Helga’s Post #95: You may have noticed the absence of my weekly postings, although my 5 writers friends have more than made up with theirs. Regrettably, I am currently dealing with a crisis that saps my creative energy. So instead of coming up with some clever words of my own on the topic of writing and publishing, I am quoting heavily from an article I found instructive and interesting. I hope you will too.
The article – an essay of 25 pages actually – was published in The Economist magazine, titled ‘The Future of the Book’, no less. Here are some excerpts, with comments of my own:
Almost as constant as the appeal of the book has been the worry that that appeal is about to come to an end. The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears. In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage.
Let’s look at some numbers. In 2013 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, up from around 8,100 in 1960. What I find significant is that the 1.4m figure does not include the many e-books that are being self-published without an ISBN.
Here is what caught my eye in the essay: At last spring’s London Book Fair there was a booth rented by eight authors who said that, between them, they had sold a staggering 16m books and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list—all without the help of a traditional publisher. They are used to having their claims dismissed; Bella Andre, a self-published romance writer with an economics degree from Stanford, got so irked when a publisher challenged her heady sales figures that she took a picture of a bank statement and sent it to him. “No one is counting our books in any survey that comes out in the media,” sighed Barbara Freethy, another romance writer. She says that, as of September, she has sold over 4.8m books.
With stories like these, even the most gloomy predictors of the book’s demise had to soften their forecasts. Against their predictions, people hang onto their books because they crave immersive experiences. Books may face more competition for audiences’ time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and TV came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years. But it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”—864 pages in paperback—shows that people still tackle big books.
And they are willing to cart them around, too. The much ballyhooed decline of the physical book has been far from fatal. In 2010 Simon & Schuster predicted that half of all book sales would be e-books by 2013. Instead, last year e-books accounted for around 30% of consumer book sales (not including professional and educational books) in America, the largest book market in the world and the country where e-books took off most quickly. In Germany, the world’s third-largest, e-books were around 5% of consumer book sales. The growth rate of e-books has recently slowed in many markets, including America and Britain. Publishers now expect most of their sales to remain in print books for decades to come—some say forever.
We needn’t be quite as ambitious as Donna Tartt. Regardless of the length of our book and genre of choice, publishing is within reach of all of us. Writers, do take note and take heart: To write a book costs nothing but time. To hire an editor, cover designer, formatter and publicist can, if you think them necessary, be done for $2,000 or less. Amazon will publish and sell the resultant e-book to any of its 250m customers who may be interested; smaller sites will do the same, and many offer print-on-demand sales, too. Authors who self publish an e-book through Amazon get up to 70% of net sales, as opposed to the 25% they might get on an e-book that went through a publisher.
Not surprisingly, traditional publishers hoping to spot the next hot thing have started to scour online writing sites, such as Wattpad, where people receive feedback on their work from other users. Any interest they show is normally warmly appreciated. In the past 12 months the average earnings for self-published authors have probably been around $1,180, reckons Mark Coker, the boss of Smashwords, a self-publishing platform, with most of them getting less than that. Such authors find themselves highly dependent on Amazon’s recommendation system and websites that offer promotions to boost their sales; most readers still gravitate to books that have been professionally written, edited and reviewed.
But the advantages of being “properly published”—editors, promotion, and the like—should not be oversold. “We have to be careful not to compare the reality of self publishing with the ideal of legacy publishing,” says Barry Eisler, a thriller writer. In 2011 he walked away from a publisher’s advance of $500,000 in favour of the self-publishing route; he says the decision paid off well. Susan Orlean, an author and a staff writer at the New Yorker, considered something similar for a recent book. “In a million years I would have never thought of that before,” she says. She thinks the day will come when publishers may have to start unbundling their services. They could start offering “light” versions of their services, such as print-only distribution, or editing, and not taking a cut of the whole pie.
Publishers realize that they have to change. “Publishers will only be relevant if they can give authors evidence that they can connect their works to more readers than anybody else,” admits Markus Dohle, who runs Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer-book publisher. Such connection is crucial, because the same technology that is making it easier for people to publish their own books is also making it easier for them to explore new ways of finding, sharing, discussing and indeed emulating the books of others. (Ms James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” started off as fan-fiction based on the characters of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling “Twilight” books.)
From online reviews to the world’s numerous literary festivals to all sorts of social media, writers are ever more aware of and available to their audiences. Ms Orlean says she was used to “writing into the void”, but now posts regularly about what she is working on. For her and others the contact seems like an opportunity. Others find it irksome. Most, probably, see it as a bit of both. But it is not going away.
So what does all that mean for aspiring authors? The picture is murky at best, depending how you look at it. While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers. In previous eras, people did not expect to earn a living by writing books, but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than being just faded pictures on the inside back cover.
One thing is certain: There will be new experiments in storytelling, new genres born of the electronic age, and new authors who never would have been discovered in a print-only world. And that brings me back to the title of my post, a question posed by Christoph Martin Wieland, an 18th-century German writer. If you think about it, it’s even more relevant than during his lifetime:
“If everyone writes, who will read?”
Regardless, the answer to the question ‘What is the future of the book?’ can be summed up simply with this: It is much brighter than people think.