Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why I'm Optimistic About the Future of Books

For the second installment of positivity week: the future.

You don't hear very much optimism about the future these days, what with the stock market looking like the Grand Canyon and the Bachelor breaking hearts on national television (except my heart -- I loved every minute).

We're just over the horizon from the digital age of books. It will be a major transition. It is going to cause some heartache and displacement and layoffs, as it is already. We're seeing old models break and die. And right now in the world of books, the shrinking shelf space due to closing bookstores (not to mention closing wallets) isn't yet being replenished by the new possibilities that are afforded by the digital marketplace. Right now there are still all sorts of bottlenecks in the system that are resulting in good books not being published (or under-published) and all sorts of stress. Plus, change is scary.

(And yes, I know that paragraph may violate the terms of positivity week. Don't worry, I'm getting to the good stuff.)

Don't fret over your beloved paper books: they will always be around in some form. But here's why we, as lover of books, should embrace the coming eBook future: distribution will no longer hold writers back.

Writers from the beginning of time have been faced with one essential physical challenge: you had to get the books to the people. Thus, you either owned a printing press or you had to find a publisher (who owned you). Without the publishers: there was no way to reach an audience.

This physical barrier has already eroded somewhat with POD and self-publishing, but as anyone who has self-published knows: good luck getting your self-published book into a bookstore. You may be able to print your own book these days, but without a publisher's backing or pre-existing fame it's ridiculously hard to find an audience.

In sum: throughout the past two hundred years, someone could write a perfectly good book, but there was one big barrier standing in between the author and their readers: publishers. As much as I'd like to think the publishing industry is always right, well, it's not.

But here's what's going to happen in the digital era: anyone will be able to publish their book, and there will be no distribution barrier. The same eBook stores that stock Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown will stock, well, you. Readers will be the ones who decide what becomes popular. There will be no intermediary. It will be just as easy to buy a book by you as it will be to buy the HARRY POTTER of the future. Your book will be just a few keystrokes away from everyone with an internet connection (and their tablet/eReader/iPhone/gizmo/whatchamacallit of the future).

Just think about it: no wondering how in the world your book is going to find its way past a publisher into a bookstore. No more print runs! No one will be doomed by a publisher and bookstores underbetting on their success. No more bottleneck. No more que......... well, there will always be queries. Sorry!

Books will finally be able to live and die by, well, themselves, not by the best guesses of the publishing industry.

Now, am I, the agent, writing my own obituary? Nope. I don't think so. If anything things are getting more complicated, and authors will still need agents to navigate the business and negotiate with the Amazons and Sonys and Apples and whoever else rises up in the future. There will still be subrights to negotiate and distribution deals and all sorts of challenges that authors will be hardpressed to face on their own. We'll still be here.

Am I writing the major publisher's obituary? Nope. I don't think so. Although their business will change a great deal, they're probably correct to be coalescing around a blockbuster model. They will still be offering an unrivaled package of services: they'll edit, copyedit, typeset, and promote your book, and better yet, they'll pay you an advance. For the busy bestseller and celebrity it's a very, very attractive package.

Am I writing the small publisher's obituaries? Nope. I don't think so. Small publishers will thrive around collectives like McSweeney's, who help each other promote their likeminded books, and serve as tastemakers in the ensuing deluge of books. Readers will gravitate towards the sites on the Internet with books they like, and enterprising small publishers will have a greater opportunity than ever to become major players.

People, the future of books is exciting! Right now it's scary and chaotic and is making me regularly pound my head on the desk. But when you look at the big picture: greater access will be the best thing that has ever happened to writers in the history of books.


ryan field said...

I need my agent now more than ever. Things come up unexpectedly with e-books, and a good agent is really the only one who can help. Especially when you're crossing between e-books and print books at the same time.

Rick Daley said...

Great post. I agree with you that we are at the dawn of the digital publishing era.

I think the virtual bookstores will be stocked with a greater variety than any bookstore, so getting noticed will be even more difficult without the help of a publisher's marketing muscle.

Just because your book is in a bookstore doesn't guarantee it will be purchased and read. You want the reader who is entering keywords to find your work when it is relevant to their search.

I encourage all aspiring writers (and agents) to start educating themselves on search engine optimization (SEO) and other tools for Internet marketing.

WORD VERIFICATION: ulick. A phrase that when tripled gets you to the center of a tootsie pop.

Furious D said...

I read about a machine where you can order a book on it, and it will literally print and bind a paperback copy in a matter of minutes.

I think every bookstore should have at least one and advertise it as a lure for people to get books without having to wait for delivery from an on-line retailer, who might be out of stock, because these machines are never out of stock.

Plus, it gets people browsing in the stores while they wait for their books.

Ink said...

I believe... Steve Fuller will like this post. Twenty bucks? Any takers? C'mon, what's a little bet between friends?


My best,

Jamono said...

I am truly excited about this new "frontier" in publishing as long as I have the option of reading extended samples of books before purchasing them. I made the mistake of bypassing Amazon's sample chapter, downloaded a book to my Kindle, and found I couldn't bear to read past page three. I won't make that mistake again.

wickerman said...


Do you think James Patterson (or whoever) will run for the internet the moment his contract w/ his publisher is up and rake int he superior cut that he and his agent will get by simply bypassing traditional publishers and books stores and the huge piece of overall take they are getting to cover their costs?

(all of this assuming the e-book climate is up and running at the time - I don't mean to imply that I think bestselling authors will be doing this next week)

My concern is that this could take the cash cows away from the big publishers pretty much making it impossible for them to survive on the bestseller model. IF Barack Obama writes a book about his presidency in 2012 or 2016 and he can sell it and make 60% of the cover by offering it on Amazon in ebook form, why would be agree to accept 12.5% after pushing with Random House (or whoever)?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I like the idea also how, just supposing you're one of those writers who figures out the "soundtrack to your novel" as you're going along, writing the thing - people could buy that along with the e-book...or recipes, or maybe clothing from your fashion line...why should music people be the only ones to branch out into fashion?

But now that I think about it...what will happen is, bands and those people known as "musical artists" will probably branch out and have novels (maybe graphic novels) to accompany their new releases...and they'll be on our turf, instead of us being on theirs...

oh, the way of the world...

Vegas Linda Lou said...

