Gordon Brown was a fresh-faced prime minister. Interest rates were still above 5%, and no one had heard of sub-prime mortgages. Girls Aloud were still making hit records, and Apple had just made what seemed to be an odd decision: launching a mobile phone. Oh, and 10 years ago this month Amazon launched its first e-reader.
Fast-forward a decade and Gordon Brown is largely forgotten, and most of us would struggle to remember a Girls Aloud song. But the two pieces of technology unleashed into the world in 2007 have had a more profound impact than anything else that happened that year. No one needs reminding that the iPhone has turned whole industries upside down. More quietly, however, the Kindle- conomy is also booming - and it is transforming the world of reading for the better.
Unlike the iPhone, the Kindle didn’t have a huge impact to start with. At best, it created some mild interest among hardcore readers. The first version was clunky and ugly, and at a price of $399, very, very expensive.
E-readers had been around for a while, and versions of the e-book had been available ever since the internet was created without ever expanding out of a tiny, niche market. No one got very excited about the Kindle when it was first unveiled for a simple reason: it wasn’t very exciting.
But as Apple had done with the iPhone, Amazon had done something significant. It had a created a device, and at the same time it had also created a platform. Very quickly the iPhone spawned an app economy, with thousands of small companies creating new products and services which simply wouldn’t exist without smartphones. The Kindle did something very similar, although admittedly only within the world of books.
Opening the door
By opening up the Kindle store to anyone who wanted to sell through it, Amazon created the Kindle-conomy. Its real innovation was not the device itself, but the openness of the Kindle Store. All of a sudden, anyone who wanted to could make their book available to a huge global audience.
Entrepreneurs quickly moved into the space. Most obviously, there are the thousands of self-published authors. A lot of them may be nothing more than over-enthusiastic hobbyists who have finally found a way to get their books in front of readers. But there is an elite tier of self-pubbers who can make six-figure incomes; they do far better than most midlist authors at old-school publishers. A step up from that, there are a raft of new publishers who have built a business around e-books. In this country, there is my own company, Endeavour Press, which now has more than 4,500 titles available across a range of different imprints. There is the brilliantly successful Bookouture, recently bought by Hachette, as well as Joffe Books and Canelo. Over in the US, there is Open Road alongside smaller rivals. They are all finding a place in the market.
It has transformed the publishing industry. Sure, there have been some losers. Bookshops lost some of their customers, although the better ones have reinvented to keep their customers loyal (and although it is a shame that we have fewer bookshops, we also have better ones). The traditional publishers struggled to make the transition. But against that, we have a far more open publishing industry.
A mature market
The self-pubbers have grown up fast and can now write, edit, design and market books with as much flair and skill as any of the traditional publishers: indeed, the best place to look for marketing ideas is among the remarkably generous community of writers who sell their own work online. The start-ups are bringing a lot of unjustly forgotten backlist back into the mainstream market as well as as breaking through new works and revitalising authors who would otherwise have remained condemned to midlist obscurity.
The result? We have more books available at cheaper prices, and more people reading them than ever before. We have more ways for authors to get their books in front of readers, and more ways for them to earn a living. We have estates earning tens of thousands of pounds a year from backlist titles that would never have made it back into print 10 years ago. It is hard to see that as anything other than an improvement. The Kindle-conomy is here to stay and, a decade on, it’s still growing strongly. It has already transformed the publishing industry. And my bet is that it will continue to do in its second decade in ways that we can still only imagine.
Matthew Lynn is the founder and chief executive of Endeavour Press, a UK independent digital publisher.