More Seats at the Writer Table, Less Pie for All

Mike Shatzkin maintains one of the best blogs I’ve found yet on the changes happening in publishing. If you care about this subject, follow his blog. He posts about once per week, so it’s not a huge time hit.

His most recent post is on how publishers will need to transition from a b2b to a b2c model as bookstore shelf space continues to dwindle. This isn’t–for now, at least–about publishers selling directly to consumers. It’s more of a change in marketing tactics to focus on creating brands around which communities can gather. In this area, the publishing industry has one shining star:

The one consumer brand in publishing that means the most and provides the most equity to its owner is Harlequin. Consumers recognize it and have understandings about quality and price based on it. But because they also know that the Harlequin name means the “romance” genre, and because many romance readers buy and consume dozens, even hundreds, of titles in the genre every year, they have logical reasons to visit Harlequin’s web site repeatedly and to request and open email reminders of new publications from them.

Two thoughts in particular struck me. First, other than for Harlequin, this transition is likely to be a whole lot harder than most publishers anticipate. The competition in this space is fierce, and there are a lot of players in it already. Amazon is indeed the grandpa of all companies when it comes to understanding your customers, and some of them do seem quite fanatical. Though Facebook may soon be giving them a run for their money.

My second thought was hinted at later in the post. This type of tribe building around shared interests seems to be more suited to specialized, boutique publishers. There is a real question around what advantages scale offers. Customers passionate about something sense phoniness towards it from a mile off. It seems likely that major publishers will work on fostering smaller brands that are highly targeted to specific consumers, and that many smaller publishers will sprout up to serve specific communities.

This all means one thing: many more books get published. Shatzkin does make this point later in the post when he talks of “tripling down on title output to become a serious player in a niche.” That’s great news for new authors. More titles mean more seats at the table. Though it also implies a smaller slice of the pie for all. We may earn a little less, but is that really anything new for writers?


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