Monday, 19 May 2008

Which Way for the Electronic Press?

Despite the optimistic hopes of many electronic publishers and authors, all economic indicators show that traditional publishing isn’t going to disappear, but ebooks are here to stay too. Ebooks are poised to take over many of the roles of the now-struggling small press. Small presses throughout history have flourished when they offered readers something the larger companies didn’t. Electronic publisher Ellora’s Cave has made huge profits by offering erotica, just as Olympia Press did two generations ago. They went places the traditional publishers wouldn’t go, and the readers rewarded them for it. Erotica has been the lifeblood of electronic publishing, and to a lesser extent the traditional small press as well, but there are other types of books that can thrive in an ebook/POD/small press format.

Large publishers tend to be conservative. Paranormal is hot now, so they churn out hundreds of books about vampires and werewolves. Soon they’ll saturate that market and have to find something else. In the meantime, they’re turning down good books just because the subject is a little different. Try getting a Korean hero into a mainstream publishing catalog. Try getting an old-style "farm and family" book published with a major YA publisher. And if you have a book with an unusual setting (Belgium instead of England) an unusual time period (the Bronze Age instead of the Middle Ages) or an unusual plot (a romantic couple who DON’T end up together) you already have a strike against you. Those books are risks, and the major publishers are all about the bottom line.

Yes, there are exceptions to all of these, but the vast majority of titles toe the line of what’s safe. The marketing department, not editorial, is what determines which books get published in the mainstream press.

Not that I can really blame them. They made $25 billion last year in the U.S. alone.

I think epublishing and the small press has a niche with the books that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day, the books that don’t quite fit. Too many of the smaller publishers churn out cheap imitations of mainstream books, when they really should be trying to grab the readers who mainstream houses leave behind. The small press can never move forward if it is trying to directly face off with the big boys. New York has too much marketing muscle, too much name recognition, and pretty much all the bookstore distribution.

The small press can thrive only if it offers something different. And those small publishers that have realized this are the ones rising to the top.

Why is the bulk of fiction set in Western Europe or North America? There’s a whole world out there to explore! Why is so much fantasy set in a Hollywood-style medieval England? And speaking of fantasy, why is the hero always armed with a sword? Why can’t he fight with a glaive, or a morning star, or a harquebus? And why is he always fighting dragons or some variant of orcs? Why can’t he face a herd of carnivorous centaurs or a swarm of sentient killer bees?

Editors need to get authors who skew the reader’s perceptions, who break the boundaries and mores of the genre. They need to publish books that make the reader say “Wow, I’ve never read something quite like that before!” and then look through the catalog to find another book that will make them say the same. The small press also needs to nourish the older subgenres that have been discarded by the mainstream press but still have a readership.

The small press should not be a smaller imitation of the major publishing houses. It should offer something different. Some publishers are already doing this, and they’re already reaping the benefits.


Gerard Readett said...

You make an interesting point and it is amusing that you mention Belgium. My novel, Roadworks is set in Brussels, the capital, and it took Sandy an Australian Ebook publisher ( to take me on.
The challenge for electronic press authors is to find the right marketing angle to compete. Will the fact that Roadworks is set in Belgium make it more popular. I don't know. Does it make it a less interesting novel. No way. And I'm hoping to show that when the screenplay adaption finally catches someone's attention in Hollywood, or Cannes, or London.

Sean McLachlan said...

Hi Gerard,

Best of luck with your novel! Will being set in Belgium help sell your novel? Probably not unless you get it translated into French and Flemish, but it will give your readers a slightly different experience that will encourage them to come back for your second novel. Reader loyalty is key for fiction authors.

So why did you pick Brussels as the location? I went to Brussels back in 2000 to cover the development of the EU Rapid Reaction Force. Fun town, although considerably smaller than most European capitals. I loved the Cinema Museum, which had a theatre playing silent films every night to live piano accompaniment. I went there all the time, usually with one or two fine Belgian beers already in me.

Gerard Readett said...

Hi Sean,

First of all Roadworks is being translated into French. My wife even thinks it will be more of a success in French than English!
Despite Brussels being 'smaller' than most other European Capitals somehow it has managed to become more cosmopolitan and important in European Matters. It is home to NATO, The European Commission, Part of the European Parliament and various other European institutions. Less than an hours drive is SHAPE (the strategic military command headquarters for NATO) and Paris, London, Luxemburg and the Hague are barely two hours away by high-speed train. Apart from the usual adage of write what you know, it seemed like the ideal place to put all the Western Leaders into jeopardy. Another reason for my choice was the setup of the city infrastructure. I needed a city I could easily block off with little effort to cause the city-wide traffic jam which lasts most of the 'Roadworks' day.

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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