Behind the Curtain: What’s Happening in the Publishing Industry? 

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Did you know there are 1 million ISBNs issued for English language items every month? This number doesn’t even include the majority of self-published authors—as they often publish without an ISBN. I didn’t know this until I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2015.

During the 6-day fair over 400,000 books were presented and more than 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries met nearly 300,000 visitors. It is considered the most important book fair in the world, yet most writers look away when they hear the words “book fair”. Why is that?

One reason is that we writers spend most of our time up in the clouds, among make-believe characters, living in a world of dreams—or nightmares, depending on what we’re writing. Book fairs, copyrights, international deals, and industry news scare us. They remind us that writing— a mission, a hobby, an occupation we feel so passionate about—is tied to an industry that is totally alien to most of us.

It’s not just the jaw-dropping number of books published each month, it’s also the workings of the publishing industry and the ambiguity attached to it that scare us.

For instance, roughly 60% of English-language books are produced through the “Big Five” publishing houses: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan. And the battles between the giants are notorious. According to Andrew Franklin of Profile Books, who spent 11 years at Penguin, the competition between editors even within the same company for the same book can be toxic. Imprints don’t have the sense of belonging to the same publishing house. All this leads large publishers to miss out on good books. While the giants fight for the bestsellers, new talent goes unseen.

Do you feel intimidated? I did at first, but then slowly my impression changed. Listening to Andrew Franklin remind us in his presentation that the Booker Prize shortlist is if full of young start-up-level publishers gave me hope.

As Marcos Pereira, the CEO of Editora Sextante, Brazil’s leading publishing house, put it at Frankfurt: “The publisher’s duty is not putting a book on the shelves anymore. It’s to help authors to build their audience.”

“Writers are asked to do more things than ever. But then they’re also provided with more tools than ever.”

What’s new?

For instance, in 2010, Amazon started a program called AmazonCrossing. It makes readers aware of authors from around the world via translations of foreign language books. So far they’ve published 77 titles from 15 countries in 12 languages. During Frankfurt this year, they announced a $10 million commitment to translating books into English, and anyone can propose a book to be translated.

It was inspiring to see companies like BookGarage (a hand-picked database of designers and editors), Booktrack (a format that enables the embedding of sound effects and audio into your story), and Author Cafe (single URL publishing) put so much thought and innovation into addressing the problems of the publishing market.

What’s old?

During Frankfurt, I came to realize that a lot of writers, including myself, have several outdated beliefs and worries. For instance, while we brood over whether we should self-publish or try our chances with the traditional publishers, the reader cares only about how good the story is.

Many writers suffer from a condition called “comparisonitis”. We follow trends and wonder if the zeitgeist is on our side. During Frankfurt, Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre had a brilliant cure for this affliction:

1. You need to set and follow your own path
2. There’s always a “top-dog” who’ll outshine you
3. Look at the long term—not your ranking or sales every hour
4. Define yourself as a big fish in a small pond: “My book is in the Top 10 for historical fiction in Australia!”

And finally, we still assume good writing by itself will open any door. As Tony Mulliken of Midas PR put it, for a writer success is not just about how well she writes; it’s about when she writes what and how she presents it. You can read Mulliken’s Mash Blog advice for aspiring writers here.

What’s next?

We need to think of ourselves as Authorpreneurs—as discussed in Jerome Goerke’s article on the Mash Blog—and welcome change.

Just like a business that doesn’t know its customer base, writers cannot go far without knowing their readers’ profiles. We need to connect with our readers on a personal level, keep in touch with them while we keep creating, and be active on social media to a moderate degree.

As Michael Bhaskar, author and co-founder of, said at Frankfurt, building an interested, enthusiastic fan base is key for success.

Think about the Star Trek fans speaking in the Klingon language: that’s the level of commitment we’re talking about. A U2 fan goes to the same gig again and again, and buys yet another t-shirt without a second thought.

I believe that writers who are able to evolve into Authorpreneurs will be the next winners of this revolution taking place in the publishing market.

Marcos Pereira again: “The pressure is on you: you can adjust it as you wish. Do you want to work hard and be successful? You can. Do you prefer to have more time to relax? You can.”

It’s time to decide now!

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S.E. is the Founder of Mash Stories. She has had short stories published in fiction magazines across the US and the UK. One of her stories was included in The Subtopian: Selected Stories. Her poetry book, Before Me, is published by Thought Catalog Books, New York. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Split Watch. You can read some of her short stories and poems at

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