Friday, January 19, 2007

Is There Hope For the Future?

This is a continuation of a posting started on Wednesday. On that day, I reported on a Publishers Weekly item that said YTD bookstore sales were down through November, 2006.

Yesterday, I talked about a trend that began in the '70s toward centralization of the book business. Ownership of publishers--and, to a lesser extent, bookstores--has become concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.

Interestingly enough, while the publishing industry has moved toward consolidation, the trend in consumer choice has been toward fragmentation.

In the ‘50s, consumers could only choose among three or four television stations. Today there are more than 200 network and cable stations available. New films, which could once only be seen in movie theatres, are now made available on digital downloads within days of release. Primetime television shows are moving in the same direction.

Our entertainment options are multiplying almost faster than we can keep track of them. Cell phones, computers, video games, Mp3 players--all chip away at precious discretionary time. The Internet plays an important role in this proliferation of options with social networking sites, online zines, and downloads of music, books and films.

Chris Anderson explored this subject in his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Anderson argued that the Internet offers two things: (1) the ability for geographically separated consumers to join together into niches based on common interests, and (2) unlimited “virtual” shelf space available on the Internet to sell products.

While I think Anderson stretches a little too hard to make some of his points, I do agree with his basic theory. More businesses are springing up every day to cater to tiny niche markets. Just take a look at the magazine rack of your local retailer. There are hundreds of new magazines targeted at these niche markets.

A little over a year ago, my post for January 1, 2006 quoted Rachel Pine, author of "Communications Director, Doubledown Media," predicting "Advertisers will once again realize the power of print -- not necessarily huge, mainstream publications, but they will begin to understand, embrace and champion affinity publications as never before."

Affinity publications: read here, niche magazines. According to the American Society of Magazine Editors, more than 21,000 consumer and trade magazines are in circulation--an increase of about 5,000 since 1990. Advertising revenues for magazines reached an all-time high in 2005 of $23 billion, up from $17 billion in 2002. I reported in my post of August 11, 2006 that, while general interest magazines are dying, niche magazines are driving the industry.

Together with the advent of the Internet, there have been other huge technological advances in publishing. The digital publishing process offers an alternative to the traditional printing press. It is now possible to print only a few copies of a single book--what is commonly called print-on-demand or POD. Mp3 players and the newest generation of cell phones are giving us additional mediums through which to enjoy books.

I started this discussion yesterday talking about my concern for the mid-list as the result of increased attention to the publishing bottom line. That focus on profits has led many publishers and discount retailers to concentrate more on best sellers. This makes it harder for newbie writers to get published or for mid-list writers to break out of the mid-list.

I've pointed out three trends: (1) Consolidation of the publishing industry; (2) More consumer choice; and (3) Advances in technology.

So where does this leave the mid-list writer?

I believe the savvy writer will begin to explore new markets and new mediums:

**E-publishing--although slow to take off, e-publishing is gaining credibility. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all that is needed is a viable and inexpensive e-reading device before this market explodes.

**Audio Books--they are already big business, but the audio version usually follows the release of a hard copy book. It will be interesting to see if the newest technological advances in Mp3 players and devices such as the iPhone will encourage publishers to focus on releasing an audio book without printing hard copies. Downloadable audio books accounted for "9% of audio book sales in 2005 . . . a 50 percent increase over the previous year."

**Podcasting--As I've said, audio books are already big business. Podcasting--digital recordings of a radio broadcast available over the Internet--are also growing in popularity. With very little expense, a writer can make an audio version of his/her manuscript available for downloading on either the Internet or a satellite radio station.

**Regional presses or other niche publishers. If you've done your homework and know your novel's genre, consider identifying the regional presses and niche publishers in your genre. There are excellent small presses available.

**Consider novellas, short stories and flash fiction. In a world in which we do things in short bursts of time, the options for fiction continue to expand to include fiction that can be read (or listened to) quickly and without a great investment of time.

Diversity is the watchword for the future in publishing. Today's writers must stay in touch with the changing market. To fail to do so will limit choices and opportunities.

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