New Book Biz Survey Reported
–Publishers Weekly, 10/8/2007
With the Frankfurt Book Fair starting later this week, show organizers have released results of a survey that asked publishing professionals worldwide their views on the biggest challenges and threats facing the industry as well as predictions on the future. More than half of the 1,324 respondents called digitalization the biggest challenge facing the industry, while competition from other media was picked as the major threat to the health of book publishing. The three other major industry threats were overpublishing, piracy and illiteracy.
Following the issues represented by digitalization, the survey found the other major industry challenges to be increased globalization, more user-generated content and the battle over territorial rights.
Not that I disagree that these are issues facing the book and the book industry, but I am surprised that there was obviously no significant concern expressed about the inevitable rise in the cost of energy affecting books both directly and indirectly (for example as the cost of production and delivery increases, printed book prices rise, sales of printed books may decline, sales of digital and audio books increase, creating a price spiral that eventually tips the scales against printed books).
Competition from other media is certainly valid but aren’t quality of education and literacy also significant issues for books, authors and publishers? And in a marketplace characterized as top heavy, with the disparity between the very top sellers and the rest of the market increasing, should we worry about the future of writing as a viable profession?
And just to continue in the contrarian mode, isn’t digitalization (or is it digitization?) as much the great opportunity for the publishing industry as it is the challenge of the future?
Does anyone know of a recent survey that tried to determine the opportunities that publishing professionals see ahead?
The Future of Publishing?
I picked this article up in yesterday’s Publishers Lunch (subscribe at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com). It really struck me as an important indicator of impending change in the way that publishing will work. Would love to hear if those reading this agree.
Chronicle to Profit from Blurb Referrals
We’ve always wondered when traditional publishers would start to actually capitalize on the fast-growing market for self-published books, and now Newsweek has a web-only story that says Chronicle Books will use their slush pile to do just that in conjunction with Bay Area-based Blurb.com.
Newsweek says that in October the publisher will announce “a pioneering ‘mutual referral’ deal” under which “Chronicle will refer unwanted authors to Blurb, who will return an undisclosed cut of the earnings generated from the new accounts.”
Chronicle’s executive director of business development Sarah Williams indicates the deal is “primarily designed to help writers.” She says: “It’s an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us.”
So do I have this right? Chronicle is going to take a commission from Blurb.com for sending them customers. OK. Chronicle can certainly recommend them over the 100 or so other sites that offer online self publishing tools to authors, amateur and otherwise. But check me on this and tell me what I am missing:
Chronicle is telling authors they do not want to publish their books, but if the author pays Blurb to publish the book and if the book sells well (enough), Chronicle will now be happy to consider publishing the author’s book.
So if I am an author Chronicle sent to Blurb and I pay to publish my own book and then I expend the energy (and cost) to market it, and then I succeed in building an audience, why exactly would I want to reward Chronicle by offering them my book? And if I do all of this, don’t I deserve a bigger royalty from the publisher?
And maybe Chronicle by doing this starts me the author thinking that this publishing business needs to be redefined. Once upon a time, publishers nurtured authors, built their careers, invested in their work, taking the long view that writers and audiences need to be cultivated. That rarely, if ever, happens today – mostly publishers that answer to quarterly profit requirements cannot afford long term investments in authors (who after all, may not stick around to reward their original publishers with their long term success.)
So now the model is different. Publishers don’t “grow” author careers. For that matter, as Chronicle so plainly now makes clear, publishers don’t want to have much risk at all when it comes to authors.
For years independent and nonprofit publishers have served as “farm teams” for the publishing industry, regularly losing authors they discovered to the better paying and stronger marketing corporate publishing houses. And certainly seeing mainstream publishers discover hot selling books from the ranks of the self publishers is nothing new. But there is something striking about this Chronicle alliance. It tells authors to “go away and come back only once you have proved you can sell.” I am sure many will make the effort. But doesn’t this just tell authors what they have suspected for a long time, that publishers really don’t know what is good, or what will sell, and if they don’t, then what is so special about the editorial function? What defines a publisher other than a bankroll and a distribution system? And then why shouldn’t the economics of publishing change?
