By Siobhan Harkin 

What is a book? The United Nations defines a book as “a nonperiodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers.” Since the great inventions of paper and printing, the book itself has changed very little in its physical form. Meanwhile, the role of the publisher has evolved considerably from medieval times when the publisher, printer and author were often one and the same person. Now, it seems, the publisher’s job is changing again and with exciting consequences for authors. 

In her article, The Global Book: Micropublishing, Conglomerate Production, and Digital Market Structures, Ann Steiner argues that globalisation and digitalisation of the publishing industry have effectively concentrated the top end of the market while simultaneously creating a lush and fecund undergrowth, where ‘non-traditional’ publishing flourishes at pace and anyone can now become their own publisher. At least, this is my reading of Steiner’s piece, which is concerned with mass-market fiction and non-fiction (as opposed to educational, professional or other discrete literature). 

The hunt for big books and best-sellers 

Steiner asserts that today’s official book markets and literary systems produce a global literature with relatively few books. Success remains highly unpredictable with only a small number of books enjoying international or global sales. A look at the international bestseller lists of 2018 shows that most countries remain very national in their literary tastes. This is hardly surprising since publishing is based in language, and language itself is arguably a cultural artefact. Popular books reflect this cultural specificity. 

On the other hand, the world’s largest publishers are resolutely Anglophone and Northern European in origin (Pearson, RELX, Thomson Reuters, Bertelsmann and Wolters Kluwer, collectively known as The Big Five). Consequently, the most popular international literature is likely to emanate from either English-speaking or Scandinavian countries. 

Large publishers create buzz for a select number of titles (largely in proportion to the size of the advance and thus expectations), and effectively give each book around six months to prove itself. Many books will not be available after two years. With a business model based on growth, the dominant publishers concentrate on trying to produce the ‘big book’ and other bestsellers, while the mid-list becomes less profitable and therefore less interesting to them.

Nevertheless, despite their focus, publishers remain tantalisingly inept at predicting the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’ve ever wondered why publishers appear to jump on the bandwagon and flood the market with books that look exactly like the latest best-seller, here is the reason. 

While conglomeration and the convergence of traditional publishing businesses has characterised 21st century publishing, it was advances in the dissemination of information that revolutionised distribution and changed consumer behaviour. In terms of technology, the creation of ebooks and the digital streaming of audiobooks are probably the key innovations (perhaps the only tangible innovations) from within the publishing industry itself. Truly radical transformations in retail and information sharing came from Amazon, Apple and Google. 

The growth of non-traditional publishing 

But for now, let’s look back into the verdant foliage of ‘non-traditional publishing’. This area includes ebooks without ISBNs (that’s the barcode on the back of the book) and unofficial titles from micropresses to individual self-published authors, and is significant enough for its sales to be professionally monitored and recorded. 

Ever since the success of the Fifty Shades franchise (initially a self-published ebook), publishers have been keen to harness the potential of overlooked authors by creating self- publishing platforms (online spaces for authors to upload their work for professional consideration) with mixed success. Bonnier opened and closed ‘Type and Tell’ in short order; Macmillan opened and closed ‘Pronoun’ in similar fashion. IngramSpark and Smashwords offer platforms and editorial services to self-publishing authors who would otherwise struggle to achieve attention from traditional publishing houses. Amazon’s strategy of giving space to small publishers and individual authors via the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) platform has preceded an explosive growth of micropublishers, self-publishers, vanity publishers and all comers making a foray from both an amateur and professional background. This has led to an increase in both the number of titles published and in the volume of sales. 

But, as Steiner points out, the way consumers discover books still depends on coordinated marketing, and there is an intense process of evaluation for any new book, which begins with the decision to publish (itself the result of collaboration between publishing, sales and marketing teams at the publishing house) and incorporates retailers, buying teams, book reviewers, social media influencers and purchasing endorsements from consumers (ratings on Amazon and elsewhere). However, a knowledge of social media, metadata, search engines and the other mechanics of book discovery can be mastered by small or individual publishers just as easily as larger ones, and perhaps with a greater degree of motivation and deeper understanding of their particular niche. 

There’s no question that publishing answers a deep human need to record thoughts, stories and information and crucially, to share this organised thought. It is hardly surprising then, that the prolific shadow business of non-traditional publishing runs in parallel to an increasingly concentrated official publishing industry. In the next edition of this paper, we’ll look at the range of options and opportunities for self-publishing authors and why there has never been a better time to join the self-publishing revolution and become your own publisher. 

To read Ann Steiner’s article in full, it is published under the Creative Commons Attribution at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12109-017-9558-8 

Ed’s Note
Most of the books illustrated here are written and self-published by local authors except ‘Turbulent Spinsters’, which is published by Earlyworks Press. They are available at Printed Matter bookshop Queen’s Rd Hastings (Just before Morrisons). Kafka’s ‘Letter to My Father’ is translated by Howard Colyer. Siobhan Harkin will be writing a follow up to this article and running a short course for those interested in self-publishing. Details in the next HIP issue.


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