The Future of Publishing

Some people have predicted a dire end to the publishing industry as we know it, and perhaps it needs to die. The old system of advances, where publishers subsidized the careers of a few specially chosen writers (literary authors or potentially lucrative authors who had not yet garnered a lot of attention) with the proceeds of bestselling commercial writers is a ridiculous anachronism in this world of corporate monoliths, and it is already being phased out.

The new publishing model of anyone publishing anything, no matter how trivial or poorly written, is no better. It still comes down to the same thing — that only a few writers will ever be able to make a living at the profession. As the anachronistic industry conforms more to the digital age of “content creators,” there will be fewer writers making millions and millions more writers making almost nothing.

In the old system, the publishers made the profits, not the writers. In the new system, the content distributors, such as Amazon, will make the profits. To Amazon, it makes no difference if they sell a million books by one author or one book by a million authors. It still comes down to the same thing — one million books sold (with absolutely no capital outlay). In fact, it doesn’t even matter if those books were sold or given away — Amazon still makes money from advertisers.

The price of books is constantly sliding downward. The $.99 ebook is becoming expensive in a world where readers expect books to be free. Unless there is a book they want to read (generally because everyone else is reading it) and so will plunk down cash, readers will most often choose the free item. In other words, writers will become drones feeding the machine with an ever-devalued product. There will always be a few writers making big bucks, of course, simply because hopes of financial success oil the machine. (In the same way, ordinary people occasionally become millionaires, perhaps by winning the lottery, which keeps taxes for the rich at a relatively low level, since people won’t vote to tax the rich if they expect one day to become rich themselves.)

In the end, what does all this say about the publishing industry? Perhaps nothing. Writers will still write. Most of us write not to make money, but to write and ultimately to be heard, if only by a few discerning readers. (Though a living wage would be nice.) People will still want stories. That is, after all, what we humans are — storytellers.

Print books will become scarce, but will probably always be available for those who want them, since books can be printed one at a time. (At least until the machinery breaks down.) Ebooks themselves will eventually be replaced by something else — interactive stories, perhaps, where the readers get to choose the ending. Or maybe stories that are fed directly to our heads via implanted computer chips. Who knows — certainly not me. All I know is that technology changes so rapidly that in twenty-five years, a book might bear as little resemble to today’s ebook as an ebook does to a print book.

There’s also a vague chance that the entire industry will burn itself out. When everyone can do something now, without working for it — such as publishing a book — there is no dream for the future. And what are we if we have no dreams?

(Perhaps that last paragraph needs an explanation. Many businesses were fueled by unfulfilled dreams of the young.  For example, the miniature business. So many girls didn’t get the dollhouses they wanted when they were young, that when they hit middle age and had the money to fulfill their love of the miniature world, they fueled an entire business. However, their daughters and granddaughters, who got the houses those women made, did not have unfulfilled dreams of a miniature world,  and now that those women are aging beyond the need for hobbies, the miniature business is fading.  I look at the publishing world and see how many writers middle-aged and older have come to writing because of unfulfilled dreams of being published. The new generations don’t have those dreams because they can write what they want and publish it. They don’t have to strive for the dream of publishing — they can get it immediately. So how is that going to affect the future of publishing? That’s all I meant.)

20 Responses to “The Future of Publishing”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    This is a pessimistic view. I share your concerns. I like the feel and smell of a new book. I even like the feel and smell of a really old book that has been sitting, waiting for me on some book shelf in a second hand book shop. Tablets are cold and functional.

    I can understand why Captain Picard prefers a hard cover book as opposed to a computer screen novel. This was some screen writer using a fictional character to say what was in their heart when it came to books. And they said it a number of times during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I believe that the actor playing Picard felt the same way. Patrick Stewart who played Picard is a Shakespearian actor from the U.K. I can imagine him having a genuine love of books in real life that he was able to transfer to his online character.

    There have been interactive stories. They came into fashion in the 1990s and then quickly went out of fashion. They could make a come back as computer technology improves.

    Yes, publishers can’t keep publishing books in any format if there is little or no profit in it but writers will continue to write no matter what. Yes, books will continue to exist in whatever new format comes along. Even so, like Picard, I will always be drawn to the model with the cover and real paper in between.

    • ROD MARSDEN Says:

      That is Patrick Stewart’s online and on screen character…

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m not as pessimistic as some prognosticators. I think print books will be around for our life time, and beyond that, it won’t matter to me. I’ve just been puzzled by the business as a whole, trying to find my place in it so I don’t feel so much like a face in the crowd, but in the end, it’s what I write that counts, no matter how it fits or doesn’t fit with a publishing world in a state of flux.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        Well said. I am in the same barbed wire canoe.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Great metaphor!! I’ve just now come to realize the importance of believing in one’s journey. I always want to know why, to know the point of things, but maybe it’s more important to have faith in the journey, to believe that one is doing what one is supposed to do, even if it seems rather foolish.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Although generally I approve of e-publishing, I must admit, I find the whole idea of the publishing industry dying out a little extreme. People love books, and they’ll pay good money for good stories, no matter what the age. Besides, I’m predicting a catastrophic event in the future that will again make books relevant (don’t ask me what, I’m just going with the theory that mankind can only become so God-like before God tells us to know our place; look at the Tower of Babylon, if you doubt me).

  3. jrafferty11 Says:

    I think the future of publishing depends a lot on the customers. And the young people — such as my teenage son — are still reading; the wide popularity of YA books is a testament to that. Whether the book is in electronic or hard copy form is a style preference and will vary over time. For example, my son doesn’t read hard copy news, such as newspapers, but still does all of his novel reading in hard copy. Publishing is in the media industry and the technologies and business models are changing. We’re in the early days of that, so we’ll have to see how all that plays out.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s good to know young people still like hard copies of books, because in the end, they are the ones who will be shaping the future of publishing.

      I wonder if books will be like wedding dresses — in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the dresses got simpler and more basic to reflect the simpler times, then instead of going even simpler, or adapting modern styles such as pant suits, the brideswear business took a shift toward nostalgia. Perhaps instead of going increasingly technological, there will come a backlash to nostalgia in another decade or so.

  4. margosnotebook Says:

    i think the print book will live and like LP’s be valued for its tactile qualities and links with history.

    • ROD MARSDEN Says:

      And yet you have these idiots in movies, television shows,commercials, raves and clubs on purpose pushing the record backwards and forwards by hand to make an
      unpleasant sound young
      people seem to go for.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Margot, That’s a great and true analogy. Look at how different music distribution and playing devices are from the early days of recording. Music, like storytelling, used to be small group activities, but when the electric and then electronic age came, they became global activities. Maybe the direction of both the music industry and the storytelling industry is not about art so much but about going back to our very beginnings.

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