An American Editor

May 24, 2010

Viewing the Future of Publishing

Sometimes all the discussion that can be had about publishing’s future can be boiled down to a few minutes of video.

Although humorous, the video does illustrate the confused state of publishing. No one knows how to accommodate all  the different needs that each of the characters in the video represent.

What is clear, however, is that none of the pundits, none of the publishers, none of the technologists — no one — has a clear vision of tomorrow’s publishing landscape. Some commentators predict that ebooks will soon be 25% of all publishing; others predict it will soon be 50%. But those predictions are really unhelpful without a plan for maintaining publishing standards while moving to a more standardless medium.

Everyone says that publishers need to adapt and change. Easy enough to proclaim, but without firmer guidance as to what adaptation is needed, what changes to the industry must be accomplished, and how all the various competing interests  can be reconciled, the pronouncement is like spitting into the wind.

Before the ease of computer-to-Internet ebook publishing, the book market was inundated with new books, many of which could be classified as a waste of time, effort, money, and paper primarily because finding a particular book (without guidance to the book) was like finding a needle in a haystack of needles. Too many books were being published for any person to rummage through. Now the problem is compounded as the number of books brought to market has quadrupled with ebooks and the direct-from-computer-to-Internet model — and it will continue to grow, because with ebooks, there is no need for any book to go “out of print.” Now it is like looking for a sliver of a needle in a haystack of needles.

The one thing no one wants to hear is that the more books that are available, the fewer will be read and the less valuable books become. In the marketplace, it is scarcity that causes prices to rise, not abundance. It is true that marketplace forces have had little effect in list pricing of books before the Age of eBooks, but there was definitely an effect on actual selling pricing — at least until agency pricing. And it has been true that certain authors could lead a price increase that “trickled down” to books of all authors, but this required that the certain authors were authors of such repute that they were instant million sellers.

Alas, this is all changing under the new regime. As difficult as it was to find financial gems among 250,000 books published traditionally in 2009, imagine how much more difficult it will be to find those gems among 1 million plus books, especially as that 1 million grows to 2 million and more in the Age of eBooks.

With such increases in numbers of books available, the only way to get one’s needle to be seen in the haystack of needles will be price. Consequently, ebooks will lead the spiral of pricing downward. As that happens and as there is less money to divide among multiple parties, there will be lots of negative effects on the publishing industry:

  • a publisher who can only sell an ebook for $2.99 (or less) will be unwilling — if not unable — to spend money on production and marketing, thereby gradually eliminating the publisher’s role altogether, which will make a chaotic market even more chaotic
  • an author who has to sell his or her work for $2.99 (or less) has to rethink the whole artistic endeavor and has to consider 100% self-publishing as the only viable way to earn a return
  • such pricing and self-publishing will also put downward pressure on production quality, even more corners will be cut by necessity than are currently cut, leading to a downward trend in quality
  • readers will continue to exert a downward pressure on pricing because readers are, for the most part, author agnostic; that is, they are less interested in who the author is than in a story they enjoy, the consequence being that they will look for lower-priced ebooks to try
  • third-party book producers — the editors, the marketers, the printers, the designers, etc. — will struggle to keep afloat in a world that wants to pay less for fewer of their services, adding to the overall decline in quality

The future of publishing — once we get past the notion of quantity and instead focus on the notion of quality — as a structured enterprise appears bleak in the eBook Age. I, for one, have difficulty imagining a survivable structure focused on quality in the absence of an easing of pressure on pricing. Consequently, I am like the other pundits — I know that there has to be adaptation and change, but I can offer no guidance on how to accomplish either, not even for my role in the production process. Will historians of the future look at the 20th century as the epitome of publishing?

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