The Future of Publishing?

By Posted in - On Reading on March 8th, 2011 31 Comments

A number of people have asked me what I think the publishing world will look like when the dust has settled on the current revolution, and last weekend I was invited to participate in a think tank on how to promote books in a changing industry. There have been a lot of posts about print vs e-books. There’s also been a lot of hand-wringing about piracy, and of publishing going the way of the music industry. But very few people are seeing this for the opportunity it is.

My instinct is that, with e-books still a relatively small proportion of total sales, the changes will not be as dramatic as many fear and we should all settle down and get back to the work of writing and producing great stories.

Ultimately, I suspect that many new writers will go straight to e-books, even if they are published by a major house, and that the most successful books, the ones we want to keep and have on display in our homes as an expression of identity as clear as the clothes we wear and the way we decorate, will also be printed as collectors’ pieces.

Mid-list authors need no longer fear the day when their books go out of print. They can enjoy renewed life as e-books and bring in a tidy income, if the story is good enough.

What does concern me is the trend to play safe. The major houses have to watch the bottom line, and are therefore taking less and less risk with unconventional storytelling or smaller, more personal stories. They want “big” books. But that leaves the reading public intellectually and emotionally poorer.

For those who write big books the future has never looked brighter, and if you take Kevin Mowrer’s advice to heart on the creation of meta-stories (stories that can shape-shift into video games, movies, merchandising, etc), the sky’s the limit. But not every story is suited to that kind of treatment.

I do anticipate that there’ll be a flood of e-books of inconsistent quality, fighting for attention with well-edited mid-list authors’ e-books and new ‘straight-to-e-format’ books. So where’s the filter? How do we find the nuggets of gold in the mountains of sand? There’s a need for some kind of aggregation or sub-categorization of e-books to help people find what they want. We will need e-book curators, picking the best and displaying them for the time-challenged reader.

The question I have for you is, what form will that take? How can we make it easier for readers to find properly edited, quality e-reads?

Suggested Further Reading:

Interview with John B. Thompson, author of MERCHANTS OF CULTURE

Product Description

The world of book publishing is going through turbulent times. For nearly five centuries the methods and practices of book publishing remained largely unchanged, but at the dawn of the 21st century the industry finds itself faced with perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg. A combination of economic pressures and technological change is forcing publishers to alter their practices and think hard about the future of the book in the digital age.

In this book – the first major study of trade publishing for more than 30 years – Thompson situates the current challenges facing the industry in an historical context, analyzing the transformation of trade publishing in the United States and Britain since the 1960s. He gives a detailed account of how the world of trade publishing really works, dissecting the roles of publishers, agents and booksellers and showing how their practices are shaped by a field that has a distinctive structure and dynamic. Against this backdrop Thompson analyzes the impact of the digital revolution on book publishing and examines the pressures that are reshaping the field of trade publishing today.

(31) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Dustin - Reply

    March 8, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Hi Lia,

    Another fantastic post.

    IMO, things will continue to evolve and mimic what has happened in other medium of entertainment. Books are, after all, firmly in that category.

    By that, I mean that books (stories) will become more ubiquitous than they are now and I,for one, and excited about this potential.

    Let me give you an example. Tiger Woods Golf (made by my employer, Electronic Arts) is leading the way in persistent gaming. Imagine a 14 year old boy Teeing off at the first hole at home on his PS3 before school. Mom tells him to get his behind moving or he will be late. He turns off the system mid swing, grabs his iPhone and heads for the bus. On his ride to school, he starts the game up again and it takes off mid swing, just where he left it off. He plays a few holes then goes to class and turns off his phone (like a good boy). During computer class, he logs on to a server and plays a few more holes. Etc…
    You get the idea.

    The trick that makes this work is that the end user only makes 1 purchase. One fee, one time that allows him to experience his "story" on any system he chooses.

    How does that look for books? Well, why can't it look the same. What if I could buy your new Steampunk novel in hardback for a premium from an online retailer. As a thank you, I get exclusive rights to your web page for some great author sneak peeks. I also get the first chapter on my Kindle with my purchase BEFORE the book comes out! Sweet!

