|Industry Forum: Publishers continue to acquire great content|
|Written by Production|
|Tuesday, 18 December 2012 11:25 AM America/New_York|
Christian publishing still shows encouraging signs of health despite recent upheavals
Any attempt to analyze the state of an industry, particularly one as volatile as publishing, is a challenge. Late last year, the New York Times ran an article titled “How Dead Is the Book Business?” and Forbes asked, “What is the Future of Publishing?” The implication is that these are dire times and we need to start constructing survival shelters. But before we begin stocking up on batteries, let’s take a look at the state of our own part of the book-publishing industry.
Two major events shook our industry last year. The acquisition of Thomas Nelson by HarperCollins and its subsequent reorganization with Zondervan was the first. And the recently announced merger of Random House and Penguin was the other. But the latter does not impact the Christian market directly since there isn’t a specific CBA division within Penguin.
While there has been much hand-wringing over these developments, CBA industry veterans have seen this before. Ten years ago (2003), Baker Books purchased Bethany House Publishers, and in 2006, WaterBrook bought Multnomah. The industry adapted.
It is important to remember that the reading public is “publisher agnostic.” They generally do not know who published their favorite author. They only care that they can still get the next best book to read regardless of its origin.
The power of the brick-and-mortar retailer is changing. The demise of Borders and the shrinking of shelf space at Wal-Mart has had a huge impact on publishers’ sales success. In the past, they, along with Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million could make or break the success of a single title in the general market.
The CBA market also has its “power accounts” that have influenced publishers’ decisions. But I maintain that the Christian market can still launch a best-seller that the general market later recognizes for its sales potential. Titles like The Harbinger, Heaven Is for Real and Radical are perfect examples of where our market initially drove demand.
However, the rise of e-books and the power of Amazon have changed the game. This change also has opened the door for the indie author to succeed without a traditional publisher. As a result, publishers are trying new ways to launch authors without traditional sales channels.
E-books have begun to supplant the mass-market trim size. In fact, the mass-market paperback has seen double-digit drops in sales volume in the last year. Pricing of e-books, therefore, has become a playground for experimentation and controversy. I’ve seen more upheaval in this arena than any other as publishers and retailers—store front and online—wrestle with the economics of digital products.
The success of any book is more art than science. The attempt to market the “next big thing” has changed from the static method of catalogs and print advertising to the ever-shifting world of social media.
Readers are now able to connect with much larger networks to spread the word about a particular book. Many publishers recognize this and are throwing their efforts into that world instead of into book tours and space ads. An example of this is the NovelCrossing.com reading community created by WaterBrook Multnomah.
If it were your money, you would likely “bet” on those book ideas that you know are going to sell a ton of copies. And only those who already have a track record are assured of a ready-made buying audience.
In addition, for the nonfiction writer in particular, there is a demand for the author to have a visible or quantifiable platform from which they can sell their book ideas. This makes it very hard to launch a first-time author or for a publisher to stick with an author if their initial titles do not have strong sales. The era of developing an author and hoping that one day they will be successful is effectively over.
Economically a single blockbuster can make or break a publishing company’s bottom line for the year. Think of the impact Twilight, Harry Potter, 90 Minutes in Heaven, One Thousand Gifts, The Shack, Crazy Love, Left Behind, Radical and others have had on their publishers’ profits. Most have created a second book or more, even a franchise—and every publisher wants one of their own.
It’s nothing new to have publishers and retailers chasing current trends. The success of 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is for Real created a burgeoning category of books on the topic of heaven. It will be interesting to see if it has staying power, as the CBA industry has seen books on angels, prophecy, atheism and other topics ebb after a period of intense sales volume.
Amish fiction—the only genre that has its origins completely within the CBA market—is the one place where success created a new category that now has nearly 40 authors writing about the Plain community. We may find some fatigue among publishers and retailers, but readers have continued to ask for more.
Overall, it is a great day to be in our industry. In my opinion, the publishing industry is still relatively healthy. Authors have multiple options besides the big publishing companies. Digital initiatives have led to an exploding new area of development. Last year, our agency had nearly 200 new books put under contract. Some were from first-time authors, which means that publishers are still acquiring great content, which will never change.
While it is hard to sell a book in today’s marketplace, I can’t name a time when it was easy. If publishing were easy, anyone could do it. That is why it is called “work.”
Instead of reading doom-and-gloom, let’s embrace the challenge and enjoy the richness of changing our world word by word.
Steve Laube is the literary agent and president of The Steve Laube Agency. Connect with him at www.stevelaube.com.