Slowly but surely our world is catching up to the fact that we are now in the twenty first century, the ‘Post Industrial’ or ‘Information Age’. Some areas of our lives went digital at the turn of the century, others over the last decade and some are still trying to work out what is going to happen.
One of these battles is to be seen in the Fighting between Amazon and major Publishers. That’s not the whole story, just the most obvious part. In actuality what is happening is a war for control of the written word in our society. Who controls the words, who sells them and how are they bought.
I love physical books, old books, proper hardbacks that I can rest on my lap in the evening as I lean back in a chair with a good drink. The touch and smell of books are a very real part of the process of reading, tactile and olfactory to combine with the visual words on the page. But them I’m from an older generation, I grew up long before Ebooks and PCs. The first computer I worked on was delivered by crane (over two tons), had a bootstrap tape to start it and used punched paper cards for data input.
But I also love Ebooks for reading on the go, for the office or the bus, for the ability to take a hundred books with me anywhere and just pick one to start. No more agonising over which three books to take on holiday when I was nothing but a lad and had no room in my suitcase.
So I read from both sides of the market and by both dead tree books and Ebooks, so in a way I straddle the middle of the war over words.
Last century, all of fourteen years ago, a book was something printed in a mass run by a printing house or publisher. You printed as many as your thought you needed and stored the ones that didn’t sell right away. When you ran out you waited till there was enough demand before committing to the expense of another print run, and they were expensive. Much of the cost was setting up so small runs were not that much cheaper, the actual cost of the paper was only a small part of each book.
Now this was basically controlled by the main publishers. They controlled who had books printed and they decided who would languish in obscurity never to be published. If the publisher thought you would sell then you got printed, unless you had friends in the right places those odd books that would be bought by only a few hundred people, not worth the money.
Authors struggled to be printed. If they made it to big name status they were set, sell that first million books or make the new York best seller list and publishers would line up to print you. Beatrix Potter, story about a rabbit, not interest young lady, get back in the kitchen. She had to publish ‘The tale of Peter Rabbit’ privately before anyone would pay attention.
Then technology began to rear its head and things started to change, not at the publish end and not at the selling end but at the writing end. People could buy a PC or the other thing that acts like a PC but is made by Apple, then they could write and edit and rewrite as data files. People could read those data files, they could be shared and emailed and they cost a few pence of electricity to send around the world.
Slowly but surely words and books had joined the information age, they had reached the digital revolution and things would never be the same again.
Ebooks had arrived and with them a whole new market began to be created. Ebook readers were created to meet demand, tablets and smart phones have software to allow them to function as books. A reader could have an entire library in their pockets.
Ebooks did not need to be printed, they were data files, you copied them. Sell ten, make ten copies, sell ten thousand, make ten thousand copies. An author could bypass the whole publisher tyranny and go it alone. A writer would need someone to do layout and editing if they couldn’t do that themselves but it’s the information age, such services are available online
So Amazon spotted a new market and lumbered over. Ebooks took up no warehouse space and cost no postage, no printing costs and all it took was a sophisticated online sales system which they already had.
So book shops came under threat, publishers came under threat. The old, traditional, printed book was looking out of date and obsolete. Bets were taken on how long till Ebooks replaced Tree Books completely.
Old fashioned book shops began to close or diversify, publishing houses had to adapt or go under. Things were changing and the publishers and the sellers were struggling to keep up.
Another new technology, ‘Print on Demand’ also arrived and further undermined the publishers and printers because the set up cost was gone. Want a single copy of a book, not a problem now.
Which brings us to the current fight. The War for Words.
The traditional power base of the publishers has cracked badly and is looking very wobbly. Amazon, among others, can smell blood in the water and are now circling and biting off chunks of the business whenever they can.
As of the end of 2011 as many Ebooks were sold as physical books. Since then it is slightly more though the numbers are fairly stable now. This means that Amazon and a handful of other online companies have dashed in and grabbed half the entire market from the old established publishers.
The publishers are fighting back by trying to handle Ebooks themselves but they are starting from scratch while the online companies already had the digital infrastructure. Also Amazon has the marketing power to drown any single publishing house when it comes to advertising. A new book, posters, a radio or TV campaign, very very expensive. Amazon, we just put it at the top of the search profile for that category.
