The Future of Book Publishing (Maybe)

Written by David on December 8th, 2008

There are many people and blogs doing an obsessively thorough job thinking about and writing about the effects of e-books on publishing, so I’m not going to try to recreate their work.  But my recent posts on the Google Book Search controversy and the Amazon Kindle have gotten me thinking about what the book publishing world might look like in the not-too-distant future.  More specifically, I’ve been wondering if and how writers will get published and make money under whatever new model takes hold.

I suppose I’ll be making some predictions here, but this is more of attempt to envision a viable future of book publishing that is better, although not perfect:

Print Is Dead Shrinking:  Some people think that true readers will always prefer a bound paper copy to hold, smell, fondle (the descriptive terms tend to get kind of gross).  These people are wrong.  Some others think that print books are dead, that they’re just going to go away.  These people are also wrong, I believe.

For now, for most people, print is to read, and electronic is to search and browse and discover.  But this will soon change.  E-book reader technology is at the point where it would be acceptable to most people.  All that is necessary is for the price of readers to come down (or perhaps they could be provided for free in return for an annual subscription to content) and for their use to permeate the culture (see my Amazon Kindle idea).  If the cost-savings and convenience are there, we might not have to wait for a generation or two to die off to get to this point.  It could happen nearly as quickly as digital music came to dominate, though I suspect it won’t happen quite that fast since the benefits are not as great for end users.

But print will still have its place, as it should.  Any person or organization that takes archiving seriously will see the value of print.  Yes, it can burn, drown, etc., but on acid-free paper a book’s perpetuity is almost certainly more assured than if it is simply data on server, hard drive or disc.  Apart from the conscious archivists, people may well continue to desire print copies of books that are meaningful to them.  Since no additional equipment is necessary, as with musical recordings on vinyl, and since people like to collect physical things, there will still be a market for print books.  We will have to pay more for them, however, and most books will printed on demand, so don’t expect to see stacks of every new title lying around in bookshops.

The print-on-demand copies, I’m guessing, will have kind of a generic look and feel to them, so I bet there will also be a small but significant market for beautifully printed, bound and designed books.  Again, expect to pay for it.

In summary, there will be more than one medium, but print will lose its dominance.

Mega Publishing Conglomerates Go Bye-Bye: Or at least they will look very different than they do today.  Their scale is not sustainable.  The partial implosion we saw in the publishing industry last week was just the beginning.  The profit margins that will come from publishing will not be great enough to satisfy shareholders who expect revenue growth of 7%+ annually.  No can do.

But there will still be major publishing houses that handle the superstars, the sure (as you can get) bets.  That is what they do best, after all.  But for the vast majority of readers, the big houses will not longer be the gatekeepers.  Good.

Everyone Will Be Published: Or at least anyone who wants to will easily be able to publish an e-book, just as anyone can now be published on a blog.  It will be no big deal, but also will not carry the stigma of self-publishing a print book.   Apart from writing content that people will want to read, the trick will be to get the book noticed and purchased and read.  So how might this happen?

Publishers and Authors Will Be Business Partners: It’s supposed to be that way now, but the relationship is rarely one of equals.  As Kassia Krozser wrote earlier this week at Booksquare, small independent publishers will rise from the ashes.  Each publisher will have a niche and a community of readers to whom it will know exactly how to market (yes, this is fantasy).  If they didn’t, authors would have no use for them since they will be able to publish an e-book themselves.  Tom Masters at Future Perfect Publishing has some interesting ideas about how authors and publishers might work together in this way.

Okay, they’ll also edit.  We all need a good, experienced editor (though we could also pay for an independent one if we wanted).

Authors will be expected to share marketing costs but will also make a greater share of any profits than they currently do.  Currently, publishers lose money on most titles and, they hope, turn an overall profit thanks to a handful of best sellers.  It’s a gamble.  Under the new model, publishers will risk relatively little financially but will share a greater portion of the profits with the author.  We’re already seeing this, of course, but I predict it will become the dominant model.

