I believe that the publishing industry as we know it is days, rather than decades, from extinction.
The old model, wherein literary agents act as the gatekeepers for the publishers, is done. And the model that includes publishers acting as quality control guardians for readers is also finished. It’s all over. O-V-E-R.
The delivery system for written material has changed, and that technological revolution has inadvertently killed the publishing business. Why, you ask?
It all comes down to pricing.
In order for there to be juice in the game to support the literary agent, and the publisher, and the copy editor, and the ad and development team, publishers need to be able to sell their product for many multiples of what the author gets paid. That’s partially to cover the overhead, but mostly to cover all the titles that the industry produces that bomb. Because, just as in the record industry, where all the execs pretend to know a hit when they hear it (and thus have more rarefied insight into what the public wants to hear) the publishing houses and literary agents all pretend to have special knowledge of what readers will want to read next, or what stands a decent chance of being popular, or failing that, what is at least “good.”
Except, of course, they don’t. Otherwise most books wouldn’t fail. Just as most records would be hits. But that’s not what happens.
You have an entire industry that creates its value by doing two things – presumably, acting as quality control/talent scout, and by being the distribution system.
Enter the Kindle, and the Nook, and the Ipad.
Suddenly, there’s no distribution system required, or rather I should say there’s no value in the hard copy distribution system as it currently exists – the shipping of books, of hard copy, is largely dead or dying. The idea of folks going to a book store to purchase a book is rapidly becoming as antiquated as the rotary dial telephone, or the quaint imagery of people lining up at record stores to be the first to purchase vinyl of their favorite artists. It’s just all so 1980′s.
No, the distribution system value of the entrenched publishing houses has dropped to near zero. Now you can download instantly, and carry a thousand titles around on something barely larger than your phone. So the value of the shelf space, of the trucks going from the paper mill to the printing presses, and then to the book stores or the warehouses, is effectively becoming nil.
Just as the Internet bankrupted the newspaper business, the Kindle and its siblings will BK the traditional publishing game. Because once it’s a download game versus a hard copy sale game, the price consumers are willing to pay drops through the floor. Because there is no value in the delivery system, whereas a few years ago, the delivery system was everything.
Which leaves the perceived value of the publishing business as quality control/talent scout.
I believe there is some value in that, but only to a point, and I further believe that the system as it exists is badly out of touch with readers’ tastes and wants. Because as with all high priesthoods where knowledge and power are tightly concentrated among a few anointed cognoscenti, the likelihood of creating self-reinforcing feedback loops is high, thereby corrupting the system’s ability to innovate – or supply products people truly want. Which may be why I have such a hard time finding books I find interesting.
But my point is that the industry as quality control and talent scout, while it has value, has very little value the lower the price of the entertainment.
John Locke, who is something of a phenomenon, has said, and I believe correctly, that a Grisham has to be 10 times better than him to sell his book at $10 whereas a Locke book is $1. That’s paraphrasing, but I believe the essence of the observation to be true. I think it’s a race to the bottom on pricing, and I believe that somewhere between $3 and $1 is what most will soon be willing to pay for fiction. If I’m right, then say goodbye to the mainstream publishing business, as it can’t support itself on those kinds of revenues. And frankly, the economics from an author’s perspective of getting a book deal and signing with a publishing house don’t make much sense at those kinds of prices, either. Even now, as the publishers recognize this death knell, they’re trying to fight the inevitable by selling “singles” – 10 times less book for 10 times less cost. But that’s again, an unsustainable paradigm, as ultimately consumers will want 80-100K words for their dollar, not 10K words with a fancy wrapper.
But then, what of quality?
What I envision happening is the same thing that’s happened in the blogsphere, where it becomes a pure meritocracy, and buzz and word of mouth determine what becomes a hit, rather than marketing budget and quisling reviewers.
That’s exciting as a business, because it means as an author I can get work to market in a timely manner, and the economics work in my favor. I get a larger percentage of the ASP by disintermediating the publishing house, and I don’t have to wait 18 months for my book to hit the electronic shelves. It’s also creatively exciting, as I’m not limited to what I believe my agent wants or finds marketable to his network of publishers, nor do I have to self-censor to make my work more “accessible” – I can write what I want, and you the reader either like it, hate it, love it, or are indifferent. But the expression of the ideas is all mine, for better or for worse. And you vote with your dollar.
In a nutshell, I think the publishing game has maybe 24 to 36 months left, if that. I believe that there will be a slew of new names selling a lot of books, ironically from authors who never would have made it through the existing mill. I also believe that there will be a lot of dross distributed, and that there will be a shaking out period as the leaders in this brave new world define themselves and claim their relative positions.
But I truly believe that shortly, readers won’t be willing to pay more than a buck or two for a fiction book, and I don’t care who the book’s author is. Is that good? Or does it cheapen the craft and the work? Will those who work for eight months or a year to get an idea honed as a novel refuse to participate as the reward is undersized to the task, or will that just become the new normal? I tend to say it simply is what it is. Maybe if there’s a big enough following, an author can ultimately command $3 a book, and put $2.10 per book in his pocket. Or maybe it will become a world of 99 cent books, and some authors will sell half a million books a month, with no marketing, or PR campaign, or anything but word of mouth. How that part shakes out will be part of the show.
But I believe that rather than railing against the machine, it’s more productive to write another story or three.