FutureText Part Two – Publishers, Authors and the changing book

Eoin Purcell

*UPDATED TO REPAIR LINKS: NOTE TO SELF: VOODOO PAD HAS SOME LIMITS*
From Consciousness to publishers survival
Yesterday I wrote about consciousness and how the “new” consciousness we see rising is an illusion in my view. It was all kicked off by this article and so it makes sense to go back to the elements in there that I really agree with . For instance:

I foresee a time coming soon when the main edition of most books will be the download, and bookshops will then be the equivalent of vinyl record shops. New and exciting writing, the stuff that changes the world, will be published via the internet. Will the young share their reading matter as today they share music and films?

A book is a book is a book
So lets look at that. Some time ago I wrote a three part series on the future of books. In A book is a book is a book I wrote:

If an e-reader appears that quickly changes the market and shifts content online and into digital form as rapidly as music sales have shifted, traditional publishers will be faced with enormous difficulties. Their print runs will need to slide, their high costs need to be removed and eventually some books will simply no longer be printed in books and will remain exclusively as eBooks.

Which of course is no major deal. Why on earth should publishers worry? Does it really matter if a book is sold as a paper product, as an audio CD, as a downloadable eBook or as part of a subscription based updatable online book, or indeed some combination of these?

And I still believe that. Publishers should be platform neutral and content orientated. We should be book publishers, website publishers, subscription sellers and database managers. we should nugget-ise and sell content as granularly as we can in as many formats and for as many platforms as we can.

What about the authors
Nothing in that presents a problem for our current discussion but it does mean that publishers and authors need to change and Mark hits that point quite nicely here:

For a commissioning editor, the pressing question is this: when most books are sold on the net as downloads, how will this change their content?

But Mark thinks that this will spell the end of the Novel. I’m not so sure about that, as I said yesterday. But, as I wrote in the second part of the series I mentioned above, the move towards digital liberates writers and will definitely lead to changes:

we now operate in a world where sales do not have to be of the traditional type (bricks and mortar stores). Authors can sell books themselves on Amazon or EBay or Lulu.com or in fact their own website if they like. They can use POD and self publishing just like Skint Writer is and capture the best part of the value that traditionally went to a publisher. Or you can post it to a blog and build audience like Lee on Mortal Ghost is here.

What’s more you can package your content in any variety of ways. Make a podcast or your poetry and push it on iTunes. Act out your play and upload it to YouTube or your preferred location. It is easy to do it all now and to do it well. Maybe the cost of a decent designer or video editor will take a summer to save for or a winter of being cold avoiding buying new jumpers but the costs are so achievable it is exceptional.

The point is that publishing is no longer just about books and even more it is no longer about waiting for a publisher to decide your work is good enough for print. Options abound and as more and more writers realise that they will take advantage of it.

That could be very important and it brings to mind something Blathnaid Healy wrote in an as yet unpublished piece on music and patrons:

Internet digital downloads reduces the role of the record companies who have essentially become the modern-day ‘patrons’ of music.

Music like other arts, because of the cost to produce it, has always needed a backer or a patron. For years record companies have fronted the cash for bands to record and distribute their music and for this patronage bands have surrendered some artistic control. But all that is changing because of readily available recording software and distribution platforms on the Internet.

If major bands like Radiohead continue to release full-length digital copies of their albums online we can predict the effect it might have on the record companies, but what about the music. Will it change?

In high art or ‘classical’ music when the role of the patron was reduced it had a big impact on the type of music being created: structure, melody and rhythm were all experimented with.

Authors and publishers will change
So where will it all go? We know I disagree with Mark’s vision:

The great new literary form that will replace the novel will, I believe, arise on the net and will take on its wild frontier spirit, its intellectual risk-taking, its two fingers at academic control-freakery. But it will also help forge a new form of consciousness in a much more fundamental way that has to do with the form of the internet.

Because we are all plugging ourselves into one great electronic mind, we will gradually lose the sense of each being shut off in a private mental space, as esoteric philosophy has long predicted. Our mental space will be out there and, as with Facebook, everyone else will have access to it. I don’t know what this new literary form will be, but I suspect it will be co-operative and as slinkily responsive to whoever is looking at it as Schroedinger’s cat. I can’t wait.

Is there another option? The Editor’s Corner at the Book Depository (always on the ball), Mark Thwaite points us at Martyn Daniels’ post about the future of books on the Bookseller Association blog that talks about where the industry is going:

The paper book will not disappear but the current economic publishing model and value chain will change. The only certainty is that there will still be authors and there still will be readers but everything in between is up for grabs.

I think Martyn is right
Everything is up for grabs. Our consciousness is not changing like Mark suggests but there is something big happening publishers have no god given right to survive.

I kinda hope we do though because I really love what I do!
Eoin

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8 comments

  1. Hi Eoin,

    I was a bit confused by the above for a moment as I thought the Mark no.1 you were quoting was me — and I was disagreeing with me!