I’m happy to hear you say this, Nathan. I think things look GREAT for those of us who’ve opted to self-publish.

You’re right; this hardly heralds the demise of the agent. I’ll still need an agent’s expertise to negotiate film rights to bring “Bastard Husband: A Love Story” to the big screen, and you’ll be the first one I call. (See? I’ve totally forgiven you for passing on my manuscript.) Now if I can only secure Catherine Zeta-Jones to play moi and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as BH... It will be brilliant!

Margaret Yang said...

To a certain extent, this has already happened with short stories, especially of the science fiction bent. Almost all of the short stories I've published have been with e-zines and I LOVE it. A paper copy of a magazine is on a shelf for weeks. It comes and goes. An e-zine is archived forever.

That is my positive contribution for the week.

Mira said...


I wholeheartedly agree with every word that you wrote, Nathan.

Amazing post, very powerful and far-sighted.

This is the dawn of a new era for of freedom for authors.

With a nod to MLK: Free at last!!

Dan said...


And to keep up with the theme of positivity, even the young Kings players are looking good!

Perhaps one day, they'll even make it back to the playoffs!

Anonymous said...

The publisher is dead! Long live the publisher!

Nathan, I feel like the sun of positivity week slightly blinded your normally clear vision.

The problem before, you said, was that writers needed to get to readers.

The problem REMAINS the same.

It's only that that the problem now is not logistical, i.e. getting the book physically there. Now it is a problem of marketing.

Imagine a poor, isolated subsaharan village with only one beverage store.

Beverage makers spend money and time trying to get their fluids to this market. Those that get there sell well. And this is very difficult.

Now imagine that a street is built which connects this village to a huge city nearby. They build a HUGE HUGE beverage story. Now EVERY drink in the world becomes available.

Is this really good news for the beverage maker? Not really. It just shifts the problem.

People can not POSSIBLY choose between all these beverage, nor take the time to understand the subtle differences between them.

How will they choose? Whatever beverage is closest, is talked about the most, is advertised the most.

No, publishers will not choose who gets published. But they will still choose who gets read.

Sorry for the rain on positive week.

Brian Buckley said...

I'm curious what the balance point ends up being for paper books vs. e-books. Sure, paper books will always be around, but will they be a niche for antique enthsiasts (the way typewriters are today) or will there always be, say, 60% of the population buying paper books?

Personally, here's what I think the future holds: a physical book with pages of digital paper so you can download any text you want to its pages. That way you still get the physical sensation of having a book and turning pages, plus all the versatility of an e-book reader.

munsesse said...

Well, for the record, distribution is already not holding anyone back. You can put a link anywhere, so people could potentially find a path to your novel from literally anywhere on the internet. The distinction is that those novels are free. The question of how to translate a commercial industry from medium to medium is the core of all the ebook hand-wringing. Everything could have been ebooks ten years ago, if nobody wanted to get paid.

(And bless the ones who don't. I've bought the eventual hard copy more times than I can count, and enjoyed hundreds of hours reading in the meantime.)

Dara said...

That's great! And it makes me feel a little less hesitant about the whole digital transition.

It's nice to know I can still opt to find an agent to help me navigate the waters of the publishing world, rather than self-publishing and having to do everything (printing, promoting, selling) the book myself.

I'm definitely a fan of positivity week, especially since I sometimes tend to lean towards the more pessimistic side of the spectrum.

Thanks again!

Jen said...

Hmmm. I think that what will probably happen is that there will be your major e-book stores, the equivalent to physical book stores now, and that is where all the agented and publishing-backed e-books will go. I'm not sure it will be as easy as just everyone putting up their e-books and letting the public decide. Those without backing will have to do the same as they are now, promoting and marketing the heck out of their work to get people to take a chance on it (unless you're Wil Wheaton or someone equally awesome!).

I think the truth is that people don't want to wade through crap to find a good book. That is why going to a bookstore is easy - it might not all be to your taste but you know that at least it has gotten through a certain amount of doors to get to that shelf.

It also occurs to me that when things become more focused on the e-book side of things, the major houses will start competing more within this medium. As technology improves, who know what will happen. Someone mentioned music, which I think is a given. But how about interactive features such as film and smell-o-vision (I'm just kidding about the smell-o-vision... or am I?)

So your major agented/publishing house e=books will likely come with all of these amazing new features, which the self-published books will have trouble matching.

In conclusion, I think that there will still be a divide. Which is a GOOD thing. Because if all e-books had equal standing then it would stop people from striving to improve to enter that upper echelon.

Jean said...

I wish I could afford a Sony Reader. Right now, that is my barrier to reading/buying ebooks. (Let's face it, trying to read a book on your computer and not being able to bookmark your spot pretty much blows chunks.) Plus laptops are kind of heavy--compared to a sleek Reader which is gorgeous, handy dandy and has a long battery life. :) [sigh]


Nikki Hootman said...

Great post! I too am looking forward to The Future. I'm excited to see how it will all work out!

Kate H said...

As an editor, Nathan, I find your future frankly scary. If anyone can get a book in front of the public without benefit of editing, we'll be even more deluged with bad books, or books that could have been good with good editing but by themselves aren't quite there, than we are already. Sure, writers could hire editors on their own, but if they don't need to do that to get past a gatekeeper, where's the motivation? With yet more thousands of books flooding the marketplace, it will be harder and harder to find the really good ones.

As a writer who's having a terrible time getting attention from editors and agents, of course I find the idea of reaching readers without a gatekeeper attractive; but I would also miss the feeling of validation that comes through getting past the gatekeepers. I'm just not sure this future is really going to be the best thing for anyone.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan -
Wonderful, insightful analysis of where eBooks are at right now! I agree with you that agents will continue to be needed and big publishing houses will continue to thrive, even in the brave new world of eBooks. Due to lack of money, many small eBook publishers can't afford to invest in major advertising and good editors who are trained in grammar and spelling - two huge reasons why the big publishing houses continue to sell the most eBooks right now. However, the good news for small eBook publishing houses is that, as you mentioned, barriers will eventually come down with digital publishing. Once eBooks become more popular, small publishing houses could potentially sell enough books to hire really good editors and pay for some major advertising.

