Recently the publishing industry experienced a sea change you probably missed.
In January, Amazon announced they're now selling 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks sold.
If you’re shrugging your shoulders, consider: Traditional publishing houses release the vast majority of paperbacks. New releases are rigorously slotted into genres so bookstores know where to place them on the shelves. In your local bookstore, you won’t find the Harry Potter series shelved beside romantic suspense or Stephen King’s latest work.
Novelists understand this as “branding.” Most of us learn early on that if we’re to catch a literary agent’s eye then proceed to the big prize of a publishing contract, we must write stories with a specific audience in mind. This works well if, for example, you write straight romance or fiction that’s easily recognizable as Young Adult.
What if you don’t? Most people have heard of J.K. Rowling’s struggles to bring the Potter series to print. That critical first step—finding an agent to represent her masterpiece—was nearly impossible. Advances for so-called “children’s books” are usually small. Most agents prefer working in the adult market where the pay is better. Like the rest of us, they have to eat.
It was pure luck that an office manager at a literary agency in London fished Rowling’s manuscript out of the reject basket. Bryony Evens liked the smart black cover. Once she started reading, she couldn’t stop. Neither can 45 million readers worldwide.
That wasn’t the only miracle. A host of rejections followed—editors couldn’t “brand” the book. Was it meant for the children’s market? Middle-grade? Was it an adult fantasy novel? Once Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the gamble, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received a tiny print run in the U.K. If it weren’t for Rowling’s dogged persistence in promoting her work after Scholastic brought the novel to the U.S., Harry Potter never would’ve become a household name.
You might ask, “What does this have to do with Kindle books outselling traditional paperbacks?”
It has everything to do with branding, baby.
Today there are thousands of novelists tirelessly writing books you’ll want to read. Sadly, their creativity doesn’t fit the confines of a publishing house’s profit and loss statement. Many have worked with a literary agent—or several agents. They’ve received compliments from editors on their skillful handling of plot and character. They’ve been told, time and again, that their books deserve a wide readership. But they never garner a publishing contract because no one knows, precisely, where to sit their books on the shelves.
I know. I was one of those novelists.
The questions posed by editors were difficult to answer. Were my books Romance? Women’s fiction? Was I writing women’s fiction bordering on literary? Bordering on mystery?
I’ve written five novels so far, with Treasure Me receiving the most attention. The manuscript did well in an international contest, receiving the kind of review that editors notice. Publisher’s Weekly said, “Birdie Kaminsky, a beautiful blond bombshell of a con artist, has met her match in Hugh Schaeffer, an investigative reporter in this zesty novel rife with witty dialogue and well-drawn characters. Their catty romance and zany interactions filled with witty double entendres are gems.”
It wasn’t enough to ink my name on a contract.
Ten years ago I might’ve thought, “Well, lots of books take time to reach the public.” I might’ve searched for yet another agent (my third). But in late 2010, I noticed something happening in the industry.
The Internet sizzled with talk of writers who’d jumped ship from legacy publishing and gone digital. Established novelists were releasing their own e-books and following up with print-on-demand. Other writers, who’d never made it into New York’s hallowed halls, were joining in. If they wanted to combine romance with zombies, or produce experimental fiction, or write a 500-page novel, they were finding a home on Amazon and other outlets. Both groups—established and newbie alike—were using their hard-earned profits to build an ever-expanding readership without the help of a literary agent or a New York editor or a publicity department.
They were flying solo in a literary landscape forever changed.
Will traditional paperback and hardbound books disappear? Not on your life. There will always be readers who cherish the tactile delight of holding a physical book. Will digital publishing harm literature in some unforeseen way? Hell, no. Devices like the Kindle allow readers to sample different genres and a variety of authors’ works quickly and cheaply. On average, one hardbound book costs upwards to $26. For that money, you can download 8 or 9 e-books from some of the finest authors on the planet.
Needless to say, traditional publishers are nervous about so many talented writers cutting them out of the game. They can no longer decide what you’ll read. And they can no longer decide what authors will write. If you’re trying to break in as a debut novelist, you’re told repeatedly “less is more.” You’d better produce a book that doesn’t exceed 350 pages in length. If you can write your masterpiece in 300 pages or less, all the better. Over the years, thousands of superb novels never saw the light of day because they were simply too long—and rare was the editor who’d take the financial risk of bringing a debut, overlong novel to market.
Now you know why Rowling’s books got longer, richer and deeper as she skyrocketed to fame. Once the Potter series was a success, no editor would dare to dictate word length or subject matter. They left her alone. They left her alone to create.
Thanks to digital publishing, the rest of us now do the same. We post e-books in cyberspace, work to build a readership, and follow up with print-on-demand. Already the number of success stories is staggering. But wait: the next ten years will see a flowering of creativity like nothing that has come before.
Publishing houses may pooh-pooh e-books as a fad, or stuff better left in the reject basket. They may suggest that, without the vetting process of hard-nosed agents and experienced editors, the books brought to market will be less than stellar. Don’t you believe it. As they say, cream rises to the top.
How it does is another interesting development.
Book blogs are proliferating like daisies popping up in a springtime meadow. Regardless of your tastes, there’s a blogger in cyberspace talking about the stories you’ll want to read. They encourage you to join in the fun by posting comments and chatting directly with authors. They search for books, new and old, to read and review with the added fun of contests and publishing tidbits and some of the best commentary on literature you’ll find anywhere.
The only experts that matter now run the show: eager, insatiable readers.
The woman who drags her Kindle or a book with her everywhere? She’s the glorious soul who finally realizes that the best book reviewer is, well, an avid reader. Women (and men) who read often and well set up shop in cyberspace. Soon the world’s speed-of-light connectivity will give the best book blogs followers running into the thousands then tens of thousands. And higher. Readers in Chicago, London and Tokyo will log onto a favorite site daily, along with folks in Toronto and Buenos Aires.
Authors worth their mettle will find these blogs and, through them, a readership. The finest books will go global overnight. Works not ready for Prime Time will disappear for lack of review.
Watching all of this unfold, I’m filled with excitement. The digital frontier is fast expanding. The art of storytelling will never be the same.