News has surfaced this week of two surprising defections from rapidly entrenched sides in the Great Publishing Wars of 2011™. In the red corner is the reluctant indie/self-publishing darling Amanda Hocking, author of several self-published ebooks and POD (print on demand) dead tree titles. Hocking recently announced she had sold over a hundred thousand copies of her books via Amazon’s Kindle store. In the blue corner is Barry Eisler (Barry who?), author of the John Rain series of thriller novels (published by Penguin) and surprisingly good-looking (in the publishing business we call them ‘promotable’).
So what’s happened, and why should we care? Basically in the past week these two have switched sides. Eisler has turned down a $500,000 advance by his publisher to follow J.A. Konrath down the self-published rabbit hole, and Amanda Hocking, it is rumoured (by Amanda herself), is on the verge of accepting a deal with a traditional publisher.
Quite a bit of blog space has already been filled up with speculation and analysis of this situation by smarter people than me. So for this post I would like to concentrate on how I think this situation might play out long term – or rather, how it might turn out to be representative of how books will get published in the future.
Most publishers wouldn’t argue that discovering amazing writers is one of the hardest parts about publishing. And when I say ‘amazing writers’, I don’t just mean people who can write well. There’s a sort of magic that takes place somewhere between the author, the page (or the screen) and the reader. The best publishers try to pick up on this magic and publish books that people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That’s how fortunes are usually made in books – both by the publisher who discovers and develops the talent, and by the author who writes the actual books.
The difficulty with this kind of publishing is that the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. Lots of people write, and love writing. Very few writers, relatively speaking, are worth reading. When there are very few publishers (indie fanatics, read: gatekeepers), then the bandwidth is going to be terrible. Publishers have tried harnessing technology to solve this dilemma in the past (see: Authonomy et al.) But I’ve spoken about the problems surrounding community-based filtering before.
What the Eisler / Hocking switcheroo has shown us, though, is that self-publishing (at its low end) can provide a low-income microcosm of how traditional book publishing plays out. It’s far more market-driven than traditional publishing. And its cut-throat competitive nature ensures that only the authors who have the magic – and the persistence, hard work and nous – will make headway. In the years to come, the self-publishing arena will, I am sure, be a goldmine for traditional publishers.
And the price publishers will pay for this amazing organic filtering service? The risk of losing their existing authors to the clamoring, messy, dynamic horde of self-published writers. Publishers really will have to compete to hold on to their successful authors, particularly those that are self-starting, driven and ambitious. Some authors (like Eisler), will find that the odds are stacked in their favour. But many authors just want to write, and don’t want to spend their lives administering their own career (like Hocking). And there will be other authors still who are created in the self-publishing bubble and never leave – an option that could not have existed only a few years ago. All of this is great news for readers, authors and publishers. There will be better books, and more of them, they’ll be easier to find and (one hopes) the right books will find the right audience more of the time. In others words, it’s a great time to love books.