In celebration of positivity week and Nathan's post today about electronic publishing, I thought I'd share the link to storySouth's Million Writers Award for Fiction - open to short stories published on the Internet.

RW said...

One thing I hope will happen is something you talk about here which is not just the survival of small presses but the actual flourishing of small presses. We've seen something similar in music where dozens of small record companies with short catalogs of "small" bands have been started to live off the scraps that the big labels have turned their noses up at. Blockbusters have been rare and it isn't by any means easy for those bands to make a living that way, but they do get distribution and a chance, which is a better alternative than the block-buster model has offered. I have a hunch that we'll see more operations like McSweeney's, like you say. Soft Skull is another. High quality books. High quality publishing. A fair shake for the authors. More choice for readers. It is exciting.

Cara said...

I'm so completely in love with Positivity Week. Can we make this a habit? Maybe have a once-monthly Positivity Day?

Anonymous said...

O' the times they are a changing...

Vinyl records

And now the book world...

You know what changed....nothing really, good music still sells and crappy music doesn't. It will be the same with books and the format or delivery won't matter. A good story and quality writing will always have an audience.


Elissa M said...

I don't want to be "un"positive, but I agree with the posters who have mentioned that if every book that's written gets published, it will be impossible for readers to find the ones worth reading.

It won't be readers who decide what sells, it will be the marketing campaigns and the money that funds them. A nobody debut author without the funds for marketing will have even less of a chance to get noticed than they do now.

lettersfromlordship said...

I'm enjoying your Positivity Week immensely.

As a happy owner of a Kindle (my honey bought it for me a Christmas ago), I find that it's great for trips and as a substitute for buying huge, heavy books. Definitely the books are cheaper -- though the device itself will take some time to pay off in savings. But I love to have a real book in my hands, and I like to see the cover, the blurbs, the author photo, etc. I don't think the classic package will go away any time soon.

I agree that cross-over products, such as the soundtrack to the book, photos, travel guide, or even clothing (perfumes? Eau d'Oprah's Books?) could be available right over the Internets.

As commenters here have asked, how does the tiny brilliant author in a sea of electronically available books get the word out? Just as we do now, with blogging, and commenting, and writing bits about our subject in online ventures, and somehow getting the Buzz going. I'm thinking of the old-fashioned tradition of "hand selling" a book in indie bookstores, where one person gets behind something wonderful and passes the word. There will be online reviewers who will develop a good reputation and persuade their followers to read what they recommend. And there will be groups of people who band together to market their books.

Exciting possibilities abound! Thank you for opening our minds to the positive aspects of the "literar-e" revolution.

Lisa said...

I think you're right, but it is SO scary right now.

(My word verification is "prayin"!)

Natalie said...

Things will iron out, they always do. Great reminder.

Stephanie Faris said...

I remember in the 90s listening to e-book authors claim e-books were the wave of the future and those who were in it at the beginning would have huge success. My thought then and my thought now is, nope. If e-books overtake the market, all that will happen is the authors we love in print will begin publishing in e-book format AND print format, eventually switching over if that's what the market calls for. I still don't know an e-book author who makes more annually than I do writing for magazines. And that's not saying much at all!

Bane of Anubis said...

So, I caught a bit of the bachelor last night in between commercials for 24 and 1st impression is that the guy is a major dillweed (and the chicas aint much better). The New Zealand vistas are amazing - if y'all have never been, I'd highly recommend it to anybody (South Island is better than North, but both are fantastic) - the only bad part's the flight.

Cass said...

Interesting post Nathan. Thanks for giving us your view on The Future of Books.

I'm a big lover of real books, but I have to admit I've never even seen a e-reader up close. If this is going to be the way of the future, so be it. I just want people to find what I write interesting enough to get a copy. Paper or digital or audio.

Keep up the positive spin for this week please. I'm loving it.

BTW - no talk of the Bachelor? Is that because you did not view last nights finale as positive?

Kristin Laughtin said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post (and for positivity week in general--I think we all need it). It's reassuring to see that my "outsider" view (as someone who hasn't even yet tried to break into the business) is somewhat along the same lines as someone more knowledgeable about the industry.

The new obstacle writers will have to tackle will be securing visibility. We'll all be able to publish anything we want, but all it will do is make it harder to find the gems among the sea of never-ending muck. We'll be able to distribute freely, but who will find us? This is why many of us will need publishers--to help promote our titles and give them an air of legitimacy so that they will be noticed (along with the other services you mentioned: editing, copy-editing, etc., as well as the nice draw of getting an advance). And as long as we have publishers, we'll need agents to serve as intermediaries.

Given that it's positivity week, it's a bit ironic that my word verification for today is "stress".

David said...

Buzz. It will all come down to that. Of course, it does now.

Instead of cover blurbs from established writers, we'll try to get them to link to our books from their sites. That route will be available to a small number of unknown writers.

You'll still be able to sell - or give - copies to a certain number of friends and relatives, but for those books that aren't being pushed by a recognized publishing name, the trick will be selling more than that.

For most of us, we'll have to stop thinking - or hoping - in terms of big numbers when a book first comes out. The biggest change, I think, will be the book's staying "in print." That will give it a chance to establish a readership and for the writer to build a fan base.

Vancouver Dame said...

This is an encouraging post that paints a bright future; we just have to wait out the current storm.

The idea of the small publishing collectives, and more equal distribution methods for all writers is appealing.

I definitely believe that agents will still be needed to help navigate the publishing waters, as most of us need that expertise to guide us through the legalities of contracts, and other publishing mysteries.

The world keeps changing as technology evolves, and if we want to succeed and survive we have to change our ways of viewing it.
Thanks for a peek into the future, according to Nathan. (now if you could do something about stocks and tv programs. . .)

Mark Terry said...

I've been writing a series of blog posts about various aspect of publishing and today I wrote about royalties. And I commented that terms like "sell-through" and "remainder" and "reserve against returns" are probably going to become non-existent in the future as e-books become the dominant form of publishing.

I suspect that publishers will still be gatekeepers of sorts, but maybe not. Look at the record industry.

I also wonder what will happen to book-and-mortar bookstores. Only time will tell.

Scott said...

Nathan - Great Post.

With the Internet, countless blogs, web sites, and all that jazz - marketing is as simple as a link on a page. So, a writer writes a book about events that occur at the local bar. The novel gets published. The bar puts a link on their web site. Ta-da!

