What I think is missing from this debate is a serious appraisal of just where we're at as authors, as readers, and as publishing professionals. Publishing has been around for a long long time, and it has survived many pardigmatic shifts in the way the written word is delivered and consumed by readers. It will survive this shift as well. In fact, it might just come out the other end in better shape than it has been in a long time. That is, if we can come together an prevent it from becoming a nightmare.
What has plagued publishing recently is not competition from self-publishers, or piracy, or the internet in general, but the increasing consolidation of publishers, distributors, and booksellers in the physical world. Even before e-books were doubling their market share every year, print sales were down, independent bookstores were shuttering, and the publishing conglomerates were gobbling up imprints by the dozen.
The problem that is created by consolidating interests, is that they produced one-size-fits-all products. Independent bookstores used to cater the specialized needs of their customers, or they'd go out of business. Big box stores were able to ignore this relationship because their real-estate afforded them the opportunity to draw in more customers, and they could float themselves on a handful of mega best-sellers while using that revenue to carry smaller stocks of a broader variety of other titles. In the heyday of the nineties consumers had money to burn on entertainment, and books were a good value compared to music and movies. The success of big box stores drove many smaller bookstores out of business.
The dominance of the big box stores warped the priorities of the publishers, who prized better sellers for a general readership over better books for a smaller, more diverse, and more enduring readership. That paradigm couldn't have survived for long, as the readers willing to shell out money for a hardcover of the same sort of thriller they read last week (or more likely last year) become fewer and fewer, and as fewer people were being led to mid-list authors whose books just sat on the shelf in the back of a big box store.
That landscape has shifted through the oughts. Consumer spending is still recovering and big box bookstores now compete with cheaper and more plentiful entertainment options (Netflix costs less than a trade paperback, and gives you unlimited movies for an entire month). Some like Barnes and Noble have managed to do okay in adapting to these challenges, others like Borders have run aground. The publishers that once benefited tremendously from their relationships with the big box stores, now find themselves having to scale back on number of titles they publish. Whole imprints have gone away, and further consolidation is only going to lead to a narrowing of potential opportunities for publishers to connect with readers.
No one doubts that the publishing industry is now at a crossroads. Where it goes from here will determine whether it becomes a utopia or dystopia. In either scenario, the publishing industry is going to survive, because despite the claims of some e-book futurists, the market for print products isn't on the verge of disappearing any time soon. What it looks like, however, depends not solely on the publishers, but on authors and readers as well.
Because I'm a big Pollyanna, I'm going to address the dystopic vision of publishing first.
In this version of publishing, the industry has become a veritable Pottersville. It's a fully synergized vampiric horror that seeks to squeeze the last drops of life out of the author's already meager royalties while throwing its publicity weight behind a series of forgettable thrillers, and ghostwritten celebrity books that will molder the second they leave the bookstore. Mid list authors are more or less ignored, while editors chase best-sellers whose diminishing returns set the bar lower and lower for what a best-seller means. In the digital world, the publishing giants will simply dump backlists on their e-tailer partners and leave the responsibility for creative marketing in the hands of third-parties.
Meanwhile, the multitude of authors whose books were deemed not commercial enough for "mainstream" publishing will take their raw materials to the readers directly and build small, but loyal, followings selling e-books at pennies on the dollar. This will work well for some, but for most it will prove disastrous to their careers, their nerves, and their writing. After all, it's hard to run an online media enterprise, while continuing to crank out a book every nine months. Just ask Amanda Hocking.
The people who will suffer the most, however, will be the readers. On the one hand they will have a overwhelming abundance of self-published e-books whose quality will range from lunatic ravings to fine literature with no way to differentiate between the two, on the other they will have a "mainstream" publisher who is trying to oversell an overpriced and overproduced version of a warmed-over concept from a decade ago. In both instances the number of books available per year will shrink, as publishers cut back on the number of titles, and as authors become self-publishers that are too overwhelmed with doing all the other work of publicity and distribution to actually do the job of writing books.
For those who still love brick-and-mortar bookstores, they will find that the independent bookstores are gone and that their big box store has become a magazine stand full of more knick-knacks, toys, and tie-in products, than books.
All this version of the future requires is that we continue along the same path we're already on. Publishers need only consolidate until they are a homogeneous paste, and readers and authors need only isolate themselves in their own fantasy of a digital marketplace that requires no guidance or organization. The rest will work itself out on its own.
I think I have a better vision of how this whole thing plays out. It's a win win win situation for all parties involved, but it's going to take some work.
