Reading is one of the simplest ways to solve our doubts, learn new knowledge, experience different lives, and entertain ourselves. As a reader, I keep thinking about how the most ideal publishing market is one that will be able to satisfy all the needs mentioned above – no matter how obscure the information I am looking for, or how strange the stories I love – I hope I can always find the book I need most at the moment.
However, we can look at it in a different way. As someone who has been working in publishing for so many years, I understand such a goal isn’t easy to achieve. There are three main reasons.
First, it is about the size of the market. The act of publishing is full of cultural significance, but it is also a straightforward commercial transaction. Most published products are intended for the consumer market. The amount of books purchased by readers will directly impact publishing records. Looking at the publishing records based on Taiwan’s National Central Library’s annual number of ISBN applications: during relatively slow periods, Taiwan’s book market published around 36,000 books (2020), while at its peak over 57,000 books have come out (in 2021, including a growing number of eBooks and audiobooks). Neither of these numbers include books that were self-published, or paperbacks and eBooks that were published without an ISBN. Ruling off the exam preparation books and potentially overlapping books (the title with separate ISBNs for paperback and eBook form), every year, there are around 30,000 books being published in Taiwan, which shows the publishing houses’ intention to satisfy the diverse and niche tastes from the readers. However, these books mostly lack marketing resources. If readers didn’t actively search for these books on their own, it would be hard for them to simply stumble upon them. In the meanwhile, if sales figures aren’t as high, the publishing house will lose profits to support the company, making them less willing to publish these types of books.
Another thing is, the publishing industry itself can be experimental. In fact, most commercial transactions that attempt to push creative works into the consumer market are all somewhat experimental. An experienced person working in publishing can normally foresee how many copies will be sold. However, the market variables can be extreme; bestsellers are usually underdogs that people don’t have much expectations for. What happens often is that the sales figures don’t reach their goals.
No matter what the circumstances, a title without viable sales figures will put pressure on the publishing house – books still in stock are the third obstacle that keep the publishing market from becoming more diverse. Books that are still in stock take up space and cost extra storage rental for the publishing house. Not only are these books unable to generate profits, they actually increase overhead costs for the publisher. If a title isn’t selling well, the profits of the book may already have been completely depleted by the cost of the storage rental before the expiration of the first license period. If a title has very few books left in stock and the publishing house is considering reprinting or producing another edition, the staff also need to consider the space they have for books remaining in stock: most reprinted books no longer produce the same marketing plan as the first printing, so sales may be slow compared to a new title. Although the cost of reprinting the same title might be lower, the cost of storage rental for the remaining stock doesn’t change. Therefore, if a publishing house is feeling uncertain about the sales performance of a book, they might choose not to reprint the title, which means that the readers who are in search of the book will not be able to find them anymore.
Of course, these factors are mostly relevant to most traditional paperbacks – the number of copies in print and the cost of storage rental have to be seriously considered if a publishing house is producing paperbacks. This is where eBooks can help relieve the burden.
To take my own books as example, both my novels The Pretender and What A Wonderful World skipped the traditional paperback publishing process and were instead published directly as eBooks. These books had been originally drafted on word processors and saved as digital files. It wasn’t difficult to convert them into the most commonly used EPub3 format. I also designed and drew the cover myself. Taiwan’s Readmoo application is the biggest platform for books published in traditional Chinese on the island. It is also a very convenient shelf system. I can update the title to the latest version at all times, and I am able to check the sales figures on my own. The paperback of my short story collection Fix went out of stock in 2021, although the TV series rights and the comic adaptation rights had been sold and both productions were in progress. After serious consideration, the publishing house decided to wait for the transition and the finalization of both the TV series and the comic before reprinting them. Since then, Fix has changed publishers and now has been released with additional content. During the period when the paperbacks were out of stock and before the new edition was released, eBooks became a very powerful way to balance the sales figures.
By solving these issues with efficiency, the publishing market will be able to keep publishing diverse titles. Therefore, for readers, publishing houses, and authors alike, eBooks are a great way to boost the visibility of various titles. For the book market in Taiwan, it is especially important to invest more in producing eBooks.