The Future of Digital Publishing

I got a call from a writer friend last evening. We spoke about digital books and I answered some questions about why I had chosen which formats to sell through my store. We discussed sales strategies and how I’d seen things evolving. And then he offered a comment:

“I just have this feeling that somewhere out there, there is one more change, that none of us can foresee.”

He’s not the only author I’ve heard express this sort of reservation. Every time I’ve heard it, I’ve been struck that somewhere, sometime, some one standing on the top of a burning building has looked down at the airbag below, and just before jumping has said, “You know, I think there might be a better spot to land, and I’m sure I’ll see it very shortly.” (Note: these folks are different from the ones who perished two floor below because they were pretty sure that the sprinklers that had failed up to this point, would kick in at any moment and save them.)

When he made that comment, I said, “Here’s the problem with that: to affect such a change would take a lot of money and the investment of a lot of time. I just don’t see anyone out there doing that.”

Look at the players in the digital book game, the folks who have enough money and expertise to actually be able to change things from the path they’re on:

Google: They’ve invested a lot of money and time digitizing books in the currently available formats. They’ve made their play.

Amazon: Market leader, they’re making move to solidify their grip on digital publishing.

Barnes & Noble: They’re shrinking shelf space and are ahead of schedule with Nook and ebook sales.

Apple: Critics may call the iBookstore a flop, but every book sold in it is one more that Apple hadn’t sold before, and the dominate the tablet market.

Sony, Microsoft and other reader or tablet manufacturers: They’re all struggling to catch up with Apple and Amazon, and are making devices that support both epub and Kindle formats.

Smart Phone manufacturers: They’re in the same boat as the tablet producers. Letting folks read books is just one more thing their devices do, so they don’t need to innovate on that front.

Trade Publishers: By clinging to the traditional distribution model, they have fallen seriously behind the curve. Their suppliers (authors) and their true customers (readers) realize they don’t need them anymore. The idea that they serve as gatekeepers has fallen to the wayside and has been replaced by free sample chapters so readers can make their own decisions. The “legitimacy” offered by Trade Publishers has also vanished because they’ve turned around and offered contracts to self-published digital stars so the traditional publishers won’t seem so terribly out of touch. It’s akin to some segregated country club electing an African-American club president so it can seem that they’re not still mired in the past. That doesn’t mean the writers aren’t good, it just means that Traditional Publishing’s crown is seriously tarnished. Traditional publishers lack the money, personnel, vision and drive to become players in the digital market. There is no way they are going to move it in a different direction.

All the above cases leave us with one more suspect: The Unknown Player. This is the ubiquitous “someone” who will do “something” to somehow “change” everything. Right now, inside track is on Santa, since he delivers all the cool devices for free, and that’s the sort of universal cost and delivery system we’d need to make such a change. The digital book market has built up a lot of momentum and is making a lot of money for a lot of folks who are now invested in seeing this expansion continue so they can profit without having to invest a boatload more money in research, development and advertising.

What’s important to remember is this: you can either wait of the future to happen, or you can look at the future you want, and make it happen. There are no other choices here. Me, I looked at the future four years ago, and I worked to make it happen. I’m still working to make it happen. The cool thing is that while it’s happening, I am able to profit.

Suggesting that there may be one more change out there invites folks to wait. They want to wait because they want to be sure they get it absolutely right. But this is akin to suggesting that if you want to make money betting on American Football, you place your bet only on the Superbowl. Whereas I’d prefer to be placing bets throughout the season, refining my strategies, so when we get to the Superbowl, my bet is one that will be made because of knowledge and experience.

Don’t let the fear of not finding the perfect solution keep you from participating in some mighty dandy ones going on now. Only by working yourself into this new digital delivery economy will you be poised to maximize your earnings as it speeds up. Assuming that you can wait for the final form and just jump on then is like assuming that when you first learned to write, your work would hit the bestseller lists. That would have been stupid then, just as waiting is stupid now.

Don’t wait for the future, make it.

_______________________

Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

In Hero Years... I'm Dead. A Digital Original novel.
My digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

16 Responses to “The Future of Digital Publishing”

  1. Not so sure trade publishers will be “clinging to the traditional distribution model” forever. Seems to me that this new joint venture is a necessary first step in going direct to readers:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/books/publishers-plan-a-joint-one-stop-book-site.html?_r=1

  2. Matt DeForrest 07. May, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    My guess is that the “other thing” that everyone has been waiting for just debuted: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_matas.html

    The most important part of the presentation is when he talks about the development suite. With that, you have the reinvention of the printing press.

  3. What’s going to change is the imposition of a whole new layer of gatekeepers (imo).
    The eBook distributors will be forced to apply quality control to the material they publish, and we (the authors) will be right back where we started, fighting our way out of slush piles in gatekeepers’ offices to get out work epublished.

  4. I actually have that book. Love it, but that’s not the “next thing.” That sort of book is far too expensive for individual authors to produce in a timely manner. And by timely manner I mean “as quickly as readers want stories.” If you want to wait for the next “Game of Thrones” volume, then this IS the next thing. If you just want stories, that’s too much.

    It IS a beautiful product, however, and I’d not mind working on one. :) Thanks for pointing out the link.

