The Future Of Publishing – The Book is Dead; Long Live the Book

Is the traditional publishing model dead?

I’ve touched on this topic before (for example,  Amazon becoming a publisher; Amazon really stepping up publication efforts; ebook growth; blogcasting), but three recent events bring it back to the forefront. First was a conversation with someone at a TCN panel talk I gave last week who had just self-published her own book, second was a conversation with a friend who had just published a book with a traditional publisher and third was an interesting piece just published by Matthew Ingram at GigaOM about the value of publishers.

At the panel last week I was discussing intellectual property issues in the start-up context, and one of the participants was focused on IP questions around a book she had just published. The questions were straight-forward, but what was interesting was that when asked who her publisher was, she said that she had self-published.

She had more than one offer from traditional publishers, she had chosen to self-publish instead. Why? Because she didn’t want to wait forever for the traditional publishing machine to get the book to market, and she didn’t want to give all the profits to the publisher.

The book was part of a consulting practice, and for her, that meant time is money. She could self-publish and begin getting the use out of her material immediately, or she could work with a traditional publisher and wait months and months for it to make it to market. Plus, even if it is only a few dollars, she liked the satisfaction of making money on each copy sold. What is fascinating about this is that while she would likely have picked up some incremental editorial polish or some extra marketing reach, to her, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. She can presumably only reach and deal with a finite number of people in her consulting practice anyway, and she was more eager to focus on growing the practice than on marketing a book to people outside of her realm.

The friend who went with a traditional publisher is an equally interesting story. He was approached by the publisher to do a very specific book. It was right in his wheelhouse in terms of his skills and knowledge, but it wasn’t necessarily a topic area he was looking to focus on at the moment. He figured it was worth doing the project, but it meant he had to write precisely the book he was commissioned to write, and not anything else. He was given a series of milestone deadlines for different sections of the book which made the project a bit more disruptive and stressful than an equally lengthy but entirely self-paced project would have been. And he had to negotiate compromises on things like cover art, copy-writer edits, and market positioning. All of this comes with the territory if you work with a traditional publisher, so no surprises there. But it is supposed to be worth it because of the marketing clout you get in return.

Except when it is not. In his case, the book was in a relatively new area for the publisher and they really didn’t know much about how to market the book. And because publishing has not exactly been a barnstormer of a business lately, it is not as if they had unlimited resources to experiment with. The net result was that my friend had to march to the beat of their drummer throughout the entire creative process, and then was responsible for figuring out and executing his own marketing plan himself. And for this they take the traditional hefty chunk of the revenues. Hmmm. Now they want him to do another project for them. Hmmmm.

The third thread was the GigaOM piece, What Purpose Do Book Publishers Serve. In it, Ingram looks at some points raised by Edan Lepucki in a piece entitled Reasons Not To Self-Publish In 2011-2102. The key points in favor of publishing according to Ingram and Lepucki are that:

  • Publishers recommendations still have value and can help a book rise above the noise;
  • Self-publishing means Amazon is in control – you have essentially swapped one corporate overlord for another;
  • The rejections and refinements which come as part of the traditional publishing process make for better work.

Good points, all, but are they enough to save the traditional publishing model?

Realistically, yes, probably for a little while, and especially in areas like non-formulaic fiction (e.g. literary fiction, poetry, literary biography, etc.) where the imprimatur of a big publisher will continue to add credibility and the clout of their marketing and distribution will add reach.

But over the long term, I see huge change as absolutely inevitable. Traditional publishing is based entirely on a premise that no longer applies. That premise was scarcity. When books cost a lot to edit and print and bind and distribute and stock, and they required a trip to the library or bookstore to discover, the editorial function was especially important, both as a gatekeeper of quality and the manager of scarce resources. Every book they published not only cost real resources, but those resources meant they could not do some other book as a consequence. So they tried always to focus on the projects of greatest merit (or in some cases, greatest commercial value), and the buyers of their work took their word for it, to a large extent, in buying what they offered. (As an aside, the same cost/scarcity model applied in the music industry – look how that worked out.)

Radically lower costs of production are one shift causing disruption to the old order, but the other equally important trend is new channels for discovery. We live in an increasingly socially-networked and crowd-sourced world. Great stuff has many new ways to be discovered. This is not just true for books; it is true in all different areas of creative endeavor – music, photography, journalism, film, and both fiction and non-fiction writing.

And when I talk about discovery, I am not just talking about the inane “like” button (which, for the record, I most emphatically do not like). Every day new ways of locating signal in the noise emerge. For such an incredibly dispersed and digital world, good old fashioned word of mouth (ok, new fangled word of mouth) is shockingly alive and well. I see business plans with regularity that are focused on new ways to crowd-source content and raise quality to the surface. In the writing genre alone I have seen at least a couple different plans focused on creating communities which give points for reading and rating others’ work, in order to allow yours to be read and rated in return. Over time, great stuff gets bubbled to the surface.

In today’s world the product review box and the comment box make everyone into, if not an editor, at least an arbiter. And the new systems such as the New York Times approach to allowing commenters to earn trust and build credibility over time add an even greater multiplier. These kinds of communities are essentially a meritocracy in charge of a meritocracy. The people judged best at recognizing quality are rewarded with increasing power to do so. If it sounds really similar to the Google page rank system which totally revolutionized web search, that’s because it is.

These systems are never perfect, especially when looked at as a snapshot in time, but when looked at as a movie over the long-haul, they always prove to be incredibly powerful. Not perfectly efficient, but incredibly powerful. And perhaps more importantly, they are incredibly comprehensive: to the people who say, without publishers, how will we ever find good stuff in all the noise, I say, what about all the good stuff that never saw the light of day under the old system?

But isn’t this, you ask, really just a digital recreation of the traditional editorial system already have? Under the old system, the better an editor/publisher is at her craft, the better the work she gets and the greater her clout over time. Yes, it is just a recreation…

Which brings me around full-circle to where I started. Is the old publishing model dead? It will die soon. But the one part that is of irreplaceable value will live on in a new form: I think we will see the emergence of a new class of super-star free-agent editors. Some of these super-editors will be old editors starting to take on new kinds of projects, but others will come from outside the publishing world and will build clout over time based on the skill they demonstrate in their area of focus. Once they have that clout, the fact that they have chosen to work on a project will bring great credibility to the project.

The super-editors won’t work in fancy brownstone buildings in New York City; they will work everywhere. They won’t look anything like the editors of the past, but they will do essentially the same work. And everything will be ok. Much of the old publishing infrastructure will be dismantled. But rest assured, we will still have lots of great books to read. And we will still have lots of crappy books not worth reading as well. The difference will be that we won’t have to truck them to a landfill or a shredding plant. Instead, we will just ignore them, then ultimately erase our copies of them. It’s a brave new digital world.

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  1. Jen Robinson says

    Interesting article, Christopher. Personally, I am very interested to see how it all plays out (and a bit nervous). As a reviewer (and gatekeeper of sorts in this process), I still really like having the publishers there to do the first round of screening for me. And I think that there’s more than editing that publishers do, at least for children’s books. Design, illustration, cover images, fact-checking — I think that all of these things contribute to overall quality, and any new system is going to have to account for them. Especially for picture books (which will hopefully be the last to be replaced by ebooks, if ever).

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