Digital Abundance in Publishing isn’t killing Culture – It’s saving it

Note: This is an essay I wrote recently for my degree and even though it has a strong Australian Publishing focus I still thought I’d share.

‘Publishing finds itself in the midst of a “phase shift” from the scarcity model of print to a complex, new world of digital abundance,’ (Lichtenberg 2011) and it is this shift that not only has seen the birth of the eBook, but forced traditional publishing houses to readjust their business models and created an insurgence of self-published writers into the market.

This wealth of books is predominately due to the changes in book production technology itself ‘which has enabled digital publishing, distribution and retailing, and the introduction of hand- held digital reading platforms and devices’ (Zwar 2016) forcing a change in marketing, promotion and book store trade, but also creating new and innovative opportunities for Australian writers and stories.

Literary writer and critic Jonathan Franzen famously claimed in an interview with The Guardian that self-publishing ‘is decimating literary culture in favour of the “yakkers and tweeters and braggers”(Bury, 2013) but the impact of self-publishing and its ‘economic and cultural significance…means that it should, finally, be taken seriously by scholars’ (Baker 2015) and not simply dismissed as a mere ‘vanity.’

Dramatic change within the publishing industry is not new and despite the pessimism in the 2000s about the future of books, ‘global sales of books (including print and eBooks) remain strong’ (Throsby 2015).

The first eBook was made available in July 1971, and known as ‘eText #1 of Project Gutenberg, a visionary project launched by Michael Hart’ (Lebert 2009) in order to create electronic versions of literary works and make them available worldwide. With the internet born in 1974 and the release of the first browser Mosaic in 1993, the internet could now be used by anyone and authors, booksellers and publishers began ‘participating in heated debates on copyright issues and distribution control’(Lebert 2009). Although Project Gutenberg began the digital book process in the seventies, when thriller writer Peter James published his novel Host onto two floppy discs in 1993 he was ‘accused of killing the novel’ (Flood 2014) and ‘attacked as the harbinger of the apocalypse which would destroy literature’ (Flood 2014).

Despite the uproar, publishing had already started to became more mainstream in the mid-1990s with publishing disrupted first with photocopiers and digital printing accelerating book distribution, as well as print and digitised books beginning to be produced simultaneously. Books were suddenly easier to manufacture and distribute and ‘Australian publishers and printers were strongly encouraged to rethink their business’ (Carter and Galligan 2007) in order to take advantage and benefit from the new technologies.

In 1995 Amazon.com became the first online bookstore when it was launched by Jeff Bezos, creating a warehouse to consumer platform that changed how people buy books. Two years later leading bookseller Barnes and Noble created a new website to compete, publishing books through its own imprint for exclusive sale to boost trade, and other major book retailers soon followed. Digital reading devices were available as early as 1996 with Palm Pilots and smart phone reading apps as of 2001 with the Nokia 9210. When Amazon released the Kindle in 2007 it famously sold out worldwide in five and a half hours and the eBook became a new and ultra competitive publishing branch. This wrestle for eBook market domination came under legal fire when in 2014 Apple was charged with colluding with the Top 5 publishing houses to artificially raise the price of eBooks and was forced to repay 450 million dollars to their consumers.

Smaller online book sellers as well as ‘bricks and mortar’ stores suffered from the pricing wars of the larger booksellers with the ‘commercial and cultural effects felt worldwide’ (Carter and Galligan 2007). This internet trade market also created an issue with custom taxes and in 1997 the internet was ‘decided a free trade area…without any custom taxes for software, films and digital books bought online’ (Lebert 2009). International copy write and importation laws are still currently debated within Australia. The recent bid by the Productivity Commission to consent to parallel importation and reducing the copy write law to only fifteen years sent authors and publishers into an uproar.

Writers themselves embraced the internet and the ease with which they could publish and distribute their works through their own blogs and websites. In 2007 Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing concurrently with the Kindle device so that all publishers and writers could produce and sell to readers through their site. Worldwide platforms now include Ingram Spark, Smashwords and Lulu with accompanying Print on Demand imprints that allow readers to buy paperbacks of independent works.

