Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Questions to be Asking

Two interesting blog posts to recommend. First is Kassia Krozser's follow-up to her post about the implosion of Quartet. On Monday here, Kassia talked about the business model for digital publishing.

And in his post for Tuesday here, agent Nathan Bransford asked "Will Authors of the Future Need Publishers?"

Nathan’s question is one I've struggled with. Here’s an excerpt from my post of March 7, 2007:

A digitized industry doesn't really rely on the publisher any more, does it? It would be very easy for a group of writers and artists to band together to produce their own works (United Artists, anyone?). In the future, there is the very real possibility that publishers will find themselves being edged out of the equation . . .

At the same time, Kassia said something that resonated with me: “[the digital business] model has been evolving for well over a decade, and will continue to evolve.”

Along with Nathan’s question of “Will Authors of the Future Need Publishers?” I think we need to ask two other questions:

1) What role will the Internet giants play in the evolving publishing landscape?

2) What will the book look like in the future?

Back on May 20, 2007, I said on my blog:

The large [publishing] houses face competition on two fronts: from the Internet giants and from the e-publishing industry. When I say Internet giants, I'm talking about Google,, Yahoo, eBay and Microsoft. Of the five, I suspect the biggest direct competition will come from either Google or My money is on Amazon.

It's no secret that Amazon is trying to become the dominant force in publishing. I've talked about its vertical integration before (go here if you want to read more about vertical integration). However, in its rush to achieve hegemony in the publishing world, I believe Amazon may have planted some very noxious weeds in its garden.

Amazon is working both sides of the street: acting as a publisher/distributor through its BookSurge unit while offering retail services on its website. The company slaps self-published books up on its website next to traditionally-published books. Unless a customer is savvy, he can find himself the proud owner of a really awful book (I'm not saying all self-published books are terrible, just the majority of them).

In his blog, Nathan pointed out that traditional publishers serve an important role, acting as the gatekeepers for the publishing industry, assuring consistency of quality as well as distribution channels. As a rule, a reader can purchase a book from a bookstore with the confidence that a professional has vetted it and deemed it worthy of publication.

Amazon's BookSurge acts as a POD press to small publishers and as a vanity press for self-pubbed writers. In its latter role, BookSurge will publish any manuscript that comes accompanied by a check. Like all vanity presses, its quality control mechanisms relate to the production values of the physical product, not the manuscript’s content.

And therein lies Amazon’s problem. The company talks about customer service, but customers need to remember caveat emptor when it comes to buying books on Amazon’s website.

And what about Google? Google’s ambition to copy every book in the world could lead to its becoming the biggest bookstore in the world.

Thus far, Google has stuck to its plan to remain the largest search engine in the world. Copying the world’s books is a strategy to strengthen Google's search engine business. The company provides links to buy the books it displays. It remains to be seen whether Google has larger ambitions in the publishing world.

And the future of the book? Today reading is primarily a solitary experience, even for those people in book clubs who join together after the fact to discuss a book they've read. I think Robert Stein is on the right track in describing the book's future. Stein is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and director of the Institute for the Future of the Book. He believes that in the future reading will become more of a social experience.

In the very near future, people will be able to read a digital book in a social networking environment. They'll be able to comment on the material being read in real time. And the author and fans will be able to converse digitally as the readers progress through the book.

Think about a thousand teenagers reading the next Twilight in a virtual reading room with the author available to talk about the characters and plot.

Today's traditional publishers expend a huge amount of money and time producing the physical product. Their marketing efforts are geared primarily toward the creation of their seasonal catalogs and in promoting their best-selling authors and a few up-and-comers.

In a digital environment, the production and distribution of a (virtual) book is less expensive and a much simpler process. I suspect a publishing house's marketing expertise will become far more important as well as its main draw in attracting authors.

Think of it as a different form of gatekeeping. Instead of holding the keys to production of a book, publishers might be the experts in growing readership for an author.

Check out the concept of the salon here. Amazon is trying to do a digital version of a salon by offering readers places to gather to discuss books. THAT's what publishers should be focused on; not Amazon's $9.99 price point for ebooks.

No comments: