Where is Publishing Going?

The publishing world is in upheaval. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that. The upheaval in publishing, like so much else going on in our world, is driven by developments in technology, in this case print on demand and e-publishing. But as always happens, there are ramifications of these technological changes beyond the technologies themselves.

Consider the impact of a much earlier technological development, the printing press. Printing with movable type first emerged in Europe in the 15th century. The first book printed with the new technology was of course the Bible, in the officially approved Latin. Nothing revolutionary there, right? But as printing spread in use, the price of reading material dropped to the point where ordinary people could afford books, and that meant literacy held advantages suddenly for people who were neither scholars nor wealthy. As a result, literacy spread widely. With the ability to read came the demand for reading material, including the Bible translated into local languages, and from this demand arose in less than a century after Gutenberg issued his printed version of the Vulgate the Protestant Reformation and the sundering of the monolithic Church. But that was only the beginning. In addition to books, newspapers and other periodicals, and political tracts and pamphlets could be printed and widely distributed. Dangerous ideas spread among the people and sparked a wave of revolts against entrenched hereditary privilege, leading eventually to the downfall (either entirely or by reduction to figurehead status) of all the monarchies of Europe. What’s more, widespread literacy increased the pool of talent from which scholarship could be drawn, and this eventually sparked the scientific revolution, which led to the industrial revolution, which completely transformed the character of civilization. All that from an invention consisting of nothing but metal letters arranged on a tray and coated with ink.

The Internet and its associated features (social media, e-publishing, and on-line book distribution being the important ones for purposes of this article) are perhaps as important an invention or cluster of inventions as the printing press, and we haven’t seen all of the ways in which the changes it brings will play out. Nor am I going to go into here all the thoughts I have about how that will take place (which is not to say I don’t have any). But the ways in which these inventions have changed publishing (and also music, and perhaps film) are clear enough. They have democratized it. They have removed control of distribution from the major publishing houses and bookstores. It’s now possible for an author to bypass both publishing houses and bookstores and e-publish a book for on-line distribution, keeping complete control of the process in his own hands.

There’s been a lot written about that from the point of view of the author in terms of how to best take advantage of it. That ground’s been well covered and I don’t see any point in going over it yet again. Instead, I want to consider the likely impact on the publishing industry, by which I mean companies in the business of getting books from authors to readers. I haven’t seen much written on this outside of angry (and fully-justified) diatribes by authors against the publishing industry and predictions that the whole industry is going to die, which — while that would be poetic justice — is in my opinion not very likely.

Here are the facts feeding into the future as I see them.

  • E-publishing will come to dominate the publishing world more and more, until paper books become a niche, so that when we think of “publishing” we will think of e-publishing. Many books will be published in electronic form only, and even those published in print as well will see e-book distribution as the bulk of their sales.
  • The default assumption for authors will be self-publishing. Publishing companies will never regain the lock on distribution that existed before on-line marketing. As a result, authors will always know that they can publish anything they write themselves, and do not have to sell their work to a publishing company.

Those are the facts, but in terms of the future what do they mean?

First and foremost, they mean that the entire paradigm of traditional publishing (print runs and distribution to bookstores) will become increasingly obsolete. The new paradigm of publishing will be formatting of e-books and uploading them to online distribution outlets. This is much less capital-intensive than the old paradigm and so is necessarily decentralized, with authors fully capable of doing it all themselves or hiring out the parts they can’t do for an affordable price.

Secondly, and following from this, it means that publishers will need to woo authors by offering them something they can’t easily do for themselves, for a cost (in shares of royalties) that they will feel is justified by what is offered. With the obsolescence of the print-runs-and-bookstores paradigm, printing a book and getting it into bookstores (which is what publishers have offered in the past) obviously won’t do it. Nor will the attendant services such as cover design and editing that publishers have offered up to now; those are important but authors can obtain them for a few hundred dollars (or in some cases even free) and so publishers aren’t competitive when offering these services. Instead of looking at a publisher as someone who controls the future of his book, and therefore someone whose approval must be sought, an author will know that he can self-publish his book, that this is the default and the baseline, and evaluate the publisher in terms of what is being offered and what it will cost — as an option, not a necessity.

In other words, the bargaining strength between the two parties has radically shifted in the favor of the author.

We are already seeing an interesting change in the behavior of publishing companies. Where in the past they waited for authors or their agents to send work for them to choose or reject, publishers are beginning to scan the work of self-published writers and try to obtain for themselves either existing self-published books or new ones by authors who have done well. This makes sense from the publisher’s point of view, because it’s a low-risk enterprise. The successful self-published author has a proven track record and an established fan base.

The question is whether it is a good move for the author. As things stand today, the answer is usually no, in my opinion. But will things stay that way? Will the Big 6 publishers all go bankrupt because their current best-selling authors get old and die and they can’t find anyone to replace them?

One can find this prediction out there. I think it’s probably wrong, and that, given the financial resources of publishing companies and their parent corporations, they will have the time and space to change their paradigm of operation once they’re convinced that they have to. (Which, of course, they do.) There is, in fact, one service that a publishing company could offer an author which is very difficult to do oneself (although not impossible in this age of social media): marketing.

This is in fact sometimes touted as an advantage of going with a publishing company now, but at least with regard to the big publishers it isn’t one; all of the “marketing” efforts of publishers for anyone except their best-selling front-list goes into getting bookstores to order the books, which is declining in value towards worthlessness. Publishers who actually market to readers, though, will be offering a service that is worth a reasonable share of the revenue. Not, to be sure, the preposterous share that the big publishers take on e-book sales today — but a reasonable share, say twenty-five or thirty percent of net (so that a publisher-published e-book on Amazon would earn the author somewhere around 50% of the sale price rather than the 70% he earns as a self-published author). In return for that, the publisher would provide guidance on use of social media, help in website design, a host for the website itself, presentation of the book to reviewers, and a certain amount of paid advertising, all of which a self-published author must do for himself.

The scornful authors out there who have been  burned by Big Publishing before may scoff at the idea of publishing making these changes to the way it does business. But it seems to me that, when faced with the choice of change or extinction, business has proven itself willing to change in the past, and I see no reason to believe that publishing will be any different. This is the only model of the industry that is viable in a world where authors don’t need publishers, but I believe it is viable, and therefore it will exist.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Where is Publishing Going?

  1. My thinking is that it will take some time for the cachet of ‘you have made it when someone else offers to publish your book’ to wear off. I believe that NY will leverage that as long as it can, taking advantage of people’s excitement at being ‘discovered’ by the big houses, to offer them an e-version of what they currently offer in print: no editing, no marketing, disadvantageous or even ruinous contract terms, all rights reserved to themselves, no rights reserved to the author, and low compensation. There’ll be less print books, and more e-books, but the only thing that will get NY to make it more attractive for the author is if authors start saying ‘nah, your offer’s no good’ or even ‘nah, I don’t want to deal with you no matter what your offer is.’ They’ll gladly accept inferior books if the good self-publishers refuse their terms (they publish plenty of inferior books now as it is, so that’s no switch). Only when NY can’t sell its pitch to authors, and can’t get anyone to even download their e-books because they are now too trashy even for the American public, will their business model truly shift.

    • I can understand your pessimism, Jonathan, and you might be right, but I’m more hopeful myself. For one thing, the real revenue stream for the big 6 is big name best-sellers, which are the only books that people will buy in any kind of numbers priced as absurdly as the big publishers insist on doing (I’m talking e-books again). I mean, if you go to Amazon, you can find George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons priced obscenely, and I’m sure that sells pretty well even so. But Mr. Martin is not immortal, neither is Mr. King or any other currently best-selling author. What will they do once those guys are gone? Even now, they’re losing market share in e-books (which are where the future lies) to indie books and small publishers. Businesses pay attention to that kind of trend. I predict we’ll see a major shift in one or more of the big six within the next five years.

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