Is Traditional Publishing Dying?

Please excuse the clickbait title, but this is a serious issue. Entire industries have been created, transformed, or destroyed by changes in technology. Media companies in particular have been severely affected as physical forms of media give way to digital forms. Resistance to change is natural, but ultimately counter-productive. It is the companies that adapt and evolve that will continue to prosper.

“Traditional book publishers refuse to acknowledge that they no longer control what people read.”

This statement paraphrases one that I heard during an indie author podcast, and it rings true. We are no longer limited to books produced by traditional publishers. Or to what a bookstore or library decides is worth stocking. Bestseller lists have become all but meaningless. Most book shopping is now online, and digital books have become dominant.

In the past, self-publishing a book was both difficult and expensive. Few people attempted it, and most ended up with cartons full of unsold books. Now, self-publishing is both simple and inexpensive. It’s so easy that many people can do it with little or no outside assistance. These days, anyone can publish nearly anything. Indie authors now churn out huge numbers of new books each year—far more than are produced by traditional publishers.

I know what you’re thinking. Most of what indie authors produce is badly-written crap. I agree. But some of it is of excellent quality. Furthermore, traditionals aren’t immune to this problem. They continue to sign authors whose books go nowhere. Established authors often produce lousy books, especially if they are being pressured by their publisher to meet deadlines. As further evidence, consider that even today 70% of physical books end up being trashed—remaindered, in bookstore parlance. From what I can tell, publishers are no better at identifying talent today than they were in the past. The smart ones, in fact, now look for successful indie authors to sign.

The truth is that many of the services that publishers offer authors are now readily available for purchase. You can hire someone to proofread or to edit. You can find artists that specialize in book covers. You can find people to do marketing and promotion. It’s obviously not as good as getting an advance for writing a book and then having other people deal with all those things, but it’s also not exactly easy to find a publisher willing to sign you. Or who won’t abandon you if your first book bombs.

Another sign of impending doom are the insane ebook prices that many traditional publishers set. These prices are frequently higher than the paper version. It’s an attempt to prop up their dying print business, and a very foolish one. What they are actually doing is helping the indie authors. Someone upset with the ebook price of the latest Dan Brown thriller may simply start looking for authors who write similar books. And in all likelihood they will find at least one indie author whose books are sufficiently interesting, as well as being much less expensive.

As a final proof, I offer another statistic: Roughly 80% of the authors who have risen to prominence in the last five years have been indie authors. In other words, indie authors are taking over the market. Readers are finding far more indie works they like than traditionally-published ones.

A deal with a traditional publisher remains the ultimate goal for many authors, and there is nothing wrong with that. There will always be some traditional publishers, as well as other options such as crowd-funded publishing. And new forms will likely emerge. It’s a new publishing world now, and an exciting one.

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