Wednesday, November 3, 2010

World of Tomorrow Week, Part 3 of 4: The Future

And now, mes auteurs, you're about to embark on a journey through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Next stop: The Twiligh— I mean, publishing world of tomorrow!

(Also, dear readers, please don't think I'm ignoring you by not responding to recent comments on this series. First, it's conference season in the Land of Publishing, so I'm short on time; second, I want to foster as much of a debate between you folks as possible, and it gets complicated if I keep gallivanting into the comment arena to clarify or expound.)

That said—on to the exciting and terrifying future!

The Big Shrink (Publishers)

Over the next decade, I expect publishing to become smaller. Not in the sense that there will be fewer retailers and publishers; on the contrary, I think there will be more (see Consolidation and The Independent Renaissance, below). What I mean to say is: the giants (that is, the Big Six) will need to scale back their operations in order to remain profitable, and this will probably result in a net loss of jobs in the industry.

As the shift to e-books continues, there is/will be a temporary need for more employees at large publishing houses (chiefly for e-book conversion and on-line marketing). As publishers streamline their process, however, not only will they no longer need additional staff for the sale of electronic media, they'll actually need fewer personnel as the print runs and sales of physical books decline. Increases in overall title count may counteract this to some extent, but as everything from production to warehousing scales back, fewer people will be necessary overall.

Additionally, I'm predicting that the industry will consolidate somewhat (see below), meaning that jobs previously offered by publishers may increasingly be available with agencies and retailers.

Consolidation

As print runs decrease and e-books become the norm, it will 1.) be increasingly fiscally feasible for smaller operations to turn out a greater number of books, and 2.) no longer require that there be so much specialization and segmentation within the industry. A new, "boutique" literary enterprise employing a few literary agents, editors, tech gurus, and a small staff of on-line marketing and sales folks will be able to do the e-work currently undertaken by individual agencies, publishers, and retailers. Why sign with an agent, have him/her pitch to a house, and have that house deal with the logistics of selling it through myriad channels (often requiring greatly varied and/or incompatible information and file types) when you can get it all in one place?

Amazon already maintains in-house editors, and the Wylie Agency's Odyssey Editions fiasco telegraphed the intention of (at least some) literary agencies to take on roles that were previously the province of publishers and/or retailers. I think this signals a shift toward greater consolidation in the industry over the next ten years. Whether this means Amazon will be taking unsolicited mss or Simon & Schuster will open their own e-book store remains to be seen, but I think this niche will be filled by companies that already have a strong toehold in the digital market.

The Big Shrink (Retailers)

With the rise of electronic media and on-line retailers like Amazon, brick-and-mortar chains are under enormous pressure to adapt. I've previously likened the current environment to the Cretaceous era immediately preceding the mass extinction event: smaller/independent retailers are the scrappy mammals, brick-and-mortar chains are the dinosaurs, and Amazon (or Internet book retailing in general) is the comet. I don't think this is too hyperbolic.

Unless big chains like Borders—which, according to Publishers Lunch, will be seeing another round of layoffs and store closures—and Barnes & Noble can move a sufficiently large percentage of their business to the Internet, they won't (à mon avis) be around ten years from now. Eventually their operations will shrink to the point where their offering of a physical storefront is outmatched by independent stores' ambience, personality, and community involvement (see below), and they'll likely transform into an all e-operation, selling physical books via the Internet. Since Amazon already does this better than they do, I imagine they'll simply go out of business.

The Independent Renaissance

Finally, meine Autoren, I believe that the combined effects of e-book popularity and brick-and-mortar chain downsizing will lead to a resurgence of the independent book store. Offering everything you can't get from Amazon (locality, community involvement/events, readings, rare or limited edition physical books, &c), they'll expand to fill the roles they lost with the rise of the major chains in the early 1990s. But! More on this tomorrow.

Questions, (dis)agreement, conspiracy theories? To the comments!

10 comments:

  1. they'll likely transform into an all e-operation, selling physical books via the Internet. Since Amazon already does this better than they do, I imagine they'll simply go out of business.

