If 2013 was the year that trade publishers finally learned to stop worrying and love the ebook, 2014 could well go down as the year when the trade publishing industry started doing interesting things with digital reading. While ebooks’ share of the total book market has risen more slowly than many expected, we've started to see real innovation in the ways that ebooks are delivered to and consumed by readers.
As The Economist observed in its magisterial overview of the modern publishing industry a couple of months ago, the book itself might not be changing much, but the book business itself is changing almost beyond recognition. So as we look towards a world in which publishing innovation increasingly focuses on business models over book apps, here are our own predictions for the future of trade publishing in 2015. We're going to release one prediction a day between Monday 5 and Friday 9 January, with our predictions for academic publishing to follow the week commencing 12 January.
1. The continued rise of the ‘hybrid’ publisher
Ten years ago, agents sold books to publishers, publishers sold books to booksellers, and booksellers sold books to the reading public. Today, those lines have blurred with the rise of the “hybrid” publisher which has taken the opportunities in the digital publishing age to publish directly or offer previously untapped services. Curtis Brown’s announcement that it would launch Studio 28, an in-house digital publishing imprint in 2015 is an interesting move. It takes Curtis Brown into publishers’ territory, as the agency seeks rights from authors already on its books with a view to “rediscovering and reinventing literary gems” and plans to publish 12-16 titles in the next twelve months.
Curtis Brown is not the first agency to turn publisher in its own right. Ed Victor’s Bedford Square Books has a three year lead and Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books launched in 2010. Julie Trelstad at Writer’s House helps its authors self-publish books when publishing directly might make the best sense for their titles.
The fact that another major literary agency feels it is now sufficiently in its clients’ interests to take publishing mid and backlist titles into its own hands and compete with the very publishers it is selling its books to is an important signal to the market. It tells us that some agents are now taking a more entrepreneurial stance on how to exploit the rights in their possession. It is also stretching the definition of what it is to be a publisher itself.
At the same time, publishing companies are also exploring hybrid business models themselves. A new breed of digital publisher exists that now increasingly offers access to its editorial expertise as a service. They then use the income this activity generates to fund and/or subsidise their core publishing operations.
In years gone by, decisions like those taken every day by agents and publishers could have been seen as crossing the Rubicon. Nowadays, however, they just seem like good protective business strategies.