Everybody who’s anybody, and quite a few nobodies, are pontificating on the present state of publishing. Things are rough right now. My agent sent me a couple of nervous emails about what type of project we should pitch next. (Maybe evil yet awesome? Oh, wait. That’s in April.)
Everyone has an opinion. You know what they say about opinions, but this is a big Internet. I will not take it personally if you pass on this one. Hell, enough of you read my political rants. So why not have a go at my wholly unqualified opinion on the publishing industry.
I want to hit four points based on what I’ve seen these past five years. But first, I want to make a very important point:
Yes, it’s bad. It’s a dark time for publishing. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that dark times are what come between the booms. (Conversely, booms happen between downturns, so keep that in mind next time publishing gets all giddy again. That goes for everything else.)
I want to address newspapers, distributors, electronic publishing, and print-on-demand.
- Newspapers – My original post was longer and rantier and made some points about the free alternative weeklies doing better than the dailies. And then Matt Groening had to go and invalidate everything I said with a comment about his Life in Hell strip’s future.
But one point I do want to make. The newspaper as we know it is disappearing. It’s not coming back. Nor is the broadsheet or the single-section paper of the pre-Hearst/Pulitzer era.
For that reason, I believe publishers should shift their focus away from newspapers until they figure out what their new role will be going forward. There’s a role for newspapers in the future, but until they figure out what that is, publishing needs to shift it’s advertising dollars elsewhere. Go where the eyeballs are.
- Electronic – Recording saw electronic formats coming and panicked. As early as 1995, major artists suggested that sending music to record stores via those newfangled broadband cable thangies might be a profitable revenue stream when coupled with another cheap, new technology: The CD burner. Recording’s response?
Run screaming into the night. So rather than embracing something that would have ushered in a new golden era for recording, labels buried their heads in the sand and let Napster do for free what they should have done a buck a download.Publishing’s response to the Internet and electronic formats?
Um… The PDF (fine for replacing the fax), DRM (only works for movies), and proprietary ebook formats. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Kindle, but if electronic books are going to become competitive with hardcover, trade, and mass market paperbacks, they’re going to need to be standardized for any device and reasonably priced.
- Distribution: Distribution of books is in the hands of one or two companies. That is not competitive. In fact, it’s the biggest obstacle to independent bookstores surviving.One or two big companies decide it’s more competitive to send big orders to a few chains or Wal-Mart, and the independents are screwed. No, that’s not capitalism. That’s an oligarchy bordering on monopoly. Last I checked, those were illegal except in a few cases.
Since we’re talking about books instead of cars or pro sports, book distribution doesn’t pass the exception test.
- Print-on-demand: It has it’s place, and small press is not it. I know this from personal experience. I think the in-store press has a future, as does the small print run on POD. But the model of no advances, no inventory has simply lost any credibility. I know. I was in the lab for the experiment, and that rabbit stunk when it died.
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I do know distributors have a lopsided amount of influence on publishing. I know New York and London have twiddled their thumbs on electronic formats, possibly handing Amazon a monopoly. I don’t think newspapers are dead, but I do think they’re overdue for a transformation. And I don’t see a future for POD as a major force in publishing.