Five years normally isn't all that long, is it? But I think you've nailed how quickly this industry is changing. Look at what Napster and iTunes did to the music industry. Or what digital cameras have done to film. E-books are showing phenomenal growth. We're talking triple-digit increases year on year while physical books see double-digit decreases. The trends point one direction. As someone who worked in an independent bookstore for the past two years, I've been watching this unfold from the retail as well as the production side.
I think the biggest change will come from the success of the indie writer, to be honest. And I don't say this because of what I'm experiencing. Rather, it's because of the dozens and dozens of friends I've met online who are having success with writing and publishing on their own. People are quitting their day jobs because their e-book sales are able to support them. They are now free to concentrate on their craft, supported by the small purchases of thousands of people around the world, all of whom have access to more choice in reading material than ever before.
As publishers see their market diminish, and I believe they already are, I think they are going to become open to working with authors in a more equitable fashion. E-book royalty rates have to change. They simply have to. The publisher offers almost nothing and in exchange they want almost everything. In five years, we'll hear about more and more authors signing physical print deals with major publishers while they retain e-book rights. That may not sound like much (since it's so logical and fair) but it will signal a monumental shift in how business is done.
Another change we may see, though I think this is ten or fifteen years away, is the end of stocking all titles on shelves, which has meant shipping books back and forth between printer and retailer and then back again for remaindering or pulping. It's a wasteful system. We have the technology now to simply print the book the reader wants in under five minutes, while they wait. I'd love to see more bookstores that highlight the social and community aspects of reading. A place to come and discuss books, to find out what's being written, to meet local authors and attend book signings. Bookstores are already becoming coffee shops that sell board games and children's toys. That trend will continue until they mostly carry bargain books and bestsellers, and everything else is printed behind a counter while you sip on a latte.
What won't change is the supply of books worth reading and people eager for each and every one of them. We have thirsted for stories since we received them around campfires. The method of delivery is not the thing. It's allowing another's words to stir our imaginations. And so we should concentrate on this and care less about the manner in which it happens.
This has been a wonderful time for authors, because so many good writers are finally getting a chance to sell directly to readers. I don’t know how long this will last, but it is a Golden Age of sorts. More and more midlist authors who found it impossible to build a career with the New York publishers are coming over to ebooks. And there are talented newcomers who couldn’t sell to New York, but really have the goods.
I don’t know how long this particular phase will last. It might be like the Gold Rush of the nineteenth century. The first adopters may be the ones who do the best. There will be changes—some big, some small---and it’s hard to tell where we’ll be five years from now. But I can’t help but think that Amazon will be running the show.
When I first got into the business, someone, another author, told me that if the book is good, readers will find you, if not, maybe you should consider doing something else. I'm mentioning that to say that time is a great equalizer and I actually believe the number of Indies will decrease.
I do believe the public IS the ultimate gatekeeper in this new order and they will answer the questions of quality and readability. Some authors will become discouraged, and I believe, at some point, Amazon, B&N, and others could create some kind of criteria for publishing on their sites. That's just my opinion, however.