Review of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing by John Thompson, originally published in The Author’s Spring 2022 issue.
In 2007, Penguin commissioned the company I co-founded, Six to Start, to help its authors design stories that could only be told online. Previous storytelling experiments and marketing campaigns had used the internet, but chiefly as a delivery mechanism – a book serialised through emails, for instance – rather than changing the form of the story itself. We wanted to try something new, and original.
Always with an eye on the main chance, Penguin also wanted us to promote its classics, which is why we ended up with stories such as The (Former) General in his Labyrinth, by Mohsin Hamid, Your Place and Mine, by Nicci French, and Alice in Storyland, by Naomi Alderman. These stories were wildly inventive, variously told over Google Maps, within an interactive dungeon crawl, written and read in real-time, and hidden across multiple websites.
When the campaign, called We Tell Stories, garnered hundreds of thousands of readers and won Best of Show at the South by Southwest festival the following year, I imagined it would usher in a digital storytelling renaissance. And instead of giving our work away for free, as so many digital experiments did, we’d help authors sell to this new audience.
This did not come to pass. We went on to make a ‘Young Bond’ spy game with Charlie Higson and an iPhone app with Wilbur Smith, but We Tell Stories and its descendants made approximately zero lasting impact on the bottom line of publishers. Their bread and butter was, and continues to be, selling books – mostly printed – containing 50–100,000 words of plain text each. My company turned away from the publishing industry toward the more profitable lands of smartphone apps and games.
None of this would come as a surprise to Cambridge sociologist John Thompson, whose new work Book Wars (Polity Press, 2021) provides a crisp, systematic review of how the ‘digital revolution’ has shaped the last decade of book publishing. Just as every tech company has had to sprint to keep ahead of giants like Google and Amazon, so too have book publishers had to reinvent their businesses lest they die at the hands of those very same companies.
I am always a little suspicious of accounts of ‘digital revolutions’ since it’s very easy for writers to pander to their audience, whether that’s tech industry boosters with a penchant for regurgitating press releases or committed sceptics who shudder at the thought of reading a book on anything other than paper. Thompson has deftly steered between those poles by interviewing over 180 senior executives and staff in the publishing industry, not to mention drawing on research from his previous book, Merchants of Culture (Polity Press, 2010).
Reinventing the book
An early chapter on the possibilities of reinventing the form of the book, as I tried with We Tell Stories (rather than its delivery mechanism, which Thompson terms the ‘format’ of a book), covers the many attempts to make dazzlingly interactive books on the iPad. Some of these, such as Touch Press’ iPad app The Elements, were highly profitable, generating $3 million in net revenue. But as a deluge of apps drove down the price that consumers were willing to pay, from £10 to essentially nothing at all, businesses couldn’t justify investing the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to make high-quality interactive books.
Despite being on the wrong side of this shift (at least, until Six to Start began making smartphone games), I read all of this with great satisfaction. Why? Thompson’s research was impeccable. The challenges he described, and just as importantly, the figures, all matched my own experience working with major UK publishers in the late 2000s and 2010s.
Those in the traditional publishing industry are likely to skip straight to later chapters on the ascent of audiobooks, the eternal problem of how to increase the ‘discoverability’ of books in a crowded marketplace, and the growth of fan fiction and social media storytelling platforms like Wattpad, perhaps in the hopes of transformational tips. It is unlikely that they will find any, as most of the good case studies will be well known to anyone paying attention (like the importance of collecting readers’ email addresses for marketing newsletters), and with most of Thompson’s interviews taking place up to 2019, the strategies are inevitably becoming a little dated. The value lies more in Thompson’s synthesis of scattered details into a few big pictures.
Take the theme of disintermediation (ie cutting out middlemen), which manifests in crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Unbound but most threateningly in the hulking beast that is Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP allows authors to self-publish ebooks in a fraction of the time and effort required to go through traditional publishers, and gives them access to hundreds of millions of Amazon and Kindle users.
