In the past year, the “if” and “when” questions for ebooks were answered—electronic media are now clearly in the mainstream and even driving changes in all aspects of publication/distribution/use of information and literature. June 2012 statistics from the Association of American Publishers clearly showed that ebooks have overtaken hardcovers in terms of publisher revenues.
2013 will see the next stages of the disruptions caused by our evolving interconnected world of information as they continue to change the very landscape of information production, distribution, and use. Key issues for the coming year remain unsettled.
The Role of Traditional Publishers
2012 saw the settlement of major legal issues facing publishers over collusion with Apple, investigations by the European Union, and now FTC’s settlement with Google. We saw the first stages of consolidation and mergers within the largest trade publishers, beginning with Penguin and Random House. However, at this point these huge giants still hold sway over book production globally. In a recent analysis of best-selling ebooks in 2012, Digital Book World noted that, “17 out of the 25 titles are published by either Random House or Penguin, about two-thirds of the titles. If the two companies combine next year and have similar success, they will control most of the best-sellers.”
On the other hand, an estimated 400 to 600 mid-sized presses exist in the U.S. doing strong business. Working on the edges of popular publishing, they have often been engines of innovation, finding novice writers of great potential and bringing them into prominence. Many of these presses—along with university presses—have continued to show flexibility and innovation in responding to market pressures and innovative potentials. In the past year, university presses have continued to look at opportunities to use either existing platforms (JSTOR, Project MUSE, Oxford University Press, etc.) or developing other options to support their missions and explore new options. And small presses aren’t the only signs of innovation on the horizon—the independent bookstore may also see a revival.
Fighting the prediction that the traditional bookstore is dead, the University of Iowa Press and Iowa City’s Prairie Lights—an independent bookstore with a strong reputation for working with new writers—are teaming up to publish works of fiction, poetry, and literary analysis. Partnerships like this are bound to continue as a clear alternative to self-publishing or dealing with the rejection rates of the big publishing houses. Given the University of Iowa’s renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, this is clearly a promising venture and a great example of the creativity and flexibility that technology can provide in addition to disrupting the status quo.
Self-Publishing’s ‘Gold Rush’
Consider, for a moment, the incredible success of Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy—with 65 million copies being sold of this book originally posted on a fan-fiction website, then through the author’s own website and finally published by The Writers’ Coffee Shop (an Australian virtual publisher), and finally through a more traditional publisher. In August 2012, Amazon UK announced that it had sold more copies of Fifty Shades than it had the entire Harry Potter series combined, and later announced that this was its “most popular product of the year.” The paperback version set new records as the fastest-selling paperback of all-time. And, of course, a movie or two is in the works. The author has made millions. Time to dust off that unfinished manuscript?
According to a recent survey, "81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them—and that they should write it,” writer Joseph Epstein blogged in 2012. “There is something very American in the notion that almost everyone has a book in him or her.” So, perhaps it is fitting that capitalism steps in to provide products and services to support these aspirations.
The number of services that have arisen to serve the needs of self-publishing authors has skyrocketed in the past year. Although the leading platforms are Amazon’s CreateSpace, Lulu, Kobo’s Writing Life, BookBaby and Smashwords, it is Apple, BN.com, and Google that remain the option of choice for selling ebooks. In July 2012, Pearson, PLC bought Author Solutions for $116 million to enter the market, positioning it as a subsidiary of Penguin Group to give the company “a leading position in this fast-growing segment of the publishing industry and brings significant opportunity for the two companies to collaborate.”
Mark Coker, Smashwords’ founder, remarked that this year “in the self-publishing gold rush, more money will be made in author services than in book sales.” And he may be right. The number of books, consultants, platforms, agents, and other services staking out this new territory rivals the 1889 Oklahoma land rush. EContent’s Peggy Hageman notes that, “choosing to go it alone only because you're afraid you don't have a shot in commercial publishing or because you don’t want anyone editing or even changing a single word does a disservice to your book. I worry that there are books, particularly novels, which might have a chance with agents and publishers, but that will never live up to their true potential and are now getting lost in the sea of self-published material.”
