My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the third in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes:
Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down. Part two looked at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less uselful. Part three is kind of an “Empire Strikes Back” section. It looks at how publishers might react to the new environment. I’m not necessarily advocating these solutions. I’m saying that companies or individuals may go these routes.
Publishers could try to restrict the number of books published by raising the cost of entry. In a lot of industries companies have prospered by making it difficult for competitors to enter the market. That can be done a variety of ways. Companies can raise the cost of marketing by launching expensive ad campaigns that only companies with a lot of cash can match. They can get patents on key parts of a production process. They can use economies of scale to reduce their costs far below their competitors’ costs. They can dominate shelf space and exclude their competitors.
All of those techniques other than maybe patents have been used to some extent in the book market. None of them are likely to stop the proliferation of small print on demand or e-book publishers or the increase in self-publishing. Expensive marketing campaigns can drive sales of some books up. Publishers can’t afford to do those kinds of campaigns for all of their books though. Lesser known authors with smaller sales potential can’t justify large ad budgets, and they are the ones most at risk from competition with small POD or e-book companies. Economies of scale do make the cost of production lower for traditional large publishers as opposed to POD publishers but their return policies and the need to maintain inventories eat up much of the savings. Dominating shelf space works in brick and mortar stores but is less effective at Amazon.com because there are no shelves to dominate.
Publishers could work harder to establish themselves as reliable brands. I rarely notice the publisher when I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a book. I look for favorite authors. I look for attractive covers. I look for exciting concepts. I sometimes look at reviews. I don’t recall ever buying or not buying a book based on the publisher. I may be wrong, but I think most readers are like me.
Publishers may work to change that, marketing themselves as “name brands”-places you can rely on for high quality reading. That’s tricky because quality in books is very much a matter of opinion. Appealing reliably to a segment of the book buying public might not be hard, but a generalized ‘high-quality’ is more difficult. Publishers could and probably should feature their imprint names more prominently on books and in advertising.
Many if not most small POD and e-book publishers claim to be very selective. Some of them may be selective, but it will take a while for those claims to be widely accepted by readers.
I hate to say this, but publishers might also rely more on company owned pen names using a variety of ghost writers, and then promote the pen names. That’s been done with various pulp and young adult series books from time-to-time, and publishers might extend it to areas outside of series books. Frankly I hope that doesn’t happen. Recognition is a large part of a writer’s compensation.
Publishers may try to differentiate themselves by reinventing the book: We have Web 2.0. Why not Novels 2.0? The idea is that the technology of publishing lets publishers do a lot of things they couldn’t do thirty years ago. The design and layout of magazines, newsletters and textbooks have changed a great deal since the sixties. The layout and design of novels really hasn’t. Companies trying to differentiate themselves from the glut should be asking themselves how they can make novels more visually exciting for a generation with a short attention span, just as textbook makers and magazine editors have done. They’ll need to do that without running up printing costs too much.
So what would a “Novel 2.0” look like? I have some ideas I’m experimenting with, but I’m sure a professional design team could do better. The key is to actually enhance the reading experience or at least not get in the way of it, while avoiding page after page of dull black on white that turns off younger generations of readers and avoiding a comic book feel that would turn off more traditional readers. Good design could enhance the reader’s experience without drawing attention to itself.
Going to some kind of “Novel 2.0” design could do a kind of filtering by raising the bar for acceptable book design, making it more difficult for individuals without design experience to make a professional-looking book.
Novels 2.0 might be easier in e-books. An e-book doesn’t have to be a simple transfer of an existing book to electronic format. E-book readers are just specialized computers. That means that they can potentially do a lot of things that you can’t do on a printed page. The current generation of e-books may not be able to do all of these things, but eventually the e-book version of a novel could have built in mood music that changes as you flip the pages (I would hate that and turn it off). It could have a built-in audio-book version with good professional-sounding audio. That would let you read, then simply switch to the audio version when you had to do something like running errands.
E-books could have hyperlinks to pop-up boxes that let impatient readers find out more about a character or a town or some event that is mentioned in passing, or even pictures of characters or scenes. For that matter they could even have small clips of video embedded in the pages at a few crucial points. An e-book mystery novel could have clues to the mystery hidden in hyperlinks. It could also have “Easter Eggs”-little hidden touches that could only be accessed by a special combination of buttons. Easter Eggs are common in computer software and DVDs. They’ll probably become popular in e-books too. Readers might find an alternate ending that they never knew was there, deleted scenes, insights into some of the characters, backstory, or historical notes. Some brave authors might even include earlier drafts of the novel as Easter Eggs or additional content.
E-books could also have more color illustrations. Adding color to a print book adds to the cost of printing. In an e-book the only cost would be the illustrator. E-books wouldn’t have to be restricted to black on white print color schemes. Without the restrictions of having to be printed, pages could be as eye-catching as web-pages.
All of these “Novel 2.0” ideas might make it more difficult for an individual or a small publisher to create a state of the art book. They would also raise a publisher’s costs. Getting a state of the art novel 2.0 ready would require a person capable of creating professional-sounding audio, someone capable of making visually exciting interior page designs, probably a professional illustrator, and maybe even someone capable of making professional-looking video clips.
From a publisher’s point of view, would standing out from the competition be worth the additional costs? Would readers really seek out books written as Novels 2.0 rather than more traditional books? How long would it be before little groups of would be writers, designers and illustrators found each other through the Internet and began producing their own Novels 2.0? They might even produce Novels 2.0 before the big publishers do.
Unless I’m missing something it doesn’t look like the old ways of filtering out “bad karaoke” writing are going to come back. Some of the things I’ve talked about may bring back some of the filtering by “raising the bar” of talents you need to have in order to publish a state of the art novel. Readers will still have to get used to a situation where they have more choice but they also have more junk to wade through.
Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories. Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com.