This isn’t the easiest of series to wrap up. In part because of today’s schedule (I have meetings/class from 10am until 1pm, so god only knows when this post will actually go live), and in part because there are no real conclusions that can be drawn.
Well, except maybe one: Coming at it from a publishing diversity standpoint, the U.S. book scene is totally broke.
I know some people appreciate the stacks of books fronting every B&N in the country, but not everyone. And I find it hard to believe that the endgame results of this are worthwhile. Namely, the fact that everyone in the country is reading the same dozen books at the same time, and that the vast majority of writers are “mid-list,” struggling to make ends meet, stealing away time to work on their art. (Granted, there is something romantic about the starving artist doing what he/she is doing out of love of literature, but thanks to MFA programs, it seems to me that young writers aren’t looking to create the next literary trend, but find a way to create something as entertaining at TV that can land them a two-book deal.)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main goals of the Study Trip was to explore ideas for new publishing business models. And with good reason. Over the past four days, I hope that it’s become clear that if we continue down the path that we’re currently on (increased readership for eBooks, which have a max price of $10, which are sold in a handful of different proprietary formats, accelerated price wars for print books, more corporate consolidation in response to duplicated overhead costs, shareholder pressure to achieve 15% profit margins, a globalized book market in which America sells its wares everywhere and only the elite of the select of the few get their books translated and published here, advances that are totally insane for totally crappy books like Sarah Palin’s “memoir,” etc.), I believe that corporate publishing will continue to downsize for years to come in order to get out from under their top-heavy operating costs, and the American literary world will continue—thanks to market pressures and MBA grads—to shift from books as cultural item to books as commercial product. We are essentially bankrupting ourselves of art and ideas in search of profits.
(OK, I’ll temper that grandstanding statement: great books are still being published and purchased. And they always will be. That said, you have to admit that things are trending a certain way. For every Bolano, there are a billion “365 Days of Walking My Dog” type books. That wall off the real literature. And that sucks.)
But the thing about eBooks (which I tried to articulate in another multi-part, overly written—though much funnier—essay that I wrote for the Reykjavik International Book Fair) and any other techno-social developments that shake the foundations of the existing power structure, is that these paradigm shifts open up as many possibilities as they destroy. EBooks make things possible that were never possible before. And for all my love of heavy paperbacks, door-stopping, bag strap breaking, paperback, I can still look at the eBook model, at the way a book I want to publish can suddenly be in the hands of every cellphone user in the world, and get really excited.
I have no idea what the future might bring. What publishing might look like in a decade. What device will win out. What format. What business model. But caveats aside, I feel like the only way to really end this series of posts is to speculate wildly. Most of this stuff is probably pie-in-the-sky, Cubs actually win a World Series, sort of stuff, but well . . . actually, I’m lying: my predictions are more likely than that ever happening. (Sorry Cubs fans! Next year!)
So, in no particular order, here are some concluding statements/thoughts:
This sort of mirrors what happened with digital music and the widespread adoption of the mp3 format. Right now, we have a fragmented eBook landscape overloaded with proprietary formats and a ton of potential eBook readers (like myself) who are holding out for a cool reader that isn’t tied to a particular retailer. I don’t want to duplicate my love-hate relationship with
Cingular AT&T when it comes to EBooks. And in addition to blaming eretailers for their file formats, publishers should unite and push for the epub format, for mostly selling eBooks that will work on the Nook, the Kindle, the Sony device. It’s only a matter of time before Google’s love for open source mixed with their tremendous library blows apart all the other formats—in part through a rise in piracy.
It goes without saying that I’m very anti-DRM. I understand why some publishers want to try and find a way to retain this despite the fact that it failed so miserably for the music industry. Especially when 80%+ of their eBook sales revenue is related to a particular author or small set of bestsellers. If those books were unprotected and rampantly pirated in a way that cannibalized print book sales, then the revenue from e-books would be atrociously low.
But I want to take an even more radical position: looking at this from a long-term perspective, I think piracy would be good for eBooks. Not just in the “content deserves to be free, wouldn’t it be great if people were stealing Open Letter books” way. In the way that piracy generates usage, generates interest, gets more people reading more eBooks. And pirates don’t steal everything. This isn’t a on-off sort of game. They might steal some books, but some others, share even more. Regardless, a rise in pirated eBooks will positively correspond to a rise in eBook sales.
This sort of pro-piracy thing doesn’t go over so well with corporate publishers. They want to protect content. Monetize it. Give out small samples, but never the full book. Going back to an earlier MBA class I took, it’s a pretty commonly held assumption that big companies can’t innovate. They can tweak products, alter distribution methods, make small advances. But radical game-changing advancements come from the little guys. (And Apple.)
