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.