Hello again, m’lords and ladies. Today, I’d like to talk to you about the state of the industry that we all know and love. Publishing, just like every other business in the world, is in a state of flux. The internet is changing things, and the mesmerizing gas giant that is Amazon has been re-jiggering the gravity of the very old, very new, very multifaceted, very monolithic publishing juggernaut. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what the industry is doing, where it’s heading, where it should be heading, and how to get it there.
“The Big Five are evil!” cry the unpublished, weeping as they sign up for KDP and swig another Jack and Coke to dull the sting of failed queries. “The gatekeepers must die!”
“The Big Five are just five big things,” counter the hybrid authors and the leveler heads. “They’re cool once you get to know them. They’ll take you out for a drink and introduce you to their friends. Just don’t ask them to watch your purse when you go to the bathroom without signing a contract.”
“I’m going to need you to get in touch with our Swiss accounts,” whisper the top-floor New Yorkers, nervously adjusting their diamond cufflinks. “We might have to turn this ship around without warning, and these legions of self-publishing rats have been gnawing at our cables. I want my private jet ready if this all goes south.”
I’ve written about sales statistics and author earnings before, and I’m not the only one. If you follow the news, you’ll know that Hugh Howey, the breakout self-published author of Wool who has now signed with not just one but two of the Big Five, caused quite a stir a few weeks ago with his take on some self-published self-publishing data. To everyone’s utter shock and surprise, he found out that self-published authors can do really well! Even the self-published authors that do poorly are still doing better than their traditionally published peers, he says.
Howey and a mysteriously unnamed data-crunching accomplice have taken it upon themselves to aggregate a whole ton of figures from the best-seller lists on Amazon. With the mega-retailer playing it notoriously close to the vest when it comes to its sales figures, you’d think the hooded and cloaked duo would really be releasing some “game-changing” information, as they claim to be doing. But it turns out it all sounds a little bit familiar…like kind of exactly what we were all writing about back in October of 2013.
Howey says that self-publishing is officially taking over now that 53% of best-sellers are either self-published or independently published by a single-author publisher, which is basically the same thing. Indie titles make up 43% of daily unit sales, while Big Five sales are only 34 percent. Smaller presses and Amazon’s own imprint make up the rest. E-book sales comprise the vast majority of genre purchases, unsurprisingly, with mystery/thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, and romance being the biggest hits.
“Indie authors are outselling the Big Five,” Howey writes in his report. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” Well, yes. I mean, is it so shocking that a couple hundred thousand indie authors can churn out more content then five corporations? Maybe not. Is it surprising that it’s selling well? Only if you think “self-publishing” is synonymous with “unreadable codswallop,” which I don’t.
Self-publishing is awesome, Howey says. Let’s start a revolution. If we do it ourselves, we can hit the optimal balance between quality, price, and customer experience, and publishing will become a meritocracy-based utopia where only the bad die young.
And that’s the thing. Yes, self-publishing is great. But when it comes down to it, publishing is hard. Self-publishing is hard. Big Five publishing is hard. Small press publishing is hard. It’s expensive and time consuming and frustrating and heartbreaking. You know what’s even harder? Writing a book worth presenting to the public in any way, shape, or form. Understanding how to play roulette with the business side of things is definitely important, but let’s all remember that what sells well isn’t necessarily worth selling.
“Content is king,” we say at my day job, and as a small start-up taking on bigger competitors and doing it better, I have to agree. You can run an empire from the comfort of your couch if you want to, but only if you have something worth buying. Let’s support our self-published authors, by all means. But more importantly, let’s support great art. It can come from indie presses, certainly, and it’s amazing and wonderful that it’s so easy for anyone to bring good things to market. But great art comes from the Big Five, too. Maybe we should be focusing more on an appreciation of worthwhile books, regardless of their origin. Now how’s that for a revolution?