So publishers, I ask this question of you: If you show authors the door, and offer them the tools they need to publish themselves, and then they somehow manage to succeed on their own, which some will certainly do (i.e. create a paying audience for their books), what does this mean for publishers?
Are you ready for the next stage in the evolution of publishing?
Writing, books and the future of writing, Part 5 of a long essay
Jason Epstein: Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future
Claudia Suzanne: This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept Through Sales
John B. Thompson: Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States
Chris Anderson: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds
end of essay
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 4 of a long essay
(Parts One, Two and Three of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post or below this latest section of it)
A recent and important phenomenon is the proliferation of online game “worlds” that have grown to massive proportions over the past several years. In these worlds hundreds of thousands of “real” humans take on avatars or online identities and simulate economies that include all forms of human creation and interaction. Outside of the strictly gaming world, and attractive to many who would never play video games, “Second Life” has literally created a new virtual universe where “real” people inhabit and participate in a figurative universe.
These worlds are certainly “real” in an experienced sense, and are not lived in solely for entertainment, but for the experience of interaction that is so often not available in the daily experience of our fully alienated culture. Why should this not be a precursor of what is to come for art and culture? Why should art and culture not migrate to an online space for those people whose lives take place mostly online anyway?
This does not mean the death of the book. It may be part of “the end of the world as we know it” (as my favorite REM song reminds us.) Personally, I do not feel sadness about this, only curiosity. After all, these are all human endeavors created and experienced by human beings. Online art and culture is simply artifactual of another cultural language and cultural landscape. As any anthropologist knows, every culture creates its art forms from the landscape it inhabits. However influenced by the sensory input of these landscapes, cultural creativity is always human in shape and form.
So we will recognize this new world of art and culture even if we do not always understand its language.
The pace of technology and business change is so rapid that very few business managers, analysts, creative thinkers or other observers and participants with an interest in these matters are able to understand what is happening as it is happening. We are all now put in the position of surfing the world we live in, riding waves of change with as much finesse and grace as we can muster, knowing that like all surfers, we will eventually wipe out. Then we must go to shore, take a deep breath and paddle back into the ocean to ride again.
Even so, we are able to see the effects of changes that have already occurred and from what we know, make generalizations about what will happen to and through the cultural milieu of writing, ideas, knowledge, books and publishing.
The central fact of change driven by the distribution of ideas on the internet is the destruction of the authority model.
All we have known is a world in which knowledge and ideas are passed from one creative thinker, artist or writer to many consumers, as well as other artists and writers. This is how most modern cultures have worked for as long as we have known them. It is central to our (capitalist) production system as well.
In the new online world this is no longer the predominant model. A new paradigm has emerged, which is characterized by much more complicated lines of communication and creativity. In this model, that has developed most fully and powerfully in the community of computer programming and is called “open source,” a single creator may take an idea he or she has developed and make it public in such a way that many other creators or users can contribute to the ongoing developmental and creative process – this deconstructs the notion of a product, as there is never a final product, but rather a never ending product development process. As a model applied to literature, a novel might have multiple endings, or be rewritten endlessly by hundreds of editors and readers.
There are many famous examples of open source computer development, the most famous being the Linux operating system, as well as GNU, Basecamp, Joomla and a development platform called Ruby on Rails that has quickly attracted legions of programmers. And of course the now famous “Wikipedia” has more or less replaced the notion of an authority driven encyclopedia with one that is more accurate and up to date by harnessing the power and creativity of users.
The rules and social interaction systems of the “open source community” deserve careful study insofar as they can be used as models for many other forms of human social interaction, especially as humanity must face and conquer so many looming challenges.
In the world of literature we can imagine a future where writers might post an entire book, whose readers then create an intelligent index to it, enabling other readers to pick and choose to read only what they need or want from the experience of the work. Allowing others to filter the vast streams of knowledge and information that we are faced with in the modern world seems rational and completely in keeping with our current environment.
