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Will Technology Kill Book Publishing?

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Death of an Industry?

Photo courtesy of http://closedstacks.wordpress.com/

There has been much talk about the decline, and some say inevitable death, of the publishing industry as we know it today. Central to this argument are the rise of e-book sales and the increasing options available to authors to self-publish. While I think that publishing is changing and must do so in order to stay alive, I don’t think that the industry will die – at least, not any time soon. I see the impact of e-books on the publishing industry as similar to the impact on the music industry when sites like Napster came along and music became available as mp3 files. The recording industry survived the iPod and I believe the book publishing industry will survive the Kindle.

You can read one journalist’s take on the publishing industry’s survival in this recent article on USAToday.com:

Will technology kill book publishing? Not even close – USATODAY.com

The Rise of Indie Authors

The scope of the USA Today article does not include the impact on the industry of publishers’ focus on big-name front list titles, which has been pushing new authors and midlist titles out. The amount of self-publishing options available today means that many of those midlist and first-time authors are pursuing the “indie” option out of necessity or frustration.

Parallels can be drawn to the movie industry, where moviemakers’ frustrations with big studio focus on blockbuster, cookie-cutter films led to a surge in indie films. Already, similar to indie films, the stigma of self-publishing is lessening.

Publishing Prognosis

So what will happen to book publishing over the next five to 10 years? It’s anybody’s guess, but my prediction is that publishers will need to do more than just adapt. Those that adjust their business model to embrace technology and the changes that it brings will thrive.

Regardless, I think that most authors will continue to assume responsibility for marketing and promoting their books, self-publishing will flourish and self-published books will enjoy wider acceptance, and e-readers will enjoy wider adoption, requiring publishers to step up and uniquely serve the digital format. I hope traditional publishers figure out a way to sign more fresh voices and non-celebrity authors or they will run the risk of homogenizing the book trade into a one-size-fits-all approach to product offerings.

Ultimately, readers will decide and if their needs aren’t being met by the big publishing houses, they will pursue other options. If the industry as a whole isn’t meeting needs, it will lose market share to other entertainment options that are able to appeal to wider, more discerning audiences and niche groups.

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  • Point taken Alan (#18), but I suppose I was focusing on the written word because the original article and most of the discussion was about e-books versus printed books. My comment wasn’t intended to address all types of media.

  • Wendy Scott (#17), your narrow focus on written communications in the digital age (emails, blogs, tweets, etc.) as records of everyday life overlooks the single most important phenomenon of this period: YouTube.

    While it’s true that many of its clips are unauthorized uploads of professional productions, YouTube has more than 64 billion videos, including untold millions richly documenting the daily lives of ordinary people, who show us their homes, speak in conversational language, and share their hopes, fears and dreams with astounding candor and naturalness. Perhaps best of all, they demonstrate what a playful species we remain despite the never-ending societal and environmental challenges that beset us.

    For you to question the historical value of digital documentation without mentioning YouTube is a serious oversight, Wendy.

  • Good point, Alan. One thing that I do think we’re losing with digital media is a rich record of normal, daily life that used to be chronicled in letters and journals. The invention of the phone reduced written communication but e-mail about pounded it into nothing.

    E-mails, blogs, tweets, and status updates just aren’t the same as letters. After all, most people wouldn’t save online greeting cards or love e-emails, but we would save love letters and birthday cards. Handwritten letters and notes convey personality so much more than typed ones do. It would be interesting to see what historians are able to reconstruct of daily life in the early 2000’s using transcripts of texts and IM’s and 140-character updates. They will definitely have a larger quantity of material to work with, but I’m not sure about the quality. It’s an interesting point to ponder and discuss. 🙂

  • Dave Hamara (#15), your fear is unfounded. Until the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799, the language of ancient Egypt had been a complete mystery for millennia. Once 19th- and 20th-century scholars got their grubby fingers on this remarkable artifact, they solved the puzzle, greatly adding to our understanding of a distant culture.

    You can bet your iPod that 30th-century archeologists will be no less resourceful in deciphering the intricacies of 21st-century digital media.