Other Gatekeepers: There will be many more publishers, and perhaps many more books, than there are currently, so people will still want some official stamp of approval before spending money and time on a book (even if it’s an e-book that can be obtained for free or for far less than a printed book).  I expect the rise of “super readers,” such as Oprah has become (though not on that scale).  Each super reader will have his or her own following.  Many of them will be mini-tyrants, but at least the power will have moved from the profit-centered board room to those who truly care about and appreciate the content.  As we have currently, various reading groups, online review journals and bloggers will also drive readers to content that might otherwise have been ignored.

Most Published Writers Will (Still) Not Make Money: But we’ll write anyway, won’t we?  Janneke Adema at Open Reflections writes of a Round Table discussion where it was suggested that “Authors want to be read more than to be paid: it is the secondary services (lectures, tours, promotions) that come with the fame after being read that make authors’ income in the new model.”  I’d certainly agree with the “read more than paid” part.  But I’m sure that few authors would be satisfied with income from such secondary services, nor do I think that such things will be their only options.  Only the most successful will be able to make a life-sustaining income from such services anyway.

IMPORTANT:  I do not believe that because a book-length text can be easily be shared and obtained for free that people will not be willing to pay for it.  In 2007, $835 million was spent on digital music downloads from iTunes and other sellers, despite the fact that anyone can obtain almost any recorded piece of music online for free (despite the act’s illegality). Although it will be impossible to prevent all piracy, the majority of readers will pay for an e-book if it is reasonably priced.  It is frequently assumed that if people can get something for free they will definitely not purchase it, despite evidence to the contrary.  Publishers will still have to manage copyright, but the fact that copyright can be infringed, and will be infringed some of the time by some of the people, does not mean that it is no longer possible to make money from copyrighted material.

Authors and publishers should still learn to be more creative in their attempt to make money.  There’s no shame in advertising.  And people love tee shirts.  Whatever helps promote the success and reach of your book, and whatever helps support you during the writing of your next one, is justified.

So No More Big Players, Right?: Unless somebody comes up with an open source e-book format that can be used on an affordable, high quality and readily available reader, I’m afraid that the distributors of e-books are still going to be the big guys.  Could be Google, could be Amazon, could be some entity that doesn’t even exist yet.  It’s certainly easy to imagine a world were such giants are not necessary, but I have a feeling it’s not going to happen that way.  I don’t even want to try to predict how the e-book reader and e-book format wars will end (if they ever end).  All I know is that e-books, in some form, will soon dominate the world of book publishing.  (Request:apart from making e-book readers easily readable and affordable, please allow for a color cover design and graphical representations of book covers that can be browsed on a virtual bookshelf.)

How will they be sold?  Still title-by-title?  A Netflix-type subscription model (probably the least desirable from an author’s perspective unless the author receives a usage-based royalty)?  I don’t know.

But: STM (scientific, technical and medical) publishing is far ahead of trade publishing in moving to an electronic format (though for journals more so than books).  Most users get their content online, but the big publishers are still firmly in control.  Open Access, author-pays models have barely registered.  STM authors still want the convenience and authority that comes with publishing with a major publisher.

So I’m open to the possibility that everything I’ve written above is completely and ridiculously wrong.

Can’t get enough of this kind of thing?  Check out:  if:book, Print Is Dead or Tools of Change for Publishing.

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22 Comments so far ↓

  1. Great post! (came here from Booksquare). I am also finding it hard to forget the music industry analogy: An iTunes for books is needed – and the ultimate device for its content.

    I believe we are headed in the right direction, but the current climate in the publishing industry could suggest we’re not moving fast enough.

    I am part of the team behind who offers one take on online publishing, and while I’m happy to see visionary publishers adopting digital strategies, I’m still concerned with the doom and gloom in the industry. Not that digital is the answers to all problems, but it sure helps (as does T-shirts!)

  2. David says:

    Yes, I’m a bit surprised myself that the move to e-books has not happened more quickly. But despite the industry’s financial woes, people continue to write and publish, fortunately. The mass migration to digital will happen on its own when the time is right.

  3. Nicely written and thoughtful. I’ve been thinking a lot about the conundrum of how to know what to read when everyone or everything gets published. Your idea about super readers is an interesting one. Similar in a way to the role of an editor or editorial board of a journal, no?

