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What is Your Greatest Fear for the Future of Publishing?

By Edward Nawotka

Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, describes the bizarre evolution of the contemporary textbook into “Frankentext,” — what he calls a “overstuffed, overpriced, and unloved” monster.

To Frank, the current academic publishing scene is a horror story.

Of course, Frank is not alone in looking across the book publishing landscape and seeing monsters. For some, it’s Amazon.com, others think its conglomerate publishing readers, others are worried that digital distractions have turned readers into disengaged, disinterested zombies?

Personally, I’m quite sanguine about the future of publishing, but my biggest fear is that publishers have taken their role as curators of the culture too casually, and are too tolerant of mediocrity, and thus are frittering away their credibility in pursuit of a mass audience. Why aren’t there more books that people absolutely need to read, rather than merely want to read?

So, tell us, what is your greatest fear for the future of publishing?

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  1. Posted October 29, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    To answer this question you have to first indicate what you mean by “publishing”. If defined as authors getting paid well to exchange their intellectual property with readers I think you have every right to be sanguine. But, if you are indicating “traditional publishing” where a few very large houses use warehouses, brick and mortar stores I think the downward spiral will continue.

    The bottom line is that new technologies such as e-readers, POD, book blogging, and on-line book sites like GoodReads and Shelfari, make it easier than ever for an author to connect directly to the reader without the publishing “middleman.” Now more than ever, large houses have pulled back and focused on existing known authors then recruiting the next wave of new fresh voices. This has left an exceptional opportunity for independent presses and those concentrating on digital only formats.

    Of course the naysayers will cry, “But self-published and indie works lack quality. They can have no real impact as we need the large presses to act as a quality gatekeeper.” To this I say, you don’t understand the new world of social media. The best marketing for any book has ALWAYS been word of mouth. And in the social media space, this is more important than ever. If a book is good, news of it will spread quickly. If it is bad, the news will spread even faster and it will quickly fade away as it should.

    Change breeds opportunity and the large presses have, for too long, kept to their old models. They have huge initial up-front investments (advances, large print runs, warehousing fees) and suffer from returns when sell-through doesn’t match up with buy-in. Is it any wonder their finding hard times? Models that reduce up-front investments (POD, higher royalties in lieu of advances, ebook versions) make it more palatable to give new talent an opportunity and in such a model sales of 5,000 – 10,000 books can be very profitable for both the author and the publisher.

    So am I optimistic? Heck yeah. The only fear I have is the “big boys” will “catch-on” and adopt the agile model of the “little guys” – I doubt it will happen, but if it did…even better (for the authors and readers).

  2. Posted October 29, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Now that we are all in the great, global marketplace of the internet and social media, my greatest fear is that no one will be “heard.” As to the effect on the quality of books, I can only say that the traditional publishing world has, for some time now, been playing to the mass market with work that hits the lowest common denominator. This is interesting because those in the traditional world have considered themselves the gatekeeper and insurer of quality. But the traditional publisher has access to the traditional media. The indie author/publisher does not. While we may say the internet has “democratized” the industry, some remain “more equal than others.” I, too, am sanguine.

  3. Posted October 29, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    My biggest fear is that readers will stop reading because of price. Since textbooks are so enormously large and expensive to produce, they should be broken up into smaller components. I remember once I paid $35 for a small chemistry text which was only 6×9 and less than an inch thick. At the time, about 20 years ago, that was considered over the top in terms of textbook prices. It was also hardbound, which no doubt increased the price. Nowadays, in this disposable society, most readers seem to prefer soft paperbacks because they are less expensive and cheaper to produce, and would prefer the books to be laid out better. I cringe at the prices of books which would have cost less if a) their margins were narrower, and b) if the illustrations did not have so much wide space between them and the text. Also, the headline for each chapter taking up half a page. Padding for $$? I think so, and in order to make textbooks more affordable and interesting, the publishers need to stop doing this.

  4. Posted November 1, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I have two main fears re. the future of publishing.
    One is that books on paper will disappear which is what a lot of people are delighted to tell us. When that happens, I shall only read old books.
    The second fear is that publishers are running so scared that they only want “sure things”.
    This is having the same effect on writing as Hollywood is having on films….no surprises, no risk-taking, no theme or story that pushes the boundaries or might outstay a 14-year-old’s concentration time of two-minute scenes.
    This “sure thing” attitude is false, anyway, because nothing is sure today.
    As evidence, may I cite a publisher, who shall remain nameless, mainly because I have forgotten his name, who dug up a Swedish writer named Larsson, (NOT Steig, this one is alive and his name is Fred!) and published a big book with the name LARSSON on it in huge capitals, with a teeny-tiny font for “fred” over that.
    In other words, he hopes to sell the book to people who think it is an undiscovered Larsson book.
    This copy-cat thinking will finish off publishing for good.

  5. Posted November 2, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    As Robert says:
    “The only fear I have is the “big boys” will “catch-on” and adopt the agile model of the “little guys” – I doubt it will happen…”

    Big companies adopting “insurgent” tactics and getting agile is nothing new, and as big publishers do so, no one should be surprised. Every big company that sells anything to an end-user consumer has a gaggle of consultants telling them how to be “hip” or agile. Some dinosaur publishers won’t make it, but some will thrive.

    That said, I’m not too worried about this; it’s going to hurt for some boutique publishers, and for others, it’s going to provide a more convincing “bad guy” to contrast with, as “one of the remaining small publishers…”

    My only REAL worry is commercials in eBooks. I’m very certain this is coming. Not next year, and maybe not in 10 years. But I fully expect to see some form of advertising in books within the next 15 to 20 years.

    And that, for a number of reasons, is truly frightening.

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