I've been preparing this article for a while on the future of self-publishing 2020. One thing I have learned is that predicting the future based on current practices and trends is a precarious business. The publishing industry – as a community and business – is undergoing an utter sea change in methodology and ideology not seen since Gutenberg’s first print press. When I speak of the publishing industry as a community – I include publishers, agents, authors, printers, guilds and associations, as well as readers in this community.
I intended this article, as part of our series The Future of Publishing 2020, to deal originally with Control, Disruption and Discoverability in publishing. I’ve decided to begin with just the subject of control now and in 2020 due to the length of the articles.
At the end of my last article in this series, The Future of Publishing 2020: The Push andThe Pull, I spoke about what we should not expect to see in 2020—the familiar big six publishers, and literary agencies operating as they do today. I also spoke about the realities in 2020 of the current terminology we so readily use now to describe the rise of the ´independent author’.
In 2020, there won’t be a ‘self’ in publishing. It’s meaningless. Come to think of it, in 2020, there probably won’t be a ‘publishing’ in publishing anymore! It’s all becoming meaningless.But one thing is certain. Writers will be writing in 2020. Whatever you do, whatever you write, do what you have to do and believe and enjoy it. Just maybe, someone else will also agree.
In the strictest sense, mankind has been ‘publishing’ by way of record every experience and story since the first drawing was etched on the wall of the El Castillo cave in northern Spain forty thousand years ago. Whether the record of existence is carved on rock or saved for prosperity into the etheral clouds of a digital heaven, our mark is made in the world for those who follow on after we have long departed.
While there are many battles being waged in the world of publishing today over digital rights ownership, pricing, lending, ereader device supremacy, disintermediation between author and reader; perhaps the greatest battle being played out today is for control—but control of what? Less than a hundred years ago some publishers still used their own print presses and undertook much of the distribution of published books. Now, publishers combine in-house staff with freelancers and work with multiple global partnerships to deliver books into the hands of readers, though ,the days of vertical integration in the publishing world may not necessarily be over. Walt Disney Studios might be one of the best examples of vertical integration in the movie business, but the dot com successes of the 1980’s and 1990’s have given us Amazon and Apple—potentially two of the strongest players currently exerting their control on the publishing industry and modern aristocrats of vertical intergration on a global scale.
Change followed by Control
Up until five years ago, the core publishing industry had changed very little in a hundred years. Yes, we have seen publishers focus their strategies and goals on not just being gatekeepers and intellectual content investors of quality literature and entertainment in word form, but stallworths of an industry that must also extract profit to maintain its high moral literary ground. The explosion of the cheap paperback in the 1950’s may have gone a long way to preserve the status quo in the industry, but in the past five years—with the emergence of digitization—there has been no time for standing still and an everpressing need to make sense of a changing and complex industry with new global players and characters at every turn of the page.
You can’t control what is no longer yours. Back in yonder days when the ebook was but a glint in the eye of psychic beholders and the physical book was sacred to publishers, and the only other kid on the block was the audio cassette book (remember them?), publishing was realitively straightforward and simple. Audio books proved a nice distraction and side revenue for publishers, though, the format did prove costly to hire professional actors to read, but worth it if the hardback or paperback was still lingering in the bestseller lists. Well, publishers quickly cast aside serious investment in audio books once the cassette got the boot and some new kid called ‘digital audio disc’ arrived in the neighbourhood but those technoheads in Sony and all those Japanese companies with weird names couldn’t make up their minds on a standard format. Sound like a familiar story? Don’t let any industry analyst or publishing guru tell you the industry as a whole didn’t see ebooks coming and the dramatic impact digitalization would have, not just on the book format, but on pricing and distribution networks. The truth is large to medium sized book publishers have been refusing to invest in any kind of real risk strategy for the past twenty years, and that philosphy has stretched—in part—from the desk of commissing editors right to the very infastructure and development of the industry.
All industries experience rises and falls in fortune and new challenges regularly see the emergence of new ideas, enterprises and shifts in the sand. Most industries also have research and development facilities and academies where the next generation of talent will learn and flourish. While the publishing industry is awash with graduates and experienced professionals, it has the curiosity of having its historial roots planted deeply in the world of academia and universities. The publishing industry can appear and behave like an institution, government body, public or medical health service with its own bestowed rules of etiquette, morality and engagement—particularly when the industry attemps to communicate and operate with a singular voice. Industries don’t normally work or operate that way and possess a multitude of framented voices, stances, opinons and agendas. In theory, the publishing industry should have been primarily placed to tackle all the challenges currently facing it—well-versed in its products, passionate to the core and equipped with highly skilled professionals. Is it perhaps that the industries CEO’s, talismen and drivers of decision are no longer men of books, champions of talent, academically introspective yet passionate, and instead we now have publishers led by media conglomerates and salesmen and agents too willing to place the needs and requirements of publishers above authors? Is it no surprise then that publishers have simply allowed themselves to become mere middlemen, primarily self-inflicted pawns selling books to booksellers and not readers? If the last five years has taught us one thing about publishers—it’s that they are good at selling what bookstore buyers ask for, and the largest often do little more than publish competent and prescribed book products to fit existing trends and markets. More and more over the past twenty years the relationship between agent, publisher and bookseller is akin to an overly convoluted book packaging project. And believe me, dedicated book packagers do it far better and quicker!
