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Will Traditional Book Publishers Slowly Fade Away?

written by: •edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 11/29/2011

Does the fact that as a writer I can self-publish my books and bypass the traditional publishing model mean that publishing as we know it is on the decline? In my opinion; no, it doesn't mean that at all. Here's why I think publishers don't need to worry about making the extinct species list.

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    Gutenberg press was used in the 1400s The entry into the world of publishing by an industry giant like Amazon has many traditional publishers quaking in their boots and wondering if the end of traditional publishing is just around the corner. Some typical comments heard throughout the industry are:

    • “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do,” said Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, who is known for speaking his mind.
    • “Everyone’s afraid of Amazon,” said Richard Curtis, a longtime agent who is also an e-book publisher.

    So, does the rapid rise of self-and online publishing mean the end of traditional publishing or is it another bubble doomed to self-implode?

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    Should Publishers Fear Amazon?

    In my opinion, the competition in the publishing industry by Amazon and other online and self-publishing venues is a positive thing. It makes it easier for newer, unknown authors to break into the industry and it gives readers more choices of who and what to read. It streamlines the process, cuts out the middleman, and lowers expenses.

    In an age where information is as close as the next mouse click, does it really make sense that it takes an average of 18 to 24 months to turn a book around and get it to market? Could it be that the process is too hands-on and labor intensive? Is there a better way to accomplish the same task? Books are basically been printed in a similar fashion to those first produced by Gutenberg in the 1400's, after all, so maybe it is time to consider some different methods.

    Instead of fearing the changes that are being made, I think publishers should take a hard look at their operations to see if they could benefit from incorporating some of these new ideals. Consider this: isn't a publisher performing a role that is very similar to that of a project manager? Both work with teams and stakeholders with an end goal of delivering a finished quality product to the end-user.

    I believe in a capitalistic system, and I believe that competition is healthy and leads to an improved product. If books get to market faster, readers will buy more of them. Authors would benefit from a shorter production cycle that is less labor intensive (think rewrites) and would be paid faster. This gives them more incentive to write more books. More books equals more sales and if they are reaching the marketplace sooner, it means a better cash flow for both publisher and author. To me, this sounds like a win-win situation.

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    The Problems of the Traditional Publishing Model

    What happens if you are an author who opts to go the traditional publishing route? Typically, you invest a tremendous amount of time and effort in preparing queries and proposals in an attempt to sell your book idea to a potential publisher. The odds are your idea will be rejected – many times over! If you persist, you may eventually find a publisher, but during the time you invested in the hunt, you probably could have written and self-published your book and starting collecting commissions from its sale. If you are a prolific writer, you might even have written several books during this timeframe!

    However, if you managed to make the sale, you will have to move through the publishing cycle on the publisher’s timeframe—not yours—and if your publisher is working to traditional industry standards, your book will hit the market in about 18 to 24 months.

    Traditional publishers manage the printing and editorial process, as well as oversee book distribution, and handle promotion. They charge a fee for this service, and typically pay writers an average 6 to 10 percent royalty on net sales. However, it is also customary in the industry to hold back a reserve of about 20 percent to protect them against returns of unsold books. Of course, returns for unsold books are deducted from the author’s royalties. If you, as an author, are clasping a protective hand over your wallet at this point in time, you have a right to be concerned. This traditional model does appear to be taking money out of your pocket. We'll touch on that again a little later.

    So, what is the bottom line for choosing to use a traditional publisher?

    • Long cycle from concept to point of sale
    • Little or no editorial control
    • Wait time for royalties to be paid
    • Unsold book revenues deducted from your earnings
    • Idea may be rejected and never make it to print
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    Why Alternative Publishing Models Are So Attractive

    Advances in technology allow writers to bypass agents and publishers and slash the time required to put their writing directly into the hands of their end-user: the reader. There’s no need to agonize over writing the perfect query letter or being afraid to open an envelope or an email for fear of finding another rejection slip.

    Sources such as Amazon have simplified the process cycle and today’s aspiring author can get books to print faster and with more control over the finished product than ever before. This can be especially valuable (and lucrative) if one is writing on a hot newsworthy topic where being the first in the market to publish on the subject can make or break you financially.

    In this case, what is the bottom line for opting to self-publish?

    • The finished product gets to market quickly
    • The writer has more control over his or her end product
    • Royalties are higher
    • The author gets paid faster
    • The author can write more books and make more money
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    Can Traditonal Publishers Survive?

    The odds are the traditional publishing model will continue to evolve and change as the technology changes and new advances are made. However, I don’t think we will ever see an end to traditional publishing (at least, not in my lifetime).

    Here's why I think this publishing model can survive:

    1. There are those of us who still prefer to hold a book and turn the pages. While I love my new Kindle Fire, I have books in my collection that I would not give up for any reason, and I would probably grab those books first in case of a fire or other natural disaster.
    2. Some writers (like me) prefer to have an intermediary like the publisher handle the details we don't want to deal with like printing, distributing and marketing our work. The convenience outweighs the fee.
    3. If you follow the stories of some of the most successful self-publishing authors in the Amazon marketplace, you will notice an amazing thing. Quite a few of them have scored huge book deals guessed it, a traditional publisher. Hmm, if self-publishing is really that great, I wonder why they are opting for that "old, outmoded model?" John Locke, insurance salesman turned author, is a perfect case history of this self-publishing to book deal story.

    I think what we will see is a gradual marriage of traditional, self-publishing, and online publishing that will transform the industry into an efficient machine for getting the written word from concept to reader as quickly as humanly possible. After all, look at how other print forms such as newspapers and magazines have made the transition. If you want to read your New York Times online, you can. However, you can still pick up a copy at your local newsstand. Rather than running publishers out of business, I think the new technology will simply make the existing products better and more valuable to readers and writers. What's not to like about that scenario?