Sunday, 28 September 2014

Shifting Sands

The Rise of the Hybrid

In my earlier posts I discussed the changing marketplace for fiction, and how the changing technological platforms will shift the power balance away from traditional publishing towards smaller publishing houses and towards the author-acting-as-publisher.

I also said that before this happens, there will be a marked period of uncertainty, where traditional publishing houses, seeking to reduce costs, are likely to downsize, amalgamate or acquire. As part of this uncertainty, publishers will also seek to offset risk, by increasing the liability clauses in their agreements - pushing liability onto the author - and requiring un-met advances to be paid back.

It's a very scary moment when you see your predictions coming true.

I presented at a writer's workshop last week (the reason this blog post is a little later than usual) where two highly respected writers presented. (I presented, too, but I don't include myself as up to their calibre!)

Both writers, Philip Temple and Jackie Ballantyne, have decided to self-pub. Philip, who has been writing professionally for over forty years, has had multiple residencies, holds the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Otago.  Clearly, he has a long and respected literary career. And yet, and yet... Philip has experienced first hand a number of examples where publishers have been acquired by a larger house while a novel is coming out - to the detriment of the novel. He also reported that he has found terms and conditions are harsher; payments to authors are decreasing while expectations on them are increasing. So therefore, he has decided to self-publish his novel, MiStory, about climate change.

Jackie reports a similar experience. Her novel, The Silver Gaucho, has also been published this month.

Both novels are doing well, making the bestseller lists. Which, given the size of New Zealand, is unlikely to lead to fame and fortune. But it does represent something new, and something rather exciting. Jackie and Philip show that self-published novels can compete head to head in the bookstores and not only hold their own; they can do well.

These two writers represent an emerging phenomenon: the rise of the hybrid novelist.

Hybrid novelists are those writers who both self-publish and who publish through a traditional house. Some use their backlist, when their rights have reverted and discover a new readership (and income stream). Others write new works, and make a choice whether or not to self-pub.

This is the route I am interested in taking. Why?


Traditionally, publishers have been expert at:

  • identifying talent
  • quality control 
    • editing
    • formatting
    • project management
  • printing
  • distribution
  • marketing
  • talent management
These components, taken together, have constituted their brand.

But now, as we've seen, publishers have less focus on talent identification, and a greater focus on short term return. 

Editing, formatting and printing have been outsourced to freelancers. Distribution partnerships (with bricks and mortar stores) are decreasing. Marketing support is limited to the top sellers only; most authors are expected to manage the majority of their own marketing. Furthermore, much of the downsizing has meant experienced book publicists are now available as freelance. Talent management is almost non-existent.  Most publishers have outsourced almost their entire supply chain!

This means that many large publishers have only three points of difference
  • capital (money)
  • distribution
  • access to reviewers

What Does This Mean?

It means a massive brand dilution. Distribution can be replicated with technology or relationships. Reviewers are interested in the author, not the publishing house. Which leaves only money. And if the only thing differentiating you is money, you are highly, highly vulnerable. 


Because of how the business life cycle works. To survive in a declining marketplace, a business must be able to differentiate on quality. Anything else is too easily substituted by new, emerging technology.

Brand Dilution means New Opportunities

Writers are now able to purchase editorial, printing and project management support. We are able to do this in a multitude of configurations and for a competitive price. Hybrid authors like Philip and Jackie are at a particular advantage here, as they have existing relationships within the industry and their names are synonymous with quality. They already have a brand.

After all, what do readers want? They want a good product. Self-published authors are now able to provide that product. 

If what I saw this weekend is any symptom of the future, quality authors will be self-publishing quality books, and readers will be very interested.

So right now, I see definite advantages to joining the self-pub industry. 

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