Thanks to digital technology, people are buying more books and reading more than ever. So why is the publishing industry struggling to turn the page?
Three thousand books pulped, and a young author’s career in ruins. Some years ago, around the time of the Borders closure, a discount department store cancelled an order which resulted in the publication of the second book by a young Australian author to be abandoned. The author’s contract was revoked, and the book, which was the sequel to his well-received but low-selling debut, was never spoken of again. This event encapsulates the height of the panic in the book world, with print sales declining and the effects of digital evolution taking hold.
The Australian book publishing industry has been operating in an atmosphere of low-level anxiety ever since the first decent ereading device, Amazon’s Kindle, was released in 2007. Despite the Kindle not being available in Australia until late 2009, those looking towards the future of reading could see that the writing was on the wall from reports out of the US. The book industry had to immediately change in order to be ready for the new technology.
But it didn’t. Not right away. Book publishing companies are like huge ships – difficult to turn quickly. It has taken time to plot a new course through the waters infested with digital disruptors like new content delivery systems, social media, and piracy. Not only did large publishers have to retrain their entire workforce, they needed to keep stakeholders like authors and traditional booksellers happy.
There has been a gradual shift away from long-tail midlist books, towards a focus on blockbusters and brand name authors for many years now, and this is not the fault of the digital evolution. The shift has been away from the high street bookstores being the heart of a community, to giant chains like Borders (look how well that turned out) and discount department stores like Big W taking over market share – the latter partly due to deep discounting, the cost of which is largely passed on to publishers.
Australian publishers found themselves faced with reduced margins, held hostage to demands from book buyers who fill stores all over the country with identical stock piled high in the department next to camping supplies, and accountable to a legion of authors who were watching their royalties declining and self-published success stories make the news week after week.
The commercial reality is that the barriers to publishing into the international market are coming down thanks to the global digital retailers, and more avenues for publication and discovery are opening up. Traditional publishers were struggling, but they are now adapting with digital-first imprints that are acting as research and development departments.
Plenty of industry commenters have written about this, and the following pieces are recommended for a greater understanding about the new publishing world.
Richard Nash, 2013
As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.
Lloyd Shepherd, 2011
Radical change is certainly producing some alarming symptoms – but much of the doomsayers' evidence is anecdotal, and it's possible to read a much happier story.
Sam Missingham, 2013
We need to keep our eye on the prize and celebrate the continuing evolution of our industry.
Pepi Ronalds, 2013
I talk with Pepi Ronalds about trends in ‘molecular specialisation’ being the only way that book publishers are going to survive in something that resembles their traditional format.
Joel Naoum, 2013
The business of storytelling in a digital world. The next decade is inevitably going to provide some creative re-imagining of the boundaries of what a book is.
AIGA and Herman Zapf, 1968
Are books dead? A simple answer is yes, to those for whom they never lived.
The future will be about specialisation. As publishers continue to eat each other and grow ever larger (witness the Random House and Penguin merger) there'll be greater fragmentation within the conglomerates, and that will lead to more opportunities for experimental publishing, which is better for authors.
It is also better for readers. Despite what the cynics say, a recent report from the Pew Research Center indicates that people are reading more than ever thanks to digital technology, and buying more books. Thanks to the wide distribution of the web, our culture is more literate than it has ever been, more books are being produced and communities around books, genres, authors and yes, even publishers are thriving.
In the old model, publishers didn’t have to think about the end-users of their products in any more detail than as a data-point in a sales chart, but now readers, authors and publishers are closer than ever. Communities of readers are involved in publishing decisions like never before, built on personal relationships enabled by communication tools like the social web and, shock horror, real people.
Publishers are going to where the readers are. Where the writers are. Any publisher who isn’t involved in communities of interest that already exist online, won’t survive in the new publishing paradigm. Authors will start cancelling contracts with them, because the power has shifted. The gates are down.
Anne Treasure is a recent survivor of the book industry.