Much as I enjoy receiving Booktrade.info‘s news digest by email on a daily basis, it has of late become a ceaseless litany of misery.
Sales down. Retailers closing. Publishers in turmoil.
And yet: this has to be the most exciting time to be a reader, writer and publisher since the fifteenth century.
Let’s be clear about this: I love books. I have thousands of them.
I spent a decade in academia, then a further ten years of my professional life in scholarly publishing.
I lay claim to a moderately competent understanding of both the past and present economics of publishing, and the workings of most facets of the industry as a whole.
I also believe the following:
Publishing as we understand it is over. The largest publishing houses will not survive in their present form, nor do they deserve to. Whilst they are still in love with the idea of being publishers, the ‘Big Six’ appear to have been less enamoured with the difficult work of taking overheads out of their business and answering the challenges that the giddying pace of change in our reading, writing and self-publishing habits have posed.
That said, take a look at the hapless, slow-motion train wreck that is the Frankfurt Book Fair, and applaud the industry for limping along haltingly in the short-to-medium term. However, like the decrepit pet beloved of its doting owners that should in all conscience be put out of its misery, it is hard to smile indulgently. This cannot go on – and it won’t.
Amazon has won. Whether they realise it or not, most publishers are in the midst of the painful process of being disintermediated. Others publishers such as Osprey, Nosy Crow, and most recently Orion (with whom STweM is delighted to currently be working as a curator of SF Gateway) have perceived opportunity rather than threat and have embraced change rather than fought against it. Their compact, hybrid, niche/community-focused publishing models are thriving, and their future success seems assured. They understand that Amazon ‘doesn’t just want to make money from the publishing chain. It is the publishing chain‘.
As a reader and author who has used its service to publish both genre fiction and a scholarly treatise, I for one welcome Amazon’s benevolent dictatorship. There are, of course, other outstanding options for getting your output into the contemporary publishing marketplace such as Smashwords and Lulu. Outliers such as Kobo exist for those who for whatever reason don’t feel comfortable with using the seamless, rock-solid digital reading experience that Amazon provides, but really: why would you bother? Finally, the impact that Google Books will manage to achieve in the long term remains to be seen, but the hapless search giant’s repeated failure to make an impact on the social web does not fill one with hope that it will prosper in such a community-driven industry as publishing now is.
Mainstream scholarly publishing is a shameful, protectionist racket that is standing in the way of the advancement of scholarly communications. It’s hard to read the sort of carefully crafted, passionately delivered, obstinate and reactionary diatribes that mouthpieces for the status quo such as the Scholarly Kitchen turn out without thinking ‘really, isn’t this all about you protecting your means of paying your mortgage?’. In these straitened times, that is entirely understandable. However, let us not be brow-beaten by muscular rhetorical gestures into accepting any truth other than the fact that subscription-driven, rights-hoarding scholarly publishers are primarily concerned with their own financial interests rather than facilitating the evolution of scholarly communications.
That’s all there is to say.