  5. the new gatekeepers are the readers themselves. With sampling being so easy (through retailers and on websites) we don’t need gatekeepers.

    Authors will only end up right back where we started from IF we surrender the power we have now. Not going to happen in my case anyway.

  6. That Game of Thrones comment really made me laugh, hard. It is even funnier if you have seen some of the people online who follow Martin’s every move and complain whenever he is doing anything unrelated to putting out the next book.

  7. Brandon, what’s interesting about your link (Bookish.com) is that the site is asking for emails, so they can mail you when it’s up. But there’s a box to check if you are a “book publicist, publisher, or author”. Gee, wonder why they’re looking for that? ;)

    At a guess, it’s because they are going to do the same thing Amazon does, and let authors upload their own work. Why? Because it makes them more money to do so. Works for me, more outlets for my work is always a good thing!

  8. The only big changes left to make, as I see it, is turning eye-glasses or contacts into e-readers or even beaming stories directly into the brain to be processed by the user.

    The eyeglass thing is plausible, but it won’t effect the direction e-publishing is going right now.

    Loading novels directly to the brain…not happening anytime soon, and that won’t change the direction e-publishing is going.

    So I think we should all be strapping ourselves into the driver’s seat of our careers.

  9. @Jack: VR spectacles are just 2 or 3 years away. ;-)
    http://www.engadget.com/2010/09/17/brothers-airscouter-floats-a-16-inch-display-onto-your-eye-bisc/

    While this stuff won’t affect ePublishing much, it will speed up the process, the upcoming technology changes(next 10 years) will be huge. Even compared to the late 20th century, technology advances fast. We double technological knowledge every two years. Of course, tech. advancement is a steep slope, but we are still progressing exponential. (e.g. Moore’s Law still holds for years to come)

  10. There is a next thing none of us have anticipated. Of course, the future being what it is, and Murphy’s Law holding, it will be something none of us could have anticipated.

    In which case, we’ll just have to deal when it comes. For now, deal with your present reality. The neat thing about epub is how much of a commitment it’s not. So when the next thing comes, you’ll still have the agility to follow it.

    Tradpub, on the other hand, ties your hands with long-term contracts for what amounts to indentured servitude. How many times have I heard authors lament about the difficulties of prying a fan-favorite story loose from the jaws of the publishing house that gave them a break when they were a struggling author? Too many.

    Eventually we as a society are going to have to deal with the fundamental invalidity of the distribution-based profitability models both epub and tradpub rely on, but that’s a matter for another day.

  11. @Christoph: Moore’s Law doesn’t quite work that way. Fundamentally, it’s just a statement about the advancement of microtransistor density, and while it’s also applicable in terms of computing power per dollar, the extent to which it’s held is that the curve is still exponential. The exponential rate has slowly declined over the era of the personal computer.

    Worse, there’s a design bottleneck. Applications are taking longer and longer to develop, in part because we now have so much power at our fingertips. Combined with the power of “good enough” I see a potentially stable high-tech society emerging in the 21st Century as at least an even chance.

    Technologies always advance quickly at first, but at some point they mature, and advancement becomes a function of innovation in combination with other emerging technology.

    Information systems are moving from emerging to mature, and we won’t know it’s happened until after it happens.

  12. @JediBear:Moore’s Law was just an example of the technical advance. e.g. at least the new tri-gate transistors will allow to uphold Moore’s law for another couple of years.

    Also, computer power was just an example, or let’s say a basic requirement. Computer power is still insufficient to fulfill a lot of needs. Sure, paradigm has shifted, we needed computers to be fast enough for the most “basic” needs for a very long time. Now, we need them to be more portable, to have them always with us. And when this happens, the next need will appear. Cars will soon drive by themselves, “Star Trek Tri-Corder” are being thought of, mind controlled machines are in development.

    There is no such thing as a “a stable high-tech society”. Read Charles Stross “Accelerando”, compared to its ideas Star Trek or Shadowrun looks like something Jules Verne might have written.

    Would it exist, we would not stand here today, we would have stayed in our caves.

  13. There isn’t any such thing as a stable high-tech society….yet.

    But there are physical limits to what is actually possible, and even while our rate of accumulating information and our capacity to store it is exploding, the actual pace of practical advancement is slowing.

    It’s hard to imagine, especially if you’ve lived your whole life in the Information Age, but we’re not too far out from a future where computers are like cars or guns, which haven’t had a single revolutionary idea in decades.

  14. Are you not generalizing the traditional trade publishers a bit too much?
    While my knowledge is limited to the customer side, some of them like Baen with their free library (offering whole books of authors series in the hope of hooking readers), monthly subscriptions of all new releases and ARCs (read the unedited version of a new book if you really have too much money and cannot wait for it) seem to be on a good way to make out a lot out of the e-side of business.

  15. Baen is hardly a traditional publisher, precisely for the reasons you point out. In addition, they moved from New York ages ago, cutting their overhead considerably. They’re doing things right for themselves.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Digital Revolution « Ailionora - 10. May, 2011

    [...] also have to agree with what Mike Stackpole said in a recent blog post: Trade Publishers: By clinging to the traditional distribution model, they have fallen seriously [...]