Admittedly, coming up with a model for how to successfully publish eBooks (even literary eBooks) isn’t necessarily as revolutionary as other twentieth century advances, but in terms of the overall possibility of making this happen, it’s much easier to envision a smaller, savvier, more nimble indie press with low overhead coming up with a way to cover costs and make money on a mix of sales of $10 ebooks and some printed copies.
I think big publishing will transition, and will get there eventually, but it’ll be a difficult, painful process involving some downsizing, some painful decisions, and a revamping of the company’s focus and infrastructure.
In the meantime, their hold on the industry’s distribution chain will probably loosen. Thanks to Amazon.com, indie presses are already able to reach far more readers than they would if they had to rely solely on bricks-and-mortar stores. Which is—despite any objections one might have to Amazon.com’s perceived business practices—a very good thing. More books available to more people is always a plus. And this will only increase with the rise of eBooks.
And as a result, I think more indie and nonprofit presses will pop up. We’ll start seeing more support from individuals and foundations going to literary publishing houses who are able to better explain their role in today’s book culture. There will be a micropress revolution similar to what’s happened in Argentina.
This isn’t to say that Penguin or Random or Harper will go away, but that the publishing landscape will contain many more top-notch indie presses that can more or less compete with the corporations in terms of recognition, respect, and editorial value.
What happens to a publisher in this era though? I believe their brand and editorial vision will become more and more crucial. As will the ability to market. We already know that marketing has been undergoing a pretty intense evolution from a time when you could rely on newspaper reviews to sell a lot of copies to a time of BzzAgents and proliferating bloggers. This shift will be exacerbated as the industry becomes more and more digital. And more and more concentrated.
Marketing will become more closely tied with a press’s “brand,” which will be a function of their editorial vision. Presses with a tight, carefully curated list will connect with a more avid fanbase (one that can help with word-of-mouth), than will presses with a very diffuse, unfocused list. I wouldn’t be surprised if corporate publishers end up reinventing a lot of imprints in order to more easily give a shape and a reputation to a particular set of books.
Personally, I think this would be a good thing. I know people complain about what’s happened to the record industry, but from an aesthetic perspective, I don’t see any problems. There’s just as much good music available today as there was ten years ago. I’d even be willing to argue that the destruction of the corporate behemoths and the way digital opened up space for more unique, diverse voices (and made it easier to discover these bands) has actually improved the quality of music being made. So maybe the downfall of the giants is actually a good thing . . . (Although Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s—er, in French, MAC Sweeney’s—was quick to point out that big publishers are doing much better, much more relevant work than the big record labels were doing. Which is totally true and sort of cocks up my theory.)
No one really takes self-publishing all that seriously. (OK, not “no one.” But not many people I know.) Unless a book has been selected and edited by a particular publishers, and is printed with a legit logo on its spine, it’s all just fun and games. So the idea of authors self-producing eBooks and selling them directly to readers, thus bypassing publishers completely is a bit far-fetched. (Like Cubs, World Series, I know, I know, dead horse, flogging.) That said, for some writers, this will become a reasonable option. Those authors who have very popular blogs, who have developed a loyal fan base willing to shell out $10 (or less) to directly purchase a writer’s book . . . In the end, this could financially work out, especially assuming these author’s will have the same ability as Random to make their eBooks available to any and everyone with an e-reader or a cell phone. For some this will be appealing . . .
Others will start looking at publishers a bit differently. Sure, the biggest advance will frequently win the book, but in evaluating presses, the editorial brand and the press’s digital marketing savvy will definitely come into play. Authors will be able to look at presses in a slightly different way than they do right now, when publishers still hold most of the power and are the only real option to getting your work in front of readers.
I think that a publisher’s brand and editorial vision will help to attract a certain quality of author—even more so than it does now. That as a result, editors will become a bit more publicly recognized. Not that the man on the street will necessarily know who these people are, but that publishers will start promoting their editors as key players in the process of producing quality books. Almost like movie producers. Or something. (Analogies are escaping me . . . it’s been a long day.) Main point is that publishers will see value in their editorial staff, not just in an internal, yes we need good editors way, but as something they can leverage to increase awareness of their product and attract quality authors.
Not sure what else to say here, but unless we institute a fixed book price law (which I would fully support and I’m sure is somewhere on Obama’s list of things to do), it’s going to become more and more difficult for individual bookstores to survive. They will have to adapt as well, becoming something other than a strict retail establishment. There is a space here for a nonprofit model to come into existence, and for local literary centers to take hold. But I’ll leave that for another set of posts . . .
In the end, books will still be written, and a small, devoted group of people will still read them. In some form. Someones will make money on the exchange between artist and consumer and the world will keep spinning. Who knows what things will look like in ten years. It’s an interesting time . . . And a great time to visit Paris.
Thanks again to everyone involved in making last week’s trip possible—it was amazing, intellectually stimulating, and a lot of fun.
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