When the digital shit hit the fan for the publishing industry and they had few answers, combined with an historical instinct to do nothing at all but wait, it’s no wonder—from top to bottom—integrated partnerships were the only option and place to find a way forward. And that has come at an extraordinary sacrafice—the very future existence of publishers as they are today. No agency, book lending rights, or digital distribution agreement will fix this now to the whole industry’s satisfaction. The truth is that there are now so many fragmented and disenchanted sectors of the industry with polarised views and bias opinions, from large publishing houses to small presses; indie authors to mainstream authors; independent bookstores to large chains; digital advocats to purists; author guilds and associations to governments, that the industry will canibalize and distil itself down to the bare fundamental parts—author/creator, delivery platform and reader.
Jeff Bezos stole all my books and ate all the hamsters!
Enter Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and for that matter any other entrepenure with a posse of Silicon Valley graduates. Please put your hands together for some of the big publishers in 2020. If you want to talk about control in publishing during the years ahead—take a good look at that motley crew. You may not like them, maybe even less than the last big six publishers, but likely most of them are here to stay and will have a great deal of say and control, not to mention profit to take from your book content over the coming years, if they have not already. The debate and development of ebooks is still at an early stage and whether the ‘purchase’ of ebook content will become nothing more than access to a specific edition to your ereading device, or by paying more you can access enhanced and revised editions ‘in the cloud’ remains to be seen. Much will depend on what degree of freedom we wish to grant to the new gatekeepers of ‘cloud storage’ or whether we are happier keeping what we purchase safely tucked away on our ereaders. When Amazon stretched its mighty hand and removed content from users ereaders a couple of years ago, I discovered that some of their biggest critics were people who openly shared the most pertinent and private information on social network sites.
When the big six publishers moved on Amazon to sign up to the Agency Model Agreement, they may have felt they were arresting a tide of control flexed by the goliath of online book sales, but in reality, they were simply seen by ordinary book readers as trying to make hay while the sun shone. Bezos, I’m sure, smiled a great deal the week signatures were put to paper on the Agency deal. For Bezos, the battle might have been lost that week, but for Amazon, victory on the fronline was already taking place. Publishers and independent booksellers might not like Amazon’s tactics, but Bezos will argue that he has stolen nothing but the moral ground and can back it up with a vast customer, cloud and community base, an online retail platform (with thepotential of physical stores to come), with well integrated products, the ereader of choice, and a growing array of publishing imprints and digital publishing deals with bestselling authors. Initially, the Agency agreement with Amazon had the effect of driving readers to cheaper ebooks, and aligned with the retailer’s introduction of Kindle Select, a shot in the arm for self-published authors as they began seeing their books proliferated the ranks of Amazon’s Kindle Top Bestsellers list. This year, that same Kindle list shows a marked drop in self-published titles. Conclude yourselves what you will, but I’d suggest we may be seeing the first signs that readers may already have accepted that bestseller ebooks from the big six are going to hold a relative price of $12.99-$14.99 for some time. It may also suggest that self-publishers using high discounts as a promotion and introduction to a book’s release is fine for the short term, but outside of the big self-publishing authors only reinforces low quality in the mind of the reader. Amazon has long understood the mechanics of marketing to readers—they buy books on the reputation of an author’s name and not the publisher’s imprint, and every product has a value. It’s about gauging what the value is, when to impliment it, and where to place it. Control is not just about pricing—it’s about what you can do without it. And Bezos and Amazon will argue all this was consumated without harming a single hamster.
The new big six and their current toys:
Microsoft (tablet device imminent)
Barnes & Noble (Nook)
The new publishing landscape of 2020 will be controlled by the new big six and will be entirely device-driven for content delivery. My only fear with the book industry structured this way [and take note, we are now talking about a ‘(e)book’ not publishing industry] is that large publishers—in an effort not to fall too far down the food chain—will attempt to forge exclusive partnerships with specific sellers/devices. My suspicision—though it might be attempted by both publishers and leading authors aligned to media conglomerates and big movie studios—is that it will ultimately fail because readers, sellers and a greater and more coordinated alliance of independents (sellers and authors) won’t allow it to happen. In spite of my best wishes for the future of publishing in 2020, the strongest relationship will not necessarily be author and reader, but reader and seller. Sellers will integrate far better with new social media networks, provide greater product discoverability for customers, and be driven forward by renewed public spending and a derire to reemerge from a long ten-year global economic downturn.
The Shape of Times to Come? (and a bit of tongue and cheek)
In 2020, more than 80% of authors will operate independently and will control and manage their entire writing output with less than a quarter earning a full time living. The remaining 20% will be a combination of writers from national writing academies, independent publishing cooperatives and publishing houses owned by media /agency companies. In 2020 ‘an agency author’ will mean an author with PR representation and earning a living from book publishing through a media imprint. The general term ‘he/she is agency’ will also denote a more deroggratory tone for someone in the public eye—meaning someone to be held in suspicion or someone who is motivated soley by financial or political gain.
In 2020, most global broadcasters will use content from freelance reporters rather than in-house reporters following years of claims of media bias. At least 50% of broadcast content will come directly from social media networks. In 2020, publishing will simply mean disseminating content for public consumption by way of service, for free or for profit.
In 2020, during a CBS Evening News interview with the ghost of Dan Rather, outgoing Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, will reveal an acute hamster-eating disorder he has been battling for more than ten years.
The third in this series of articles on The Future of Publishing 2020 will deal with Disruption.