Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The state of ebook publishing…again

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Cory Doctorow over at the Boing Boing analyzes a report by Hugh Howey on the state of ebook publishing. Fascinating facts. The upshot is both gentlemen doubt the conventional wisdom that ebooks account for about 25% of the market. Howey thinks it’s much closer to 50%.

That aside, another of Howey’s conclusions is that self-published authors are, on average, doing better than the traditionally published, at least in terms of earnings. There’s a lot to digest in the analysis, but one caveat that Doctorow throws into the picture is that there’s danger on the horizon in the form of Amazon’s dominance of the indie ebook market. It’s possible that this will only continue the trend of the last twenty years, consolidation:

In the 1980s, when the midlist collapsed and the number of mass-market distributors in America fell from 400+ to three, and the trade retail channels for mass-market books were dominated by Barnes and Noble and Borders, authors discovered that their careers could be suddenly and totally ended, merely because the mass-market distributor stopped carrying them, or one of the retailers stopped selling them. Writers who’d published a new novel every year for decades suddenly found themselves with no one willing to publish, distribute or sell their next book, or carry their backlists.

I experienced this myself when Parts Unknown came out. On the eve of a terrific review in the San Francisco Chronicle, I went to a nearby Barnes & Noble to see if the book was displayed on a front fiction table, or at least a “local authors” shelf. No. It wasn’t there. Nor was it in the general fiction area. Nor the literature stacks. It wasn’t in the store.

I spoke with the manager and told him about the next morning’s review (front page of the book review too!), filled him in on my local events, offered to do a signing there — anything to help move the book. He consulted his computer and said, “We’re not stocking that book. You can order a copy if you like. It’ll take about a week to get here.”

So, thanks to the fact that there were so few avenues for distribution, my novel was not going to be available in the biggest bookstores in my own county. I found the same situation at Borders. In fact, only independent bookstores bothered to stock Parts Unknown.

Howey’s notion that self-publishing is the answer to this problem is at first attractive and empowering, especially if you believe his data on sales and earnings (i.e., a huge portion of Amazon’s ebook sales are self-published novels), but it behooves us to keep in mind the difficulty of standing out in any gigantic pool. Then there’s the idea of “survivorship bias,” which I’ve written about before — or an inclination to believe the best-case scenario on the basis of outliers’ success.

Finally, leave it to our friendly neighborhood shaman, Wendig, to nail down the real issues in the Big 5 vs. Indie debate:

You’ve got a whole barnload of metrics by which you might measure the question and find an answer. Do you want your book out fast? Do you want money now as opposed to money later? Do you want the guarantee of an advance, or the risk of acting as your own publisher? Do you love Amazon, or hate Amazon? Do you want to retain your rights and your control? Do you want on bookstore shelves? Or are you comfortable existing predominantly on e-readers? Do you care at all about film rights? TV rights? Foreign? Reviews in major outlets?

All of these should come into play as we evaluate the marketplace. But another thing should be factored in too: We don’t all have a choice. Maybe the Big 5 are closed to us because we don’t write the stuff they’re buying. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our options in that world and the only way to get our work out is to put it out ourselves.

All I know is, I’m fixin’ to enter Yesterday Road in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition mañana, because it’s a route I’ve never tried and I’m open to just about anything these days.

PS — You can even download Howey’s data and analyze it yourself, if you’re so inclined. Or you can write fiction.


8 comments on “The state of ebook publishing…again

  1. John W. Howell
    February 14, 2014

    Good info. (as usual)

  2. ericjbaker
    February 14, 2014

    At this point, I feel like writing is for fun. I could come up with a million analogies for the impossibility of getting noticed amidst the millions of other self-published titles out there, but so can you. We’re writers.

  3. sknicholls
    February 14, 2014

    Great post. I read Wendig also. I have read in other places that the digital market now accounts for 60% of Amazon’s sales. Crossing the 50% mark just last month. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I hope your book does well in the Breakthrough Novel Award and wins. That sort of exposure would be terrific. One thing you mentioned is that some authors are not writing what the Big 5 are selling. Genre fiction is mass marketed, and has become so predictable d/t the formulaic template that I don’t even enjoy it anymore. That is one reason I am so attracted to Indies and my husband, who was reading two to three crime novels a week, has just stared experimenting with reading some indies I recommended to him. He has been pleasantly surprised.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 14, 2014

      It never ceases to amaze me how addicted people are to the formulaic. Yet that stuff seems to be what’s supporting those big numbers in the report (as far as earnings go).

      Good for your husband! I hope he finds something he likes.

  4. 1WriteWay
    February 15, 2014

    I think … rather, I hope that, should I ever published (traditional or otherwise) that I will refrain from looking at the numbers. It’s not that I won’t market and try my honest best to be read, but given the current state of affairs that is fewer major publishing houses, fewer major brick-and-mortar bookstores, and a growing ocean of indie books, I know my best might not be enough.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 15, 2014

      There’s the rub. And though I try not to obsess over numbers, it’s hard not to notice at times — especially when your book is closing in on that 1 million mark (i.e., it’s the millionth most popular Kindle book…). Seriously? There are 999,999 more popular books than poor ol’ Yesterday Road?

      True, though, that our best may not be enough in this environment. Boo hoo.

      • 1WriteWay
        February 15, 2014

        Ack! The 1 million mark should be 1 million in sales!

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2014 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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