2010: Through The Wishing Glass

So, 2010 is but moments away. Where is the publishing industry going and where does independent and self-publishing see itself in the twelve months ahead?
To be frank, the industry as a whole remains very tentative as to what lies ahead. Expect further caution and much consolidation. From what I have seen so far from sales figures from Nielsens on this side of the Atlantic pond, book sales figured far better than was expected, and proved that books will always remain a core seller over the holiday period as gifts.
Here is a thought for 2010. The industry needs to perceive and present books as a special gift beyond just holiday periods when sales normally increase. Sparkling Books, a new UK hardback independent publisher this year will enter 2010 with this as a core business and marketing strategy. We are in a time when the humble paper book has to compete in a market of digitalised products from ipods, gaming software, and multiple online content download. If the traditional book industry still believes in the paper product they sell, then it is time they indulged in more individual and esoteric ways of selling that product. What I am thinking of, in particular about first printed hardback editions, is offering the customer something more. Some publishers in 2009 have seen ebooks as a serious threat to hardback sales. I see this actually as an opportunity to link the formats. What I envisage is hardback books launched and packed with everything from DVD film tie-ins, to music releases, to access codes releasing exclusive online content about the book or features about the book’s content – trailers, author interviews, extracts online of future works going to print etc. The software games and console market has long exploited bundle packs. Publishers need to explore and develop this area. In many ways, the dilemma which publishers face about hardback and ebook releases may present the real solution in 2010, and not the headache some present it as.
Whatever the fuss about ebooks in 2010, they will continue to remain a significantly small percentage of overall books sold. I believe the figure is not far off 6% in the US, and this is the most developed market. I will give it a ball-pack figure of about 10% by the time we close out 2010. That is pretty decent, but it will remain at moderate levels. Yes, much of the economic climate has lead to publishers being less than enthusiastic about committing to any real long-term plans, but ebooks will be the presiding future one day, probably gleaning up to 40% to 50% of book sales. That’s something we can’t ignore now or in the future, and we must make plans for an industry being part paper and part digital. There will be little room, even for the independent minded, to try to operate in the in-between. Just as with the proliferation of different ebook formats emerging, we must ultimately, as an industry, adopt a standard format – 2010 is the time for this and this topic should be the lead debate in the London and Frankfort Book Fairs. I’ll stick my neck out and say the epub format will win out, and all may continue with their own formats, but have to accommodate the epub format in the end
In all industries, there are monoliths; publishing is no exception. Whether we like the Google Book Settlement or not, Google will go on with their digitalization program, just as many universities across the world are doing with their own databases. Of course, no writers’ rights should be infringed upon, living or dead, but it remains our collective duty as writers, publishers, universities and researchers to preserve what is written and recorded in this world. To do anything less, to lose anything of value to us as a society, culture and race, is tantamount to throwing what is in jeopardy to the fires and dust of history.
Amazon, being Amazon, still has a few surprises up their sleeve. I still believe we can expect something exceptional from them in 2010 – I expected it to come this year. So expect some form of global partnership or buyout in the first six months of the New Year. Amazon, like Google, and many other large corporate entities see themselves as above and beyond being new global retailers, but publishers and distributors of products. Sadly, this is where our largest kingpins in the publishing world have missed the boat. Muse too long and you become the amusing. Book publishing is no longer the preserve of the book publishing industry alone.
How will independent publishers and the self-publishing fraternity fair? Pretty well I think in 2010. As in all economic downturns, the most fluid, robust and open to change models of business will react quicker to change and new methods of approach. I think we will see a few top-notch authors jump ship from the mainstream publishers and join ranks with the more established independents. Expect a lot from Canongate this year and a few real heavy-hitters to join the Scottish publishers list. Will we lose a few publishers? Yes, of course we will. January and February will be painful months when a few will look at the balances and go to the wall. We will be less together for their losses. Like last year, we will see a few high-brow editors jettison ship and form their own independent outfits. Orbooks seem to be doing a pretty good job by all accounts from 2009. And self-publishing? It looks like it’s not going away, but then, wasn’t it always there? Thomas Nelson and Harlequin embraced and accepted it as part of what publishing is and has become. The debates will needlessly go on. I’ve already gone on record as saying there are two to three other major publishers going the same route, and not all with the partnership of Author Solutions. January through March will tell a few tales we will thrash out here. Bring it on.
Let me finish by indulging for just a moment. This was my own personal highlight of 2009. It was a story that had everything and encapsulates what writing, publishing and recording what it is we all experience. I will leave you with Christopher Herz, and my favourite story of 2009, The Last Block in Harlem. I hope there are many more like this in 2010.
Happy New Year.

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