While there was much anticipation over Goodreads founder Otis Chandler's post-Amazon-acquisition update at this year's IDPF 2013 Digital Book Conference at BEA, it was Writer's Digest publisher Phil Sexton who might have stolen the day, with the results of a survey of author reactions to self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. The Writer's Digest survey found "hybrid authors"—writers who have published both ways—repeatedly embracing self-publishing over traditional houses, most often citing better pay and greater creative control when self-publishing.
In many ways, both Sexton's and Chandler's presentations—and to some extent the earlier onstage conversation between HarperCollins's chief digital officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, and paidContent's Laura Hazard Owen—were focused on the relationship between authors, readers, and data. Indeed, IDPF 2013 reinforced again how the steady growth of digital networks and digital publishing has created a window into consumer behavior—not to mention creating more direct access to consumers for authors and publishers alike—and how it is changing the industry.
As usual, IDPF kicked off with a bit of theoretical musing about the nature of the book and the evolution of the form, from the physical book to the "post-book," according to Corey Pressman, of Exprima Media, as we move to a new kind of reading. Richard Nash, content and community v-p of Small Demons, gave a short presentation on the use, metaphorical and actual, of the algorithm in the financial as well as digital publishing industry and the problems around trying to "write programs that will tell us what we want to read or watch" in a "universe of millions of books and billions of transactions." The challenge these days—it's also something of a useful business model for Small Demons, where Nash works, which essentially indexes all the content of a book—is to locate the DNA of a book. "We need to look to what we read for the data and processing power that will drive more reading," Nash said, ending his presentation with the observation that "a novel is a program that runs inside the reader."
Chantal Restivo-Alessi offered straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Restivo-Alessi, who came from the music and finance industry, said that while there are many similarities between the music and book business, the book industry has avoided the fate of the music business. Books have avoided the worst of piracy by making digital editions available fairly quickly at reasonable prices. "Books have the advantage of creating new digital products," she said, "and there are lots of opportunities." It's also "a print and e-publishing world. Consumers like both worlds so we need to cross-sell, use bundles," she said, emphasizing that "publishers need to do a better job of finding out what consumers want."
Restivo-Alessi pointed to Harper's digital-first imprints and said, "They are doing well in the U.S. and the U.K. You can test the market with digital before going to print—you can take risks." She also cited "new business models and partnerships that are very similar to self-publishing models. We curate the content the same way but we have different expectations about the numbers and financials." And she was bullish on e-books: "International markets are just getting started and major retailers are just setting up storefronts. There's much more to do for e-books globally."
The News at Goodreads
Otis Chandler said that Goodreads now has 18 million members (45% from outside the U.S.), double the size of the site when he appeared at IDPF last year. He gave a litany of impressive statistics: 570 million books shelved, 11 million books "shelved" by users, and 24 million reviews. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl was the most reviewed book on the site (47,000 reviews). He said that social and sharing "remain the most important" assets for Goodreads and will change the business over the next five years. And for those worried about Goodreads after the Amazon acquisition, he was reassuring: "We aren't changing. We're not just set up for the Kindle. Goodreads is for all platforms, physical and digital, and for connecting to people."
But back to Phil Sexton's survey of hybrid writers. "Hybrid authors are more aggressive and successful," Sexton said, quoting from the survey results, "and they are more sophisticated and strategic about publishing." Not surprisingly, hybrid authors were overwhelmingly more involved with social media—not to mention being better paid. They also report an average income from writing of $38,540, while traditionally published authors report $27,758 and the solely self-published report $7,630. Hybrid authors expect to get higher advances than traditionally published authors and expect to get a higher royalty. While 92% of traditionally published authors say they want their next book published that way, 71% of hybrid authors say they are interested in publishing their next book with a conventional house. And finally, asked why they self-published, 41.3% of hybrid authors say "creative control," and 33% say "ease of the publishing process." Money (28.9%) and distribution (25.6%) place third and fourth in the responses.
While traditional publishing doesn't always look good in these survey results, that doesn't mean it is going away. It's really a data-driven wakeup call. If publishers want to be more author-centric as well as more consumer-focused, the Writer's Digest survey is a pretty good place to go to find some answers and strategies.