Today I did something I almost never do at cons: blew off a panel I was supposed to be on. I asked Michael Swanwick to take my place on the Human Evolution panel (which he did) so I could attend the editors' panel on the future of small presses. I'm glad I did. Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press ("We publish bizarro fiction"), Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press, and Lou Anders of Pyr were interesting and informative.
Among the points they made:
Hardcover sales are down, but e-book sales continue to rise, now accounting for 9% of all book sales. In SF and fantasy, this number may be higher because we are a wired-in group. Gordon Van Gelder thinks it may top out at about 35%.
Publishing, like music, is increasingly developing strong niche publishers, who do a specific kind of book which in itself becomes a "brand" that readers look for; Eraserhead is a prime example.
Lou added that, "Unfortunately, hard SF itself is increasingly becoming a niche, which only small presses like Nightshade do, except for big-name authors who already have a following." (The Pyr catalogue, I noted afterward, is almost all fantasy titles).
From Lou: "E-books will be the new mid-list," with hardcovers mostly going to either big-name authors or to the spectacular, expensive collectors' editions done by, for example, Subterranean.
Nobody wants to publish short story collections, which do not sell well.
Bookstores may eventually become display centers where you go to see what's new, with one or two copies of everything on the shelves, then order what you want either from a Print-on-Demand machine in the basement or on-line for your e-reader. (Some of us already use bookstores in this manner.)
But the big agreement was this: It's the Wild West out there in publishing, a time of tremendous change. Stay tuned.