Okay, not so simple, but there is a bar where I live that constantly promotes local artists - from bands, singers, painters, and writers. At least once a month they showcase some artist. It is marketing in a simple form, and that is available on the internet as well.

Now, for some specific comments:

To Jen - 'people don't want to wade through crap . . . why going to a bookstore is easy . . . gotten through a certain amount of doors to get to that shelf'. Well, I've - unfortunately - bought some crap at the bookstore and thought "WTH??? How'd this get published?" While I agree, somewhat, with you, I must disagree on some level. I also know that on many of the books for Amazon Kindle, a person can download the first chapter. I can normally tell whether I'll like a book or not by reading the first chapter. If I like the first chapter, I buy, if not, I don't.

To Elissa M - 'it won't be readers who decide what sells, it will be the marketing campaigns and the money that funds them . . . a nobody debut author without the funds . . ." Well, read my entry to this comment. A good portion of the books I read are because a friend has recommended them. I've also read quite a few books that I've seen mentioned in comments on the writing blogs, or within the blogs themselves. The world is changing, and marketing is changing as well. An author with limited funds, and Internet access can create a blog to promote their book. I guess that's a bit of 'positive' as well.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon, jen, kate h and others-

Yes, definitely the new world will result in some chaos as people have to find new ways of sorting through the bad to get to the good, and marketing will become even more important. I actually think traditional publishers will continue to have an advantage in this area even in the era of eBooks. But everyone else will have a much better shot than before.

Steve Fuller said...

I love this post!

Collect your winnings, Bryan. :-)

Larry B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marilyn Peake said...

The successful publishing house, Tor, has started giving away some of its short stories for free in newsletters that people can sign up for, and posting other free material right on their website: Tor website. Nothing says positivity like freebies. :)

Martin Willoughby said...

As digital music takes off, smaller bands can get noticed if they're good enough, but they need one of two things:

1 - a local following that translates into sales
2 - lots of marketing

Option 1 may be the way for small presses and unknown authors. But how do you get the local following?

Musicians and Comedians can perform live to an audience. What can a writer do to gain a local following?

Jeannie Campbell said...

love the amazon link reiterating that publishers are not always right. what an understated way to make a valid point on positivity week!

Just_Me said...

Tell you what, make an e-reader that is about the size of a standard paperback, folds open like a book, is water resistant, shock resistant, toddler proof and costs less than $20 and I will consider moving into the future with you.

I'm not so positive that readers will be able to find any small-name, self-published, e-book next to the big name authors. I think you'll find the unknowns buried at the bottom of the list, theoretically available to everyone but not selling because no one knows the author and they aren't getting the advertising from the e-book seller.

Amazon says they'll give you a spot to sell your self-published work, I've never found one there. Ever. When I go to Amazon to shop I have a list of titles, I type those in and buy. I never see anything besides my requested titles that would tempt me into an impulse buy.

I might browse second-hand book seller's sites because it's cheaper to buy books from one seller and when I can pick up a book I want for under a dollar with shipping I'm happy. The author is not.

Which brings up the whole question of piracy of books. It took a teenager less than 48 hours to sit down and write the code for Napster, just goofing off. Now file sharing for music is becoming the standard. What happens when someone hacks the e-book seller's code? Suddenly you can get the PDF of the e-book for a penny with no money going to the author at any point. I see that being a problem that needs to be dealt with before we all march happily into the future.

as meredith said...

I wanted to say that you have consistently been making the most progressive and probably correct statements about the future of publishing, of the publishing and agent blogs I watch. And I follow new media for a living, y'know. Good insights.

Anonymous said...

Nathan's quote:

"...Books will finally be able to live and die by, well, themselves, not by the best guesses of the publishing industry..."

This isn't really a plus. With no distribution, books NOT having to be on bookshelves, there will be an even greater need for publishers to promote books for anyone to know they exist. Since publishers only promote lead titles to begin with, this only leads to even fewer sales for midlist whose only saving grace is that perhaps someone will pick them off a shelf.

Brian Buckley said...

In response to "Just_Me":

Book piracy might not be as big of a problem as you think. Quite a few big-name authors make their books available for free download because it increases sales.

Makes sense, in my opinion. Not too many traditional authors feel threatened by libraries.

Marilyn Peake said...

I looked more closely at the Tor website - turns out they have free short stories right on their website: Tor website.

Kylie said...

I guess that makes sense. But digital books are so cheap. Who would make money off them? Maybe more and more books will be e-books, but I just can't see them washing away paper books. My imagination just doesn't stretch quite so far, I guess. I don't know. I'm not so optimistic in that sense. If there's less money, less of the better writers would be able to spend time devoted to writing. My favorite authors would take years between the books in their series! The torture!

Dawn said...

After reading your post, I'm feeling conflicted. I'm feeling the stirrings of excitement AND terror over the future of publishing. I echo Kat H.'s feelings about that sense of validation that comes from "getting past the gatekeepers." This is my first book; I haven't been at this for years, and I don't know enough about the standard publishing business yet to understand how different things will be.

Anonymous said...

I don't wanna decide what's "popular" by having to sort through thousands of titles of publishable books AND self-published crap. If it wasn't good enough for a book deal (yes, I'm including my own unpublished books in this) then it shouldn't be next to a published book.

Sorry if that offends.

Dawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DebraLSchubert said...

Being a singer/songwriter as well as a novelist, I hope the publishing industry will NOT do what the music industry has done, and that is fight new technology and progress. I interviewed Roy Elkins, the founder and CEO of Broadjam today (a music community website) for my column at and found the interview fascinating. He illustrated how the music industry first fought vinyl recordings for fear sheet music would no longer be sold, then cassettes/8-tracks for fear records would no longer we sold, then CD's and so on. The truth of the matter is, we need to embrace technology and progress. Great art is great art and we need marketing, agents, editors, and publishers to make it "visible." I like your visionary approach to moving the industry forward as opposed to watching it die a slow, agonizing death. I hope the industry is smart enough to follow suit.

Nathan Bransford said...

