It would be nigh on impossible to overstate the influence that Paul Collins has had in the Australian Spec Fic community. As an author, whether on his own or in collaboration with some of the scene’s leading lights, he has produced a vast catalogue of writing and his incredible versatility can be seen in the way in which he has moved effortlessly across genres and age groups.
As an editor and publisher he has worked with the best names in the business, and given opportunities to some of the most exciting new voices emerging onto the scene. Through initiatives like his speaking agency he is also helping ensure that there will be a new generation of spec fic readers coming out of our schools. It is no wonder that he has been recognised with the Aussie awards that exist to celebrate those who have contributed above and beyond to creating a vibrant and exciting scene.
On a personal level I can attest to how welcoming he is to newcomers after I was found myself at a writers event where I quite literally knew no one. Paul quite kindly let me presume on our (at that time) very limited acquaintance and made sure I was included in conversations and introduced me to a heap of people, a generous gesture I was extremely grateful for.
It’s a real pleasure to welcome someone as knowledgeable as Paul to Wednesday Writers this week as he discusses the future of publishing.
The Future of Publishing
Is publishing an ailing industry or just a changing industry? I suspect the latter, due solely to technology leaping ahead exponentially. And of course products other than books are also suffering. We live in a world of built-in obsolescence, fast turn-over and ever-changing rules and regulations. I suspect the younger generation will cope with it all just nicely – it’s we older folk who will miss the ‘old’ ways. My generation lived through the halcyon days when things were a lot simpler and predictable. We didn’t throw something out when it broke down, we simply went to the corner shop and the guy there fixed it and it would last another decade. My Sharp TV is thirty years old and still copes with all of today’s technology. It’s just augmented: a switch board has been added to take all the plug-ins for DVD, CDs, Foxtel, etc. And now that analogue is becoming obsolete I just need to spend $80 on a set box and voila! my old TV – never broken down in thirty years! –is suddenly digital. When I spoke to a guy at Tandy he suggested I move on to a flat screen TV. I told him I would if he could guarantee it would give me thirty years of service. Of course, this tale of woe is obsolete in itself, because my tech-happy partner has gone out and bought a SmartTV and my beautiful Sharp is stuck in a cabinet on the verandah. I’d love to pass it on to someone who will get enjoyment from it but alas, I can’t even give it away.
What has all this got to do with books, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with books. People are discarding old tech for new tech. Print books are being passed over for e-books. Some schools are now proudly boasting they’re print free. Personally, I think this will have disastrous ramifications for an entire generation of kids. Sure as anything they won’t be readers.
All this isn’t to say print books are dead. Far from it. I’ll see out my time in the industry doing okay. But I do see them becoming something like the relics vinyl records have become. Hands up all those who still have their vinyl collections? See? That’s why I kept on to my old Sharp. I bet most people can’t even play their records anymore – those needles are hard to find now, too.
But back to the publishing industry. Amazon seems to be considered a major threat, although I’m not sure why. Sure, they’re promoting e-books, but they also sell print books. I’d be covering both bases if I were them, too. Another more serious threat is illiteracy. See my note re schools becoming digital. Yet another problem is the proliferation of games and other distractions competing for eyeshare. In my day, a wagon train set or soldier figurines at Xmas made me the happiest kid around. And when money was tight, I made my own go-cart and would race down the hill on the street and think all my Christmases had come at once. Alas, such simple pleasures are long gone. Perhaps one of the biggest threats to the print book is the idea that everything readable should be for free: millions of blogs, and not just by unknowns, but your favourite writers are into them, too; facebook and other social media; emails – not so long ago you’d write three letters in a day max and feel as though you had writer’s cramp. Today I write ten to fifteen emails before lunch; websites, ‘free’ content on the Net including episodes of TV shows you missed because you were elsewhere or doing something else and a plethora of other distractions. Another problem is that with e-books gaining ground, bricks and mortar shops are closing. Rents are going up and sales are going down, and it’s the booksellers that will lose this fight. With no distribution outlets, the print book truly will be confined to the relic pile.
On this note, we’re seeing publishers merging and cutting back on superfluous staff. Either the staff work twice as hard or the publishers publish fewer books. The Penguin/Random House merger is the latest catastrophe here. We’ll see less competition so less remuneration for authors (already surely the lowest paid workers in the Western world). Where will publishers get their A-list authors from if not via the ‘discoveries’ in the slush pile? Easy. They’ll be feverishly looking at which books soar on the net. Take for example 50 Shades of Grey. Any books self-published, either POD or ebook, that looks like a best-seller, print publishers will snap them up. Too easy to predict, really. You read it here first :-).
All of this will lead to something else. The slack being taken up by small presses. And even we won’t be immune from the majors snapping up the authors that we ‘discover’. With BookScan publishers can see what’s moving in print format. Offer a small press enough money and they’ll assign rights in a second. And if not, the publisher will contact the author direct and you can bet anything you like the author will dump the small press in a flash to land a healthy deal with a major publisher.
Because books are so easy to print these days (PODs, do-it-yourself at Lulu, smashwords etc), we’re also competing with foreign books being translated to English. On top of this, books may never be out of print again, so even new books are competing with titles published decades ago that once upon a time would be relegated to secondhand stores. Perhaps needless to say, with more books being published, fewer copies per title will sell. A survey was done a while ago and the result was that the average sales of a book these days are less than 100 copies. Clearly only self-publishers can make this work. Traditional publishers need to sell a minimum of 1000 copies just to break even.
According to Bowker which is an authority on all things bookish, over three million books were published last year and only ten percent were from traditional publishers. The rest were from print-on-demand and vanity press. Apparently there’s a book printed somewhere in the US every ten minutes. Include the world in that statistic and you’d realise you’re pushing something uphill to get noticed Out There.
None of this looks too good for the authors, either. There’s going to be a cross-subsidisation going on like never before. Right now unless you’re either a best-seller or very prolific, there’s no way you can make a living at writing. For many years I worked as a bouncer in hotels to support my bookshops which in turn supported my writing. Right now I’m publishing and running a speakers’ agency to support my writing – although to be honest, I think the writing and agency are supporting the publishing! Regardless, there’s cross-subsidisation going on.
So in summary, the only thing to suffer is the traditional print book. There’s always going to be people writing and wanting to take a shot at becoming ‘famous’. Only now more than ever will be that cross-subsidisation I mentioned and less chance of making writing anything other than a lifestyle career.
Paul Collins’s 140+ books for young people include series such as The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars, The Quentaris Chronicles and The World of Grrym in collaboration with Danny Willis. His latest series is The Maximus Black Files. Mole Hunt and Dyson’s Drop are in the shops now. The trailers are available here: Trailer 1 and Trailer 2 He is also the author of over 140 short stories. Paul is the publisher at Ford Street Publishing and runs Creative Net Speakers’ Agency.
Paul has been the recipient of the A Bertram Chandler, Aurealis, William Atheling and Peter McNamara awards and has been shortlisted for many others including the Speech Pathology, Mary Grant Bruce, Ditmar and Chronos awards.
Visit him at www.paulcollins.com.au