Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Future of Publishing

February 23, 2011

Over this past weekend, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. I sat in sessions and soaked up lots of useful stuff, from ways to improve my writer’s tradecraft, to short courses in publicity for writers. I made connections with some literary agents and editors. It was a useful weekend. I also listened to my peers. They expressed concerns about what is currently happening in the publishing industry and how it might change their careers.

As the former CEO and publisher of an eBook company for almost a decade, I think I may have something useful to contribute in that discussion.

Everyone who watched the demise of the old infrastructure of the music business already understands what is happening. My opinion is that it provides more than an object lesson. The fate of the old lions of the music business looks to me to be the fate of the larger publishers. Yes, there are significant differences in the infrastructure of the industries, their product composition and the consumer attitudes toward change, but the lessons are there and to ignore them is to remain in denial.

Music went through several technological improvements in delivery before the major impacts hit the companies. First, we went from wax cylinder to 33 1/3 record to CD. Each of those left the record companies with no choice but to adjust their fixed asset base with massively changed equipment, and then amortize the costs across the sales of their products. Rough, but possible to survive the changes. The last, biggest change was the one of distribution, and this was the killer. Once record sales were replaced by song sales, and sold not in physical format but MP3, delivered over the Internet, the effects of change were massive. Brick and mortar stores were unnecessary. Trucks, warehouses and other infrastructure were assets the companies could no longer amortize and they became useless. Barriers to entry became a non-issue. Distribution was the only issue. Now let’s look at publishing. Each of the factors here is the same except for two: No one buys books by the chapter, and everyone uses software and possibly an eReader, if not a cell phone to read. Taken as a whole, the similarities outweigh the differences. Publishing is undergoing a change of seismic proportions.

In their current form, publishing companies won’t survive. They must jettison the unneeded fixed assets and find a way to become relevant. I’m not sure what they can do with all the trucks, warehouses and printing presses, but there is no way they can charge these off against the price of an eBook and get customers to go for it. Not when literary agents can become the publisher of record for eBooks sold through distributors such as barnesandnoble.com and amazon. Within five years, there won’t be any bookstores. The price of an eBook won’t be much above $9.99. Smaller organizations like literary agencies and writing critique groups will become the ‘publishers.’ The financial failure of Borders is proof enough of this as a forecast of the future.

Libraries will lose their relevance as printed books become scarcer and more expensive. With neither bookstores nor libraries, printed books will be bought in short runs by the author and sold at signings conducted at restaurants and senior centers. For the most part, publicizing a new book will likely become a blogging event.

To see what will happen, no one need go farther than read T. S. Kuhn’s short monograph, published in the 1950’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He uses several historical examples, and concludes that those who cannot adjust to technology changes cease to have economic relevance.

Writers will still become authors, and literary agents will still be the arbiters of quality. But, any literary agent who can’t find a way to take advantage of the incredible opportunity offered by a time of massive change will find themselves gone from the planet.

Writers will need to learn how to be marketers. Promotion and Marketing will be their biggest post-writing activities, and these activities will be quite different from what they did pre-eBook. Some will jettison their paper publishers after getting a few titles in print and begin selling eBook titles to their established customer base. J. A. Konrath has done this and it works. Others will stick with their paper publishers and pray they can survive. Should the publisher adapt to the new world. It might work. Paper publishers currently provide the prime advantage of the stamp of quality to what goes out in print, and it is a formidable advantage for an unknown writer.

To survive, after shedding the unnecessary fixed assets that now burden them financially, publishers will probably purchase the literary agencies that are publisher of record. By itself, this changes everything. If they can’t come up with a better idea, or if they don’t begin acquiring the literary agencies that “own” the best writers, they will surely perish from carrying the weight of their current fixed asset infrastructure without the counterbalance of direct access to talented writers.

That’s my prediction, for what it’s worth.

If you’re a writer, take heart, the times may be interesting now, but the future is still bright. If you’re a literary agent, you hold all the cards if you play them right. If you’re a print publisher, the time has come to stop wondering what will happen and choose which literary agencies you want to become close with. Pick carefully; the clock is running.

No comments:

Post a Comment