Pollyanna Patrick versus the death of publishing

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom this week in discussions about the future of the publishing industry, much of which was spurred by a presentation by Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which he said that the industry was doomed and that writing as a profession was doomed along with it.

Wow. Way to bring the mood of the party down, Ewan.

Morrison brings up a lot of interesting points, but he takes a very pessimistic stance in his article. I think he’s done so to get people talking and thinking, and that’s important, but so is maintaining some optimism and some perspective.

Here’s a rebuttal of sorts by writer Lloyd Shepherd, which provides facts and figures to argue that while the publishing industry isn’t what it was, it’s premature to sound the death knell yet. I don’t have that degree of recourse to facts – not that that has ever stopped me – but speaking as a writer, an online self-publisher, and a commissioning editor at a major publishing house (albeit in education rather than fiction), three things in Morrison’s article leap out at me.

Avast, and here are some free Dan Brown books!

Piracy – and look, I say ‘pirate’ rather than ‘file-sharer’ or ‘unauthorised copier’ because it’s shorter and pithier, okay? No value judgement. Anyway, piracy of straight-up fiction is not that big a deal. Pirates focus heavily on sharing electronic media, music, movies and games; they generally don’t care about books, and book readers generally aren’t pirates. Even those publishing arms that are hit harder by piracy, usually fan-media or roleplaying, are seeing data that suggests piracy isn’t hurting them as much as they thought, because many people who torrent scans and PDFs generally wouldn’t have paid for that product anyway; they would have simply gone without. Over in fiction publishing, piracy of things that aren’t mega-bestsellers is minimal, because most pirates don’t want to read/share that stuff, and the people who want to read it are generally happy to pay for it. Maybe books would make more if piracy was impossible, but they wouldn’t make that much more.

The death of the mid-list and the loss of advances – yes, this is true, this is happening. More precisely, it’s been happening since the 1990s; it’s not as new as Morrison implies. Much like in film, publishers are under pressure to produce nothing but blockbusters – they want to publish either JK Rowling or the next JK Rowling, and that gives less room for writers that will never be JK Rowling but will produce good books nonetheless. This has been the case for years, and it sucks, but at the same time it’s not exactly a surprise. And for all the pressure on them to produce high-selling books, most publishers – the people, not the companies – care about good books, and will push to get worthy-but-lower-selling books out there. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the success of ebooks affects this – midlist titles are starting to find a larger audience, and the value of establishing writers who continue to sell, but never need to be reprinted, is becoming more obvious.

The race to the bottom for pricing – okay, this is a real concern. Books shouldn’t be priced as low as the market will bear, and 99 cents is too little to charge for a book. But there’s a growing realisation that digital products are priced too low, not just in publishing but in the more commercially powerful world of iPhone apps, and the prices are starting to bounce back. Are there consumers who will balk at paying $4.95 for your ebook when they can get someone else’s ebook for $3.95? Yes. But those are generally not the consumers you want – these are people to whom books are essentially fungible, and often they just want extruded word product to fill up their Kindle. I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book. Many readers are prepared to pay more sensible prices for books they want to read from authors they respect, and we should see that happen more often within the next couple of years.

(There’s been a good discussion recently of e-book pricing and the .99 cent model over at Terrible Minds; go there to see some more and different takes on the topic.)

This is just what the offices at Penguin look like. Honest.

This is a time of transition, and it’s one where things are happening quickly and the old order is being torn down faster than it can adjust. It’s all very much like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga – THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! – except that we don’t have any villains as cool as Darkseid.

I’m not saying it’s the Golden Age of publishing, because it sure as hell ain’t. But it’s not the End of All Things either. Large established presses will either adapt and survive or sink, but they won’t drag everything under with them. Small and independent presses have the chance to craft something new and be at the forefront of change. And for writers, there are opportunities that there never were before, even if we have to work harder to get money from those opportunities. So less doom and gloom, and more optimism, please.

The New Gods may yet come. If we believe. And keep writing.

2 thoughts on “Pollyanna Patrick versus the death of publishing

  1. The main problem with publishing is that it’s a cost and we’re at a point in history where just about anyone can publish without requiring a publisher, so the question of that cost becomes more relevant.

    The actual *publication* aspect of publishing I think is effectively dying. Unarguably, though, publishing provides additional value *above* that of splashing ink on dead wood: editing & filtering are two of the major ones that spring to mind. I think over the next five years we’ll see an even heavier decoupling of such services from publishing.

    Interestingly, there’s an almost identical situation happening in video games.

  2. 100% agreement pretty much all round.

    Putting out a physical wad of paper and ink is easier and cheaper than ever before, but that’s only a small part of the publishing process. I’ve learned a lot about how much other work is involved in making a manuscript into a book – and, more importantly, a *good* book.

    Publishing can survive by emphasising and communicating those elements – or, alternatively, we can see the decoupling you’re talking about. Hell, it already exists; ‘book packagers’ deliver fully-developed and edited finished works to publishers so that they just need to typeset and print them.

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