Last week I was in the US to attend BookExpo America, where I met some US students who are enrolled to take the Kingston University Publishing MA this coming academic year. What’s in store for them? By the time they graduate in a year’s time, what state will the publishing industry be in?
It’s certainly true there are major challenges ahead. A couple of weeks ago the major American publishing house of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers of a range of distinguished authors from Mark Twain to JRR Tolkien, filed for bankruptcy in the US and the there was a collective shudder from the rest of the industry: jobs are being gapped; there is intense pressure on the margins; real difficulty in getting stock into bookshops and on-going concern about how to influence the elusive potential customer now that they are no longer content with the traditional buying journey from literary review to physical bookshop, and can be influenced by so many new intermediaries. Plus of course there is the growing challenge of self-publishing, which some industry commentators hail as harbinger of doom for the traditional publishing industry.
In my opinion, the very factors that are being used to cite the industry’s downfall, are heralds of its ultimate survival – albeit in a changed form. Self-publishing is creating an awareness of both author and reader power; new things to read about coming from new providers, and in the process influencing more people to get involved – either by planning their own contribution to literature, or just reading more. Perhaps the industry has been over-mediated in the past, and the zeal with which people are buying into subject areas that were relatively under-represented in the past shows signs of invigorating the practice of reading. Even those who don’t particularly want to read Fifty Shades of Grey are finding it’s important to have an opinion, and self-publishing has also drawn attention to ‘quiet’ books like Darcie Chan’s The Mill River Recluse which the traditional industry did not know quite where to site, and so decided not to bother trying – but when released as an ebook drew an enormous following.
It’s important to mention the immense significance to the cultural landscape of so many people wanting to be seen as writers and readers, and owning the books created by self-publishing facilitators such as Lulu. When so much of life is conducted online, from conversations to treasured images, and so remains both essentially ephemeral – and loseable – the possessability of the tangible self-published book is something to be prized. And if those who never visited bookshops are prizing books created in this way, then the industry is surely primed to benefit. We should be asking ourselves what else can they be sold?
Passion for writing is not in short supply, as evinced by the c.600 people who trudged through deserted Manhattan streets for the 8am opening of uPublishU on Sunday morning, on the lower floor of the Javit’s Centre. They came from all over the US (and in my case from the UK) and stayed all day.
But while the energy of the self-publishers draws comment, it was interesting that the traditional publishing industry was well represented at uPublishU too. The panel of four author success stories featured four tales of books that had begun as self-published, but then progressed through a traditional route once success was established. All four authors told the same story: they had picked up an agent and a traditional publishing deal, precisely because they wanted to write and involvement in self-publishing had made them realise how hard the process really is. A session led by four agents showed how self-publishing authors want the support and external validation that an agent offers too. They may replicate that function while writing – through online support groups, university tutors (taking yourself seriously with a writing course) and the paid for writing support offered by an increasing number of service organisations. But in the longer term, the feedback of friends and loved ones (‘it’s lovely dear’) is not enough for them either, and once they are successful many revert to the support of a traditional industry professional.
Ultimately I suspect the current rush to get material out there will be followed by the pursuit of quality. So in the same way that UK motorway service stations are now dominated by Marks & Spencer sandwiches, and the process has forced all catering providers to up their game, the discerning author will want a product that represents their work in best possible way. One of the problems for the traditional industry is that the process of careful publishing is only evident when absent – there is a rightness to effective publishing that makes us assume it was always so. Self-publishing and current discussion of what we are reading is raising awareness of how material gets shared and the long process involved.
In summary, it seems to me that what is going on at the moment is a huge market research exercise – into what the reader wants, how they want to access their reading material and how it will be made available. The role of the professional publisher in making this happen is important – the industry is spreading out rather than disappearing, and while some traditional structures will need to rethink their approach, the public’s evident desire both for good stories and high quality information will mean that publishers are still needed. Our future students should have full confidence they are entering into a lively, inspiring and impactful profession.