Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Traditional Publishers in Trouble?

Fiction is different from non-fiction. A non-fiction book that can provide an answer to solve a problem faced by readers will practically sell itself. Take the For Dummies books for example. While they may not be the books of choice for a college textbook, they’re designed to provide answers about how to do very specific things. The topic each book covers is on the front and many people who need answers related to that topic purchase the book.

What makes fiction different is that most readers aren’t looking for the book. Imagine that, with non-fiction, the reader is wondering around confused, looking for some solution. When we stick a book out there and wave a flag to say, “the solution’s over here.” The reader then makes a beeline for the book. Compare that to the fiction reader, who isn’t confused. He’s just looking for a good story, but rather than one flag waving author to serve as a beacon of hope, there are thousands. All else being equal, the reader need only pick up the first book he comes to and he has what he needs, but we know that all things aren’t equal. Readers have their favorite authors and though there may be a great many authors who write just as well, the reader will still make a beeline for his favorite author.

When looking at authors who were previously unknown to the reader, the discriminating factor that causes a reader to pick up a novel and make a purchase has more to do with the fact that the book is in front of him than anything else. Sure, he’ll make his decision based on whether he thinks he’ll enjoy the story and how well it is written, but he isn’t going to search through thousands of similar books to find the best example of the type of novel he wants. At some point, any will do. So, when we consider the self-published book versus the traditionally published book, though we may talk about how well one is written versus the other, the main factor that makes them different is that the traditional publisher is better equipped to place their books in front of the reader. Many readers are surprised to learn that self-published books are sometimes sold in bookstores. If you have a personal library of moderate size, I suspect you will find several self-published books within it, but mostly traditionally published books.

I believe we will continue to see things work this way, even as self-publishing becomes cheaper and as more tools become available to enable self-publishers to create high quality products. Stores that sell books need books to fill their shelves. They don’t want to spend the time required to evaluate ever little self-publisher out there or even the small publishers. Their natural tendency will be to continue to turn to the larger traditional publishers because they know that they can get a wide variety of books in one place. Even with electronic distribution, though Kindle and other devices, the large traditional publisher will fair better because at the end of every book they put out they can offer suggestions for similar books by their other authors. They will continue to find ways to put their products in front of readers, so while most books will be self-published, as we move forward, most profitable books will be produced by traditional publishers.