My Crystal Ball Look At The Publishing Industry


Unlike folks like Joe Konrath, I don’t have any background in the publishing industry other than my fistful of rejection notices and what I’ve learned on my own little self-publishing journey. But a number of folks have asked me what I think, and I suppose I can speculate like everybody else.

This is no big surprise, but I think we’re going to see an implosion of the traditional publishing industry. You don’t have to be an industry insider or super genius to figure that out. Just look at how many of the big booksellers are closing their doors, and how many of the top 100 of any given category in Amazon’s Kindle store are from independent authors or small press publishers. And why do I pick out the Kindle store rather than look at Amazon’s book sales as a whole? Because Kindle sales make up the majority of the books sold now on Amazon, and Amazon’s the biggest single bookseller.

Maybe one or two of the Big 6 publishers might mutate their way out of the Great Extinction by offering innovative and attractive options to authors and reasonable prices on digital books to readers. They’re going to have to star promoting what value they can really add into the process, and offer authors contracts that aren’t outrageous.

But in the end, I suspect most of the Big 6 are going to go the way of the dinosaurs.

In the meantime, more and more traditionally published authors are going to buy up their rights and publish on their own, offering good to great quality books at great prices. The publishers will (and are, from what I’ve read) trying to combat this by having even more restricting rights arrangements on contracts, but they’re only shooting themselves in the foot in the long run. If they’re persistent enough, good authors are going to find an audience, and self-publishing isn’t just a fad or a fluke. Anybody heard of J.K. Rowling? Hey, if self-publishing ebooks is good enough for her, it’s good enough for me, too.

Brick and mortar bookstores? Barnes and Noble might survive because of the Nook, and because there will continue to be a market for print books at and least one large retailer to provide them. Independent bookstores that can integrate digital books into their business process will also survive. Independent, niche, and second-hand stores will also survive, but that’s going to depend as much on their ability to provide superior customer service as anything else.

I’ll also interject a little note here: I’m not happy about any of this. I love books and bookstores. But there’s no avoiding the reality of the changes that are underway. It’s literally a revolution, and those businesses that can’t adapt to the digital era and find a profitable niche aren’t going to survive.

As for print in general, it’ll still be around for the foreseeable future, but will represent an increasingly small percentage of the reading medium. Looking at my own sales figures, while I’m making thousands of ebook sales per month, I might sell sixty or so print copies.

But the real kicker is that I make more per unit from ebooks than I do from print. For the IN HER NAME omnibus, for example, the retail price for the print version is $16.95, and the Kindle book is $5.99 (and it’s that much because it’s three $2.99 novels wrapped into one, so it’s actually a steal at that price). I make $1.00 from each print copy, and $3.99 for every Kindle book. Even for my other books that are priced at $2.99, I make around $2.00 for the Kindle books, while I only make $1.00 for the print books that are priced at $9.95.

At this point, I’m wondering if I should even bother making print versions of my future books.

Then we get to the big question: what’s the future of the “indie publishing movement.” Will it survive, can people make real money, yada, yada. I’ve read a lot of opinions on the whole thing, but this is what I think it boils down to: authors who write good quality books, who learn how to effectively connect with readers, and who have set goals and are willing to work their butts off to achieve them will eventually succeed. That success may take time – years, in some cases – but I believe that victory goes to the skilled and persistent. And that isn’t anything unique to publishing. If you look at any type of endeavor, the people who succeed tend to have similar traits.

In the end, the readers are the ones who really benefit. While a lot of folks natter about how readers won’t be able to find good books from among the garbage, they still do. And they find a lot of gems that they never would have read otherwise, because those books never would have been published by the Big 6.

But the best part of the digital reading revolution, both for the reader and the author, is that readers can get great books at bargain basement prices, while at the same time the authors make a MUCH better royalty than they would have under the Dinosaur Publishing System. Sure, some self-published books, maybe even a lot of them, are crap. But there are a lot of good ones out there, and some amazingly talented authors.

The Big 6 dinosaurs have been laughing at self-published authors, considering them little more than a bunch of furry little mammals that get squished between a proper dino’s toes. But when the dust and ash from the Kindle asteroid finally clears and the sun comes out again, the mammals are going to be the ones left standing.


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7 thoughts on “My Crystal Ball Look At The Publishing Industry

  • Tom Stronach

    Michael,

    Sadly I agree, my point on Twitter was just that it will be a sad day all round if and when no books are released in printed form, yours included but I fully understand your reasoning as well

    Tom

  • Michael Hicks Post author

    Printed books will be around for a long time, they just won’t be the dominant reading medium, at least not in countries that are entering the digital reading age. Ebooks (in whatever format) simply have too many advantages: portability & ease of storage, text search and cross-indexing, integration with social media, text to speech, the ability to be updated easily (which is a huge factor for textbooks), reduced impact on the environment, and price (the outrageous prices being charged by the Big 6 publishers notwithstanding), to name the main ones that come to my mind.

    Against that, print books (and I’m mainly focused on novels, as opposed to illustrated books, which have a ways to go yet in the electronic world) offer…what? Tactile sensation? The scent of a “real” book? Nostalgia for when my mom took me to the bookmobile when I was a kid?

    Those things simply can’t compete in the marketplace against the pile of advantages offered by ebooks, especially at the prices publishers want (and must, to make a profit) charge for print editions. And sure, people can point to the relatively high entry cost of a dedicated e-reading device, but in the long term they’ll be saving a bundle unless they happen to do most of their book browsing at the library or second-hand stores. And that’s fine, because I think that’s where most of the surviving print market is going to be in a few years.

