If you're a writer looking for a publisher (or a writer seeking to be published, which is not necessarily the same thing), you've probably seen plenty of buzz about today's "new publishing paradigm." Actually, such articles tend to talk about different things; for one it might be online publishing, for another POD, and for another the shift back to commercial publishing. But regardless of which paradigm one fancies, you'll always find a pundit or three rhapsodizing about how the world of publishing is finally shifting in favor of the author. It's our turn, we're told. We're regaining control. We have so many more options available today -- how could things not be getting better?
Other articles tout more depressing statistics about the steady decline in book sales (and, more recently, e-book sales). People seem to be buying fewer books every year, which many analysts interpret to mean that people are reading less or are less interested in reading (not necessarily the same thing). So actually things are getting worse, right?
It seems to me that one problem with these articles, whether of the "happy days are here again" or "doom and gloom" school, is that they are looking at the issue from the wrong direction. Most articles about declining sales look at statistics from major publishers and book sellers -- and especially mega-outlets like Amazon. Conversely, most of the articles extolling a "new paradigm" are written by advocates of the paradigm being extolled, whether it's POD, Kindle, Smashwords or whatever. In either case, we writers keep asking the same questions: Why can't I find a publisher? Why are my books not selling?
To understand the answer to those questions, we need to step out of our writer shoes for a few moments, and put on our comfy, fuzzy reader slippers. You know, the ones you slip on when you settle back for a cuppa and your favorite mystery/romance/vampire novel (or maybe mystery-romance with vampires). So take a moment, get comfortable, look around your living room or wherever you like to read, and ask yourself... "Do I have enough books?"
Well, OK. If you're like me, the answer is probably "There is no such thing as 'enough books.'" So let me change that slightly and ask, instead, "Do you have anything handy to read?"
Again, if you're like me, I could probably change that question to "Do you have a sufficient array of reading choices within easy reach of wherever you're sitting?" Next to my sofa is a bookshelf, stuffed to the gills, with more stacks (usually my latest acquisitions) on top. Atop those stacks are two Kindles ("his and hers"), also crammed to the gills. Mine is loaded with several novels, a bunch of novellas by favorite authors -- and as many as a hundred free public domain books. (I have a fondness for G.K. Chesterton, and have downloaded just about everything he ever wrote.) If I had to flee my home during an emergency and could only grab the Kindle, I'd have enough reading material for months.
It seems to me that what we need to be asking is how the "paradigm" has changed, not for author or for publishers, but for readers. Publishers complain about declining sales, yet keep pushing up the prices of books, which, in turn, drives more buyers away from retail bookstores. But alternatives have always existed for the bookworm: Used bookstores, library booksales, thrift shops, garage sales. (I became an Agatha Christie fan after finding a bag full of Christie books at a yard sale for $5.)
Today, those alternatives have expanded exponentially. The "new paradigm" for readers is, of course, the Internet -- and the endless opportunities we have to acquire books inexpensively (or even at no cost whatever) online. I'd say it started with Half.com, but the world truly changed when Amazon got into the game with its "New and Used Marketplace." Now we readers were no longer limited to the selection we could find at the used stores or thrift shops; for the first time in the history of mankind (literally), it became possible to order practically any book you wanted, old or new, without going through a retail outlet.
The world changed again when handheld reading devices such as the Kindle at last made it possible (and comfortable) to read an e-book. Downloading e-books had been possible for years, but now they no longer tied us to the computer screen; we could read them on the couch, on the beach, in a plane -- anywhere we could read a print book. But convenience wasn't the only game-changer; the Kindle marketplace, for example, makes it possible to download thousands of free public-domain books, so if G.K. Chesterton happens to be your cup of tea, you can afford to buy the biscuits.
In the midst of this radically altered marketplace for readers has arisen the "new paradigm" for writers: The ability to publish one's own book, inexpensively or even at no cost at all. Even the price tag charged by the big POD companies is a pittance compared to what it once cost to subsidy-publish or self-publish, and sites like Lulu.com and CreateSpace have made it possible to publish in print for free. And while a wave of e-publishers surged and died during the last decade of the 20th century, Kindle and its ilk opened up yet another new, free medium for writers -- with thousands of writers jumping in to exploit this "opportunity."
So let's go back to us readers, sitting in our cozy chair, sipping a cuppa, and wondering, "What shall I read next?" We are not simply spoiled for choice. We are inundated with choices. We are drowning in choices. We have free books. We have e-books. We have cheap books. We have an infinite supply of used books available online. We still have our old sources: used bookstores, thrift shops, library sales. If we want something to read, we don't have to (and often don't want to) pay publishers' inflated prices for a new paperback. We have but to stretch our hand -- or tap a button.
This is the new paradigm for readers. And, by extension, it is the true new paradigm that is faced by writers. As writers, we tend to forget that readers are "customers" -- and customers are people who have been persuaded, somehow, to choose our product over the competition. The more competition, the greater the odds against a customer choosing us. The problem for writers is that readers today are experiencing the ultimate "buyer's market" -- a market in which supply far outstrips demand, enabling buyers to pick and choose and, to a great degree, set their own price.
And we've done it to ourselves. Thousands upon thousands of writers -- and, well, to be blunt, people who'd like to think they're writers -- have flocked to the siren call of the new subsidy publishers, and churned out hundreds of thousands of new books (most of which have sunk like stones). Still more thousands have turned to e-books and e-readers. Go to the Kindle store today (or at least, as of the day of this writing), for example, and you will discover that there are currently 2.4 million e-books available -- with 96,448 new releases in the last 30 days and 286,024 in the last 90 days!
Obviously, there are writers -- thousands of them -- who have beaten the odds. And you may well become one of them. But it's hard to beat the odds if we're not aware of what the odds are. Becoming a success doesn't just mean trying to figure out how to appeal to your customer. It means, as a writer, remembering the key fact that you are a customer -- you're a reader. To find out how to win customers like yourself, sometimes it's necessary to actually stop thinking like a writer or a publisher -- and look at the writing world from the perspective of your chair, your bookshelf -- and your own book-buying paradigm.
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