Hugh Howey minces no words in his latest blog post: as he sees it, big publishing is doomed.
At least, that’s what he sees when he looks at big publishing’s recent behavior (and recent across-the-board growth and revenue declines as reported by Publishers Weekly). And I have to admit, he makes a remarkable amount of sense.
One of the things you hear coming out of publishing every now and then is the claim that book sales are down because they haven’t had a huge hit lately. Yet, isn’t publishing supposed to be in the business of making hits? That’s supposed to be what keeps big publishing in business. If the publishers are admitting that they can’t make hits, what can they do for the authors who are counting on them to do exactly that?
Whatever they tell you they’ll do to make your manuscript a bestseller, they said to thousands of authors in the past year, and they failed at all attempts. Meanwhile, I know of a dozen self-published authors who have broken out over this time. I had a married couple on the boat for lunch this week who are both deciding when they should quit their day jobs, as they are steadily making 5 figures each month. If you go to writing conferences, you’ll run into dozens of silent success stories like this.
Howey goes on in similar vein for some time, and I’m not going to try to summarize the whole post in any great detail. Suffice it to say, he sees big publishers going right on making the same old mistakes, and anticipates that the time will come when the big publishers topple and mid-sized publishers come to the fore—bringing along the lessons they’ve learned in this new era of rampant self-publishing.
To save the publishing industry, Howey thinks the way to go is bookstores with a smaller footprint and more locations—like the ones we mentioned here, or the ones Amazon is launching. It would be a return to the days when you could find a small Waldenbooks shop in almost every mall, rather than a bigger Barnes & Noble store here or there. He also thinks that publishers should stop fiddling about with “Ponzi schemes” and go in on Kindle Unlimited, since that’s where the readers are going now.
These are the same publishers who damned B&N as the devil until it was too late, and then saw B&N as their savior. In a few years, while profits are still plummeting, and publishers are blaming it on the lack of a bestseller like Book X from the year before (probably a rejected rough draft of a play about a paint-by-number artist), they’ll turn to Amazon to save them and have to wrestle with a beast that they created. And all of it was unnecessary.
All they needed to do was treat their authors better, do more for their readers, and pare down their costs. The Amazon formula for success. Instead, they’ve done the opposite on all three accounts. And they wonder why times are tough.
Of course, Howey isn’t exactly the most unbiased observer of the publishing industry. He’s made enough money from self-publishing his own books that he now lives on a boat and goes wherever he wants to in it. He’s also one of the driving forces behind Author Earnings, which mines data from Amazon and other booksellers to produce results that suggest that self-publishing is the future. And Howey’s rhetoric is ebullient enough that it could turn off even those who agree with him.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We only need wait a few more years to find out whether Howey’s predictions will come true. If, as he suggests, big publishers are inevitably doomed unless they change their ways, that doom will inevitably arrive—or else they’ll figure out how to change their ways. Either way, we’ll find out who was right sooner or later.