MIND MELD: The Future Of Publishing
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Ebooks and ereaders were hot items this past holiday season, but while this is seen as a good thing by many people there has also been a concomitant rise in piracy of the digital books. Going forward, publisher’s will have to find some way of dealing with a host of issues in an increasingly digital world. We asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
I should start by noting that trying to predict anything to do with technology 10 years into the future is fraught with peril. Had you asked me in 2001 to predict what the Internet would look like in 2011 I would probably have been pretty much spot on, but had you asked me in 1995 to predict what the Internet would be like in 2005 I would have been way off base. The state of the ebook market today reminds me rather of the state of the World Wide Web in 1995, or perhaps more like 1997. Things were just starting to take off. Those of us who had computer skills were starting to make heavy use of it, but standards were a complete muddle, software tools were practically non-existent, and if the man in the street had heard of the Internet he certainly didn’t use it. Oh my, how far we have come.
Ebooks will develop considerably over the next decade. We are already seeing Apple starting to introduce proprietary extensions to the epub standard, just as Microsoft tried to do with Internet Explorer and HTML. Color EInk devices are apparently just around the corner. New, cheap tablet devices are starting to pour into the stores. The major bookstore chains are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Where will all this lead?
My guess, and it can be only a guess, is that in 10 years time the publishing industry will be radically different, and much more like Hollywood. The vast majority of book sales will be of a small number of titles that are incredibly expensive to produce, and most of them will involve celebrities in some way or another. What people understand by a “book” will also be radically different. People will expect books to read themselves to you, and to have extensive video content. There will also be all sorts of “added value” options, by which the publishers will mean opportunities for you to spend more money. So having got to the point in the (ghost written) autobiography of the latest big name starlet where our heroine tearfully accepts her first Oscar, you will then be able to buy replicas of the outfit she wore, including the perfume, or a signed photo of her with the trophy, and you’ll be able to bet on her chances of another win with her latest film (inside secrets of the making of which will be revealed in the next volume of her life story, reserve your copy now!).
Naturally the media conglomerates will want to ensure they get revenue from these hugely expensive productions, but thanks to the collapse of net neutrality, at least in the USA but probably the rest of the developed world as well, access to these books will only be possible though the new, ultra-fast internet connections that are only available through the major TV/telecoms companies. Your portable devices will only connect via these services. The Internet will become like cable TV. Everything that you do there will be via major services such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, Fox, Disney and so on.
Where will this leave the fiction business? Well, novels will still be produced, of course, though the best sellers will mostly be (ghost) written by celebrities. Literature snobs like us will still be able to buy novels by actual authors, but it will be increasingly hard for anyone to make a living solely from writing them. Publication will be in the hands of small independents who will be forced to distribute through Amazon and Apple, on ever less favorable terms, because they can’t afford the fees to gain access to the new, corporate internet themselves.
Paper books will still exist, of course, but the high street bookstore chains will all have gone. Even Amazon will have stopped bothering to stock all that heavy, useless paper now that so few people want it. You will only be able to buy paper books on eBay or through dingy, back street independent retailers who will be very much like the second hand bookstores we used to know and love. People who shop at them will be regarded with the same bemusement that is currently reserved for folk who still buy vinyl records.
Meanwhile there will be a thriving market in amateur self-publishing. We’ll all have to do it through Facebook, because no one will be able to afford to have a personal website anymore, so the fiction we write will be full of annoying, animated ads for online games, and Facebook will own the copyright on our work, but huge numbers of people will publish there anyway, because they can, and because there is no alternative. The path to success will be to get sufficient Likes for your Facebook fiction that you’ll be able to bid to ghost-write a new celebrity novel.
Yeah, it is all pretty dystopian, but it could happen. So next time you hear someone discussing net neutrality on the news, don’t tune out, take an interest, because it is really, really important.
Things That Will Stay The Same
- There will still be book and magazine publishers of all sizes.
- Print editions of books and magazines will still exist.
- There will still be book collectors supporting small press limited editions.
- The small press will be taking the majority of the risks/trying new things.
- Piracy will exist. Music, movie and gaming efforts have failed to kill it. Publishing will be no different.
Things That Will Change
- Book contracts. The old model was based on regional distribution and limited print runs. Ebooks remove warehouse and distribution limitations that framed contract terms. What is “out of print” in a digital realm?
- Print magazines will see the bulk of their readership change to the electronic editions. You’ll also see a number of side eprojects that take advantage of old content, particularly from fiction magazines.
- Self-publishing will continue to expand and attract more established authors. (Great for back catalog, unusual or experimental projects, novellas, etc.)
- Traditional book & magazine distributors will suffer as sales shift to electronic editions. This is the weak link in the publishing business and could present problems down the line.
- Although currently prohibited by Amazon and others, I expect to see advertising creep into ebook editions, particularly magazines. Workarounds could be sponsored content or product placement.
- Publishers will take advantage of the medium instead of merely converting content (badly) to it. More art, embedded audio editions, video, extra stories, 3D, color design, etc. Size is no longer an issue. (Compares to the addition of extra tracks or video on music CDs, special features on DVD) This will start with textbooks and children’s literature, but quickly expand from there.
- Read instantly! This is already happening with DVDs. Expect the ebook to be free with the purchase of your print edition.
- Subscription models. Obviously important for magazines, but definitely a future for books. There are pockets of loyalty among readers and this will be capitalized on. (small press supporters, Oprah Book Club, etc.)