‘Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists,’ claims literature writer Ros Barber (Guardian 2016) who is one of many who shares the misguided view that self-publishing is ‘seen as amateur, even as illegitimate’ (Baker 2015) when in fact self-publishing has a long history of our most beloved literature writers such as Charles Dickens, Walt Whiteman, Jane Austin and Marcel Proust forced to release their works on their own. Another criticism is that self published works aren’t edited to the same standard but traditional publishing does not necessarily guarantee quality, as there is ‘pressure to publish more books more quickly than ever’ (Opinionator, 2016) which results in errors like the famous continuity issues in the hugely successful The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (Harris, 2016).

A recent study undertaken by Macquarie University revealed that ‘one in five (19%) authors have self-published a print book or an eBook or both’ (Throsby 2015) in Australia in 2014 with genre fiction writers the most active in this field. Self-publishing has in many ways facilitated a way for writers to produce work freely without the restrictions of industry gatekeepers, and at least 59.4% of writers citing the reason behind their choice to self-publish was ‘to have creative and financial control of their work’ (Throsby 2015). With ‘65% of self-published writers being women’ (Baverstock 2013) it also has given an opportunity for glass ceilings to be broken and allowed new works to reach broader markets.

With so many additional writers being able to release their works, the market has grown abundantly with self-publishing representing ‘31 % of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store’ (Sargent 2014). This growth has allowed independent works to compete with traditional publishers but also has made discoverability more difficult. Self-published writers need to be marketers and self promoters as much as writers in order to reach their readers. Traditional publishing houses now expect their writers to engage in their own advertising as marketing budgets have shrunk and major publishers only focus the bulk of their promotion on their front list writers.

Writers must be proficient in ‘marketing, publicity, technology, and legal matters’ (Griffith University 2014) in addition to creating their original work. Self-published writers have embraced this as a part of publishing, while some traditionally published writers struggle with the idea of self-promotion as there is an expectation that the publishing house will market their work for them.

Despite criticism about ‘legitimacy’ self-publishing is growing with literature writers like Louise Walters experiencing the benefits when her publisher dropped her after her first book, and garnering the endorsement of the hugely successful, graphic novel trailblazer Alan Moore who recently stated that “most book publishers don’t want to take a risk on fiction” with his advice to instead “publish yourself. It’s become easier and easier”(The Digital Reader, 2016).

With new services such as Reedsey to assist in connecting writers to industry specialists such as designers and editors, self- publishing is moving through a new phase of professionalism with writers considering it a viable first option and not just as a ‘vain’ one after too many rejections from traditional houses.

Even lacking the obvious benefit of bigger marketing budgets and chain store distribution options like Big W and Dymocks, high quality self-published books have become a practical, legitimate part of the publishing industry that competes easily with traditional houses.

Australia is one of the world’s largest markets for books with an annual estimated turnover of $2.1 billion per year. The internet, TV and social media haven’t made books redundant but publishers are now aware that they have to find new ways to compete with these options in reader’s spare time.

Michelle Laforest from Harlequin Australia sees eBooks ‘as a format that gives publishers the opportunities to reach new markets in cost effective ways, and social media us giving tools to engage readers,’(Zwar 2016) and this attitude is reflected in the launch of Harlequin’s digital only imprint Escape Publishing in 2012.

In 2014 an overview by Nielsen BookScan reported an increase in Australia’s total book sales of 2.3% in volume and 2 % in value, mainly due to increased sales of children’s books. With Australia being one of the larger English speaking markets, authors are often networked in countries like the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand, giving them a larger international reach and income.

Presently, ‘approximately 33-36 percent of trade books sold in Australia are written by Australian authors according to industry estimates,’(Zwar 2016) but digital publishing is providing new opportunities for author’s to earn extra money through the publishing of their backlists and more daring projects.

In the academic fields, a digital marketplace provides opportunities for scholars to more easily share the wider findings of their research and engage new students. Traditional houses such as Momentum are taking on newer genres and more experimental works as well as Harlequin using their Escape imprint to take chances on a larger range of romance titles.

Opportunities in print are vastly smaller than its digital counterpart with traditional houses such as Allen and Unwin only selecting three different titles a year to do major promotional support, often beginning their campaigns a year in advance. Publishers often have difficulty convincing booksellers to buy in bulk, limiting the chances of sales on both sides if it is successful, with the majority of titles sold through large department stores such as Big W, who stock a wide range of genres for book buyers at discounted prices.

It is because of numerous logistics in traditional publishing such as higher costs in distribution, limited budgets and the change to the retail bookstore environment that make paperback publishing constrained and not as environmentally friendly, logistically sound or as profitable as digital.

