The Future Of Publishing – An Unqualified Opinion

Part of the problem I have with the argument over ebooks vs. print is the absolutism that runs through it. You get more reasoned, even-handed arguments over abortion and gun control.

One of the reasons I distrust pretty much every prediction about the future of publishing is that ebooks gained their traction during a really bad recession.  As a result, everyone seems to assume either the growth in ebooks will continue on a steady slope, or it’s just a fad. Here’s a fact no one seems to consider: Every technology that experiences sudden explosive growth plateaus and settles into more realistic growth rates. Go all the way back to the telegraph, which no longer even exists. The telegraph as we know it was invented in the 1830’s, with Morse building the first viable system in the US shortly thereafter. By the Civil War, a mere twenty-five years later, you could dot and dash a message to even the most remote parts of the US and Canada and even England. The railroads, the telephone, automobiles, the computer, television, cable, cell phones, and the Internet all experienced this growth.

Furthermore, every media format with the exception of print has gone through the same thing. So why not print?

Movies required first a projector, then a television, and now a computer file.  Without some powered means of illumination and movement, you don’t get a movie. Same with recorded music. Start with hand-cranked wax cylinders, move to wax disks, the glass 78 rpm record, the vinyl LP and its 45 single companion, cassettes, CD’s, and now MP3’s and the like. Whether it’s a handcrank or your smart phone’s battery, music is dependent on a power source.

Books are not. Which, if you’ve read this space for a while, is not a deterrent to ebooks, but it should temper the idea that no one will buy printed books in the future. Not only do I not have to plug in a printed book, but the book will remain on my shelf until I remove it, unchanged from the day I brought it home.

So, what do I think books will look like in the future?

  • The biggest advantage to ebooks is that you can read them on your smartphone. He who goes the app-based route will win that race vs. device driven formats.  Sorry, Apple, but I want to read the new Micheal Connelly whenever, wherever.
  • What’s killed self-publishing up until the Age of Kindle and iPad has been a piss-poor print-on-demand model. Trade paperbacks, which are the best print format for on-demand printing, cost too much and Ingram, which owns the biggest POD printer, Lightning Source, may be guilty of anti-trust measures. Indies tend to depend on Baker & Taylor and independent book distributors. Ingram, the 800-pound gorilla in book distribution, doesn’t play nice with others. Then there’s iUniverse, which makes more money off authors than off readers. Their books are overpriced compared to the average traditional press’s books. Never mind PublishAmerica and Authorhouse, which refuse to admit they’re printers, not publishers. (Sorry, but publishers pay the author and do not charge for editing. No exceptions. Ever. Ever. Ever.)
  • That said, I do not believe the only place you will be able to buy books in the future will be Walmart and Kroger. I believe you will buy most of your bestsellers and celebrity “books” there. Who will sell the most books? The independents, believe it or not. The Espresso machine that does on-site print on demand will become a must-have for those selling print books. Authors will not want to pin themselves to a single brick-and-mortar location, which will spell doom for the chains, already in trouble. Indies, on the other hand, will do what they do best: specialize. You will see science fiction bookstores and mystery bookstores and even shops specializing in paranoid wingnut politcal screeds. (Those will not get a dime of my money, but knock yourselves out. Glenn Beck needs that gold scheme money.  Keith Olbermann just needs attention.)
  • The indies that will survive or thrive will have an ebook component to their business. How?
  • The epublisher will rise. Right now, it’s good to self-publish electronically. Done right – good editing, good covers, good promotion – which is now easier than ever, one can make some good money self-publishing. But as this model grows further, it will be a return to the bad old days of POD self-publishing, wherein there’s a lot of garbage out there. An epublisher will be able to cut deals with indie stores, Amazon, and so on. Print authors will be able to offer electronic editions of their print books. More importantly, books will still need to be edited, formatted, given cover art, and so on. New authors generally suck at this. Plus, a writer will need to have someone who can help them stand out above the crowd.
  • Established authors will become their own publishers. The smart established author will go it alone once they’ve built their brand, hiring their own editor, artist, and publicist and leveraging their existing relationships with bookstores. If you can offer a print version by emailing your book to Partners in Crime in New York or any other indie you may know, the Big Six become sort of extraneous.
  • Will it be a brave new world? Sure. It may even become what the 1990’s were to computer nerds. (Hey, that gave me a decent day job career.) But getting there will be ugly. It’s like everything else. We are between booms in this country and in most of the world. Does anyone deny that, right now, it’s pretty ugly? That applies to everything.
  • James Bond will return.
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Hmm… Hmm…

