The Future of Book Publishing – some predictions

Over the years, there have been countless bold (and sometimes barmy) predictions about the future of the publishing industry – and of course the industry is still evolving at a rate unprecedented since Guttenberg first looked at a wine press and thought, ‘Hey, now hang on a minute …’

The rate of change means that the future remains highly uncertain, but then, as the cyberpunk writer William Gibson commented, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ Gibson’s point is well made. The trends that will determine the future are here today. Making predictions about that future really come down to a judgement about how those trends are going to play out.

What follows is a set of predictions and to each one I’ve assigned a probability rating of how likely it is to happen. I should also be clear that I’m not talking about publishing as a whole, or even book publishing – just that corner of it  (‘trade publishing’) which deals with fiction and non-fiction for the general reader. Oh, and the illustrations that dot this piece? They’re visions of the future from the past, just to remind us all that I’ve probably got absolutely everything wrong.
Magnetic brain

Print publishing will collapse
Probability: <10%
Print publishing is plainly not collapsing. The ebook share of trade publishing is hovering at about 21% overall, and about 38% for adult fiction. (Figures true for the US; British ones are not that different.) There are serious suggestions by people on the e-book side of things that the ebook market is going to shrink in 2014, rather than expanding. For what it’s worth, I’d guess that the ebook market share will actually grow a little over time, but not so fast that it won’t have down years as well as up years. Either way, print publishing is here to stay.

The big book chains will go bankrupt
Probability: >30%
I desperately hope the chains don’t go out of business. They do a wonderful job. They are culturally vital. They are essential for ‘discoverability’. And of course, there are genres which are highly dependent on print sales through bookshops. I would also say that, in the UK, Waterstones’ new management is doing a terrific job in challenging circumstances and if anyone can turn the chain around, then they’re the people to do it.

All that said, until the big book chains (here and in the US) prove themselves able to make a consistent non-marginal profit, the doubt has to remain. At the moment, Waterstones is in loss as is Barnes & Noble in the US. That’s scary.

AstoundingPublishers will consolidate
Probability: 100%
OK, I’ve slightly cheated there because the consolidation is already happening. Penguin/Random House is the landmark deal for sure, but Hachette has just announced the acquisition of Perseus in the US. These things will progress. The big operators are going to get bigger. That will also mean that Amazon will have a tough job pushing publishers around, because both sides simply need each other too much. Random Penguins wouldn’t, most likely, be profitable without Amazon – but Amazon can’t be the everything store if it doesn’t stock a third of the books market.

Price pressures will ease, but prices will still come down
Probability: 70%
Again: the future is with us now. When ebooks first became a force in the industy, publishers tried to maintain paperback style pricing for a digital product. That was a vain attempt and indie publishers simply raced in to the gap left open. Result: publishers allowed ebook prices to float – but those indie publishers who actually wanted to make money as opposed to simply finding readers, realised that revenue maximisation was likelier to happen around the $3-5 range than the $0.99 one. What we see now is probably where prices will settle, give or take a bit of ongoing downward movement. A revenue collapse in publishing analogous to what happened in the musical download market simply has not taken place, and it’s in no one’s interest (except readers’) that it should.

Wonder StoriesPiracy will kill writing for profit
Probability: <10%
See above. Essentially this hasn’t happened and won’t happen, except that what happens in each different national market depends on things like the attitude to piracy, the effectiveness of official sanctions, the price level in that market, the ease of using legitimate services, and so on. So yes, there could be major problems in specific national markets, but there won’t be an apocalypse. Phew!

Big publishers will print more trash … and micro-publishers will take a larger share of literary prizes
Probability: 100%
Again, this is a part of the future that has essentially happened and won’t reverse. Random House made a huge amount of money by turning to pornography and everyone else followed suit to the best of their ability. Likewise, the indie revolution has shown that there are plenty of low-brow genre works that readers are happy to gobble up. Big Publishing has always been about turning a buck, so it’s only logical that publishers are happy to go where readers lead them.

The flip side of that coin is that Big Publishing has long struggled to make a go of ‘smaller’ literary novels. The number of those things being published by the big guys has fallen sharply over the years and that’s not about to reverse. But of course, terrific literary fiction is still being written and there are still people passionate enough (and financially crazy enough) to ensue that the stuff gets published. Our own Elly Millar & Sam Jordison (two of our fine editors) founded Galley Beggar Press out of passion – and they’ve just had their first absolutely smash hit success. Such stories are far more common than they were, and will only go on increasing.

Yes more plausible views of the book publishing industry's futureEbooks will dominate various niches … and be almost irrelevant in others
Probability: 75%
In the US, crime fiction is already an ebook genre. Some 75% of sales are electronic, and the ratio for romance (if we include indie authors, as we ought to) is probably even greater. SFF, paranormal romance, fan fiction, anything dystopian … all these are areas where ebooks do and will continue to predominate. With literary fiction, the reverse is true. It’s hard to think of a single literary novel which arose out of the e-book industry and there will be very few where print sales don’t predominate. Those things show no signs of altering.

