I’ve just finished my annual trip between houses and to a fabulous writer’s conference. Along the way I thought you might enjoy a brief trip through the world of publishing. We started with traditional publishers, moved on to small presses, then indie publishing, took a quiz and added some fun facts. Now today’s blog is all about you, the readers.
Over the past month we’ve done a quick run through the publishing business.
Today, I want to talk a little about the way all these changes affect readers. Publishing has come a long way from the days when stories were scratched on to papyrus or penned and illustrated by monks. The common man or woman–especially woman–never saw those books. Today books are everywhere. Most of us have libraries nearby. Every tag or rummage sale has massive piles of books for a dollar or less. Try walking through an airport without salivating over displays of the juiciest bestsellers.
Not only are print books readily available, now readers who live too far from a library to go frequently can easily order books on the internet. If buying books is too expensive, many libraries allow you to download them on to your own reading device. Readers can enjoy their favorite authors on their e-reader, on their laptop or tablet, even on their phone. In fact some authors are carefully editing their work now to make sure it can be more easily read on smart phones. Shorter sentences and paragraphs. Less description. Quicker pacing. Pared down chapters.
Several decades ago publishers began to narrow their lists.
Publishers must pay close attention to trends in order to survive. Decades ago they noted that book selling was changing. Many independent bookstores had gone belly-up (50% according to Forbes in the past 20 years) because book chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble appeared and offered at discount everything the indie stores didn’t have room to carry. Remember the movie You’ve Got Mail? The arrival of Tom Hanks’ chain bookstore put Meg Ryan’s cute little bookstore out of business. Luckily Meg got Tom as a consolation prize, but when a change is documented in a Hollywood film, you know it’s a big deal, right?
Publishers noted that bestselling authors like Steel, King, and Grisham, were keeping bookstores alive, so authors who sold far fewer copies (midlist authors) were cut from publishing lists to make room for the bestselling authors’ backlist. (Remember that word?)
Big Chains began to shrink.
Then another change. The big chains began to disappear. First your favorite mall bookstores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton quietly faded away. Then Borders went belly up (to my personal dismay). Barnes and Noble, Books A Million and others are still hanging in there, but the big players these days are online giants like Amazon and to a lesser extent iTunes, Kobo, and B&N’s Nook. (The same 2014 Forbes article I mentioned claims that Amazon made $5.25 billion from book sales alone that year, 7% of their total revenue.)
I remember a conversation with a publishing exec about ten years ago in which I was assured that Amazon book sales figures meant very little. Clearly publishers were not truly prepared for what was about to happen.
Why online bookstores?
A bookstore has limited shelf space. But an online bookstore? An online bookstore is limited only by warehouse space, and, of course, that’s easily remedied. And what about ebooks? How much space do they take up?
Of course the result, for readers, is a much wider variety to choose from. Now authors who are willing to publish independently can choose their own subjects, subjects that appeal to a more limited group of readers. But often those readers are voracious and willing to buy everything in their chosen genre. Because royalty rates are much higher for indie authors, they can afford to write the books they love for a smaller, enthusiastic readership.
If there are more books available now, how do we find the stories we love most?
Bookstores have always organized shelves by genres. Walk through almost any store and you’ll note that all the mysteries are in one section, the romances in another, and the “literary” and general fiction is off to one side under “Fiction and Literature.” Organizing this way is meant to help you quickly find what you want.
If your tastes are even more specific, what happens? I love to choose a novel set in the country or city I’m about to visit. Novels are more fun than a travel guide, so what if, for instance, I decide to look for a mystery set in Venice–as I did the last time I went to Italy.
At that time after laborious searches I was lucky to find a few. Today, I can go to Amazon, type in “mysteries Venice,” and an entire page appears. Wait, not just a page, but 46 pages of results, many if not most of them relevant. But what if I target my subject even more? What if I want a little romance with my mystery?
Here’s an example of a real search.
I key in “mysteries Venice romance” and this time the result is 6 pages of relevant results. But what if I’m in the mood for a romance/mystery set in Venice that features a psychic? Yep, one result there.
Amazon and other search engines have made searching so easy for readers. Type in your search terms, then at Amazon, check the column to the left. Amazon has thoughtfully provided more search possibilities. They’ve broken down books that fit your search terms into categories. In my example I see psychic mysteries, historical fiction, thrillers, etc. And if I scroll down I can choose results based on customer reviews, condition, in or out of stock.
The possibilities for narrowing choices are endless.
Yes, publishing has changed.
Publishing has changed through the years and a lot of changes have occurred in the years I’ve been writing. Perhaps some changes should be mourned. But looking ahead at all the choices now available to both writers and readers? Today writers can expand their creativity and audiences. Readers have choices that were never before available, choices made so much easier because of search engines. Online bookstores provide books with only a click or two, or as always, your favorite brick and mortar store has helpful staff to recommend books they think you’ll like.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick look at publishing today. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but don’t blink. Because soon it will be publishing tomorrow, and who knows what the future will hold.