So Amazon basically won the Ebook war and what we see if fighting over the scraps. But the war for the printed word is still being fought and this is what we see.
People still buy printed books, almost half of all books sold are Tree Books after all, so this is still a billion dollar market. But it’s an expensive way to do business. Big print runs are still done by big printers and that costs money. Publishers want profit, advertising is expensive, so many costs, oh and the poor old writer wants a few pence for each book as well.
So we see Amazon basically trying to bully the old fashioned publishers by not selling their books and the publishers trying to bully Amazon by selling them elsewhere.
Except that there are very few elsewhere’s’ now that are not also under threat. The traditional printers and publishers are struggling to change a century of doing things one way and are now finding they cannot compete. When Amazon first arrived the old book sellers rushed to take advantage of the new (at the time) business model, it made more sales, cost less money and was easier. Now they are finding they have sold their business to Amazon and they are losing control.
So they are fighting over the way of printing and selling the printed word, old way against new way. The publishers are trying to compete but finding they are too small to do so.
In reality as they find they cannot compete with the new market conditions they will fall by the wayside unless they change what they do and how they do it.
Ebooks and print on demand has led to the rise of independent publishing and self publishing. Anyone who thinks they can write can produce an Ebook or print off fifty copies. The markets are flooded with tens of thousands of new authors, some very good, some truly appalling, most in the middle.
In the old days a publishing house would act as arbiter of writing, they decided who was good enough to print and then they would sell those books. They had the control and all but a handful of the biggest names were enslaved by the system.
Now the whole thing has been broken apart and everyone is fighting over the fragments, what the new shape of book selling is cannot yet be seen but it is likely to be a mix of the old and the new and perhaps something else entirely
New writers are growing up within the Amazon world and would not dream of going to an old publisher, others value the benefits of a publisher over Amazons blatant money grabbing and profit driven focus.
Amazon is doing what it does best, selling stuff and making profit by whatever means. The publishing houses want to retain control of publishing, they need to persuade writers that their services are worth getting paid less. Amazon offers the mass market, Publishers offer quality and revision and editing and a host of experience. Some writers I know swear by their publishers as being of great help though these seem to be smaller companies not the big ones. Others swear Amazon is the way to go.
Huge numbers of people are finding that they can sell themselves through Amazon without all the hassle, others want advice and help and the chance to become the next ‘Shades of Grey’.
There is no good or bad here, just a bunch of companies fighting to control a market that has changed beyond all recognition.
For a writer, the trick is to sell books and make money in a market that is now flooded by small names and independents and surrounded by large sharks that will happily turn them into a snack on the way past. The vast majority of writers make little or no money, writing is a love, they do it because they want to or as a hobby or are they are just driven by madness (ahem).
A Publishing house can make a little name into a big name with all that such status entails. Amazon will sell small names every day of the week but it’s much harder to be noticed when the world is awash with small names selling books.
Amazon, the Publishers, the writers. Everyone is trying to work out what the new market is and how to work it. Things are not yet settled and may well change dramatically again in the future. The old giants are fighting the new giant and the small names are left to scurry round looking for safety and security.
The information age has torn up the old, established way of selling words and the war is still being fought over what the new way will be. Adapt or die, thrive in the new markets or cling to the old ways, unless you are a big name author these are interesting times and there is a reason why the Chinese curse people to ‘Live in Interesting Times’
In the end the very nature of the printed word has changed. It started life as a bible that was so slow to produce that only the richest of lords or churches could afford it. Technology made it cheaper and cheaper till buying a paperback at the airport to read on the flight became the norm.
Now we have Ebooks that are even cheaper. For less than the price of your pretentious Starbucks creation and a subway you can buy several Ebooks.
Ebooks can be bought, the first chapter read and then they can be discarded because people don’t like them. Ebooks have become mass market in a way that not even paperbacks could manage.
They are an impulse buy now which given they represent half of all book purchases tells us a lot about the changing reading habits of our society.
The very nature of books has changed and is changing. The Market place for books has changed and is changing. The information age has completely changed the shape of the printed word and we are all living through the changes. Even what it is to be an author has changed.
Where will it end, I don’t know. But until then we find ourselves in Interesting Times.