Saturday, April 17, 2010

Barbarians at the Gate

According to Publishers Weekly: "A staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers, according to statistics released this morning by R.R. Bowker. The number of 'nontraditional' titles dwarfed that of traditional books, whose output slipped to 288,355 last year from 289,729 in 2008. Taken together, total book output rose 87% last year, to over 1 million books."

And that's just the books that registered for ISBNs. When you consider e-books, chapbooks, books distributed free through various online outlets, and anything not even in the "nontraditional" system, it's quite staggering. Amazon now has 5 million print titles available, though only 480,000 or so e-books. I fully expect 10 million books to be available, in various formats, by 2020.

What does this mean for readers and writers? Niche audiences. The 288,000 industry titles will probably continue to decline, because the business model favors selling hundreds of thousands of copies of a single book over the hustling of many smaller titles. In the corporate world, economies of scale always make for a good quarterly report, all things being equal. Anyone bitter about the publishing industry should realize it must operate the way it does, and even then it's a difficult business. What's remarkable is that good books still get out there and writers can still have careers.

But a fracturing of the market is inevitable. The major limiting factor in audience building is not the readers' money, but time. Most people are only going to buy a certain amount of books, and many of the early adopters of e-book readers hoarded a bunch of content, much of it low-priced, and have enough reading material to last years. They have to be really persuaded to go out and find more authors, especially when a million titles are staring them in the face. A number of them appreciate what they consider a filter, the winnowing process of the publishing industry that supposedly rejects terrible books and protects readers. The only flaw in that thinking is the publishing industry will most certainly publish a terrible book if it will make money--I think most of us have read a few of them, or at least the first 30 pages.

But who will winnow the other 9 million books? Right now, it's a buyer's market, and people whose manuscripts used to languish in the bottom drawer now have computer files that can be uploaded in a matter of minutes. Over time, readers will churn the cream to the top--it has already happened in a few instances, where self-published e-books have been picked up by traditional publishers. These "success stories" make good campfire tales for those millions of unpublished writers out there. Except now they aren't unpublished.

Writers as brands is a staple of the modern industry, and it will become even more significant as the millions of new authors take the stage and compete on the electronic bookshelf. It's a beautiful, crazy time, and I understand how the traditional industry might feel invaded and pillaged--they had a good thing going, a nice little castle and a high turret from which to view and shape the landscape. Now, nobody knows which way the storms will blow, least of all me. Anyone who believes in her work should have the opportunity to find readers--it may only be a handful, it may be millions. It still comes down to one writer connecting to one reader. Not much has changed, yet everything has changed.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your last line rings oh so true :)