The Future of Reading

7 Jul

Isaac Asimov claimed science fiction was rooted in three ifs: if this goes on, if only and what if.  You can take almost any topic and conflict and by focusing those lenses come up with at least three stories. Mix it with the three attitudes towards drink glasses (half-full, half-empty and let’s buy another round) and you get nine variations on a theme.

So what about the future of reading? Or, more to the point, the future of writing/publishing/reading? Because the three are inextricably linked.

If This Goes On – Current trends with no game changers.

Last week the Random House and Penguin merger was finalized.  Penguin Random House is now the largest publisher of books in the world – accounting for about 25% of the print book market, which, world-wide, is still several times larger than the e-book market.  It’s hard to say what percentage of the e-book market they control (since Amazon and others are vague about actual numbers of electronic books sold) but it is significant and likely to grow.  The Big Six of traditional publishing is now the Big Five.  I expect there will be further mergers as the overshadowed Four seek to ‘rationalize’ their operations.  How do you feel about the Big Three? (A similar thing happened with car rentals – the many rental firms of the 90s have been reduced to three majors.  No-one noticed because they retained brand labels after the ownership change.)

A Marxist might suggest that this is the inevitability of monopoly capitalism and will lead to a revolution. A Darwinian, on the other hand, would argue it is survival of the fittest, or more subtly, the survival of the good enough.  Before their mass extinction, did dinosaurs become larger and less biologically diverse? Just asking.  A more classical economist might argue it is change in response to market forces. More bluntly, it is a response to the dominance of Amazon in book selling. Penguin Random House is bigger than them now; are you ready to rumble?

Meanwhile lurking in the weeds are the more agile and adaptive alternatives (small presses, self-publishers), or, if you prefer, the revolutionaries preparing to establish a new world order.

However, don’t count the big guys out.  Bertelsmann (who owned Random) made it through the Great Depression and survived – and prospered – during World War II and every change since. They expanded, they diversified, they seized onto new technologies. Big companies can fail – but it happens less often than you might think.  They are adaptable and, like all predators, they are ruthless.  Already you are seeing talk of new approaches to traditional publishing – including subscription services (E-Book of the Month Club!), dedicated e-book stores, and yes, self-publishing ventures.

Meanwhile, the growth of e-book sales will taper off (there are already signs that growth rates are dropping; they always do as markets mature). Physical book sales will rise and fall with the economy and will vary by local market. The evidence is mixed here but the general feeling is p-book sales have shown slow but steady growth and drops (as when Borders went under) were temporary.  Lots of people will self-publish either physically or digitally. Few of them will sell many books; fewer still will make any money.  In the real world, one writer who sells 500,000 books (and there are still lots of those) is more important than 1999 who sell 250.

However, the proliferation of small markets and the reduction of competition among big ones will have predictable economic effects.  The advances paid to writers will drop as will overall incomes. Some – those capable of being businessmen or women as well as artists – will diversify, adopting a mixed approach that incorporates big and small publishing with self-publishing and self-promotion. Many writers – good writers – will quit or never go into the business. Writers are economic creatures, too. Writing is hard and if the rewards diminish, they will find work/reward ratios that are more favorable. Some will miss it terribly; others will be relieved.

So twenty years from now: three or four big publishers, offering a mix of physical and digital books, plus a range of small to low-mid-size publishers (the middle class is always the first to go in a diminished and unequal market) and a large-number of self-publishers – many of whom, having learned the lesson that quality counts, will be purchasing their publishing services from whoever gives them the best editorial and marketing buck.  I suspect it won’t be Amazon.  The majority of books sold will be written by 50 (or maybe 500) writers, many with narrow but deep fan bases who will insist on more and more from their favorite writers.  There may be good opportunities for ghost writers.  Best sellers will dominate but will likely stay at the top for shorter and shorter periods of time.

If Only – some fundamental background shift, maybe in human nature.

In only people put their money where their mouth was.  Sweat shops in Bangladesh would be a thing of the past and Wal-Mart would be big box stores with no one in them.  Neighbourhoods would thrive and local businesses would survive.

We all say we encourage new writers, that we’re seeking new voices. We all say these things – yet we keep buying the same authors over and over again. I know lots of people who buy any book X produces, even if it’s not her best work.  Even if X is past his prime.  The only way Y and Z – fresh, powerful new writers – have a chance is if X blurbs the book or if a critic compares Y to a young X.   Amazon or Kobo algorithms?  Not really working yet.

But this is speculation. Let’s say readers become egalitarian in their selections, constantly seeking the new while eschewing the tried and true. It has happened before (during the 1920s, there was an amazing renaissance in American writing, sweeping away previous icons and replacing them with fresh, vibrant future icons). What would that look like?

It would be disastrous for traditional publishers. They succeed because of big numbers and traditional buying patterns. Big publishers are increasingly built around bestsellers.  Unless the total number of books sold ballooned enormously – there would be no more bestsellers.  The Big Five might shrink to the Big None.  Small publishers would do much better – with a dozen titles a year all selling two thousand copies, small publishers could generate enough cash to keep one or two people employed and the doors open. Some might even grow to mid-size.  There would be more of them. Self-publishers would likely do better too – at least for a book or two – just enough to keep them writing beyond their best before date. 

From a cultural and artistic point of view it would be wonderful. Hundreds of new voices every year – from every spectrum of society.  There would be fewer issues around discrimination based on gender or race. Old White men would be replaced by a rainbow collection of writers.

On the other hand, fewer and fewer people would be able to make a full-time living from writing. Certainly, no-one would get rich. No-one could count on having a long-term career (unless they constantly changed their name and biography – which some writers already have to do). The age of the one-hit wonder might return with a vengeance.

