W(h)ither Publishing?

crystal_ballI’m feeling reflective this morning (or as reflective as I ever get, anyway), so I’m going to don my Nostradamus-like robes and prognosticate on the future of publishing. There is something in the air—is it just autumn previewing winter? or is it something more portentous?

There is an interesting (some might say alarming) story in this morning’s New York Times about libraries building downloadable digital collections, with several publishers coughing into their fists and muttering, “Unsustainable!” Simon and Schuster has introduced the wet fizzle they call the vook.” Former Harper CEO Jane Friedman has launched an ambitious plan to digitize the backlist of many successful authors. And soon there will be a bevy of e-reader options—from Barnes & Noble a two-screen doozy, and a cut-rate Kindle-esque reader called the iRiver Story, and many more ways to read books that make the Kindle look like slate and chalk. Soon you’ll have your choice—electronic ink? backlit screen? giant screen? tiny screen?

What does this mean for books? What does it mean for publishing? Publishers—and most authors—are clearly agitated by the idea that books may become the next medium to be pirated and passed around, like movies and MP3s. We all saw what happened to the record industry: artists survived, but big labels have not—or not in the same fashion. Nowadays recordings are seen almost as advertisements for the musician’s tours and merchandise. The money has migrated. Will the same thing happen to traditional publishing? And if it does, as seems likely, where will the money come from? How will publishers or authors (in newspeak) “monetize” their craft and content?

Michael Grant, who periodically pops up in the comments section of this blog to toss an F-bomb or two, believes that books will definitely all be digital soon. He points to his frighteningly smart son, who read the whole of a 750-page manuscript on an iPhone. Kids these days, he suggests, aren’t allied to traditional media. His terrifyingly brilliant son, in fact, has created something he calls Frebook (the link is to a Quicktime animation sequence; it takes a bit of time to load), which embeds backstory and advertising within a text, and creates hypertext-like windows that pop-up when the cursor is rolled over highlighted words.

Well, that’s one way money might be generated. But I think it ignores how book sales are generated in the first place: By word of mouth.

Another way to monetize digital books is to embrace free media and give the downloads away. That’s what Cory Doctorow did with his bestseller (in print) Little Brother. He made it available in so many downloadable forms that it made the issue of pirating moot. Instead, it did something else: It spread the word. Doctorow quoted publisher Tim O’Reilly that “My problem isn’t piracy; it’s obscurity,” and then went on to make a cogent point: “Of all the people who have failed to buy my books today, the majority do so because they’ve never heard of me, not because someone gave them a free, electronic copy.” Giving away Little Brother didn’t hurt book sales at all. If anything, it may have buoyed them.

Certainly that’s how it works these days in music. Anecdotal example: A friend gave me a copy of the Frank Turner album “Love, Ire & Song.” I loved it so much that I’ve since bought three physical copies—for other people. And I downloaded his collection “The First Three Years” from iTunes. And I bought a physical copy of his new album. I love the guy’s music, and so I support his work. I believe readerships might function the same way.

Readers—like fans of music—are incredibly loyal beasts. Loyal to formats (else there wouldn’t be such passionate defenders of print media), loyal to authors, loyal to the books they love. Readers aren’t created wallet-first, but hooked by their love of a story. The other day, I bought a massive trade paperback of James Clavell’s Shogun, a book I adored and read and reread as a teen. (I was so passionate about it and feudal Japan that my friends, in the way of savage un-PC teens everywhere, called me “Mr. Nip.”) This is the third copy I’ve owned over the years. I didn’t want it digitally. If I love something, I want it around in concrete form.

I know that I will always buy books by the authors I love. Even if, say, I didn’t buy the book that first exposed me to their work. Maybe I got that book from a library (Ray Bradbury), or maybe a friend loaned it to me (Robert Heinlein), or maybe I read it on an e-reader first.

What do you all think? Where is publishing going? Where are books going? Is it really that worrisome for authors? Or only for publishers?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Author SM Blooding, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: W(h)ither Publishing? (http://tinyurl.com/ylbgvwo) […]


  2. Is it possible we’ll just go back to telling stories round the fire? In exchange for a bowl of soup, of course.


  3. This is one of the best “articles” I’ve read on the subject. I’m a singer/songwriter/musician, so I have a pretty good understanding of the music business. We always gave away cassettes (yes, I’m aging myself!) and CD’s without hesitation. I was, and always will be, a firm believer in giving your art away in order to “spread the good word.” It paid off for us then by getting us airplay and shows, and I believe if we writers play our cards right, it can pay off for us now and well into the future.

