Jamie McGuire recently announced that her CreateSpace print on demand title, Beautiful Redemption, will soon be available in Walmart stores. This is absolutely bonkers news, and just one more sign that the last bastion of traditional publishing is eroding. The announcement follows on the heels of a CreateSpace POD title becoming a #1 bestseller and being picked up by Random House for a 7-figure sum. The viability of print for indies is slowly following trends set by ebooks, and the implications are enormous.
Success in entertainment is all about possibility, not probability. No one is guaranteed to earn a living following their creative interests. What we should hope for, however, is that no one is barred from trying. For a long time, the vast majority of authors were barred from entry. We couldn’t discuss probability, because probability was zero. We fought for possibility.
Ebooks and self-publishing made so much possible, literally overnight. With the launch of Kindle Direct Publishing, anyone with a story and a keyboard could place their work right alongside Grisham’s and Rowling’s. Walls came smashing down. It wasn’t long before writers of all stripes were expecting equal sales and equal treatment, which is a testament to how quickly we adapt to monumental change.
Audiobooks have experienced explosive growth the last five years, an aspect of digital book consumption too often overlooked. But even more ignored is the power of print on demand. For a long time, I created POD editions of my works for reasons other than income. I wanted to hold the product of my labor. I enjoyed unboxing that first proof copy. I liked having those editions available for friends and family who only read in print, and it gave me something to sign and sell at small events around town. It also fleshed out my Amazon product page and made the ebook look like a bargain. All of these advantages were had at the cost of exporting and uploading a PDF. Any sale was a bonus.
When Wool took off, the power of POD became more obvious. Readers spread the word about the story, and other readers inquired at bookstores. As a former bookseller, I can tell you that when I had two or more people ask about the same book in a week, I ordered a few copies in for the shelves. This started happening with Wool. The CreateSpace printed title began appearing in Barnes & Noble and in top independent bookstores across the country. This, despite the policy of most stores to blacklist and ban any Amazon-printed title and author. Walls were being skirted by reader demand and honest and enterprising booksellers.
What Jamie’s deal shows is that there are other bookselling outlets available to indies. (Very large outlets, as a matter of fact.) Not long ago, Jamie gave up lucrative offers from a major publisher to move back to the indie space. She knew her publisher could not keep up with her pace of publishing, and that she could have more creative freedom, reach more readers, and earn more money on her own. She assumed she’d be giving up access to readers through store shelves, due to the blacklisting of Amazon-printed titles. Which is what makes the Walmart / CreateSpace partnership so interesting. Indie authors make decisions based on probabilities. When probability equals zero, that’s an enormous consideration. Probability just became non-zero. Time to revise our thinking.
John Scalzi recently blogged about his decision to take a long term, muti-book deal with his traditional publisher. No one can fault John for wanting the security of knowing what his income will be, at a minimum, for the next decade. But part of his reasoning, which is access to readers through bookstores, has suddenly become outdated. With change happening so fast in the industry, being locked into a 10-year deal is an enormous risk. Even worse is signing over rights that won’t expire until after you do. If Jamie can get a Walmart deal through CreateSpace, imagine what an independent John Scalzi or Neil Gaiman could do. JK Rowling showed what was possible with going indie with her ebooks. Jamie is showing us what’s possible in the print space.
I think it’s enormously prudent for authors to look at and understand trends in the publishing industry. Rather than make decisions based on what’s possible today, we should try to gauge what might be possible tomorrow or even in coming years. With Barnes & Noble posting more quarterly declines this week, it’s only a matter of time before: 1) Management there is replaced with people who want to offer what readers are interested in, rather than trying to earn profits by selling publishers marketing space. Or: 2) A bookstore willing to offer what readers are interested in takes ever more shelf space from stores that focus on merchandising and advertising.
Amazon has been the leader in this category, offering what readers want and taking market share as a result. Their bestseller lists are a measure of sales, unlike what you see on B&N.com and on the New York Times bestseller list (the latter of which changed their criteria the week before a POD work was to hit the list in order to keep it off the list). The companies blacklisting and banning books will not do well in a marketplace driven by word of mouth and reader demand. And those falsely curating their lists will find their credibility trends toward zero.
For years now, the decision to self-publish has made sense despite the lack of access to bookstores. Giving up the 70% earnings on ebooks in exchange for 12% earnings in print hasn’t made sense for most writers for a long time, especially as print readers moved to digital. I think Jamie’s deal is just a harbinger of what’s to come. Most print sales are now happening online, which makes them digital sales as well. Authors can complain about probability all they like — we’ve been doing this for eons — but the complaints about possibility will have to change. We keep pushing that conversation more and more toward an era of equal access. More barriers are being broken down, and the rubble of former walls now litters the publishing landscape. I expect this to continue.