    From my perspective as an author, ebooks have one gigantic advantage: far greater royalty potential per copy. As a self-published author, if I could only sell printed books, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because you’d have never heard of me. I might be making enough from selling print books to pay for a dinner or two out a month, and that’s it. Writing full-time would never have been an option, because to price a book low enough to be at all competitive means that I’m making almost nothing in royalties. But with ebooks, I’m making $2.00 for every $2.99 ebook sold. And even if I put out books at $0.99, I’m still making at least $0.35 each. So if I sell three $0.99 ebooks, I’m making as much as I’m getting from a single one of my print books (which are priced to net a royalty of roughly $1.00).

    And I’m getting paid a lot more even when I offer the readers a much lower price. How does that compare to print?

    • Tom Stronach

      I can’t disagree with anything you say and from your point of view, that of an author, vis-a-vis the financial gain that has to be the correct way to go, a no brainer really when you look at the profit against the printed book for you, and as you know I have come to love my Kindle but I still like to be old fashioned as I wrote recently in a blog:

      the tactile sensations of holding, especially for the first time, a new book, for me, preferably in hardback, but that is me probably being more than a little slightly pompous. You get that book either in the mail or you have just been to the bookstore and brought it home in the ubiquitous plastic carrier, you take it out, or you unwrap as delivered by the postman and you hold it in your hands turning it over, the cover is inspected as is the spine and then the back cover. Anticipations are building and indeed even some tenseness, especially if it is a book from a favourite such as Alexander McCall Smith, that you have been anticipating getting your hands on for many months. This happens with me regularly, and for your books I might add here.

      So, you have that new book in your hands and it has past first muster inspection and you pull open the cover to the first page, the fly leaf becomes clear and you read while being slightly distracted, but not in a bad way, if the inside cover and facing page have a design motif on them, row upon row of No 44 Scotland Street in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’, Elephants, Oil cans and Lizards in ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’ or a lovely pale green empty space in, ‘The Careful Use of Compliments’ someone I know always refers to it as ‘The Careful Use of Condiments’, bless…. You carefully turn over the next couple of pages, and here I have to confess to what is probably a little bit of a strange indulgence or peccadillo, I look at the; First published, Copyright, All rights, Typeset, Library Catalogue details, don’t ask, I have no explanation for the strangeness that overtakes me when opening a new book, and, I guess to an extent it might be that I want to savour every single page of this delicious mind feeding entity that I am holding in my hands, who knows….

      Then, then we turn over another page and we find the beginning of the best time of your life for the next indeterminable period of time, that is for however long you are curled up on the sofa, in bed, on the train or sitting in the park, engrossed in the story that someone like Alexander McCall Smith, or other author of choice, has so graciously chosen to deliver to us, it is almost too difficult to describe the sensations that flow through you when reading a good novel. Authors, of whatever calibre and ability should be almost revered for the enjoyment they bring to so many millions of people each and every day. A Novel can be heart warming, it can be funny, it can be dangerous. You can be relaxed one minute and tense the next, reading one last week I was literally breathless and a little afeared one minute and the next I was welling up, not one of your sAlexander, but a self published author by the name of Michael R Hicks.

      So, the BOOK still does hold something for me and I will continue to be a proponent for both mediums until I get old and dithery and can’t hold one any more and then I will hold my thin lightweight (updated with colour prints [hopefully] ) Kindle with the same love that I hold a book today!

  • KindleJoy

    I love Alexander McCall Smith and have read most of his books. The last one was “The Miracle at Speedy Motors” (no.9). The first 8 I have in print. I love them. Thoroughly! BUT… The day my Kindle entered the house I was transformed! Who could believe! I have defended paper books for years, not even willing to consider ebooks/e-readers. I just love bookstores. The paper. The feeling. I do understand you!! The Kindle was a present… Not even a wished for gadget. But when I had it I just had to try. I am, I at least try, to be polite… The advantages hit me at once. And Alexander McCall Smith’s book number 9 was an e-book. I have never looked back since!

    Why? It’s easy! I can bring a whole series of books with me and it still weighs 350 grams (I travel more than average). I can buy new books wherever I have a wifi hotspot. As I did with Hicks’ “Season of the Harvest” (thanks Michael, I just love it 🙂 The written word is the same! It gives me – the paper book worm – the same joy. I have the exact same feelings as I have always had with my paperbacks. Along the pool in Bakersfield this summer I realized that I was missing book no 3 in “The Hunger Games” series. Took me 2,5 minutes to get it. From my sunbed! I was ecstatic.

    It’s just something else. Just like with the music business and the LP’s. Now it’s CD’s. The content is the same – different wrapping. I still admire my old LP’s. As I will do with my paperbacks. But for me, I’d rather save that tree 😉

  • ishmael

    As the old adage says: Nothing is constant but change. How the publishing industry has been transformed with the advent of the digital age came as no surprise. Publishers and authors alike just have to keep up with the times.

  • robb skidmore

    I too am bittersweet about the publishing changes. My heart goes out to indie bookstore folks who are trying to keep things going. On the other hand it is fantastic that writers are getting to keep more royalties and that barriers have fallen. I wrote a novel that several NY lit agents said great things about, but didn’t want to rep because it was between genres and they didn’t feel they could sell it to the Big Six. Thanks to Amazon and others, I now have a serious shot at letting readers experience it.

    It can only help reading to unleash the gates on writers and let the marketplace decide.