    “Nowadays recordings are seen almost as advertisements for the musician’s tours and merchandise.” This is a brilliant statement, but one I hope is not wholly true (you did use the word “almost”). I understand your point of merchandising vs art, but if it weren’t for the quality of the art behind the merchandising, I believe (selfishly hope?) the public would quickly grow bored and not remain loyal to the artists they admire.

    There’s no question the publishing industry is racing at warped speed (assuming moving quickly is possible for the publishing industry!) towards all things electronic. My hope is this will be a good thing. More access to our work, more word of mouth, and more sales including the “traditional” book format are possible, and I believe, probable outcomes.

    Thanks for this blog. It’s well worth reading.


  4. I think that while things might change, everything will be all right. People love stories. They love hearing them, reading them, and telling them. I’m not sure I subscribe to the theory that paper books will be done away with completely, but I do agree that things in publishing might shift and change. So long as I still have access to stories, I’m okay with that. 🙂


  5. Quoting;

    Well, that’s one way money might be generated. But I think it ignores how book sales are generated in the first place: By word of mouth.

    Michael, your definition of word of mouth might be too literal. The mouth is one way to spread information (and germs!). But e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and other places where people have conversations, real and virtual, also generate book sales.

    I think Jake is onto something with his Frebook. Advertising is one way of making money (think newspapers). Subscriptions (ala magazines, Netflix, etc.) are another. Direct fee-for-products (books) or services (say, a Paypal transaction) is the last.

    Smart publishers would think about all sorts of revenue streams for books. They would also think about the ways people will be reading. They have to adapt. Newspapers failed, and look where they are. And yes, people said, “There will always be newspapers.” Maybe.

    I think we can agree that printed books will always be here in some form, because they are better than your average daily rag. We can look at digital books as a way of building on that foundation–not replacing it. It’s a new opportunity, not the end of the world.

    I just hope the people doing the building are the ones who are actually GOOD at it. Amazon would be a lousy publisher, if the user ed and text on their Kindle is any indication.

    I think this is what writers and agents need to pay attention to, though: emerging opportunities in digital publishing. There could be real money there.


  6. Martha Bee, I wasn’t narrowly defining word of mouth. Smart ass.

    There need to be alternate revenue streams, and next week, I’ll post something about alternative publisher models (publisher as megaphone and cheerleader and marketer, not so much as producer of physical product). Because that is going to be a big part of things.

    Anyway, Martha, you and I are in complete agreement. As ever. 😛


  7. Could an optometrist or pediatrician weigh in on this issue? I for one, see too much “screening” for young childrn as a potential problem.


  8. I agree fully that when I love a book I want it in concrete format. My ever-growing library is a testament to that! But I travel much more than I’d like, and I suffer from wanting to read old friends wherever I am. I can’t cart the whole library with me (just unpacking the books from our move into my Bozeman library ruptured a disc), so I cram as much of my library as I can find onto my Kindle – including my own books, imported from their manuscript form, so I can refer back to them as necessary to answer any question clever readers raise in their e-mails. To me, e-books are just another format for reading, and revenue comes from just another subsidiary rights deal, even though it’s taking publishers a while to sort out how e-book sub rights should be handled. E-book readers are a tool, not the sole wave of the future. Just my thoughts!


  9. Martha has some great points. As a writer, I can’t deny the tense feeling I get in my gut when I read about books being replaced by digital ones, but I know–or at least hope–they wouldn’t completely be replaced. Newspapers are one thing (and I do see that business dying out eventually) but books are something completely different, and I just don’t think not having them in print-form at all would do anyone any good.

    I like the feel and smell of new books and old books, and to curl up somewhere and flip the pages, not scroll down a screen. But that’s just me, and sadly, I’m not the next generation, of which would probably prefer the latter. We do have to take that into consideration. Kindergardeners are learning how to navigate a computer, every classroom typically has one, this is the age of digital technology and it isn’t going away until its replacement, whatever that may be.

    I’m not sure exactly where the industry is going as far as this direction is concerned, but I hope there can be a happy medium, and Martha is right. It all weighs on who is building the framework for this new kind of publishing industry.


  10. It is an interesting debate and one that all of us in the publishing industry need to be considering. Your thoughts on this (giving it away to gain new readers) reminds me of this Seth Godin speech. It’s long, but again, very interesting ideas to consider…


  11. Very cogent post, with, I think, your point about Shogun truly standing out; I think we’re pretty much always going to want the real, tangible books we love. Already-mentioned Seth Godin has a great point about it, noting that physical books might become more like souvenirs.