    The book ships and bingo, the full book unlocks on my iPad, Kindle, Phone and an audio version of it starts to download so I can listen to it on my way to work.

    Now that's saturating your customer.

    Just a pipe dream, but as both a consumer and a writer, this is the space I want to play in.

    Just wait until I start talking about subscription models. then my hair really starts on fire! 🙂

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

      For that one purchase, multi-platform option to work, the price of the 'package' deal would have to be higher than the present price of an e-book or print book, because the desire to experience a story in different formats is a major money-spinner for publishers that they'll be unlikely to relinquish. Why sell a book once as a multi-platform package when you can sell it four times in different formats? So how do you think they would price that premium hardback which would 'unlock' on iPad, Kindle, phone and audio? What would you be prepared to pay for such an option?

      Personally, I think there are new formats, new ways of enriching the storytelling experience, that we haven't even invented yet. Hyperlinked books are one suggestion, but I agree with critics that it pulls you out of the story world to go to other formats to read character bios/background info/true facts, etc.

      What other ways of sharing stories can you think of, if books go digital?

      • Dustin - Reply

        March 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm

        I can see what you are saying here, but you have to realize that the consumer is already working in this manner and very comfortable with it.

        Buy a Disney DVD and get the digital version free, purchase a CD (remember those 🙂 ) and you can rip it and put it on your iPhone, in fact, it's encouraged. I don't think it's a matter of wanting to be there from writer's perspective, I think it could become a reality from a consumer perspective.

        I agree that audio is a stretch, but reading in the printed or digital space is relatively the same. Granted, the hardware changes, but the method of consumption is identical.

        Most of the costs and effort in book production, as far as I know, are put towards crafting/writing, edit, distribution, marketing (if there is any) layout, formatting, market research, etc… You can't tell me all of those costs recur as a publisher moves a book from traditional to digital. I just won't buy it and neither will the consumer.

        Cost wise, it is very complicated, but we need to look at other methods of tapping the reader or they will look to piracy. Trust me, I've personally suffered from this – big time. It hurts. IMO, pay the full hardback price and get hardback and digital FREE. That might help make hardback's relevant again (outside fringe collectors and super fans).

        Consumers expect free entertainment. Don't believe me, check out Facebook, iPhone and Android. they are all making a killing with the freemium model. How much do you pay for Twitter? Is that not entertainment? it sure eats time, time that readers had to pay for in the past. Depressing?

        It takes creativity to make a platform like this work, but if I know one thing, writers, agents, editors and marketing pros are creative people. Perhaps a subscription model is the best. We might look towards Nerflix or Hulu (the old cable TV model put to better use) or even the Redbox model. Wait, that's just a library where you pay the fines before you get the book :).

        Honestly, I don't know. I'm concerned and excited about it and willing to be as proactive as I can be. I'm sure there are holes all over this rambling point of mine, but it is sure an interesting topic.

      • Dustin again - Reply

        March 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm

        And… now ramble 2.

        What other ways of sharing stories can you think of, if books go digital?

        My dad was a music appreciation professor at a small college in Utah. The same college that I'm going to be teaching at in the fall. Tradition and all that jazz. I took his Music 101 class to fill a humanities requirement and whether he was my dad, or perhaps because he was, one thing he said stuck with me more than any single line I can remember from 8 years of college.

        You can't judge the quality of art without understanding the context and environment that it resides within. In particular, good music is music that's appropriate for the occasion. AC/DC during Church – not good. AC/DC prior to a NFL game – good. You can't judge AC/DC without context.

        Long way to say, with the proper match, interactive elements inline could be amazing, but in the wrong setting the will be a failure.

        Having to flick and twist on your iPad to preform Wingardium Leviosa (sp – sorry Rowling, JK reads this blog. Doesn't she?) could be amazing.

        An interactive map based on page location is something that I've prototyped with my current novel and I think it has a lot of potential.

