Publishing Tomorrow’s Books Today
It’s hard to talk about emerging technology in the twenty-first century without openly criticizing every single, minute detail, for no particular reason at all. In an interview with comedian Louis C. K, the fourty-four year old angrily states, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” (“Learn to Appreciate Technology”). He supports this claim with various examples about the amazing reality that is modern-day inventions, innovations, and change (ex. The miracle of flight vs. the inconveniences of airplanes). In today’s publishing industry, there seems to be similar perspective regarding technological advancements in content-distribution, knowledge sharing, and profit potential. New consumer products in the form of e-books and available tablet technology seem to be reinventing not only the idea but also the process of publishing. What is the approach a publishing house, new or old, should take towards an industry uncertain about public readership and new media? Where there is change there is also risk, economically speaking, and with publishing houses like the Big Six unwilling to compromise a long time tradition of book-selling, there is no role model for aspiring publishing houses to look to. Thus, by analyzing the future of this cultural industry through both realistic and romantic perspectives, we can develop a broad approach to publishing in the future.
There is a certain assumption about inventions and innovation that plagues the general understanding of most people, publishers included. Scott Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr, addressed this assumption in a talk about the Internet and its future impact on society. He states, “we routinely overestimate the short term effects of technological change, and underestimate the long term effects” (“The Biggest Thing”). Butterfield’s evidence comes from past trends in digital revelations, such as the dot com boom, and experiences he has faced through the creation of Flickr. Likewise, Butterfield quotes a science-fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, when he says, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (“The Biggest Thing”). This being said, anyone who’s seen a commercial for the iPad, knows that Apple markets itself as selling nothing short of magic. Moreover, Clarke’s words offer an allusion to the stories of early bible printers who were accused of practicing witchcraft in their travelling caravans. Thus, accepting Butterfield’s observations, the publishing industry is no different from many other economic sectors that combine inaccurate estimation for change with the inability to distinguish certain technologies from sorcery.
Even so, the world of publishing has nonetheless attempted to respond to the myriad of challenges brought about by new formats of reading and content consumption. A recent example of traditional thinking versus modern day demand is the case of HarperCollins’s twenty-six copy circulation limit on its e-books for libraries using OverDrive distribution (Shatzkin). In a quote by Josh Marwell, sales president of HarperCollins, the Publishing House’s reasoning is revealed; “the 26 circulation limit had been set based on factors such as the average lifespan of a print book and wear and tear on circulating copies” (Herther, 26). The irony of this statement appears in the disconnect between the publishing house’s perspective of print books versus e-books, in which HarperCollins is essentially trying to flatten the two formats so that no change needs to occur. Instead of developing a new set of rules that publishers, consumers, distributors, etc. can agree upon and benefit from, acclaimed publishing houses, such as HarperCollins, are sticking to what they know and what they know only. Due to their fear of the unknown, big publishing houses are “overestimating” the short-term effects of the e-book, assuming it will ruin print publishing for good (“The Biggest Thing”). Similarly, they must also be “underestimating” (“The Biggest Thing”) the long-term effects that the e-book could bring, as noted through Forrester Research’s James McQuivey statement, “Google eBooks may just convert more people to e-reading” (Herther, 27).
The end-result may seem, at first, like hesitancy to adapt to today’s digital revolution. However, in a blog post, Michael Shatzkin writes about the epic battle between Amazon and the Big Six trade houses over agency pricing. In a nutshell, Shatzkin states, “the agency model reduced the royalty per copy on all books, … a change they believed was necessary to prevent a potential perpetual monopoly on e-book sales by Amazon” (Shatzkin). Within this example, the boundaries between “underestimating” and “overestimating” aren’t as fixed or obvious as in the HarperCollins vs. libraries case (“The Biggest Thing”). Shatzkin adds, “The Agency 5 see themselves, not without reason, as having sacrificed revenue at a difficult time for the industry’s long run good” (Shatzkin). If we propose Butterfield’s rule upon this example, could the Agency 5 (The Big Six minus Random House) be “underestimating” the revenue they must sacrifice for an “overestimated” good in the long term (“The Biggest Thing”)? Perhaps it is too early to propose a final decision on the faith of the Big Six, but with the rising popularity of e-books, it is clear that if they are treated just the same as any other print book, the publisher stands to lose the most. Perhaps, then, a probable solution to the difficulties facing the old business model of publishing, is to reinvent the book, and thus, reinvent the business model.
