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?