A Hazy Future Can Make For Strange Bedfellows

Let me start by saying I like Mike Shatzkin. I see his work as a view from the other side. He’s very much entrenched in the traditional worldview but, unlike some, that doesn’t mean his thoughts are ignorant and should be discounted. Certainly, he falls into some of the same traps of assumption and false narratives that others do, but who involved in following any of this and voicing opinions on it doesn’t occasionally, in some form or another, including myself. I find Shatzkin to be a fairly vocal critic of publishers. Certainly, his point of view can sometimes be very Inside Baseball, as it were, but there’s value in seeing and understanding that point of view. Everyone on all sides have reasons for what they believe, and I’ve always thought the underlying reasons for those beliefs are more important than the beliefs themselves. That’s why I tend to be far more harsh on people voicing opinions based on faith rather than fact, assumption over analytics. You can’t argue with someone who has no sound basis for what they believe. Logic doesn’t work on people whose beliefs are formed without it.

Anyway, here’s an article by Shatzkin from back in May where I think he asks four very pointed and cogent questions, not only about the future of publishing, but what the nature of that future will be. I’ll first state the question he presented, then a short quote from Shatzkin on each point before expounding in my own rambling way…

1. How persistent an activity is immersive long-form reading?

“As my generation is replaced with digital natives, a decline in the market for novels would seem to be a very likely consequence. Or, at least, novels as we know them now.”

I agree to a point. The novel, perhaps more than other types of writing, fit the form of the printed book extremely well. But if it was the pinnacle of the form for fiction, digital “books” open up new channels of possibility with the potential for new forms to emerge. I am confident the novel in its traditional form has legs, be it digital or print. But I’m not as convinced it will remain the dominant form for fiction in the long run. What it will be ursurped by, now that’s a question I’m not sure any of us can answer at this point.

2. How persistent is the demand for printed books for long-form reading?

“My hunch is that ebooks will continue to take share from print for long-form reading, in fits and starts, but inexorably.”

I’m not going to call it a hunch, I’m absolutely certain digital will take share from print over time. I think hardcovers will transition into a boutique market, likely a larger one than what has developed for vinyl albums, but a much smaller niche than it maintains today. I think trade paperbacks have a niche of their own, largely because of the efficiencies and portability of POD technology. This niche will be larger than the hardcover one, cheaper and less ornamental but, however limiting it may be, paper is a great form for static work. And I suspect the conceit of books used basically as furniture and/or expressions of your personality may hold on longer than widespread numbers of people actually reading on paper. At the end of the day, though, I think digital is going to account for 85-90% of the industry’s sales in the not too distant future.

I have one caveat to this, it’s dependent on attracting younger readers and that’s dependent on being available when, where and for how much they want. The only way I can see print maintaining anything close to even 50/50 market share is if we all fail to bring in younger readers, print sustains through the older audience and the industry as a whole contracts greatly as that audience dies off (see: newspapers). But for this to happen, it would constitute an epic failure of the big houses as well as the smaller ones, the indies and retailers both large and small. Possible buy not likely.

3. How well do informational illustrated books compete with alternatives?

“My candidate for a Black Swan here is some industrial-strength attempt to curate the vast amount of video and other Internet-based content into ‘packaged’ competition for books that teach skills.”

I can’t say as I disagree with this either. I think it’s only natural that the vast amount of information available at our fingertips will be packaged in such a way as to maximize it’s use and, ultimately, revolutionize the way we approach education. Anybody looking at the mind blowing costs of college these days can’t help but think of it as an area in dire need of revolution. This will not be good for publishers of textbooks, however, who control a vast, extremely lucrative, captive market of students. But as time goes on, it will become more and more apparent that they no longer control any kind of monopoly on information. What’s available to all of us instantly will end up as the death knell of their exploitative business model. Couldn’t happen to more deserving group, either, in my opinion.

Some forms of book haven’t yet translated in any kind of peak form to digital alternatives. But it’s only a matter of time before they all do. The technology isn’t just going to stop progressing at today’s level. It will keep getting better and better.

4. How much of the creation and selling of books spreads beyond the book business?

“I’m sure that in less than five years every multi-million dollar marketing plan will have an ebook component: sometimes free, sometimes freemium, sometimes paid. Over time the businesses that do this work will learn, probably faster than many book publishers, how to use the online discovery mechanisms to drive the attention of relevant consumers.”

Why this isn’t happening more already is a bit of a surprise to me. Despite what publishers may tell you, it’s not that expensive to bring a book to market. Much of their expense comes from the model they developed to do so in the conditions that it developed. Things have changed, barriers for entry are little piles of rubble in most places now. Individual people can and do access this market regularly and to good success. If you’re a company of any size or bankroll, the cost of diving into this type of product is miniscule.

But more than just using them as a marketing add on, I can see all sorts of businesses using digital writings to supplement their brands. You see a business like Chipotle already experimenting with things like short stories on cups and their own miniseries television show released directly to Hulu. Producing entertainment or informational media and distributing that to an audience is no longer the sole purview of media companies. Everyone can be a publisher now and over time, everyone will.

So there’s Shatzkin, a person whose opinions I often disagree with yet I find I’m in near total agreement (to some extent) on these four questions, all of which forward-looking beyond the present day conditions of the publishing industry and it’s nascent battles with Amazon and the digital revolution. Just because someone seems to be on the other side of the fence today doesn’t mean they’ll always be there. Look at the underlying reasoning for why people believe what they do and you may find more commonalities than you expect.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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Published in: on August 28, 2014 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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