Thursday, May 10, 2012
As you may have noticed from my gazillions of posts about the wonders of e-books and the future of publishing, I'm a rather relentless techno-optimist. I think the future is going to be better than the past, and I believe having more books out there in the market is a decidedly good thing. I'm counting down the days until there's an invention that allows us to read five books at once.
At the same time, along with technological change comes major disruptions, and change is never even. There will inevitably be institutions and ways of life and old habits and jobs that will go by the wayside to make room for what's to come. Even if things are better on the whole (and I really do think they will be), there are going to be good things that are lost as well.
So I thought I'd devote a post to what I personally think are some of the biggest challenges for publishers, agents, authors, readers, and bookstores.
In the old era, only major publishers had the infrastructure to get books to readers. You had to go through them to reach readers in large numbers.
In the e-book era, that necessity is no longer going to be there, and the distribution advantage that publishers have enjoyed for a couple of centuries will be severely, if not completely, eroded. All of a sudden authors, big and small, are going to have the option of going it alone if they want to, and the value proposition that publishers provide is not as clear-cut.
I don't think publishers are going to disappear entirely, and the package of services they bring to bear to produce a book is still unmatched. But if bestselling authors begin setting off on their own with regularity, it's going to have major ramifications for publishers' size and profitability.
I don't think agents are going away. You know that phrase about how a combative person could start a fight in an empty room? Well, agents could start a negotiation in an empty room.
I personally think the biggest threat to agents isn't a decline of publishers - as I say whenever I'm asked, agents will negotiate with whomever is still around. As long as there are authors and readers, there will be someone getting the books to the readers, and authors will need agents to negotiate with those someones. And even in an era where agents aren't the gatekeepers to the literary world, they'll still have a role.
So what's the biggest threat to agents? I think it's standardization of terms.
Apple's iTunes and App stores have been revolutionary in many respects, but perhaps the most revolutionary is the one-size-fits all 70/30 revenue split for all apps. Big, small, it's 70/30. That 70/30 split is so powerful it even caused major publishers to adopt the model across the board for e-books.
If, hypothetically, advances largely go by the wayside and authors of the future are simply offered the same revenue split as everyone else and there's no room for negotiation, agents may be necessary for only the biggest authors.
When bookstores are already struggling and facing a looming mass conversion to e-books, it doesn't take a genius to see the challenges that bookstores will face. If you love bookstores: support them with your dollars please!
And my unsolicited advice for bookstores: you have a brand that people trust, and people will always need recommendations. Move that brand online as soon as possible, don't hide from the e-book era and give people a reason to keep coming back.
I actually think authors have a good situation in the new era, because everyone will have a chance to be heard. But, unfortunately, not all chances are going to be created equal. There will still be a big difference between a book launched with a major publicity campaign and a book anonymously and quietly uploaded to Amazon.
In any situation where there is a great deal of choice people tend to retreat to trusted brands, and I think that's going to be true of the new era. Megabestsellers and celebrities will continue to sell more, and everyone else may find it difficult to stand out.
But as Double Rainbow guy goes to show, hits can come out of nowhere. All it takes is a few people raving for a book to go viral and start spreading. And in the new era, word spreads faster than ever.
I think some of the fears about a deluge of poorly written books are overblown. No one is going to have to go sifting through a huge pile of bad self-published books to find the good stuff. Besides, the era of the deluge is already here. There are millions of books out there and we are still able to find the good ones.
But there are going to be some challenges for readers. While I think anyone who wants a print book will be able to buy one for the foreseeable future, as bookstores close readers are going to have to find new ways of locating books, there could be format confusion and DRM frustrations, and territorial issues and glitches.
But ultimately I think readers will benefit the most from the new era. The more books there are to choose from the more likely it will be that the perfect ones for you are out there.
What do you think the challenges will be? What's scariest about the new era?
Art: Illustration from "Bilderbuch für Kinder" (picture-book for children), edited by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch