Saturday, 25 February 2012

The changing world of publishing

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

We’ve been here before, venturing into uncharted territory.
            There was an interesting article in the Daily Mail this week which discussed recently released figures about the world of fiction, and in particular the impact which self-publishing – and in particular e-book publishing – is having upon the market.
            The article stated that The Bookseller now estimated that as many as one quarter of the novels sold as e-books in the United Kingdom had been written by unpublished authors, many of them driven to take that route to publication simply because they had been unable to find a commercial publisher willing to take them on.
            You can understand the frustration of many people, when all they ever get from publishers and agents is a series of bland rejection slips: the temptation to simply say ‘to hell with them’ and format the manuscript for Kindle and stick it on Amazon must be almost overwhelming. The problem from the point of view of the reader, I suppose, is that because these e-book authors haven’t been taken on by mainstream publisher it means that the quality of the work, of the novel itself, is clearly unknown until it is purchased and read. But with most of these e-books being priced at less than the cost of a cup of coffee, some of them even less than £1, does it really matter if what you have bought turns out to be complete and unmitigated rubbish?
            And the reality of the situation is that an awful lot of these books are really rather good – I’ve recently read several that are definitely of commercial standard – and it does make you wonder why the author wasn’t taken on by a publisher. Of course, there are legions of stories about the crass inability of publishing houses to spot a book that anybody with an ounce of brain would be able to see had ‘bestseller’ stamped all over it. If I remember correctly, The Day of the Jackal was rejected almost 50 times, and the first of the ‘Harry Potter’ books was picked up almost by accident.
            But we now seem to be in a situation where e-books – and self-published e-books in particular – are seriously competing with the output from commercial publishers. Again according to The Bookseller, in the second half of 2011, 26% of adult fiction bought in the United Kingdom was self-published and sold through outlets such as Amazon. That suggests that the writing is very clearly on the wall, if mainstream publishing has already lost over one quarter of the e-book market.
            Possibly even more alarming – or encouraging, depending entirely upon where you are standing – is that Amazon’s bestselling book for the last quarter of 2011 was written by a first-time novelist. His name is Kerry Wilkinson, and his crime novel Locked in and the other books in the series have now sold over a quarter of a million copies. Entirely unsurprisingly, a number of commercial publishers are now actively pursuing Mr Wilkinson, contracts in hand. Whether he’ll be interested in swapping the 40% or 70% profit he can obtain from Amazon every time he sells an e-book for the 7% royalty he’ll get each time a paperback sells is another matter entirely.
            Also interesting is that Kerry Wilkinson didn’t do much in the way of publicising his book, claiming he just told his friends on Facebook and Twitter, and mentioned it in a couple of forums, so presumably it was word-of-mouth which turned his novel into a bestseller.
            Another well-known self-publishing success was G P Taylor, though he went into print rather than producing an e-book, simply because the facility was not available to him at the time. The former vicar sold his motorcycle to pay for the first print run of his children’s novel Shadowmancer, which sold well because of word-of-mouth advertising, and the rights to which, and the next six books in the series, were then bought by Faber & Faber for a reputed £3.5 million.
            Two authors named Louise Voss and Mark Edwards tried selling two thrillers to British publishers, but received only rejection slips. They then wrote another book together – Catch Your Death – which they published through Amazon. To date, this has sold over 42,000 copies online. And, just as in the other examples quoted, these two first-time authors are now under contract to a mainstream publisher – in this case HarperCollins – which reportedly paid a six figure sum for the rights.
            Overall, sales of e-books increased by a fifth in the United Kingdom in 2010, to an impressive £180 million, and when figures for 2011 are available, it is anticipated that these will show a further rise of up to 25%.
            The one thing which seems to me to be fairly clear about this is that the role of the literary agent is becoming less and less important. If an author simply cannot find anybody to take him or his work seriously, there’s an absolutely nothing to stop him self-publishing an e-book and then letting market forces – the ultimate arbiter of success or failure – decide whether or not it’s any good. And if it is good, the next call the author gets won’t be from an agent, but from a publisher offering him a fat cheque and eager to secure a place on that particular bandwagon.
            As the Chinese say, as a curse, not a blessing: May you live in interesting times. And we’re certainly doing that.

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