At the BookExpo America in June 2012, it was reported that more than 211,000 self-published titles appeared in 2011. In an October 2012 report on self-publishing, Bowker estimated that self-published books increased by 287% since 2006. Books published by traditional publishers, Bowker noted, increased 61% while nontraditional publisher titles grew by 3,542% from 2002-2011. Although some question the numbers, the trend is clear—ebooks and self-publishing are hot and getting hotter.
The Transformation of ‘Reading’
The hype today is focusing on merging information content with both the social as well as with non-print elements. The ability to clearly merge content and advertising and user data is creating not only revenue streams but changing how publishers see their products. Jonathan Harris of netizeen is focused on activating what he considers a “dormant social network” of readers that can be activated by focusing on the audience: “We’re not getting into the format conversation, we’re not getting into the content layer conversation. We are building an audience around a demographic—a content interest. Publishers already have a social network, it’s just unconnected.” netizeen is built to allow traditional print publishers a platform to “let readers discover each other, connect and build communities around your content right from the pages of a magazine that’s social. All you need to get started is a PDF.” Constantly changing, evolving content—is this the future of ‘magazines’? Perhaps 2013 will provide some opportunities to explore the future of information—and the implications for archiving/retrieving this new type of content.
The New Media Writing Prize made its third series of awards in 2012 and has proven to be an excellent venue for acknowledging and promoting the development of new media that also “raises awareness and provokes discussion about new media writing, the future of the ‘written’ word and storytelling.” New media artist/writer Andy Campbell believes the award’s real value is that it “celebrates and shouts about the pioneering writers who are slowly building this secret world of literature, often on their own, using skills they’ve developed themselves, in free time and with no financial backing, whether that means ‘getting your hands dirty’ with the actual code or not.” Campbell's own Dreaming Methods is an excellent venue for experiencing what the future of digital literature may be.
Kiss the E-Reader Goodbye?
Although they will continue to play a role in reading tools, e-readers as separate devices are becoming less and less important to the industry or to readers. Clearly the tablet or smartphone has won the battle of devices. Telling evidence of this is the latest revenue information for Barnes & Noble, during the nine-week 2012 holiday sales season, BN.com experienced a 13% increase in sales of digital content, which bodes well for ebooks, but also a 10.9% decrease in overall retail sales—due largely to a 12.6% drop in sales in their Nook division, which includes the Nook ereader, tablets, and accessories. This news comes despite having completed its strategic partnership with Microsoft in October, creating Nook Media, a BN.com subsidiary and Microsoft’s flagship entry into this arena.
Just after Christmas, BN.com made the announcement that Pearson, the leading educational publisher, had invested $89.5 million in cash in NOOK Media for preferred membership interests representing 5% equity stake in the division. Pearson North America’s CEO Will Ethridge noted that, “this new agreement extends our partnership and deepens our commitment to provide better, easier experiences for our customers. With this investment we have entered into a commercial agreement with NOOK Media that will allow our two companies to work closely together in order to create a more seamless and effective experience for students. It is another example of our strategy of making our content and services broadly available to students and faculty through a wide range of distribution partners.” This gives BN.com a 78.2% ownership, Microsoft a 16.8% and Pearson 5%, with an option to acquire another 5% in the future. Although strategic in sales and marketing of content in either print or electronic formats, the future of the Nook itself seems to be particularly tenuous at this point as tablet and smartphone sales skyrocket.
Idea Logical’s Mike Shatzkin noted in a New York Times blog that BN.com “are not selling the devices, they are not selling books and traffic is down. I’m looking for an optimistic sign and not seeing one. It is concerning.”
Part two of this examination of key ebook trends will focus on platform issues and the new relationships between readers, writers, publishers, platforms, standards, and libraries.