    For my money, I’ve realized I have difficulty reading on a screen versus on paper, but I’ve realized that’s because of my own attention deficits. When connected to the Internet, I have a tendency to let my peripheral attention overwhelm my point of focus to the point of extreme distraction — I’m the guy who looks up something on Wikipedia and loses two hours of my life. I think the “vook” is the opposite of the right way to go, a silly name for a rather distractive and gimmicky interface, while these frebooks have it slightly more right; I tend to think the next wave is going to be concentrated on apps. McSweeney’s has an iPhone app now, which pushes exclusive content to your phone (McSweeney’s is, of course, the perfect message for the medium, because of its brevity and the way it works as, well, content, for lack of a better word).

    I experienced the power of freedom firsthand when I made my collection free at Lulu; download rates quadrupled, and it’s now at several thousand with new downloads pretty much every day. This idea staggers me, to be candid.


  12. Great article, and a much discussed issue. My take is that the e-book phenomena will have a huge impact on the price point of books in every form. Giving your book away on-line is just the extreme end of the price-point setting spectrum. As more people are comfortable with e-readers, and the format wars settle out, readers will have a range of real options for receiving their stories. My kids are 10 and under and still get their books the old fashioned way – from the library and bookstore, in paper form. My oldest has his own personal library collection in his closet, which he lends out to his little brothers (on a good day). He may want an e-reader for his birthday in a few years, and I may even get it for him. But his love for stories will never go away, and I’ve created a life-long purchaser of books, whatever the form.


  13. I like the idea of an e-reader, but I can’t imagine it ever taking the place of traditional books, for me. Every time this discussion replays, I think of that Star Trek episode where Picard is reading Moby Dick with an actual book…and he mentions that the story isn’t quite the same without the trappings of the hard cover and the turning pages, the feel of the paper in his hands. (I think he probably said it more eloquently than that, however.) That’s definitely how I feel…and I think enough readers out there feel similarly that we don’t really need to worry about huge changes in the industry — small ripples only.


  14. If I love something, I want it around in concrete form.

    …My grandparents filled half their living room with massive and faded photo albums of family, friends, young love, adventure.
    …My parents insisted for a long time on printing the output of their digital camera and filing the photos away.
    …I prefer to have my photos on-hand, in the cloud, on my phone, instantly available, searchable, sendable, shareable.

    We all love books, but maybe concrete isn’t the best way to build anymore.


  15. Only publishers, agents, editors and other people not necessary to publish a book has anything to fear.

    To us storytellers great times have come and are coming.

    TRUE artistic freedom.


  16. I look at digital as supplemental to, not a replacement of, physical books. Each often has a different (though sometimes overlapping) audience, similar to the difference between readers of online newspapers v. physical newspapers. The Times article illustrates just that, stating right at the top that Kate Lambert recalls using her library card just once or twice throughout her childhood. Now, she uses it several times a month. Lambert wasn’t looking at/buying the (physical) books cited to begin with, nor was I paying for a newspaper subscription to the papers that I read online. And how much blog content would be read were it not delivered into a reader’s home directly? Some content is only read in a form that goes to the reader rather than the other way around; otherwise, it goes unseen and unmissed.

    As a kid, we bootlegged albums (on cassette) left and right: friends and I couldn’t individually afford every original that we were curious about, so we copied and shared. I have since become a fan of some of those musicians and bought a number of those albums at least once, often more times over. The ones that I didn’t purchase, I wouldn’t have ever purchased; that album just wasn’t worth the cost to me. Similarly, some books I will buy, while some I will only borrow from the library because I’m not interested enough in purchasing them. Publishers might see that as one sale lost, but had I not had access to a free copy, I wouldn’t have read that book in the first place. But though I may not find that book worth purchasing, I may recommend it to someone else for whom I think it appropriate or be more likely to look into purchasing some of that artist’s other work.

    I will forever be a lover of the physical book, but what I like about digitization is the ability for content to be spread that (and where it) otherwise couldn’t. If I had to rely only on my local library, I’d be limited to bestselling fiction and children’s books. Yet today I can hop online and sift through, say, Walt Whitman’s archives, a privilege physically available to very few. Books and authors that have gone out of print can now be accessed by new readers, which makes historical research that much more possible, especially to those outside academia. And unlike sound technology, where musical quality generally improves with each new form (cassette tape v. CD, for example), screen-reading, as others have mentioned, is rarely more comfortable than paper-reading. When someone invents a screen option better than staring at a lightbulb for hours on end is when the physical book will have some real competition.


  17. As attached as I am to the feel and smell of a good book–second only to the feel and smell of a good woman–I am foremostly concerned with the progress of literature and the continued evolution of language.

    If pulp is on the way out, so be it. I will hoard my dusty editions and sit on my porch and croak about the superior reading of “my day.” I will be an excellent curmudgeon. I so look forward to it.

    Be well.

    <3 Tom Hardie


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