Come on now, it's positivity week. Buck up! The future will be different. There will be changes. But it will also be, on the whole, better for authors. They'll have more control over their own destiny than ever before. Yeah, it might take some elbow grease to make your work stand out from the crowd, but most writers I know just want a shot. In the e-book world everyone will have a good one.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Anonymous, that doesn't offend, but I think your statement "If it wasn't good enough for a book deal... then it shouldn't be next to a published book" reflects what will soon be an antiquated paradigm.

Mira said...

When I re-read this post, I was just so happy at the idea that in the near future, authors can finally cut free of the publisher's iron grip.

You know - the iron grip that doesn't market new authors, pays peanuts, and makes it unreasonably hard for a new author to get published.

Good riddance! Really!

Sure change is alittle nerve wracking, but power and freedom are well worth it.

jimnduncan said...

Lots of interesting stuff here today. Nathan is correct of course. Publishers and agents won't be put out of business by this change. They'll just shift, develop new ways to market, distribute, and sell their books. The big and small presses will continue to flourish, albeit in new ways.

Writers certainly will have new ways to give access to their books, but the big question remains, as many have pointed out, will access turn into readers? I think most will find that is not the case. Most writers are not marketers or publicists. Lots of money will be made to 'help' these folks, who will find that it does little good. It will help some to be sure. Stories will abound about the unknown writer achieving best seller status via a saavy online marketing campaign. But for most, it will be a lot of the same. Don't get me wrong though. There will be a lot more opportunities available to succeed, but in reality, most writers don't have the time or where-with-all to do what it will take to succeed.

The biggest problem, as I see it? Convenience. People will want the easiest way possible to find and read good books. The people with the money will be the ones who capitalize on this and create the best methods to achieve this end. They will of course make money getting writers to spend money to access this in the hopes of selling. Kudos to writers who can figure out how to do this on their own. Most will find that they don't want/can't sacrifice the time they take to write in order to market and promote. How easy is it to spend hours a day surfing around the blogosphere trying to stay connected and network with others?

In essence, the old ways will convert themselves to the new way of business, maximizing the amount of money they can make, and doing their best to minimize what others can do to garner their share of the pie. We're just in a chaotic time of transition. When things settle out, there will be different ways of achieving the same end, the buying and selling of books. The corporate world will manage to maximize their share, and it will still be insanely difficult to make it on your own as a writer, much like it is now. Those who will benefit the most? The reader. They'll still find good stuff to read, and they'll gravitate to the most efficient way possible of achieving that end.

Not sure that's either positive or negative really. It's just the way it will be. In my humble, non-expert opinion of course.

Mira said...

Hmmm, well I still wish everyone would cheer up. Nathan is dead on target, and the future is bright - I think, anyway.

In other news, although this is off topic, I'm following up on our conversation from yesterday, Nathan.

I noticed that even though I triple-dog-dared you x infinity, I still have not received a signing contract from you.

And that's even though I spelled the word 'receive' correctly.


So, I've decided to sweeten the deal.

It's true I haven't written a darn thing. But. You should know that I do have a few ideas.

Yes. Ideas.

A few of them.

Yup, I thought that would make all the difference.

Um, when you send the contract, could you start with the money part?

Okey dokey. That should do it.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I do believe I like this optimism week.

Personally, I look forward to waggling a cane at young'uns and telling them about the ridiculously primitive early 2000's, when e-books were new and weird.

T. Anne said...

Anon at 1:56,
I'm assuming amazon will continue to offer reviews, it's star rating system and sneak peaks into the books content. In fact, that's how I wade through the cr@p now. BTW that includes the stuff that got through the gate keepers.

I love, love, LOVE this post!!!

lotusgirl said...

Do you think the easier access to the people will result in less well written books? I'm finding that the whole process of appealing to an agent/publisher is making me write a better book.

Litgirl01 said...

Very positive stuff indeed! ;-)

ABB said...

Loving positivity week - and great post, thank you!

RE: Mark Terry "I wonder what will happen to book-and-mortar bookstores."

I used to live in Chicago, and was really surprised to hear that the Michigan Ave store is due for closure. However, it reminds me of what one of my (well read) American colleagues said at the time. "No one actually goes to Borders to buy a book. You go, find what you want to read, get a nice spot in their leather sofas and maybe a cup of coffee. Read your book. Then mark the page and put it back, until you go back the next time."

Perhaps the future of large bookstores is in losing the non-book related gimmicks and returning to the traditional value-add of knowledgeable staff providing informed customer service and guidance in finding the book you don't know you are after and selling it? Which is why some indie bookstores are still doing well, despite current climate.

If I know exactly which book I want, I go to amazon. If I want a type of book, or subject matter but don't know which one, I go to the bookstore.

I wonder if there will be a difference due to the aim of the author which path he/she takes? To go back to a previous posting here, Money or Literary Fame? And how well they will grow together?

First, financially more viable for the majority of authors to make a small profit from a smaller audience - self-pub. Second, to become Nobel prize winner, stick with agent and publisher route?

I wonder if we will see an increasingly narrow selection of what are considered (in the second group) "good" books and if/when the self-pubbed stigma will be overcome in those circles?

CNU said...

How very, very true...

Indie authors abound. :)


Jen said...

To Jen - 'people don't want to wade through crap . . . why going to a bookstore is easy . . . gotten through a certain amount of doors to get to that shelf'. Well, I've - unfortunately - bought some crap at the bookstore and thought "WTH??? How'd this get published?" While I agree, somewhat, with you, I must disagree on some level. I also know that on many of the books for Amazon Kindle, a person can download the first chapter. I can normally tell whether I'll like a book or not by reading the first chapter. If I like the first chapter, I buy, if not, I don't.

I agree that sometimes you wonder how things got published, but there is normally a publishable element that has gotten it through the door. Think about Twilight - the writing is pretty average in that book (sometimes it's cringe-worthy!) but there is a story there that appeals to a heck of a lot of people.

As far as downloading chapters, imagine how many trillions of e-books there will be in the future to wade through. Downloading the first chapter of everything is going to take you a long time, and a lot of your monthly download limit! I think it will still come down to the book being on a reputable site (think Borders E-Book store or Dymocks E-Book store), a great premise, and word of mouth. Just like it is now!

Nathan Bransford said...
anon, jen, kate h and others-

Yes, definitely the new world will result in some chaos as people have to find new ways of sorting through the bad to get to the good, and marketing will become even more important. I actually think traditional publishers will continue to have an advantage in this area even in the era of eBooks. But everyone else will have a much better shot than before.

