Without doubt, the landscape has changed dramatically for book publishers in recent years. Not only are they trying to keep up with the ever-evolving reading habits of the digital age but also faced with the existential treat that Amazon poses to the traditional publishing model. But this article will try to look at all these changes as opportunities whilst not trying to underplay just how hard these adjustments may be. There are causes for optimism for smaller presses – just look at the Booker prize longlist 2020.
Physical vs Digital
For a long long time, publishers job was one of curation, refinement and selling. Find the right book or author, counsel them, edit and sub-edit, typeset and design, print and market. These old certainties with a just a physical book as end product and defined channels for marketing and sales were shattered by the nascent digital age. Now physical books are just one of numerous formats shouting for the attention of the reader. Reader habits have changed irrevocably. Magazines, newspapers and books compete with smartphones, tablets and PCs. We’ve seen numerous magazines and newspapers either close their print offering or close altogether.
But books are proving an interesting contrast to newspapers and magazines as to how readers prefer to read their content. By giving their content away for free online in the early days of the Web, newspapers massively (and some, like David Simon, creator of The Wire would say arrogantly) underestimated the power of the Web. But books and physical books in particular have somewhat bucked (no pun intended!) the trend with the caveat that individual authors and national events can influence figures. A 2014 survey of 1,500 readers by Booktrust, a UK reading charity showed that whilst people are pessimistic for the future of books, the vast majority (76%) think that reading books improves their quality of life and they prefer them to ebooks. 28% read everyday and another 22% at least once a week. All this is the long way of saying to book publishers ‘stick to your knitting’. The appetite for the physical book is still there.
The challenge to engage and adapt to readers (in particular those born into the smartphone era) who are now reading nearly completely through screens.
It’s the revolution that never quite arrived. Ebooks were meant to take over from the physical book and presented book publishers with a neat one stop solution to their digital problem. Once an e-reader or app is bought the advantages over a physical book should be overwhelming: ease of transport, delivery costs, e-books are cheaper and available nearly instantly. Indeed, I have friends in country’s with unreliable postal systems that rely on their Kindle for book reading. Yet studies have shown ebook sales declining as a percentage of overall book sales. Surveys also show that people simply prefer to hold and read physical book, they make great gifts, are easier to share and can be beautiful in themselves. Also some genres like childrens’ books simply do not work as well as ebooks.
So ebooks have become just another format that the small publisher must ensure their designers produce. If they are to avail of the numerous online third-party book subscription services – they must produce ebooks. Happily, Indesign has made great strides in incorporating ebook production into their layout workflow, publishers should insist their designers are thinking in multiple formats from the get-go of the books design: PDFs for print and digital; epub (the general ebook format) and .mobi (Kindle specific).
This format has seen huge growth in the last few years though admittedly from a low base compared to overall book sales. Amazon’s Audible is definitely the prime cause of the surge and the boom of podcasts has also opened the door for other forms of long-form listening such as audiobooks. The cost of creating an audiobook from scratch can vary enormously depending on how much you want to do in-house as opposed to a fully professional setup. Audible’s production arm ACX have a breakdown of costs and Kystal Wascher has an independent assessment of the pros and cons of each agreement. We’ll return ourselves to the issue of Amazon and small presses later.
TV, Film & Streaming
Small publishers can include licensing rights agreements with authors for traditional TV, film and now streaming. Condé Nest (obviously with huge resources) are giving equal priority to films based on articles with their own productions.
All publishers must look at the potential of their nascent book beyond the physical. Digital formats, streaming rights etc. should not be viewed as an addendum to the physical but a consideration right from the conception of the book and it’s crucial that the author and publisher themselves is onboard with this new way of thinking about book production.