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Publishers robust but self-publishing may be getting trickier

31 October 2016

The recent Book Fair at Frankfurt showed a slight increase in attendance figures but otherwise seemed much the same as ever, with corporate publishers surveying the international publishing world from their huge stands and life going on pretty much as usual. But how can it be the same for publishers after the digital revolution and the great upsurge in self-publishing, haven't they affected things at all?

Neil Denny, writing in Bookbrunch, described this year's Book thus:

‘People were confident, and judging by the parties and the stands, this is hardly an industry drawing in its horns. Some of that is book fair groupthink, some of that marketing bravado, but underneath a sense that publishing is alive and kicking, that the digital monster has been tamed, that the future is bright. I've always thought that the rise of global English is our ace-in-the-hole, the 19th century will save our 21st century, and when you switch on German TV and some of the children's programmes are in English, you know we are in luck...'

But Mike Shatzkin, acute as ever in his view of international publishing, has put his finger on what's been going on in his recent column, The latest marketplace data would seem to say publishers are as strong as ever - The Shatzkin Files The Shatzkin Files.

His view is that publishers are doing very nicely, thank you. He identifies three big changes which have affected the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem the rise of ebooks, the development of print on demand and the huge growth of Amazon. But he says that the industry has been flooded by the increase in the number of books published, in the US it was 100,000/200,000 titles a year but is now up to over a million.

Shatzkin observes that the breakthrough of big indie author books happened far more frequently before the market was flooded with a vast number of titles. Per title sales are plummeting. Readers are at best reading the same number of books (although even that is questionable given the competing claims on their attention), but the number of books they can choose from has exploded. The result is that it is getting harder for indie authors to make money than it is for publishers, who have all the benefits of scale, professional marketing, backlist and ebook profits, which are probably substantial when the start-up costs for a book have been written off against the print editions.

The result of all this is to alter the balance between self-publishing authors and publishers, in favour of the latter. Publishers have cut their lists and are taking fewer risks, indie authors have to face huge competition.

It also means that some authors might want to reconsider whether going for self-publishing or trying to find a traditional publisher is the best approach for them.