Tuesday, October 16, 2012

This bubble will burst

For all I know I've written about this before but I simply can't be bothered going back through the archives - so no doubt you can't either. Which means I can write about something I've possibly written about before and no one will notice, right?

These days I'm only adding to this blog if (a) there's a question sent to me or (b) I have the time, and there's been less and less of that lately. Keeping up with what's going on takes a lot more time than it used to, and meanwhile there seem to be more and more submissions to read despite being told more and more people are self-publishing ebooks. And there's a reason for this.

We - you, me, the industry, readers - are aware that there are a lot more self-published books around now than ever before, as there are increasing numbers of writers who (can sometimes) believe that evil publishers/agents are the only thing preventing them from being The Next JKRowling release their creations into the wild. This is worrying, for several reasons:

1) Readers are already overwhelmed by choice.

2) There is no solid way for these readers to choose between this plethora of titles.

3) Publishers are possibly going to lose established big-name authors to the world of self-publishing, even for a short period of time, and if certain authors do that then a big hole will appear in the publisher's revenue, and into this hole will fall several years' worth of unpublished debut novelists (yes, Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey et al are, to an extent, subsidising emerging authors on established lists - so if you are an aspiring-to-be-published Australian author, the next time you're tempted to say, 'Ew, I would never read that', please think twice).

However, the fact that we're all seeing a lot of submissions - even from writers who have self-published ebooks - suggests that writers still yearn for a 'traditional' publishing experience, or at least a publishing experience that means they don't have to do everything for themselves. This is a clue that what we're in now is a big bubble that will eventually burst, because this level of self-publishing can't be sustained, for the following reasons:

i) Readers will eventually turn away from self-published ebooks, even in the high-churn genres like romance, because if you read ten books a week, you don't want to spend that amount of time again trying to work out which ten books you should read - you want to choose quickly and get reading. This applies even if you're reading one book a week or less.

ii) Those authors who have self-published the novel they've been working on for ten years will soon realise how much work goes into getting people's attention so that they buy it/read it, and also - if they've followed proper processes - how important editing is* and how much it costs. They'll also realise that, in order to sustain any readership they have created, they need to write another novel fairly quickly - they can't take ten years, or even three years, as they'll lose the attention of the readers they've worked so hard to gain. And if they don't actually build much of a readership with that first self-published release, they'll be tempted to not try it again but, instead, to attempt to find a publisher who can do that work for them despite the fact that they haven't sold in large numbers and haven't investigated why.

iii) Most ebook vendors will draw the line at a certain point - if only because they'll have to buy a lot more servers to store the gazillions of ebooks - so they'll cap the number of titles they're prepared to sell. At that point they'll start to curate their selection, like any good bookseller does.

iv) Publishers will go to certain lengths to stop certain key authors from abandoning them and self-publishing - these lengths may not necessarily involve paying them more money but may involve thinking differently about the publisher-author relationship.

Of course, you may say that, as an agent, I have a vested interest in authors not self-publishing. Perhaps - although I believe that traditional (or legacy) publishing is going to continue to exist, for the reasons mentioned above. But my main interest in all of this is as a reader. I am overwhelmed by choice. I would like someone to tell me what to read, which is why I take my local bookseller's recommendations even for ebooks. But I'm lucky: I have a local bookseller. Many, many people do not. They don't even have a local library. And for those people, this giant ebook wading pool is going to get too crowded - it may already be too crowded.

It's very difficult to tell an author to not self-publish an ebook when they feel that they've been thwarted by the publishing system. Just as it's very difficult for me to tell authors, when I reject them, that they're not going to make it. But as someone who reads a lot of submissions, I can assure you that there's a reason why many writers aren't going to make it: they shouldn't. What happens when those people who really shouldn't be published choose to self-publish is that a whole lot of not-so-good ebooks swim around with all of the other, very good, ebooks and then a reader wades in and chooses one, thinking that all the ebooks in this wading pool are the same, and then wants to throw it back straightaway. That reader may or may not decide to pick up another ebook - if they do, and the second one isn't that wonderful either, how long do you think they'll actually stay in that wading pool before they decide that the water is stagnant?

At that point some readers may abandon books altogether - or they may start to seek out more distinct avenues of discoverability. This is where online booksellers with distinct identities and curated stock, and libraries who can reach out to readers beyond their local area, should come to the fore. Publishers also need to do their bit - agents too. If we can find the time, obviously. Because right at the moment we're busy propping up the falling sky.

