The fur continues to fly on the Amazon versus Publisher battles and I note Amazon even made it into the Garden Writers weekly email blast a month – or so- ago. Allow me to offer a bit of perspective on this and to do this I’m inviting you to engage in a truncated history story. Somewhere in the 1490’s the printing press established itself as the “killer app” of its time. The press ended several millennia of scribes and there were corresponding riots in the streets, strikes and significant property damage done by these suddenly-out-of-work knowledge workers.
A Brief History
At that point, if you owned a printing press you could communicate with wider numbers of people and the list of thinkers and revolutionaries, including a significant number in North America, who owned printing presses is a rather long one. Printers were publishers and authors paid to have their books printed and did all the selling themselves. The publishing industry then morphed and changed with writers doing the writing and publishers doing everything else. The “traditional” self-publishing adventure became known as “Vanity Publishing” and was relegated to the lesser ranks of the publishing firmament.
Enter the small local bookstore and salesmen calling to hand sell the latest booklist along with distribution companies to move the books to retailers. This provided a perfect differentiation between writer, publisher, logistics and retail with each person getting a bit of the pie. Whether you got a large enough slice was a subject for lawyers and agents who also managed to get their own small sliver of the tasty treat known as publishing.
But then, retailers started their own revolution. The big box bookstore arrived to hammer the small independent stores with their selection, pricing and mass-buying power. Those box stores got larger and larger until you could play football comfortably in one side while a NASCAR race was going on in the other. I remember the screams of anguish from the small bookstores about this and how these box bookstores were killing publishing.
Enter the Internet and Amazon stage left.
It didn’t take long after Amazon started selling books before the big publishers started crying, “foul” and the box stores started haemorrhaging cash. Amazon’s subsequent ebook revolution inserted itself into the book chain, cut publishers, distribution and retail stores links out, leaving authors selling directly to readers. That’s pretty much where things stand today.
Oh yeah, except that some of those box stores that killed small bookstores that killed small publishers who killed off the scribes have been killed off themselves. And some small bookstores, focussed at meeting community needs with great service had thrived over the past three years.
Amazon is no more destroying the publishing industry than Gutenberg did. They’ve both changed it. Small bookstores took direct sales away from small publishers and the publishers consolidated to adapt. Barnes and Noble didn’t kill the publishing industry, it changed the landscape for retailing and made it more difficult for the older distribution system to survive. Amazon isn’t killing the industry either but it is changing it as they have a much more efficient system of retailing and distribution than the previous systems.
Amazon Isn’t Destroying Publishing
People are reading in greater numbers than ever so how can the publishing industry itself be dead? It has changed for sure and it will continue to change; that’s the one thing we can be certain of, now the technology revolution is upon us. But whether you count electronic books or print, the industry is selling a great many books so the “publishing industry” is fine.
Some business models may be in trouble, but that’s the nature of change. And it’s not publishing that’s fighting with a large corporation, it’s a group of large corporations that are fighting among themselves to see who gets the biggest share of the pie. Publishing is, by the numbers, only a small part of each of their respective business operation.
Can You Make A Living As A Writer
There’s no question in my mind that this is quite possible with self-publishing. It may not be as easy as it used to be and a quick look at book sales numbers in the gardening genre aren’t all that encouraging. But yes, I do. Here’s the small secret – it’s all cumulative. Everything I write stays active for as long as I want it to. So when I publish one ebook, it stays online making money week after week. Some of the ebooks only make a few sales a week. Some make more. But aggregating all the ebooks and webpages together, I have a living wage and I make more every year now than I ever made from traditional publishing.
Some of you are doing better (or your publishers are) on individual ebooks. Having seen sales numbers across the genre, I can tell you that some of our garden writers, who are getting 25% royalties on their ebooks are doing quite well with individual ebooks. The question is how much the print publisher influenced ebook sales and how much the tide of garden fashion influenced them? Or whether the ebook/book is a classic and the subject matter is hot again. Lots of questions there indeed. But for the moment…
Lots of Smoke But Little Fire
As my (maybe) last thoughts on this, let me point out there are two factors in this story that haven’t changed. The first is the fact of change itself. It’s been with us and will continue to be part of our lives.
The second thing is the content of those books. Somebody has to write the words and illustrate them in some way. If you can produce ideas and information that people want to read, you still have a place in this adventure and indeed content creators will be the only constant no matter what system arrives to spread the ideas.
Our ultimate goal is to become such good writers that people want to read us no matter where we publish. Making money is another matter.