Nathan, do you think that in the future publishers will have more of a hand in marketing and promotion, rather than leaving quite so much up to the author? (And who will be in charge of smell-o-vision? OMG)

Julie Long said...

Dear Nathan,
I'm a long-time reader, first-time commenter. I finally came off the sidelines to say: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for Positivity Week!

Nathan Bransford said...


Definitely -- there will surely be a 21st version of co-op placement as publishers fight for space in e-mail blasts, front pages, etc. Marketing will still be important.

The new e-publishing world is going to look a lot like this one, only things will be, well, different. I still think it will be a net positive for authors, mainly because no one will be subservient to the whims of print runs and bookstore ordering. It makes it much less cost prohibitive and risky to put a book out, which will enable more risk-taking and will even the playing field in many ways.

The big publishers will still have many substantial advantages because they have localized resources and expertise that isn't easy to duplicate, but I'm guessing we'll see much more fluidity in terms of what books rise to the top.

April Hollands said...

I'm not feeling comfortable with the positive Nathan. I much prefer the honest Nathan who I can trust to tell me what's happening in a realistic, unhyped way. This just all feels a bit Disney. I might have to block my eyes until next week...

Marilyn Peake said...

Happy Square Root Day!

Jen said...


I do think it is going to be an exciting change, although I agree that a lot will also stay the same. One good thing will be it will probably solve that problem authors have wherein if their last book has not sold so well then the bookstore will not order as many of their next, thus making it almost impossible to have a best seller.

Oh, I just had a cool vision of the bookstore of the future, where you can go in and browse titles and blurbs, decide what you like, then go to a machine and plug in your Kindle and download straight onto it. Then you will still have the experience of shopping in a store, plus have staff recommendations, places for author readings and so on, while keeping with the times. And of course, the obligatory cafe so you can sit and read your Kindle over a latte (or soy chai, in my case!). That would be fun!

Miri said...

My only concerns with this are that once everyone can put their books straight out there, without any kind of quality control, 1. the quality will obviously dip, making it necessary to hunt for the readable stuff, and 2. if the average internet Joe can't even get people to his blog, how does his book stand a chance? Even if it's great?

Popularity economy scares me, to be honest.

Aaron Stephens said...

So as long as there is quality control with the e-books, then it will be fine. More selection with e-books sounds good for the writer as there is more opportunity for us.

Some might fret that more choices equals less chances that they will become a breakaway author of the pack.

If you got a good book, good advertising/marketing, and word of mouth...all is well.

selestial-owg said...

Change is good, but like you said it can also be kind of scary. On the other hand, scary is often exciting. So, I'm just going to hold on to my hat and try to enjoy the ride.

Oh, and congrats on the empty inbox!

Anna Lefler said...

Nathan, I love the way you took me through this - every time a question popped into my head, you answered it in the next paragraph!

Thanks for the much-needed positivity and for dialing down my e-book concerns.

JD said...

This video says it all about the future(just for books instead of movies).

Anonymous said...

What would line my bookshelves if we all went to ebooks?
Books are beautiful to look at and easily shared amongst friends. They are a conversation piece when a guest remarks on your collection or that they read that one before. Books aren't just for reading, otherwise ebooks would have less opposition. Books are inscribed gifts, memories on your shelf, art that should be displayed. Without the physical book, what would remind me of it years past?

Roscoe James said...

Nope, I don't comment much but I really do enjoy the blog. Thanks Nathan.

A twist to your projection. The publisher's role is reduced dramatically to print and marketing as electronic reading becomes the norm. The balance shifts and the most important person becomes the agent (house). The agents and their companies are unencumbered by the excess fat the publishers carry around with their out of date business model. They will not be able to react quick enough to take full advantage of what takes place in the next two years.

The agent brings the line editor and style editor in house and creates final electronic documents. The agent then find the electronic outlet most suitable (bypassing the publisher). Then when an electronic read wants to go hard cover the publisher looks for the agent that owns property rights.

Lol. Ok. Nuts. Just a thought.

Robert A Meacham said...

Nathan,Thanks for the insightful article.
I have been in the retail management business and this is what I observe:
Titles hit the streets in mass production with proven authors. There is still no substitute for in your face merchandising in the brick and mortar stores.
In retail, you keep pushing what sells, until you find something else to push , caused by either trend or marketplace demands. Yes, I believe there is a market for e-books...but it will all be up to how you market your product. For example:
I do not make squat for my short stories on amazon but after doing a trailer for one of the shorts, it more than tripled its sales after doing due dilligence driving people to my blog.
Things are a changing!

Crystal D said...

Well Nathan, when you put it that way, count me in! If E Books will lead to easier access to us authors to get our books out there, bring it on!

M Clement Hall said...

But is the agent going to be interested in collaborating with a small publisher offering a commensurately small or zero advance?

Cass said...

Well I'm just a nimrod. I'm reading the post again from home and there it is plain as day. You did touch on the bachelor!

Pamala Knight said...

Dude. You are so smart. 'S all I'm saying.

BarbS. said...

Bravo, Nathan! Brave words and a brave attitude!

I've met several writers on Authonomy who are experienced in marketing and retail, and are having a grand time selling their own works POD.

Not every writer is an entrepreneur, but, for some, independence seems to be the way to go.

Just a thought!

Kim Kasch said...

I actually love the idea of the Ireader the Ebook the cyberbook - because I love my techno-stuff.

Newbee said...

Love it!

Meg89 said...

I'm so glad you're doing positivity week! I read enough feeds about how bad it is, and as someone who would like to work in publishing after she graduates (in May 2010) it's getting scary! Thanks for the big picture. I'm feeling a little better about those internship applications. A little. :)

Nifaerie Noven said...

E-books are the future? You mean a very small part of the future, right? It's just so hard to imagine parents reading bed time stories to their kids off the Kindle. Or checking out library books with your Ipod Touch. Or downloading the book you were assigned in class on to your computer along with the requisite Cliff Notes. Dude and who really wants to go through airport security with another fragile, expensive machine when you've already got a laptop, camera, mp3 player and phone to worry about?

