Sunday, February 20, 2022

Hurry Up And Wait: the Traditional Model's Fate

I was going to write today about the realities of being a writer (managing expectations, juggling workloads and the sometimes unsavory necessity of getting a day job) but, ironically, reality got in the way once again and time was sucked from me. Rather than not post anything, I figured I'd upload the essay I recently wrote for my creative writing degree regarding a potential future for the traditional publishing model.

Two years of a global pandemic have seen people all across the world fall in love with reading once again. With little to do and nowhere to go during the intermittent lockdowns, or because of company layoffs, the many varied stories locked within the pages of a book have kept people entertained and distracted from world events at record levels (Debczack, 2020). A person’s leisure time has always been a valuable commodity to exploit, and while many people binged shows on Netflix or streamed from Disney+, there is only so much Tiger King, Squid Game or The Mandalorian a person can endure before turning to alternative entertainment. And that entertainment was reading. In 2020 in the U.K alone, sales of books rose by 2% to £6.4 billion, with the largest increase coming from digital sales as that platform grew by 12% or £3 billion (Publishers Association, 2021). It wasn’t just consumer publications that sold well; education and academic books and journals all outperformed previous years, largely in thanks to high increases in sales on digital platforms (Sweney, 2020).

Yet while print publications were strong in 2020, it was outperformed by digital sales and it is this embracing of technologies once thought of as the death of “the book” (Huffington Post, 2016) that herald the first glimpse of major changes that need to come in order for the traditional publishing model to survive.

While there are several global factors such as supply issues and the ongoing conditions imposed by the pandemic forcing the need for publishers to re-examine their business models directly, there are two aspects of the traditional publishing model which are driving authors to look outside of the usual route to market: the length of time taken for a book to be published, coupled with the powerful need of an author to make a living.

Hurry up and wait is a military term that perfectly describes the current model of literary publishing amongst the larger of the publishing companies (Merriam-Webster, 2021) . The length of time from submission to publication can be extraordinarily long as it is now no longer just the author with a manuscript but an entire publishing empire with editors, book designers, layout artists, marketing gurus and event co-ordinators all having their say. Multiply that by the number of authors on the list and the inevitability of the slow stumble towards publication day becomes obvious. Donadio’s essay into this very subject, reveals that the technology isn’t the problem: it’s the humans involved that turns this into a sluggish enterprise (Donadio, 2008).

With reports of falling author revenues year on year, many are taking their business away from the traditional publishing model to one more suited to the working author. Between 2009 and 2017 alone there was a 42% drop in reported author income (Authors Guild, 2019), and the upcoming changes to copyright laws thanks to Brexit could lower this even further. This is why platforms such as Amazon, Ingram Spark, Draft2Digital, Lulu and a dozen similar sites are ideally suited for the entrepreneurial writer with a story to tell and the will to make it happen. For the more journalistic non-fiction writer, sites such as Blogger, Wix, Medium, Squarespace and Wordpress can be created to look as professional as any of the online big name media sites such as the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed. Even giants such as CNN or the BBC have embraced the digital revolution, their once labyrinthine websites now becoming more streamlined and user-friendly e-magazines with news articles, entertainment stories and sports updates.

The independent author or publisher can now bring a book to market in a fraction of the time of the traditional model which in turn means that this bypassing of the gatekeepers also puts more of the profits into the hands of the author with regular, and higher, royalty payments. Of course, in return for the control and the profits the indie author must now also bear the cost of publication: editing, cover design, site hosting, marketing and promotion, all the costs the traditional model would soak up both in terms of practical and financial, now lay heavily on the indie author’s shoulders.

Online communities such as 20booksto50K on Facebook champion this independent spirit, outwardly challenging the notion that there is no money to be made in publishing (a sad example of the sort of fake news that has snaked its way into the global consciousness and curriculum of Universities across the country) with monthly announcements by its members, with evidence (see Appendices 1, 2, 3 and 4), of the sorts of author royalties that would make Stephen King blush (Forbes, 2015).

By keeping to rigid publishing schedules of old and not embracing a faster publishing model, these companies are forcing authors to go elsewhere in order to create a sustainable living. It is a self-destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy that can only be stopped by great, and drastic, change.

With the power balance shifting from large corporate publishing houses to the indie-spirited thanks to the perfect combination of vastly reduced time between finished manuscript and publication, higher royalty payments, and the control to release written works in whatever shape or format is desired, what does this mean for the traditional publisher? Will they be forced to close their doors as the pandemic rise of the independent publisher sweeps over them? Of course not; just as the golden age of the Hollywood Studio system of the 40’s adapted to changing times forced by outside factors (TV Tropes, 2021), today’s giant studios of Hollywood still continue to exist amidst a sea of smaller, independent filmmakers who have embraced the advancements in technology to bypass the same gatekeepers: agents, producers and executive heads of studios, in order to produce and release their films, their way.