        Unlocking content at the back of the book after you've read and answered trivia to give you more backgrounds, bios, rough drafts etc… could be cool, but I agree, inline they would be distracting. I'd skip them personally.

        There are a lot of examples out there, some great, some not.

        A question for you, Lia (or whoever). If you're writing MG or YA, what other devices do your readers own. Do they multi task? Do they repeat lines form books they love? Would they if it were as simple as highlighting a line on a Kindle and tossing into the twitterverse? Do you participate in the same media as your consumer? If not, should you?

        Okay, I'm dominating. Maybe I should work on a blog post of my own 🙂 Sorry Lia. I just can't help myself. You can see, I'm a bit passionate about this topic.

        Read history, dream about the future.

        • LiaKeyes - Reply

          March 9, 2011 at 2:19 pm

          Dustin, I love your passion and concern, and you've got some great ideas, too (an interactive map based on page location for a quest/fugitive novel – great idea).

          I wonder if there's a way to open up new levels of story, in much the same way that reaching a certain level in a game opens up new territories for players to explore, and side quests to follow, or new information about characters to discover.

          I hope you do continue the conversation on your own blog, too!

  • Dee White - Reply

    March 8, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    This is a great post, Lia.

    I totally agree. I see e-books as another opportunity not an obstacle.

    I don’t really know the answer to your question, but I have heard these concerns voiced particularly by parents. Browsing an e-book store is not that same as going into an actual bookshop and reading the blurb and some of the book to determine if it is suitable and will be of interest to your child.

    I’m interested to see what others think about this.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

      What's nice about e-books is that you can read a sample, and I think e-book sellers will get more creative about giving potential buyers a way to browse before purchasing.

      Personally, I'm a fan of buying both print and e-books. My favorite books, or ones I need to mark up and refer to constantly will be print versions, but the ones I feel I have to read but don't necessarily want to keep will be e-books. How do you make the decision about which format to buy?

  • Cheryl - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 2:32 am

    Great post LIa.
    You pose a great question which merits more than a quick response.
    i suspect much brainstorming and collaborating amongst the the book industry community required.
    I too see the future as bright, great opportunities ahead.
    Thanks LIa for a thoughtful and insightful post.

  • sherylgwyther - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Yes, an interesting subject to think about, Lia.
    I think it will be a case of the two, print and ebook. But like you, my concern lies more in the attitude of publishers in the future who may want to play safe….
    "The major houses have to watch the bottom line, and are therefore taking less and less risk with unconventional storytelling or smaller, more personal stories. They want “big” books. But that leaves the reading public intellectually and emotionally poorer."
    It is this threat of more and more humans becoming intellectually and emotionally poorer that leaves me most worried, especially in the world of children's books.
    Good post! thanks 🙂

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 10:01 am

      I do think that those stories that publishers are unwilling to gamble on will be independently published by their authors as e-books, but how do we find the good ones? And they won't be available to those who cannot afford e-readers.

      I wonder if the old classics, printed in paper, will be the only books children in third world countries can read, resulting in an intellectually more advanced third-world reader? I'm kidding, but only a little. A child raised on classics rather than vampire bestsellers is going to be consuming the intellectual equivalent of meat and veg instead of popcorn. How will that affect civilization in the future?

  • Mary Jo Hazard - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 6:03 am

    I like this post–quite thought provoking. Things are changing rapidly. Last week I bought books at 40% off at the Borders bookstore at the Peninsula Promenade–they're going out of business in that location.

    The same week I downloaded four books on my kindle–one of them the classic Jane Eyre (99cents).

    And I learned that my grandson (age 8) can download books from the Palos Verdes Library on his ipad without leaving his house. No fee and after three weeks they disappear from the device–no need to do anything.

