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The social book marks the biggest content shift in publishing

2016 Booktype, based on illustrations designed by Freepik
2016 Booktype, based on illustrations designed by Freepik

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the yearly 'must' event for publishers from all around the globe, opened its gates yesterday. Tomorrow it will announce the winner of the prestigious CONTENTshift award. We are amongst the six finalists of CONTENTshift. As happy and honoured as I am, I'm also not surprised. That is because the biggest “content shift” that today’s publishing industry is facing is at the core of our publishing software Booktype and Omnibook: the social book.

2016 Booktype, based on illustrations designed by Freepik

2016 Booktype, based on illustrations designed by Freepik

Today, more and more bestsellers are taking the world by storm, bypassing traditional publishing structures entirely. The famous “50 Shades of Grey” and more recently “The Martian” grabbed the attention of the media and the imagination of their readers – as well as viewers - when they were transformed into major motion pictures. Both of these books were self-published.

I believe that this trend is not based on technology but on the attitude of new authors who are radically open to sharing, collaboration and enjoy the process of opening up their work early, no matter how vulnerable this might make them seem. The process, not the product, being the key differentiator.

The label “self-publishing”, often associated with this new phenomenon, is in my opinion misleading, because self-publishing is not a new phenomenon. It has been around as long as publishing – in fact, even longer. But before there was “publishing”, the term “self-publishing” could not exist. Technology does make a difference, true. New technologies and means of distribution place global success within reach of every author.

But the crucial difference, in my opinion, lies in the way a new breed of authors tell their stories. Their way of working is social and extends beyond merely using social media. Social books are radically open and collaborative from the start.

As discovered by the European self-publisher survey of Books on Demand, over 70% of the new authors actively engage their fans and followers in the story development of the book. Keep in mind that this is not a marketing strategy. This is a way of working, a way of writing, a way of developing stories. And it is fun. You never write alone.

I also want to point out here that the self-publishing author is becoming increasingly professional. Over half have a commercial interest in mind when publishing their work and a third generate enough revenue to see writing as a relevant source of income. They are also technically on top of the game, with over 70% making use of hybrid publishing, meaning their work is available in print and as e-books, as the same survey reveals.

To understand the magnitude of the shift from the point of view of the publishers, you only need to look at two numbers: how many books do self-publishers sell and how much revenue do they create? A simple enough question, but since the market is complicated, it is difficult to get accurate numbers. Booktype user, Rüdiger Wischenbart’s Global E-Book Report points to research from authorearnings.com. They deployed a system to crack open the black box of book sales and get a better view at the numbers. In January 2016 they came up with the numbers for all e-books sold on Amazon. At the time, Amazon sold about $5.5 million worth of e-books per day. And at the same time, five of the top ten titles were self-published. In the top hundred, over half of the titles were self-published. It is safe to assume that every day, self-publishers generate over $2 million in e-book sales for Amazon alone.

The 50/50 split within the top ten bestseller lists of traditional publishers versus self-publishers paints a dramatic picture. It feels like a stand-off in an old black and white movie. Half of the village this side of the main road, the other half on the other side, both parties looking at each other, frozen. This is not how we describe the situation today.

Until recently, publishers and authors have worked together, innovated together and made many technological leaps together, mastering innovations in print technologies as well as moving into the world of digital production. We believe that publishers have a lot to offer to authors. They also have a lot to offer to the new authors of the social book.

A cultural shift has happened alongside the technological innovation of the past decades, leading from digital production all the way to social media and online collaboration. New technologies are at play. But publishers should not look at today’s successful authors in terms of how they publish and distribute. They need to look at how they work. Self-publishing authors are not against publishers. As the Books on Demand study quoted above also reveals, authors are open to working with publishers under the right conditions. And the right conditions are not about the distribution of the product, they are about the fundamental changes to the process of working.

Bringing new authors of the social book and publishers together generates radical openness. It will work. And we are building the tools to do the job well for publishers and authors alike.

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