Things To Come

15 Dec

Last night at the East Block Irregulars‘ Christmas party, I was blathering on about this and that, mostly about the future of publishing and writing and it was suggested that maybe a blog filled with predictions was the way to go. After all, I’ve been in the publishing for a year now; I must be an expert, right? And it is nearly year-end, when these things are done. So here goes:

On the Future of Publishing

The digital age is upon us. Three years ago, predictions abounded about the death of traditional publishing and the rise of the independent writer/publisher. At the time, e-book sales were growing by leaps and bounds; thousands or tens of thousands of titles were appearing every month. Print books were apparently in decline as sales dropped precipitously. Amazon and other easy publishing systems were welcoming hundreds of new writers every week, with promises of fame or fortune or both.

In 2013, e-book sales flattened out while print book sales began a weak recovery. Bricks and mortar bookstores continued to close – but new ones were opening so that the year finished (at least in the US) with a net gain in bookshops. The total is still far below the pre-Borders collapse numbers but it proved that the market for certain kinds of bookstores still exist.

Another big development over the last few years is consolidation of book publishing at the top – the merger of Penguin and Random House is huge and the ramifications have yet to be truly felt. The merged company will likely produce nearly one quarter of all books published in the world, which will include both print and electronic books. At the same time, the number of small and nano publishers has burgeoned – one or two person operations that produce 4 to 6 titles a year. Mid-sized publishers remain a significant factor but whether they will still be a force five years from now is an open question.

Everyone thinks technology has changed publishing; it hasn’t. The central elements of publishing remain good writing, good editing, product design and promotion. Technology has no impact on the first two elements whatsoever. Good writing is good writing whether done with a quill pen or on the latest tablet. Bad writing has, of course, been highly facilitated by technology but that is another story. Editing is much the same. Words, sentences, paragraphs and stories are the same whether rendered in ink or electrons. Technology reduces the work required for design but not the creative ability. Promotion has been affected a great deal by technology – it has made it more difficult. In the digital age, the most effective means of selling and promoting books – word of mouth and bookstore browsing – are diminished while their replacements – promotional tweets and bone-headed recommendation algorithms – become nothing but noise. (As an aside, I’ve noticed far fewer buy-my-book tweets and far more buy-his-book tweets, a kind of word of mouth which comes across as insincere for the most part.)

What technology has done is change bookselling. Amazon continues to grow – not only as a book seller but as the everything store – and now dominates the market. They will get bigger before they decline. Amazon literally is everywhere; ask the frustrated booksellers who find their expertise utilized simply so buyers can then shop on-line for less. If Karl Marx were a capitalist, Amazon would be the company he would own: after all, he predicted monopoly capitalism as the end result of market economics. Fortunately for us, it doesn’t have to be that way.

With that as prologue, here are my predictions for the next five years:

Just as the big six publishers have become the big five, there will be further mergers at the top. It may not be obvious – just as most people aren’t aware there are only three large car rental companies left – but I expect that we will have 3 or possibly 4 big publishers by the end of this decade if not sooner. They will retain different ‘houses’ but that shall be an illusion.

There will be fewer mid-sized publishers. There is logic to this. Being in the middle is a precarious place. The urge to grow is ever-present; the temptation to do so, abundant. A single breakthrough book or a couple of almost breakthroughs; and strategies change. People overreach and companies collapse. We’ve seen this several times already. Now a new danger lurks. Mega-publishers will be on a constant hunt for the next big thing – if they spot a potential star in the list of mid-sized publisher, they may be more inclined to buy the publisher than try to lure the writer away with a bigger contract. Fewer legal issues, instant access to backlist and audience, less competition on bookshelves. Some publishers may try to fight this by merging themselves but I doubt if they will have sufficient access to capital.

