Revolting, I tell you! Depending on who’s talking – author or print publisher – it could have either meaning.
This whole publishing lark has opened up. A quick look at the bestseller lists from recent years, following the e-book revolution, shows it. People are reading different stuff nowadays. Whether it’s because they’re finally able to get what they want through self-publishing or whether they’re just reading e-books they would never read in print, on some levels publishers didn’t seem to be calling the shots last year. Not when we could instantly buy a book by an unknown author for less than 2.99 on our Kindles one rainy Saturday, because we fancied their 2-paragraph blurb and free sample chapter.
10 years ago, the top 15 adult fiction bestsellers each year according to Publisher’s Weekly were by authors who were already wildly successful. John Grisham. James Patterson. Stephen King. Patricia Cornwell. They only had to write a new book, and we bought it.
I read all of them. Every Grisham, King, Cornwell and Patterson I got my hands on. But now I’m puzzled. I haven’t read anything they’ve written in over 5 years. Why is that? What am I reading instead?
One reason for a change in buying habits was the advent of widespread new sales promotions in bookshops (in Ireland anyway: they probably had this elsewhere beforehand) – the 3 for the price of 2 / buy 1 get 1 free deals, prompting buyers to take a chance on an unknown author if the book was ostensibly free. But then e-readers arrived. And they fundamentally changed not only what we’re reading, but what is available to buy. I would say that at least 40% of the books I now buy have been written by people I’ve never heard of before.
There were one or two so-called “breakouts” in 2002 – authors who either never shifted enough copies of their work to make the bestseller list, or first-time authors finding immediate success – but very few.
So, what did it look like in 2012?
A very different story: we read breakout novels in huge numbers by people who, just one year ago, were complete strangers to the publishing world. Is it because self-publishing in e-book format is more democratic? And is social media allowing authors to do their own publicity, sometimes successfully? Or is it because publishers don’t correctly predict the market and never actually knew what people really wanted to read?
OK – so 9 of the top 15 for 2012 came from just 3 series of books – but this also illustrates how things have changed. When readers find something they like, they want more of the same. Now. This very minute. Back in the olden days (i.e. before 2009), publishers made us wait. The aforementioned 3 series still sold enough copies to make the top 15 fiction (non-children) books for every individual volume. Also, the 50 Shades trilogy, and by association its companion genre Crossfire books, might never have been in print if readers hadn’t already picked them up in their millions through self-publishing channels.
The Hunger Games was already a success when first published in 2008, but in 2012 Suzanne Collins was named the bestselling Kindle author of all time. It’s hard to know whether e-books made a huge difference, or whether the release of the The Hunger Games film was solely responsible for sales revival and her 2012 bestselling status (hence the categorisation of “Film/TV tie-in” above). But given her target readership and the fact that teen/adult crossover novels tend to do particularly well in e-book format, e-publishing can’t have hurt.
It seems like some publishers are getting out of the trend prediction business and into the trend identification business, playing catch-up with the Internet Machine. It doesn’t cost much to get a pile of interns to trawl through peer review sites such as Wattpad and Inkpop in order to pick out the low-hanging fruit.
On the flip side, authors are throwing themselves on the internet for dissection. They can often become become trophies presented by the cat, dead on the back step. But that hardly differs from sitting in a slush pile in a publisher’s office for 18 months only to be discarded after an intern reads your first paragraph.
There’s a whole pile of money to be made out of already-successful e-authors who still want to see their book in print. And who better to take a chance on, than someone who’s already shifted a couple of hundred thousand copies of their books?
There are still those who dismiss self-publishing as “vanity” publishing. But nobody can dismiss success, even the folk who win prizes.