    And at a book reading and signing for a brand new author, Michael David Lukas, at Peninsula Center Library attended by over 75 people–standing room only–I learned that his book was published nationally, internationally and as an e-book. His book "the Oracle of Stamboul" was published by Harper Collins.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Interesting info, Mary Jo. Yet print books will still be needed by children whose families cannot afford iPads and the like. It will be interesting to see what happens as the price of e-readers continues to fall, but we're still talking about a tiny percentage of the world's readers in developed countries. What will happen to literacy in third world cultures if publishers switch to an e-book model almost exclusively in the decades to come?

    • Christine London - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Great examples, Mary Jo. Unfortunately for we small publisher/e-pubbed it is still difficult to garner the attention the large print published (newbie) author can. For a new author to have 75 attending a signing is almost unheard of–certainly in the e-pubbed world, even when our books are available in print. It still requires the perceived image of New York press and their inroads into promo opportunites to make a splash.

      Christine London http://www.christinelondon.com

  • @DutchessAbroad - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Hi Lia,
    Thanks for sharing the jist of the thinktank session you attended.
    The thought that Publishers will create the printed collectors' items is hopeful.
    As Bill Gates is said to have told architect Rem Koolhaas and former Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs in a discussion about the future of books, "there will always be (printed) books."

    You state "But that leaves the reading public intellectually and emotionally poorer. How so?

    I imagine the role of the Small Press will become bigger. Already focused on the more unconventional and smaller and often personal stories Small Press and University Presses have their roles cut out for them.

    How can we make it easier for readers to find properly edited, quality e-reads? Small Press and Uni Press need to build trustworthy platforms and connect with educated reviewers.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 9:54 am

      Judith, if you put my comment back into context the meaning is clear. If publishers only publish 'big' books – high concept books or books with recognized names behind them – readers will have less variety to choose from, and that will leave them "intellectually and emotionally poorer", unless they can find the more quirky, quieter stories in the sea of independently published e-books.

      • @DutchessAbroad - Reply

        March 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm

        The context is clear. My answer remains the same. Bigger roles for smaller presses.

      • @DutchessAbroad - Reply

        March 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

        Also, on the same note, there's no need to underestimate the public/ audiences. They are on the Internet, looking for quality material. Don't you think more Online sites will become known as dependable sources for info about "smaller" e-books?

  • Christine London - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for shedding some light on this, Lea.

    Small press authors are not welcome in large brick and mortar and their authors have zero promotional help. It is a long unhill climb to be a solo entrepreneur all whilst trying to produce your next great read. No matter how astute and personable the author–one person can only do just so much. Recognition requires going 'viral'. (a largely illusive way of becoming an 'overnight' success. If anyone had figured how to make that boat sail, he'd be a gazillionaire)
    With internet and digital, the playing field has become saturated with new authors. The noise is deafening, disallowing few if any stand outs. It will indeed be fascinating to see how this brave new world takes shape, but in the meantime we with stellar reads languish in the sea of anonimity caused by the tsunami of authors the medium has allowed.
    Christine London http://www.christinelondon.com

  • Paul Greci - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Great post, Lia!!
    I'm not sure what kind of filter will exist for a reader who has a zillion e-books to chose from. I think motivated readers will find ways to educate themselves about what is out there and how to get their reading needs met–at least that's what I hope!

  • Elizabeth Varadan - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Great post, Lia. I think print books will continue to be the ones people keep to savor and mark up and display on shelves. But I'm getting more and more intrigued with the future of e-books. I can't answer your question re: sorting the good from the poorer for shoppers, but Iove the idea of "curators". My hunch is that e-book reviewers will pick up some of that.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm

      I'm thinking that if publishers really embrace the digital platform they can still fulfill the quality filter role that they've traditionally provided. Readers can find great e-books by searching the publishers' stable of authors online.

      However the chips fall, the next five to ten years are going to be fascinating.

  • Kevin Mowrer - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Hi Lia
    Wonderful post and clearly sparking a lot of good discussion and comment. I’d like to weigh in on this area as I’m also involved in helping to explore and shape some very new publishing formats as well as all the meta-story work I do. Though I can’t yet share the new formats, I think your comments about e-books and print books serving fundamentally different purposes is right on. I believe print books will not only remain for those who don’t have ways to download them but I also believe that the preciousness and archival/personal value of certain titles will still be quite powerful.

