4/14/10

The change it had to come / We knew it all along

Michael A. Stackpole has written about the end of the publishing industry in the Huffington Post. It's a great article, and exciting because he's put a date on it. Afghanistan and oil will last forever and the bets are off for polar ice but publishing, Stackpole proposes, has 24 months left:
Michael Shatzkin, a book industry consultant who is widely read and respected, weighed in with an interesting article about how soon the publishing crash could come. His analysis is fairly solid and he sees a "serious disruption" in book distribution as early as November, 2012.

His thinking runs thusly: once ebook sales hit 20-25% of book sales, print run numbers will fall to a point where the current consignment system for sales will break down. Under the current system, most books can be returned for credit, so for every book sold, two are printed. Those "returned" books have the covers torn off, and the guts discarded, so they cannot be put out into the market again. Ebook sales will create smaller print runs, driving up the unit cost, forcing higher prices which, in turn, will kill sales. Game over.
I don't know enough about business to do the maths on this but I visit a lot of bookstores, and my experience in recent years has been that the major chains offer more and more choice of things people don't want.

When Borders folded in the UK I spent hours pushing through crowds in the Charing Cross branch and emerged with exactly one title. (A Murakami bio.) There was nothing else in the store I wanted that I didn't already have, and the majority (99 per cent) was manifest crap: ghostwritten titles by celebrities no-one outside of England would have heard of; franchise serials that had been churned out at two a year; generic machine-written doorstep-sized fantasy series of the World Quest variety; sporting titles thinner than a Sunday supplement; every other History masters' student's thesis packaged with a sexy / arch title (ditto for Science); bawdily captioned photo titles and joke compilations; I-Was-There travel bunf; and music titles on subjects that warranted little more than a Wikipedia page.

There were queues at the check out. Other people were buying more than me, but not a lot, and the stacks of books that remained on the shelves and in the bins - I wouldn't have put it out if it had caught fire.

Don't get me wrong - I like Borders. (Auckland's Queen Street store stocked more of my novels than Whitcoulls or Dymocks, but less than Unity Books.) My point is that before discussing the death of publishing one should ask for a specified diagnosis.

In the case of newspaper and magazine publishing, Gawker points out that Apple is now positioned as the new Gutenburg. (Their conclusion, in The Who's words: "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.")

When I talk about "publishing" I'm thinking of "literature" but a visit to any bookstore shows what a tiny slice of the pie that is. The publishing industry has become as vast and sprawling as the music industry -- industry being the key term. It's about shipping as much stuff as possible: books as lumber. Publishers want to make money out of printed paper in the same way that Coca-Cola wants to make money from sugared water. That's not going to happen, and it's ludicrous that it ever reached a point where that seemed possible.

Stackpole goes on to posit:
Publishers, because of their sloth in contracting electronic book rights, own ebook rights to maybe the last fifteen years of their output. Authors can easily produce ebook versions of novels and shorter work which publishers' don't own. Authors will make far more on those ebooks through direct sales than publishers are offering. There is no incentive for authors to sell those rights to traditional publishers which means, in the fairly short term, publishers run out of material to sell. Their backlists will vanish as authors sell the books themselves.

If you will, the publishers' gold mine will have played out.
This part of the prediction is more interesting. Literature has always been cheap. Writers pay themselves to create it, and a lot of the time it goes on to make a profit long after they have died. It's these profits which have created the status of different publishing houses as well as their business. It's the over capitalisation of that business which has created the problem. Says Stackpole:
The second point which Mr. Shatzkin doesn't seem to appreciate fully, in my opinion, is the sheer ease with which authors can themselves create and market ebooks.
It's true. In less than two years, I'll probably be creating and selling my own ebooks via this blog and my author site, or via some similar online mechanism. The notion is empowering but more than a little melancholy. Writing is already a lonely business: when the publishing model changes, it will become even lonelier.