With the rise of the e-book and the advent of self publishing, what does the future hold for the publishing industry? Kara Miller asks Taryn Roeder, publicist at Houghton Mifflin and Eve Bridburg, a literary agent and executive director of Grub Street.
- Taryn Roeder: publicist at Houghton Mifflin.
- Eve Bridburg: literary agent and executive director of Grub Street.
The book “Fifty Shades of Grey” made history this year, selling 25 million copies in the United States alone — in just four months. Just as surprising, the sales of the book were split equally between paper and electronic copies, making the publication of E.L James’ racy tome a watershed moment for e-books.
The rise of e-books in the past decade has transformed the publishing industry beyond recognition. As the hardback declines and the Kindle rises, marketing strategies, sales tactics, and the responsibilities of authors are all rapidly changing.
The Search for Readers
But the way people read isn’t the only thing that’s changing — whether people read is becoming an ever more pertinent question. In 1978, the Pew Research Center found that 88 percent of Americans had read a book for pleasure in the previous year. Now that number has dropped to 78 percent. With fewer Americans reading in their free time, the publishing industry understands that any newly released title competes not only with other books, but also with video games, television, and movies.
“There’s a lot of noise out there,” explains Taryn Roeder, a publicist at Houghton Mifflin. “When you’re trying to get people to read a book…there’s a lot of other things they could be doing, and I’m aware of that every day.”
Eve Bridburg, a literary agent and executive director of Grub Street, says publishers aren't afraid to pander if it gets reader attention. “The bigger the platform, the bigger the headline, the sexier the book, the more likely it was for us to be able to sell it for a reasonable amount of money,” she remembers. “It’s much harder for serious writers of literary fiction to have and sustain a career over time."
Can Serious Fiction Survive?
Harder, but not impossible. Despite the industry fanfare over steamy and controversial titles, all hope is not lost for the small book or new author. In 2009, Paul Harding published his book “Tinkers” with Bellvue Literary Press, a tiny publishing house attached to a hospital in New York City. The following year, “Tinkers” won the Pulitzer Prize. Going forward, Brindburg thinks small presses like Bellvue are where avant garde fiction belongs, arguing the challenge is "[to] cultivate an audience that is the size that audience should be — which is never going to be the size that a major publisher needs for these flashier books.”
Brindburg believes that even as the industry changes, the cornerstone of publishing remains the same: a book needs to blow readers away.
“I am still a firm believer that the thing that sells books, at the end of the day, is word of mouth,” says Bridburg. “The book has to be good enough, when people read it, that they press it into someone else’s hand and say, ‘You have to read this.’”