Somehow i missed Michel Mace’s January blog post about his 2011 predictions. Mace, whom I think is one of the, if not the, smartmest people on the internet, divides predictions into Fish in the barrel, Shots in the dark, Wish fulfillment and Self-service. I suggest you read the whole article. Here is what he has to say about publishing:
Someday, ebooks will enable established authors to sell their writing directly to the public, bypassing the publishers and bookstores and taking 70-80% of the revenue for themselves, rather than giving 85% of it to middlemen. I have no doubt whatsoever that this will happen. The trick is figuring out when. People have been predicting it for more than a decade, but so far the publishers are still in charge.
As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’ve tried to do some economic analysis on when we’ll reach the tipping point where publishers become redundant (link). I won’t repeat the whole analysis here, but the summary is that when about 20% of the book-buying public has ebook readers or tablets, it’ll make economic sense for an established author to drop print entirely and go straight to electronic distribution (because they can make so much more per copy sold electronically). We’re likely to see slow progress for ebooks until that point, and then an accelerating stampede after.
We’re not close to the 20% tablet penetration figure yet, and we won’t hit it in 2011. But 20% is just an average across all authors; some may find that the market has shifted for them earlier than others.
So I was fascinated when I ran across this LA Times article on authors who have already decided to start ditching their publishers (link). These aren’t vanity writers going electronic because they can’t get into print; they’re established authors who are pulling their backlist books out of print because they can make more money selling them electronically. One of the authors, Joe Konrath, detailed the economics of his decision here.
Check out the Times article and Konrath’s scenario on the potential death spiral for bookstores (link). The rumbling sound you’ll hear is the Four Horsemen riding after the book publishing industry. Will they arrive in 2011? Not for all publishers, and not all at once. My guess is that we’ll continue to hear more hype than action in 2011, with the big switch starting in 2012 or 2013. But the situation is fragile, and today’s migration could turn into a stampede sooner than I expect.
What it means. As I’ve said before, publishers need to find a way to deliver real value to authors and readers in an electronic world. Maybe it’s editing services, maybe it’s marketing, maybe it’s something I can’t think of. But it’s different from what most of them do today. And no, helping an author navigate the variety of ebook stores is not the answer. An agent can do that.