The Future of Publishing:

Take a Deep Breath – March 18, 2012

For everyone who’s a writer, or a reader, or just interested in the business of book creation, book publishing, and the Gutenberg legacy over the past 500 years: Take a deep breath.

The book business (or more correctly, the story business) is now changing even more rapidly than the record business (or more correctly, the song business) changed since the heyday of compact disks. But this time Apple and iTunes aren’t in the driver’s seat. The publishers aren’t either. Amazon, with 60% of the market for digital books, would seem to be, but looks are deceiving. We are all going over the falls, and no one knows how high the falls really are or how many rocks there are at the bottom.

Some people see this as a great loss, because they believe that the print-based publishers have functioned as gatekeepers, maintaining the quality of the books available to the marketplace.1 Without them, it’s said, more drivel and dreck will be published. This is the view that holds self-published ebooks as simply an extension of the “vanity press”: writers who can’t make it in the real world styling themselves as authors by printing their own books.

But these days many established authors—myself among them, being generous with that word “established”—have chosen to epublish our own books because it gives us (A) more freedom of expression, (B) a better royalty deal, and (C) a shorter lead time to market. The downsides are (D) no advance payment—the whole book has to be written “on spec,” and (E) we have to learn to do our own editing, book coding, cover art, and marketing—or find and pay professionals who will do these things for us. This is really nothing new: in the book market of the past decade or two, publishers have been spending precious little money on good, dynamic editing, and aside from the big-name authors with their prepaid book tours, most authors have always been responsible for marketing their own brand and their books.

It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that publishers have the built-in ability to find and reward quality books. A friend of mine, Pat Larkin,2 and I recently had a long discussion about this. Paper publishers aren’t actually looking for a beautifully written manuscript with a great and moving story. Their hearts don’t leap when they find a story that really works in clever, inventive language. Ours do. The hearts of readers do. But publishers look at the numbers and their hearts leap only when they see that a certain kind of book has sold in large numbers. Right now, it’s vampires and zombies. And there’s a lot of dreck and drivel in the pile of vampire books out there. Ten years ago it was teenage wizards with glasses.

If any new author ever managed to get a facetime interview with an agent—or, even more unlikely, an acquisitions editor—and presented a novel of literary fiction as a potential project, these representatives of the quality market would hem and haw, then ask if maybe one of the characters couldn’t be a vampire, or become a zombie? Just an idea … In science fiction, this answers the age-old question, “Why is there a dragon on the cover of my novel of space adventure?”

We are all going over the falls. Right now, with print book sales in steep decline, a lot of the publishers are sensing they will not make it. A lot of the agents who follow them like little fish after the sharks, are also running scared. Barnes & Noble looks at the bankruptcy of the Borders chain and shrieks in fright—and thanks God they had the sense to launch the Nook, and that it was, for a while, a nicer product than the Kindle. Even Amazon looks around and knows that sales figures are just a monthly thing. Yeah, two million books this month, but a year from now somebody else—maybe Google (Google! the search engine people, f'r gosh sake!)—might be eating Amazon’s lunch the way they ate up Waldenbooks and B. Dalton.

We are all going over the falls. Amazon would seem to have started it all by bringing out the Kindle and igniting ebooks. But really, ebooks were already out in the marketplace with the Sony reader and Gutenberg and other first-run experiments. The Kindle was just a way to insure against Amazon’s warehouse full of mail-order books becoming a warehouse full of inert paper sometime down the road. B&N’s Nook was a me-too play. Google wants to be everything to everybody and eventually become the last app standing. None of them knows where this thing will end.

I have a few ideas. Or rather, call them articles of faith.

First, there will always be print books, just as photography didn’t do away with oil paintings, and movies and television didn’t destroy the urge to see live actors in a stage play. But books will become treasured classics and gift items. Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press—fine printing of highly styled artifacts—will become the model for book publishing. It will be a small and financially impractical business, in the same way that staging a play is now a labor of love more than a commercial exercise.

Certain types of non-fiction, especially books with large-format graphics, will linger for a while, but they will eventually fade as the mixed-media capability of tablets and online links does away with the static book. For the compulsive readers of novels, mass market paperbacks will disappear first, then trade paperbacks, then first-run hardcover novels with a price tag above $20. I know this because readers want words and stories, not paper. And the economics of printing, inventorying, shipping, displaying, and remaindering wads of paper simply cannot stand up to the ereader with its always-open storefront, wireless delivery, and near-endless carrying capacity.