The old channels of acclaim still matter
Probability: >80%
Following on from the above point, literary novelists are still highly dependent on the old channels of acclaim. All the old methods for establishing reputations still apply: prominence in bookshops, good reviews, puffs from Important People, festivals and mainstream media appearances.

For non-literary types, those things may be less essential – it’s easy to think of a genre sensation arising without any of those things. James Oswald, would be just one example. EL James and High Howey would be others. There are a lot of them. That said, however, a good majority of genre authors – especially mid- and upmarket genre authors – are well served by those old channels and breakout exceptions in these areas will continue to be the exception not the rule.

Father of the Amazons, huh … so theres more than one?

There will be swaths of non-fiction where indie authors will (or should) predominate
Probability: 50%
Want a good book on bee-keeping? Or help you improve your archery, or groom your poodle? If so, your local bookshop will almost certainly disappoint you. Very few bookshops stock a range of titles large enough to house these kind of niche non-fiction needs, which means that you will almost certainly head to Amazon or some other online seller.

But that raises the question what publishers are for in these areas. For sure, they can edit, copy-edit, design and print a book – but those things are all fairly easily purchased elsewhere. In return, publishers currently ask for 75% of all ebook receipts and a somewhat similar share of receipts from bookshops (net of printing & logistics costs).

For most authors, that’s a pretty lousy deal. Indeed, I’ve written two such non-fiction titles in my time (How to Write and Getting Published). One of those books sees about 2/3 of its total sales taking place online. The other sees more than 4/5 of its sales down that route. Now I’m no idiot: I could perfectly well have self-published both titles. I’d have lost some – not many – bookshop sales, but I’d have made a stackload by retaining the full share of receipts from Amazon. Most niche non-fiction authors will be in a similar position.

At present, it’s fair to say that most non-fiction authors haven’t noticed these new economics (and I sold those two titles a few years back when the market was different), but that’ll change. The one slam-bam advantage that regular publishers do have and will retain is the kudos of having a ‘properly’ published book. Which is weird, when you think about it: regular publishing could become the new vanity publishing, for certain categories of title at any rate.

Can authors escape to their writing pods in time?More ‘traditional’ authors will go hybrid: that is, traditional in some markets, self-pub in other markets or for other projects. The same the other way round: successful indie authors will also team with traditional publishers.
Probability: 80%
It’s already happening and will happen ever more and with bigger names. And the logic is inescapable. It’s incredibly easy and cheap to e-publish – and though Big Publishing will continue to have clout and authority, those advantages are not insuperable. Plenty of ‘trad’ authors will think that giving conventional publishers 75% of e-royalties for, erp, just what exactly? is a game not worth playing. So we’ll see trad authors (like Barry Eisler) go indie … but we’ll also see indie authors use traditional routes wherever it makes sense. Hugh Howey, for example, is held up (with good reason) as the voice of Indie Publishing, but he also partners up with traditional publishers wherever it makes sense. And quite right too. It’s not ideology; it’s business. This trend will sharpen abruptly over the next few years and will start to include some big conventional names. And that’s good if you’re an author, potentially scary if you’re a publisher.

Indie authors will go on professionalising
Probability: 75%
Time was when you could tell an indy book cover at a hundred yards – and not in a good way. Ditto, when it came to presentation, copy-editing and story-telling. But even at $0.99 readers want a decent read and authors have responded. Editorial excellence still matters. So does strong presentation. Indie authors have learned those lessons and there will be an ever smaller gap between the well-published indie novel and the traditionally published sort. Obviously, I’m biased, but I do think that editorial services like our own will continue to matter. (And if your novel needs editorial help, then don’t just sit there – go get it.)

Slave raiders from Mercury - what's not to like?Publishers will find it increasingly hard to market books – but discoverability will not be an issue for readers
Probability: >80%
Publishers find it much, much harder to market books than they used to. Let’s tick off the ways that have either failed or become much less effective:

  • Direct consumer advertising – this is now minimal, except for blockbusters
  • Buying store position – this still happens, but it’s less significant than it was
  • Review coverage in major newspapers – the available space has shrunk massively
  • Other publicity (interviews and the like) – much less space and airtime given to authors
  • Getting sales teams to pitch hard to bookshops – yes, but bookshops account for a smaller share of the market
  • Building websites to promote a particular book – now never happens; the strategy never worked
  • Building gizmos that would go viral – right, sure, that technique always worked.
  • Tooting the horn on social media – yes, but the sales impact of such tooting is usually minimal
  • Getting the author out and about, for booksignings and the like – never happened much, never sold many books. Nothing much has changed except that people have realised the effort is largely ineffectual.
  • Direct e-mailings to afficionados of particular genres – yes, but publishers don’t tend to know their audience that well. The Writers’ Workshop’s excellent mailing list is at least twice as big as those of some publishers I could mention
  • Using clever SEO and metadata techniques to improve online visibility – that’s hardly a marketing technique, to be honest. Metadata is just catalogue info if it comes down to it. And though these things do matter, the net gain (from an industry wide standpoint) is zero sum.

