Playing this game for the past 15 years or so has taught me that, like hitters in baseball, forecasters of publishing’s future are doing well if they get a hit 30% of the time. This crystal-ball gazing is an uncertain business–and the bolder the prediction, the greater the chance to be spectacularly wrong. Remember the now-infamous turn-of-the-millennium Arthur Anderson report predicting a “$1 billion e-book business in four years”?
You won’t catch me climbing out onto any billion-dollar limbs as I offer my forecast for book publishing in 2008, but some of the changes I envision do call for fundamental changes in how the business operates. There is an overarching theme to the changes already taking place. Consumer media in the 20th century tended to be horizontal and format-specific. The New York Times and Random House define “horizontal”: they publish across all interests and markets. The Internet will drive 21st-century publishing enterprises to be more like what professional publishing has always been: highly vertical and format-agnostic.
As we look to 2008, here’s what to expect in publishing:
The popularity of e-books will increase, with titles formatted for Amazon’s Kindle leading the way. Content for the Sony Reader will sell faster than ever, but by this time next year, Kindle-compatible books will be outselling them by more than 2 to 1. And Palm, which has historically been the bestselling format, will have had its best year-on-year increase as well. By year end, nearly every straight-text title published with commercial intent will be available for Kindle; the trick for the other formats will be to make sure they’re included, too. And Kindle pricing will drive the market. But despite the fast growth, e-books will still make up a tiny share of the market–no more than 2% of sales for most titles–and will contribute only a minimal amount to publishers’ bottom lines.
Sales of books in electronic form to public libraries will continue to grow: Ingram’s MyiLibrary, Follett, NetLibrary and Overdrive are already deep into this business. This opportunity will present a challenge as publishers discover that some older contracts don’t give them the right to make that kind of sale.
This will be the Year of the Author. Initiatives like the speakers bureaus at HarperCollins and Random House, the Authonomy Web site now being developed by HarperCollins UK and Google’s Knols initiative to create an “authored” Wikipedia all reflect the growing understanding of what publishing “brands” really matter (and they aren’t HarperCollins or Random House). Look for a self-publishing effort by a major author; it’s been too long–eight years–since Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet project.
Publishers will start acquiring specialized Web sites to get content for their books and to target niche audiences. By year-end, every major publisher will need to have an understanding of how to put a value on Web sites, because the old measures–namely, sales and profits–won’t necessarily be relevant and because the acquisitions will be smaller than what the companies would normally consider. The process will be similar to acquiring books, requiring a bit of imagination to see how the deals will pay off.
Christmas 2008 will be the first one in which sales of customized books, enabled by the Internet and print-on-demand, will become substantial. Apple has made it easy to produce one-off picture books and author-services sites like lulu.com have enabled author-generated books for some time. Travel book publishers have played with the concept. What is new is that technologies like SharedBook are moving make-your-own and assemble-your-own into consumer areas like food and sports.
XML will no longer be considered optional. Increasing sales of customized books will make publishers turn to their backlists for “repurposing.” When they do, they will find the cost of retro-tagging XML is often, particularly for illustrated books, prohibitive. They’ll also learn that with a little discipline and an improved process, doing XML tagging while creating content is almost free.
Apple, seeing the growth in use of Kindle and Sony Reader, will move to turn the iPhone and iPod into e-book readers. But they will recognize that the problems of loading in content and merchandising books are far more complicated and challenging than doing the same for music. They will solve the problem by teaming up with Ingram’s Lightning Source (for content) and BN.com (for merchandising and to reach the book-buying audience). This combination will enable Apple to challenge the Sony/Borders combination and the Kindle, though Amazon’s device still promises to take significant market share away from print and other e-book formats over time.
B&N will continue to leverage the book trade’s most sophisticated supply chain to lengthen its lead over Borders and all other bricks-and-mortar retailers. (I should disclose that I have consulted with B&N on supply-chain matters; I’ve never worked for Borders. I have no inside sales or financial information about either company).
The lack of a competitive supply-chain infrastructure will continue to handicap Borders, hurting both sales and profits. This will lead to a change of ownership control and yet another new plan to revitalize the nation’s number-two bookseller.
Although overall sales will remain paltry, increased activity by publishers selling direct to consumers from their Web sites, particularly digital downloads, will lead to “read and listen” bundles of e-books and digital audio and other pricing experiments (it is worth noting that the Sony Reader and the Kindle can deliver both text and sound). Other combinations, including book-and-audio and book-and-digital file (the latter tried by Amazon), and even combos of multiple titles, will be offered.
Literary agents will begin to experience the same kind of consolidation that has hit other parts of the book business, as the shrinking of advances below the very top tier of authors and the growing need for agents to provide editing, marketing and increasingly detailed rights management make it hard for smaller agencies to bring in enough money to cover their overhead costs.
Publishers will rethink the traditional sales conference and begin to move toward a continuous publishing model. This will be a belated recognition of two key facts: national accounts are mostly covered by staff, and the rest of the accounts can be reached quickly and efficiently by e-mail.
Some publishers will begin producing a hardcover edition of every paperback and a large-print edition of every title. This will be possible by harnessing print-on-demand and using an XML workflow (see prediction #6), which makes it easy and inexpensive to put content into other print and electronic formats. The increasing number of large-print titles offered will lead to large-print subsections for many categories in some bookstores.
Publishers will push harder to publicize books through the Internet channels as print and broadcast media continue to lose audience to the Web, in particular subject-specific sites.
In addition to being the Year of the Author, 2008 will be the Year of the Experiment. Initiatives like the widgets used by HarperCollins and Random House, the video trailers produced by Simon & Schuster, the publishing to cell phones being enabled by Mobifusion and tried by several publishers, and Macmillan’s call to employees for ideas for the company to bankroll show a growing awareness that publishing companies need to create a culture of experimentation. What’s an experiment? We’ll define it as a commercial effort undertaken without any real conviction as to how it will work out, and with the expectation that learning from failure is a more likely benefit than success.