Second, all of the current schemes for cornering the ebook market—for example, Apple's iBook formatter, with its licensing clause making the formatted book the property of Apple, Inc., or the Kindle Selects sales prize, for which authors compete so long as they distribute exclusively through Amazon—are just that. Schemes, experiments, trials. Kindle is big this year, iPad has staying power, but who knows what will happen in another five or ten years? Unlike bricks and mortar and warehouses, these things can change with the next new idea in software or the next expansion in telecommunications (4G, 5G, gee-whiz!). That’s why I don't advocate authors (or readers) getting locked into one reading device and distribution system or another. The company behind that ereader can change the rules—the terms and conditions, the royalty percentages, the formatting requirements, the distribution method—or whatever they like in the space of one breath and the next. But, if the rules become something we as readers and authors don’t like, we’re all prepared to jump ship, change loyalties, and try something else.3 That’s why, with my ebooks, I’m specializing in a standardized format—HTML and epubs—with files and coding that I can understand, control, and eventually expand and change as the market changes.

Third, everybody gets banged up in going over the falls, but big boats do worse than little canoes, barrels, and free swimmers. Right now, the megapublishers are trying to fight the ebook wave by pricing their ebooks just a dollar or two under the print version. Readers hate that. Authors hate it because it hurts their sales in a medium which everyone senses is the wave of the future. Book publishers will fail in that. More authors are bailing on a scheme that gets them a 10% or 15% royalty on a price no one wants to pay, when they can get 35% or 70% on a much more reasonable price. No reader wants to pay $27 for just a couple of hours of entertainment. Ebooks are putting the price of a story, one way or another, back to the $3 to $5 per book that most of us long-time readers remember. That’s the new market price for a one-time, first-through read of a new author. By trying to stamp out ebooks with high pricing, the publishers are trying to swim upstream. We all know how well that works at Niagara or Iguaçu Falls.

Fourth, readers are going to get a lot closer to the authors they like. The days of the bestseller (a marketing phenomenon of the megacorporation book business) are going away. The market and its focus on genres will fragment. It will no longer be a herd of readers crazed for the latest marketing phenomenon, but readers finding and celebrating authors whom they really like. We’ve already seen the start of this with book clubs, who share ideas and find authors who might not be the latest media darlings but satisfy the likes of their members. Word of mouth and recommendation are still the strongest marketing. These readers like books with rich content and reader guides that are springboards for discussion.

In this environment, the author had better not be sitting in Connecticut and communing with the world only through the marketing department of a New York publisher. Facebook, online chat groups, and all the other social media put the author just a click away from his or her interested readers. Which means that if a reader has a question or a criticism, the author should hear it, reply, be courteous and—to an extent never dreamed of before—let readers participate to some extent in the writing process. We’re already seeing the start of that closeness with the few authors who have tried publishing a chapter at a time through social media and taking immediate feedback.4

The business models and marketplace shenanigans of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes really do not matter. Authors are—and have always been—their own franchise and their own brand. That’s what will stand the test of time in the reader’s mind as the whirl of distribution devices, cloud services, and schemes passes on down the road. Can I get a good read out of this author? Can he or she work the magic? Maybe, one day soon, readers will be getting the book as a hologram with a background selection of images and a mix tape soundtrack on a 3D device.5 But the reader still wants an author who can make people and stories come alive.

This whole business is going over the falls. We’re all going to get soaking wet and a bit battered. Some of us will not survive. … Take a deep breath.

1. See my blog The Future of Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle from August 28, 2011.

2. Patrick Larkin specializes in historical, military, and espionage thrillers. His novel The Tribune is the first of a series set in imperial Rome at the time of Christ, with a sequel now under way. He wrote two novels in Robert Ludlum’s bestselling Covert-One series, The Lazarus Vendetta and The Moscow Vector. And earlier he coauthored with Larry Bond five novels of military fiction, including Red Phoenix, Vortex, Cauldron, The Enemy Within, and Day of Wrath.

3. How many computers, cell phones, tablets, and ereaders have you owned in your life? I have come a long way over the years, from my first computer, an Apple II, to a CompuPro S-100 system, an IBM PC with DOS and then OS/2, then Windows, and now a Mac. I’ve had half a dozen different cell phones, now an iPhone. I read from both a Kindle and a Nook, think about getting the iPad but can still read everything just fine on my iPhone. I’m not bragging here but showing that we are all platform-independent and will churn with the market. The days of having the same Motorola radio or Philco television in the living room for twenty years are long gone.

4. Do you know how brave that is? When I write a book, I’m constantly revising, going front to back and back to front, as new ideas and twists in the story occur to me. In order to produce a chapter a week for a Dickens-like serialization in social media, I would want to have the complete novel finished and polished—this is my special form of OCD speaking—and then dole out the chapters over time. I have no trouble making the finished book available to a few select readers for a reality check, and then going back and dealing with their comments and questions as a whole, because a patch here always reveals a crack over there which needs fixing. But to serialize a novel on the fly, and then honestly take reader feedback on each chapter, would put the whole story constantly into play. It might be a better story in the end, but as comments ignite fixes and changes, I would have no way to ensure that the early chapters—with which the serial readers are already familiar—would have any relevance to the later chapters those readers would be receiving. Madness! … But an intriguing author problem … Hmmm.

5. I’ve already had a taste of this in selecting the pictures and music for my book trailer for The Children of Possibility. It was fun.