Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 2 November 2012

Dead books thrive

Rigid Male Ship Publishing

MUCH wailing at the wall and gnashing at the teeth follow from the recent ill fortunes of the publishing industry.
Newspapers are in the midst of a shake-up which is just beginning in book publishing
As a journalist and author, I appear to have accepted not one but two third-class seats on the Titanic.
Thankfully for books, it is not all doom and gloom.

With what some observers considered undue haste, Penguin and Random House have announced a merger.
Here is how the China Daily called it.
Penguin/Random House is estimated to seize 25 percent to 30 percent of the global consumer publishing market. Pearson and Bertelsmann (respective owners) hope to cope with the ebook era through combination of the two leading publishers.
The two sides believe that the combined organization will have a stronger platform and greater resources to invest in new digital publishing models and high-growth emerging markets.  

In other words, we will throw heaps of money at the problem and it will run away. That is not going to happen.
We in the publishing business cannot even agree what is the problem. Bitter heritage publishers will tell you the explosion of cheap poor-quality indie books has eroded industry standards and destroyed consumer confidence in the product. Amazon says pricing models of the heritage publishers are antiquated and unsustainable.
Let’s establish a few ground rules and throw in some statistics before we all decide to go to the pub to down our sorrows.
Ground rule #1
Ebooks are real. If print books disappear, except as expensive novelties over the next 10 years, it will not be the death of publishing. Uncertainly abounds in discussions on our topic. If you are reading an analysis which distinguishes between real books and ebooks, stop reading immediately; your brain will thank you for it.
Do you believe in ghosts or ebooks?

Ground rule #2
Our story has no villains. The Big Six, or Five, publishers, Amazon, indies who price at 99 cents, heritage media and universities who have downgraded literary criticism, internet spammers are all players. Demonising them is a convenient way of dismissing the best ways forward as all too hard.
Ground rule #3
The best books have never made anywhere near as much money as inferior books. Genre books, once disparaged as “pot-boilers” will always make the most money because they are literally addictive. Once hooked, the reader needs the fix of the formula. Also anyone can read “down”. It takes a level of sophistication to enjoy reading a ``literary’’ novel  The contemporary literary novel is also competing against the great works of the past while newness is prized in genre fiction. The importance of this ground rule is it casts doubt on the heritage publishers’ central contention about the erosion of quality. Those publishers themselves have based their fortunes on the inferior writers in their stable. This was a benign system as the most popular authors effectively subsidised their more talented peers. The emphasis is on wise as the system has been shattered.

Pick the Nobel Prize winner

Now for the stats, only a few as they hurt some people’s heads.
Stat 1
In 2001 162m books were sold in Britain.. In 2011 229m books were sold. If there is a crisis in publishing, it has nothing to with the popularity of the product. SOURCE
Stat 2
Ebooks account for less than 25 percent, probably closer to 20  percent, of books sold. I believe this will rise above 80 percent in the next decade, but the point is, if there is a crisis now, there is a lot more at play than ebooks.
As quoted here
Stat 3
In one year in Australia, more than half the novels sold were written by either Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling. (Sorry I am unable to locate the reference, a story on how all but one university chair of Australian literature had been axed. From memory, the percentage to total sales of Brown/ Rowling was more than 75 percent so you can accept more than half). The point here is that sales of books is increasing  but the mix of books sold has become more constricted.
Finally an excellent article on modern publishing which exposes the real scenario on decreasing standards. Surprise, surprise; it has little to do with ebooks.

This is the first installment in a series on the “crisis”.  I will leave the reader to ponder what they think is the relevance of the above.
Come, walk with me down the boulevard. I’m sick of walking alone.

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