The question to be asked is, will they do this willingly or be reluctantly forced into change by a rapidly evolving world at a time when supply chain issues, paper shortages and rising costs all round start to limit the options that were previously widely available, the staples of a once stable publishing method.

Steps are already being taken to counter any perceived threat to the status quo and this will only increase over the next five years as the adage “adapt or die” becomes the rallying cry through the corridors of the big Five. Again, like the Hollywood Studios of old, the first opportunity to survive is the acquisition of other studios, or in this case, other publishing houses. With their many imprints, some obtained by buying out smaller independent niche publishers, Harper Collins alone publish over 1’500 books a year (HarperCollins, 2021). Already steps are underway for five to become four as Penguin Random House looks to buy out Simon & Schuster, and by 2026 it is very feasible that the four may become three or even two as smaller publishers are bought out and merged under large corporate umbrellas. To some this may sound an alarm with concerns raising from the size of one company, its increased buying power and the inevitable loss of jobs (Gouty, 2021). However, circling the wagons in this way is a viable tactic when confronted with a strong and prolonged attack from supply issues, rising costs and reduced individual spending power due to the types of huge economic swings the world is currently facing. Economic gurus prophesise that this is only set to worsen in the short term as Governments struggle to combat the many challenges they find themselves bombarded with in today’s volatile climate, another reason why the independent author/publisher movement is growing.

Just as an author finds greater success by focusing on a niche, so too did the Hollywood studios, leaving the B-movies for the smaller independent studios while they concentrated on bigger budget star vehicles. Translating this from film to book, for the publishing house, having big brand name stars on their lists so they can cash in on the cult of celebrity has become a near standard practice, and a very lucrative solution for all involved. Amy Schumers advance was between $8-$10 million; Tina Fey’s Bossypants landed her a $6 million advance (Oswald, 2016). The name alone will attract a great deal of attention and, if they have a large following on social media, bestseller status is almost guaranteed. Take for example Richard Osman, best known as a popular host and presenter of afternoon TV quiz shows. He wrote a cozy crime novel which landed him a seven-figure deal including a followup book after a ten-way auction (Barnet, 2019). Would that have happened without his status as a celebrity and a cadre of 1.1 million followers on Twitter? I would doubt it. A small publisher wouldn’t have the lure that the larger companies have, both in terms of marketing reach or upfront finance and so a celebrity or their agent is highly unlikely to approach them looking for a deal. That leaves the big houses who are perfectly suited to this niche.

The question of whether or not the books are of any significant quality is a highly contentious subject with arguments thrown back and forth for either side, neither of which affect the ultimate success of the book. And then there is the argument that these high-profile books are sucking the oxygen from the release of the new unknown author (Unknown Author, 2020). The existing success and awareness of the celebrity’s brand such as Strictly Come Dancing’s Richard Cole and his cosy crime novel or Hillary Clinton and her thriller, will practically guarantee it hits the bestseller list.

By focusing on this highly profitable niche, and building lists of well recognised names all under their numerous imprints, the big publishers can maintain their hold of the traditional publishing model as the authors have their “day job” to fall back on alongside these ridiculously huge advances which will never pay out.

However that doesn’t keep them from finding successful talent from the independent scene and bring them under their umbrella. Take for example Ruby Dixon and her Ice Planet Barbarian science-fiction romance novels, self-published via Amazon in 2015. Her series was extremely popular especially amongst the 20books to 50K movement; she was seen as a guiding light for those authors wanting to pursue the independent route due to her success. And then in 2020, as people were finding her books, one TikTok user posted a review and her books went viral, with sales skyrocketing. That was when Penguin went knocking and secured her books, publishing them under a traditional contract with added content (Bussel, 2021). A genuine interest in the genre, or a cynical grab for a slice of the independent pie? It will be interesting to see how many more independent authors get offered such deals, or those emerging writers in similar genres given the opportunity to submit such works, historically turned down in favour of the more literary.

As we move into the third year of the pandemic, and with no clear evidence that there will a conclusive end to the situation anytime soon, it could be easy to look at the future of publishing with pessimistic eyes. If the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has taught us anything it is this: habits can be changed. People and institutions can adapt and mindsets, however indoctrinated, can be set free. Old institutions eventually die, no matter how hard those within struggle to keep death from its door, to be reborn under the umbrella of new ideas, fresh thinking and led by energetic entrepreneurs.

The traditional publishing model is in its last days in its current form; the lessons painfully earned by those writing their own path will be co-opted by the big four, whose monopoly on waning revenues will now not be the stranglehold it once was but instead a futile and weakening death grip.

Those who choose not to see this, who insist that not all traditions die, will find themselves the ones on the outside, trying to find a way in, and to them, the message can only be: “Hurry up and wait.”

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