Is a Backlash Coming?

This may be more honest than a long-time agent should admit, but I have a lot more questions and not as many answers these days about where the book industry is going. As I talk with other agents, most of us are having banner years. More deals. More money. More ongoing royalties being paid out. After our three-year downturn, we’re all enjoying the upturn.

What gives?

Haven’t we all been told that e-readers, self-publishing and social networking were going to spell the end to traditional publishing? That quality literary partners (good agents) would soon be a thing of the past? That anyone could make a mint by self-pub’ing their 20,000 word “books” or their 5,000 word articles, or 200,000 word personal family sagas. All they really needed was a thousand or more Facebook friends and 5,000 to 50,000 Twitter followers. If they had a daily blog with 4,000 subscribers, then self-publishing that book they wanted out NOW instead of a year from now would be like printing money.

I love to read all of the prognostications about the end of publishing as we know it . . . almost as much as hearing about what day the world will end (which means, not very much). We have end-time prophets and we have “end of publishing” prophets.  Both, if they play their words and products right, are making a lot of money and scaring a lot of people.

Yes, the publishing industry is going through some major transitions. But where will this ultimately lead us—not 2 years from now, but 10 or 20 years from now? Is anyone’s crystal ball really so good that they KNOW physical books will go the way or the 8-track tape or be a luxury few can afford?

Are we dealing with fads that may come and go or true culture change that alters not only what platform we read our books on, but how and when and why we buy them?

How many e-readers are being purchased by new buyers versus those repeat buyers who are already hooked on them and have now bought 2, 3 or 4? Will e-readers be affordable enough to catch on overseas?

Do people with e-readers actually buy more books because they’re cheaper?  If so, how is this bad for publishing as long as the royalty structure is fair and the author is rewarded?

Why is it that (depending on which report or blog you read) overall only mass market books and a few genres of hard cover are going down in sales and not print books as a whole? In many categories, e-book sales going up doesn’t always translate across the board to print book sales going down.  People are still buying print books and printers are finding cheaper ways of printing them—faster.

Will the medical profession be treating more carpel tunnel and more eye strain because of e-readers? Will our necks and brains and fingers and forearms be able to handle the constant movements needed to be plugged into phones and e-readers and notebooks 8 to 12 hours a day? If not, then what?

Do people really want to read whole books on their phone? Music, yes. Books….?

Are readers of books so dumb that they won’t be able to tell how qualitatively different books published by traditional publishers are than self-published books that have slap-dash covers, design and editing?

Was the movie the end of books? Was TV the end of movies in theaters? Was I-Tunes the end of people wanting new music? Are e-readers the end of people wanting to read and buy whole (and physical) books?

How many social networking platforms can one person with a family and a job actually keep up on? And will there be a social networking backlash in the coming years?

How many books are bought through someone reviewing or mentioning a book from a Facebook or Pinterest account, versus actual word of mouth, face to face?

Will people start rebelling against social media and want to engage in actual relationships again? If so, how will people find out about good books again?

Will Amazon’s takeover of the world survive their politics? Or will people of all walks and faiths make sure one distributor doesn’t corner the market?

In the meantime, as I’m finding some of these answers, I’m still excited about finding new voices with great stories and great messages. I still love seeing great authors with strong sales continue to grow in their reach. I’m still privileged to work with professional editors who add value to a book’s content and improve the author’s overall work. I’m still convinced that “distribution is your destiny,” and that publishers add huge value to the overall sales of books because of their distribution networks.

And as you can read, I have lots of unanswered questions. What about you? What are the questions you’re wondering about as it relates to the long-term future of publishing and/or your career?

10 Replies to “Is a Backlash Coming?”

  1. I guess if we just focus on writing the most gripping content that we can, maybe we don’t have to worry about all that too much. We can’t control it, anyways. But we can turn to you and others like you to point us in the right direction in the future. Thanks for that!

    1. At the end of the day, there is much we cannot control or predict. So I believe you are right: stay on top of those things we can control, stay true to that writing gift, and let what happens happen.

  2. Greg, pertinent comments and questions. You’ve doubtless got a broader perspective than I so your insights bring coherence and–dare I say it?–hope. Not dogmatic but you’ve certainly swept aside some of the fears that dog us as we try to get a handle on where to start and how to proceed.

    1. No one can know everything in this constantly changing publishing culture (and make no mistake, change is constant), and the pursuit of knowing every small detail is a full time job that doesn’t sell books. Better to know the people buying the books and see if they’re still talking with their check book (they are). That’s what is real today; that’s what we can respond to that actually helps authors.

  3. Greg, I’ve been wondering about the effectiveness of free e-books and how they translate into real sales. Yes, it is nice to know my novels are in the hands of thousands of readers that downloaded them for free at my publisher’s offering, but will readers become so accustomed to free e-books that they wait for a sequel, the next book in a series, etc. when they are offered for free? Is it fair to the author that thousands of copies are given away, and the author receives no royalty and cannot use the numbers in a proposal? On the flip-side, the word is out that free downloads will build our fanbase. I’ve wondered if the next step will be offering free hardcopies. This has also made me wonder about NetGalley. Seems like anyone can go to NetGalley and say they are a blogger that will review a book, and they get a free copy. Should publishers be more careful, more selective in who they give review copies to?
    Perhaps it is too soon to tell.

    1. My experience so far says that a controlled and judicious free ebook strategy is a good thing to build readers and fans of a particular novelist and story. It’s found readers, if not found money. And for novelists, it’s all about finding readers who are evangelists for an author. Plus, it’s a way to kick start sales again after they’ve tapered off. I think there is a limit, though, as to how many free books people will actually read. As publishers check their numbers as time goes on, it wouldn’t surprise me if they decide that at some point it’s not worth it. Some New York houses, as an aside, do NOT, as a matter of company policy, give away free ebooks. They seem to stay in business. I don’t think publishers will EVER give away hard copies of books.

      Regarding NetGalley, I think some publishers vet their bloggers and others don’t. Not sure what the future holds here. Some small bloggers wind up as big bloggers, some always stay small (for good reason).

  4. I love your questions. They are an encouragement. The very asking illustrates the ridiculous nature of some of these fads and assumptions. I focus on writing great stories and honing my craft as I strive for publication in the fiction market. I am flexible. I have no preconceived notions about what publication will look like in this ever-changing market. You remind me of reality. Change happens. God is in control. All is well.

  5. I love how you construct an argument via intelligent questions. It’s like a feature I love in American Scholar, a journal I subscribe to, in which an expert in some field–one of the sciences, political science, philosophy, psychology, etc.–poses 5 or 7 or 10 questions relevant to her or his field. It gets me thinking more than any other kind of article. (Though I have to say there’s hardly any article in this journal that I don’t find interesting.)

  6. I too love the thought-provoking inspiration behind this post. One thing writers, and all those associated with publishing good books can count on, great stories never go out of style.

    In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God….

    Hoping I’m not too far out of context, but I can’t help thinking if words are this important to God, He won’t allow well crafted teaching and stories to die.

  7. Super post, especially as I’m in the midst of re-evaluating the way I use social media and spend my time. I think it goes back to the old adage about being pretty good at a lot of things, or being spectacular at a few . . . and praying for the wisdom to find and be devoted to the latter.

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