Friday, January 21, 2011

Random thoughts about the future of publishing

Rather than attempting a narrative, I'm just going to jot down what's in my brain about digital publishing and the future of the publishing industry. (These are just my opinions - I have not made a scientific study.)

1 - E-books and e-readers
In the thinking and talking about how to price e-books and why people may want e-readers instead of or in addition to print books, there are a couple more things to take into consideration. Namely, that there are some of us who love, love, love print books who are also concerned about the dead-trees aspect of print books and look on e-books as a tree-friendly alternative. Also, when you buy a print book that's the total cost of that print book. When you buy an e-reader the initial cost per e-book is high because it's measured against the cost of your e-reader - if you buy a Kindle for $189 and your first e-book is $20, you're essentially paying $209 to buy that e-book. Obviously the cost of the e-reader is amortised over time. But those who are setting the prices should realise that part of the squawking about the cost of e-books is to do with the fact that readers are paying for e-readers and they don't then want to pay a lot for e-books on top of that.

2 - Authors and covers
Once all the publishers' backlists are digitised and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of e-books available, will covers for each individual book matter any more? Perhaps not. Rather, the author's brand may have more significance as a visual cue. Just like the old wax seal on an envelope, the author's personal brand will identify their e-books as a product of their (electronic) pen, so if you're an author you may wish to think about developing a visual brand - a logo or something like that. This brand can be applied to your e-book covers or could be used as a template that can be modified slightly for each e-book, thus providing an instant visual identification for your e-books. Or maybe I'm just trying to create work for graphic designers.

3 - The future is now
I often feel like there are quite a few folks in publishing who are collectively like a person who's been told the winning Lotto numbers and failed to submit an entry in time, and is about to complain long and loudly about their loss. We've had years to watch the music industry go through this; we can't say we weren't warned. Radiohead's little experiment with In Rainbows should be noted - and noted hard - as an example of what a big-selling author may decide to do some day soon. If blockbuster authors go it alone there will possibly be a period of calibration during which new authors won't even get a look-in at publishing companies, because there just won't be the money around to invest in them, but eventually we'll all need new stories from new people. If for no other reason than, to be blunt, people die (and I'm thinking of the industry in twenty years' time, not necessarily next month or next year).

4 - We have failed our teenage readers
There are so many excellent books for young adults - there have been for years. If the publishing industry (that includes me, by the way - I am not standing on the outside looking in) had looked at teenagers purely as customers and thought about how to retain them, I wonder how differently we'd have done things. I don't actually think we publish books that carry our teenage readers through to their thirties and forties and beyond (given that many non-genre novels are published for those latter age groups) but I'd be happy for someone to give me evidence that I'm wrong. It just seems that once YA readers are in their twenties they're on their own, and many of them stop reading - the rapture of their teenage years has gone. It's no wonder speculative fiction captures so many young readers - because it provides the rapture - but in the general fiction world I'm struggling to think of a concerted effort to publish stories for young people once they're over the age of eighteen. These are the very people whose worlds are now mostly digital - these are not people who are going to want print books in ten years' time. And as Clay Shirky said, 'No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds.' Today's 15-year-olds will be 25 in a decade. Think about the teenagers you know and how they interact with culture - it's mostly digital, isn't it? That's what's coming; these are the readers we need to be thinking about and planning for right now.

5 - And finally


SM Johnston said...

I haven't gotten into ebooks, but incompletely agree with you on the lack of books for readers in their twenties. I was an avid reader growing up, but in my twenties I read university text books and set readings for my literature subjects. Luckily for me I had my first child in my early twenties and by my late twenties was reading again enthusiastically with my son. Deltora Quest, Goosebumps and Harry Potter where brought home and I read them too. Now I'm in my thirties I'm still reading YA or Speculative/Urban Paranormals as there is very few stories aimedat me. Mind you, my mum is in her sixties and she's reading YA too now as they are producing some quality YA books.

Nom de Gare said...

This is a GREAT post - thought provoking with heaps to chew on and return to as things develop over coming months/years. So much writing about digital publishing etc is alarmist, luddite and/or simplistic, whereas yours is measured and curious and open-ended. Thank you!

Especially your thoughts about covers, and the possibility of returning to something more like an author's 'seal' or watermark, something better suited to online viewing than current book covers. I've never thought of this or heard it mentioned before, but now you point it out I reckon we could bet on seeing something like this in five years' time. Fascinating.

Also your point about younger readers and the Clay Shirky quote. Much to think over and digest...

Bron said...

As someone who lives in Queensland and spent last weekend cleaning out people's flooded houses - and throwing out a lot of stinking, sodden books in the process - I can state that another benefit of e-books is their portability. You can pick up your whole collection in one hand and take it with you wherever you go. And if your e-reader is destroyed, you still have the books backed up on your profile.

I think that's a great point about the future readers, who are 15 now but will be 25 in a decade. I don't think this group will be as fussy about the pricing of digital books. I think to them, the convenience of digital books will actually mean a premium. This will be the format they want, and they'll be so used to having their lives littered with gadgets that paying for an e-reader won't be a big deal for them. Plus, I think the future of e-readers lies in multi-use devices like the iPad. You can read on them, but you can also do lots of other things as well. That means it's not just books that are having to amortise the cost. I still think there will be dedicated e-readers for dedicated readers, but the majority of people will have a device that can be used for things other than reading.

arbraun said...

I have a Sony Reader and a Kindle for Android, but I still love my paper books also, and will never get rid of them. I have tons of paperback and hardcovers, but only seven books on my Sony and four on my Kindle, although I'm considering Dorchester's e-book club for next month. I'd hate to have to come up with a watermark. I've got too much to do as it is. And I never have read young adult. When I was under eighteen, I read Poe, Shelley and Stoker. I would also like to recommend Lovecraft for minors (there's no cussing).