    Where e-books will shine is delivering content we aren’t interested in keeping once we’ve read it or for sampling and then up-selling to more e-content or to the precious book print object (opportunity for growth of higher quality bindings and presentations). These are such early days in this evolution that print books are in no immediate danger.

    I believe it’s certain that the business model will be quite different because the books themselves will expand to evolve into very different formats. What happens when you can buy a book a chapter at a time? What happens when you can turn left and buy side content? Who says a book has to always deliver a linear story path? Does “book” and “chapter” remain the measures for new formats when it’s no longer a physical object? Readers will be sampling these new ideas and voting with their dollars and companies will be listening and putting their development dollars where the audience directs them to spend them. We live in an age of democratization of innovation and the brass ring goes to those who try and listen and react.

    Everything I’ve ever done in any format of TV, film, book, toy, game, etc, the true connective tissue is how good the story is and if it’s built to have real meaning. Persistent content will only be made persistent by the audience as a result of great story, not the other way around. The thrilling part of all this is we are all creating in the midst of all these new possibilities. We can try things and learn what works and what doesn’t.

    I agree completely about the flood of e-books coming. There’s huge opportunity for key bloggers to get out in front of this and start becoming the centers for the search and conversation.

    Cheers, Kevin

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      Oh, you beast, you tease, you secret innovator, you! My mind is boggling at the possibilities for new publishing formats that you hint at here.

      I agree that "turn left and buy side content" is a likely path that is probably in development as we discuss this, and that non-linear storytelling, particularly of the "choose-your-own-adventure" type has some exciting possibilities, too.

      I am particularly concerned that, in an age when we're already experiencing a diminishing ability to focus due to excessive interruptions from all sides, books should not be broken up into small pieces, but should still offer a chance for a prolonged and immersive story experience. But maybe I'm being a dinosaur in that respect. When I have to consume a story chapter by chapter, in small bites, I forget details of what came before, and lose the story flow.

      I absolutely agree with you that the core story material is going to have to be that much stronger, and the characters will have to become even more well-developed until they feel like personal friends, in order for these new formats to work.

      I'd love to find a way to keep even an ADHD reader immersed for one to two hours at a time, in much the way that movies do. But perhaps without moving images that's asking too much?

      • Kevin Mowrer - Reply

        March 10, 2011 at 4:33 am

        Apologies for the hinting versus full disclosure. I'd love to be completely transparent like my story blog but there's others involved and investment to be respectful of.

        I too am concerned about keeping the unique immersive ability of books alive and well and growing not declining. I see a lot of early digital publishing that is starting to appear that is joyously exploring movement, interruption and more all under the concept of "book." For the most part, these "animated" books tend to be children's books or comic books/graphic novels (for now). In most cases, story continuity has been traded for activity, clever animations and pseudo-video "coolness." I think we can expect that many won't be entirely successful as an experience. Here again is a powerful and important role for the blogging community in exploring and critiquing these new formats as they emerge.

        Like most nascent forms, as formats emerge that learn how not to break the audience out of the story, yet offer expansion and alternatives to classic page turning linear storytelling, the audience will recognize that success and reward it with growth.

        This is not unlike early days in the video game industry where most of the game companies thought the world was all about "killer aps" and "addictive gameplay" (two phrases I really don't like because they reduce the audience to roller coaster riders). Only now are they discovering that the audience's sophistication has grown to the point where they actually need story…even good story, to be present to succeed.

        I actually believe that, over time, we will see a wonderful spectrum of newly enabled book abilities that run the gamut from classic printed books to books that do wonderfully expanded things after you decide to "close the cover", to books that are crossroads to many different experiences within the narrative.

        We live in an age where the audience truly decides what gets to grow and what doesn't. When we get the storytelling right and the experience right, those are the formats that will emerge.

        BTW – I actually don't think that characters have to be "more well developed" than any good book of today. Just like painters who find the media that fits them (oils, acrylic, digital, etc…) writers will find formats that are natural extensions of the way they tell stories and as such, each format will have its rock stars.

