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.)