  • Dave Hamara

    The 3.5 inch floppy is an excellent example of one of my great worries. Bits are fleeting, as anyone who has survived a hard drive crash knows.
    Will anything we do today be remembered (or even be rememberable) in 100 years? What we know about ancient civilizations today comes from cave paintings, murals in temples, and carvings on stone tablets. More recent history (last couple thousand years) we have through surviving books and scrolls.
    How will the 30th century archeologist learn anything about civilization in the 20th century? What are we creating today that will last 1000 years?
    While the shift from “physical” to digital media has many advantages, I fear it may lead to this becoming a “lost century.”

  • @Callie – I’m with you! Despite being a gadget girl, I can’t seem to get on board yet with e-readers. Books have character and personality that bytes can’t replicate. But, I’ll probably break down and get an e-reader some day.

    @Wanda – Thanks! I think the publishing shift will spell opportunity for lots of new faces and voices. Here’s to being one of them!

    @Lev – Loved your bibliobuffet site and LOL’ed at your article, “Stet! Stet! Stet!”. Shame on that copy editor. One of the tenets of good editing is not to remove the author’s voice. And Google as the go-to reference?? (sigh)
    Regarding your last comment, here’s a real-life anecdote. My dad just sent me a 3.5 inch floppy disk – remember those? None of my 3 computers have a drive to read it. Great TZ episode, by the way.

  • Wendy–Your comment about 100 years from now reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith plays a put-upon librarian who never has time to read. Then there’s an atomic war, he survives and he’s happy to be left alone with books. Until he breaks his glasses! I can see a remake with someone’s battery running low…..

  • Great post Wendy. I agree with your conclusions and the parallels you draw between publishing and the film and music industries are spot on. Given that we’ve already seen the shake out in those two industries I believe we’re likely to see the same progress in publishing. However it goes, I’m happy to be a part of it.

  • Callie

    While my husband has a e-book reader, I can’t ever see myself wanting to read books on one. There’s something about having a tangible book in one’s hands that can’t be replicated by a reader. There’s something soothing about turning the pages and seeing the chunk of pages that are read versus those that aren’t yet read that makes a real book irreplaceable.

    I guess for people who travel a lot and like the convenience of a reader, it’s fine; but for me I can’t see myself curling up on the couch with an electronic reader any time soon.

  • Ria

    I love books, read 6 per month, I live to brouse book stores, hold, buy and go to the library once a month. I buy audio books for my iPhone, books from B&N, Amazon and author sites. I also use Kindle (my friend’s); I will buy an iPad (next Generation). For those of us who read, no format is bad, good, or obsolete.

    My belief is publishers must do cheaper than $49 a hardback, lighter to carry than 3 lbs and include new and proven weighted in catalogs and promotion.

    Kindle– Travel out of state/vaca
    Hardback— The latest from favorite writers or current politics
    Paperback–everything else: entire series purchases, entire author’s work old literary friends

  • MR

    The problem is that publishers are fighting ebooks instead of adapting to them. The music industry did the same with MP3s and look where that got them. Sure, CD sales are down, but they found out that if you offer a product for sale electronically, people will buy it. Publishers need to realize the same thing. And really, for the author or artist, shouldn’t it be about getting your work exposed to the greatest number of people who will enjoy it and appreciate it? IMO, it’s rather pretentious for someone like J.K. Rowling to refuse to allow the Harry Potter books to be released electronically because they “belong” on paper. It’s not the paper that makes the books enjoyable, it’s the writing.

  • Bi

    Electronic publishing will kill print books just like the car killed the bicycle and TV killed radio. There is just to much kinetic joy in handling a book for it to go away any time soon. If anything, the problem will be quality control. The number of books distributed by the few big players might dwindle, and at the other extreme self-publishing and salon publishers will push a lot of low-quality work into the marketplace. It will be more necessary for knowledgeable people like . . . ahem . . . you to winnow the good stuff out.

  • @Maria – that would be great! The closest site I’ve found that will recommend books based on what you like is http://www.whatshouldireadnext.com/ . It’s not exactly the “book genome” project like Pandora is for music, but you might get some good recommendations out of it. Retailers like Amazon also recommend titles, but these are based on sales relationships, not content.

