The “Collapse” of Traditional Publishing?

For the past several years there have been various “furors” in the F&SF writing community about who’s been publishing what, about who’s not publishing what, and about which type of books are getting nominated for what awards. The latest semi-furor seems to rest on the idea that traditional publishing houses, i.e., the big New York publishers, will collapse because they’re now publishing a much wider range of books, instead of largely publishing the kind of F&SF books released from roughly 1955 to around 2000, that is, largely male-dominated, action-oriented, speculative fiction where the emphasis was on science or magic and action. Not that a lot of other types of F&SF fiction weren’t also published, beginning in the 1970s and increasing over the years, but the trend has been toward a broader range of F&SF. The result, predictably, is that fewer writers who produce “traditional” male-oriented action F&SF are getting published, and those who aren’t getting published or not as much aren’t happy about it.

First, if I’ve figured correctly, fiction only comprises 45% of total book sales revenue, and F&SF only comprises about 15-17% of total fiction sales, or roughly seven percent of total revenues. I may be a bit off, but those figures are in the right ball park.

The other aspect I’ve noticed is that, very quietly, the traditional publishers are inspecting their bottom lines and weeding out editors and imprints that aren’t selling that well. I don’t see them throwing out authors whose books sell well just because they write action-oriented fiction featuring predominantly male characters.

Second, over the past three centuries there’s always been a market for inexpensive written stories and entertainment, but who published it and how has changed over time.

The “penny-dreadfuls” of the mid-1800s in Great Britain were cheap, usually gory. adventure/crime/horror stories aimed at young men, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the market was swamped with “penny” knockoffs. They were printed on paper so flimsy that very few examples remain.

In turn, they were followed, not only in Great Britain, but in the United States, and elsewhere, by the era of pulp magazines, which by the mid-twentieth century largely gave way to the mass market paperback. I was personally very familiar with F&SF mass market paperbacks, because my mother had a small gray bookcase filled with them, and they cost during that time from thirty-five to fifty cents, thirty-five cents then being roughly equivalent to $3.50 today. But what gets overlooked in such comparisons is that that thirty-five cent paperback was only 150 pages long, compared to the massive 350-600 page plus paperbacks of today. In essence, mass market paperbacks cost about as much per page as they did sixty years ago.

The cost problem isn’t so much inflation; it’s purchasing power. In 1960, a worker could buy at least two paperbacks for an hour’s minimum wage. Today, an hour’s work at the federal minimum wage won’t even buy one mass market paperback.

This makes lower-cost e-books more attractive, and with the advent of e-books, writers who don’t want to deal with traditional publishers or writers rejected by them can self-publish, and most of those who do so charge less than traditional publisher. Often, as was the case with the penny-dreadfuls and pulps, the production quality and distribution leave something to be desired. But sometimes, those production qualities are good, and sometimes the writing is also good, but, from what I’ve seen and sampled, on the whole most indie-produced work technically isn’t as good as what’s turned out by traditional publishing.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that indie publishing offers an opportunity for writers either rejected or ignored by traditional publishers, for various reasons, and some few will likely make far more money than if they were traditionally published.

Most won’t, but even those authors who are traditionally published aren’t always able to support themselves on their writing income. I was “successfully” published in the traditional fashion for twenty years before I could support myself on my writing. Today, unlike in the past, self-publishing is practically and economically feasible, and there’s still the opportunity to carve out an income and readership for those authors not chosen by traditional publishing.

But despite the appearance of indie publishing, I don’t see the traditional publishers going away, partly because while the indie market and the traditional market overlap, they’re not exactly the same, and, besides, the market’s big enough for both.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:

I’ve been reminded that during the later part of the pulp era and most of the mass market paperback era, comic books were also a significant print entertainment forces, and, of course, now graphic novels are in the mix.

3 thoughts on “The “Collapse” of Traditional Publishing?”

  1. Robert Hinshaw says:

    I’m genuinely not sure if the equilibrium you suggest is going to hold.

    The amount of money being made in the self-published community is so large that anyone who gets a publishing deal and does well is almost certainly going to make more money jumping ship with an audience that knows and loves their work. I recently read a blog post by the husband and wife team Ilona Andrews that told their readers they’d be taking some time off to self-publish some stuff, largely driven by their success at getting stories they tested on their blog into book form without a publisher. Their self-published book “Blood Heir” was such a monster success, it sort of made the choice obvious to them I think.

    https://ilona-andrews.com/2021/bestseller-lists-and-blood-heirs-future/

    Full disclosure, I’m a newly self-published author who has had modest success (SciFi/Fantasy), and I can *almost* live on my book sales if I can keep pumping out 1-2 books a year. Still, any author that has been moderately successful with a publisher behind them is almost certain to do better by leaving the publisher once they’ve cultivated an audience, and selling directly to them.

    The only two constraints on abandoning traditional publishers that I see are (1) professional editing and (2) the advertising reach of the publishing house (also getting the book on physical shelves). The first can be hired privately with the author assuming only moderate financial risk, while the second is the only real hold the publisher has on authors. And that balance of power shifts in favor of the author as time goes on.

    I agree that there is room enough for everyone, but once there is enough entry in the freelance editor market, I’m not sure why Amazon and other online sellers/advertisers won’t take away the publisher’s last hold on the author.

    Also, it is fascinating that many of the most successful self-published authors in sci-fi and fantasy right now are of the trashier, penny dreadful variety. It’s an odd case where traditional publishers may be widening their net, but many self-publishing authors are following in the footsteps of Harlequin Romance and other romance imprints, but focused on young male audiences. Interestingly, many of the audiobook publishing houses are picking up on this and snapping up the audio rights to lots of the self-published titles. I’m as interested as anyone so see where the new equilibrium settles!

  2. Grey says:

    As an aside, I think identifying the issue as ‘male space heroes’ falling from popularity may be a missed diagnosis as well. In terms of those complaining, they are missing, or do not want to admit, that the authors and their characters are misogynist jerks, and fewer people are interested in that these days. It’s always easier to blame something external when introspection is what’s needed.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      While there are doubtless plenty of examples of misogyny in most genres (surely even romances targeting largely female audiences tend to suffer from very constrained roles) and in most times, I think that a number of the classical male F&SF authors had strong women characters no more limited than the audiences of the time would tolerate. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Anderson’s Virginia Matuchek (Graylock) and younger Valeria, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Clarissa MacDougal and Dorothy Seaton (not strong at first, but getting stronger as the series progressed), various by Heinlein, just a few examples. Some of those were well beyond just supporting roles, more like lead or co-lead. And then there were breakthrough female authors like Andre Norton, whose women as often as not were not only strong, but the lead characters.

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