whereas the Big Five generate only 37% of their revenue from new books by new authors, with the bulk of their income coming from back listed titles. Current statistics show that self published new authors are more likely to succeed than traditionally published writers that are dependent upon these Big Five publishers. Only the top five or six Big Five authors were more successful than the top indie authors in 2013-14. Debuting self publishing authors are also more likely to earn from $10k to $100k than their Big Five competitors.
Another aspect of Amazon.com’s support for independent authors that has the Big Five troubled is the sheer volume of books that are now published every year. The largest trade publisher in the world, the Hachette Book Group publishes only a couple of thousand new books every year. Multiplied by even five or six, the number of new books released each year by this established cabal of publishers amounts to only a tiny fraction of the number of books produced through the now well established POD publishers. In addition, relative to Amazon.com’s massive revenues (around US$74.5 billion in 2013) even the biggest trade publisher is a minnow with Hachette reporting earnings of around US$3 billion for the same year. Whereas the Big Five were once able to throw their considerable weight around with bookstore franchises, they need to keep in the Amazon.com good books.
The Debate over Self Publishing
This radical change in the publishing dynamic has created a heated debate over self publishing in general, as the traditional publishers try to maintain their hold over the business of producing books. For several years the argument has centered on the question of quality and the traditional publishing industry cites its process of vetting authors and editing their work as the reason why independently published books generally do not match their quality. The sheer arrogance of this position seems to be lost on publishers, who are tacitly implying that the general reading public is incapable of determining what is, and what is not a good book.
The standard argument is that an indie author will rush through writing a book, overlook the need for editing and proofreading with the result that the world will be flooded (by indie authors) with a plethora of unreadable books. The implication is that traditional publishers only produce books of an acceptable standard, and so, ergo, only books that would meet the standards of a traditional publisher are any good. If this were so then the world would never have known books like Remembrance of things Past by Marcel Proust, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter or The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., all of which were self published after being rejected by publishing houses. And, anyone that has read more than a few books knows that traditional publishers produce a lot of real stinkers too.
These now hackneyed arguments against indie authors are aimed at the book buying public as an underhanded way to cast aspersions on the overall quality of self published books. To imply that just because the digital process has simplified book publishing that every indie author will throw together any old scrap of a story is patently ridiculous. Anybody that has even made an attempt at writing a book knows how meticulous and time consuming a process it really is. To have invested the time that it takes to assemble even a short manuscript implies that there is more than a passing desire to write. Even if the author doesn’t expect to make the NYT bestseller lists, it doesn’t mean that they will want to publish anything other than their best effort.
Remarks made at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival that indie authors would accept sub-standard editing, or that the dynamic between them and their editors leaned more towards self indulgence rather than to quality literature, may be true in some instances but as these services cost a considerable sum of money it is reasonable to expect that writers will want to get the full bang for their buck. The same speaker was adamant that only established publishing houses could properly vet books as suitable for publication, apparently ignoring the facts of business that make a poorly written book with mass appeal a better investment than a literary masterpiece that will have a limited readership. The accounting department at Harper Collins is less concerned with the author’s genius than in the saleability of his books.
Another issue that the Big Five have with self publishing is that authors are free to set the prices for their own books. Traditional publishers have to sell books for higher prices than self publishers because they have higher overheads. This need to maintain higher book prices has set them at odds with the Behemoth of Amazon.com that focuses on providing good customer service and low price point for its products, resulting in Amazon.com pushing Hachette to discount the price on its range of ebooks on the site. These sorts of disputes aren’t limited only to Amazon.com and it was only a few years ago that the same giant publishing conglomerate was arguing with Barnes & Noble and Borders over the price point of their books. The difference this time is that the consumer driven interest in self published books has pushed the median price of books down, making the Big Five’s product overpriced for the current market. As in any industry, to stay in business it is necessary to remain competitive and currently the Big Five are struggling to do that.
Another area where traditional publishers are unable to compete with the myriad of newly empowered self publishing authors is diversity. An author is able to write a book for a very tight market audience and, with focused digital marketing, promote and sell it very effectively. Because of their mass production publishing model, traditional publishers must restrict their limited list to books that they believe will be fiscally viable. This in turn reduces the diversity of the types of books that they will be willing to gamble on, especially when new book sales represent only about one-third of their revenues. Recently, the major mainstream publishing houses in America have been criticized for lacking racial diversity with a recent article by illustrator Christopher Myers provocatively titles The Apartheid of Children’s Literature pointing out that of the 3,200 children’s books only 93 were about black people.
The Turning Tide of Publication
In spite of the arguments against it, the world of self publishing continues to expand and gain traction with the book buying public. The strongest evidence of this growth is the investment in new POD production facilities that has been underway for the past couple of years. Digital print technology is the fastest growing sector in the printing industry and as digital litho printing becomes more accessible and cheaper to purchase the cost of printing books will be further reduced. A recent study indicated that by the end of 2015 book printing will account for 16.6 percent of all digital printing with 95.5 billion impressions industry wide making digital book printing the fastest growing sector in the print industry. Many traditional publishers are investing in digital and POD facilities but with the widespread saturation of digital litho printing facilities industry wide being actively encouraged by printer manufacturers like HP to target the growing demand for POD services it is likely to be far too little, far too late for them to remain competitive.
Another encouraging sign is the growing acceptance of self published authors by the book buying public. At the recent Book Expo America self published authors and self publishing gurus like Mark Coker of Smashwords were a feature of the event. Book shows were once the domain of publishers, a place to arrange which books they would push on the bookstores in the coming months, but now they have become a platform for networking between writers and readers, and many self published authors use them to connect with their audience. As younger writers who have never known a world where POD publishing did not exist, and who have lived with the social sphere on the web for their whole lives, begin to produce books the idea that a traditional publisher is a necessary part of producing a book will grow increasingly anachronistic.
Whether we like it or not, we have entered into a brave new world of writing and publishing across a range of media and books is only one of them. The fact is that there will always be bad books and there will always be good books, and the difference between them will be decided by the people that read them, not the people that publish them.