At a recent meeting of the Woman’s Writing Festival, the future of mainstream publishers was brought up. Though it was a casual comment at first, the subject became more insistent, with some suggesting that soon the majority of books available to the public would be self-published, essentially putting most traditional publishers out of business.
Although the discussion of these writers centered around the impact on writers of the traditional publishers’ absence, I don’t see that as the big issue writers should be addressing. I also don’t see the balance between self-published and traditionally-published books to be the big issue. The real issue here is this: When most books available to the public are self-published, how is the public going to find them?
This is the publishing industry’s elephant in the room. In fact, the elephant is itself one of the major accomplishments of the organized publishing industry: The promotional engine of publishing, which extends to magazines and newspapers, billboards, television and Hollywood, the web and social media, and of course, book outlets everywhere. Think about this: If (or when) the traditional publishers someday close their doors and go, that elephant goes with them. What then for the rest of the writers?
Independent authors today struggle for attention in a world that is not yet geared to accept them. Many an author who might otherwise have a good prospect of a successful career face the reality of few or no sales, due primarily to a state of obscurity and isolation from the customers they covet. (Full disclosure: I count myself among them.) Advertising and promotion is the most important thing for an author to conquer, if they want to see sales and gain a consumer base. But presently independent authors are largely edged out of those avenues of advertising and promotion by the traditional publishers’ elephant.
The traditional publishers’ promotional engine is designed to accommodate the traditional publishers, pretty much exclusively. Old relationships, accounts, connections and contracts allow them to pass their products on to venues that are still closed to smaller publishers and independent authors. Those relationships have been cemented by large sums of money changing hands. If that elephant goes, it will create a hole in a number of promotional venues and media, aching to be filled by other material.
But will independent authors be able to fill those niches? Many of those existing promotional venues are set up for corporate-sized accounts and transactions, something most independents won’t be able to handle. It would be akin to an elephant-sized space being filled with millions of mice instead: Trying to accommodate the difference in scale and the sudden proliferation of individual accounts may simply not be workable for many venues. To access those venues, authors may be able to set themselves up with an advertising co-op that will foot the bill for advertising (at some dividend taken from author sales). But even this would only equate to being, perhaps, a dog-sized entity… nothing compared to that elephant. There’s a more than good chance that many of those big promotional niches will just get swallowed up by other big industries and their elephant-sized pocketbooks. If that happens, what other workable advertising and promotional venues do authors have?
They can certainly try to get noticed on various websites or social media venues; but consumers are already wary of web- and SM-based advertising, and are giving independents very little room to breathe and be noticed (even as corporate advertisers are finding ways—ie, cash—to get forced advertising into those same web and social media venues). And many sites are still dismissing independent authors en masse as amateurs and hacks, refusing to even consider their material or requests for coverage, and subsequently only giving promotional exposure to a small number of authors who either gained fame elsewhere or managed to cultivate an already-established special relationship.
Many other websites have attempted to set themselves up as clearinghouses for authors to sell their wares, giving consumers a one-stop shop to find their authors. Unfortunately, most of these sites haven’t done the greatest job of providing effective search tools for their individual books; and none of them communicate with the myriad of other such clearinghouses. Bottom line, there is still no one place to go to search for authors and certain types of material.
In fact, maybe the one-stop clearinghouse, which at least looks similar to the traditional system we have at present, is the wrong model altogether. It might behoove authors (and their supporters) to think harder about the inherent differences between one big elephant and a roomful of mice, and try to develop a revolutionary new promotional system that takes better advantage of the unique architecture of many smaller, faster and more maneuverable nodes versus one big, slow node. Refined or redesigned search systems, better-interconnected networks or some other promotional strategy may succeed, where existing isolated systems may soon be left behind by the modern consumer.
So how long will it be before consumers find it easy to search their favorite genres, find quality authors and material, and buy or download to their favorite devices? I suspect we’ve still got a long way to go; and as long as the elephant is still here, it will be that much more difficult to make any progress around him.