The Future of Publishing, As Seen From The Future of Publishing

This piece originally appeared on The Bookish Dilettante on 2/23/09.

Today – the Bookish Dilettante happily yields the floor to a new voice – Mr. Aaron Hierholzer. Aaron, a young gun in the publishing world, attended this year’s TOC conference, and has graciously offered up his observations. With no futher ado, Mr. Aaron Hierholzer…

Last November, former Collins publisher Steve Ross said, “It’d be absolutely terrifying to be starting out now, to be young and to not have the benefit of years, if not decades, of perspective . . . I would have seriously considered leaving book publishing." Days later, literary agent Esther Newburg said, “I would hate to be starting out in the [book] business.”

What’s a person with a passion for bringing books to readers to do when the old guard implies that running for the hills might be best? What’s one to do when you find out that neither MGMT, Diplo, nor a good chunk of your acquaintances even read books? What’s one to do when one could compile a lengthy volume of humorless “end of publishing” articles from the past four months, alone?

Attending "O’Reilly’s Tools of Change" conference isn’t a bad place to start. I got to go earlier this month, and the enthusiasm for the future of books both p- and e- was truly infectious, and helped dispel some of the gloominess I was feeling about Bookland.

Overall, TOC’s gloom-dispelling ability was directly proportional to its specificity: anyone who’s been paying attention knows that reading is increasingly a social act, that one can instantly access almost any fact on a mobile phone, and that Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. These harped-upon broad strokes grew tiresome, and when news that HarperCollins terminated its Collins division spread through the conference on Tuesday, it seemed there were more pressing questions to address. Questions like, "where’s the money going to come from when most of the knowledge of mankind can be found for free via Google?" Questions like, "should I run for the hills after all?"

Thankfully, many presenters did get to the nitty-gritty and the applicable, talking about things like how we’re going to get readers to value (and therefore be willing to pay for) digital content. I wish the “Success Stories and Failures in Digital Publishing” panel could have lasted all day—the skipped slides by rushed presenters were heartbreaking. Hachette’s Stephanie van Duin, Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd, and Lexcycle’s Neelan Choksi all talked knowledgably about the pricing and profitability of digital content, and about the fearlessness it will take to find a workable solution.

In nerve-wracking times such as these, staying focused on why we publish books in the first place is a good alternative to worrying about the end times of reading. And the point that kept striking me over and over was simple: readers come first. Publishers have got to treat the reader, the end user, with utmost respect. That can take any number of forms—not publishing absolute dreck; not treating the purchaser like a potential thief by imposing draconian DRM; not making digital offerings confusing, and frustrating, and messy, and overly expensive.

Read the rest of the article on The Bookish Dilettante.