Friday, October 31, 2008

Turmoil among major publishers may be a boon for smaller ones

You may have heard recently that amid the financial crisis and the stock market panic, the publishing industry is undergoing a consolidation. Major publishers have announced sizable layoffs and they're "firing" mid-list authors in order to concentrate their efforts on only the A-list authors (the cash cows). As a result, it has become harder than ever for a first-time author to break into the ranks of the published. (If the publishers aren't even keeping established authors with a fan-base around, what are the chances of them signing an unknown with no track record?)

Because of this, many no-name authors (myself included) have resorted to smaller print and ebook publishers as a way of getting a foot in the publishing door. This has resulted in a proliferation of ebook publishers whose cost of entry is much lower than that of a traditional print publisher. (There are no printing or shipping costs associated with ebooks, and a small publisher doesn't have to pay the rent of a Manhattan address.)

One of the things holding back the fledgling ebook industry is a stigma among some readers that these somehow aren't "real" books, because they aren't printed on paper and can't be held. The "can't be held" issue is being resolved by improved ebook reader devices, but work remains to lower costs and improve usability. Another issue is a perception that the quality of ebooks is inferior to that of traditional printed books. There is some truth to this claim, although probably not as much as many people think.

Some of this stigma is due to less-than-professional publishers who are too cheap to do a decent job of editing or creating eye-catching covers for the books, and some of it is due to small publishers feeling they have to accept inferior works simply to have something to publish. (Established authors are unikely to consider them.) As a result, some good books are poorly edited, and some crappy books are published. (No amount of editing can save a crappy book.) Neither situation helps the image of ebooks.

On the other hand, there are many wonderful ebooks that are professionally edited and have gorgeous covers. They're every bit as good as many of the print books released by the large publishing houses, but unknown by most of the reading public. And this latter point brings me back to the beginning of this post.

With many popular mid-list authors being cut by the big publishing houses, some will catch on with smaller print publishers; but odds are many others will find themselves signing with small ebook publishers who treat them as A-listers. Once their books (including backlist titles that have been discontinued by the big publishers) are available as ebooks, their legions of loyal fans will flock to those ebooks. (They won't want to give up their favorite-author fix, after all.) This can only help to fuel the growth of these publishers, and the ebook segment as a whole. At the same time, while these fans are browsing the ebook publishers' sites, they're bound to "discover" some of the other talented, but unknown, authors there.

Ironically, the cost-cutting moves by the big publishers will end up hurting them in the end, as many of their customers leave them to follow the authors they cut adrift. The more "name" authors that sign with ebook publishers, the faster ebooks will become mainstream, and the sooner the major publishers will be forced to publish ebooks themselves to keep from falling behind--further legitimizing ebooks as an alternative to printed books. A decade from now, there may be no such thing as new printed books anymore--only dusty relics of a bygone age, sitting on the same shelf as 8-track tapes, Betamax cartridges, and wired telephones.


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