    Corporations that large don't go out of business. They're sold first. Borders doesn't have much to offer anyone but perhaps a businessman with too much money that thinks he can turn it around (which is unlikely). Barnes & Noble has established itself as an ebook presence, even if it's dwarfed by Amazon. If we learned anything from Microsoft, every giant can be felled.

    Barnes & Noble won't go out of business as long as it can shift sales to the nook. And as publishers begin to consolidate, Barnes & Noble offers them the life raft they aren't building for themselves now. A large parent company* could acquire B&N and immediately materialize a storefront they lacked previously. The infrastructure and the brand recognition is already there. Slough off the brick and mortar stores (those that aren't already closed) and utilize the e-store as a riposte to Amazon's aggressive positioning.


    * None of these publishers could absorb the debt of a B&N acquisition, but their parent companies (Hatchett Livre, News Corp, Pearson, CBS, etc.) could.

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  2. The resurgence of the independent bookstore?!!! What a lovely prediction. Thanks for bringing a little sunshine into my morning.

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  3. I believe that as competition increases from the lean and mean smaller publishers who can sell more cheaply, sales switch to digital, profits continue to drop, and the bestselling authors realize they don't need no stinky publisher, the conglomerates will discover they can make more money selling cookies and toilet tissue than in publishing.

    They will divest themselves of publishing companies which will either fold or return to their roots as discoverers of literary talent and creators of careers.

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  4. Oh yes, the Independant Renaissance! I can't wait.

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  5. I believe that as competition increases from the lean and mean smaller publishers who can sell more cheaply, sales switch to digital, profits continue to drop, and the bestselling authors realize they don't need no stinky publisher, the conglomerates will discover they can make more money selling cookies and toilet tissue than in publishing.

    Whether smaller presses can actually sell more cheaply is a question that isn't so easily answered. They have fewer employees and thus have less overhead there, but they also have less investment capital. The transition from paper to ebook requires an up-front investment that small presses may find difficult without using a third party vendor (where the larger houses can build their own solutions).

    More importantly, all those big corporations don't just own trade publishers. They own educational publishers as well. Educational publishing doubles the revenue of trade publishing and unlike trade, education has been pushing hard for the ebook revolution. Their margins are only going to increase when that transition finally occurs. The ePocalypse will not rid publishing of the big corporations. It's going to make them a boatload of money. Just not necessarily in the avenue we're used to talking about on blogs like this one.

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  6. "Corporations that large don't go out of business. They're sold first."
    Joseph L. Selby, do not forget Tower Records. They, like Borders, were for sale for years. They lost money every month for years. Tower was kept going by the record labels who needed a major chain to reach the music customer. In the end, the customer moved on to the digital world and Tower never found a buyer (except the one that closed the doors and sold off the assets).

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  7. In the future Apple will invent the iThought, a small device installed in the human brain that allows you to download anything on the internet including e-books. Apps for any thought will cost just 99 cents to rent and $2.99 to own. Instead of books, words will be copyrighted. Amazon's quest to own every verb will create much panic. Apple will own all pronouns such as i. Google's attempt to offer a dictionary of every word ever created will be opposed by corporations that own the rights to words created by an author who has been dead for over a hundred years. Words such as like, happy, love, and zebra will disappear. The rights to such words will be in such a confusing mess people will stop using them for fear the copyright holder might surface and sue them. Large chain stores will disappear, replaced by small local stores featuring words unique to the local area.

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  8. We are at the very beginning of the end of something. That always means something exciting is about to happen.

    I love this blog and come daily. You are honest, blunt and quite frankly, funny.

    What matters more than the hoopla is that we all remember, everything begins with the word. How it gets out there, once I am able to put my penny's worth is something no one can control.

    Some of the greatest writers of all time wrote weekly in local print publications. Bring on the changes and keep us smiling.

    Or as my kids used to say ... Word Up Eric :)

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  9. I am thoroughly enjoying your discourse in this series! Very enlightening!

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  10. Eric, I truly hope you are right about this! I would love for indie bookstores to expand. Honestly, I think you're right on.

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