By Taya Okerlund
Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen is most famed for his bestselling book The Innovator’s Dilemma, wherein he describes why big, successful businesses still fail. The problem they face is this: a gal in her garage, willing to work for nothing, or next to it, creates an entire market for a simpler, better, and more accessible product, which big businesses have rightly ignored because they couldn’t make it profitable. But that gal in the garage’s formerly unprofitable product grows up and eventually eats the big businesses for breakfast, ergo The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Clay made a lot of clever predictions with that book…or his theory did. Among them, he predicted the ‘broad’ failure of big publishers. And we’ve seen some of that come to pass. But publishing has adapted. Houses are suffering, but surviving within a shrinking market for exclusively traditionally published books.
In the October 2016 author earnings report, the Big 5 Publishers’ market share continued to decline. Small presses, indie authors, and Amazon imprints accounted for over 50% of market share. Readers increasingly decline printed, bookstore pedaled material in favor of a digital product.
So lets unpack what has happened to the publishing since digital publishing came about.
For a while big publishers did quite well on the ebook trade. They could sell their own digital titles at a higher profit than printed material, and all went swimmingly. But a profit driven bottom line tends always to try to repeat past successful performances over and over. Efficient, conservative, profit driving is the enemy of innovation. Meanwhile, some extraordinarily creative work began to pour forth through the self publishing pipeline.
In 2009, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was published online, the first non traditionally published work to win the Nebula Award. Wool busted out with massive success in 2011.
In 2012, two massive publishing houses, Random House and Penguin consolidated, making the Big 6, into a much less divisible 5, and more self-published hits continued to roll out. The Atlantis Gene. Atopia Chronicles, for example. These are massive self publishing successes where authors sold millions of copies.
Few books, traditionally published or otherwise, make a pittance. When you’re relying on authors like Rowling and Meyers to bankroll the rest of your publications list, missing even one big hit hurts publishers. It hurts a lot. And do you think already wildly successful online authors are going to surrender their digital rights once discovered by a giant publisher? Not a chance!
More and more, readers are spending time with titles from indie and self-published authors and the industry has adapted. Big houses have rolled out more imprint labels, some who accept unagented submissions in attempt to model the bare bones garage model publisher. These houses entice authors with the promise of fronting the cost of editing and cover design in exchange for control and creative rights. Whether this is a good deal for a savvy author is quite another question. Almost every week, I discover a new small press to which I could submit my work.
And so it seems, we have our proof of Clayton’s prediction. A new market has emerged and competition has ensued. Small presses and self publishing authors have jumped in en mass. Moreover, digital content has changed the life cycle of books, so now not only are hundreds of thousands of authors writing new books, but books’ digital character ensures they will remain to be marketed again. It is a very crowded marketplace, indeed. And just in time for book critic Lee Siegel to declare the American novel dead!
So where does this leave authors?
Well. Many authors are becoming private editors and book marketers to hoards of newer indie authors. Work is quite abundant. I’m not sure there has ever been a better time to be an editor. But editing is not authorship. What happens to innovation?
Some authors may be quite a bit worse off than they were even ten years ago. Advances from big houses are shrunken and yet shrinking. Those on the mid list must feel this keenly. Today’s publishing offers less and less opportunity to sell the same sort of book, depending upon how loyal their following. With the decline of big publishers, the mega authors success will not be subsidizing the mid list authors’ advances. In the end, this may drive many talented professional writers from the novel writing industry.
But historically, book success has always been highly variable. It has always been true that wildly successful authors have enjoyed a more or less fussy combination of luck, commercial savvy, and innovation–some kind of innovation, be it style, or plotting or theme. They invent a new or they radically reshape a tired old genre.
Maybe hunger has a role to play in the inventive process. Good art doesn’t follow from bottom line motivation. Innovating authors are no worse off than before, despite the uptick of competition.
Lee Siegel may be right about the state of the American novel. I don’t know if it is really dead, but it is suffering. Even so, conditions may be poising it for a rebound. If professional writing is no longer a feasible source of income, then many, many “solid” books will not be written. Only the highly motivated innovators will remain, producing books, some dubious, others of a style we have never before seen. I predict fiction, as an art form, will not only survive, but also thrive.
Merrill Hinton is a lightning rod in a town named for bad weather. He’s an ace in math, but not smart enough to put together the pieces of his puzzling life, especially where finding his unknown father is concerned.
Musical genius Robbie Stubbs was born in nearby polygamist compound Colorado City. He has the chops to become another John Coltrane, but that will take running away from home, and into a firestorm of controversy–the kind his friend Merrill knows best.
Merrill sets Robbie onto a course that could rocket them both onto center stage, but being the focus of wide public attention will create serious issues. Robbie’s mother is not well, and the shock of her son breaking the family rules like this may put her over the edge.
And Merrill Hinton? His precarious future would be compromised in ways he doesn’t yet realize.