    @Lynn- best wishes on your new book! Your reading list sounds like mine – very eclectic. I haven’t made the jump to an e-reader yet, but I’m thinking about it.

    @Arturo – too funny, but “gathering around the Kindle” may happen (sadly). Some think that the physical book is an example of perfect design. Not that other options aren’t good, but I tend to agree. No need for batteries, no worry about file types or being stuck with obsolete hardware, and no reason to panic if it gets splashed poolside. A hundred years from now, people will still be able to pick up a physical book and read it but might not be able to access the information on an e-reader. I’ll probably cave and buy one anyway.

    @Lev – thanks for posting! I’ll have to check out your site.

  • I write a column for a web site that does highlight literary work, and avoids running with the pack and reviewing what everyone else is reviewing. It’s the on-line literary magazine bibliobuffet.com and I accepted the invitation to write for it after years in radio and print reviewing. The editorial standards are high, the philosophy commendable. I highly recommend it.

  • Arturo

    I think alternatives will continue to proliferate, but physical books will never die for the simple reason that parents will always want to read books with their kids. Nobody’s going to gather the family around a Kindle.

  • The e-book buyer is buying everything from bestsellers to teen vampire books. So Sue, I think you are off the mark. The only thing that puts them off is when the publisher raises the price over $9.99, which is standard for e-books.
    Already e-books have taken over 67% of the mass-market paperbook trade and most of the children’s paperbook trade. Amazon has already admitted that it sells more e-books than hard-covers–and that includes literary and challenging books you were talking about.
    This doesn’t mean the death of the physical book, but it does mean that Wendy is right. Unless the New York traditional publishers can make a concerted effort to attract new talent, they are going to look like a ghostyard filled with yesterday’s talent.
    What’s on my Kindle? The Pulitzer Prize-winner “Tinkers,” Sara Paretsky’s latest crime fiction, “Innocent” by Scott Turow,” “Dry” by Augustin Burrows. (Lots more that I can’t remember.) Not exactly paranormal fiction.
    And yes, I’m being published on the e-book platform in a few months. It’s the only place for newer writers to go.

  • I think the publishing of books will change dramatically over the next couple of years – with a big change to the way consumers get them delivered.

    Something that would be great for Indie authors – would be a better recommendation system for books. Something that Pandora – or even Netflix does a great job of. Something like – You enjoyed this book? You might like these book by these authors too.

  • Hi Sue,

    Thanks for reading my article and commenting. You raise some excellent points. I think that literary or experimental work has always had an uphill battle to attract widespread readership and I think that it’s going to get even more difficult for those works to find a home with traditional publishers.

    As far as the homogenization of the industry, that might be a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg argument. It’s like the proliferation of reality TV. Is there less quality scripted programming because viewers aren’t interested, or are more viewers watching more reality TV because there are fewer good, scripted series to watch? Me, I just watch less TV. 🙂

    It’s getting harder and harder for new or unknown authors to get published, no matter how well-crafted their prose or what genre or style they write in. These days, it seems that you have to have an established marketing platform, be a celebrity, or have been involved in a scandal to get a book deal. I figure “The Situation” from Jersey Shore would get a book deal before thousands of more talented writers and MFA’s. I’m hoping that self-publishing will still allow those talented unknowns to have a voice and share their work with readers who want something a little more or a little different than the normal fare.

  • Wendy, this is the question on everyone’s mind at the moment. I think the parallels with the movie industry are appropriate. I don’t think it will be the publishers’ fault for homogenization though. I think authors themselves will abandon any literary tendencies and go for the easily tagged and described (i.e. found at Amazon) writing that the masses seem to go for.

    Websites and bloggers dedicated to highlighting literary work are rare. On the other hand, sites reviewing genre work proliferate. In the past, literary work got attention through reviewing vehicles such as the New York Review of Books. The bulk of readers don’t read that. And the bulk of ebook buyers buy their books from the Kindle store. Are those same buyers rushing to pick up literary, experimental, or in some way challenging work? I don’t think so, I think they’re rushing over to the paranormal romance piles. It will be interesting to see how the more stylish prose finds its audience in the world of Kindle and B&N online.