Friday, 9 September 2011

The future of publishing?

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker and Jack Steel)

Emlyn Rees and Richard Jay Parker both mentioned ebooks in their blogs this week, so I thought I’d follow suit.
It’s undeniably true that the impact of this new form of reading technology has alarmed the publishing world more than most people who work in it are prepared to admit. Kindle sales in particular have been spectacular, and for people who enjoy reading on holiday the reason is not difficult to find. Why an earth would you take a dozen paperbacks along with you, with all the weight and inconvenience that that implies, when you can slip a Kindle which contains your entire library into your jacket pocket? Kindles seem to be everywhere these days, but especially on most forms of public transport, and almost everyone seems to own one.
I was having lunch with my agent in London in that bastion of celebrity, the Ivy Club, a few weeks ago and talking about this very subject, when to my surprise he reached into his jacket pocket and flashed his own Kindle at me. I have to confess that I don’t actually own one of these slim grey devices, though I have acquired an extensive library of Kindle books on my laptop, and I do have an Android tablet which will do much the same job as a Kindle, but in Technicolor rather than shades of grey. But I never seem to use it. For some reason, the idea of reading a book on an electronic device is still somewhat foreign to me, and I still go on holiday with a couple of paperbacks.
            The publishing world is frightened of ebooks, as far as I can see, because they’re new and they don’t quite know what effect their proliferation is going to have on mainstream publishers, and indeed on literary agents. In five or ten years’ time, will there even be such a thing as a publishing house? What’s the point of an author going through all the aggravation and hassle of writing a novel, finding an agent, letting the agent secure a publishing contract, doing all the editing and fiddling about with the cover design and all the rest, when he could just as easily spend a few hours at the computer converting his words of wisdom into an electronic format that would be acceptable to Amazon, and then sitting back and waiting for the money to roll in?
            And if an author goes this route, there’s no agent sitting in the middle to take his 15% or 20% of the author’s meagre income, and we’re not talking about revenues of 7% of the cover price either. The author can pitch the price of his book exactly where he wants it, and once Amazon has taken its slice of the pie, all the rest is pure profit.
            A few months ago, I read an article in a British writing magazine which covered this topic rather neatly. The contributor quoted as an example a young female American author – using the word ‘author’ in its loosest possible sense – who had written some twenty ‘novels’ (I’m again using this word extremely loosely, as they were between 8,000 and 12,000 words in length, meaning that they were actually longish short stories) and was selling them all on the Internet. He even quoted a few sentences from one of these ‘books’, which made it abundantly clear that the girl was almost completely illiterate, couldn’t spell most words longer than five letters and had only the haziest idea about grammar, punctuation, plotting and pretty much anything else to do with writing.
But, and this is the real point of this story, she’d priced her ‘works’ at well under $5 each, and had sold in total some 200,000 copies. Even after Amazon or whichever company was handling the sales had taken its cut, this girl, with no readily discernable talent or ability, had achieved the kind of annual income that most British mainstream authors can only dream about.
So is that kind of thing the future of writing? I really hope not. The most important single thing the literary agents and publishers achieve at the moment is the unspoken guarantee that when a reader goes into a bookshop and chooses a novel, that novel will be of an acceptable standard. Of course, not all readers would agree with this statement, even if we decide to leave Dan Brown out of consideration. But I think most would accept that a book which has taken about a year to write, and has been accepted by a literary agent and then bought by a publishing house is far more likely to be worth reading than one which has been knocked together in a few hours by somebody in their bedroom and then flogged as an e-book on the web.
What does the future hold? Nobody knows, obviously, but I do think it’s fairly clear that ebooks will occupy an increasingly large share of the market over the next few years as the technology proliferates. We may even see the demise of some of the High Street bookshops as increasing competition from the online retailers hits harder. But I still think we’ll find both literary agents and mainstream publishers in business. Perhaps a slightly different business from the model they’re used to, but they’ll still be there.
            At least, that’s what I hope. As the Chinese say: ‘may you live in interesting times’. And I certainly think we do.

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  1. A good overview, I think about where publishing is 'at' in relation to e-books. Agreed, there are a lot of badly edited self-published works available online now. That said, there are also a lot of well-edited, tightly-written self-published works too. It's the latter, obviously, that publishers and agents should be concerned about. Why are they not picking them up themselves (considering the fact most of these writers will have at least attempted to get mainstream deals)? Partly the problem is the slushpile system operated by agencies (which most publishers use as filters these days). Agencies simply don't have the staff, I think, to be able to deal with the volume of unsolicited ms's being sent to them. The other problem is the editors at the mainstream houses. Many of them are failing to find new talent because they're too busy (or being pressured by their shareholders into) over-marketing their existing 'bread and butter' brands. It's a conservative trend that no doubt meshes neatly with the economy as a whole at the moment. But rejected new writers can now distribute their own work. And if they succeed, it's going to be the publishers' loss. Because the bigger the e-book share of the market becomes, the more the question is raised, 'Why not go it alone?'

  2. Thanks for that, Emlyn. Oddly enough, I've got one finished book that I've never been able to place with a publisher because it doesn't fit into any convenient genre, and I'm planning on converting that into an ebook and just getting it out there. Be interesting to see how many - if any - actually sell. Best wishes, Peter.