Doug's Blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

Creative flow and the changing book business

For many years I was just a writer, producing novels for young adults, and didn’t worry much about changes in the book industry. But these changes have become so huge — I’ve seen experts say this is the most profound time of upheaval in publishing since the invention of moveable type — that I got caught up, and everything changed for me. Now I’m doing much more than writing; and I’m trying my best to understand, or at least keep up with, whatever in the world is going on.

And I think if you really look at it, what’s actually happening is less troubling and worrisome than it first appears.

 

My story: last year I was dropped by my most recent New York publisher, with which I had brought out three YA novels from 2001-07 — one of which, The Revealers, has done well and become well-known, while the other two didn’t sell. I more recently produced two new YA manuscripts, both of which the house rejected. During that period, my publisher got swallowed up by one of the biggest New York houses, which in turn is owned by a distant corporation — and I’d grown frustrated trying to work with a house where the key pressures on decision-making now seemed to be filtering down from some higher new place.

When that happens, you really start to feel you’re a dispensible cog. As it turned out, that’s what I was.

When I got dropped, I decided this was an opportunity. I had a new manuscript, my sequel to The Revealers, which I knew was strong and had a ready market. As I researched the market, I saw that digital printing technology, combined with the marketing opportunities of the Internet — which I’d already been working with, spreading the word about The Revealers — gave me the chance to bring my book directly to readers, faster than a big publisher and just as professionally. (I’ve done 14 books and have been a full-time freelance writer/editor for 30 years, producing publications for all kinds of organizations.)

So I created a new small press, Long Stride Books, and brought out True Shoes last December. At first the book was only available at Amazon.com, through my website and through me — but after it sold 1,000 copies in two months, Long Stride got picked up by a wonderful national book distributor, the Independent Publishers Group. Through IPG, True Shoes was re-launched late in March, with a powerful new cover (they urged me to do that, and they were right). I’m busily getting the word out, and I’m working on two more books for publication by Long Stride next year.

And I’ve learned that my experience with the New York publisher wasn’t unique at all. In a recent Publishers Weekly column, the CEO of a modest-sized independent press said the talk of the book business, in recent years, has been that as the industry consolidated, “smaller and midsize publishers were gobbled up and brought together into six large houses that themselves are small pieces of bigger media conglomerates — and the expectations for a title’s sales and revenue rose.” With that, she added, “the big players began swinging for the fences, focusing on acquiring big bestsellers.”

One result: growing numbers of midlist authors, those whose books have sold but haven’t been blockbusters, are being dropped by big publishers. Of course that’s troubling. And not just for writers.

If the “Big Six” publishers, their decision-making strings now pulled by corporate execs who are not book people, want blockbusters and nothing else, that will greatly and sadly narrow the choices out there for readers. If you’re only seeking to publish bestsellers, you tend to look for proven formulas, and/or for books just like the last bestseller — so innovation, originality, creativity, those sources of the books that really are good and really can last, will be valued less and less.

This sounds dire. And is true! But — here comes what I think is really interesting — this is only the big trend’s most visible half.

I’ve been reading a blog by Curt Matthews, CEO of the Independent Publishers Group, my distributor — and in a recent post, Matthews shared a very striking number. Drawing data from the Bookscan website, a subscription-only service provided by Nielsen to the book industry, Matthews added up the year-to-date unit sales by the Big Six, then divided that “by the year-to-date unit sales of all the publishers tracked by Nielsen.”

Okay, so. What portion of all the books recently sold were published by the Big Six?

Fifty-one percent. Half.

This suggests that the book industry is changing in a way that has a positive, promising side. Nowadays, someone like me can create a publishing company. It doesn’t take a million dollars; it takes a good product, smart marketing, and a whole lot of work. And today, not all the books that are getting spurned by the blockbuster industry are going nowhere. Some — more than some — are, like True Shoes, finding homes at modest-sized and smaller independent presses.

Here’s the core fact: the indispensible essence of the book business is the creative output of good writers. Right now that flow is diversifying, finding many new channels; and where the creative flow goes, in time the industry will follow. Money and opportunity — plus innovations in marketing and distribution — will follow too.

There’s much more to say about this, and I will write more soon. But what I’m offering here is my basic theory — that this fundamental change process in book publishing will, in the long run, be shaped less by the corporatization of the big players than by the diversifying of its essential creative flow.

In this age of affordable, digital printing and affordable Internet marketing, no one can stop that flow. As it finds its channels, good new books will find their readers; and the book business will follow. In fact, if 49 percent of book sales right now are happening outside of corporate publishing, these changes are already happening.

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Sunday, 15 September 2019

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