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Will Book Publishers Ever Be Irrelevant?

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Empty bookstore shelves by FSSE8INFOThis week is the London Book Fair, one of the world’s largest trade shows for the publishing industry. Given everything that’s happened in their world over the last few years — from the Kindle (s amzn) to the iPad (s aapl) to the Google Books Settlement — it’s no surprise the halls are full of people chattering about the future.

At the event, there is plenty of evidence suggesting publishers are getting their heads around how digital content is changing their business. But in some ways, it still feels like a clash of civilizations. Publishers talking with each about what the next big thing might be, while Amazon and Google and the rest simply go and make the next big thing.

This was no more obvious than when I stepped into a discussion over the future of publishing that really seemed to highlight the differences. It was framed as a traditional debate, with an appropriately argumentative motion at stake: “Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will become irrelevant.”

On one side were two people arguing the statement was true: Cory Doctorow, the science fiction author and co-editor of BoingBoing, and James Bridle, an innovative publisher and writer based in London. On the other side were two senior figures from the U.K. publishing scene, Andrew Franklin of Profile Books and Richard Charkin of Harry Potter U.K. publisher Bloomsbury.

Doctorow argued the processes that had been the province of publishers — editing, publishing, distribution — were now so easily available that self-publishers and others were able to produce very polished material themselves. Publishers still didn’t understand this was happening, which could even mean that the framework of the debate was already pointless: “In some ways we’re already living in a post-publisher world,” he said.

Bridle, meanwhile, urged the books industry to realize that wasn’t very good at explaining what it did — and often not as good as it thought at actually doing it, either. “We publishers have forgotten what we do. It’s not about advertising, it’s about imagination,” he said. Many of the things that publishers do that are worthwhile have been jettisoned and publishers have been complicit in it.

On the other side, Franklin and Charkin staged a spirited defense of the publishing industry. Franklin made what you might consider the traditionalist argument: that publishers are the best, and perhaps only, way for good books to make it into the world. “Free is too much to pay for the vast majority of self-published books,” he added. “It’s too much to pay for some of the books that come from publishers.”

Meanwhile, Charkin, the executive director of Bloomsbury, argued there has been a lot of innovation in publishing already — particularly in niche areas such as education, science and legal publishing — and that there would undoubtedly be more. In the end, it felt as if everybody was arguing more or less the same thing: that there was a place for publishers in the world. What they differed on was whether that place required radical change from inside the publishing industry or not.

When it came to the audience to vote for or against the motion, I wasn’t sure which way to go. But then a moment came that made my mind up: when Franklin pondered whether self-publishers weren’t just trying to grab an oversized portion of the cake for themselves. “Always look at the size of the cake,” he said. Publishing is good, the cake is getting bigger, everybody can get a slice, stop fighting.

Looking back on what Bridle had said, this felt like a bit of a Marie Antoinette moment — that Franklin, in his cake-induced haze, was really missing the point. Some publishers see that the market is getting bigger, and that profits are rising, and they think that means they’re doing a good job. But in fact, the growth in profits comes because they’re cutting back on what’s unique about them — the relationship with authors, the expertise in editing, design, typography, the quality of output, the nurturing side of the business. They’re being slashed in favor of streamlined processes that are guaranteed to produce a handful of blockbusters.

But while publishers are staring proudly at their enormous cake, everybody else is busy cooking up a different recipe — something that is not cake at all. Perhaps it’s not a better recipe, but it’s one that uses most of the same ingredients and gives people what they want.

The fact that publishers are so dismissive about the tools of self-publishing — rather than co-opting them — means that they cede territory at almost every opportunity to ambitious rivals who don’t care about books at all. Now we’re in a position where anyone who has a significant infrastructure is trying to supplant publishers, whether it’s Amazon (s amzn), Google (s goog), Apple (s aapl), newspapers, broadcasters, advertisers or any of the plethora of other people moving into the space.

In the end, though, that moment didn’t seem to make much difference to the audience. Doctorow and Bridle were defeated, with around 80 percent of the audience voting for the idea publishers will remain relevant. It wasn’t a surprise; had it gone the other way, it would have been as if the audience — which was, of course, largely made of publishers — were a barn full of turkeys eagerly voting for Thanksgiving.

Photograph used under CC license courtesy of Flickr user FSSE 8 Info

5 Responses to “Will Book Publishers Ever Be Irrelevant?”

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking article., Bobbie. Unfortunately, the vote could not have recorded what a group of readers thought. I think if readers had more of a voice, legacy publishers might start quaking in their boots about the future. On the other hand, maybe readers will ultimate register their vote where it really counts–the pocketbook.

  2. I get so tired of seeing the same mantra. Self-publishing won’t take over the world. The simple reality is that media industries need gatekeepers. 99.9% of the books being self-published, and that will continue to be self-published, are books that probably shouldn’t see the light of day.

    Think I’m wrong? Go download a few freebies or $0.99 books on Kindle that don’t have Hocking or Konrath as an author. In this instant-gratification-craving society, too many writers are self-publishing because they aren’t willing to put in the time and effort to hone their craft. Add in an overall lack of knowledge about marketing books, designing covers, formatting, and most of all, editing, and you’ll simply find that much of the slush that has traditionally piled up on agents’ and editors’ desks is now being e-pubbed for your reading “pleasure.”

    Traditional publishers aren’t ignoring digital at all, but the tech community apparently expects everything to happen overnight and at no cost. You get what you pay for. I prefer to pay for quality over a quantity of not-ready-for-primetime.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      It’s definitely not that self-publishing itself will make mainstream publishing irrelevant (it won’t). But if publishers can’t learn from what they see in front of them, then they face something that’s far more likely and far more dangerous.

      If the tools being explored by self publishers are successfully co-opted by non-publishing outfits that want to move into the space, they’re screwed. Almost all the professional infrastructure that the publishing industry uses is already available outside that framework (most editors are freelance, for example). So if Amazon finds a way to route around publishers and offer authors a better deal with relatively similar outcomes, why wouldn’t authors take it?

      Bridle suggested — and I’m tempted to agree, from the material I’ve seen — that the digital product that mainstream publishers put out is often crap: full of errors, transcoding mistakes, glitches, poorly done. Where’s all that experience and expertise going?

      The author relationships that publishers used to pride themselves on are being replaced by agents. The publishing and distribution part of their process is being replaced by technology firms. Discovery is outsourced. Risk is mitigated by banking on writers with already-developed audiences. And so on.

      I’d love it for publishers to stay strong and healthy and good, but many (though not all) of them are doing a great case to push for their own extinction.

  3. “But in fact, the growth in profits comes because they’re cutting back on what’s unique about them — the relationship with authors, the expertise in editing, design, typography, the quality of output, the nurturing side of the business.”

    I think that’s what it comes down to. Publishers could very easily be relevant in the digital world, but traditional publishers are abandoning that which would make them relevant. Which prompts the question of whether they can figure this out and change course, or whether they will be replaced, either entirely by self-publishers or by self-publishers and a new generation of digital-first publishers.