Nathan Bransford had a really interesting post yesterday in which he asked his readers to speculate on the future of self-publishing. That naturally led to a larger discussion about the future of publishing in general.
I'm going to jump into the conversation here and put my two cents in. Rather than bore my regular readers with stuff I've already said, I'm going to talk in shorthand, but I'll post the links where you can go to read more detail if you're interested.
Let's start by looking at where we were and are. The trend over the past forty years has been toward centralization of publishing houses and imprints. The publishing industry became big business, and a half dozen media conglomerates (see here) assumed control of a huge percentage of that business.
At the same time the publishing houses were consolidating, bookstores were under siege. Two threats (national bookstore chains and big box discount outlets) took a toll on the number of independent bookstores (see here).
While the infrastructure of the industry (the manufacturers and retailers) were centralizing, the consumer was experiencing new freedoms born out of emerging technology. Suddenly there was greater consumer choice than ever before (see here). A reader could find a book that was long out of print or could locate a cheaper edition of a book via the Internet.
The Internet shrunk the world and made it possible for people with similar interests to interact despite geographic separation. Those people are building niche communities. In other words, while the publishers and bookstores were busy consolidating, the world of the consumer was fragmenting into thousands of tiny like-minded groups.
Electronic publishing, audio and text downloads, podcasts, and print-on-demand (POD) technology all bring greater choice to the consumer. They also put more demands on the consumer's time. It's no accident that graphic books, anthologies and flash fiction are so popular these days. We now read in the in-between places (waiting on line; riding in the back seat of a car, bus or train; exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike). Short fiction and articles are preferable when you don't have much time available to read.
I said in my post on Nathan's blog that I think the key to change will be the bookstore. Why? Because right now, they have the most to lose. Bookstore sales have been down for a while. The American Booksellers Association reported on July 17th that bookstore sales had dropped for the 11th month straight.
Borders recently announced they're closing lots of stores and trying to come up with a new model to operate the remaining ones. I think that model will reflect a blurring of the line between retailer and manufacturer. With POD technology, a retailer can also be a publisher.
If Borders just wanted a new retailing model, using POD technology, it could display books on its website with an offer of a five-day shipping turnaround and a discount for being willing to wait the five days. Or if the reader wanted the book immediately, he could order it online, pay the slightly higher price for it with a credit card and, by the time he drove to his neighborhood bookstore, it would be printed and waiting at the front desk for pickup.
But take it a step further and blur those lines. What's to stop a Borders or a B&N from becoming the publisher for midlist writers? The return system for unsold books costs publishers a fortune every year. Without expensive returns and with books paid for before they are printed via POD, a bookstore/publisher could offer writers a higher royalty. A bookstore/publisher could also offer writers special placement in the store for promotion and could encourage employees to handsell the book.
And the possibilities offered by social networking are almost unlimited. Instead of trying to force people into neat little niches for discussion about a specific book for sale, B&N should be trying to develop an organic networking site that allows readers to intermingle without that heavy specific agenda of "buy this book" approach. Urban planners often look at the paths that citizens use before laying down concrete streets. B&N would do well to create a space and then observe the paths their consumers follow while interacting with each other. Consumers resist being herded toward a purchase.
I'm going to stop here because I have things to do. We'll talk about this more another time. In the meantime, check out the comment thread on Nathan's blog here.