It’s somewhat depressing to review that list, but I doubt if many publishers would disagree – and you’ll often hear publishers bemoaning a ‘discoverabilty problem’, that is the difficulty of getting good new books to the attention of readers.

If that complaint means, “it’s harder for us to market books now than it used to be”, theb it’s true. If it means that an increasing share of sales now lies with a handful of super-successful books and authors at the top end, then it’s also true. If it means that readers themselves experience difficulty in choosing their next book – well, no. Readers today have far more recommendation devices than they used to. It’s not just friends, bookshops and newspapers, it’s a gazillion blogs, it’s Goodreads, it’s book clubs (more common now than in the past), it’s social media, and so on. Me, I don’t like a world where everyone only reads bestsellers but maybe that’s just how readers are if you let them read what they want.

And last because this is getting to be an overlong post:

I sense an explosion is imminent

I sense an explosion is imminent

The big picture: the number of books sold will remain broadly flat; the average cost of a book will drop a little; Amazon will get more of the pie; publishers will get less; authors’ share may actually improve.
Probability: phew, tough one, let’s go big and say 75%

Number of books remaining broadly flat: that’s an easy call. The number of books always remains about the same. Has done for years. Even with all this internettery & mobile stuff, people still read books.

Average cost of a book: the average cost of a book has drifted down a little over the years. It’s very hard to see real price increases and even nominal price increases are unlikely given that intelligently applied price discounts are one of the most reliable ways to impact book sales. On top of that, indie authors will always be willing to undercut Big Publishing. So, yes, the price of a book will drift down (in real terms).

Amazon getting more of the pie: Amazon gets a rough old treatment in the press. Publishers hate it. Authors complain about it or give loads of money to rivals. Agents rebuke it. The Society of Authors sounds off about it.

This is all slightly odd for a number of different reasons. From a love-of-literature point of view, Amazon has brought all the books of the world to every internet-connected household and does so at wonderfully low prices. That’s a stunning achievement in the spread of human knowledge, a real milestone. What’s more, yes Amazon is a big company in terms of market capitalisation and revenues, but – get this – it doesn’t make much money. Random House on its own makes more money than Amazon. Bertelsmann (RH’s owner) makes way more money. When big publishers get into fights over terms with Amazon, they tend to talk like a small dairy farmer being squeezed by Tescos. And that’s plain weird. They’re making loads of money because of Amazon! Amazon isn’t (yet) making much money for all of its market heft.

So my prediction really just amounts to this: terms will be rebalanced in Amazon’s favour because some such reckoning is overdue. In addition, since, in the past, publishers earned their share of the cake by effectively marketing the books that authors entrusted them with, it makes share for them to get a little less cake now that much of the marketing power has shifted into other hands. The process will be painful for publishers but – given what’s happened in the music industry – not all that painful. It could have been a lot, lot worse.

The author's share

The author’s share

Authors’ share of the pie: OK, for you and me, this is the only prediction that matters – but for the very first time since I’ve been an author (first book deal: 1998), I can honestly say that things are looking up. Historically, authors have been largely powerless. We had to get into bookshops, or we had no readers. There were only a small (now even smaller) group of publishers who could get us there. Careers were short, incomes small, prospects always precarious. That wasn’t true for the biggest sellers of course, but such sellers are and will always be few and far between.

And these days? Well, a lot of that still applies – but (A) we are not now solely dependent on bookshops and (B) self-publishing is cheap and easy. That’s not a perfect negotiating foil by any means (it’s better if you’re a genre writer, almost useless if you’re literary), but hell – an imperfect negotiating position is better than none at all. These are interesting times and for the first time in my more than 15 years in the business I think authors’ incomes might creep up. And at the very least, I can’t see our share of the pie shrinking any further.
But what do you think?
So much for me – but what about you? What do you think is going to happen? What do you think ought to happen? And do you approve?

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  • Stephen Mark

    I don’t have enough experience yet to have hard-and-fast views on the questions you leave us with, Harry. However, you greatly contribute to my knowledge and for this relief, much thanks. I must say, I am inspired by your belief that a social media presence is not as important as some on the Cloud seem to think it is. I have had an internetty blog for months – not that I much cultivate it – with any number of routes to get there and yet, the number of views is in the low hundreds; the number of comments could be counted on the finger of one finger. My preference is to avoid social media as much as possible. Though if I had a book out, would that change? Maybe… Anyway, a thought-provoking and truly interesting blog with bags to inspire and mull. It wouldn’t surprise me if all your predictions turn out to be right – I hope so. Whilst I am perfectly happy with my Kindle, there is nothing to compare with hardcopy in one’s hand, is there?