Sunday, January 24, 2010

8 1/2 Unanswered Questions about the Future of Publishing in the Digital Era

It's evident from what I have been posting here that like everyone in the book business I'm preoccupied by the changes that are happening so swiftly in it. I'm looking forward to attending the Digital Book World conference on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, where some of the smartest people in and around the industry will be speaking. In the last 12 to 18 months we've started to get some sense of how new technology is going to reshape publishing but the crystal ball remains extremely cloudy.

I thought on the eve of the conference I'd put down a list of what strike me as some of the most critical questions that will determine how publishing evolves in the years ahead--questions that I have as yet no good answer to. I'm hoping I may learn something at Digital Book World that will start to answer some of these--but I suspect it will be a year, or two, or five, before all the answers come into focus.

  1. How much will piracy damage the sales of books now that scanners and e-readers make it easy to share files? We know books are being widely pirated already, and we know it's going to become yet more widespread. We don't yet know whether the sales lost to piracy are going to be an annoyance or a crippling problem. 
  2. How badly will the ongoing collapse of traditional media affect publishers' ability to market their titles? As a serious nonfiction publisher I've seen the number of reviews my books get take a nosedive in the last two years, for the simple reason that book coverage in newspapers and magazines is disappearing. This has certainly affected sales. I firmly believe that blogs, viral  word of mouth, and other internet-based publicity is a great, and growing, medium for book marketing, but if your book got reviewed on a couple of dozen blogs, that wouldn't equal the readership of the Los Angeles Times Book Review or the Washington Post Book World, to name two major review sections that have recently closed.
  3. What prices will consumers be willing to pay for e-books? And how will that affect the price of printed books? Right now major publishers are desperate to resist rock-bottom pricing of e-books, fearing it will devalue printed books along with it. So what gets established as the fair price for an e-book is a key question. If Amazon is successful in making e-books very cheap, the business may evolve one way; if publishers can keep e-book prices closer to print books, it may evolve another way. There is of course a different strategy on e-book pricing from what the big houses are straining for: make'em dirt cheap. This viewpoint holds that we could all sell a lot more books if we charged a few dollars for a new book instead of $16 or $30. So my "half-question" on this list is, Can publishers sell a lot more books if they move the price point down to $4, or $3, or $2? Some enterprising publishers are certainly going to experiment in this direction. It will be interesting to see what happens?
  4. Will "enhanced" e-books ever be cost-effective enough to be viable? As I've said here, I have my doubts about this. But some publishers are pinning their hopes for supporting high e-book prices on the idea they can "enhance" them with videos and other additional content. (They should read Kassia Krozser's post about this notion, first, though.) 
  5. How long will it be before the line between book and magazine publishing is obliterated? I'm surprised I haven't seen more commentary on this point. In a digital marketplace, we're not tied to the constraints, or expectations, of publishing in book-length chunks. "Book" publishers have access to authors who can, and often do, write essays or stories or reportage that may be a few thousand words, instead of a few hundred pages, long. And we are no longer shackled by the incredibly long lead times involved in traditional, printed book marketing. Why not sell a short story, or topical article by one of your authors online, instead of taking 12 to 18 months to put it out in a book-length unit? By the same token, if you're the New Yorker or The Atlantic, why not take advantage of the eyeballs you already attract and sell readers a long-form work by one of your writers? We have already seen publishers making deals to ally themselves with news/magazine sites (such as Perseus and the Daily Beast). 
  6. Is general trade publishing obsolete? The perspicacious Mike Shatzkin sees a stark future for the book biz as we know it. He argues that in a world where anyone with a modem can "publish" material, performing that function will no longer make a viable business, and that for publishers to survive, they must become the home for communities interested in a particular subject--"verticals" to use his term. If he's right--and I fear he may be--venerable brands like Knopf, FSG, or Norton are all at risk, and it's imprints like and PoetrySpeaks, already aligned with core audiences, that will be the future of publishing. 
  7. Is the explosion of e-reading actually expanding reading? Jeff Bezos and others I call "e-vangelists" claim that it's so easy to sample and buy new books, and so convenient to read them, on the Kindle and other devices, that people who own these gadgets are reading more books than they ever did before. At least two people I know--including one of my Bloomsbury colleagues who already reads a heckuva lot--report it's true. They are reading more books since they got their Kindles than they did before. This could be  great news for the book business. Maybe e-books will lead to a renaissance of reading! If e-reading manages to grow the market rapidly in the next decade, perhaps that will counteract all the other trends I worry about here. I'm not ready to count these chickens quite yet, however.
  8. Are e-books going to kill retail bookstores? This to me is the $64,000 question--the one whose answer will determine the fate of large (and probably many small) publishers.  E-books are a tiny but rapidly growing share of the market. But even if they only become 10 or 20 percent of the market, that may be enough to make bricks & mortar bookstores unsustainable--a loss of that much business may be the difference between profitability and failure for many stores, possibly including the chains. And if bookstores go, billions of dollars in sales, and the book publishing industry as we know it, go with them. Even the expansion of reading contemplated in question 6 may not happen quickly enough to save big publishing if this happens. Mike Shatzkin's post "How to Handle a Smaller Print Book Business" is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the business, though he doesn't foresee quite the apocalyptic scenario that I'm worrying about. 
These certainly aren't the only questions that will determine how the book business unfolds over the next several years, but they're the ones that I have been overheating my cranium pondering. What are yours?


Thomas Taylor said...

I find the idea of seeing bookseller chains shrink very scary. It's one thing for novelists, whose books can be easily transferred to a digital format, but those of us who write and illustrate picture books still haven't been given much hope in the digital future of publishing. I can see illustrated books working well in theory, with moving images and sound effects, but I still don't see many parents snuggling down to read a bedtime story from a gadget, not least because children tend to break things.