The digital marketplace continues to provide opportunities for ‘scholarly publishers to participate in open access publishing – giving away content for free – while selling print format books’ (Zwar 2016) and for traditional fiction publishers releasing in an eBook means suffering less financial risk due to the minimised cost of producing digital works.

Digital publishing has no limitations when it comes to innovation with new technology constantly facilitating fresh ways of telling stories. Interactive books are now able to read and engage with children, unique apps are being perfected to help those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, as well eBooks being ‘sound tracked,’ through companies like Book Track or collaborated with bands such as Hugh Howie recently announcing his deal with Imagine Dragons to compose his Silo Series.

Despite the upheaval and general disarray in the industry claimed by traditional Australian publishing houses in the past five years, ‘40% of authors respond that there is no change, 15% are better off and 15% are worse off ’ (Zwar 2016). Taking into account ‘the average income derived from practising as an author is $12,900’ (Zwar 2016) and publishing houses offering smaller advances, there are few authors in Australia that can afford to write full time on the traditional structure. Digital publishing has facilitated new prospects for these writers to be published through digital imprints, such as Escape and Momentum, or to publish it themselves to find their audiences. Despite the remaining stigma ‘over one quarter of authors have self-published work,’ (Zwar 2016) in order to keep their older titles available and supplement their writing income.

The Australian Book Industry is served by a framework of publishers, agents, writer’s centres, writer support networks and various university degrees in creative and professional writing. With the Federal Government’s recent slashes to arts budgets ‘our culture is in crisis. It is a crisis cutting deep and hard across our whole nation, forcing us to confront some of the most basic questions we as a people could ask” (Sewell, 2016).  Digital and self –publishing, while creating abundance and upheaval, should no longer be viewed as an undesirable result of technology but an opportunity for modernisation in the Australian Market and as a way to preserve Australia’s culture of talented writers and strong, diverse voices.

 

Bibliography

Bury, L. (2013). Amazon model favours yakkers and braggers, says Jonathan Franzen. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/13/amazon-yakkers-braggers-jonathan-franzen [Accessed 23 Oct. 2016].

Lichtenberg, J. (2011). In from the Edge: The Progressive Evolution of Publishing in the Age of Digital Abundance. Publishing Research Quarterly, 27(2), pp.101-112.

Zwar, J. (2016) Disruption and innovation in the Australian book industry: Case studies of trade and education publishers. Macquarie Economics Research Papers. pp.1.  

Baker. D. (2015). Self-publishing matters – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. [online] Available at: http://theconversation.com/self-publishing-matters-dont-let-anyone-tell-you-otherwise-37986

Throsby,D (2015). Book authors and their changing circumstances: Survey method and results. Macquarie Economics Research Papers. pp.1.  

Lebert, M., 2009. A short history of ebooks. University of Toronto, 2009 p.p.6

Flood, A. (2014). Where did the story of ebooks begin?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/12/ebooks-begin-medium-reading-peter-james

Lebert, M., 2009. A short history of ebooks. University of Toronto, 2009 p.23

Carter, D. and Galligan, A. (2007). Making books. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.p152

Austlii.edu.au. (2016). COPYRIGHT ACT 1968. [online] Available at: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/ca1968133/

Zwar, J. (2016) Disruption and innovation in the Australian book industry: Case studies of trade and education publishers. Macquarie Economics Research Papers. pp.296.  

The Guardian. (2016). For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way [Accessed 27 Oct. 2016].

Opinionator. (2016). The Price of Typos. [online] Available at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/the-price-of-typos/?_r=0 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2016].

Charlaine Harris. (2016). Charlaine Harris Frequently Asked Questions. [online] Available at: http://charlaineharris.com/?page_id=69 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2016].

Baverstock, A. and Steinitz, J. (2013), Who are the self-publishers?. Learned Publishing, 26: 211–223.

Sargent B. (2014). Surprising Self-Publishing Statistics. [online] Available at: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/63455-surprising-self-publishing-statistics.html/

Study Guide CWR320 Publishing in the Market Place 2014, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane pg 45

The Digital Reader. (2016). Alan Moore’s Advice to Authors: Self-Publish, Because “Publishing’s a Complete Mess” | The Digital Reader. [online]

Sewell, S. (2016). Friday essay: the arts and our still-born national identity. [online] The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-arts-and-our-still-born-national-identity-68434 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2016].

 

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