industry growing painsA half-dozen articles on the publishing industry’s ‘growing pains’ crossed my RSS feed this morning. I guess the new year has everyone feeling introspective, and the short version is that people are tired.

Too many shifts in the business model. Too many trends coming and going, and authors try g to cash in on those trends with a glut of books. There are authors who are trying to reach new readers via bargain-priced subscription services. There are others who try and reach existing audiences through programs like Kindle Worlds, which publish within existing fictional universes. Some authors claim that quality is, as it always has been, the way to go, and a good book will find its audience. Others are trying to build audiences through sheer quantity, publishing many short books instead of a handful of long ones.

And readers? Sigh. Too much stuff! That is the net result of all of this author gaming. You could argue that there has always been too much stuff, and you would be right. But the internet has multiplied that to an almost exponential level. I recently added a folder of videos to my Dropbox account—I have all my workout DVDs ripped to my computer for Air Video streaming, and while I had always kept it off my Dropbox so it wouldn’t eat up all my space, Dropbox has increased the base level of space so much that I figured what the heck, and put it in there. Two days later, it is still trying to sync everything, and the status bar tells me it will be another 23 days before it finishes! Imagine that—me, an average user, an average customer, has so much digital media right now that it will take Dropbox almost a month to back it all up for me. I am not even a power user!

And the other level of reality is that, for books anyway, it’s about time as much as it is about money. Reading is still a fairly time-intensive hobby. You could download a song and be done with it in three minutes. Most books represent a time commitment of several hours—or days. My mother has always considered herself a fairly avid reader, for instance. She probably averages one or two books a month. No wonder the industry struggles—and has always struggled—for market share.Their higher-end users are buying maybe a dozen products a year!

And if those dozen purchases start getting cannibalized by subscription services, which charge as much for a whole month of unlimited reading as an author charges for one single book? I can see why that might be a problem.

I am not sure what the solution here is. Maybe shorter books—not churned out to generate 100 titles for a single author to peddle, but finely crafted and nicely done—will be part of the solution. It’s the album vs. song argument. Give me something I can consume in one sitting, and I’ll be able to purchase more stuff by more people for the same investment of time and money. Or maybe the subscription model really is the way of the future and we have to tweak it somehow so that authors get a fairer share but readers still get their bargain. Or maybe everyone simply needs to adjust their expectations. Authors might need to accept that the Gold Rush is over and their profit margin will be more down to earth, and readers need to accept that good content does cost money and be willing to pay a fair price for what they read.

Two articles worth reading for their comments on this are Mike Shatzkin, and The Passive Voice’s repost of him. There is no easy answer on this one. But I do see why people are suddenly worrying about this.

Previous articleReuters Huawei sales report chimes badly with Apple victory march
Next articleWant read-aloud in Kindles and other readers? Use FCC’s easy online form by Jan. 9
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. The “great purge” (as I think 2015 will come to be known) was inevitable — the barriers of entry are so low that anyone can writer a book (more correctly, a lot of people think they can write a book and make a lot of money). Lots of newer authors will get frustrated and move on when they see that it is a difficult creative endeavor and there is no “magic marketing plan” to get a lot of sales.

    I don’t think this is a problem (per se), nor is there a “solution” beyond “write great books” and engage with your prospective audience. People have always responded to great stories and they always will.

    I think your analogy of song vs. album is very interesting (and appropriate) — I think authors may find success in using short stories, flash fiction, etc. to engage and hook new readers, to get their attention (through subscription services and other means) and use that to try to convert readers into buying “the whole album” (novels).

    And hopefully, someday, a few of us authors can go on tour and sell out 100,000 seat stadiums. We can all dream. 🙂

  2. There are still more books than I can read in a lifetime, but for me I can prune the glut down by choosing not to read self-published authors, episodic character series, tie-ins, or YA. Still a lot out there, but the field gets narrowed.

    I’m not sure how to take the song – read in one sitting – idea. There are many fine first rate short books: Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, Of Mice and Men. But those work well short. A major problem with a lot of new books is too much happening too quickly; I would fear authors jamming 400 pages of content into 200. James Ellroy does it with a hyper condense style – an acquired taste – but he works hard at it with only a novel every two or three years. Lessor authors would just turn up the grist mill.

  3. Books are like music in that there are far more acknowledged great composers and authors reaching back through centuries than even the avid enthusiast can consume in one lifetime. What interests me is the discovery of new contemporary talents across all the arts, the people working now and competing against all the greatness that came before. Surely not much of it will be all that good or endure beyond one lifetime but digital access has made it easier for these aspirants to have a better chance so that worthy needle in a haystack can be more easily discovered. I hope.

  4. “Books are like music in that there are far more acknowledged great composers and authors reaching back through centuries than even the avid enthusiast can consume in one lifetime.”

    Wonderful, Publerati, just what I have been trying to articulate but never could put in words. To me, that simple fact has some broad impacts:

    1) If you hide your books behind a DRM wall, I probably just won’t read them – I’ll read one of the thousands of DRM-free or public domain books first.

    2) If you price your books too high I probably won’t read them – there are thousands of public domain books for me to read that are just as good as yours – and free.

    3) If you write a good book and offer it to readers without DRM and at a reasonable price, someone may read it – and that is far more than the majority of writers in days past could expect. Your chances of being read today are much greater than they were even 10 years ago.