Small publishers will flourish – mostly publishing in niches. The model for small publishing will have to change and technology does provide a means to do this. Subscription lists for e-book deliveries have been tried and mostly failed but I think the model still has potential if refined and targeted better. One lesson we can take from blockbuster writers is that most people like what they like. While everyone denies it, most people have narrow tastes. While I read lots of science fiction, mysteries, a certain type of literary fiction and a limited range of non-fiction, the list of books for which I have no stomach or intellectual interest in is far vaster – and there is nothing anyone can say or do that will significantly change that. I’m not closed to new experiences – I discover new favorite authors all the time and read at least one or two ‘challenge’ books a year, but I don’t kid myself: I like what I like. (Another aside, I’ve stopped bothering with collections of the best SF and Fantasy – I wind up not reading more than half the stories.)

So, my prediction is that more and more publishers of books and on-line content will narrowcast what they publish – seeking a small but devoted audience, rather than a mass one. Print publishing is more challenging, but distribution companies will be more willing to take on small publishers as FEWER books are published and big publishers find it more and more economical to distribute their own books. Over the long term, print on demand technologies that can be localized – either to individual bookstores or centralized, but local, print depots – will substantially reduce distribution and book costs (less transportation, reduced warehousing, smaller self-space requirements in stores) and provide a way to get print books to those who want them. That may spell the death knell for distribution companies, a branch of traditional publishing that may go while the traditional publishers remain.

You may have noted the embedded prediction of fewer books. As there are fewer middle and large publishers and as they focus more and more on the big stars (already a major factor in book selling), fewer writers will be able to make any kind of a living writing full time. Many, with a plethora of marketable skills, will write less and devote their energies to a day job. Some will quit altogether. Fewer people will enter the field or remain in it for as long. People make economic as well as creative choices – it’s okay to survive on a modest income in order to feed your creative urges, but starving artists don’t actually produce much art. New writers will face a greater struggle as established writers – able to continue in the field or unwilling to leave it – take up more and more slots at the low end of the publishing world.

Over the last few years it seems everyone was writing a book – even while fewer people seemed to be reading them. There was, as they say, pent up demand – not necessarily for more books but ‘to be published.’ That demand has been filled. More and more people are leaving the field as they are able to say: Been there, done that. Others have become deeply disappointed to discover that most people don’t want to read their book. A few have discovered they are lousy writers (too few); others have realized there are more profitable ways to spend their money — or make it. So there will be fewer books written; though the ease of publishing them may mask that for a little while.

As for e-book only publishers – there will be fewer breakout authors and fewer people claiming to have sold a million self-published books. Quite apart from the smaller pool of writers and books, traditional publishers will grow ever more alert to success of indie writers and will snap them up at a much earlier stage of their career. In essence, they will listen closer to their outsourced slush-pile readers and take a chance on a potential superstar before their competitors beat them to it. With fewer success stories to drive them on, fewer writers will try to emulate them. Of course for readers, it will merely seem as if the tidal wave of books is only 10 meters high rather than 20. If you only read 50 books a year (and few of us read that many), it hardly matters if 100,000 or 1,000,000 get published.

For writers, the news is both good and bad as writing and publishing more and more resemble entertainment rather than a gentleperson’s occupation. In both Hollywood and pro-sports, fewer and fewer stars make more and more money while the minor leagues get smaller and smaller. A small number of writers will become incredibly rich – J.K. Rowling is a forerunner not an outlier – while many more will survive at the fringes or go away and do something else. Like everything in modern capitalism, it will be case of go big or stay home. Publishing will be dominated by the 1%; why should it be exempt?

The Summary

  • Fewer and bigger large publishers;
  • A squeeze on the mid-sized houses through competition and buyouts;
  • An increase in small niche publishers;
  • Fewer authors and fewer books;
  • A gradual decline in the attractiveness of e-books and indie publishing though it will still hold 30% of the market;
  • The triumph of monopoly capitalism in book publishing and book selling;
  • A significant shift in the way content is distributed – both physical and digital;
  • Lower incomes for most writers; great wealth for a few.

But Wait… There’s More

Seems pretty grim – but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Amazon will not rule the world. New mechanisms to reward creators will appear – technology does create ways for people to find an audience but so far social media and, even crowd-source funding, have not been effective in monetizing that connection. But let’s save all that good news until next week’s blog.

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