The Future is Indie

I think the argument for a digital future has been largely won. I don’t think anyone still disputes that e-books will be the dominant format pretty soon (if they aren’t there already).

Lately though, I am seeing some pushback against the idea that this spells trouble for large publishers. After all, the bestseller lists are filled with of familiar writers from the publishing conglomerates and their e-books are selling at much higher prices than self-published work.

Large publishers are making, the argument goes, millions and millions from e-books. Plus, switching to digital has ancillary benefits for publishers like lower costs from not having to print, store, and haul all that paper, as well as not having to deal with returns.

The problem for large publishers, however, is that they are transitioning from a marketplace where they controlled distribution to one where they don’t. The digital playing field is wide open and, for the first time, the publishing conglomerates are facing real competition from a horde of hungry self-publishers, savvy small publishers, as well as, of course, Amazon.

This isn’t just supposition. The monthly AAP stats show e-books booming and print collapsing in 2011. One thing is clear: the rise in e-book revenue is not sufficient to offset the losses in print – at least for the publishers measured by those surveys.

The more comprehensive Bookstats Report showed some growth overall, but that only took account of the industry up to the end of 2010. Needless to say, this only covers the beginning of the huge boom in e-books which commenced in November last year.

Since then, we have seen self-publishers capture more and more of the top spots. For the last few months, indies were responsible for between a third and a quarter of the top-selling e-books on Amazon.

That’s a lot of lost revenue for publishers. These self-publishers are either writers who have left trade publishing to go it alone, those that couldn’t crack it in the first place, or some like John Locke who didn’t see the point of querying. And the spots on the bestseller lists – and all that increased exposure – are now going to operators outside their system (and not measured by AAP reports or Bookstats surveys).

As more business shifts online and to digital (and this Christmas will be huge in that regard), large publishers are going to suffer even more as, for the first time, a significant portion of their business is going to be subjected to the kind of competition they were shielded from through their control of the print distribution network.

They are going to lose a portion of all the customers that switch to buying online and buying digital, because those customers are going to be subjected to a much greater selection than ever before – including lots and lots of great, enticing, well-reviewed, visible books from small publishers and self-publishers that couldn’t get into bookstores.

I knew that readers of genre fiction were the first to switch to e-books (for a number of disparate reasons), so I thought it would be instructive to examine the Kindle Bestseller lists in various genre categories. Perhaps it will give us a glimpse of where things are headed for large publishers.

Five of the Top Ten Thrillers are self-published. Big names such as Grisham, Baldacci, and Patterson keep things respectable enough for the large publishers. Only four of the Top Ten Horror e-books are self-published, but two more are from Amazon’s newest imprint 47North (and were originally self-published), and one is a public domain re-release, leaving only three spots for the publishing conglomerates.

Things seem better in Romance, where a few Harlequin books, a couple from Nora Roberts, and one from Sophie Kinsella leave only one spot in the Top Ten for self-publishers. However, nine of the next ten books on the list are self-published.

Science Fiction is almost a washout. Six of the Top Ten are self-published, two are from small presses, and one is a public domain re-issue, leaving only a big release from Brandon Sanderson as the sole representative of Big Publishing.

My point is, if you really want to see where the large publishers are headed, don’t look at the performance of the titles they are putting out, look at the stuff they aren’t.

Those lucrative spots on the genre bestseller lists have been grabbed by self-publishers who either went out on their own because they weren’t getting paid enough (or backed enough), or writers couldn’t get an agent or a deal in the first place.

All these writers could be generating revenue for the large publishers. Instead they are competing with – and beating – big releases from their biggest writers.

The future is indie.

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