  5. Since you mention DRM, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know of all the books published in print and all the music released on various formats from the beginning of availability, what percentage of those listening or reading that available format actually purchased the content. I believe I once saw a stat claiming that the average classic published in print is purchased once and read 77 times. Which means the author and publisher were paid once. So…77 readers divided by book price of let’s say $20 means the cost per read was .26 cents available to cover the author, publisher, and reseller. Suddenly a locked down ebook at .99 seems quite expensive! Who knows what the purchased book pass-along rates actually look like, similar to the way magazines measure this to establish audited ad rates? Maybe we need to “tag” some print books like endangered species and see how far and wide they swim over many decades. “Real-time” print book movements…sounds like an academic thesis to blur the eyes.

  6. Big readers read a lot more than 12 books a year – they are reading hundreds. In my heyday I read 300+ a year. Even now, I read around 40 a year, and I consider that a low number.

    The answer is that people need to stop publishing crap. More than half of what’s available is absolute drivel (some would say 95%+ is drivel) but even half is a lot. There are people publishing their absolute first ever book. Worse, the first draft of that book. Authors celebrated the fall of the gatekeepers (and self-publishing has given rise to some great books that might otherwise have never been) BUT the fall of traditional publishers resulted in far more garbage being published than diamonds in the rough.

    The reason is that authors who are still learning are incapable of realising how bad their work is. It’s the first stage of learning – unconscious incompetence. Competence runs in a general pyramid – you always have more beginners than experts – so there are more of these people than the ones who realise it’s not good enough to publish (Stage 2) and the ones who are actually good at what they do (Stages 3 and 4). Gatekeepers previously forced these people to keep learning and improving in pursuit of the publishing dream. Now there’s not even an incentive to get better. Some of them even game the system and become bestsellers (although one hopes temporarily).

    Readers are sick and tired because there is so much crap available and trying to find the stuff worth spending their time and money on has become a time-consuming exercise in itself.

    Authors have done this to themselves by publishing rubbish. The problem is, the ones publishing quality didn’t cause it, but are suffering for it because their work is buried. And the ones publishing quality works and hoping it will find an audience are the ones I have the most respect for because they are the ones dedicated to producing a product deserving of a reader’s time and money.

    What I hope will happen is the rise of a new era of boutique publishers offering authors better deals and working with them more collaboratively, but who only publish quality authors. This will develop publisher brands to work in tandem with author brands, and hopefully readers will come to recognise tandem publisher-author brands as a sign of quality.

    In terms of writing shorter – that’s not an answer. Some readers don’t WANT shorter. You can’t lump readers in one bucket and feed them the same stuff. Some like pie. Some want salad. Some want cake. I have written two short books (which is a different direction to my usual fiction) and the most common complaint is – I wish it was longer!

    Sure, some people want and consume shorter fiction. Other people want long books. The rise of the series (nowadays most bestsellers are part of a series) tells us that readers want to spend more time with their favourite characters and not less.

    • @Ciara, is it really taking that much time to find good books? I won’t disagree with you about the overall quality of what it being published, but I don’t blame self-publishing. 15 years ago, I read only sci-fi and fantasy. Then I noticed that most of what was being published looked the same, and I was bored with the same old, same old themes. So I switched to mysteries and thrillers. Traditional publishing didn’t serve me well then.

      Now that barriers are dropping, I’m back to discovering and reading the odd good fantasy or sci-fi story, some traditional, some indie. I don’t feel like I spend a lot of time “wading through crap” to find good books. Sure, I end up with some duds now and then, but I’ve developed a pretty good eye for what I’ll enjoy. One of my “tricks” is that I rarely download free books. I’ve been burned more by free than by books I’ve bought. I keep my TBR list short, but I always have something new to read, and I don’t have to spend much time to find them. I read 222 books last year, so I need lots of books to keep me going. While I can’t completely disagree with the “mountain of crap” meme, it doesn’t affect me as a reader.

  7. Hi Ciara,

    “What I hope will happen is the rise of a new era of boutique publishers offering authors better deals and working with them more collaboratively, but who only publish quality authors. This will develop publisher brands to work in tandem with author brands, and hopefully readers will come to recognise tandem publisher-author brands as a sign of quality.”

    This is what my company Publerati is doing in case you want to take a look. We pay authors the majority of the ebook royalty and then half for paperback editions. Only publish literary fiction. Publerati is mostly me working with freelancers as needed at this early stage. Most of what we have published has come from college lit professors and published authors who did not want to change their manuscripts to meet large publisher’s commercial requests. But also some promising first-timers with whom I invested a lot of my editorial time.

  8. DRM free would be nice to have, but it is not a deal breaker. If I want to read ebooks I pretty much have to accept DRM. For example, the four volume LBJ biography by Cario. Sure, there is always the likes of Project Gutenburn or TOR, but that limited selection would get old quickly – turning a glut into a famine and ensuing that ebook reading would fall way below paper bound reading. I will not refuse to buy or read a book based on DRM.

    Of course, I could always remove the DRM, but as I see it, it’s not worth the time and effort as DRM has yet to prevent me from actually reading a book I’ve purchased.

  9. “Sure, there is always the likes of Project Gutenburn or TOR, but that limited selection would get old quickly”
    47000 books is a “limited” selection? How many books do you read???? Reading a book a day it would take more than 100 years to read those books.

    What is really needed is plenty of independent reviews. Most of the newspaper/magazine reviews only review publishers’ books (because the publisher sends them free copies – the reviewers like freebies) which ignores a large number of self-published books. There are plenty of “likes” and “five-star-reviews” but how independent are they?

    Personally I mostly read books which I have read reviews of which directly cuts out about 99,99% od all books.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail