Will Self-Publishing Eat Itself?

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With Amazon now trialing proper “bricks and mortar” bookstores, what does the future hold for book-sales and publishing?

“Everyone has a book inside them,” or so the saying goes. The explosion of self-publishing has left shock-waves that are still reverberating throughout the publishing industry and will continue to do so for many years to come. Ask any aspiring author nowadays and very few will have had any luck going the “traditional” route of getting a publishing agent and a publishing contract. We’ve all been there – you do your research and send your manuscript off to a carefully selected agent, making sure to have a perfectly polished elevator pitch and cover letter. Your expectations are high – “wait until they see what I’ve written!” you gleefully mew to yourself as you press send. And then you wait. After a few weeks all you have got are a few stock refusal letters, explaining that your book “isn’t what we are looking for at the moment” and that “self-publishing has had a significant impact on the publishing industry and we re only looking to take on a handful of new clients.” Basically, you are screwed. Your dreams of entering the best sellers list start to fade away and you contemplate spending the rest of your life doing a job that you don’t care about as long as it keeps paying you. Welcome to publishing in the 21st Century.

The only way to keep that precious dream of immortality and creative freedom alive is to bite the bullet and enter the confusing, mind-befuddling, frustrating and utterly bewildering world of self-publishing. Now there are many experienced writers who have written about this phenomenon at length and so I am not going to add any more advice to this already saturated market. I merely want to question what the long-term implication of this has for the wannabe author.

First of all, it means that you are now a very small fish in a very big ocean. In order to build any form of customer base you are going to have to be utterly professional and work very, VERY hard. Even then, the harsh reality is that you will probably sell very few books. A modern self-published author has to think of themselves not only as a professional business, but also as a factory. Having just one product won’t cut the mustard. You need lots of products and you need to get them out there! The key to success in the new age of indiepub is VOLUME.

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Sadly, there are only so many hours in the day. This means that every minute of work time is precious. Not only do you have to find time to write, you also have to run your business, promote your books, create and design covers, format manuscripts, get them edited and set up on KDP, Smashwords or Createspace etc, etc, etc. Yet despite this gargantuan effort, ebook prices seem set to remain in the bargain basement (let’s face it, Amazon won’t do anything to try to increase it whilst they dominate the market). The only sensible solution to this law of diminishing returns is to write lots of very short books. The day of the epic 150,000 word masterpiece is over. So my second prediction is that we are about to see the second coming of the penny novel. Back in the thirties Agatha Christie made a killing catering to the independent traveller in need of a light read, and even throughout the nineteen-eighties many popular novels were still barely 230 pages long. Epic 500 page+ thrillers came to dominate the market early this century but the dash towards ebooks has also had a significant change in reader’s attention spans. Many people no longer sink themselves into a text and skim-read it like a news story on a website. Shorter books is the way to go, but to do that authors will have to tighten up their writing and get to the truth of their writing a LOT faster.

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The other reality is that the world is saturated by second-hand books.You can’t go anywhere nowadays without finding a fantastic read for a few £pounds, or even less if it is “pre-owned.” So why bother buying new? There are many used bookshops within an easy drive of my home that are positively dripping with more wonderful books than I will ever read – in fact I have purchased so many amazing second-hand books this year that I suspect that I will never read all of them if I never buy another book for the rest of my life. We don’t NEED to buy your amazing new book, so the author’s job is to make us WANT it more than any other book. The author’s job just got a lot, LOT harder.

With this massive demand for increased workload and output as well as the need to market, promote and network in a global marketplace for little chance of reward there can be only one inevitable outcome. I’m going to be one of the first to put it out there but it is possible that the bubble has already burst.. Self-publishing will eat itself (like Pop music) and only the very strongest predators stand a chance in the parched savannah of indiepub.

The impact of this tsunami will be felt across all parts of the marketplace, not just the writers. Amazon’s Kindle and Kobo are the two strongest e-reader systems (not forgetting ereader apps on tablets and telephones) so I expect many of the smaller suppliers of hardware (and software) to fall by the wayside in the next few years, much like the mobile telephone industry has seen Blackberry and Nokia disappear. Will Apple and Google see the returns on investment from ebooks that their business models demand? Whatever happens, there will be less routes into self-publishing and the market will contract further, losing suppliers, designers, printers (and possibly even some reviewers) along the way. This also means that the winners will get stronger, increasing their leverage and strengthening their position.

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Recent figures have also shown that the printed book is far from deceased, and even I have experienced reasonably young friends refusing to buy the ebook of my new thriller this week as they want to buy the paperback instead. This is totally understandable as even with new technology the sensory delight of reading a “real” book has not been replicated by any e-reader. Printed books will continue to be popular, but quality will reign as they are seen as expensive luxury goods rather than disposable stories. Amazon is perhaps wise to expand into the bricks and mortar of real bookstores, as like with any luxury good, customers will increasingly want to touch and feel a book before they part with their money. If you have seen the superb Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romcom “You’ve Got Mail”.you will know how the huge leviathans will gobble up the small independent stores due to their greater buying power (and ability to discount) and in England there are very few independent bookstores now other than in tourist spots and rural communities. The only way the independent bookstore will be able to survive against the continued onslaught of Amazon and friends is to diversify – a bookstore con no longer just be a book store.

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The successful indie stores are also coffee shops, restaurants, second hand stores, movie and collectible stores, and if the indiepub author is to be able to take up any of their valuable shelf space they will have to offer a quality product able to compete with a traditionally printed book. Amateurism (and DIY covers) will not be tolerated.

So, in summary, there is still a long road ahead for indie publishing and the book industry as a whole. Only the strongest will survive, and for many wannabe authors they may have to content themselves with writing for pleasure rather than profit and not give up the day job.

AH

 

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