DOTHAN, AL, June 12, 2013 — Traditional book publishers just cannot catch a break these days. Every bit of good news seems to have a corresponding bit of bad news to go along with it.
Adult trade book sales were up 8.4% in January, the most recent month hard figures are available for, but sales in the young adult category took a dive by 23.5%. Overall e-book sales were up 10.1% over the past year, but that falls far short of the 49.4% increase the year before.
To add derision to affliction, Bowker Research just reported that self-published books now represent 12% of all e-book sales and as much as 20% of specific genres like romance and fantasy. Publishers take heart, that news is based on a survey done in the UK, though e-book sales on both sides of the Atlantic often follow the same pattern. Can you say “Harry Potter?”
The news about flattening e-book sales is sparking a lot of debate over whether e-books have seen their best days and are already on the way out. Another recent study of college students and professors showed that they are not ready for e-textbooks and still prefer print despite cost and convenience factors. Textbooks are referred to as “heavy tomes” for a reason.
Self-publishing is quickly losing the stigma that was once attached to it, but critics still abound, mostly traditional publishers. Andrew Franklin, founder of Profile Books, recently went on a rant at a London writing conference and said self-published books are “unutterable rubbish.” The general argument against self-publishing is that readers are barraged with too many choices and there is no vetting by experienced editors.
That is the polite way to suggest that self-publishers are losers who cannot find a regular publisher.
The counter to that from wannabe authors is that if publishers and agents would answer their phones, respond to queries and welcome new writers there would not be such a rush to circumvent the traditional business model. Even published authors such as David Mamet are opting for self-publishing in order to have more control over their own works. So when did too many choices become a bad thing?
According to Bowker there are now some 235,000 self-published titles in print, an increase of nearly 300% since 2006. In 2011 alone there were over 148,000 new self-published titles added to the lists. That means 43% of all print books released in the U.S. that year were self-published. It is no wonder that traditional publishers are exhibiting hives and nervous habits.
On the surface this might look like a true grassroots movement — that the great unwashed masses are rising up against an oppressive publishing industry and taking their place as the new dominant culture. That is not the case. As with traditional publishing, self-publishing has far more misses than hits. The number of authors actually selling anything is very low despite the stories you see about this or that self-published book selling a million copies.
Who is making money from self-publishing? The answer to that is Amazon, Smashwords, Penguin and Lulu. Amazon’s CreateSpace service put out over 58,000 print titles last year. Smashwords accounted for over 40,000 e-book titles.
Bowker points out that aside from those four providers, no other printing service can claim more than 10% of the self-publishing market. Bowker must have convinced itself that self-publishing is lucrative since they recently started a website called SelfPublishedAuthor.com, touted as a web resource with advice for independents who might just need Bowker paid services.
The publishing industry is certainly in turmoil, but as history illustrates that can be a good time for innovation and new ideas to flourish. The overall business model is changing rapidly as players like Amazon and Barnes and Noble go beyond selling books and into the business of making them.
E-books have brought back the ability to produce short fiction at reasonable cost, and forms like short stories and serializations are being brought back from near extinction. Authors, both first-time and established, are able to control their own work despite some of the technical problems that remain.
The publishing industry has survived change in the past. In the late 19th century a fierce publishing war broke out between the U.S. and England due to a loophole in the copyright laws. The rise of mass market paperbacks in the mid-20th century was considered a major threat to hardcover books. Digital publishing has brought a host of new issues still to be resolved.
Traditional publishers have lost exclusive control of the book market. While they have been focusing on finding the next mega-hit, Amazon and others have made use of digital technologies to pick up the small business opportunities that publishers overlook or ignore. An old sales adage is that you can sell a million items for a dollar each, or you can sell one item for a million dollars.
Self-publishers and the providers that service them seem to be doing quite well with the one-dollar approach. That, in turn, is turning out to be a pretty good deal for book lovers.
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