Twenty years forward: no big publishers but lots of small to medium sized ones. A constant churn of who’s hot and who’s forgot. A multitude of players on an egalitarian playing field. Few professional writers but lots of gifted amateurs. Little chance that a writer will get a chance to grow and become truly great.  And that would be a loss.

What if – one big change, scientific or technological, that re-writes the rules.

There have been tremendous changes in the production and distribution of books over the last twenty years. E-books were predicted long before they appeared (watch some early Star Trek episodes – everyone used e-readers); they appeared long before they became significant. Tools for marketing books have also changed. Book tours and mass advertising are largely gone for most writers – except for potential ‘superstars’ (Saturday’s Globe and Mail had a full-page ad for astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book but no other book ads, not even in the book section). Now everyone depends on social media – not merely web-sites but Facebook and Twitter. Some people do it well, other’s not so well. Niche events – SF Cons for science fiction writers; book festivals for literary fair – also play a role.

So what change could change it all? Well, the Singularity, of course. You know, where we all have our minds uploaded into computers and we can just absorb info directly or maybe live in entirely virtual worlds having adventures. Or AI’s become so powerful they wipe us all out. Yeah, either of those would pretty much finish the book business.

I’m going to suggest something a little less dramatic, two things actually – things already been tried without real. Localized Print on Demand. Effective Targeting of Readers through Big Data.

The biggest cost of getting books from writers to readers is not making books – neither printing nor e-book preparation is a huge part of the cost. The two major cost centres are on the creative side (the writer, editor and designer/artist) and on the distribution side (moving the books, selling the books, marketing the books).  The former can be squeezed and often is; the latter is more inflexible.  E-books compete in price with p-books because they are cheap to move and relatively cheap to sell (no warehousing or inventory costs).  Successful e-books – that is the big sellers – are not, for the most part sold for $1.99. The reason is simple, quality creation costs money, effective marketing cost money. E-books don’t compete (for many people) in quality of the reading experience or in the flexibility of product. I’ve yet to see a quality coffee table book or scientific textbook that doesn’t look like crap on an e-reader.

Localized POD would require a dramatic drop in the cost of the machines that do the printing.  The last I heard, they cost about $50,000, down considerably from a few years ago. But what if they could be dropped in price to the cost of a high-end commercial cappuccino maker ($5-8K)?  Bookstores could be a common as coffee bars.  Like coffee bars they would have some physical product to sell but most of their revenue would come from people ordering stuff from the machine – in either physical or digital format. No distribution cost and access to both types of readers.  Wow!  Meanwhile, improvements in identifying readers and connecting them to writers they REALLY would like, could be achieved through personalized messages through smart phones or other devices. It would require better metadata about individual books – maybe providing a while new job category for the book business: people who read books solely to create sophisticated metadata tags.

Twenty years later: an explosion of independent bookstores printing books on site while offering pre-printed books in a narrow range of interests. People would choose which ones they favored the way they pick favorite coffee shops or restaurants. There would be a role for all sized publishers though medium ones might be more adept than either big or small (less reliant on bestsellers than the former; better at metadata marketing than the latter).  Lots of writers exploring particular niches or building small but viable audiences. Self-publishing might begin to look a lot more like small publishing (maybe in the form of artist collectives) because of the need to utilize more sophisticated marketing than simply yelling “Buy My Book!” on Twitter.  Fewer really rich authors perhaps but more professional writers who can make a decent living without assuming the mantle of businessperson.

Any thoughts?

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6 Responses to “The Future of Reading”

  1. E. B. Klassen July 7, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    ” In the real world, one writer who sells 500,000 books (and there are still lots of those) is more important than 1999 who sell 250.”
    “The Long Tail” would suggest that those 250 books, sold reliably year after year, slowly being increased by other titles selling low numbers but reliably, are the bedrock on which publishing is built.

    • Bundoran Press July 8, 2013 at 12:53 am #

      I see your point — but the assumption of year after year is a big one. As well, no publisher even a small one can continue to pay writers whose books don’t sell. And as a writer, you can’t pay the rent on 250 books a year or even 2500.

    • Matt Moore July 10, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

      It would depend on the economics, but I don’t think the profit from 250 units would cover the initial fixed non-unit cost of paying the author, an editor and layout. Then there is the economy of scales for producing books. The per-unit price to print 250 copies would be higher than a few thousands, cutting into profits.

      It might work for ebooks, but one would need to produce *a lot* of ebooks to make a total profit from all of them to make it worthwhile, but then the currency is time in the day, not money.

  2. Mark A. Rayner July 8, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Great piece! In terms of advice for authors, one of the best things I’ve read was by Kathryn Rusch, who suggested an author keep trying traditional publishers, AND experiement with new forms. Who knows what will stick?

  3. Matt Moore July 11, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Another aspect here is DRM.

    In the wake of the Apple judgement, some critics have charged the collusion came about to break Amazon’s monopoly, but the “Big 6” *created* the monopoly by agreeing to DRM their ebooks.

    Small publishers have differing opinions on DRM, but it seems the more “indy” one gets, the less likely one is to DRM a book. A lot of self-published writers don’t use DRM because they would rather have someone stumble across a pirated version and perhaps buy another book then lockdown their products. (E.g., Cory Doctorow.)

    In the current multi-device world with NFC tap-to-share abilities, the market might reject traditional publishers’ locking down of content and opting for works that can be passed around in an instant… or DRM might stop being commonplace.

    • Bundoran Press July 11, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      Like most small publishers, I do have mixed feelings about DRM, though as a creator I’m fairly supportive. Having people read your work is nice — but having them pay for it is better and a lot more validating. “I only read your book because I got it for free,” is not the greatest compliment I can imagine.

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