The State of the Industry

2 February 2016

From Hugh Howey:

Over the last ten to fifteen years, the publishing industry has undergone a massive shift from print to digital and from the east coast to the west coast. Understanding this shift is critical for anyone working in the field or who wishes to. Taking stock can be difficult. All manner of publishing has been greatly disrupted, but it’s often hard to see because what has changed is what’s now missing from our lives. And these missing things have not disappeared all at once. Rather, it’s been a gradual vanishing.

Your glovebox is no longer crowded with maps. The lowest bookshelf in the living room no longer sags under a full set of encyclopedia. There is no phone book in the top kitchen drawer. Manuals no longer come with every device. How-to books have gone away. Cookbooks as well. Driveways are no longer dotted with newspapers. And the daily commute sees far more people staring at screens rather than anything printed on paper.

There are exceptions in every household, of course. But for most consumers, the GPS-enabled smartphone has obviated the need for maps. Wikipedia and Google replaced the encyclopedia. We connect via social media, not phonebooks. Manuals are now online PDFs. The newspaper is our Facebook and Twitter feeds. To learn how to do practically anything, we turn to YouTube. Recipes are searched for online. And well over half of fiction reading has gone digital.

Publishing is all of these things. Publishing was even the little booklets that lined our CD and DVD cases, which have largely gone away. We don’t think of all of these printed artifacts as publishing, but they were. They not only required printing, they required copywriters, editors, and layout designers. Those who used to do these jobs now work in digital spaces. And this has been the great shift in publishing, from physical to digital. And the center of publishing — New York and the east coast — is now the west coast. The Big 5 of publishing is now better thought of as: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.

. . . .

Digital is easier to spread, which increases information equality. It’s also better for the environment, not just in paper consumption but in the polluting delivery costs. Ideas are easier to generate, which has increased the diversity of voices. News has become crowdsourced, which reduces the corrupting power of those who formerly had monopoly control of information. With a camera and a broadcast booth in every pocket, the fears of Big Brother have turned into the mediating effect of billions of Little Brothers. We report on abuses of power, taking to Twitterverse to pressure corporations, and sharing videos to police the police. And we are far more accurate and informative taken as a whole than we are on relying on lone experts.

It’s difficult to find anything to complain about with this transition, unless you are a middleman who no longer provides a service commensurable with your cost.

. . . .

Let’s start with a list of those who are being disintermediated in the modern publishing landscape: Major book publishers, their historic retail partners, their former marketing muscle, the printers, and previously bestselling authors. We should feel empathy with those who are disrupted, as pivoting can be painful. But when the overall benefit to the general public is weighed, we understand that these disruptions are to be applauded. Again, we’re talking about greater access to information, a wider variety of voices, a boon to the environment, and a more equitable share of profits to creatives. This doesn’t make the pain of the formerly entrenched any less, but it should prevent us from making policy and purchasing decisions based on their appeals.

. . . .

In 2015, the only thing that saved print from serious decline was the adult coloring book fad. That craft books are counted alongside novels is revealing, both for the widget and profit-minded nature of the legacy publishing industry, and also the greater concern for sales over the culture of actual reading. 2016 will need another 50 SHADES OF GREY or coloring book phenomenon to stem the bleeding. This is a precarious situation in which publishers find themselves, especially with fewer medium sized presses to acquire. It would surprise me to see all of the Big 5 publishers standing two years from now. It would not surprise me to see a Big 3 five years hence.

. . . .

Controlling this message (or attempting to) has been another outlet made irrelevant by the west coast shift. Newspapers used to matter for book sales. Bestseller lists were checked weekly, as were the arts sections and the special Sunday book review inserts. No longer. Now, the only bestseller lists that move titles are the online sales lists, primarily Amazon’s. I saw this clearly as a bookseller. Even the front page of the New York Times Book Review couldn’t budge sales. But a mention on a late night LA talkshow, or a Tweet from a celebrity, or a recommendation from Zuckerberg, would shoot a title straight to the top. And nothing is more powerful than one of Amazon’s daily promotions. The marketing muscle, the inside access, the exclusive reviews, the feeling of mattering in this grand cultural tradition — all of this has been taken away from legacy reporters. And keep in mind that these same reporters were often aspiring novelists and non-fiction authors. They have done a miserable job of covering the disruption to publishers, because they are too emotionally invested to cover these trends like they cover the rise and disruptive forces of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Google, Facebook, et al.

The authors who benefitted most from the censuring of ideas have also been hurt. When 99.99% of books were not allowed to come to market, and the diversity of voices was culled to obviate risk to publishers, these .01%ers made hay. Mostly white males, there are many of them complaining today because their power, prestige, and incomes have all declined. The new power authors are predominately female, and to cope with the reality of this transition, the media and legacy authors have had to resort to lumping them into a single genre (erotica) in order to stigmatize them. Despite the fact that these authors write romance, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction and other genres.

