Salon.com’s got a nice post-game on the Publishocalypse that went down earlier this month in Jason Boog’s “Read it and weep.”
Who will survive publishing’s Ice Age? Undoubtedly, the companies that can command developments in the impending digital book revolution.
Well thanks, Captain Obvious. The word “book” in the phrase “digital book revolution” is unnecessary—the so-called digital revolution is upon, above, behind, around, inside, between and [insert more prepositions here] us, and it affects everything. To think that printed books are somehow immune to the sea-change that the information economy is imposing on our society is silly and near-sighted, to say the least.
The question isn’t so much the “what”—it’s the “how ” of the matter that really has a lot of people stumped. For what it’s worth, I don’t disagree with Boog: the real winners here will be the small, agile shops. Hopefully the indies, like McSweeny’s, and Subterranean Press in the SF/F world, but also (and I admit I’m slightly biased, because well, I’d like to keep my job for now, thanks) small spinoffs from large, corporate publishers like HarperStudio and Tor.com.
Working in publishing, being relatively new to it, and being involved in one large publishing corporation’s efforts to make sense of this series of tubes, I have some thoughts about how things should maybe play out in order for publishers to adapt to modern times.
On the role of the Publisher
I think publishers (and editors) need to start thinking in slightly more media-agnostic terms, and they need to embrace the opportunities afforded by being shoved into the digital age (sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes not), where your cost-per-unit is not dependent on bulky, expensive, and wasteful physical manufacturing processes (which, in essence, is what commercial book-printing is). While there are other costs associated with eBook production that may not be evident at first look (especially at the onset), electronic always trumps physical when it comes to the accessibility of the means of production.
Additionally, I think fiction editors need to look beyond the novel—or even the book as we know it—as the final product of their efforts. To paraphrase a co-worker, the truly great editor is an advocate for his authors and their ideas, and I think that this advocacy needs to extend into as many realms as necessary. Upon acquisition, an editor should ask themselves not what kind of book should this piece of intellectual property become, but whether it should become a book at all! Should it instead be an information-dense website; or a live-action movie; or a serialized, episodic narrative on the internet (see how far I’ll bend over backwards to not say “TV show”?), or a video game; or a presentation (think Al Gore); or a work of graphic narrative; or an animated movie (these last two most definitely NOT being the same thing)? Once the editor and the author have decided what this piece of IP should be, media-wise, it’s then the editor’s job, with the backing of the publisher, to find the correct producers for that idea, be they printers, eBook-makers, film-makers, game designers, comics artists, etc.
On books, specifically
As a book lover and collector, I do think there will be a space for printed and bound books for a long time to come1. I just think that it will be a very limited market: for people who like books as objects, for art or photography books (including graphic storytelling), or beautiful collections.
On the technological side, however, things are moving fast. People are starting to read on their iPhones and other smartphones, the ePub format is gaining some serious traction, and devices like the Kindle and the Sony Reader are also becoming more sophisticated (think about the current iteration of the Kindle and similar devices as the same as the 13-inch, black and white tube television prevalent in the fiftes ans sixties). I wouldn’t be surprised to see colour, increased resolution, and maybe even rudimentary animation on eInk technology by the end of 2009, at least in proof-of-concept form.
This very well may be wishful thinking, but my vision for a holistic book publisher of the future is one which concerns itself with both the analogue and the digital life of a work of fiction, and works at or around three editions of a work that probably need to be published at the same time—this whole business of waiting a year to publish a mass market edition of a book is nonsense in a digital world.
1- Premium Printed Edition—The first edition would be a physical object: a beautifully-designed Premium Printed Edition, exquisitely-printed, bound in small numbers, destined for a small market of higher-end customers and collectors—much like music and movie boxed-sets. Accompanying this tome would be a Unabridged Digital First Edition, which would include any multimedia elements that make up a part of the book (such as embedded movies, music, maps, illustrations, etc); as well as ancillary material that is not necessarily part of the book itself (think documentaries on related subjects, interviews with the author, etc). This would sell for a premium price, let’s say $50-$602.
2- Unabridged Digital Edition—At the same time as the Premium Printed Edition is released, you release that Unabridged Digital Edition that you included with the Premium Printed Edition as a stand-alone purchase, priced at around $10-$20 bucks. I think this price range is justifiable for a first electronic edition that is chock-full with additional elements that you don’t have in a regular, printed edition of a book. Additionally, buying this edition automatically entitles the buyer to download future, updated editions of the same book, either for free, or for a ridiculously low fee (I’m thinking like a dollar). Once you start including multimedia content with a work of fiction, and packaging it all together in an attractive way, editions become version numbers, and books truly become software in an ideological sense. This changes the work of an editor and an author: if an author so chooses, their work is never finished, and the author retains a very accessible way of adding, amending, and otherwise iterating on a previously-published work in a timely manner; likewise, an editor becomes even more of a shepherd, and the act of editing a book can become an ongoing curatorial pursuit. But I digress. Moving on…
3- Abridged Digital Edition—Still at the same time as the Premium Printed Edition and the Unabridged Digital Edition are released (remember, staggered publishing is for suckers in the digital age—you only need to walk Canal street on a movie’s theater release date to see the DVDs on display, and the fallacy in that model), you release the Abridged Digital Edition at mass-market prices: Say, $2-6 bucks, tops. This Abridged Edition is just the plaintext of the work in question—well-designed, nicely typeset, but no multimedia, no maps, no art, no entitlement to future iterations, no nothing. Words on a screen. Hell, if it were me, I’d offer this edition as a free download.
An aside: While incredibly nifty technology, I see Print-on-Demand as a stopgap measure between the phasing out of mass markets and trade paperbacks, and the true ubiquitousness of e-reading, so it doesn’t really fit in this model.
As it becomes more and more obvious that digital is the way to go for publishing (not that it ever wasn’t, really, it’s just that the big boys are now actually altering course on their big boats), many ideas will hit the market, and many will die before a successful model is found. This, I think, is a scheme that could be sustainable, and embraces the best of both the digital and the analogue worlds. Would it work? Is it too simplistic an approach? Is it going too much against accepted practices in the publising industry? Does it leave too many people that now depend on the infrastructure surrounding printed books out in the cold? I don’t know. What do you think?
1 At least until people around my age all die off—children nowadays are consuming most of their media via digital interfaces earlier and much more often than before. I would be very surprised if a thirty-year-old of 2030 has a problem with reading off a screen, like many of my contemporaries do.
2 All dollar values are purely off-the cuff, and more meant to reflect a relative pricing scale for different editions, than reflect any real costs associated with publishing—I’m just sayin’. A formal P&L is not part of this excercise…yet.