Is Publishing in Trouble or Not—Decide! [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to The Smart Set, a weekly series where I curate a selection of articles from the past week related to the publishing/media industry that merit your attention. I also point to what I see as the most interesting underlying questions, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

Tom Weldon: “Some Say Publishing Is in Trouble. They Are Completely Wrong.” by Jennifer Rankin (The Guardian)

This one was tweeted and shared a lot; it’s a catchy headline. Whenever such a strong statement is made and publicized like that, it sets off a couple alarms: (1) It’s probably in reaction to someone or something, and (2) it’s not leaving much room for nuance.

Completely wrong? Let’s take a closer look at the supporting evidence, provided by UK chief executive Tom Weldon of Penguin Random House:

  • In the last four years, Penguin and Random House have had the best years in their financial history.
  • Book publishers have managed the digital transition better than any other media or entertainment industry.
  • The size of Penguin Random House is mentioned as an advantage when moving into multimedia areas such as apps, games, and other entertainment tied into books.
  • Weldon says, “Eight to nine months in, things are going extremely well. We had our best results. We consistently publish bestsellers.”
  • Penguin Random House publishes 200 to 250 debut writers every year. “I can’t think of any other cultural institution that sponsors new art in the same way,” Weldon says.

Questions raised:

  • If Penguin and Random House have had their best years in their financial history, where is that growth coming from? Are more units being sold? Are the units being sold at a higher price? Are more titles being produced overall? Does it relate to ebook sales growth—and the fact ebook sales are more profitable for publishers due to the lower author royalty rate? Is it non-book sales?
  • How meaningful is it that book publishers seem to have managed the digital transition better than other industries? Is that true? And is it comparing apples and oranges?
  • What are the potential drawbacks to a publisher the size of Penguin Random House? The article mentions how this might reduce competition for new works and decrease the size of advances.
  • Is Penguin Random House publishing more debut authors than ever before, or is the number fairly stable (or declining)? How many debut authors go onto second book deals?

London Book Fair 2014: PW Talks With Kobo President Michael Tamblyn by Andrew Albanese (Publishers Weekly)

Kobo is one of the ebook devices and retailers that continues to compete against Amazon. It’s known for having a solid share of the Canadian market (it’s based in Toronto) and a strong international footprint (it is owned by Rakuten in Japan).

This interview with Tamblyn has a few gems in it, including the following, where he’s asked about the impact of self-publishing to Kobo’s bottom line:

It’s become a very significant piece of the business for us. It is now quite easily 10% or 11% of unit sales on any given day. That means self-publishing in any given country is a big five publisher, if you look at it weight for weight. In the aggregate, it has become a significant force, I’d say a transformative force when we look at authors and their relationship to publishers. Authors now know this other means is available to them and that in turn has made publishers step up their game. To me, this is kind of the Golden Age of the author, and we’re happy to help move that along.

Questions raised:

  • If it’s 10-11% percent of unit sales, what’s the percentage in dollars, given that self-publishing titles are often priced lower? (You can find much more speculation about this over at Mike Shatzkin’s blog. It might be reasonable to speculate the dollars would be at 5-6%.) As an interesting side note, I’ve heard reports from self-published authors that their ebooks on Kobo can command a higher price point because the readership is more upmarket, and haven’t been trained, as Amazon customers have, to surf for free/cheap ebooks.
  • And wouldn’t we all love to know these figures for Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook? Hugh Howey’s estimates over at put the figure at 27%  of units sold are indie. If you’ve seen additional figures somewhere, please comment.
  • How much more will this percentage grow, and how much will it grow at the expense of traditionally published titles?
  • Compare and contrast this with the above article claiming that publishers are totally and completely not in trouble.

Publishers Are Warming to Fan Fiction, But Can It Go Mainstream? by Rachel Edidin (Wired)

For the past couple years, I’ve worked in the literary publishing world, which is largely ignorant of the enormity of writing and reading that happens on fan-fiction community sites. This article at Wired discusses some new initiatives to harness the writers and community around fan-fiction, and turn it into something monetizable; it argues that the lines between fan-fiction and other types of writing are beginning to blur.

Questions raised:

  • How big of a role will fan fiction play in the future of publishing?
  • Are communities like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own—which operate primarily outside of the traditional publishing economy—closer to what authorship will look like in the future?

What questions (or answers) do you have? Share in the comments.

By the way: Don’t miss my interview with the Late Night Library, where I discuss the economics of being a writer in the digital age, along with by Scratch co-founder, Manjula Martin.

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