Peter Ginna said...

Thomas, the idea of shrinking bookstore space alarms everyone in the business, not just picture book authors. Actually, my best guess is that retail will never go away. And I think picture books--from kids' titles to lavish photography books, may become an even more important part of the retail market precisely because no "gadget" can deliver beautiful images the way a book can.

Rita said...

Alas, the conversation omits the biggest concern; how is the author to be compensated? If books sell for $2-4 how is that paltry sum divided?

It isn't the media that is in question, it is who can afford to write books?

Other than those writing books to promote their brand/business, where is the incentive?

Does the new model prevent talented writers from writing simply because there is no ROI? Is the quest to write the Great American Novel to die a horrible e-death?

Peter Ginna said...

Rita: You're absolutely right. How authors get compensated is going to be a really big question in the years ahead--but I think it's one that we would have to deal with even independent of e-books, because the current industry model is already unworkable. That's why I left it off my list of questions about how *technology* is going to reshape publishing. However, I should have included it here because the other changes I'm talking about all play into the issue. I'll talk about this in another post.

Unknown said...

Let us consider making the other 1/2 question. "How do we make reading a more attractive lesiure time activity to potential readers?" Is the audience for books as large as it could be? Undoubtably no. It is publisher's responsibility to grow that audience not just by putting out great books but by working to change perception of books in the culture. Music and film fans drive hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars to attend music and film festivals. Do readers do the same for book festivals?

If there aren't enough readers out there, it is our problem as an industry to solve. And I promise you, that solution has little to do with pricing or reviews or the Apple Tablet. It has everything to do with forming a more direct, real, organic relationship between people and books.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should write books that no one else is interested in writing but a small number, say, thousands are interested in reading. That way we have a niche or monolopy on the content. Heavens knows, we're not in this for the money, so, perhaps we should rethink concept . . . which can always be sold on Kindle or in the chain bookstores. Aren't the brick and mortar stores going to be looking for new and different products to sell? Barnes & Noble just added gifts, games, and teacher education in their stores. Why wouldn't these stores be looking for someone with a local slant, for example, The Boston Vampire; local and national sales from this one title.

Peter Ginna said...

Weegee: I heartily agree that increasing the popularity of reading should be a major goal, not just of the publishing industry but of authors and, for that matter, our society in general. As with Rita's question--and as you rightly say--this challenge is not really about, nor solved by, technology (which, again, is my cop-out reason for not including it in the list above).

I believe the way we present books and reading to kids in school is a big part of the problem, but that's a subject for another post.

Anonymous, I'm not sure I understand everything you're suggesting but I agree retailers will have to be more inventive in order to thrive. The good indie bookstores already are.

Rita said...

The ultimate question, Peter, is where is the YouTube-equivalent for writers? We know the publishing landscape is changing drastically. Will we one day be able to market and promote our own work in the same way new musicians are discovered and promoted on YouTube? Let's hear it for putting authors in charge of their craft. The more middle-men we eliminate, the more money writers can make, the more books are written...The market will drive quality/quantity, not marketers and distributors. IMHO.

Anonymous said...


I suspect as vendors like amazon become more aggressive with their pricing author might be better off to go directly to amazon. If amazon could provide suggestions for editoral services that are reasonably priced, then a writer could go through the editing process and publish direct. This makes even more sense when the author expects little to no marketing effort by the publisher.

If the publisher is only offering 30% of an eBook versus 70% that amazon offers, the author gains more control. An author might opt to put a book out on amazon for $0 to get read, and then put out books at a reasonable price, the author might be better off.

This new environment provides a lot of opportunities and risks.

Crazy Cousin Eddie said...

it strikes me that books will go the same was as music. a few *huge* name authors selling lots. but a rich and vibrant community of authors who sell a more modest volume and have to run the "coffee house circuit" playing gigs and selling from their cases.

it sounds bleak, but there is a connectedness that people who read blogs feel with blog text. i believe that there must be a way to replicate that in person (with only a small bit of snark and sarcasm).

(i believe that digital books and music are different than digital movies due to file size. there are a variety of ramifications to this belief that i won't get into now. i say this to note that trying to make books bigger by adding multi-media aspects is interesting, but removes the import of the text and adds a production team.)

- cce

Unknown said...


Yes, well put. I don't want to begrudge publishers (or authors) sales to educational institutions. But the fallout seems to be kids leave school with the idea that reading is like eating spinach. It does not bode well for making them readers when they have the freewill of adulthood.

ellen9 said...

"Why not sell a short story, or topical article by one of your authors online, instead of taking 12 to 18 months to put it out in a book-length unit?"

Good question. As e-book retailers increasingly solicit relationships directly with authors, packagers, or even author reps (agencies) it's looking like a good idea to supplement book sales with sales of shorter, ancillary online pieces in between print book releases.

Authors do have a hard time making a living. While all this digital development is taking place, in the meantime it's not a bad model to make some extra bucks. Shorter online pieces sold directly to consumer thru Amazon or other digital retail outlets need to be created as samplers, articles, or works not covered by the option clause in an author's contract, and they need to avoid directly competing with previous titles. However, such shorter online pieces can whet readers' appetite for the next big release.

Also instructive to consider in terms of how iTunes makes a nice profit by selling shorter pieces -- singles -- at .99 rather than albums at $12.99, although the parallels between digital book and music sales models break down pretty quickly.

Just a minor aside in the great e-book debate, but a move we've been thinking about in this crazily shifting market.

Anonymous said...

I wish bookstores and Amazon would consider it a matter of ethics not to immediately sell a new book used. I mean, give the author a chance to sell a few books at fair market value before offering used ones. The author has to compete against herself from the start. No chance of the author getting royalties on a used book, especially when they go for 10c on the dollar and less.