  4. David says:

    I could even imagine a Digg-like social bookmarking site for books, where people would form communities based upon shared interest and digg/vote for books they like. Just as with Digg, previously unknown content hidden in the universe of published titles could rise to the surface and snowball to success. Now all I need are some investors for this idea…

  5. Why do e-books have to have some weird new format?

    I’ve successfully and happily read several books (including reading to my kids) using plain old unadorned HTML as the file format. It would have been nice to have had a few images in there, but when you’re putting your 3 year old to bed by reading from the storybook on your cell phone, it’s really just not that important to have something fancy.

  6. bowerbird says:

    > Each publisher will have a niche
    > and a community of readers to whom
    > it will know exactly how to market
    > (yes, this is fantasy).

    this isn’t “fantasy” in the sense that it’s
    “impossible”, but we have no need for
    any _publishers_ to run such a system…

    _collaborative_filtering_ will pull out
    the needles from the massive haystack,
    and we can build that system ourselves.

    and we will, since we have this problem
    across the board and it’ll only get worse.

    amazon has already started doing this
    for books, and netflix does it for films,
    although both those systems are flawed.

    once we do have such a system, and it’s
    pulling out your own personal “needles”,
    you will _laugh_ at “marketing”, as it’ll be
    as senseless as trying to convince people
    to buy a size 7 shoe when their size is 9.


  7. Really excellent post. You really struck a chord with me, as an author, when you said:

    “Authors and publishers should still learn to be more creative in their attempt to make money. There’s no shame in advertising. And people love tee shirts. Whatever helps promote the success and reach of your book, and whatever helps support you during the writing of your next one, is justified.”

    Thanks for your time and effort on this.

  8. David says:

    Edward, I confess I’ve never tried to read, say, a novel-length book via html, though the idea gives me the shivers, as it probably does most people. The iPhone visuals are not bad.

  9. Kat Meyer says:

    David — this post is the perfect antidote to my current (becoming recent) state of melancholia re: the end of the publishing world as we know it.
    Along with Kassia, Mark Bertils, Nicola Griffith and others, you have me hoping big time for the future of books (whatever they are) and reading. Editors, designers, programmers, and book community leaders are going to be in big demand as we move toward this brave new book world.
    The transition will no doubt result in further fallout, but I’m looking forward to meeting all of you on the other side!

  10. David says:

    Bowerbird, I hear what you’re saying but still think that even with collaborative filtering any book could potentially benefit from some help to get it to the point where it will be noticed by the collaborative filter. It won’t be trying to sell the size 7. It will be trying to get the people with the size 9 to try on this incredibly comfortable shoe that they might not have noticed among the millions of instantly available shoes. Whether we call it marketing or not, I think authors will still want a special effort made to promote their work. We’ll see…

  11. David says:

    Christina and Kat, glad I could provide a glimmer of hope in these (seemingly) dark times.

  12. Zoe Winters says:

    Hey great post! I’m not sure if I think ebooks will ever fully dominate even with e-readers. At least not in this generation. I’m 29 and fairly tech-friendly but I HATE ebooks, loathe and despise them.

    I don’t care how nifty the gadget you let me read on is, or how easy it is on my eyes, I want a physical dead tree book in my hands that I can soak in the tub with, or lay outside with, without feeling like a transplant from the future. Though maybe I’m part of that smaller niche that print books will be for.

    The thing about music is, when music went to digital, we weren’t asking people to experience the music in a different way. With books, it IS a different experience. The point of reading to me, and to many other readers is to be away from technology, not to continue to engage with it.

    Also, if a POD book looks generic, that’s the fault of the designer, not the technology. There are some limits right now to what can be done with POD, but I’ve seen well-designed books in that format and have several on my shelf right now.

    I also agree that the gatekeeping system going away is good. Let the market decide.

    While I like the more equitable scenario between authors and publishers, I think a great many of us are going to be putting out our own work independently in print and in ebook, and rising above the stigma like indie artists in film-making and music did before us.