I'll go out on a limb and put a time limit on how long this self-publishing bubble is going to last and say between another year and two years. Those authors who are in the first flush of doing it now - the ones realising how much time, work and sometimes expense it takes for not many readers - will make their decision as to whether or not they'll take another tilt at it within that time frame. My guess is that most of them will not go again. Because writing is hard enough - and publishing is hard too. Put them together and that may be too much hard work for most self-published writers to sustain.

There will be exceptions - some spectacular. Some of those exceptions will be authors who then switch to traditional publishing as it will be more appealing. Out of this whole bubble we will, hopefully, bring a lot more talented writers to the fore - and that's where ebook self-publishing will prove to be most valuable: the fittest will survive, and therefore be given the best chance to thrive. If we can just keep readers with us for long enough, they will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

*I was lucky that an editor volunteered to look over this post before it was published. She made some small, but incredibly valuable, changes. Never, ever underestimate the value a good editor can bring to your work.


David Thornby said...

Agreed - we need reliable curation. I wonder if, instead of the burst of the bubble you (realistically, I think) predict, we could equally be heading towards a music-streaming style of model, wherein a pretty (conceptually) simple database application could be used to 'learn' your tastes and match them with others. You'd have to read the first bit of a lot of 'bad' ebooks, I guess, which takes a lot longer than listening to the first 20 seconds of a song before pressing the 'never send me this kind of crap again' button.

That kind of scheme relies on a shift from selling individual books to selling access to all books on a streaming periodic account basis, and I don't know that there's much evidence that either self- or traditional publishers are going to go for that. But it's a sort of answer to the curation issue that the music industry seems to be using with some success, so maybe it's got some relevance here.

If the first consideration in all of this is 'how can I tell what's not bad quality', the second seems to me to be 'How much of the publishosphere (is so a word, ner) do I need to read?' Certainly there is way too much stuff being published to read it all - but there's been 'too much' for a long time, I think - pre-dating ebooks. Is the answer 'everything that's good', or 'everything', or 'everything that's popular/important/talked about', or 'as long as I'm happy and don't run out of books, I don't care whether I'm reading the group's idea of "best"'? By this, I mean how important is it that there is too much stuff being published to make sure we've caught up with it all?

That said, I do still agree that not being able to find our way through the mire of the ever-expanding publishosphere is a problem that's exacerbated by the current rate of expansion.

As a writer wrestling with the idea of self-publishing, I think your other argument is stronger: that since both writing and publishing well are hard, there is a really good reason to just do the writing part (or indeed the publishing part). Mind you, I suspect the number of people who are willing to and capable of paying for pro-level e-book publication and promotion up front (and aware that it's needed) is going to keep going up. If so, can the bubble persist?

Cass said...

Speaking as someone who has just started shopping a novel, my reasons for wanting to publish traditionally are the same as my reasons for wanting an agent before I approach a publisher: because they know what they're doing, and I sure as hell don't! I'd like to flatter myself by thinking I can string a sentence together and tell a story, and I know I can edit (I do it for a living) - but do I know how to market a book, or talk to distributors, or convince a publisher I can make them squidillions of dollars? No, I don't.

That being said, given the fairly small pool of publishers and agents in Australia, I'm realistic about my odds, and I admit I have considered epublishing as Plan C. (Plan B is "try overseas" but my book is set in Australia, so I'm not holding my breath there either.) I love the idea of curated epublishing houses - as a reader, that's the sort of place I'd be likely to look to try and sort the wheat from the chaff.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Very interesting post - thanks for your impressions. Though I'm tearing my hair out with impatience and frustration (7 unpublished novels in 9 years), I'm hoping for that bubble to pop so we can collectively move to the next phase, whatever that may be.

I feel the same as Cass, I'm not a publicist. I detest self-promotion, though of course it is necessary at times. I've only ever had a Plan A. Perhaps I'm foolish but I still have faith in the traditional model.

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

Rather than the bubble bursting I suggest it will evolve into middle-ways, that is digital publishing houses that offer editorial and marketing support but with a lower bar to publishing than traditional print houses. I speak as the author of books published at both extremes, and in the middle. I think the middle way will be the best, for authors and readers, but not for agents (sorry).

Unknown said...

All food for thought. Personally I like to go the publisher way. Firstly because I wanted someone else to believe in my work. I needed the validation from someone else that I wasn't the only one that thought I could write. Its always nice to hear from your publisher that they look forward to a long relationship with you.
As for the comment from Cass - overseas publishers love Aussie books. My first two were rural romance and they snap them up overseas. Don't limit your market by thinking they have to be published here.

Cass said...

That is very heartening, Ann! I've just started on Plan B now so I'll wait and see how that plays out! :)