Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future Will Be Better Tomorrow

Last week, the inimitable Nathan Bransford wrote a post about the future of publishing in which he envisions a switch from the current "top-down" model (i.e., books are funneled through publishers to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff) to a "bottom-up" model (i.e., everyone and his mom who wants to publish a book will publish that book—electronically—and consumer demand will do the separating for which publishers are currently responsible). In case you missed it, we had a #blogduel over the issue on Twitter. I'm calling it a draw. For now.

First, I agree with Nathan that as e-books come to comprise more and more of the market, electronic self-publication will become more popular. I also agree that this "sudden deluge" is, in fact, already here, and that it's not going to substantially impact anyone's reading or book selection habits. At least, not yet.

I disagree with Nathan on the point that these extra books will continue to float around in the ether forever without impacting your reading experience (much as all those physical books you never think or care about do). Without an organizing force or infrastructure behind them, I don't think the e-book market will self-regulate any more than than Internet discussions or chat rooms do. The e-book market needs the equivalent of threads and moderators, otherwise I think the loudest (not necessarily the best) voices will win out and the consumer will have a difficult time finding material that, for lack of a more tactful turn of phrase, doesn't suck.

To be fair, there is sort of an organizing force already at work in the book world (p- and e- alike), and that's the consumer review/word-of-mouth. I do think that consumers, by reviewing e-books and participating in a system that rewards well-received books and does not reward garbage—or at least, material considered unsalable by the majority of people—will be able to give a semblance of order to the electronic market. To be honest, though, that's only part of the equation.

A recommender system relies on participation from members, and while I'm certain there is no shortage of people with opinions on the Internet, there are some genres and topics that are more likely to draw reviews than others. Additionally, the more niche the topic of the book, the smaller the audience and the fewer reviews, meaning a bad review or two by an unhinged reviewer could sink an otherwise promising title.

As in the physical book stores of today (rapidly becoming the physical book stores of yore), I think there's going to have to be an organizing force on the part of the larger publishers; that is, a system by which they use their extensive marketing budgets to ensure that their titles are given prominent placement in electronic venues operated by companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. A system that is already in place in the physical book store and beginning to grow in the analogous electronic environment. That is to say: co-op.

In short: I think Nathan is generally right about the future of publishing, but I think any kind of democratization implied in the "infinite book store" is illusory (though it's totally possible I inferred a kind of democracy in Nathan's vision that isn't there, and if so, I apologize for having misunderstood). Yes, the electronic book stores of the today/the future are/will be orders of magnitude larger than the stores of today, and yes, they will be full of a lot of great books and a lot of crap. I think that future depends on better methods of differentiating the two and communicating that information to the reading public.


  1. Thanks for the information. I'm not sure which way things will go. I love paper, but I loved VHS. What is interesting to me is that many assume the major publishers do not print 'crap'. Oh, I could name a few titles which the editors/publishers slept through. The other part of the problem in the paper world is that it needs a major repair in much of the ignored market(I wonder how it will be addressed in the e-world)There is the assumption that particular things will not sell, before they've even tried.

    There is a lot to fix in paper that I hope gets repaired in digital. Who knows what will happen. We'll just have to see.

  2. We really need to work on having more exciting duels. I, um, agree with everything you said here. I didn't mean to suggest that the future would be infinitely democratic (just perhaps more democratic) or that there won't be a need for tastemakers/gatekeepers (though some of that will transition from agents/publishers to consumers/websites). And I especially agree about the role of the publishers to bring a semblance of order to the deluge by getting placement for the top titles and giving consumers trusted brands.

    So, yeah. Consider this a Darth Vader spiraling into outer space after Han Solo took his wing men but living to fight another day moment.

  3. I lean closer to Bransford, except I'd go further and say there indeed "won't be a need for tastemakers/gatekeepers."

    Basically, a million e-books will be like a million cable shows. Some product will receive more attention than others and become hits.

    Respectfully, I don't buy Eric's co-op idea. If a cable show advertises, the money will return on investment only up to a point; how well the show does ultimately depends on the quality of the show. We've all seen heavily advertised shows that tanked, and shows with little or no advertising that became hits.

    You can only push the cable tv show-book analogy so far, of course. But I think it's apropos. A wide variety of product meets consumer consensus.

    Incidentally, isn't Bransford arguing a position that goes against his self-interest as a literary agent?

