The Future of Book Publishing (Maybe)

This piece, by David Nygren, originally appeared on his The Urban Elitist site on 12/08/08.

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 [an] 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.

Read the rest of the article on The Urban Elitist.

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