DUBAI -- With the news that e-books have now outsold booky books, we can perhaps recognize the tipping point has been reached.
One fascinating report I saw of this year's London Book Fair neatly painted a picture of an industry reeling as it comes to terms with the ferocity of the changes taking place around it. More and more writers are taking to putting their works up on the Kindle Store and other self-publishing platforms rather than going through the relentless round of submissions and rejections that getting published traditionally entails.
HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray, speaking at the book fair, called this time a watershed. He said that a number of HarperCollins' front list titles were getting more than 50 percent of their sales in e-book formats -- and noted that the growth in e-readers (to 40 million) was having a disproportionate effect on the market because e-readers had reached core readers, people who buy over 12 books a year.
Meantime, Amazon says it's now selling more Kindle books than physical ones. The online company has also been busy adding editors, hiring the former head of Time Warner Book Group, and launching its own imprints at a steady clip. (It's up to five.) This is interesting precisely because with imprints at its disposal, Amazon can pick from the many new titles being uploaded to the Kindle e-book store, take the best of them and place them under its powerful marketing wing -- with editors guaranteeing the quality of books under those imprints.
That would address one major complaint of the e-book era -- the lack of qualitative guarantees where so many authors now have direct access to the market without the checks and balances of editors. Yes, this gives a more egalitarian market with greater choice for readers, but it also atomizes the market (there is such a thing as overwhelming choice) and makes it potentially hard for readers to work out when a book is total rubbish. I have to confess, of my current crop of 34 Kindle books, one non-fiction title turned out to be a rip-off project.
But with editorial input, Amazon could possibly create something like Authonomy done right -- Authonomy was HarperCollins' UK-based peer-review writer's site that voted five books a month to editorial review. Where it had tremendous (sadly unfulfilled) potential was crowd-sourcing the selection of books that we, the consumer, want to read rather than an editor's view of what we want to read. Now, conceivably, everyone uploads their books, the best of those books are plucked out and given a sheen by Amazon, which then sells them under its imprints at a premium (because you know they're good) and effectively becomes its own publishing house.
Now, a publishing house that owns the distribution medium becomes really interesting. It would be like one publisher owning every High Street bookstore (remember them?). It's also potentially massively anti-competitive, but that's another kettle of frogs. What's certain is that the challenges of this new model are existential for the publishing industry -- literary agents are launching imprints, there are battles breaking out over rights, royalties and even the roles that various components of today's industry will play in tomorrow's. Publishers are fearful -- and have every right to be.
Alexander McNabb is a Dubai-based author. This piece was originally posted on his blog, Fake Plastic Souks. Check it out at fakeplasticsouks.blogspot.com.