We’ve written a lot here at GigaOM about the evolution — and disruption — of the book-publishing industry, from the rise of phenomenons like Amanda Hocking to interactive ventures like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming Pottermore site. The forces driving this disruption in traditional book publishing are the same as those affecting other media, be that newspapers, magazines or virtually any other publishing-based business. So what can other types of publishers learn from the state of the book industry?
The most obvious element of the disruption is that the publishing industry is going digital, just as the music and movie industries have. Anything that can be turned into ones and zeroes is being digitized, regardless of whether the traditional owners or distributors of that content want it or not. As we’ve noted, some authors are taking advantage of this revolution: Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, for example, actually started “pirating” his own books by uploading them to file-sharing sites and found that his market share in new areas such as Russia exploded as a result.
The “democracy of distribution”
But the move to digital formats is about more than just a conversion from print to ones and zeroes. The changes that the web and the evolution of media — including the rise of social media — have been wreaking on publishing are also about what Om has called “the democratization of distribution,” which turns virtually everyone into a potential publisher of content. That trend has been accelerated by tools such as Amazon’s Kindle Singles publishing platform, which allows anyone to become an author simply by uploading an HTML file.
One of those who has taken advantage of this phenomenon is Amanda Hocking, who started writing and self-publishing her young-adult fiction novels last year using the Amazon Kindle platform. In less than a year of selling her work (seven books in total) for as little as 99 cents a copy, the 26-year-old author had racked up about $2 million in revenue, without using a traditional publisher. Needless to say, this attracted the attention of the industry, and Hocking recently signed a $2 million publishing deal for her next series of novels (with St. Martin’s Press, part of Macmillan).
Hocking isn’t alone in taking advantage of these tools: Fiction author J.A. Konrath, who had some success in traditional publishing, has also become a proponent of self-publishing and said that his sales of self-published books climbed dramatically when he dropped his prices from the “$5 and over” level to 99 cents. Author Terrill Lee Lankford recently turned down a $500,000 advance from his publisher in order to self-publish his books, primarily because he would be able to keep more of the revenue than he would with a traditional deal.
Making use of new tools
Self-publishing isn’t the only aspect of the publishing industry that has changed the landscape. John Green is another recent publishing-industry phenomenon whose latest novel reached No. 1 on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble best-seller lists in less than a day — and the book hasn’t even been published yet. The demand for the book was based in large part on the author’s use of social media as a promotional tool, including his more than one million Twitter followers and a fan base he has built up through YouTube videos and other online communities that have formed around his work. Among other things, he offered to sign books and read chapters of the novel in progress on YouTube.
Meanwhile, there are other tools that are eating into the traditional publishing industry’s market share from various sides. One example is the rise of platforms for long-form journalism and nonfiction such as Byliner. Byliner has published several highly regarded pieces from authors such as John Krakauer, works that might otherwise have become either long magazine articles or possibly books. A couple of other services in the same category are Long Reads and a startup called the Atavist, which not only distributes its content through an iPhone and iPad app but also offers audio books.
Lessons for media companies
What can other media and content-focused companies learn from these and other examples of book-industry disruption? Here are a few lessons:
- There are more ways to publish than ever. Even if an author doesn’t want to self-publish, services such as Byliner and the Atavist provide outlets that don’t require deals with traditional publishers — and they are likely just the beginning. That means media companies have to become more efficient and more competitive if they want to survive and retain talent.
- Authors are going direct. They may be seen by some as outliers or aberrations, but writers like Hocking and Konrath are more likely to be the vanguard of a new wave of authors who are looking beyond the traditional publishing industry and have the resources to do an end run around the existing players.
- Prices are going down. Authors like Hocking and Konrath are charging as little as 99 cents for their work; in addition, large numbers of Kindle publishers are selling titles for $4.99 or less. This is pushing down the price for books of all kinds. Media companies are going to have to change their cost structures in order to survive.
- Social relationships are a key to success. The experience of authors like John Green, as well as others who have been able to use social media to their advantage — including Potter author Rowling— shows just how important word-of-mouth marketing can be.
To try and cope with these changes, some publishers, including those who specialize in e-books, have been experimenting with different ways of taking advantage of the revolution that has been occurring. British publisher Angry Robot now offers what amounts to a subscription to its entire publishing output for a year, at a price that is 30 percent lower than if a subscriber were to buy every book the publisher put out in a year.
Other publishers are focusing on trying to add value to what they offer to writers, presumably to keep them from going the self-publishing route and thereby causing the publisher to lose out on potential sales. In some ways, they are having to go through the same kind of transformation as the music industry, which discovered that if artists can create their own markets and keep more of the revenue for themselves, then record labels would have to try harder to make the case that they provide something necessary or valuable.
All aspects of the publishing industry are going to have to get used to a similar idea and show how they are providing value to authors and readers — or they are going to find themselves without much of a business to rely on.