The Future of the Publishing Business

Going into the long July 4th weekend when nobody reads blogs, I thought it would be a good time to explore the future of the publishing business. I'm putting the stress on business here, the technology is more stable than we give it credit for. Most publishers still earn most of their income as value added resellers of paper, glue and ink. Some make a half-hearted effort to keep the thread industry going as well, but glue is here to stay. Toner is making small inroads, both liquid and powder, and the line between print-on-demand and digital offset will continue to blur. The Internet is the only potential displacement technology for printed books, but it will take generational change and wholesale adoption of online educational materials in the primary education system to move the needle.

So what do I see as the main challenge to this $20 billion plus industry in the U.S.? It depends in part on what segment of the publishing business we're looking at. The trades suffer from an overdependence on bestsellers. Can anybody imagine Scholastic without Harry Potter? The trade publishers increasingly remind me of the Hollywood studios, not only dependent on bestselling fiction but on the starification of the authors who write it. Star power is easier to market than quality writing, and while that's always been the case, it's a bad policy to be embracing on the way into an economic downturn. As money gets tighter, there's a tendency in business to concentrate on what works, or at least, on the last thing that seemed to be working when the axe fell. On the bright side, people like escapist fiction when times get tough.

The future for non-fiction trade books is somewhat grimmer than the future for the fiction arm of publishing. The Internet does have an impact on information and how-to books, which make up the lion’s share of the non-fiction business, and that impact will only grow as anything with a screen and a keypad gets wired to the web. Unfortunately for the larger trades who depend on publishing hundreds or thousands of such titles a year, absolute sales number will probably begin to fall in the near future. What will be interesting is to see if the quality rebounds. Publishers have become increasingly sophisticated in rushing out books to compete with titles that are selling strongly in the stores, but it forces them to acquire books in a hurry in areas where they may lack the expertise to evaluate the manuscript or the potential author. A lot of garbage gets published this way, and the book buying public, which has counted on the large trades to serve as gatekeepers to expertise, is becoming increasingly jaded.

Just a couple weeks ago I paid $24.95 for a new paperback from a publisher I'd trusted, only to give it away the same day. I only managed to read a few pages from the introduction and a paragraph here and there, certainly less than 24.95 minutes all told. I'd been snookered by a cash-in title, a book rushed out by a publisher and an author to profit from a new trend in business. I won't buy another book from either. Yet, I understand the desire of both that publisher and that author to produce a title in a segment with limited competition and proven demand. The problem is that the publisher didn't look far enough to find the right author for the job, and they lacked the experience in the field to recognize that the author was producing a few hundred pages of filler.

As the Internet impacts the non-fiction trades in a negative way, it will probably help the non-traditional presses and self publishers who don't labor under the economies-of-scale pressure to crank out titles they aren't qualified to publish. The quality titles in any particular genre should get a leg-up from the wisdom of the crowd, provided the crowd isn't rigged by unethical marketing techniques. Community based review mechanisms are subject to abuse by highly focused campaigns because out of the tens of thousands of individuals who may be part of a given community, only a small fraction will be active participants.

Not surprisingly, I like the looks of the road I'm traveling at the moment, a combination of Internet publishing and print-on-demand self publishing. What's more, when I go out searching for information on the Internet, I encounter plenty of other authors, both trade published and unpublished, doing the same. While there is no gatekeeping on the Internet to speak of, there's also no cost to investigate a few sites on a subject to find the one you trust. It does depend greatly on Google, and to a lesser extent the other search engines, to maintain the quality of their search results at the highest level possible. Fortunately, providing quality results is their business, and as long as it remains their business, there will be a terrific opportunity for small publishers to compete with the big guys in their area of expertise.

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