. . . .

Lately, these authors have had to team up with their advocacy groups in a PR battle against digital and self publishing. Writing letters to the DOJ, the argument here is that free speech was better served when only .01% of authors could publish their works. The share of income earned by these authors has plummeted, replaced with income heading to self-published authors. Last year, Amazon paid out over $140,000,000 to authors in its Kindle Unlimited program. That doesn’t count the dollars paid for book sales. This would be like publishers announcing a 7-figure advance every two and a half days for an entire year. The overall expenditure by consumers has only gone up a little, while the payout to independent authors has soared. That money came from somewhere. Those authors being hurt are now railing against a system that, once again, is good for consumers, for diversity, for the environment, and for creatives.

Link to the rest at Hugh Howey and thanks to Karen and others for the tip.

Big Publishing, Hugh Howey, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

35 Comments to “The State of the Industry”

  1. Great points and observations Howey.

    I just moved last week. When packing I came across my once coveted hardcover dictionaries and thesaurus. I realized I had not opened the cover of either of them in over 5 years because all that info is at my fingertips now. With some trepidation, I donated them to a used book store.

    • You’re a brave man, Werner. Those are two things I haven’t been able to let go of yet, though I know it would be logical to do so.

    • I know mine aren’t going anywhere. Though I use an online thesaurus sometimes, I haven’t found anything online that duplicates the detailed way my print Rogets shows the relationships between words and word families.
      And I suspect I’m not the only person who posts here who enjoys reading dictionaries, drifting through the pages at random for the thrill of discovering a new gem of a word.

  2. In 2015, the only thing that saved print from serious decline was the adult coloring book fad. That craft books are counted alongside novels is revealing, both for the widget and profit-minded nature of the legacy publishing industry, and also the greater concern for sales over the culture of actual reading.

    Hey, look on the bright side. Print publishing has a strategy to compete with apps. Coloring books may not do much for the culture of reading, but I think it is a step up in time-wasting from “Clash of Clans” and its ilk.

    • Shhhh…!
      Don’t tell the Manhattan Mafia, but:

      Check those reviews!

      As somebody once said, “there’s an app for that”.

      (I couple weeks back, I mentioned my sister de-stressed with a coloring book. No more. My fault: I got her a Fire 7 for the holidays. : D )

    • My wife and I got into the coloring book craze in 2015. We cut the cord and kept Netflix, HBO Now, Amazon Prime (now with Showtime and Starz as add-on subs!). Bought a few jigsaw puzzles and some fun adult coloring books (Fat Ladies in Space is a good one – the woman who makes that has a number of humorous coloring books).

      Bought some cheapo Crayola coloring pencils and some higher quality ones, crayons, and coloring markers. If hockey isn’t on or we’re not blowing each other up in a video game, we sit at the table, turn on Pandora, and puzzle/color and talk about our day, life, whatever it is married couples who have learned to not murder each other do after 13 years of marriage.

      Anyway, totally off topic, but we’re down with adult coloring books. Cutting the satellite/cable cord was the best thing we’ve done in a decade. Not that we didn’t talk to each other for extended periods on a daily basis before, but this just feels… better. Or more romantic, she says from behind while watching me type this. Excuse me while I gag a bit ;).

  3. A wise man. The Dust is settling, and the Wool will not be pulled over our eyes.

  4. Even picking nits, I find the points solidly made.

    At this point, the Big 5 aren’t book publishers, they’re IP acquisition engines. Print publishing is now a loss leader to them. What they want are the staggering film and TV profits.

    • Agree entirely Doug. Rights grabs are what they want. Pity they are so lazy about exploitation of their back list. There’s a lot of fantastic fantasy series that I long to see on screen now that we have the technology to achieve the visual effects.

      • Instead of new and original material, though, Hollywood keeps remaking Spider Man and the Fantastic Four.

        • And poorly.
          Next up at Fox: DEADPOOL.

          Things will get better: august will bring SUICIDE SQUAD. Not a remake and few have seen it in comics or on TV).

    • Absolutely. Print is increasingly a lost leader. Partially for IP, but it also has value to the big congloms for nepotism and influence peddling (i.e., books deals to politicians, literary darlings and celebrities). Not to mention coloring books to promote their films.

      The irony is that in terms of IP, while big publishing will have success by scooping up as much as possible, the size of their catalogues make it unlikely they will have much success per title, simply because they have too much to manage and promote effectively. Also, at the big studios, the stuff they can’t control and have to chase after often seems more interesting than the stuff they already own.

      I predict successful self-publishers will have an advantage per title getting their stories made into film and television simply because they have more personally invested in promoting their material and networking to enhance their careers. An awful lot of stuff the big guys own will simply get lost and forgotten.