What this means is that there may never be another “great” writer or thinker as we have known them in the authority model of western culture. It has been almost 300 years since it was possible for an educated person to have read every meaningful book in print in the world. With such incredible amounts of art, culture, knowledge and ideas for us to choose from, and a growth in creativity that is expanding at geometric rates (seemingly growing faster than our population — though logically this cannot be true!), it is virtually impossible for any single human being to be able to synthesize a broad enough experience to create a message or medium that would appeal to enough people to gain one the stature of greatness equivalent to a Shakespeare or an Einstein or a Picasso or even a Joyce or a TS Eliot
While we may have lost the power of such authority figures to transfigure an entire cultural moment, we have gained the power of the many to create and propagate ideas in smaller channels within the culture. We may even have created a new diversity of culture – ironically returning us to a form of tribalism that Western culture diligently attempted to expunge from the planet for the past several hundred years. That may indeed be the greatest triumph of the new digital era – perhaps arriving at just the right moment, a time when we are faced with the critical need to harness all human energy and attention to the critical matters in the natural world, and to the disparities of human wealth and opportunity that mark our current environment of mass globalization.
Individuals and small groups may now emerge as the new units of culture as humankind returns to its tribal cultural roots in the vast cycle of change we both engender and experience within our worlds - the physical, spiritual and now the virtual spaces that we inhabit and that make us who we are.
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 3 of a long essay
(Parts One and Two of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post)
For those interested in the actual technologies on the near horizon, and who are willing to experience science fiction first hand, a little research will turn up much that portends the future of the book. We will soon see digital paper with miniaturized power and memory enabling a single electronic sheet to carry hundreds or thousands of pages of information and all the navigational tools needed for readers to carry weightlessly in their pockets. Holographic projection technology enables the invention of a holographic book, where we could be “holding” a virtual book and turning virtual pages anywhere and anytime we wish to see them – or share them with a room full of colleagues (pocket projectors are on the market already and can do the presentation element quite well).
Computer memory growth is so rapid that it will be possible to store and rapidly access an entire personalized library with almost all the world’s knowledge in every home, homes that will be thoroughly networked so that written information, untethered from the physical container of the traditional book, will be available to every one of us at home or at work (and we shall see completely new tools to enable us to read and absorb this information as well). How our brains and psyches will adapt to these changes remains to be seen. But the technology that will enable such changes is no longer science fiction or futurist fancy.
Books, or more properly the book business, while slower to experience the disruption of digital technology than for example the music business, must face a myriad of challenges to the way business has been done in the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, we are seeing only the very beginnings of the many major disruptions to come. These are based on ownership of rights, availability of information, the new technology of book creation and reading which will be followed by inevitable changes in distribution models derived from the new digital models.
Business is also faced with the inevitable effects of energy and natural resource costs and changes in patterns of human living. Printed books are heavily energy intensive to create as well as to ship. The current inefficiencies in the distribution system are simply unsustainable. And the interesting rise of the used book market demonstrates that readers desire to de-commoditize book, to treat them as cultural artifacts to be shared and traded socially in a new model of consumption. Online social networking has already created new economies of trading in CDs, with books doubtless to follow, as resourceful human beings realize the power of shared goods as well as shared knowledge and creativity.
This will be a continuing trend that no modern publisher has yet to recognize constructively in its business model.
(There is both beauty and danger in removing all the rules!)
In addition, the World Wide Web has significantly altered the way ideas ebb and flow, as well as how they are consumed. This is true of all cultural activities insofar as electronic technology applies to them (music, television, film and writing, more so than plastic arts). Younger readers and consumers of digital information are commonly observed to be voracious multi-taskers. They can be talking on the telephone, instant messaging to and from large groups online, playing video games and watching cartoons on game consoles, all simultaneously. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant, as it is so pervasive.
Children and now many younger adults have grown up consuming and interacting with culture in an online environment. They read and write constantly, but never in a quiet environment and almost never without interruption.
