Disruptive innovation and the publishing industry

This Wikipedia article about author Sam Moffie tells how, frustrated at the lack of attention that his manuscript got from mainstream literary agents and publishing houses, he disguised the first chapter of one of his favourite novels, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut, and sent it to the top 100 literary agents in America. Ninety-nine of them rejected it out-of-hand.

The problem of trying to get published has been around a long time. One of the reasons why it was so difficult for an author to get published was that the production of books and the sales and marketing to draw people’s attention demanded a huge financial outlay and the traditional publishing industry guarded itself against loss by picking books carefully. Agents were most useful to the publishing industry as gatekeepers, weeding out all but the most promising manuscripts. To the vast majority of writers though, agents just seemed like an obstacle. For a good rant on the traditional publishing establishment, look no further than this post.

In the last ten years there’s been a seismic shift in the industry, thanks to technology. Digital typesetting and print-on-demand means that it’s no longer necessary to print 100,000 books to make your book affordable. The internet and eBooks means that you can make your published work available to half the population of the world at the push of a button. These are classic examples of ‘disruptive innovation’.

So has the worm turned? Is the author now free to make a fortune, unfettered by casually dismissive agents? Can we all now churn out a novel by bedtime and wake up in the morning to watch the cash pouring in through online sales of instantly printed books and eBooks that can be downloaded at the speed of light? Is the reading population now in a state of bliss, able to choose from a hitherto unimaginable range of novels that would have been choked off by the prissy agents and editors of old?

For the writer, it certainly seems like there is more freedom. Kristen Lamb says “..as authors gain more power…”. It might be more accurate to say that writers have more control of their own destiny. The interesting thing about having more control is that it usually means having to do more of one’s own work too!

For authors, getting published may be easier, but the sheer graft of writing is as hard as it ever was – George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) is quoted as saying that writing a novel is like cleaning St. Paul’s cathedral with a toothbrush – but now the job of publicising the book falls entirely to the author too. With no agent and no publishing company behind you, guess who’s going to have to do all the selling. Once you’ve exhausted your 250 Facebook friends and Tweeted until you’re blue in the face, who is going to find your novel? There are millions of books out there. The analogy I like to use is this: imagine placing one beautiful pebble on a beach of millions of pebbles and expecting the passing holiday-makers to happen across it and comment on its loveliness. Many authors out there will struggle to get an audience.

Are readers any better off? Did agents really have us in mind when they were turning down trash? Not if the phenomenal success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is anything to go by. What if we’re not interested in the pulpy smut that’s easy to find because of the sensationalist headlines it raises? What if we want to read offbeat, quirky novels in obscure genres? How on earth will we go about trying to find them? In ten years time, the body of published works available online will be vast.
Increasingly, publishers like Penguin are taking this seriously. No doubt they will be using the commercial success of books published in their self-publish subsidiaries to decide whether to take their authors seriously.

Take a look at this blog for more thoughts on this deal…and tune into this blog for lots more on self-publishing.

An article in the Metro (24th Sept 2012), a free London daily paper, states that Richard Russo (‘Empire Falls’) vehemently opposes eBooks and banned his publisher from releasing to this format. Russo claims that eBooks will be bad for bookshops, which is probably true, and bad for authors, which is very far from proven.

The biggest threat to writers would arise if one eBook format became a monopoly and then chose to use its power to dictate what goes out to market. This is already a distinct possibility. Suppose you wish to publish something that contains views that are unpalatable to a large population of irrational, violence-prone people. It’s entirely likely that a ‘globally responsible’ organisation would refuse to publish. Where would Salman Rushdie have gone to get the ‘Satanic Verses’ published if independent publishers were put out of business? Would authors like Richard Dawkins find a route to market with the weight of the Christian Right threatening to boycott whichever eBook company holds the monopoly?
It’s fair to say that publishing is at a turning point and there will be a myriad of consequences too, some of which we haven’t thought of yet.

It’s going to be an interesting decade but there’s one thing you can be sure of: writers will continue to write and readers will carry on reading.

2 thoughts on “Disruptive innovation and the publishing industry

  1. It seems to me that, much like the record industry missed the boat, so has the book industry. They MySpace stepped in… and sadly has been on a decline for a while.
    It ought to be much easier to self-publish and do well, (I know several who use Lulu and similar services, but none have have had the recognition they deserve) but it’s not. I’d suggest that what the World’s waiting for is even better electronic paper to self-publish to as well as audio-books (for those who listen while they get on with other stuff) and even a means to generate video (using CGI characters) direct from text (for those who prefer chewing gum). MyTubes anyone?

    • “It ought to be much easier to self-publish and do well” – Now the interesting thing about that is surely that the easier it is to publish, the less well, on average, all those who have published will do. Given a finite set of readers and reading time (or money, or whatever the fundamental limiting factor is), the gaussian distribution representing commercial success of authors (Y-axis) will tend to a flatter line such as the red one in this graph or even the yellow, as the number of published works expands.

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