      Hugh, in particular, is building a huge library of great franchise material and once a couple of his books finally get produced, there will be a flood of adaptions.

  5. This is an interesting topic to consider: what we had before on paper that we don’t have now. I still use blank journals but for the longest time handwriting and therefore pen and pencil consumption (except coloured pencils lol) have been reduced along with sales of writing pads, envelopes, stamps, greetings cards, text books, school work books, blank notebooks and year diaries, receipt books, checking books hardly exist (in my country) accounting & banking software has made a huge publishing & printing sector redundant.
    There’s also no need for filing cabinets, office desks, computer desks and safe deposit boxes, to name a few things.
    Photograph albums are supplanted by beautiful printed albums for the cost of developing a roll of film!
    I plan to print copies of all my books though … So I can admire that growing section on my bookshelves of books that I wrote and published or published for others. It’s easier to show my guests.

    • Heh, as rambled and random as my silly mind is there’s no way I could ‘write’ before the computer age (never mind my handwriting and spelling!)

    • Actually, business documents still often need to be printed… my filing cabinet won’t go out of business soon.

      I love my journals, though, and I use one every day. Keeps my handwriting readable. On the other hand, I couldn’t write stories on paper. Need a keyboard for that.

      Love print photobooks!

      • I’m with you, though I usually used the journals to brainstorm stories and outline them a little. But for writing stories? I feel as if the keyboard is jacked directly into my brain; the thoughts flow so much faster and I’m not hampered by my habit of editing on the fly.

        The only reason I have filing boxes now is for those scenarios where I’m given documents I might need at tax time, or that I might want someone else to locate easily: my property taxes are still mailed on paper; my insurance company still sends me my life insurance policy on paper, etc.

  6. Hugh: As usual, you have told us what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It’s fabulous and I love it. Never stop reminding us how good it is now.

  7. Looks like a sound roundup. Hey, we could make a party game out of predicting the next new thing! Who would have guessed adult coloring books? I remember seeing such pages on Pinterest, and not even giving serious consideration to making my own books to sell. Somebody smarter and more business savvy than I saw it, though.

    Having control over my own intellectual property is probably the biggest benefit from being indie. With a good attorney, I can negotiate and get a fair price for my work, whether it’s film, TV or foreign translation rights.

    Life is good.

  8. Nobody misses what they no longer need.

  9. A bit of a side comment about demographics, and noting that I have done no research whatsoever (not even a googe search):

    Are the majority of indie authors female, or is it a perception bias that going from >90% male authors (or whatever the figure was/is in trad pub) to 50:50 in proportion with the population just LOOKS like a majority?

    • Most of the money is flowing from romance readers to romance writers. Not all romance writers are female (despite what the cover says) but I doubt it’s 50:50.

      Romance is so big that the majority of well-earning indie authors are female. I think this is the group Hugh is talking about in this article.

    • I don’t think the proportion of male authors was that high, but they were the ones getting more attention (reviews, high advances, etc.).

      Just my own perception, but it seems that the majority of successful (mid-list and above) indie authors are female, fueled in large part by romance.

  10. And yet, there are still plenty of people like my parents and grandparents, who have no Internet connection and still need all these things. (In my parents’ case it is by choice and frugality, but in rural areas there is often no connection to speak of.)

    • Yep, there’ll always be a place for print, it’s just that the dining table is a whole lot bigger. 🙂

    • in rural areas there is often no connection to speak of.

      That’s hard to believe. We don’t even have power lines where I live, but we still have a good internet connection via satellite.

      I read magazines in print and use a paper dictionary, but that’s because I prefer them that way. The connection is good enough for everything except watching the Superbowl.

    • I just read a lovely article (in German) written by someone who gave his mother a tablet for Christmas. She had never used the internet before that.

      What completely won her over was being able to read again, because she could enlarge the font on the tablet. She also loves Skype and FB, for staying in contact with her grandchildren. She doesn’t quite get the concept of the internet, but she is *using* it anyway. And she’s an avid reader who was no longer buying books. Now she will.

      So honestly, I think the 60+ generation is actually a huge potential market. And buying a tablet is not a big investment, nor does it create a lot of follow-up cost.

      • Agree on this. It’s also a massive boon for People with athritis or those who suffered from strokes and have limited sensitivity/mobility in their arms/hands. I’ve received very grateful, even gushing emails from blind people or others with visual impairments. It’s a great leveller for reading groups who were “marginal” (read: low-profit) before.

  11. Two authors and two publishings methods compared. Traditional verses Self Published.

    Traditional… book earns out and the income from it.
    M L Brennan tells her tale.

    Self Published success?
    Elliot Kay tells his tale.

    Fascinating look at how each method brings home the bacon.

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