For the second installment of positivity week: the future.
You don’t hear very much optimism about the future these days, what with the stock market looking like the Grand Canyon and the Bachelor breaking hearts on national television (except my heart — I loved every minute).
We’re just over the horizon from the digital age of books. It will be a major transition. It is going to cause some heartache and displacement and layoffs, as it is already. We’re seeing old models break and die. And right now in the world of books, the shrinking shelf space due to closing bookstores (not to mention closing wallets) isn’t yet being replenished by the new possibilities that are afforded by the digital marketplace. Right now there are still all sorts of bottlenecks in the system that are resulting in good books not being published (or under-published) and all sorts of stress. Plus, change is scary.
(And yes, I know that paragraph may violate the terms of positivity week. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the good stuff.)
Don’t fret over your beloved paper books: they will always be around in some form. But here’s why we, as lover of books, should embrace the coming eBook future: distribution will no longer hold writers back.
Writers from the beginning of time have been faced with one essential physical challenge: you had to get the books to the people. Thus, you either owned a printing press or you had to find a publisher (who owned you). Without the publishers: there was no way to reach an audience.
This physical barrier has already eroded somewhat with POD and self-publishing, but as anyone who has self-published knows: good luck getting your self-published book into a bookstore. You may be able to print your own book these days, but without a publisher’s backing or pre-existing fame it’s ridiculously hard to find an audience.
In sum: throughout the past two hundred years, someone could write a perfectly good book, but there was one big barrier standing in between the author and their readers: publishers. As much as I’d like to think the publishing industry is always right, well, it’s not.
But here’s what’s going to happen in the digital era: anyone will be able to publish their book, and there will be no distribution barrier. The same eBook stores that stock Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown will stock, well, you. Readers will be the ones who decide what becomes popular. There will be no intermediary. It will be just as easy to buy a book by you as it will be to buy the HARRY POTTER of the future. Your book will be just a few keystrokes away from everyone with an internet connection (and their tablet/eReader/iPhone/gizmo/whatchamacallit of the future).
Just think about it: no wondering how in the world your book is going to find its way past a publisher into a bookstore. No more print runs! No one will be doomed by a publisher and bookstores underbetting on their success. No more bottleneck. No more que……… well, there will always be queries. Sorry!
Books will finally be able to live and die by, well, themselves, not by the best guesses of the publishing industry.
Now, am I, the agent, writing my own obituary? Nope. I don’t think so. If anything things are getting more complicated, and authors will still need agents to navigate the business and negotiate with the Amazons and Sonys and Apples and whoever else rises up in the future. There will still be subrights to negotiate and distribution deals and all sorts of challenges that authors will be hardpressed to face on their own. We’ll still be here.
Am I writing the major publisher’s obituary? Nope. I don’t think so. Although their business will change a great deal, they’re probably correct to be coalescing around a blockbuster model. They will still be offering an unrivaled package of services: they’ll edit, copyedit, typeset, and promote your book, and better yet, they’ll pay you an advance. For the busy bestseller and celebrity it’s a very, very attractive package.
Am I writing the small publisher’s obituaries? Nope. I don’t think so. Small publishers will thrive around collectives like McSweeney’s, who help each other promote their likeminded books, and serve as tastemakers in the ensuing deluge of books. Readers will gravitate towards the sites on the Internet with books they like, and enterprising small publishers will have a greater opportunity than ever to become major players.
People, the future of books is exciting! Right now it’s scary and chaotic and is making me regularly pound my head on the desk. But when you look at the big picture: greater access will be the best thing that has ever happened to writers in the history of books.