In this scenario, publishers realize the golden opportunity that the electronic market provides, and they make it work for them. They curate lists of mid-list authors and keep backlists alive through creative packaging of online materials to serve more diverse niches in their readership. They are able to better cross-promote using online media, and draw attention to their mid-list from their front-list and visa-versa. They will effectively harness the energy of the web to build books in print, and will establish a long-tail model for backlist titles that will help raise revenues. Those revenues will then be reinvested in finding and building new imprints, and creating a more diverse catalogue that serves the varied interests of many smaller readerships, rather than a singular focus on finding the next mega best-seller. This growth will only beget more growth.
Parallel to their efforts, a community of online publishers and self-publishers springs up which is able to explore new and exciting frontiers. Without the burden of having their e-editions tied to a print product, these e-publishers will be able to start and establish trends in real time, and create viral successes online. When a niche becomes popularized there will be a precedent for partnering with publishers to produce print products, which will enable them to build on their success offline as well. In this way the self-publishing/e-only market will become the trying grounds for larger mainstream success, and will help keep the industry as a whole moving forward.
Bookstores will become the center of communities rather than cold book warehouses. They will sell not just books, but culture in general, and will be home to events featuring local, national, and international authors, artists, and musicians.
This utopia requires everyone's participation, and a few sacrifices.
Publishers are going to have to step up their investment in online presence and marketing. Sites like Suvudu, Tor.com and eHarlequin are steps in the right direction, but publishers need to do better. They need to market smarter, and they need to better utilize their e-tailer partners.
Publishers also need to be more fair with e-book royalties, or they'll risk losing the enormous revenues they can generate by making use of a long-tail model in backlist sales. It's hardly worth taking a hard line on e-book royalties if the publisher's share is going to be zero as authors refuse to hand over e-rights for older titles, and revert rights to books that are out-of-print.
Then there's the issue of pricing, which will require concessions both from publishers and readers.
Readers will have to pay a premium, whether online or in hardcover, for early adoption. That's just the way it is. If you want the newest Apple gadget, you're willing to pay a premium, it's the same thing for books. If you're buying it the second it's released, expect to pay the hardcover cost whether you're getting a download or the real deal at the bookstore. Paying the premium price for early adoption will help publishers gain the revenue to build newer and better products, and to invest in the infrastructure that will allow them to offer consumers deals on backlist books.
On that note, publishers need to make concessions about price on the backlist side. There comes a point when the digital product is no longer undercutting any potential print sale, and the only engine that will drive sales is a lower price. Selling backlist e-books at $3.99 or lower will help drive backlist sales, and it will delight readers looking for a bargain. Authors whose books have finished their life cycle in print, can be given new life online at a price point that encourages readers who are looking to explore different styles and genres.
Bookstores are going to have to invest in events planning, and creative marketing, to drive readers into the stores. You can't just rely on foot-traffic, and a coffee bar. You need people to find a reason to be there, and you need to connect with your local community in ways that are not simply commercial.
Authors you're going to have to recognize that publishing is a team effort. In print it requires the work of agents, editors, publicity departments, reviewers, distributors, bookstore buyers, and even bookstore clerks. Online it is comprised of e-tailers, bloggers, and social networking sites. Just like Flaubert, you have to realize that books are not like children. Sure it may take nine months to create one, but once it's written it's not yet a whole entity unto itself, magically imbued with a life of its own. A finished manuscript is merely the plan for a monument, and it requires not just your effort, but the effort of thousands to erect. You have to ditch the attitude that you can do this all yourself, and start building partnerships that will help get your book in the hands of readers.
As for me, what I will need to do in this new world? As an agent, I will have a lot more work to do as the liaison between the parallel enterprises of self-publishers, e-publishers and "legacy" publishers. It's going to be the agent's responsibility to hammer out the framework for turning an online only product into a print product in a way that doesn't upset the balance between the needs of the print publisher and the e-author/e-publisher. In many ways the agency I work for has already taken the first steps in this process. My agency has made reprint and anthology deals with Pocket on behalf of our client the online romance and erotica publisher Ellora's Cave, and helped John Scalzi take the Old Man's War series from his blog to the best-seller list. My own client Coscom Entertainment has gone from selling thousands of print-on-demand products exclusively through e-tailers to having tens of thousands of books in bookstores through deals with Gallery and Sourcebooks. The results haven't always been great--some reprint deals haven't been the best vehicles for a e-book/print partnership--but we're making strides every day in creating the contractual basis for this utopia, and creating precedents that will help build better relationships between the print and digital worlds in the future. I'm committed to making this utopia work for authors, publishers, and readers alike. It's my sincere hope that we will continue to build a better publishing paradigm together.