Three authors, three hopes for the future of publishing

While at the recent Comic-Con convention, I attended a number of panels featuring a wide range of authors — some whose books aren’t even out yet, and some who have been part of the publishing industry for decades. The one theme that came up on virtually every panel was how much things are changing in the industry, but each author seemed to have a unique take on the effect of those changes. Three authors took the time to speak with me and share their views on the changing face of publishing; all three are writing in the young-adult genre, aimed at readers between the ages of 13 and 19. In the first part of this feature, they spoke with me about self-publishing and how they connect with readers. In this second part, they discuss how they use social media for promoting books and where they think the publishing industry is heading.

How authors use social media

Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia

Cindy Pon's young-adult fantasy novel Silver Phoenix

Of the three authors I interviewed, Cindy Pon is arguably the one who is most deeply entrenched in the traditional publishing model. Her first book, Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia, was published in 2009 — a mere two years ago, but a lifetime ago in the current timeline of the publishing industry. You might expect that her use of social media to connect with fans and promote her books would lag behind other authors, but her experience with it actually pre-dates her first book:

I’ve been blogging since circa 1997, before it was called blogging. So by the time everyone and her mom had a blog, I had tired of the platform already. I do blog, but sporadically and I tend to blog about whatever I want. They usually include pretty photos or perhaps my newest brush painting.

My favorite social networking tool is Twitter. I just go on and say whatever I like at that moment or don’t say a thing at all and “eavesdrop” on others’ conversations. I’ve had signings set up, review requests, and met many book lovers and writers like myself via Twitter. People will come up to me at various conferences and tell me that they follow me on Twitter.

On the other hand, self-published author Morgan Rice, whom you might expect to tout social media as the be-all and end-all of promotion, is more cagey when it comes to the role that social media plays in her success:

I try to embrace all platforms of social media available. It’s hard to say precisely which have the best result. It’s more of a long-term approach. One seeks to build a following in as many ways as possible, as a daily routine, and one hopes that in the long run that helps translate into sales and a following. But at the end of the day, I believe that if the writing is good enough, your following will build nearly on its own, through word of mouth.

Debut novelist Tahereh Mafi is still building buzz for her upcoming release, Shatter Me, coming out this November. She’s a big fan of social media, saying:

I love Twitter; I’m obsessed with Twitter. I also love Tumblr. Tumblr is really amazing. I have a big thing with GIFs. But then, of course, I always go back to my blog. My blog is like my home base, and then from there, I tweet a lot and use Tumblr. I also use Facebook, but I use it just for an author page; it’s not really updated as much.

But in the end, Mafi doesn’t see social media so much as a promotional tool as a way to connect with a community. Some of that community may be her future fan base, but she views the medium much more organically:

I don’t actually use it to promote my book. I talk about my book. I mean, it’s obviously there, because I was honest with my readers from the beginning about what I’m doing: I’m a writer; this is my journey toward publication, but I’m also here to be a friend and a companion. I want us to hold hands and say, “Hey, we’re in this together.” I started blogging before I even had a book deal. So it was a kind of a journey to share with other people. But I definitely use it to connect — to build a sense of community — to reach out to other writers. I love staying in touch, and knowing that I’m not alone.

It works both ways; it’s a very symbiotic relationship.

The future of publishing

Debut young adult novelist Tahereh Mafi

Debut young-adult novelist Tahereh Mafi

With three authors in various stages of careers and in different segments of the young-adult publishing industry, I imagined they’d all have a very different idea of what the future holds for the industry. Again, I was surprised at their answers, as they all seemed to have a fairly consistent view of where the industry is headed. Pon’s reply:

I think that e-books will continue to rise in popularity. I don’t believe the doom and gloom that some say about real books disappearing entirely. There may be [fewer] bookstores to go into to shop for actual books, but they will always be available online just as e-books are available. Because I do believe e-books are a supplement and another way of reading, but they cannot replace hard copy books.

Rice agreed about the rise of e-books and thinks that traditional publishers will perhaps move away from the agency model that has seemed to take hold of the industry in the past year or so:

I believe the next five years will bring more ebook readers, a more mainstream acceptance of e-reading, and publishers doing much more experimentation with lower ebook pricing. It will also bring a lot more competition. But that is a good thing: The more great writing out there, the better!

Mafi echoes the e-book sentiment, but she also expresses more concern at the potential demise of the print book and a potential for commoditization of  the industry due to big-box retailers playing too large of a role in book sales:

We are going to have a lot of e-books. I definitely feel like e-readers are going to be huge. I feel like things like Borders going completely under scare me a little. We’re seeing more books in places like Target and Costco and with Barnes & Noble getting so big, who knows what’s going to happen.

Would you switch?

Morgan Rice's latest novel, Turned

Morgan Rice's latest novel, Turned

In the final part of our interviews, I asked the authors what they hoped and feared about the future of their industry and the key question: Would they consider switching to the opposite form of publishing. For the traditionally published, would they consider self-publishing? And for Morgan Rice, would she consider a traditional publishing contract?

Pon replied:

I’d like to see publishers address the fact that there is only one major book chain remaining in the United States and how can we give midlist authors like myself more exposure to a reading audience. I think thinking outside of the box is more key than ever. I think publishers should do more to “woo” indie book stores–because they are so important and do so much. I think publishers should consider giving different adult covers to [young adult] novels like mine, which can cross over into the adult readership, and sell them or advertise them where these readers would be e-book shopping.

My biggest fear is that publishing will take too long to change and be hurt by the rise in e-books and the loss of many brick-and-mortar bookstores.

And on future self-publishing:

Never say never? I think if I never sell another book traditionally, then yes, of course that is an option. But I will say that as a traditionally published author, I really appreciate what my publisher does for me and my books: sending out tons of ARCs [advance reader copies] to reviewers, getting industry reviews for me, sending me to various library and book conferences and events.

The one thing that is most important of all is that I get edited. I get edited very, very thoroughly, and my editor (like so many editors) happens to be a genius.

Rice said she had no intentions of ever pursuing traditional publishing:

No, not in the [young adult] genre, at least. It is too gratifying to control the process myself, and to have such an immediate, instant relationship with my readers. I know that they appreciate it, too. I also have been blessed with my books being on many best-seller lists across many platforms, so I am quite happy with how things are working out right now.

Mafi was more hesitant to rule out self-publishing, mainly because she views the flux in the publishing industry as far more dynamic than Pon seems to:

I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t say yes, either. . . . The reason I wouldn’t say no is because I feel like this landscape is really changing. It’s very dynamic and every day, things in the e-book world are constantly shifting, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to the publishing industry as the electronic portion shifts and sort of takes over. So I think there’s really no way of knowing.

However, she has hope for the industry, no matter which form it takes, even if she does fear that we will lose some of the feelings we associate with the printed, hard-bound book:

I’d love to see more readers. At the end of the day, I don’t care if it’s print or if it’s online; it doesn’t really matter as long as people are reading; people will buy books, whether it’s self-published or traditionally published.

I fear that maybe we might lose the importance of the hard-bound book, because there’s something so beautiful in touching and feeling and smelling a book. I wonder if the next generation will understand that and appreciate it. . . . I just wonder if we will lose that special feeling of walking into a bookstore and being surrounded by literature, not just as a file on your computer, but being absorbed by a room full of books. I feel like that’s such a magical feeling, and I don’t want to lose that.

For Part I of these interviews, please see: Three authors, three examples of the disruption in publishing

Coming soon — Disintermediation in comics: It’s not like the book industry