A Spectator's View of Publishing's Future

UPDATE: See the comments for two more interesting articles on this topic.

Everyone's been talking about the future (or sometimes the end) of publishing lately. As a spectator, I am totally unqualified to talk about it, but I'm going to anyway because it's my blog and that's the way I like it. (Likewise, if this is a little stream-of-consciousness, I apologize. I'm kind of thinking out loud.)

I used to think that authors write the books, then publishers do all the printing, marketing, and selling of it so that we don't have to. It turns out that's not true (people have been talking about that too). So if all but the best selling authors are expected to do their own marketing, what is the publisher doing?

As far as I can see, they (1) get art for your cover, (2) pay for the printing, (3) get your book in bookstores, and (4) get your book in at least the basic review places. Those are good things. It's very hard for regular people to do any but (2), and if you are self-published, you can't do (3) or (4) at all.

But how many people read those reviews and then buy the book? Is that a lot of copies there? It's some, certainly, but it's not your main readerbase (well, certainly not in my genre). Similarly, who is buying books at bookstores (other than MattyDub and me, who would live at Borders if they let us)? That's some copies as well, but the bookstores seem to be dying which implies that fewer and fewer people are buying from there. That trend might not continue, but what if it does?

What I'm saying is, if the majority of my readerbase is coming from my own marketing efforts, then what do I get by being with a publisher?

Okay, okay. You get a lot of proofreaders who know what they're talking about, which makes your book a lot better and gives it Credibility. I don't want to knock that. Credibility is good. But it's possible to write a good book, and get a huge readerbase, without the credibility of a publisher. It's hard, but no harder, I think, than getting a publisher to begin with.

I guess my real point is that all the trends seem to be moving the advantages of a publisher away from them and into the hands of small authors. The internet is enabling us more, the slow death/metamorphosis of the publishers is requiring us to take on more. If the publishers don't figure this out soon, someone on the internet will find a way to hand out Credibility to self-published books, and then it will all be over.

Well, not over. Different.

(Bonus Question: how do I self-publish books on the Kindle? No print runs, no art required. I think that would undercut almost everything that's left of Big Publishing, if it can be done.)


The Wannabe Scribe said...

I'm not too worried about the doom and gloom in the publishing industry.

From what I’ve read (and I'm just a spectator like you) it's been going on for a long time.

Other entertainment forms will come and go. Some will find niche's like radio which I think for most people is something they listen to in their car. Others will evolve and some will merge or create new forms of entertainment like future of games, movies and proper virtual reality (not like they rubbish they hawked about during the 80s and 90s).

Books have been around for a very long time, stories even longer if you include oral tradition, which evolved into books. I’m sure that one day, not just yet, a majority of books will be e-books, but people will treasure real books, which will be luxury items.

Bestselling authors will always have the marketing of the publisher behind them, its authors trying to break out and mid-listers who need to do the donkeywork themselves.

Hmmm, I seem to have rambled a bit and not said much to do with your original post (which was excellent by the way).

Adam Heine said...

Scribe: You're right, of course. People have bemoaned the death of publishing since... well, probably since it started. Whatever changes come will be slow and gradual.

It's just that, as people get more and more used to reading things electronically (we're on that curve now), it moves books into a place where publishers have little experience, and technically savvy authors have lots. Which means those authors will need the publishers less and less. Are the publishers ready for that?

Music labels weren't ready when their revolution came, and a lot of them paid for it. But then they're still around and people still sell CD's. So I guess the changes are - as stated - slow and gradual.

The Wannabe Scribe said...

Yeah I agree I don't think they are ready yet.

I think they're just testing the waters with e-books but as they see the cash cow that e-books will become and their dwindling revenues from traditional streams the change will be far greater. We’ll start to see a more coordinated response to e-books like realistic pricing structures and much more in the way for merchandising tie-ins.

I think some of the things that midlist authors do now, like marketing/publicity can be picked up by agents. Perhaps some of the larger agencies will have in-house publicists (if they don’t already have them) and art departments.

Perhaps the publishers will be frozen out completely and it will be just an agent/author thing with publishers becoming responsible for distribution only.

And, I think you're right again that this change will be gradual.

If publishers become glorified distribution channels and e-books take off, as we all expect, then why do we need publishers?

Adam Heine said...

Two more really interesting articles on this topic:

Top Three Stupid Things Publishers Do (#2 is exactly my point as well)

Why e-books will eventually win, no matter how much you like paper books

I'll totally get a Kindle when (a) e-books cost as much, or less than, regular paperback (come on, publishers, it costs you nothing to make them!) and (b) Kindles are cheaper and/or I get one as a gift.

The Wannabe Scribe said...

Very interesting articles.

I'd love a kindle but they don't do it in the UK yet.

I'd settle for the Sony Reader eBook if only for the free e-books and pdf's that do the rounds, but the price!

Terry Stonecrop said...

Adam, Good post. I just linked here from Nathan Bransford's blog on the future of publishing.

Right now I don't see self-publishing as a good option but in the future it sounds as if things could change dramatically.

And so true about us being on the curve of reading electronically. Just a few years ago my husband and I talked about how we couldn't imagine having our morning coffee without a newspaper.

Not long after we cancelled our paper because we'd glance at it, grab our cups and rush to our computers to read the news and check our industry blogs.