Their thought patterns and processes are being programmed in ways human cultures have never experienced before the present period, and we simply have no way to predict the ways, hows and whats they are learning will be applied once they become mature adults acting economically within the cultural marketplace. But we do know for certain that they have learned to consume and act upon knowledge and ideas differently from anyone’s experience before today, that when they read or write books, it will be done differently than any previous cultural experience, and it is also more likely that the containerized form of the book will be seen as obsolete by many if not most of the children and young adults living today.
The “virtual” world is the “real” world for those who live in it.
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 2 of a long essay
(part one appears under category of the same name to the left of this post)
The Internet and other new technologies will have far deeper and broader effects than simply enabling the broad availability of books in online bookstores.
Disruptive technologies will change the way books are created, marketed and consumed. Widespread availability of information will change the way we interact with information and each other. Some of them include:
Digital Printing – on demand and short run create a new production and consumption system – which I call “publish global print local” and that can also be described as “any book any time.” Furthermore, you (as writer or reader) are now able to create any book you might want to design for yourself from a menu of book components and at any time you want them: i.e., the ability to “make your own book”
This enables a new concept of community based books – where there is interactivity between authors and readers, thus engendering changes in the definition of who has authorial voice and who is the consumer. Then where does a publisher or editor fit in to this process - there is no doubt that the flood of unedited, unprocessed thoughts and ideas cries out for the editorial hand. But in a new book economy, how and by whom this critical function is performed and perhaps more importantly, paid for, is yet to be determined.
Digital technology and electronic books – we are at the cusp of significant changes in technology that will alter the way books are conceived and distributed for millions of readers. It is just a matter of time. Until the Ipod and Itunes came into being as if delivered from on high (no, just Steve Jobs at work) no one had solved or could solve the riddle of digital music. At some point in the very near future, some one (not likely to be a company we know today) will deliver the perfect device with an equally compelling distribution platform, and the world will be forever changed. It does not matter how soon this will occur, although it will be sooner rather than later. When it does, the traditional print book business will be in disarray, and the publishing landscape will never be the same. Readers who want traditional books in traditional containers will always be able to get them (even so - we have printed so many books in the past twenty years that we could stop printing books tomorrow and no living reader would run out of great books to read between printed covers!).
Once the definitive and truly “e”-book does arrive, millions of us will want one, and millions of us will be happy to make the switch from reading books in traditional bound books made of expensive paper to reading in purely digital forms. Or we may simply be driven to it by the new economics of a carbon neutral economy. Our brave new electronic world awaits.
Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 1 of a long essay
Human culture today is adapting and re-adapting to the complicated changes engendered by the utter connectedness wrought mainly by the internet and the world wide web in the 21st century.
Where we are today is the summation of everything that has gone before us. Human culture is a complex, recursive machinery, an ecology as complex as that of the natural world (and yes, it is equally possible that we will destroy our culture even as we are so close to having destroyed our planet!)
We are so enmeshed within our immediate reality we often forget how short a time we humans have been writing, shorter still since we invented the book as the near perfect mechanism for containerization and transmission of knowledge between human beings. The year 1455 marks the beginning of the Era of the Printed Book. We have no such date for the inauguration for the Era of the Electronic Book – yet – but it is certainly coming soon.
The massive explosion of shared knowledge and experience that began with the distribution of printed books to ever increasing numbers of people has accelerated as technology itself has driven us forward (often without regard to downstream costs such as the destruction of natural forests for the creation of paper, pollution of our rivers by poisonous ink residues, the terrible ecological cost of papermaking itself, as well as the increasingly painful environmental costs of transportation as books are shipped to market and back in the commodity economy).
Clearly, the establishment of a poplar book culture and the transmission of knowledge and experience, the growth and expansion of writing based culture of ideas, has always been inevitably entwined with commerce and technology. Books are a great and powerful force for democracy, ideas and knowledge (thus they are always banned or controlled by dictators, who are always threatened by the free flow of ideas through the written word).
