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.
I know this question may seem odd, but in the whole e-book discussion, I haven’t seen it discussed.
Is anyone concerned about privacy issues inherent in going to e-books? What we eat, watch, do is already monitored by some entity somewhere, do we just not care to add read to the list?
When you download a digital book, there will be a record. There was a flap not too long ago about bookstores not wanting to give up their sales records to the government. The e-book would make that obsolete.
Just a question.
Amber Lynn Argyle says
So, how is the market affecting the length of time publishers take to review a MS?
Just curious, as I’ve been waiting over 5 months.
I think you’ve touched well on the future of agents – you’ll need to become more broadly savvy of the multiple channels available to you and your clients to make a living off of their content. The vision of uploading your books and they’re instantly available for sale already exists (with a generous royalty on net proceeds of 85%) at Smashwords.com. I’m usually there daily, and each time I find at least one item worthy of setting aside in my library (the online one that comes with memebership) to consider purchasing. I think authors will also have to become much more savvy about the business and their market and building a platform. Maybe in later years new authors don’t reach out to agents until they’ve published a thing or two online and started to get some interest and offers that they don’t know what to do with. And maybe there will be room for writers of the odd and unusual (a writer of erotic Star Trek fan fiction from New Zealand comes to mind) to find their market even though no “conventional” publisher would touch them.
Yes, it’s going to be very, very exciting.
Re the privacy question – that information is already available with online sales of printbooks, too. I would expect Amazon analyzes aggregated and depersonalized data on what sells where and to what demo to improve their marketing. Maybe noir thrillers are really popular in Minneapolis. If I’m a bookstore chain with an outlet in Minneapolis, I’d find that useful information to help me not waste marketing dollars and make the most of my shelf space. But as far as tracking information that ties back to a specific user ID, most privacy policies prohibit it unless required by applicable law, and even then they’d probably resist it to protect their reputations and sales – especially if the business only exists online.
As a writer about to delve into self-publishing, my primary concern is actually that my novel be available for the kindle and sony reader.
My second concern is that someone somewhere actually wants to read it.
Loving the positivity. I’ve heard from several of my ‘sources’ that e-books are the way of the future (really, I have no sources, have just always wanted to say that…)
Yes, it will be a learning curve like all new things are, but absolutely forward thinking. A concern is that the writing continue to stay sharp.
This is a better articulation of what I’ve been thinking than I’ve been able to come up with. Of course, this brave new world will come with the problem of unparalleled noise (which is where the collectives and taste-makers (great name for a rock band) will come in).
This moment, for publishing, must be what the travel agency industry was facing ten years ago when people first were able to book their own trips on line.
Anne Wayman says
As Rick Daley and others pointed out, readers not only have to have the book available, but they have to know about it before they can buy it. I wonder if agents like yourself won’t find yourself doing way more marketing than negotiating… or negotiating marketing maybe. As the noise increases, the long tail gets more interesting to me.
I have more than 6000 “references” that would come up if you googled my name as an artist, but although sales are available through various sites, only one site is actually selling and they spend two million a year on advertising every year for their site and are always actively pursuing sales opportunities.
Supersized stores are closing everywhere.
Going back to the small business model could also be the way things will return.
After being put out of work by big corporations, small businesses are popping up. They are more steady and reliable.
The one-man to three man construction specialist, the local farmers at the local farmers’ markets, the small bookseller who features what he wants and specializes in local literary?
It kind of reminds me of how at one time it was so PROGRESSIVE to have an electronic answering system, but today, it is BETTER BUSINESS to have someone who can respond immediately in a REAL way (i.e., a real person) answering the phone.
(word verification: entio roc!)
Now that Miley Cyrus is a published author….How can I compete?
Why do you do this? Publishing industry?
An autobiography no less. LOLOLOLOL
This is absurd.
Real writers unite!!!
Like everyone else in the world (or at least most who read your blog) I am working on my craft now, and as much as I am uncertain about the future of publishing, you certainly painted a pretty picture of what it could be like. That silver lining is enough to help me endure the storm clouds currently overhead.
Brad Mo says
I worry that in the future companies will have control over what gets put into the widely used sources for buying ebooks. Theoretically, I should be able to go to a bookstore locally and ask if they will sell my book, but they won’t. I simply feel that in the future somebody who is not a writer is still going to be in control of the situation.
I’m not being pessimistic. I’m being worrisome.
Katrina Stonoff says
I think the most important statement you made, Nathan, was this one: “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.”
Think about the literary (and literacy) explosion that followed the invention of the printing press. And when you boil the printing press down, all it did was give readers greater access to books. Exactly what the electronic age is doing now.
Dakota Flint says
I just wanted to say thanks! Another author pointed me to this blog, and I really needed this. It’s like blogging I Ching.
Some moments you just really need a shot of positivity. 🙂
Thanks for sharing such lovely post. I feel book printing requires techniques in order to develop books that meet the standards of the present generation
Stuart Aken says
Nathan, I know it's a while since you did this positive blog, but I'd still like to thank you. There is hope. I agree with your analysis and, in spite of the necessary pain, loss and change, I believe the world of books will come out better. As you so rightly point out, this is a real opportunity for the writer. Bypassing the publisher is often essential if you're writing anything radical; publishers, especially since the Salman Rushdie affair, have grown less and less willing to take risks with content. I think there is now a real, viable future for those of us with something important to say; something that might frighten the establishment or unsettle the conservative amongst the reading population. Exposure and identity are now the greatest hurdles a writer needs to clear in order to run the race. More power to your elbow, Nathan.