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.

Posted in Smart Set and tagged , , , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Julius Butcher

I don’t think publishing is in trouble in general. People read more books than before, because cheaper e-books make it possible. However, it would be interesting to see how the sales and the profit is shared by the big publishing houses and self-publishing. What tendency we could see comparing the data from years ago?
There was a poll at Goodreads (it still may run) about how important is the publisher for the reader. I was surprised seeing the result. (I don’t want to rant here, I wrote a post about it on my blog.)

William Ash

The other question about the success of publishing is where is the money going?. Is it being distributed evenly to everyone including the production people or is it going to just the top. One of the problems in any media is that the people that actually are make content are also making less.


Well, the publisher this article focuses on (Random House) recently gave away 5,000 to ALL their employees (including janitors) as a Christmas bonus as a means of sharing the wealth for a particularly successful year. A close friend of mine (not me, alas) is published by them and could not be happier. He is looking a buying a house outright with his newest advance — and he is essentially a “midlist” author. Meanwhile, he tells me that other writer-friends keep asking him why he doesn’t self-publish, because they read that [insert name of one of a handful of self-pubishing gurus]… Read more »

Jennifer McGinnis

Fan Fiction is so much its own thing. The quality of the writing on fan fic sites (Archive of Our Own is the one I visit most) varies, but is not known to be spectacular. Stories are somewhat better than the writing. But if current fan fiction is what writing is to look like in the future – no, not if. I couldn’t accept that, and neither could a clever nation. That being said, I believe there is some fan fic out there that could become mainstream writing – it is the exception and should barely be considered fan fic.… Read more »

[…] Welcome to The Smart Set, a weekly series where I discuss some of the most interesting questions being raised by astute minds in writing, publishing, and media.  […]