Glimmers of hope

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of graduating English majors about possible careers in publishing and as part of my talk to give an overview of the industry. Here’s an excerpt from what I told them. Do you agree?

“I’d like to start things off with a question. Who knows who Amanda Hocking is?

She’s a 26-year old author who very successfully self-published her novels on Amazon as digital downloads and e-books and ended up landing a four book deal with St. Martin’s Press for more than $2 million.

Here’s another question: Who has heard of Barry Eisler?

He is a best-selling thriller author who recently turned down a half million dollar deal (from the same company, no less) to self-publish his work. In several long blog posts he made what seems like a very convincing argument that he could end up, in the long run, making more money by self-publishing his work rather than going the traditional publishing route and in addition be in control of how his books are published.

These two events occurred in the same week. To me they epitomize what’s going in the industry right now. An author who self-published her work digitally, available only via download, was able to generate sufficent revenue to prompt a publisher to pay millions of dollars for the right to publish her next work. And an author whose books routinely hit the print bestseller list and who gets six-figure advances for his novels has decided he no longer needs a publisher. He’s decided he can publish, market and promote his books on his own and in the process retain control over his creative output. Five years ago no one in the industry would ever have imagined that this could have happened. Publishing is an industry going through seismic changes, which is both confusing and also exciting. It means that it’s an industry in upheaval. It means also that there are opportunity for people who are creative and willing to take risks and are not sentimentally attached to the old ways of doing business.

As you probably know, two years ago the industry all but collapsed. Editors were laid off in droves and budgets were being cut. Now, even though things have stabilized and many publishers are hiring again, the after-effects linger. Borders is in bankruptcy and is closing hundreds of stores; indie bookstores are continuing to close, from a high of over 4,000 stores nationwide to about 1500 today, and sales of print books are still declining. Barnes & Noble has transformed itself from a bookstore chain to a content provider and gift and stationery store. If you’ve walked into a Barnes & Noble lately, you’ll notice that front and center of each of their stores is a Nook boutique. Their inventory of gifts and games is growing while they’re carrying fewer and fewer books. And newspapers have shrunk or done away entirely with book reviews.

But there are most definitely bright spots on the horizon. Digital sales are exploding – in some genres they are surpassing print sales – along with sales of the devices that deliver reading experiences. The market for YA books, that is books targeted at readers in their teenage years, is extremely dynamic which is a wonderful and hopeful thing because it means those prophets of doom and gloom who have proclaimed that young people are no longer reading were wrong. And the internet is helping authors do their own marketing and to connect directly with their readers rather than having to depend on the marketing and publicity efforts of publishers. Authors are blogging and engaging in dialogs with readers on twitter and facebook along with a plethora of reading sites like Goodreads, shelfari and others. There has been a proliferation of book bloggers who have filled the gap left by the closing of the reviews. There are many lively discussions about books online. As a result vibrant communities of book and literature lovers have sprung up, as well as start-ups that are delivering content in many different ways. Some examples are Red Lemonade started by publishing renegade Richard Nash, in which he is seeking to entirely revolutionize publishing’s business model. Then there is The Awl, a quirky online magazine, which has befuddled everyone by drawing so many readers that it has been able to attract enough advertisers to generate millions in revenue. In short, The business model for publishing seems to be changing completely but no one yet has any idea how it will end up. As someone who embraces change and has long believed the industry was in dire need of it, I am excited about what the future holds and I intend to be a part of it.”

2 thoughts on “Glimmers of hope

  1. I saw a kid reading a book on a kindle the other day in my classroom. As pleased as I was to her reading, it was surprising that they’ve made their way into schools. I hope libraries don’t disappear along with the bookstores, but the upside is people are still reading.

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