An author’s guide to publishing part 1: What’s going on with publishing in 2012?

An author’s guide to publishing in 2012
by Amy Rogers

California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch Writers’ Network meeting, June 1, 2012.
Author Amy Rogers spoke on “Getting Published in 2012: What’s the Right Path for YOU?”

You’re a writer and you want your work to be published. Never before in history have you had so many choices about what to do after finishing your book. What does it mean to be “published” in 2012? And which of the innumerable ways to earn or buy publication best suits your individual needs and aspirations?

Dr. Amy Rogers, author, critic, and educator, writes science-themed thriller novels and reviews the genre at ScienceThrillers.com. Her debut novel Petroplague was recognized by International Thriller Writers as part of its Debut Class 2011-2012.

Part 1 of 3: What’s going on with publishing today?

Book publishing is undergoing a revolution unlike anything seen since the invention of moveable type, a Cambrian explosion of diversity in the paths leading to publication.  After centuries in a desert of limited choices, writers now have a rainforest of options to get their work in front of readers.

But the changes are so profound and happening so rapidly, many writers can’t keep up with the business.  We’re writers, so we write, but what then?  The simple formula—write book, sell rights to a print publisher, collect royalties—doesn’t apply to the majority of published books today.  Is this a bad thing?

The big changes in publishing are both challenge and opportunity.  Whether the changes are “good” or “bad” depends on where you stand.  In this series, I’ll first summarize some of the major trends in the book business that are affecting the way books get published and sold.  In the second, I’ll discuss how writers seeking “publication” of their work can navigate the path that’s right for them.

So why does the publishing business feel like a Kansas farmhouse in a tornado?  Simple: technology.  Digital disruption devastated the music industry; now it’s rolling over publishing.  The end results for various stakeholders (authors, publishers, readers, retailers) are far from certain.

1.  Ebooks

Top of the list of disruptive technologies: e-books.  Amazon’s Kindle e-reader is now in its third or fourth generation.  The critical $100 price point has been breached (a Kindle now costs as little as $79).  Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader and tremendous numbers of Apple’s iPad plus various smartphones (which can also be used as e-readers) give millions of Americans easy access to e-books.  (Not to mention ubiquitous laptop and desktop computers, which can be used to read e-books, though uncomfortably.)

How rapid is the rise of the e-book?  The Economist reports  that in the first five months of 2011, “sales of consumer e-books in America overtook those from adult hardback books” and “amazon now sells more copies of e-books than paper books”.  Granted, amazon’s experience does not represent the entire bookselling business, but it is significant.  In my own genre—thrillers—over half the books sold are now in digital formats.

What this means:

  • In the short term, lower profits for publishers, who earn much more money per copy selling hardcovers than e-books
  • For bricks & mortar bookstores, a major threat to their livelihood (see: Borders, bankruptcy) because customers may browse their shelves and then purchase digitally, cutting the physical retailer out of the transaction
  • Disputes over book contracts signed before e-books existed because the ownership of e-book rights is unclear
  • Disputes between authors and publishers about what is a fair royalty split on e-books
  • Problems with piracy
  • A massive increase in the number of titles available to readers as no e-book ever goes “out of print”, and anybody with Internet access can self-publish an e-book at little cost.

2.  Distribution

Digital technology is changing the way books are distributed.  Obviously, e-books can be sold online—from anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world, no neighborhood bookstore required.

But it’s not only e-book sales that are affected by digital tech.  The emergence of amazon.com as a global book retailer with no physical presence in communities has also changed the selling of paper books.  People are shopping for paper books over the Internet and getting them shipped.  Neighborhood and mall bookstores are struggling.  They can’t compete on price because amazon subsidizes much of their bookselling business, and because amazon still dodges sales tax in most states.

What this means:

  • Real-world bookstores are struggling, and disappearing.  First, the big box chains (Borders and Barnes & Noble) killed the independent booksellers; now the Internet is killing the big box stores.  There simply aren’t many bookstores left.  (Places like Walmart and Costco sell a lot of books, but they carry very few titles—only the biggest bestsellers, generally by established authors.)  Borders is gone; few indies remain; Barnes & Noble will struggle.
  • With fewer distribution outlets, publishers have fewer opportunities to advertise / promote their favorite products: no front-door display tables, no author book signing tours.

3.  Publicity

What makes a consumer buy a book?  Compared to the marketing geniuses in industries like beverages, snack food, and laundry detergent, book publishers are strangely unsure about the answer to this question.  In fact, most marketing efforts by publishers to sell their books aren’t even directed at readers: they target the distributors (middlemen) and bookstore buyers who decide what they will stock in a store, and how many copies of it.  With the slow disintegration of the real-world bookstore, this approach to marketing becomes ever less productive.

The best way to get a person to buy a book is word of mouth: a trusted source, whether a friend or a reviewer, mentioned the book.  Digital technology—the Internet and “social networking”—are truly revolutionizing word of “mouth”.  Successful book marketing is increasingly based in this virtual world.  Book bloggers, readers’ collectives like GoodReads and LibraryThing, Facebook, Twitter, book trailers on YouTube—this is what sells books.  Reviews remain critical, but the traditional venue—newspaper sections devoted to in-house book reviews—is vanishing.  Only a few papers still publish their own book reviews, and generally these reviews are few in number.  So authors and publishers must go online to get reviews and build “buzz” around a title.

What this means:

  • Even if they had the money to do it, which they don’t, publishers don’t really know how to promote an author’s book directly to readers because they’ve never done it in the past
  • Authors now have both the power and the obligation to promote their work online

Part 1: What’s going on with publishing in 2012: Disruptive technology
Part 2: Getting “published”: The many kinds of publishing
Part 3: So you want to publish your book: what’s the best path for YOU?

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2 Responses to An author’s guide to publishing part 1: What’s going on with publishing in 2012?

  1. Paul Nowak says:

    I wonder when book publishers will have situation similar to magazine publishers now – use low cost software as a service solutions to publish your app, distribute via app stores, market using good old online marketing.

    Disclamer: I work for PressPad, a company like that. We’d love to do books though.

    • Amy says:

      Can you explain a bit more what you mean? There are many available low cost “service solutions” for authors wanting to self-publish an e-book, that then distribute through many online retailers (including the big app store, iTunes). What would PressPad “do” for books?

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