The Publishing World is Changing

Think of it. You write a novel. You find an agent. The agent gets you a contract with a publisher. An editor at the publisher works with you for weeks to hone your prose. The book is released with all due fanfare. The royalties roll in. Your public demands more.

Uh, that’s so 20th-century. Actually, maybe more 19th-century. Ah, the golden years. But memory weeds out unpleasant realities. Such an era never existed.

And it exists even less now, if that’s possible. Publishers are hurting and laying off staff. No one reads anymore, they say. The book is doomed. And yet a recent Time magazine article notes that overall readership is up 3.5%. (They didn’t say over what period.)

What’s happening is a complete restructuring of the entire market mechanism for moving words from authors to readers. And with it is a shift in the business of moving those words.

Publishing got to be big business. Consolidation has cut diversity and leaves us with only a few big houses. And big business means big money, and that means risk. A declining market makes managers (and editors) risk-averse. Like old TV networks, they stick with some variation of a previous success. Creativity and experimentation are four-letter words.

So what’s the future of publishing novels? Predicting the future is notoriously inaccurate because we act like those old TV networks and use the past to guide us into the future. No go. The mechanism for moving words from authors to readers is undergoing radical revision. Will it settle out into something new? Maybe.

Let’s look at some trends. Not all that long ago, self-publishing was viewed as the kiss of death. You had to have a towering ego to think that people would read something the literati had rejected. That is changing. Self-publishing has become remarkably inexpensive and the resulting book can be indistinguishable from the tomes the big boys put out. What seems to be changing is the money.

Are you of such an age to remember when there was just rock music? Everyone under 30 listened to the same stuff. Elvis. The Beatles. But then some genius in some ivory tower in Hollywood decided to segment the market. We had hard rock. Acid rock. Experimental rock. By segmenting the market, the thinking went, the overall market grew. But what was lost in the process was the sense of community that young people felt when they all listened to the same music.

The same thing happened with television. Three networks. The entire country watched either the networks or a local station. That meant you could go to school or work the next day and socialize based on a common experience. No more. With hundreds of channels available, there are few entertainment experiences we share, perhaps with the exception of American Idol.

That’s happening in the publishing industry now. The average bookstore now has acres of floor space to cover the thousands of books that each appeal to a niche market. In Hemmingway’s day, a bookstore was a cubbyhole and everyone read the same things (well, everyone of a literary bent). No more. No common experience. Segmentation reigns.

This is not sustainable for big businesses. Market fragmentation means many products, whereas big businesses require economy of scale. Sell a single product to as large a market as possible. And so the big businesses are proving to be unsustainable.

Where does that leave you? Your novel probably won’t hit the New York Times bestseller list. I can say this with about 99.99999% surety. But there are people out there who would be delighted to delve into your world. Maybe not a crowd, but some. Nothing they see on the bookstore shelves interests them.

So, decouple money from the process of moving words from authors to readers. If nothing else, think of novel writing as a hobby, since it certainly won’t pay the bills. You do it for the love of the art and the thought that somewhere out there, you’re delighting someone.

Your options, if you want to see your words printed on paper, are slim, pretty much limited to self-publishing. Your options expand if you consider the Amazon Kindle and similar devices. You can also invent an entirely new novel form where you serialize it on the web—and reader feedback influences the ultimate outcome. Actually, that’s not a new idea. Novels were regularly serialized back in the 1800s. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally serialized. In fact, serialization started before the novel was finished, so reader feedback had real effect.

The fact is the mechanism for moving words from author to reader is changing rapidly and evolving as authors experiment with new delivery mechanisms. I chose to self-publish the Flying Broomstick books because I believed in them and the feedback I received was positive. It still is. I find I can sell books easily, even if they don’t sell themselves. (Marketing is a whole ‘nother story.) And I have a pretty long list of people who receive a free chapter a week via e-mail.

I hacked my way through the thicket of business and technology problems that stood between me and a published book. As a side benefit, I can help others through that thicket, and Mt. Sneffels Press has moved from self-publishing to a micropress—Paul and Becky McCreary’s book is on our list, with more on the way. And my third Flying Broomstick book is in final review.

So, while you’re creating your world-shaking novel, think about world-shaking mechanisms to move your words to your readers. Maybe you’ll create the next publishing revolution!

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