Last year was a dark time in publishing. The year before even worse. The Australian retail market contracted by 25%, mostly due to the collapse of Borders, which had itself driven a number of independents and smaller franchises to the wall.
There are glimmers of improvement about though. The end of Amazon's effective monoply on ebooks is one, and the return of genre, especially sci-fi another.
Sci Fi has been deader than Elvis as a publishing industry segment for a long time. A few authors make a good, not great, living. But otherwise the era of spaceships and big fucking ray guns was judged to be over.
Until punters started buying SF titles in bigger and bigger and ever accelerating numbers in electronic form. It seems that like comic books and short stories, genre and SF in particular have found something of a 'mass niche' on tablets and ereaders.
There are multiple theories for the genre dominance in digital publishing, including the appeal of anonymity offered by e-reader devices, which don’t display the cover of a potentially embarrassing book for all the world to see. As Antonia Senior wrote in The Guardian last year, ”I’m happier reading [trashy fiction] on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.”
But the digital delivery system also offers immediacy and ease of access for material that often is serialized and written to make you want to know what happens next, as soon as possible. Liate Stehlik, senior vice president and publisher at Harper Collins, subscribes to that idea, at least partially. Genre fans, she says, became “early adopters” of the digital format because e-books are the optimal format “for people who want to read a lot of books, quickly and frequently. Digital has replaced the paperback, certainly the paperback originals. I think the audience that gravitated to eBooks first really was that voracious reader, reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.”
For both Random House and Harper Collins, moving to a digital-first publishing model not only offers a higher return on investment for genre publishing, but also opens the door for those publishers to experiment in a much more cost-effective way than print. “It’s not that we couldn’t publish these books before,” Dobson said, “but [now] that a certain consumer has migrated online, and the ease of buying these books has grown that consumer base substantially.”
This sits well with my own judgment that the industry will shake itself out into two fields over the next ten years, with disposable fiction migrating mostly into digital. Doesn't mean you won't ever see a hardback or even paperback SF title in future. But most of those titles will probably be consumed on iPads and Kindles.