        Thanks again for the great discussion. You should be one of those bloggers wading into this brave new world!
        Cheers, Kevin

        • LiaKeyes - Reply

          March 10, 2011 at 10:03 am

          Of course you have to be discreet, Kevin. I was just indulging in a little levity.

          This period of experimentation feels more than a little nerve-wracking for authors, who are freelancers to a greater degree than the movie and game industries professionals. While we wait for the industry to find its feet it's hard to feel optimistic about our chances of riding the wave financially.

          How do you think bloggers like me can "wade into this brave new world"?

          • Kevin Mowrer -

            March 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

            indulge away… 🙂
            Even from my perspective of seeing so much of these changes a bit closer, it can be overwhelming and a lot like trying to dance in an earthquake.

            Bloggers like you Lia can get into this by hosting the discussion and then evolving that into a go-to source for filtered and critical evaluation of the coming flurry. Invite authors and publishers of e-books and new e-book formats to guest blog on your site (i'd actually set up a new site and start by making your already significant readership aware of the new focus and exploration there).

            I think the key to being a forefront blogger is always 1.)credibility, 2.)Authenticity, 3.) Simplicity and 4.)have a point of view

            Credibility comes from hosting the discussion and learning the subject (your audience will grow and learn it along with you because we're all new to this).

            Authenticity comes from developing your own knowledgable voice and following and moving beyond simply hosting the discussion.

            Simplicity is at the heart of doing any kind of reviews that are useable and insightful versus just making lists of observations. (observations are what we all see and insights are what you feel it means).

            A point of view is yours to develop as you decide who you want to speak to and what you want to say.

            Cheers, Kev

            You've got the skills girl!

          • LiaKeyes -

            March 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm

            I'm so thrilled you think so! Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

  • Heather Gammage - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    My apologies for "butting in" here, but this is a subject that intrigues me.

    My comment on this post comes more from a historian's viewpoint than a fiction writer's. I think that the future of e-publishing is exciting, bring it on…. with one caveat: the major weakness of any e-publishing method is that it's only as stable as its platform. I remember, as a child, my mother moving all of her tape-to-tape Beatles to a cassette, then later buying the LP, which you can now, of course, burn to CD or digitise. Those tape-to-tapes can no longer be played without the specific and now very rare equipment. What of all of that music that was never transformed?

    One of the reasons some people still point to the "Dark Ages" of 1000-odd years ago (rather than the Early Medieval Period as it is now referred to) is that for so many years it was commonly believed that, simply because there was almost no written material extant, the people were therefore backwards and illiterate. How much was lost simply because it remained simply an oral tradition? How much do we take for granted as "fact" because there was only 1 or 2 stories that survived because they were ubiquitous enough for the odds to work in their favour? My curiosity burns!

    I imagine what the e-franchises would look like in, say, 1000 years, should anything happen that renders e-only technologies unusable. So much talent, gone. All that is left of 21st century civilisation is a mythic form of sparkly vegetarian vampire that….. oh, gods.

    So, I hope that there is still a future in print, as well.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      March 9, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      I agree with you, Heather! That impermanence has me so worried. Especially as it is often long after a writer has died that people decide their work was born of a talent worth saving for posterity.

      By the way, there's no such thing as butting in on this site! I love to hear everyone's opinions and I'm pleased that you were moved enough to chip in and be heard.

  • sherylgwyther - Reply

    March 9, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Heather makes a very good point. Imagine a world where the only source of energy left is the sun – humans will have to be choosy about what they use their energy on (food, water, shelter, light etc).

    Reading ebooks (or whatever the latest gizmo is then) may only be for the elite, the super-wealthy.So imagine what it could be – little groups of humans gathered around a community fire-pit (to keep warm), telling stories, or reading aloud from a treasured hard-back, paper copy of 'Tale of Two Cities' or 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.'

  • claudine - Reply

    March 10, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Great discussion!

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