  4. Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed, Bransford. The ability to destroy an industry is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

  5. I agree with you on this--and this "new world order" is already frustrating me. Without a local bookstore (it recently closed), I'm having a hard time figuring out what to read. It's so much harder browsing estores--the titles they highlight aren't the kinds of books I usually read. Yes, I get recommendations from blogs, but so many of the recommendations are for specific genres, not for all-around good reads. I hope publishers consider this as they jump on the e-bandwagon. They may be losing sales without all those old-fashioned bookstores, especially for nonblockbuster titles. If self-published titles are added to the mix, it's going to be even hard to sort things out....

  6. I think the bottom-up model for the most part is illusory. It *appears* to be fair to the writer and reader, but holds a few problems:
    1. Even if access to the consumer will be equal for all books - which it won't - the consumer is not always best judge of what they'll like long-term: witness shows like American Idol, where I'd argue some of the better singers are quickly shucked in favour of those less...novel. Interestingly, the so-called winners do not seem to earn their voters' long-term loyalty, as determined by ongoing record sales.
    2. Winners are often selected not on the basis of their talent, but their popularity and packaging. (I see the cult of personality invading the world of writing in a way that spells doom for a perpetual misfit, such as myself.) I worry that quality writing will suffer. To be honest, the mega-advances given to celebrities at present, while skilled, debut writers sometimes forgo advances altogether, or aren't picked up, is a worrisome trend.

    I think the temptation will be for publishers to buy and promo the heck out of perceived easier sales, and then salve their consciences about letting go a "good" book because, "Hey, if it deserved it, it would rise to the top anyway."

    BTW, these observations are not made by someone who's been rejected by the publishing industry. Yet. All cynicism wherein is my own. ;)

  7. Interesting posts on this all around, but isn't online co-op already happening? Don't publishers already pay to have their books promoted in e-mails or on certain web pages at all of the major online book stores?

    Though online co-op is a different beast. In the physical world everyone sees the same books when they step into the store. In the online world those shelves can be re-arranged each time someone new "steps" through the door, catering to that reader's specific tastes. Only read mysteries, no problem. Only read biographies, that's all you see. This targeting means that each impression is much more valuable, and the company offering it can charge a lot more for it. This is the engine that drives Google. JA Konrath sited Amazon's ability to e-mail everyone who bought one of his books in the past as one of the real sweeteners in his deal with them. This is part of the real, long term value/advantage of Amazon. They know their customers much, much better than both traditional booksellers and publishers.

  8. I'm confident that as demand grows for some kind of 'organizing force,' aggregate review sites similar in style to RottenTomatoes will rise to the occasion. As for your concern over niche books lacking reviews, sites like SmashWords offer extensive free previews (half the book, at times). Offers like that could help battle readers' fears of taking financial risks on books they may not have otherwise read.

  9. For whatever it's worth, I'll repeat here the comment I made on Nathan's post.


    You said:

    No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages."

    I say:

    Quite the contrary. I think about that A LOT. It's precisely the problem indicated by phrases such as "drinking from a firehose", "Finding a needle in a needlestack". "everybody will be famous to 15 people", etc.

    I call it the problem of finite human bandwidth. Think also signal to noise ratio. The bigger the Internet, the more places for the good stuff to hide.

    You said:

    Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know?

    I say:

    Not sure if the number is a million, but at some point search engine software will begin to fail to scale.

    You say:

    We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we've devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.

    I say:

    Remember Sturgeon's Law. Who could deny that 90 percent of the Internet is crud?

    Just a counterpoint,

  10. I kind of think The Future Will be Better Yesterday. Just a thought, but what I see as being discussed as the future has already happened.

    Except for the flying cars Lewis Black and I have been waiting on since the 1960s.

  11. I think the main problem with self-publishing is that it's rare for one person to write a book that's both good and commercially viable all by themselves, and has a good cover, and also market it effectively. Speaking as a non-editor and non-agent, I feel that editors and agents perform a valuable function in improving the books they handle.
    And in figuring out how to publicize them. A book that's just floating around in the cloud, even an excellent book, isn't as likely to find a readership as one where some smart person figures out where the people who would love that book get their recommendations from, and targets those sources.
    Even if there is no paper, I see continuing value in an agenting/publishing business model. But it's become so much easier to go into business as a publisher that there'll also be a Sturgeon's Law as applied to publishers. I think readers will have to, when they find books they like, follow the link to the publisher and subscribe to be notified when they come out with something new.

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