I think you should be optimistic because in a few months this switch to digital is going to require everyone to either buy a new TV or get cable. Some people are just not going to have it and they'll be looking for a new source of entertainment. If there's enough upset over the switch, the book industry can generate some very powerful cognitive dissonance.

I would also be optimistic about global warming. Well-bound paper books are still the least energy intense form of media-based entertainment. They're also the most biodegradable and the least toxic. You don't have to worry about radiation, hearing loss or lead poisoning from a book.

Lastly, I would be optimistic about increases in the time people spend waiting for stuff in general. More bored people waiting around for stuff to happen is the best thing that could happen for the book industry.

You could also be optimistic about increasing movie, video game and music costs, hipster frustration with commercial music and the impending retirement of Baby Boomers who should soon have a lot more time to read.

Writer from Hell said...

Thought provoking as always!

With recession and unemployment, people perhaps have more time to read books but can't buy as much since they are short of funds. So may be new avenues are required to make secondary readership much more widespread.

Sales may come down in the short run but if we stay focused on delighting the readers, money will naturally come, may be later than sooner.

I don't think the middle channels can ever be done away with and hope not. Perhaps with tougher times, better practices will evolve such that only greatest quality books read end readers.

CNU said...


A good read from Virginia Quarterly on the very same subject.


Marilyn Peake said...

I was taking a closer look at the information on the Amazon website for the Kindle 2.0. There's a long section about how to publish and sell your own book on the Kindle. Blogs are also available for the Kindle.

Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

Sounds exciting! There's hope for us!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think you see this happening online already in short fiction. New short fiction markets--GOOD ones--are opening all the time due to the internet.

People find that fiction and read it. They like what they see, they come back. Not like so much? They don't.

bitemymoko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cassandra said...

I think there's a growing trend of calling those of us who want to find an agent and get published by big houses "Traditional" that is borderline derogatory. Calling someone "Traditional" in this age is seen more and more as someone who isn't willing to change.

But is is clear that SOMETHING has to change.

With the rise of self-publishing, more and more people can write whatever they want and still call themselves a published "author". While at one time this, too, was looked down upon as not "really" being published it is now becoming more and more common and accepted by growing numbers of people.

So, Nathan, what would you say to someone who still believes in the "Traditional" way (agent, editor, publisher) and is getting downtrodden when all her friends are self-publishing and becoming "authors" and having parties?

I am being prejudiced here and kinda to equate it to weight-loss surgery vs. diet and exercise. Traditionally publishing authors are those that use diet and exercise to lose 100 pounds, but it takes them two years. Self-publishers are those that opt for lap-bands or gastric bypass and see those 100 pounds drop in two months but they have to take vitamins for the rest of their lives.

Cassandra said...

JD, did you notice in that Youtube clip that the woman is reading a paper book? HA!

Whirlochre said...

I love it when we all get to don capes and fly off, united, into the future.

George Fripley said...

I'm all for change, and as someone who could possibly beenfit from the eBook revolution when it comes, it will probably benefit me. But I also like the bound A5 book that I can take anywhere and read. The idea of reading a book on a screen just doesn't resonate with me. Perhaps I'm a luddite?

Jinx said...

Nathan, you are awesome! I just had to pop in and say that. =)

Neil said...

I know this comes up a lot, but it's hard not to make a comparison with the way the music industry has looked for some time. With any old noodler able to offer their music online and get it sold through credible outlets like Amazon and Itunes, suddenly you're up against a million times as many people vying for consumer's attention. The issue is how to stand out from the sea of other creators, many of whom are just enthusiastic amateurs, who have no knowledge or concept of craft.

In music, if you "self-publish" it's incredibly difficult to reach listeners without the endorsement of tastemakers and respected, already-known reviewers. You also need to spend a frankly astonishing amount of time building "friends" and infiltrating online communities etc etc because there's no exposure available to you that you don't directly create yourself. Because of this, numerous shady online organisations have sprung up offering to do your PR for you, and in almost all cases these organisations are just shameless profiteers and of no practical use whatsoever. Additionally, in the UK, almost every time the press cries "online sensation breaks into mainstream" and tries to convince you that an act started in their bedroom one night and got an enormous record deal the next day due to their "massive online following", you do a little digging and find that said act have been managed by professionals and agented by professionals for some time. The "online breakthrough" was manufactured by a team of people working very hard to get that act noticed.

What I think this means for the book industry is that there is more of a role for agents than ever, and possibly "managers" of authors too. In order to stand apart authors will need astonishing writing skills, incredible PR skills, a willingness to commit to any and all promotional opportunities, and an ability to collaborate creatively with a small team of people in order to reach the highest available number of potential book buyers. And what we need the most is cache. We should all be placing the highest value on our writing and not giving it away for free - we need to perpetuate the idea that our work has real worth, real weight, not that it is something to just be given away. How we cultivate that sense of worth will be a matter to be discussed at length with our agents, and will be the key to being successful in these days of the new digital frontier.

Hat Man said...

For me, I'm very excited about this wonderful prospect. People always could publish their own stuff. Martin Luther did it. Thoreau said he had a library of 1,000 volumes, 800 of which he'd published himself (or something like that). Now the writer will be in control of his works.

Nona said...

As a writer and a natural-born escapist, I think we should have "positivity week" 52 times a year.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As someone who writes fiction straddling the border between literary and popular, I've always been a hard sell. Yet I am fundamentally convinced that my writing would find lots of readers with the right combination of agent/editor/publisher. The sheer LUCK involved in getting successfully published--if you lack connections, like most writers--is incomprehensible. And writers who get the first contract invariably acknowledge that--"I'm so lucky, I feel so lucky!" they shout. Not--"I'm such a great writer, I knew this would happen." Because it not only feels like luck to them, they know it IS luck.

I hope you are right, Nathan. I can hardly wait for the future to arrive. I am so tired of my career being held hostage by uninspired agents and overworked, groupthinky editors.

Lady Glamis said...

I agree with the last part of your comment, especially! It really is exciting, and I think in the long run, all of this hype will work out for the best!

Secret Love said...

Digital smigital. If the only reason you want an agent is to help with the marketing, you're a better writer than I am. Scratch that, you probably are a better writer than I am.

What I look forward to most in getting an agent (and an editor), is becoming a writer who writes better books.

Jens Porup said...