    But it isn’t me, so that’s all right then!

    Your links don’t seem to be working I’m afraid, so I can’t refer to the original article that you are having your beef with, but I do agree with your “Publishers should be platform neutral and content orientated.”

    Well, I *mostly* agree with it!

    I still think that the wonderful technology of the codex book is hard to beat. An ordinary book is just about perfect at being a book.

    And increasingly I think that ebook technology will be fed back into laptop technology, so that we’ll soon have e-ink, super-readable, fold-up laptops that have wonderful capacity to hold books — and you can choose to download them (by contract?) from a provider like Amazon or a particular publisher or you can download them from lots of other places too. This digital content will, for a good while yet, go hand in hand with the continued production of the codex…

    But, doubtless, this future-gazing of ours is vital for everyone in the Book Industry, and indeed for many readers: we need to keep our eyes open.

  2. I also doubt that our consciousness is changing, and the Great Electronic Mind seems more a myth than anything else – possibly even a myth with religious underpinnings (and pinings).

    The one thing I’ve learned with my own version of online publishing is that marketing is still nearly everything.

  3. Mark,

    Thanks for the heads up on the links. They are all gone wonky! Must be my bad!

    Regular service will resume shortly!

    I love books too and don’t think they will be going anyway soon either.

    Eoin

  4. I agree, books will be around at least until the baby boomer generation stops reads (20-50 more years). But the next generations, as they surely will read, may not necessarily rely so heavily on books. They like things that are short, just information based. Some read books, but when I go to my local bookstore, it is always older people who seem to be doing the majority of the buying. Things are changing, it is just hard to tell exactly what will happen.

  5. Hi Eoin,

    I really enjoy popping over here and reading yours and others thoughts on the future of books and publishing, very interesting indeed. Whilst I don’t work in publishing, I was a bookseller for a number of years, and still find all this ‘shop talk’ really interesting.

    This post was especially thought provoking. As a booklover, I must admit that I find it really difficult to remain positive and optimistic in the face of all this emerging e-book and e-publishing technology. Not because I am in any way a technophobe, or because I object the ever-increasing role the internet is playing in our cultural lives. I don’t, in fact I love that I can get information at a keystroke, or that I can be having this discussion with someone on the other side of the globe to me.

    I do however, worry that this tilt towards everything ‘e’, is steadily eroding the many small pleasues I associate with books and reading. I love finding new bookstores, I love the feeling of walking into a store and being surrounded by aroma of the printed word. I love being up to physically pick up, put down, apply my p70 test, and generally lose myself for hours in a multitude of ‘potential’ friends.

    Sites like amazon, booktopia or barnes & noble are great for those titles you can’t get from your local bookie, but I for one have no intention, of trawling these sites, waiting for multiple pages to load just so that I can ‘take a look inside’ books, and no amount of discount or free shipping will change that. Nor do I have any intention of subscribing to a publishers site to download the work of a beloved author on an ‘e-book’, that I will then have to either read on a computer screen or print. I suspect on this point however, that in the not so distant future my views on this will be regard as quaint and antiquarian!

    Whilst I have no doubt that the technology will in time become extremely sophisticated in delivering e-book products, will they ever be able to replicate the feel of a book, the joy of seeing it on your shelf, or the marvel one feels when admiring the craftsmanship of a well made book?

    Whilst I don’t believe that e-book technologies, will entirely spell the demise of printed books and bookstores, the fact remains that as these technologies increase in popularity, the book/selling markets will have to respond accordingly, and I do wonder were that will leave books and booksellers?

    I also wonder about the impact this technology will have on the local writing industry. Most booksellers I know are keenly aware that in this day and age their businesses are held afloat by shifting large units of ‘bestseller’, ‘blockbuster’ and ‘entertainment’ fiction. Whilst many will continue until their dying day to support in this instance Australian fiction, they will all freely admit that they don’t make any money out of it, and some often run at a loss in order to do it.

    Subsequently, I wonder in the future will it be only titles that shift the large units that will actually make it into print? What wil happen to the local fiction industry, which already suffers from blink and you’ll miss print runs. Will these be the titles that are accessable via download only? Or if they do make it to print, what am I as a supporter and consumer of homegrown literature going to be slugged for the privilege?

    I guess that really, only time will provide the answer to my questions. But in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts, musings or predictions!

  6. Hi Eoin,

    Great site, great article… thanks for being there!

    I agree that it is unlikely that we are witnessing a single-generational mutation in human consciousness – but like you am fascinated by the changes that delivery methods are likely to make to the content of “books” & “literature”. There is no doubt that writing as we know it is already mutating as a result of the Internet, just as the 19th century novel grew out of technological advances in printing and distribution at that time.