Depending on whether you include KDP in your analysis of the book market as a whole, traditional publishers are either doing just fine or are being utterly dominated by Amazon. The problem is that the exact size and contours of KDP can only be determined through guesswork and inference, which Thompson relates through an amusingly secretive meeting in a San Francisco cafe with ‘Data Guy’, an anonymous software engineer and self-published author who has attempted to estimate the sales of KDP books compared to traditional publishers. The short answer is that as of 2016, self-published KDP authors may have accounted for a substantial proportion of all genre fiction and perhaps more than half of all romance sold by Amazon.
Some in the publishing industry may not feel especially threatened by KDP, treating it instead as an R&D facility to identify promising new writers. (Andy Weir, for instance, whose self-published smash hit novel The Martian was picked up by Crown in 2014). It remains to be seen whether Amazon will be content to leave this money on the table, or if they’ll begin to court successful KDP authors to its own publishing imprints.
Speed vs prestige
The latest version of disintermediation to hit the publishing industry, Substack, isn’t covered in the book. Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to easily publish email newsletters. Many newsletters are entirely free to read, but some writers charge a subscription. Unlike self-publishing, which still has a whiff of the vanity press about it (and I say that as someone who has self-published), Substack has enticed well-known and well-paid authors to join its platform, like former New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel and former Guardian columnist Roxane Gay. The top ten publications on Substack collectively bring in more than $20 million a year, and the platform as a whole has over a million paid subscriptions to newsletters.
Writing a newsletter is seemingly complementary to writing a book, but I wonder whether the speed and direct engagement with readers it offers might compensate for the loss of the prestige of getting published. For writers with decent social media followings, or simply those who can keep up with a gruelling weekly (or semi-weekly!) schedule, newsletters can be rewarding in more ways than just making money. Writers – not their editors or publishers – can see exactly who their readers are and who’s paying. They might not get editors, but some don’t feel they need them, and those that do can pay for freelance editors directly.
Substack is notable because it has cracked the seemingly impossible problem of getting readers to pay for non-fiction words on a screen – to the tune of $5-10 a month each, which amounts to roughly £45–75 a year. Email newsletters certainly aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s working well for a lot of authors. Just ask George Saunders, whose Story Club newsletter launched in December 2021 and already has thousands of subscribers paying around $50 a year. Publishers need to think what they can do for their authors, lest they face a supply problem as well as a demand problem. Several authors who write about technology and culture have told me how discouraging it feels to finish a book manuscript about, say, the impact of TikTok on society or the growth of remote work, and then have to wait 9 to 18 months before it’s published – at which point their analysis is not only dated but also overtaken by swifter newsletters and magazines. If this keeps up, the best writers on fast-moving subjects may abandon book publishers entirely.
Book Wars focuses largely on English language trade- publishing in the US and UK, which is understandable given that the research was a one-person job. Still, I could have done with hearing more about what’s going on in the rest of the world, and in China in particular, where digital short stories, serialised fiction and microtransactions are flourishing in a way thought impossible by English-language publishers. My father is an avid reader of Chinese historical fantasy on his iPhone, and he was astonished to learn I don’t read fiction in the same way. According to Shaohua Guo’s The Evolution of the Chinese Internet (2020), in 2017, half of the country’s online users – over 350 million people – read online literature through websites, forums, blogs and WeChat.
On the subjects Thompson does focus on, his insights are clear, refreshing and unvarnished, perhaps because he stands outside the publishing industry. He is ultimately optimistic about the future of long-form reading, audiobooks and printed books, all of which have held up remarkably well in our new age of smartphones and tablets. Book Wars is more ambivalent about the future of ebooks, which Thompson believes to be best suited for genre fiction, where books are most often read quickly and linearly, unlike, say, reference books. It seems to me that there is more room for experimentation here, including and beyond Substack, but of course this is a battlefeld littered with the corpses of companies that thought they could reinvent publishing.
Thompson has a long view of publishing, one that isn’t mired in nostalgia. He isn’t dismissive or jaded about the digital revolution, which is exactly the right attitude for any publisher hoping to navigate its turbulent future. As for authors, the new possibilities offered by self-publishing, crowdfunding and newsletters may seem daunting, but they only exist because there are countless people ready to pay good money for good writing. The future will always have a place for authors.