Let me get this out of the way first before I go on: I am not saying that traditional book publishing is dying. You heard me right, your ability to go to the store of your choice, pick our a paperback or hardback book, take it home and read it will probably not go away... at least not entirely.
Two days ago an interesting thing happened. As described here, on Christmas day more books electronic books were sold through Amazon.com for the Kindle than traditional paperback books. Even before this happened, Amazon's sales of E-books were about on-par with traditional books. In fact, Amazon.com has said that their top selling item in the entire company is the Kindle. I don't think that it is possible to deny that people are switching to electronic reading.
This begs some larger questions though. What of traditional book publishers, like Random House, ACE, TOR, Del Rey, and others? How will they be able to survive in the new marketplace? I'm sure that some people are already rolling their eyes and thinking that this is another article about how new technology is supposedly going to revolutionize life as we know it, change paradigms, and otherwise open up access for the entire world (Cue the old Coke commercial from the '70s and '80s where they just want to buy the world a Coke...). I'll repeat, I don't think paper books are going to go away, and I think that traditional book publishers are going to survive in one form or another for as long as there is demand.
On the other hand, I am talking about technology and electronic readers are presently changing the way that people read books. In a recent interview Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, said three things that I find interesting. First, he said that he was surprised by the success of the Kindle. Second, he said that that he believes that we will see the end to paper publishing, in favor of electronic publishing, at some point in the future. Third, he said that he doesn't read novels in paper form anymore if he can help it. These are bold statements from a man who was one of the first to pioneer E-business. Today, language, text, and technology are all inter-related in new and exciting ways. We haven't seen an innovation to the traditional book of this magnitude since the invention of the printing press. Note that I'm not talking about E-readers specifically, but rather the internet and the wide variety of tech-options for reading information, whether it be short form, like online article or long form, like novels. Paradigms really are shifting right in front of us, and many of the people like me, born in the '70s and before, are either struggling to keep up, or see the modern age as the fulfillment of the promise that was made by science fiction authors.
As we all know, the current model of publishing is where the author creates a brilliant work and then sells it to a publishing house. This often involves an agent, who performs the vital service of selling the author's work to the publisher. The publisher then provides the services of editing the work, providing cover art, marketing, and printing. All three of those items are expensive. Just getting one paperback title onto store shelves costs thousands of dollars. While it's not impossible for an individual to do this themselves, it is not easy.
Whether the traditional publishing houses like it or not, E-publishing changes everything, beginning with printing. Usually, the most expensive part of publishing a book to paper is printing. Thanks to E-readers, you don't need paper anymore. One quarter of the services provided by a traditional publisher has just been eliminated. Now, at this point, the mercenary in many writers thinks, "Hey, I can do this myself now!" In fact, yes, the writer is now free to forego the traditional publishing house and do it all themself. It's called self publishing, and it has actually been around slightly longer than the E-reader due to a number of high quality print on demand outfits. If you recall, however, there are four things that a publisher does for an author, not just one. The other three are still important.
So let me ask you, dear reader, why do you not go to the Lulu.com storefront, peruse the various self-published books, and buy them just as often as the ones from major publishers? Generally, there are three complaints about self-published books: lack of editing, lack of quality cover art, and frankly, you don't exactly know what to buy.
So we're back to traditional publishing, just in a new medium. Right?
Not exactly. I'll preface my remarks by saying that a lot of what I'm about to say is based on information I've received from writers in the field. I personally, am an RPG writer who has not yet published my first novel (more on this later). First of all, traditional book stores are hurting. The ability to buy online as well as the fact that you can only buy books for electronic devices online means that a lot of people are saving themselves the trip to the store. Book publishing companies are also tightening their belts and requiring that a lot of authors do a lot of their own promotion. So that means that the things that traditional book publishers are really doing in the digital age is offer a paper option for customers, offer quality cover art, and offer editing. They are quite good at these things.
Note, however, that these publishers are now trying to claim perpetual E-publishing rights for the books they publish even while established authors are deciding to go it alone and publish their works themselves. After all, if you're an established writer with an established fan base that recommends your books to friends, then you simply don't need publishers to get your work out there. Put them out there yourself and make more money!
So what happens if you aren't an established author? You should be able to get cover art for your book for a few hundred dollars if you know where to look. But even if you have the expertise to edit your own work (which is actually usually a really bad idea), you still need to find some way to promote your books. While traditional publishers are asking authors to do a lot of self promotion, they still list their books with stores, which gets them on the shelf in your local store, which in-turn results in a certain number of sales. No, that doesn't mean that this will land you on the New York Times bestseller list, but it does mean that if they publish your book, you can probably count on a certain amount of money from the deal. The amount of money depends greatly upon things like the popularity of the genre you are writing for, the quality of the cover art they give you, as well as the terms of the contract you sign.
So book publishing in the 21st century looks a lot like book publishing in the 20th century, except with more gadgets? Essentially, that is what I'm arguing. Until you can afford to market your book, you still need the traditional publisher.
But there is another possibility that we might start to see more of: the publishing company that dispenses with the paper and the local book store, and sells directly to people over the internet. After all, with all these Kindles out there that just require data to give you a book, you don't need to invest in print runs. Also, by utilizing services like Lulu.com and Amazon's Booksurge, you can still get your books into print for those customers who still have to have paper. This company would still be responsible for editing, promoting the author's work, and they would be responsible for providing the book with good cover art.
So what's the advantage to this model? Put simply, accessibility. The bar for entry into this field is lowered significantly. In fact, the bar for entry into this market is lower than it is with roleplaying games, the field I'm in, because you don't have to bother with interior art, nor do you have to worry about game mechanics when you're editing. All you have to do is put together a good book and find an audience. This is something that small RPG companies have been doing for years by doing the work they can do themselves, bringing in freelancers to do what they can't, and then finding their audience online.
My argument is that if small RPG companies can do it, so can small electronic novel publishing companies. This also means that aspiring writers will probably start finding it easier to get their first book published, but the flip side of this is that there probably won't be as much money in it, unless you go through the large traditional publishing houses, at least not until that publishing house has built up a reputation for quality, or the author has managed to find an audience.
So in summary, book publishing in the 21st century will see the traditional book publishing Goliaths shrink but not disappear. We will see a rise in small presses that publish directly to electronic formats. We will see more people who are making some money from their writing, but we will probably see fewer authors who will be able to do it full time as their primary means of support.
And this is both good news and bad news to aspiring authors.