Following up his piece on the five essential things publishing does Mike Shatzkin tells us about the seven ways publishing is going to be changing in the next few years.

His headline points are:

  1. Sales will continue to move to online.
  2. The other big general online retailers will be Amazon’s biggest competitors for book sales.
  3. The bifurcated book market will continue: like mass-markets immediately post-WWII.
  4. Publishers will progressively shed overheads for service providers.
  5. Big publishers will see an ever-growing share of their own sales from their backlist.
  6. Amazon Publishing will continue to make inroads signing big authors.
  7. “Entity self-publishing” will increase dramatically.

So I guess what he’s really telling us is that there’s not going to be much change at all, since all of these are continuations of trends already under way.

Online sales will surely continue to increase: everyone expects Amazon to take a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But stop and consider the current boost in the population of independent bookstores. People do still seem to want to be able to wander through a selection of books, touching and feeling them while they seek inspiration. Walmart and Costco may well compete with Amazon, but won’t this just be for the big sellers? Maybe some people will go to Walmart for The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline, but they are more likely to look for The Testaments there aren’t they? Actually, I’ve recently been wondering if these big guys might not just abandon books. Books are a relatively cheap product with a rather narrow profit margin. Amazon found books the ideal commodity to get their business off the ground — they are easy to handle, don’t rot, and enjoy a fairly steady demand from customers who are willing to wait. But they can’t make anything like a much off them as from a Rolex or a Ferrari. Might Mr Bezos not just decide it all wasn’t worth the hassle now that he’s squeezed about as much discount out of the publishers as there is to squeeze? Being the biggest company in the book business is far from being the biggest company in the world.

Point 3: I regard Mr Shatzkin’s bifurcated market not so much as a single bifurcated market as two completely separate markets. Self publishers sell (mostly) to the people who buy self published books. (In this context see Richard Hershberger’s “The State of Book Publishing” at Ordinary Times: Part 1 and Part 2). In the traditional publishing market, the divide between ebook and p-book has devolved into nothing more meaningful, I think, than the divide between hardback and paperback. Digital is just another format.

Stop the presses! Publishers are expected to shed overhead! I have been at this game for over fifty years, and have never lived through a time when publishers were not shedding overhead, except maybe when they first hired me. Any sheddable overhead will end up being shed. As I have often suggested the barriers to entry into the publishing business are now lower than they’ve ever been: all those new little companies can’t afford overhead, with the ultimate expression of this being the self publisher. Thus those individuals who represent the actuality of overhead reduction aim to make a living as freelance suppliers.

Points 5 and 6 seem to me to be almost the same point. In some ways there’s no real reason, other than habit or tradition, to give your potential bestseller to one of the Big Five publishers when a huge proportion of the sales are going to be made by Amazon, so they may well start getting more and more “big” books. If Amazon’s going to sell most of the copies, authors and agents may well conclude that they should just let them publish the thing. Obviously if some/many new books migrate to Amazon, the trade publishers will see a higher proportion of their sales coming from backlist: it’s just arithmetic. While I am a blue-sky optimist about the future of book publishing, I do see it as a small-scale operation with dinosaur extinctions along the way. Big is no longer beautiful in the book business. If Amazon wants to hoover up trade publishing, hoover it up they will — but my suggestion made above that they may grow to disdain this narrow-margin and somewhat chancy business applies here too of course.

“Entity self-publishing”, a term sufficiently ugly to guarantee non-survival, has been vigorous for aeons. The Royal Society published its first book in 1665. I think one might argue that the Church had been a pretty large “publisher” throughout the Middle Ages. The American Chemical Society, the American Mathematical Society, etc. etc. have been bringing out books for ever. Newspapers have brought out books throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whenever they saw an opportunity to offload the things on their readers. Given the ease of entry into the business, such activity is bound to increase: I’ve written posts in the past about bookstores, libraries, agents, and (pre-self-publishing) authors publishing books. However, I insist, this sword cuts both ways: if it’s easier to become a publisher, it’s easier to become a publisher. This does not represent a threat to the publishing business: a change in its structure, yes, but no existential threat.