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The winds of change

15 April 2013

Today is the first day of the London Book Fair, which is going to be an interesting occasion this year. The winds of change are sweeping through the publishing industry as digital developments bring a whole host of changes in their wake. It's all happening at a time of recession too, which is altering many of the traditional publishing relationships, creating both new threats and new opportunities.

Self-publishing is very much to the fore and successful self-published authors are being courted by publishers because they have already 'tested' their writing in the market-place and established a brand which the publisher can build on. This reduces the usual publishing risk and is very attractive to the accountants. But authors should not kid themselves that this is necessarily making things easier, it's simply moving the goal-posts to a different place. They're still there though.

An ongoing subject of discussion in the halls will be the way agents are flexing their muscles and getting into publishing on their author' behalf, mostly in ebook but also in print format. Is this really changing the relationship between authors and their agents, and between agents and publishers? Will it really be possible to go in for a bit of profitable disintermediation and dispose of the expensive publishers' part of the whole process? Caution may be in order. An occasional author can make it themselves on the web, but, as recently pointed out, bookshops do matter and provide an essential browsing experience. And, other than a publisher, who is going to get books into bookstores in any volume?

There's much discussion of the new agency model and the effect this will have on book prices, both print and ebook. Now that the Kobo 20p offer is hopefully a thing of the past, it may be possible to look again at pricing in a sensible way, but a great deal of damage has been done to book pricing by slashing prices, and by the internet concept that everything should be free anyway. That's all very democratic but doesn't work well for authors when they can't secure income from their writing.

Piracy is another thing which is much on publishers' minds, especially when their bestselling authors are being ripped off, which is often the case because the pirates naturally go for the most lucrative and in-demand targets. This can mean the loss of thousands in publishing and authors' income.

It now looks as if the Random House/Penguin merger will go ahead, as the regulatory authorities are passing the deal, one by one. There's much talk, especially from American publishers, about what this will mean. There have been other rumours, particularly about Simon & Schuster, but in fact defensive consolidation is one thing but purchase quite another.

Would you buy a publishing house just at the moment?