If the sole goal of an author were for people to read his work, then I would agree with you; unfortunately, we all want to make money at this game, and it's here that your argument falls apart.

The problem is security. Look at the music industry -- piracy is rampant, and every new form of DRM is rapidly cracked.

As a former computer programmer I can say with confidence that every system can be cracked, and it only has to be cracked once -- the method can then be duplicated world-wide.

For bands whose music is pirated, they can still make money through concerts; but I defy the pirated novelist to make a living from reading his work aloud in bookstores that hold a mere several hundred people (at the most).

Dori said...

I know this question may seem odd, but in the whole e-book discussion, I haven't seen it discussed.

Is anyone concerned about privacy issues inherent in going to e-books? What we eat, watch, do is already monitored by some entity somewhere, do we just not care to add read to the list?

When you download a digital book, there will be a record. There was a flap not too long ago about bookstores not wanting to give up their sales records to the government. The e-book would make that obsolete.

Just a question.

Amber Lynn Argyle said...

So, how is the market affecting the length of time publishers take to review a MS?

Just curious, as I've been waiting over 5 months.

Liz said...

I think you've touched well on the future of agents - you'll need to become more broadly savvy of the multiple channels available to you and your clients to make a living off of their content. The vision of uploading your books and they're instantly available for sale already exists (with a generous royalty on net proceeds of 85%) at I'm usually there daily, and each time I find at least one item worthy of setting aside in my library (the online one that comes with memebership) to consider purchasing. I think authors will also have to become much more savvy about the business and their market and building a platform. Maybe in later years new authors don't reach out to agents until they've published a thing or two online and started to get some interest and offers that they don't know what to do with. And maybe there will be room for writers of the odd and unusual (a writer of erotic Star Trek fan fiction from New Zealand comes to mind) to find their market even though no "conventional" publisher would touch them.

Yes, it's going to be very, very exciting.

Liz said...

Re the privacy question - that information is already available with online sales of printbooks, too. I would expect Amazon analyzes aggregated and depersonalized data on what sells where and to what demo to improve their marketing. Maybe noir thrillers are really popular in Minneapolis. If I'm a bookstore chain with an outlet in Minneapolis, I'd find that useful information to help me not waste marketing dollars and make the most of my shelf space. But as far as tracking information that ties back to a specific user ID, most privacy policies prohibit it unless required by applicable law, and even then they'd probably resist it to protect their reputations and sales - especially if the business only exists online.

Roland said...

As a writer about to delve into self-publishing, my primary concern is actually that my novel be available for the kindle and sony reader.

My second concern is that someone somewhere actually wants to read it.

rightonmom said...

Loving the positivity. I've heard from several of my 'sources' that e-books are the way of the future (really, I have no sources, have just always wanted to say that...)
Yes, it will be a learning curve like all new things are, but absolutely forward thinking. A concern is that the writing continue to stay sharp.

pjd said...

This is a better articulation of what I've been thinking than I've been able to come up with. Of course, this brave new world will come with the problem of unparalleled noise (which is where the collectives and taste-makers (great name for a rock band) will come in).

This moment, for publishing, must be what the travel agency industry was facing ten years ago when people first were able to book their own trips on line.

Anne Wayman said...

As Rick Daley and others pointed out, readers not only have to have the book available, but they have to know about it before they can buy it. I wonder if agents like yourself won't find yourself doing way more marketing than negotiating... or negotiating marketing maybe. As the noise increases, the long tail gets more interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

I have more than 6000 "references" that would come up if you googled my name as an artist, but although sales are available through various sites, only one site is actually selling and they spend two million a year on advertising every year for their site and are always actively pursuing sales opportunities.

(Another thought:
Supersized stores are closing everywhere.
Going back to the small business model could also be the way things will return.
After being put out of work by big corporations, small businesses are popping up. They are more steady and reliable.
The one-man to three man construction specialist, the local farmers at the local farmers' markets, the small bookseller who features what he wants and specializes in local literary?

It kind of reminds me of how at one time it was so PROGRESSIVE to have an electronic answering system, but today, it is BETTER BUSINESS to have someone who can respond immediately in a REAL way (i.e., a real person) answering the phone.

(word verification: entio roc!)

K said...

Now that Miley Cyrus is a published author....How can I compete?
Why do you do this? Publishing industry?

An autobiography no less. LOLOLOLOL

This is absurd.

Real writers unite!!!

Nolan said...

Thank you!

Like everyone else in the world (or at least most who read your blog) I am working on my craft now, and as much as I am uncertain about the future of publishing, you certainly painted a pretty picture of what it could be like. That silver lining is enough to help me endure the storm clouds currently overhead.

Thanks again!

Nolan Peterson

Brad Mo said...

I worry that in the future companies will have control over what gets put into the widely used sources for buying ebooks. Theoretically, I should be able to go to a bookstore locally and ask if they will sell my book, but they won't. I simply feel that in the future somebody who is not a writer is still going to be in control of the situation.

I'm not being pessimistic. I'm being worrisome.

Katrina Stonoff said...

I think the most important statement you made, Nathan, was this one: "But when you look at the big picture: greater access will be the best thing that has ever happened to writers in the history of books."

Think about the literary (and literacy) explosion that followed the invention of the printing press. And when you boil the printing press down, all it did was give readers greater access to books. Exactly what the electronic age is doing now.

Dakota Flint said...

I just wanted to say thanks! Another author pointed me to this blog, and I really needed this. It's like blogging I Ching.

Some moments you just really need a shot of positivity. :)

Jackson said...


Thanks for sharing such lovely post. I feel book printing requires techniques in order to develop books that meet the standards of the present generation

Stuart Aken said...

Nathan, I know it's a while since you did this positive blog, but I'd still like to thank you. There is hope. I agree with your analysis and, in spite of the necessary pain, loss and change, I believe the world of books will come out better. As you so rightly point out, this is a real opportunity for the writer. Bypassing the publisher is often essential if you're writing anything radical; publishers, especially since the Salman Rushdie affair, have grown less and less willing to take risks with content. I think there is now a real, viable future for those of us with something important to say; something that might frighten the establishment or unsettle the conservative amongst the reading population. Exposure and identity are now the greatest hurdles a writer needs to clear in order to run the race. More power to your elbow, Nathan.

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