‘The publishing industry is dying.’
That’s a pretty scary thought for anyone, let alone a writer with a few manuscripts in the bottom drawer and the hope of seeing them on a bookstore shelf one day. It’s also not what you hope to hear after flying halfway around the world to learn about the ins-and-outs of the publishing industry. Nonetheless, there I was, sitting at a desk at the New School – my first time in NYC – and the words were out there.
But here’s the twist, the phrase should have been something more like this; ‘The publishing industry, as we know it, is dying’. That’s a very different proposition. It’s still a little terrifying, but at the same time, it’s kind of exciting…
I’ve never really known that much about the logistics of the publishing industry, other than what is, possibly, the layman’s version. It went something like this:
Author (hopefully me) > Agent (give or take) > Publisher > Bookstore > Reader (hopefully you).
It turns out this isn’t the case, there’s a lot more to it than that, it involves distributors, and wholesalers, and returns, and all sorts of other links in a massive supply chain. That said, it’s this same rusty supply chain – with its many weighty links – that’s crumbling, collapsing under its own weight. While there’s a plethora of reasons for this, one of the big ones is consolidation. With the arrival of Amazon on the scene – whose goal it seems is to take up the entirety of that supply chain, as opposed to one or two links – other, major companies (like leading printer and distributor Ingram), have felt the onus is now on them to buy up more links in order to compete. This means fewer players, and less cash for independents all around; Indie bookstores now receive a single, large invoice from one company, as opposed to several smaller invoices from multiple suppliers, which they could balance, paying at different times. It also means that the popular market has narrowed, with major publishers now seeking texts based on previous works that have sold well. The trickle-down effect is that the weird, wonderful, and new work that doesn’t have a precedent isn’t likely to get picked up. This means it’s very tough for indie authors to get their books out there.
After hearing all of this, I was feeling pretty crestfallen. It seemed those manuscripts might just be destined to stay in my drawer, and that my hopes would soon be stowed with them. Then there was a change of tone. Along with the mandatory representation from the big publishers, some new guests started filing in, guests from small, indie publishers who have found a niche using digital or print-on-demand technology. They talked about marketing, about things like Kickstarter, and connecting with your local bookstores. They talked about sustainability, and how it’s still possible to get new and exciting books out into the world. They elaborated on the supply chain I was just starting to come to grips with, and made me realise that it’s a lot more like a tree, with many, many branches. When we talk about the industry dying, the reality is that there are time-worn branches that are stressed and might be near the point of breaking. But climb a little higher, reach a little further, and there are new, springy limbs with plenty of life left in them yet.
Here’s an example.
Publisher A acquires titles in the traditional method. They sign a book, go through editorial, publication, the works. They pay up front and produce 10,000 copies, that they ship to wholesalers, who in turn ship them on to booksellers (including online sellers like Amazon). The books are then sold, and that money goes into paying everyone who has been involved with that process, author, agent, publisher, editor, manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler, retailer. It’s a lot of pockets that need to be filled. And that’s the best-case scenario. If those books don’t sell, they’re usually returned to the publisher, who is then stuck with the associated costs.
Publisher B institutes a print on demand model. They set up an online store, print fifty copies that they warehouse, and when they sell out of those (which they ship direct), print more in runs of 50. They don’t pay a retailer, or a distributor, and don’t risk having a huge inventory they might never sell or have a huge amount to cover in warehousing fees. Plus, they’re saving the planet. There are cons as well as pros: they have to put more energy in to marketing, they don’t qualify for some of the snootier reviewers or prizes, and they lose out on the connection fostered with bookstores, but this is also the most extreme model. There are hybrids of both these examples that can be put into practice, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Technology, it turns out, can be quite a marvellous thing.
As a writer, I had never understood these intricacies. I had come to comprehend that most basic model (which even then was incorrect) and spent the last couple of years looking for a foot hold, bashing my head against the tree trunk. Now, knowing that there is another side of the industry, one that has room for growth and offers opportunity, I see the value of understanding the market you’re trying to sell your work into. I think the idea of the artist in isolation is one that belongs to that old model. If you want to see your work out there in the world, you have to explore your options, decide what branch of the tree you sit on and how you might go about reaching for the next. There’s room for writers to be creative not just in their words, but in the final form of their work and the path it takes out into the world. It’s essentially the industry epilogue to writing the book.
That was the most important take away I got from my time in New York: the notion of community. We talked a lot about digital communities, about writers building their platforms, about bookstores, indie publishers, and festivals. These are all components of the industry, branches on the tree, links in the chain – whichever metaphor you prefer – they are components of a whole, as is the writer. If you want to get your work published, you need to be part of the industry. If you want to get your work in front of readers, you need to be part of their community.
There’s no point bashing your head against that tree trunk when there are so many options out there. Explore the possibilities, and understand what it takes to make a book. A writer’s job doesn’t finish on the back page of their manuscript. Really, ‘The End’ is just the beginning.
Seth Robinson is a Melbourne based writer, currently in his final few days of post-grad study in the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program at the University of Melbourne. Seth writes long and short-form fiction, and works by day as a journalist, copywriter and content producer. You can find more of his work at sethrobinson.ink