Declarations and forecasts of Great Change in the book business need specificity to be useful and often do not provide it
A recent post here that incited a long comment string and another on FutureBook that was quite unrelated from the estimable Brian O’Leary have helped me formulate some thinking which I hope can be helpful in evaluating any “Great Change” post that arises about publishing. And they do, indeed, arise often.
O’Leary’s post builds on a theme he is persistent about pursuing, which is that communication, which in his writing seems to conflate with publishing, is moving to a linked-and-continuous conversation rather than a set-content-package (like a book or a magazine). The post suggests that the “books”, such as they are, will emerge from the conversations.
This recalls for me a comment I heard a few years ago from the father of digital publishing, David Worlock. David told me, “surely, in time, the number of books created within the network must exceed the number of books created outside the network”. By “network”, David meant “Internet”.
I don’t know how long “in time” was intended to be in David’s mind, but I figured “decades”. And in that time frame, I agree.
The other long-ago wisdom I keep recalling as I read predictions about our digital reading future is what was always said by Mark Bide when we began our “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences for VISTA (now Publishing Technology) in the 1990s. Mark always reminded the audience that “book publishing is many different businesses” so that everybody would keep in mind that what we said about trade might not apply to sci-tech and what we said about books for lawyers and accountants doesn’t apply to publishers of college textbooks. What brought everybody together was the form of the “book”, which was already then a weak unifying principle for what were really many very different businesses.
This is now more true than it was when Mark used to say it 15 or 20 years ago. In trade, which is the part of book publishing I know best, we are seeing that the business of publishing genre fiction is different from kids books, which is different from serious non-fiction, which is different from illustrated how-to, which is different from serious fiction. Travel books and computer how-to have suffered serious erosion, and some of us would expect to see cookbooks do the same, if they haven’t already. I base that notion on my belief that cookbooks, like travel and computer how-to, are books where “the unit of appreciation doesn’t equal the unit of sale”. O’Leary put it differently but makes a similar point:
The use of bundled media as the dominant form of shared content is ending. This trend has already affected newspaper, magazine and some types of book publishing. As readers look to customize their own content consumption, it will continue.
This makes me confess that I confidently and erroneously predicted in the 1990s to a close friend deeply involved with newspapers that they’d be “dead in five years”. I saw what Brian is talking about: that the bundled media idea meets its match when people can bundle their own. And I was directionally correct about the trouble the newspaper business was heading toward. But The New York Times is still dropped off at my door each morning (although I have often read a lot of it in bed on my iPhone before I cross the apartment to pick up the paper version) and most American cities still have a daily paper, even though many of them have bitten the dust in this century.
The extended discussion in the comment string of the prior post had to do with to what extent publishers serve authors, and to what extent authors are better off eschewing publishers and working on their own. Unless and until publishers turn digital marketing at scale into a clearly compelling proposition, their power to serve authors effectively diminishes with each closing bookstore. The less bookstore- (or brick-and-mortar retailer-) dependent any book is, the less additional benefit in sales and exposure can be delivered by a publisher (although a cash advance and somebody to handle all the business aspects of putting a book out will still be both helpful and persuasive to many authors). Bookstore shelf space, and printed books, seem to be suffering slower erosion over the past year or two than they did in the several years before that. Michael Cader has made a convincing case that we actually know that for a fact. But, even if we accept the fact, whatever erosion continues will affect different books and authors to different degrees.
As I was reading Brian’s post, which advocates delivering information with plentiful links that would allow reader-controlled exploration of the topic at hand, I thought about the book I am reading right now. That is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “The Bully Pulpit”. It’s complex and the web is loaded with material (about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a cast of characters who were the muckraking journalists of the time) that could provide additional facts, depth, and color. But the valuable deliverable here is that Goodwin has sorted through all of that and more and delivered a masterful telling of a complex holistic story. That’s what I’m buying and enjoying. “Enhancements” would almost certainly undercut its core value to me as a reader. Links would just be distractions that would make me lose the thread of the coherent story.
Nonetheless, what Brian is saying might be true for me if I were reading a book explaining some aspect of economics or technology. And it might be true for a history scholar who was reading “The Bully Pulpit”.
So generalizations about the book business, whether they come from a self-published author or an industry expert like O’Leary, really require us to do a little parsing to make them useful. We’d be steering toward a more constructive conversation if we posed three questions every time somebody posits a Great Change we will see in the book business.
1. Which books, exactly, should we expect to be affected by this particular Great Change? This is necessary to specify now that most people would agree that “books” has become a pretty worthless generalization.
2. How soon can we expect a meaningful change in the perceived utility, and therefore the demand, for the affected books? That is, are we talking about a change that is already happening and evident and having a commercial impact (travel books are suffering and have been for years) or one we expect to see in the future (readers abandoning longer form books for shorter content choices) for which we might have only the scantiest evidence is affecting commercial reality today?
3. How likely is it that whatever the Great Change is going to be that publishers are well-positioned to affect or control or accommodate it? Brian suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, the answer is “often not”. That being the case, the prediction of the Great Change should not necessarily be accompanied by the prescription that the publisher should change behavior to address it, although it seems to me they almost always are.
That last point is a very important one. Publishers, like all businesses, succeed on the strength of their expertise and their commercial network. Many would agree that the function of children’s books and craft how-to books could be better served if they utilized elements that are possible digitally — animation, video, interactivity, audio — and that would improve the utility of a digital version over a printed book. But does that mean that today’s book publishers can “own” that future business, if both the creative requirements and the marketing and distribution are well outside their prior experience?
Could a publisher of travel books have created Trip Advisor? Does the publisher-created Cookstr do the job of digital assistance for a cook better than allrecipes.com or cookbooks.com or betterrecipes.com? It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to see that a publisher’s skill sets are not the best match for building an interactive internet business where content is a component of the strategy but everything else about it is different from publishing books.
Over time, I expect the book business is going to get smaller, whether the number of books consumed goes down or not. Among the reasons for that is that, over time, the intrusion of self-publishing entities will be even more disruptive than self-publishing authors have been. Another reason is that wome information dissemination that has taken place in books will move away from books. It might also be true that the overall public appetite for reading longer forms will diminish, although any publisher with digital distribution can address that by changing the mix of what they publish.
Whether “book publishing” or “book retailing” shrinks, disappears, or changes form depends on how widespread across the various silos of interest and utility we call “books” today are the many disruptions that will affect those verticals in different ways and at different speeds. And generalizing about what these changes mean, let alone delivering advice that isn’t informed and bounded by an understanding of how any particular book or author or publishing program fits into the time and scale of any particular change, is as likely to be wrong and harmful as it is to be correct and illuminating.
So remember Bide’s decades-old admonition that the book business is not one business. It is the one generalization about books and commerce that has been true for well over a century and will continue to be true as long as books — printed or conceptual — continue to be something worth discussing.