Thursday, July 8, 2010

The numbers are worse than I realized.

I don't have a crystal ball or a Ouija Board, but I’ve been doing some additional research regarding the trend of traditional publishing and the growth of the POD industry. What I'm finding isn't boding too well for the former, but the latter seems to be sitting in the "catbird seat" as James Thurber would say. It’s no wonder literary agents are perhaps getting a bit worried about their future. Of course, writers may need to be a bit nervous as well, since we're all in this together. One hand clapping makes no sound.

Here's the skinny: According to a May 19, 2009, report from Bowker (the global leader in bibliographical information management solutions) the statistics are as follows for U.S. book publishing for 2008, compiled from its Books In Print® database. Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that title output in 2008 decreased by 3.2%, with 275,232 new titles and editions, down from the 284,370 that were published in 2007.

Interestingly, this decline in traditional book publishing is offset by another extraordinary year of growth in the reported number of “On Demand” and short-run books produced in 2008.  Bowker projects that 285,394 On Demand books were produced last year, a staggering 132% increase over last year’s final total of 123,276 titles.  This is the second consecutive year of triple-digit growth in the On Demand segment, which in 2008 was 462% above levels seen as recently as 2006.

Those numbers are not promising for traditional publishing, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to extrapolate those percentages and determine the ultimate result when the lines cross on the X-Y axes chart.

According to Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services for Bowker, “Our statistics for 2008 benchmark an historic development in the U.S. book publishing industry as we crossed a point last year in which On Demand and short-run books exceeded the number of traditional books entering the marketplace. It remains to be seen how this trend will unfold in the coming years before we know if we just experienced a watershed year in the book publishing industry, fueled by the changing dynamics of the marketplace and the proliferation of sophisticated publishing technologies, or an anomaly that caused the major industry trade publishers to retrench. If you look beyond the numbers, you begin to see that 2008 was a pivotal year that benchmarks the changing face of publishing.”

I must agree with Ms. Gallagher that it looks like On Demand printing is, indeed, changing the face of publishing from the traditional publishing model. A few more years with the numbers continuing in the same direction may result in a huge consolidation of the remaining traditional publishers or a complete revision of the business model that will incorporate the POD technologies. We've already seen some of this change by the decisions of traditional publishers to offer digital versions. But that's a can of worms I'm not going to address in this post.

Retrenching, as Ms. Gallagher calls it, is not uncommon when technology changes the playing field. A similar consolidation took place a few years ago in the commercial printing industry. Digital printing and CTP (computer-to-plate) capabilities opened new markets for the larger commercial printers. Consolidation resulted, making the large printers larger, and the smaller ones were either absorbed or driven out of the business. Could this happen with traditional book publishing? Unfortunately, yes, it can. And it may be heading in that direction at lightspeed. With today’s ever-changing technology and the ability of any writer to take advantage of those services, traditional publishers, editors and literary agents are no longer necessary in order to get a writer's work to market and to the end user in either a hard copy or a digital copy format. It could happen. It's happening right this moment.

So there you have it. It appears that things are changing. What do you think?


  1. I wonder if the rise in non-traditional book sales is actually due in part to changes that have occurred in the traditional publishing industry, rather than being a contributing factor to the decline of later.
    It would be interesting to gather the experiences of first-time writers today, and compare them with the stories of novelists from 5 or 10 years ago. A decade ago, a writer with skill, talent and dedication could stand a great chance to get published traditionally. Now, however, there are so few traditional publishers and so many novelists that writers have to go to great lengths to catch anyone's eye.
    Several authors to whom I've listened in classes, book signings and writing panels have said that the job of an author these days consists more of marketing than any creative process. Writing seems to be a full-time job that pays a small advance, and then (statistically speaking) nothing for the first three novels. So, not only do authors need to be marketing professionals, but they need considerable free income to support themselves while writing.
    Furthermore, writers not only face the ever-increasing demands of publishers and agents, but they must also deal with distributors' constantly elevating bottom lines. Massive booksellers artificially create ever-decreasing demand for a small writer's work, and corporate writing houses attached to other media industries flood the market with higher-budget products that offer more along the lines of quick, simple, LCD entertainment.
    How many of us feel that POD is our only option? Not to mention the fact that POD and self-publication is wildly more profitable per unit for the individual writer. I don't believe that the correlation between rising POD book sales and declining Publisher success is indicative of the former pushing down the later, but rather the opposite. I think a staggering economy and corporate-empire mentality of many of these publishers have put their services out of the reach of the common writer. POD companies enter the picture, and traditional publishers have reacted quickly enough.
    The times are changing, and writers must evolve if we are going to continue to feed ourselves. Are we contributing to the downfall of the American Publishing Industry, or are we turning elsewhere for our paychecks because corporate publishers have more or less locked us out of the industry?

  2. My first thought as a new writer when I read this post was, agents and publishers have decided that the writer has to do their own promotion and marketing.

    As I was doing my own research when I first entered this industry and I learned that I would have to do all of this myself, I thought, Well then why even go to an agent or publisher?

    Not only have I had to write but also learn to market and promote. That's like two full time jobs if not more.

    If I have to do all this work myself, why not cut out the middle man and self-publish?

    I have also learned that the advances are much smaller now days and it's harder than ever to get your book represented.

    So again I ask, why not self-publish and make more of a profit myself?

    I read the comment from Nicholas above and I whole heartedly agree, but he says it much better.

    Thanks for this post.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.