Around 1994, I was on a panel with Ian Ballantine and I asked him what he thought the future of electronic publishing would be. “It’s going to be wild,” he said. “Wilder than fast women and wild horses.” (Or maybe it was “fast horses and wild women.” )
Sixteen years later, I find myself wanting to answer your question the same way. Because really, no one knows what things are going to look like in ten years. Technology might change dramatically in ten years. Or possibly the situation in Congo might get so bad that minerals can no longer be mined there and the electronics market will seize up. There’s just no telling.
Sorry I can’t give you any better guesses or predictions.
I suspect that, in the end, the split will be around 60/40 in favor of print books, with trade paperbacks predominating and hardcovers increasing in price; they’ll be artfully made gift books more than anything else. Cheaper POD technology will allow for more and better independent publishers–think O/R Books, not SomePornRomancePublisher.com–to survive without investing a lot of money in inventory or ending up deep in debt to their distributor. I don’t see the print book going the way of the VHS tape or the CD, but ending up more like the movie theater versus the complex of TV/cable/Blockbuster/Netflix/DVD purchases.
Most ebooks will be read on something other than dedicated ereaders–nicer smartphones will be where regular readers will look at books during their commutes and whatnot. You’ll read on something you already own. In the end, I suspect the Kindle isn’t going to be the future, though people will remember that weird old device fondly as they download the Kindle app onto their phone. Amazon.com itself will likely have limited warehouse space and make its money selling its infrastructure and space to third-party sellers of any commodity that needs fulfillment and shipping–to a certain extent this is already occurring.
Piracy will always be with us, and in the end it’ll just be figured into the cost of doing business; ebook prices will come down to a more reasonable level and piracy will be a problem along the lines of shoplifting. Writers will be more likely to license World English rights rather than territorial rights for their books to make them more widely available to readers who pirate out of fannish desperation.
I also anticipate at least one of the major publishers crumbling back into its component imprints, which will actually be a good thing–indeed, it’ll be the thing that will allow ebooks to come down to the $3-5 price range. There’s a lot of whining about how print costs are only 10% of the cover price of a book, so ebooks prices can only sink so low, but the plain fact is that publisher overhead, specifically in the forms of Manhattan real estate and payouts to distributors with giant warehouses, are both utterly superfluous and easily eliminated. The major houses are pigs and some of them are going to die. We should gleefully bathe in their blood and fat! So as the 1980-1990s had conglomertization and buyouts, the 2010s will have fragmentations and the (re)creation of boutique and niche publishers. Most writers won’t notice much difference in their incomes, since writer income has always been low anyway. One issue will be rising above the ocean of bad writing that self-publishing will release, but the curator publisher/bookstore–again, O/R Books is instructive–will solve that problem for most dedicated readers. The casual reader can’t tell good from bad half the time, and the other half the time prefers the bad to the good anyway.
The chain stores are almost certainly toast, but the surviving independent stores will be able to compete as they always have–with a curatorial selection rather than an exhaustive one. If you live on the coasts or in a college town here in the US, you’ll have nice, clean bookstores to go to. If you don’t, you’ll have a kiosk in a shopping mall with a POD machine and some sort of instant download station.
It won’t be bad, unless you’re one of the few people making money right now with mindless hackwork. If you are the 2010s will be your decade to suffer as the rest of us have suffered these past thirty years.
There will still be books, some of them even printed on paper.
There will still be authors, some of them even making a living.
There will still be publishers, some of them even large conglomerates.
Fans will still debate the borders of various subgenres ad nauseum.
Despite what critics say, the biggest names will still be Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind, Brooks, Card, etc.
There will be a vast sea of drek (some of it incredibly popular) with a smaller number of truly magnificent works (some of it incredibly popular) and a wealth of “good stories well told.”
I’m not being flippant. eBooks don’t spell the death of publishing, though we are in a watershed moment. In ten years, eBooks will be the dominant form of book, and, of course, some books won’t even have print editions.
But it’s always been about the content, not the delivery mechanism.
We seem to have reached a tipping-point in terms of e-readers (so long the nichiest of niche products!) becoming popular, and on the publishing side, electronic rights have gone from being an afterthought to a sought-after commodity. Some big publishing houses seem to be quietly buying up electronic rights to the out-of-print backlists of various writers. There’s no question that e-books are going to be a big part of publishing in the future, and some editors I know think e-books are going to replace mass-market paperbacks as the “disposable fiction” format. That seems plausible to me.
I think there will continue to be a demand for books on paper (at least until everyone who grew up reading books on paper and considers that “natural” dies off), and there’s still the appeal of having the physical object on your shelf. We may see more books appearing as both fancy, relatively expensive limited editions — *beautiful* objects — and cheap e-book editions, and a lot of people will probably buy both, just as book collectors have shelf copies and reading copies of the same titles.
More authors will experiment with self-publishing, as the barrier to entry for doing so with e-books is comparatively low. Some will have success with that; lots of others won’t. Amazon.com and perhaps other purveyors of online books will increasingly attempt to take on the role of publishers, “curating” e-book collections. I don’t expect publishing as we know it to disappear, by any means, but the field is going to become crowded by self-publishing — some of it quite good — and weird hybrids, and new companies springing up to fill whatever inevitable gaps are left by the relatively slow-moving major publishers.
It will likely get harder for writers to make a living doing nothing but writing fiction… but most writers I know don’t make a living exclusively writing fiction anyway. We’ll have to explore new methods: direct appeals to readers, weird limited editions with interesting extras, patrons, corporate sponsorship, kickstarter fundraisers in lieu of novel advances — who knows.
Those are pretty cautious guesses, I know, but hey, science fiction writers are generally crap at predicting the future. (And I’m mostly a fantasy writer!) In ten years, the world could be unimaginably weird. I certainly hope it will be. But I’m sure I’ll still be reading books, even if they don’t look much like the books I grew up with.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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