New directions in publishing
Posted December 18, 2013 in
“Nobody knows anything” wrote the screenwriter William Goldman in 1983, in his Hollywood memoir, Adventures in the screen trade.
“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Goldman wrote with authority, having written a number of classic movies, each strikingly different from the other: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride – which nobody in Hollywood wanted to make for 14 years, proving his dictum rather neatly.
Movies are not books. Goldman urged aspiring screenwriters to attempt other kinds of writing (such as novels) in order to exercise creative control. He said this was good for the soul.
Twenty years after Goldman made his pronouncements, the publishing industry itself is experiencing a profound “Nobody knows anything” moment. The rise of Amazon, online sales and e-books has shaken up the industry, encouraging small players (like us) to have a go.
Earlier this month, Amazon revealed that one quarter of its top 100 e-book sales in the US in 2012 were written by “indies”. In the US, the term can mean either self-published authors or authors published by small companies (that is, not one of the big six publishing houses).
The news was interpreted as a victory for self-published authors. A spokeswoman for Amazon.com said in The Guardian: “This figure is referring to Kindle books on Amazon.com in 2012, with ‘indie’ meaning books self-published via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So a quarter of the top 100 bestselling Kindle books on Amazon.com in 2012 were self-published via KDP.”
Hugh Howey, whose self-published science-fiction series Wool became a best-selling e-book tweeted: “Taken together, indie authors form a new major publisher to round out the big six.”
But British independent publisher Colin Robinson from Or Books wasn’t entirely convinced. He told The Guardian a snapshot of Amazon.com’s top 100 books last week, as opposed to Kindle alone, showed “47 were from the big six publishers, 31 from other publishers I recognised, 21 from publishers I've never heard of, and one was definitely self-published”.
He added: “It's possible that some of the publishers I've never heard of are in fact imprints set up by the author of the book but, especially as several appeared with books by more than one author (or at least one author's name), it seems unlikely that more than a few are.”
The figures suggest that in the online marketplace e-books are providing unprecedented opportunities for self-published authors (some of whom go on to sign deals with publishing houses) while smaller publishers are doing better with print. Either way, there is life and growth outside the big six.
The Amazon e-sales figures are a year old, which may also give a distorted picture. The latest sales statistics in the in the US show e-book sales have been flattening – or even declining.
“I don’t know if it’s a saturation point with digital,” said Len Vlahos, the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, quoted in The New York Times. “Three years ago it was a nascent market, but now it looks like a maturing market.”
The same article quoted Jennifer Enderlin, the publisher of St Martin’s Press Paperbacks and Griffin, saying she thought the pause in e-book growth would “start affecting print books in a good way”. She was also optimistic about the future of independent bookstores.
Wishful thinking? We will have to wait and see. Nobody knows anything.