Thursday, 9 September 2010

The So-Called Death of Publishing - A Rant

Can I be pessimistic here for a second? (I know, why break the habit of a lifetime?) I don't believe that a halcyon age of author-led publishing is coming. I don't believe that books are going to die or even that the widespread take up of e-books is going to free us from the shackles of publishers. Maybe a few big names with loyal audiences and strong brands will break away and make even more millions. But, as their contracts are probably pretty preferential already, why should they bother?

At the other extreme, it's true that the playing field will be lowered for unpublished writers. People will be able to publish directly to their audience - an idea that excites those writers who growl about agents and editors being the "gatekeepers" of the publishing world. Big deal. I could do that today, if I wanted to, go through a print-on-demand publisher and list my book on Amazon. And I could probably sell about fifty copies too, maybe a hundred if I really worked at it. Again, big deal.

Let's play fantasy publishing for a second. Let's imagine that, from tomorrow, physical books cease to exist and everyone (small children included) has their own e-book reader. And then let's imagine that all of the inexperienced, unpublished writers flood onto the market, clamouring for attention. Because I've met some of these writers (online) and let me tell you, they don't know how to write and they don't know how to edit, but they do know how to make a lot of noise. And your beautifully crafted, rigorously edited book has to compete amongst all that clamour. No matter how good your self-promotion and social media skills are, this virtual cattle market is not going to make your life easier.

I wonder who will get the top spots on the iBookstore or Amazon's front page? Will it be you, with your loyal and independent cult following? Or will it be the publishers and big-name authors, who can afford to pay for the privilege in exactly the same way they do today in bookshops around the country? Meanwhile, your book flounders twenty-seven pages deep in the search listings.

We live in interesting times, to be sure, and the publishing industry may never be the same again. But it will still be there, because we need publishers and they need us. A few people will get to be the Arctic Monkeys of the e-publishing world, but as for the notion that the cream always rises to the top, well, good luck in that centrifuge.



  1. uh oh! Am I one of those bad writers who you've met online?

  2. Ha ha, no, don't worry Holly - you come under the beautifully crafted, rigorously edited classification. I'm interested in your thoughts as a small press actually - am I way off-beam here?

  3. Fighting talk here, Nick... I wouldn't be one of those writers who you think "don't know how to write and they don't know how to edit, but they do know how to make a lot of noise", would I...?
    The jury is so out on this topic that I don't believe anyone can make an exact call - and I do believe the landscape is about to change, though just how remains to be seen. We do sit at a time of "revolution", pretty much everyone concurs with that, but the nature of the revolution and the results it yields remains to be seen. Books won't leave us, that's true but how we access them will and has already changed.
    I suppose it's helpful to remember that change is the only constant and keeps things fresh. We don't grow and evolve without it.

  4. Hi Nick,
    I think there is a middle ground here. I agree that traditional publishers are unlikely to disappear, we need them as readers to bring us the best work(and I work for one as an editor so I def need them!)
    However, sometimes self publishing is great. It depends on your intentions and expectations for your project. I get annoyed that everyone thinks anyone who self publishes is a mad person with no idea what they are doing. Sometimes it is a good and educated choice.
    I'm soon to self pub a short story collection to raise money for an aid and development charity. I'm not expecting to make millions but through my blog and promotion through the charity I'm confident it will do well. If I went the traditional route it would be unlikely to sell millions either as there just isn't the market for short stories. With my novel, however, I would def go the traditnal agent/publisher route.
    So to cut a (very) long story short, I think there are times when self publishing is a great opportunity for writers where the traditional market isn't supporting the style of work you are creating and you have your own ready made market waiting for you.
    But enough rambling for one morning!
    Thanks for the post!


  5. There's certainly an honourable place for self-publishing, and plenty of writers for whom it's well suited, but when it's waved like a war flag by frustrated writers, something's wrong somewhere. I agree, Nick -- who wants to wade through a tidal wave of unvetted material looking for something good? It's tough enough as it is, in an industry where too many books are already published for the size of the market.

    Come the revolution, maybe no one will be put up against the wall and shot.

  6. Nicola, I actually agree with you about self-publishing, especially for niche markets. In fact, I have met self-published writers who are very accomplished and have sold thousands of books. But such is the problem with ranting and presenting a balanced argument :-)

    It just seems to me that a whole load of frustrated writers are predicting the end of traditional publishing because they want that to happen, not because it's actually going to come about. I think we have to live in the here-and-now of the publishing world, difficult as that environment might be for all of us.

  7. Absolutely, and it is tough. It's a business after all and it's the same for everyone in it, not just authors but editors, designers etc too. I see that as a challenge, it pushes you to be the best you can be and that's exciting - who knows where you will end up!

  8. Interesting post Nick. At least once a week Nathan Bransford posts a the 'death of publishing as we know it' article on his blog. Things are definitely changing and the e-reader is here to stay (this time, previous ones didn't make it). You have to be careful with POD and self publishing, I agree you have to know why you are doing it and have a platform (which many non-fiction writers do). A writer friend of mine ghost wrote a memoir for a man who presents at conferences all over the world - he self published because he has a platform. I have a writer friend who published a well written novel with a POD on-line company a few years ago (before e-readers, back in the day when you had to read it on your home computer). He didn't sell one on-line book, the POD copies were well out of the normal price range for a novel and then the publisher went bankrupt. So now no traditional publisher will look at it because it's already been out there. So, it wasn't a good experience for him. I think with all things you have to know why you're doing it and the reality of the deal.

  9. Why do we all think you are talking about us????? I have a little, very local, social history book that was published via Lulu. The lovely man who commissioned it died before it was finished hence it's poorly edited and not quite what he had planned - I'm not sorry though - it sold very well (still is selling, oddly, everyone in the village must have a dozen copies by now).BUT, I do know the book isn't for the mass market - it's just not good enough for all sorts of reasons. We all need a deludometer don't we? Think mine is working ok..... I hope...aaaargh.....