Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The end of traditional publishing

When I was thirteen I bought a lot of CD's. I would spend time flicking through the alphabetically lined racks for Madonna, Guns and Roses, or the soundtrack for Days of Thunder (actually that was on LP - oh God, I am old enough). I would turn it over and look at the pictures. I would pull out the little booklet and pray that the lyrics had been printed inside so I could learn them and prove that I was a real fan by singing along when it came on the radio. I loved the whole process of CD buying. I still love music, but yet I haven't bought a CD in at least three years. Why? Because instead of going out to the shop, I download all the music that I want. I open up my computer and within five minutes and five clicks the album is there.  No wait, no petrol, no crazy shoppers, and no temptation into Zara to buy clothes that I have no need for.  I also love reading the newspaper, but I don't buy those either. I have the internet for that too.

So what about books? I might buy the occasional book, but the last seven that I read were all on the Kindle, and the only time I went near the bookshelf lately was to dust it. So in a world where we are craving our information and our products instantly, the question for a writer like me is this. Is traditional publishing and the way we used to purchase our books dead?

According to one online source, yes. They even gave me a date, and for your information it happened sometime in 2008, just in case you missed it. I however am not so sure. When I go to the local store there are plenty of books. When I go to the beach, there are plenty of people reading books too, and I mean paperback ones that trap grains of sand and that by the time you get back home they emit the smell of coconut sun lotion and spilt mojito. I too worshipped at the house of the literary agent when I first finished my manuscript. I eagerly got myself a copy of the Writers and Artists yearbook and duly sent the 'finished' work to as many people I could. They sent it back too, along with a rejection letter which at first hurt like hell, but by the time I had read the twentieth didn't sting quite so much and at least made me re-edit. Now I thank the anonymous agents for the nudge in the right direction, but at the time all I wanted was their approval.  I wanted them to love me.  How needy I once was.

So why are so many people claiming that the world of traditional publishing is over? Well, for starters, people believe that publishing the traditional route is so elusive. Of the hundreds of manuscripts they receive only a few will be read, and out of those even less will get picked for reading by ‘a higher power’. Where does that leave hundreds of writers who want to be published? Ten years ago it left them on the doorstep with sore knuckles and a head full of broken dreams with their only hope self publishing, which at that time was considered almost as bad as remaining unpublished. Oh the shame of having a self published book back then. It was like beating Linford Christie when you knew you had only got through the dope test by sheer luck. It was tainted. Actually, it was worse.  It was more like losing to Linford Christie and knowing that you had only got through the dope test by sheer luck.  It was tainted, and it was failure.  Now however it leads us directly to the door of Amazon, or Smashwords where there is no shame in self publication. Everybody knows now that there is quality to be seen in the indie publishing world, and the only people who don't want to say it out loud are the traditional agents and publishers.

It might also be because we see previously well respected traditionally published authors stepping over onto our side of the deal and releasing their own work and representing their own brand. And by this what I really mean is taking their own cut and making their own money. Why in a world where publishing electronically or print on demand is so easy that a ten year old could do it would a writer that stands to sell, let's say a million copies of his or her book willingly hand over a significant chunk of the profits to an agent, another significant chunk to the publishers, and only take the money that's left once everybody else has got paid.  The alternative is to publish themselves, let Amazon take it's acceptably small chunk, and then keep the rest in their own overfilled pocket.  Maybe we should ask Amanda Hocking.  She is a great example of a writer who absolutely and undeniably made it on her own, and now she is happily signing a deal with St Martin’s Press.  Why?  Probably because it’s a damn sight easier than doing everything yourself.

So my belief is this.  The world of publishing has changed.  Anyone that thinks it hasn’t is clinging onto outdated ideas, and probably the arms of their editors or agents chair by their finger nails. My other belief is that traditional publishing is still alive.  Maybe it’s not quite as healthy or powerful as it once was, but it is still there.  Anyone who disagrees is probably (bring on the bad comments) an aggrieved self published writer who wants to dance on its grave.  Would I still love a publishing deal? Maybe, if only to avoid the look of pity on people’s faces when they ask who my publisher is and I tell them me.  But as a self published author who is sitting averagely comfortably in the 1,490, 779 books that are currently in the Kindle list on Amazon I’m pretty happy so far with the process.  I’m not a millionaire yet, but I’m working on it.  Traditional and self publishing are never likely to form a symbiotic relationship.  But perhaps rather than spending our time trying to belittle each other we should as authors accept that the love of literature and books still exists.  It is cherished by many, and as long as that remains true any decent author stands a chance.  I’m happy to take my shot in whatever form is available to me.


  1. Interesting (and agreeable) thoughts, Michelle. I've been toying with the idea of having my next release be my last "in-print" book. As much as I love the thrill of seeing and holding a 'real' book, I also recognize that books are bound (no pun intended) to head the way of the CD, the VHS, the land line, the fledgling postal system, etc. It isn't evil, it isn't some marketing ploy, it's just progress.

  2. It's true, there is still that excitement of a 'real' book, but the world has changed, and the way we want our information and media has altered with it. I think that's the trick of publishing now. We don't have to throw out all of the old ways, and there will always be 'books' in the world, but the industry will shift to meet demand and to embrace new technology. A good example is twitter. Twenty years ago I am sure we didn't foresee how important that sort of platform would be for marketing purposes.

  3. Hi Michelle,

    First, thanks for stopping by my blog and for your comment. It made my day! Second, I agree with you that publishing is changing, but I can't imagine a world where books will disappear completely to make room for electronic devices. I think music is different because it's always electronic, but the difference between paper and electronic media is huge. For example, cookbooks, travel guides or pop up picture books are not the same electronically. I own a Nook but with some non-fiction, I've been extremely frustrated having to do searches or having to press the arrow key a hundred times to go back and reread something. Sure, they have bookmarks but with an unfortunate click you can delete all of them. (I know because this happened to me!!) Where the Nook comes in very handy is to read manuscripts without having to print them, or if you want to read in bed or if you're on the treadmill, but you're lost if you run out of battery and you're on an airplane! In summary, I think both medias have their advantages and disadvantages and I think they'll continue to co-exist during our lifetime.

    Great subject!

  4. Hi Lorena and thanks for your comments. I totally agree, that certainly in our lifetime there is no chance that the book will go the way of the record. I am sure that it is here to stay. I think we have a special relationship with print. It's like live music: it just cannot be replaced. At least not yet.

    After publishing on the Kindle, I had reached a conclusion that I wasn't at a disadvantage by having only an electronic book. However, in the last week alone two people have asked me where they can get the paperback version. It's such a shame when I tell them that it doesn't exist! I am just in the process of compiling everything together towards the last push for pubilcation of my next book, and I am starting to think that perhaps once that it is out there I need to retrace my steps and organise some 'real' copies of my first two novels before I get too involved in the next story!

    Also, with regards to your post on your blog, it was a great article, and it is true that plot number three has just undergone a massive shift as a result of it. I'll be stopping by regularly!

    Thanks again

  5. You're very welcome Michelle!

    You know what? There's always the possibility that after you publish your next novel traditionally, a publisher would want to publish your e-book. I'm a believer that things don't need to be the same for everybody. Everyone has their own path and yours was to e-publish first. :-)

  6. I think in the mixed climate in which we authors find ourselves, it might be advantageous to explore all of the options. I think not having a paperback might limit my audience more than I thought at the start of this journey. Still learning here :-)