Back in November, Nita and I tossed a coin on whether the replace our roof or service the furnace first. State Farm agreed the roof handled Hurricane Ike much better than it did the considerably less intense storms of this past August.  Roof replaced and paid for, we called our usual heating, cooling, and plumbing place. The plumber who’d been to our place before made some pitches for services and products, but nothing surprising. Our usual furnace tech came in, tuned up the ticking time bomb in our basement, and was on his merry way. He’s done this two years in a row, and we’ve been very happy.

This year, after delaying our service call three times – possibly because we were silly, replaced the roof first, and called in December – they sent Ernie.

They’d better not send Ernie again if he doesn’t want to leave in an ambulance.

Ernie had no sooner taken five steps into our house when he voiced his disappointment in our thermostat. No, not that it was ancient. (It is.) He was disappointed that it sat in a spot on the wall that would not fit the new thermostat he wanted to sell us.

“Well,” he said, without having even looked at a single component of the furnace or even asking if we had thermostat trouble, “I was going to suggest a new thermostat, but the new one won’t fit there. Hmm…  Hmm…”

Hmm… was going to become a truly annoying phrase that afternoon, not unlike “It is what it is,” the refrain to “Achy Breaky Heart,” or even the very tune to “The Macarena.” Ernie headed downstairs and proceeded to get to work. No, not on tuning up our furnace. No, he had a hard sell to do, and dammit, he wasn’t leaving the house until we’d not only had our tune-up, but agreed to a ten-year second mortgage to finance a computerized geothermal central air system that also does dishes and makes espresso.

I, on the other hand, was doing contract work at the time, which meant that unemployment was a very real possibility in my near future. That did not deter Ernie. He summoned me downstairs, his expression very grave.

He pointed to the burners in our furnace. “See that? It’s sparking. Your furnace is getting ready to blow. Now, if you’ll just sign here, I can replace the burners today for only $350.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “Your technician was here in the spring and replaced those same burners for $175 as we are members of your maintenance club.”

Ernie didn’t bat an eyelash. “Hmm…  Hmm…”

He opened his mouth to point at the impeller motor when I said, “And I know the impeller motor doesn’t have a cover on it.  I took it off. Apparently, I just bought this furnace another five years.”

“Hmm…  Hmm…”

Upstairs I went, sorely tempted to let the dog back in the house. Gurl doesn’t like maintenance people. Before I came along, Nita had to toss her outside or lock her in the bedroom whenever the Duke Energy guy came around to read the meter. (Duke has since moved us into the 21st century with electronic meters readable from the street.)

Ernie finished up about half an hour later, his face still grave. “That furnace has some major problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t last the month. You definitely won’t get any heat out of it. Here’s your savings if you sign an agreement with me today to have a central air unit installed. I would seriously consider it. Seriously consider.”

I asked him just how expensive he thought that would be since I’d paid the same amount as his discount to replace the central air at the old Rancho Winter. Chateau Nita is a one-story postwar cottage with two bedrooms. Rancho Winter is a three story townhouse with a finished basement. Ernie’s response?

“We have financing plans.”

My response?

“I’ve been laid off since June.” Technically true. I was on contract at the time.

Ernie’s final response?

“Hmm…  Hmm…”

Ernie tooled off to the next would-be sucker.

A couple of weeks later, Nita came downstairs.  It was one of the first really cold days of the season, and Nita asked me to come back upstairs. The living room was hot. We actually had to turn the thermostat down to almost sixty. Never mind that it was ten degrees.

“So the furnace is about to blow,” she said. “Doesn’t feel like it.”

“I would seriously consider paying off our credit cards before we buy a new one,” I said. “Seriously consider.”

“Paying off our debt before taking on more?” said Nita. “Hmm…  Hmm…”