While the modern printed book (hardcover, paperback trade, pulp paperback) hasn’t changed much in the last one-hundred-and-fifty years or so, e-books seem to be evolving with each passing day. On the one hand, the vast majority of e-books are still digital renderings of their paper-based cousins. On the other hand, many e-book are beginning to look a lot more like websites, or function like interactive apps. To illustrate the dynamic capabilities of e-books and their potential for new business opportunities, I draw from three concepts proposed by IDEO, a leading company in innovation. All three concepts use a tablet-like platform to illustrate its capabilities, insinuating the future of reading will mostly take place on digital media. The first concept, Nelson, functions primarily to link various non-fiction texts together to create linked discussions and comparative knowledge (“The Future of the Book”). From a reader’s perspective, it seems like more knowledge available at your fingertips should equal a greater understanding of the topic at hand, and thus a valuable return of investment in both time and money. But, from an author’s perspective, there may be added pressure to make sure their work is properly connected to other people’s works, thus discouraging them from writing new ideas. Meanwhile, from a publisher’s perspective, who the hell is in charge of organizing all these connections and data? Once again, the invention of something new, foreign, and even magical to an extent, cannot escape the response that is mass criticism. However, the suggestion nevertheless lingers; if people are willing to value the Nelson with their wallets, perhaps publishers will put in the extra work for the extra income.
As Sara Lloyd establishes in her “A Book Publishers Manifesto for the 21st Century,” there is in fact an “importance of the ‘connectivity’ between our differing modes of reading, the fact that readers might like to follow up references within the text or to conduct a related search” (Lloyd, 33). In brief, this is the primary function of the Nelson concept. Furthermore, the second concept, Coupland, likewise makes an unofficial debut in Lloyd’s manifesto (“The Future of the Book”). What Lloyd sees as the future of the book, “enable[s] readers to connect with other readers of the same text and to open up a dialogue with them” (Lloyd, 34). This is ultimately the main feature of Coupland, in which social networks emerge like book clubs to foster a collective consciousness of information and knowledge. Once again, readers will embrace the features they like and discard those that don’t, quickly and simply. Authors are practically shunned in this process, yet another prediction Lloyd makes when she states, “the author is no longer the focus of creative influence but merely a scriptor, and every work is ‘eternally written here and now,’ with each re-reading, because the ‘origin’ of meaning lies exclusively in ‘language itself’ and its impressions on the reader” (Lloyd, 34). Finally, publishers are left to manage profit and loss within a Coupland style of shared reading. After all, Coupland demands that once a certain quantity of book sales is reached within a book club, the title automatically becomes available to the rest of the social network (“The Future of the Book”). Publishing entrepreneur and radical, Seth Godin, appears to have experimented with this idea through his “domino project” (“The Domino Project”). Godin’s mission with the “domino project” is to spread ideas as quickly and largely as possible, thriving off economies of scale, viral marketing, and notoriety (“The Domino Project”). In one example, consumers of “Anything You Want” by Derek Sivers receive two hundred free mp3 songs with their purchase of the title (“The Domino Project”). If Godin’s business model has enough potential, Coupland-style e-books may have the potential to distribute knowledge and collect money. Isn’t that what the publishing industry is all about?