    Though I think if authors really wanted to be read more than paid, they would have already put their own work out. What authors seem to want is to be “validated.” And so far, the only thing that will scratch that itch for most, is to go through the traditional gatekeeping system where everyone will congratulate them for becoming a real writer.

  13. David says:

    Excellent, excellent points, Zoe. Thanks for the contribution to this discussion.

  14. Zoe Winters says:

    Thanks for letting me ramble on! ;)

  15. the Dude says:

    I for one can’t wait for the eBook revolution, but I was ready 10 years ago when the Rocket Reader and a few others were just coming out.

    I don’t think the Kindle or Sony’s monstrosity are going to be the king: they’re just so… blah. It is going to take a truly sublime device like the iPod to jumpstart this revolution… will Apple bite? No idea, but I don’t think the Kindle is the iPod of the eBook revolution: we’ve yet to see that device (why don’t these guys just ever say “What would Steve Jobs do?”)

  16. David says:

    Who knows…maybe Steve Jobs has already said “What would Steve Jobs do?” and is in the process of doing it.

  17. Zoe Winters says:

    hahaha the Dude, I agree. Also, we better HOPE Kindle doesn’t win this race, because A. It’s a proprietary format, that means too much control for Amazon. And B. They are already screwing authors and publishers over with their royalty rates. Amazon takes a 65% cut on Kindle books. Exactly what amazingly fantabulous thing are they doing for that big of a cut?

    A 50/50 profit split would be far more fair. IMO.

    I hope Apple puts out an ebook reader. Whatever they did would rock. I mean they brought us the Mac and the ipod. Clearly they know what they’re doing. Oh, and the iphone. der. Some people are reading ebooks on that.

  18. Chris says:

    I think your vision is spot on. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (sp?) put it simply: (concerning ebooks) There will always be paperbooks, just as the car replaced the horse but horses are still around.

  19. As someone who’s been working in online publishing for almost a decade (albeit music publishing), I have to say you are spot on. What is happening right now with the publishing industry is a mirror of what happened with the music industry, and what will happen is that it will come down to a combination of quality, and having someone be your cheerleader (or you being a great marketer yourself). There is amazing talent out there, in all forms of creation, and the gatekeepers will eventually lose their hold. New gatekeepers will take their place, but they’ll be the tastemakers, not the ones who just happen to have enough money to do a print run, or to stamp a bunch of vinyls.

    It’s pretty exciting, TBH. I can’t wait to see what happens.

  20. rooruu says:

    Speaking from outside US publishing territory, one of the issues is about territories and the availability of titles. My sub to Audible costs the same as if I was in the US, but many books I’d willingly buy are not available ‘to my geographic area’. It’s not the technology that can’t deliver, but the structuring of the business that limits my access. And it’s the authors whose work I’d like to enjoy in this format, and can’t, who miss out on those royalties.

    Likewise, the comment you make about the cost of ereaders. The ones available here are vastly more expensive than the Kindle, and Australia is currently Kindle-less. Maybe the mobile phone (cell phone) is a marketing model for how things may go; plans/prepaid etc, subsidising the cost of the device with the confidence that the user will pay for content/usage.

  21. Ali Shabdar says:

    Excellent post, thank you!
    eBooks were possibly the slowest growing part of the digital revolution, but I see more hope amid the current crisis.
    However it will become harder to get people read if the situation worsens.

  22. Jim says:

    Nearly 2 years later it’s still a great post and interesting to think still of what the future might be. I think there will continue to be a paper book market though maybe it will be more for the quality read than the throwaway? I think there are many opportunities to produce paper books for targeted markets and I don’t think one does need the mass producers for that, though one does need some marketing skills and some open minds.

    The self/small publishing industry may get it’s act together to produce reliable quality output and satisfy consumers and PoD or low volume printing is a critical element to the growth of possibilities. Vanity publishing will remain vanity publishing but maybe there is an opportunity for a you write it and I’ll sell it and split profit after costs relationship. In the end, it’s a business and has to make profit or die. Most artists are not good business people and most business people are crap artists. It would be nice to see mutually beneficial arrangements between the two. Now that would be a new idea!?

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