    My interest is primarily as a novelist (so far, of big traditional novels) and literary agent, who is just beginning to blog. As a writer, I love the potential of the Internet to deliver content to readers without the gatekeepers & middle(wo)men and I believe that already how-to nonfiction is more effectively delivered by downloads than the traditional book.

    The most interesting questions – and mutations – will be around storytelling. Already what is written, & how it is written & read, is changing — while traditional bookselling shoots itself in the foot with ludicrous discounting, blandifcation & commodifiction, a world of literary creativity explodes on the Internet. You don’t have to buy the idea of a change in human conscousness to realise that it means big changes for us all.

    But I believe these changes are mostly positive for the real players in the literary world — writers & readers, if not for publishers (and literary agents!).

    Bring it on!

    Áine (Orna Ross)

  7. Lee,

    Marketing is so nearly everything it is unreal!

    Book Reader,

    I see that case made a lot (about the short snippets) but I wonder if it is true. I find myself reading a considerable amount of long form articles on the web. Maybe I’m a freak who is in a crossover generation used to paper and so happy to read long pieces but I do wonder.

    Cass,

    What a comment, making me think even more about a subject. I think you are right, print will probably never dissappear. After all the paperless office has become the even more heavily papered office.

    I suspect the bookstore chains will dwindle but the independents will thrive. Better locked into their market, better able to hand sell and with a clientele that is more used to the higher prices that will increasingly become associated with quality printed books (Fiction and Non-Fiction), they will have the advantage over the chains. I also think books will be prettier than they are now a trend that is slowly advancing (more on this later).

    Alongside that the supermarkets will sell the high volume books at throwaway prices. The middle will not hold against that kind of change!

    Áine,

    As you say it is the middle people (as above) who are going to be marginalized by the process. Especially if we don’t make ourselves relevant in the changed market!

    Thanks for all the comments.
    Eoin

  8. Hi Eoin,

    I’ve been thinking about this in the last week.

    Firstly, printed books… I think we need to inject a little reality into the situation – they are portable, and cheap, and feel lovely, and come in all different colours, and can be enormously tactile, and can be taken to bed.

    I don’t see them going anywhere soon – economically or socially… Reading on the train/bus/tube, in bed/armchair, in a cafe/restaurant – none of these things will disappear.

    However, I firmly believe that publishers need to think further about how they are making content accessible. Recently, I was doing some research on Bob Dylan, and his
    impact on the civil rigts movement in the US, in order to help my cousin with his study.

    I’m a Dylan fan, I guess it goes with being a Guardian reader, and a jazz/blues/rock fan – he has stolen/has his impact on them all. I’ve bought his CDs, but never his books. After reading a bit on the topic, started with Wikipedia, (would have gone to OUP online ifI still had free access, damn this change of career on occasion) trawled Google for interesting articles, in order to pull together a bibliography for myself.

    So, there you go. Had the start of some interesting reading out there, ready to go. Had three books I wanted to browse through (and if I were in a bookshop, I well and truly could have – checked the chapter titles, and looked up the index), as well as about six articles or chapters in books/journals that I definitely wanted to read.

    But, I didn’t want to wait for the four days-six weeks to go to a book shop, check the stuff, make some purchases, followed by going online to order some books that it would take an impressively crap amount of time to get to me. [See recent attempts to get a book on Amazon, only to discover that it would take up to two months - print on demand my backside.]

    Where is the content?

    Where is the content in a way that you can have a peek online; check the chapter titles; have a look at page 69 [or any other page that doesn't seem quite so suggestive]; read the first page of the chapter? Where? I’m willing to pay – hear me, publishers – I’m willing to pay.

    I won’t apologise for being one of the folks who would instant access to some information, so you don’t have to apologise for asking for some money… I would like the document as a PDF, or as an e-reader file, or a Word file (though that makes me nervous, as everyone understands).

    Where is the publisher who is thinking of me?

    You have content laden sites, like the reference ones that OUP run – ODNB particularly used to almost move me to tears with the information therein. They are few and far between. You have smart publishers like The Friday Project, whose creative commons idea works so that people like me (book addicts) sneak on their site, have a quick (or lengthy, depending on how good it is) look and then purchase anyway, for my self and possible multiple others. You have smart authors like Dave Eggers and Marie Phillips who have clever content that engages me and makes me sell them my soul as a reader – forever.

    But, in this instance, I have no publisher to help. I want to browse a title, find it contains nuggets of gold, download them (to read in print sometimes, I’ll even work out myself for the printer paper). I may or may not want the full title.

    But, here’s the crunch – I’m not going to buy any of these books (well, maybe one) because I can’t wait, and I’m a gratuitous person, I’m like it instant. I would buy more than one right now, if I could have it right now, and I would buy bits of others.

    Which means, at the end of the day – revenue stream for publishers – diminished due to not being able to work this out.

    In short (which, to be fair, I rarely am), get it sorted.

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