Finally, the third concept from IDEO, Alice, revolutionizes the concept of personal contemplation and passivity in fictional texts (“The Future of the Book”). By inviting the reader to unlock extra content through in-book games, and similarly allowing the reader to co-create the narrative by uploading images and other forms of content into the narrative itself, Alice serves as an interactive, multi-linear adventure of the book form. Once again, Lloyd has already predicted the need for more engagement in books; “Reading is not an activity that can be defined simply and it is all too often described as a solitary, immersive experience, as in the experience of reading a novel for hours at a time” (Lloyd, 33). However, out of all three concepts, Alice seems to be the most rejected by the mass audience of online commenters (“The Future of the Book”). Even so, Lloyd points out that “… narrative fiction makes up less than 25% of the entire book market” (Lloyd, 33). Should then, this interactive approach to reading be left for other, more active audiences, like children? A blog review of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference by Sophie Rochester ends with a powerful statement, “the children’s market is, arguably, the frontline in the battleground for readers. If the publishers and producers get it right, they can ensure the longevity of the publishing industry itself” (“Storytime Goes Digital”). Rochester’s analysis and my personal interpretation of the Alice e-book poses the question: will more interactive children’s e-books influence the early education reading habits of young readers to the point in which an Alice-style e-book will feel normal when that generation of readers reaches adulthood? Once again, advanced technology and magic seem to have a lot in common. If a child is born and raised with such magic, perhaps it isn’t so hard to believe that the future book will start to function more magically.
Overall, the overlap between IDEO’s three concepts, Nelson, Coupland, and Alice, and Lloyd’s “A Book Publishers Manifesto for the 21st Century” signals a new age of thinking about content distribution, knowledge sharing, and profit potential. Furthermore, Butterfield’s main thesis and supporting claims provide a realistic lens in examining the current challenges and responses by publishing houses and distributors. So the question still remains; is the future world of publishing an optimistic paradise or a pessimistic wasteland? Like all dichotomous questions, the answer is best found in balance. Publishing houses, even the Big Six, have no reason to ignore the new and upcoming trends in reading and content consumption. However, perspectives on change are always clouded by short-term “overestimations” and long-term “underestimations” (“The Biggest Thing”). Perhaps the best tactic then is to be the arbiters of change, actively constructing the future as opposed to responding passively with each new movement. If the future of publishing is about control and market leadership, then companies should look to Amazon. When they can run a deficit cost on nearly every e-book unit, all in an attempt to secure market monopoly in the future, they must be doing something right with their “long-tail” business model (Anderson). Future publishing houses need to be aware of stimulating change, not succumbing to it. In the end, it’s not good to sweat the small things of tomorrow as long as you can still marvel at what is amazing about today.
Anderson, Chris. “The Long Tail.” Wired 12.10 (2004). Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
Herther, Nancy K. “Ebooks Everywhere.” Searcher 19.6 (2011): 22-31. Wilson Web. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/hww/results/results_single_fulltext.jhtml;hwwilsonid=ROERX2RTYPH5HQA3DINCFF4ADUNGIIV0
Lloyd, Sara. “A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the Twenty-first Century: How Traditional Publishers Can Position Themselves in the Changing Media Flows of a Networked Era.” Library Trends 57.1 (2008): 30-42. Project Muse. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/journals/library_trends/v057/57.1.lloyd.html
Rochester, Sophie. “Storytime Goes Digital: Assessing the Children’s E-Book and App Market at TOC Bologna.” 29 Mar. 2011. Publishing Perspectives. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://publishingperspectives.com/2011/03/childrens-ebook-app-market-toc-bologna/
Shatzkin, Michael. “The Most Dramatic Publishing Event of 2010? Easy, the Introduction of Agency Pricing for E-books.” 30 Nov. 2010. Publishing Perspectives. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/11/introduction-of-agency-pricing-for-e-books/
“2011/09 Stewart Butterfield | The Biggest Thing Since the Domestication of Animals.” 13 Sept. 2011. Vimeo. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://vimeo.com/28989983
“Learn to Appreciate Technology.” 25 Feb. 2009. YouTube. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-LkusicUL2s#!
“Seth Godin’s The Domino Project experiments with price and e-book bundles.” 2 July. 2011. Future of Journalism. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.nextlevelofnews.com/2011/07/seth-godins-the-domino-project-experiments-with-price-and-e-book-bundles.html
“The Future of the Book.” 20 Sept. 2010. Vimeo. Web. 5 Oct. 2011 http://vimeo.com/15142335