Dark Times for the Book Publishing Business

 | June 16, 2009 7:08 pm

Darth Vader - iPhoneThe publishing industry is in trouble.  Sales of both books and newspapers are down, and even enormous powerhouses like the New York Times have found it necessary to address the once unthinkable.  While it would make a better story to have a villain who can be nobly engaged and defeated, the fall and demise of the publishing industry can overwhelmingly be attributed to one factor: technology.  Or more specifically, to the changes in behavior and habits that technology and the internet have brought with them.

It is, thus, ironic that many publishers are looking toward technology to solve their financial ills.  And they don’t lack for places to turn: online search schemes, electronically disseminated e-books, subscription based web-pages are but a few examples. However, Amazon is preparing what may might actually be a savior to the beleaguered industry, electronically delivered content on the iPhone and Kindle.

Yet, at the same time that iPhone and Kindle provide access to new markets for publishers to peddle their existing wares, they also bode poorly for the future of the publishing powerhouses.  The rise of the Kindle and the technology/distribution system it represents also holds the potential to irreversibly damage the relationship between publishers their most valuable asset: authors.

Here’s the problem, it’s very hard to make a living as a writer.  I know, I tried.  You have to be incredibly good at communicating and even better at self promotion.  To actually be successful requires that you rise above the competition, and there’s a lot of it.  Literally tens of thousands of people complete the “Great American Novel” each year, and any author who wants a break is competing with all of them.  The goal? Land a contract with a publishing house.  It’s their role as gatekeeper which has made traditional publishers the guardians of fame, fortune and success.

Electronic books in general, and Amazon in specific, have the potential to radically change this arrangement.  Sure, Amazon is providing new markets for established publishers, but they also open those same opportunities to new authors.  This creates an interesting conflict: in many ways, self-publishing through Amazon CreateSpace or alternative services like Scribd.com is a better deal than pursuing a traditional book contract.  Self-publishers control the intellectual property rights to their work and make more money per-sale.  Further, using Amazon’s services provides instant access to the eco-system and to the Kindle.  And other technologies: email, blogs, and social networks have eroded the value of marketing and other support services that publishers have traditionally provided.

This might be a good time to ask, “Is this a good outcome?”  After all, isn’t it better to have a larger selection and more new authors to choose from?  Diversity and competition favor consumers and readers.

But let’s be honest, diversity of content isn’t really a problem.  Whatever your interest, religion, or politics; you can find something to read which fills it.  Are you a raging, America hating radical?  Well, don’t worry, there are web-sites that have you covered.  Ditto for closet-philosophers, back-seat mathematicians, and basement engineers.

In fact, the internet has made it absurdly easy for anyone to become a celebrity and propagate ideas, even unintentionally.  Want to be a broadcaster?  All you need is a camcorder and an abundance of free time.  YouTube provides the rest.  But unfortunately, just because you can find something doesn’t mean that it is worth anything.  Writing is no different.

If publishing only served as a vehicle for content creation, then its death would hardly be a tragedy.  In many ways, it might even be desirable as Amazon and others are positioned to provide the same services more efficiently and cheaply.  But such a view overlooks another role that publishing houses have served: that of collaborative facilitator.  Contrary to some opinions, a good book is not solely the product of a single mind, but may include the input and advice of many.  So while some support services, like advertising and illustration may be available to self-publishers, the critical insights of experienced editors often are not; and they are essential.  Some of the most promising fiction squandered its potential because the author was given far too much creative freedom.

There is a secondary point that is also important to consider, while publishers have served as fastidious gatekeepers; once you have passed through their gate, it was possible to make a decent living.  That dynamic changes radically in the internet’s decentralized marketplace.  Instead of convincing one person of your worth, it is instead necessary to convince hundreds of thousands, if not millions.  So while the potential to earn more money is present, it is more difficult to actually do so.  Worse, every other self-published author is rigorously competing for the attention of the reading public, which further amplifies the noise.  And just because more options are present does not mean that people will spend more on books or spend more time reading.  Very few have had breakthrough successes through self-publishing, and those that have are not necessarily exemplars of literary quality.

So, what’s the net result?  Even fewer live the dream of the American novelist.  While they might make some money, it is unlikely any will be able to quit the day job to pursue writing full time.  In such a distributed market, no one ever really arrives.  Many people make a little bit of money, but no one makes a lot of money.  Those that are best served by Amazon’s publishing model already have an established and trusted brand.  A fantastic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting nothing.

This is a bad thing for writers and most especially for new authors.  The changes in the marketplace might even mean that writing evolves into a supplement of other careers, rather than a career in its own right.  Wouldn’t it be terrible if the William Shakespeare of the next generation were trapped in dead-end job with the fear that s/he would never be able to make a livelihood via her/his writing?  The destruction of the publishing business might mean just that.  More but not necessarily better, which means that dark times might await both publishers and authors.

Similar Posts:

No Responses to “Dark Times for the Book Publishing Business”