Let’s make no bones about it: publishing is undergoing a massive upheaval, certainly the biggest in my twenty-plus years of professional involvement. Bookstore chains are closing or drastically re-visioning; publishers are being forced to reassess what it is that they do, and where their main revenue streams can be found. This year opened with the news that Amazon were selling more ebooks than mass market paperbacks; and two of the biggest author-related stories in recent weeks were of Amanda Hocking, hugely successful as a self-published author of the paranormal, signing up with a mainstream publisher so she can concentrate on her writing rather than on her writing business, and of best-selling thriller author Barry Eisler turning down a half-million dollar book deal because he would do better publishing his work independently.
Putting the business upheavals aside, one of the aspects of all this that fascinates me is what it says about the other side of the equation, the actual reading of books. These publishing changes matter because publishing is big business: people read a lot; people buy an awful lot of books. But as we move towards electronic publishing, are people actually reading differently? If they are, is it something dictated by the medium, or is the medium simply freeing people up to read how, and what, they want, without being shackled by what publishers and booksellers think they want? And should we, as writers, change what we do as we learn more about what our readers want?
I came to ebooks late in 2010. As an observer, I saw where the market was heading in the US, and it was a no-brainer to realise the launch of Amazon’s Kindle here in the UK meant we would be catching up pretty quickly. (And is such thinking obsolete, in any case? What does a local market mean when delivery is instant, electronic, worldwide?)
For ten years until 2007 I ran what became a huge online showcase for genre fiction: at infinity plus we put over two million words of fiction from top genre authors online for free, along with more than a thousand book reviews, more than a hundred interviews, and assorted other bits and pieces. I archived the whole thing in 2007 so that I could concentrate on my own writing and, you know, get a life (the site is still available at www.infinityplus.co.uk).
Ebooks breathed life into the old beast again, and in December 2010 I relaunched infinity plus as an ebook imprint, publishing books by the likes of Eric Brown, John Grant, Anna Tambour and Garry Kilworth.
I hadn’t really anticipated the impact this would have on me as a reader, though. At first, I used e-reader software on my laptop to check the ebooks I produced at infinity plus, but when my fiancée bought me a Kindle in the new year there was no looking back. I surfed Amazon, downloaded samples, bought some ebooks, started to read.
And then I realised that I was reading differently.
When I went on holiday in January, instead of taking two or three paperbacks I took my entire library of samples and complete ebooks. I read whatever I fancied at a particular moment: maybe twenty minutes of one book, half an hour of another. If I liked a sample I just bought the complete book — in fact that was such a better way to buy books for me: I could spend as long as I liked with a sample, at a time when I could actually do so, rather than making impulsive decisions in a shop at the airport, or choosing in a hurry from my stacks of books to read as I packed.
I’ve always been the kind of reader to have more than one book on the go, but usually that boiled down to a fiction book and some non-fiction; now I’ll have several that I’m actively reading, and a bunch more just sitting there that I may just dip into.
So yes, I realised: now I read differently.
But what does this mean for publishers? And for writers? It would be foolish to say that we should not learn and adapt, but perhaps part of our response should also be to fight back (which I’ll come on to in a moment).
What are the changes in people’s reading, then? Are people more inclined to read shorter, more self-contained pieces in the virtual world? On our very limited experience at infinity plus, this would appear to be the case: our most successful titles have been short story collections, traditionally something a commercial publisher would only put out to humour a cherished author while waiting for their next novel. But then, we still see that series fiction sells well in e-format too. Perhaps this indicates that the market is now more diverse than print ever really allowed.
One thing we have seen, and which is a significant and welcome development, is the rise of the indie: in some cases it’s authors who were on the fringes of old-school publishing, with a few books out from the major publishers, whose careers have found a new lease of life through self-publishing. These authors sell serious quantities of books, and there are some fine writers doing this. And there are authors with solid — and highly respectable — print careers who have taken to the new market with enthusiasm and sharp business sense: authors who, like Eisler, see that smart writers move with the times and with the new distribution channels. And then there are the authors like Hocking who emerged as indies, completely separate from traditional publishing and with tremendous success.
What we have also seen is one hell of a lot of noise. Just as there are fine writers who have shifted away from traditional publishing for all kinds of reasons, there are an awful lot of writers who would never have made the grade with commercial publishers. Thousands of them. Thousands and thousands. And they’re all self-publishing: within a few hours of finishing a draft of a novel or story your work can be out there on Amazon. It’s easy. Perhaps too easy…
Or am I being unfair? Am I a literary snob, caught up in the line of thinking that says, This is right because we’ve always done it this way?
Let’s get this straight. A lot of writers are ignoring conventional publishing and doing it themselves. In doing this, they’re missing the benefits that even the finest writers need, of working with professional editors and designers. Their work is often riddled with typos and bad grammar, and full of the kind of poor technique that would be picked up by a good editor.
And yet a significant number of these people are selling thousands of copies of their work. They’re not only finding an audience, but an audience that loves what they do and, from all evidence, eagerly awaits the next book.
Have those of us involved in “professional” publishing been getting it wrong? Have we reached the stage where mainstream publishing — and writing — puts too much emphasis on over-polished, grammatical, writing when a large proportion of our readers simply don’t care? What a lot of the successful indie writers do have is a huge amount of gusto and raw energy, making up for any technical shortfalls with spark and adherence to the need for a pacy plot that hooks the reader in. Yes, some editorial smoothing might improve these works, but at the cost that a reader has to wait a long time for the next book, whereas indies can be fast.
The lessons for me are clear: publishing needs shaking up (which is happening); we need to be able to turn things round more swiftly; as writers, we need to be aware that our potential audience is more fickle but also more open to the different; as publishers, we are learning that the old niche markets are now viable, and have eager and highly-engaged audiences.
But we also need to understand when to fight back: readers are not buying poorly-edited, rough-edged ebooks because that’s what they like — they’re buying them for their many other merits, and despite those flaws. We need to find a way to marry up the best of the indie with the best of the newly-adapting commercial publisher. We’re witnessing a publishing revolution here, and what emerges will be far stronger and more exciting than the various strands that have gone into the mix.
Keith Brooke runs infinity plus ebooks (www.infinityplus.co.uk/books), and has just put out infinities, a free anthology-cum-catalogue featuring the work of infinity plus authors and their friends. His own work is available in a variety of formats, and includes the novels Genetopia, The Accord, and The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie. He is also editing a book on the sub-genres of science fiction, featuring contributions from James Patrick Kelly, Catherine Asaro, Justina Robson, Paul di Filippo and others. He blogs at keithbrooke.wordpress.com and tweets as @keithbrooke and @ipebooks.