The Publishing Revolution: An Opportunity for Geographers
December 21, 2012
In May 2011, the global retailing giant Amazon.com reported that it sold more ebooks than print books in the U.S. This tipping point came only four years after the retailer began selling ebooks. In August 2012, Amazon recorded a similar milestone for sales in the U.K. Consumers – across all age demographics – are rapidly embracing tablets, ereaders, and phones as platforms on which to read books. In contrast, print publications are losing ground to digital formats. As ebook sales rise, print sales stagnate or decline. Many traditional bookstores are closing. Likewise, print newspapers and magazines are under siege from online outlets. In short, we are living through a publishing revolution, particularly with respect to popular or general audience publications.
This op-ed addresses the issue of publishing opportunities outside mainstream academic channels. I recognize the value of academic books and journals, and the merits of the peer-review process. I have participated in that process on many occasions, in different ways, and my comments here are not meant to undermine the ongoing vitality of academic scholarship, whether it is published digitally or in print. Rather, my focus here is on popular publications (or non-academic writings) that geographers inside and outside the academy produce.
The rise of ebooks and online distribution is associated with more than just different channels of distribution. In the worlds of both popular fiction and non-fiction, authors are increasingly choosing independent publishing, or what was once stigmatized as “self-publishing.” Technological changes are leading to cultural and institutional changes, as authors – including this geographer – opt out of traditional publishing in order to reach a popular audience. And the benefits of self-publishing are many and significant for both readers and authors.
What do readers gain from independent (digital) publishing? Through bypassing traditional publishing houses, authors quickly gain direct access to readers. Ebook readers are rewarded with much lower prices, since distribution costs are negligible and the overhead associated with traditional publishing is largely eliminated. As well, authors are delivering more titles to market, contributing to the diversity of books available. Yes, much junk is being produced, but self-publishing allows many more worthy authors to find an audience. Other benefits for readers include: easier global distribution of ebooks; free samples (up to 10 percent of the total book); and the elimination of physical storage space for print books.
Self-publishing authors are also realizing benefits in this new publishing landscape. First, authors are no longer limited by traditional gatekeepers. Good authors are still seeking editorial guidance and feedback on their manuscripts, but the bottleneck of traditional print publishing is now a relic of the past. Books can move from initial planning to sure publication in a matter of months. Second, authors are now earning much higher royalties on book sales, up to 70-80 percent per book. That figure compares to about 5-20 percent under traditional print publishing. Partly because of this economic reality, even some traditionally published bestselling authors have gone independent. Finally, because of the low costs of production and distribution for ebooks, authors are able to target niche audiences with manuscripts of varying lengths.
But, are ebooks (and self-publishing) just a passing fad? Are these publishing trends only important for younger readers? The answers seem to be “no,” and “no.” While print sales (by value) in the U.S. still outpace ebook sales, those figures are changing rapidly, and the lower price of digital works skews the sales data in favor of print. Furthermore, print-on-demand facilities – which allow readers to mail order a single print copy from services like Create Space and Lightning Source – will continue to offer a traditional reading experience for those that are not inclined towards ebooks. (Whether most remaining print bookstores will survive this publishing revolution is still an open question.) And Pew Research suggests that older readers are choosing ebooks in numbers comparable to the young. Also, new self-publishing service providers are improving the quality of all aspects of independently published books. For example, graphics design and formatting services are popping up around the world, given the growing demand from self-publishers.
This revolution in popular publishing has created some compelling opportunities for geographers. For those seeking an audience beyond academe, it is a very exciting time to be an author. Readers are becoming the primary gatekeepers of quality, and even books with a small niche are now marketable. Geographers now have an enhanced opportunity to contribute to public policy debates in various parts of the world, given low-cost global distribution. As important, geographers can now easily publish “shorts” (or what Amazon calls “singles”) that provide extended treatment of topics in a timely fashion. The rise of ebooks also enhances the accessibility of the written word for generations to come; instructors and readers will no longer worry about books being “out of print” or hard to find. Finally, many more geographers can rightfully reap direct financial rewards from their writings.
Brennan Kraxberger is the author of the self-published book, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.