At the same time, books have always been created and sold according to commercial principles, thus in most of the world today, capitalism and mass consumer culture. Books are commodities after all, differing from shoes, no doubt, by their essential nature and deeper values, but subject nonetheless to all the economic forces, good and bad, that affect commerce and culture in an essentially one dimensional economic model.
(By this I do not indict only capitalism – neither does socialism nor any other existing economic model take into account the true economic underpinnings of our society, i.e. the costs of natural resources and their depletion).
So we experience a constant contradiction of the market society. Today more books are published annually than ever before, yet we see suddenly and perhaps not coincidentally, that overall book sales are either flat or declining. In the US and in other developed economies new patterns of book sales and distribution are emerging – we live in the era of the blockbuster at the head of the chart of sales followed by a very short “body” of books that sell less well and then an extremely “long tail” of millions of book titles that sell each in tiny quantities but in the aggregate in very large numbers — see Chris Anderson’s new book and website “The Long Tail” for a clear and explicit explanation of this phenomenon.
As with all cultural products (music CDs, film and video DVDs, video games, etc.) traditional real world retail book markets have narrowed choices in the blockbuster economy, shortening the window of opportunity available for a newly published book to be seen on shelves, in competition with thousands of other book titles all seeking the limited mindshare of the busy consumer.
This gives rise to several underlying questions:
- Who chooses what we are allowed or enabled to read?
- What processes affect availability of books and ideas?
- Is the commercial book business successful in filtering out the “bad” and promoting the “best” of writing?
- Similarly, how do economics that underpin the scholarly and supposedly noncommercial publishing sector affect their processes?
- (and there are many who question even more basically the hierarchical notion of ideas that is inherent in almost all contemporary literary culture).
Meanwhile, the rise of the internet and the world wide web has already begun to significantly alter the way ideas are transmitted and shared in our modern society. For traditionally printed books, the internet creates the opportunity for the millions of books, commercial and otherwise, that lie within the “long tail” to become available (although this effect plainly has even greater power for digital products where the cost of production is powerfully reduced – but more on that later). We have Amazon for new books, ABEbooks, Alibris and Ebay for used books.
Almost no book cannot be found online. For a reader, there has been no better time to search for and find books than today - although it is still clear that this abundance benefits only those with tools to search for them and a pre-existing knowledge of books and literature – for most readers this “over” abundance of books may in fact mean that readers actually recognize even fewer “real” choices in the marketplace of books. And while the market for books will continue to evolve and change (not always in ways we will like or enjoy or feel is good for writing, writers and readers), often based on market forces we may not be able to envision, it is in digital technology that we have seen and will continue to see the greatest impact on our culture and society.
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Buzz, Balls & Hype
MJ Rose’s excellent blog
Where I podcast interviews with writers and thinkers about books, publishing and the future of culture.
Ron Silliman’s Blog
one of my favorite and most regular visits
Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers
Incisive, intelligent blog well worth bookmarking!
The renowned Carl Lennertz covers the book business and more
Fresh Eyes Now
Robert Gray’s consistently interesting bookseller’s journal
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson’s ongoing exploration of how the web and human behavior creat new opportunities for information to be distributed (my words)
Blog about the bookbusiness
Conversations in the Book Trade
Chelsea Green Press’ ongoing blog
Publishing 2.0: the (r)Evolution of Media
A blog about the (r)evolution of media, driven by the migration of media to the Web and new digital technologies by Scott Karp. Highly recommended.
An e-book business site, but their blog covers book business stories as well.
"The Digitalist was originally conceived as an internal sounding board, discussion forum and blog for the publisher Pan Macmillan to start thinking about a range of digital issues it faced. It still is. Only now it’s open for everyone to join the debate about books, publishing, the web, and the future." Highly Recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of publishing.
Teleread "Bring the E-books Home"
David Rothman’s outstanding blog covering all things related to e-books, now with the assistance of Paul Biba.
Really smart people thinking hard about books, publishing and the emerging social conversation. Creators of Aerbook: an author platform service for the social web. Highly recommended.