Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Blog Post about the Future of Publishing

When I attended the Fourth Annual Robert Wright Writers Conference at Mankato State University in 1985 one of the speakers skewered us with straight talk about the challenge of getting published. He pointed out that there were 50,000 new books being published a year and of these only 2,000 were fiction, and most from this latter category would be sold as “remainders” after they failed. Pretty grim stats, but nothing like today. The last I heard there were one million books published in the most recent year where stats were available, and if you think it was tough getting noticed then, well… don’t choke on it.

How does an unknown entrepreneurial writer hope to even find an audience in this complicated, overcrowded marketplace? And what will the world of publishing look like ten years from now? Here are a few of my thoughts on this matter near thirty years later.

Ellen Sandbeck, a writer from Duluth, successfully caught the attention of a New York publishing house the old-fashioned way: sell enough books to show that your product has a market even without a “big New York marketing budget” and prove you’ve got still more material in the well. This is what Irma Rombauer did in the 1930's when she produced The Joy of Cooking, selling copies of her novel (at the time) approach to recipe writing out of her apartment. Ellen’s first book, Slug Bread and Beheaded Thistles, was not only original, it had a captivating title as well. She sold 10,000 copies in three years before Bobbs-Merrill sought her out and recruited her to their stable. (She later moved to Scribner.)

A Book Is a Product
Books come in all shapes, sizes and formats on an improbably wide range of themes, many of them defying easy categorization. Once we decide to bring our book to the markatplace, however, the one common denominator of all is this: in one way or another the book is a product that must offer value.

For the consumer, all books cost something. Publishers are businesses that need to make money to survive, but money isn’t the only thing readers sacrifice. They also must give up a measure of time, which has varying degrees of value depending on one's situation. Retired people may be looking for ways to fill their time. Many others must make sacrifices in order to find the time to read and for these time is a precious commodity, sometimes even more important than money.

In any event, writers must understand the value proposition, whether it be entertainment, information, diversion, comfort, personal fulfillment, wisdom or status – a book must serve a purpose.

The Future of Publishing
Imagining the future has been a stimulating endeavor for centuries. Da Vinci imagined a time when men would fly. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells mixed fact and fantasy to imagine remarkable futures. A whole assortment of books and magazines thrive on making predictions about what tomorrow might bring.

Thirty years ago I was reading an article in The Futurist magazine (a publication decidedly optimistic about Tomorrow) that declared that in the 21st century every person would have a personal robot to serve them. I was at a Minneapolis apartment complex at the time and looked up to see a dumpster diver near the alley. “I don’t think that fellow will have a personal robot any time soon,” I thought to myself. In other words, the future may not match what our imaginations are capable of conceiving.

So what will the future of publishing look like, really, in ten years. Ray Bradbury had no clue that many people would be reading eBooks when he wrote Fahrenheit 451. (Anyone know the melting point of a Kindle, by the way?)

Profits from eBooks have certainly grown in recent years. I read recently that 40% of all books being read in Great Britain are now digital and 20% here in the States. The market is growing, but who’s making the money?

One thing I have observed... Things change.

In 1990 there was no World Wide Web. Five years later I was able to place nearly two dozen of my short stories on the Internet to be shared anywhere and everywhere around the globe. Three were translated into foreign languages (Croatian, Russian and French) and two of my twelve-year-old daughter's stories found publication in California and New Zealand. One of my stories, Episode on South Street, was produced as a short film.

You might say this was all made possible by the new digital world of cyberspace, but it was more than that. I had been an early adopter. My stories were much easier to find in 1996 than on today's crowded cyber space today, now comprised of more than 1.55 billion pages according to one estimate.*

In 2000 there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter and though America Online in 1990 created full-fledged virtual communities, the sea change of the past ten years has been the phenomenon known as social media. And how quickly it shifts and shakes and quivers with each rumbling new wave of technical advance. How can we even begin to imagine what ten years will bring when what’s hot is so temporary?

Here are some clues as to what we can anticipate. First, the big money players make their bread and butter by creating mass media celebrities whom they market as brands. Television is still the driver because it requires no real mental engagement, unlike reading. Second, you do not have to be The Beatles to profit from the game. For every Elton John there are thousands of music groups making money playing bars, casinos and even weddings.

The same holds true for writers. You can reach a lot of people without being a nationally known household name. Steve Martin, in his autobiography Born Standing Up, said he had been on The Tonight Show seventeen times before a single strangers said, “Say, aren’t you the guy…”

The future of publishing will continue to evolve as technology evolves, that’s a given. But whether digital or print, the medium is nothing more than that. The supreme task for writers is to produce noteworthy copy that has value to readers and potential readers. To paraphrase a Zen notion about students and teachers, “When the writer is ready, the publisher will appear.”


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1 comment:

LEWagner said...

"Thirty years ago I was reading an article in The Futurist magazine (a publication decidedly optimistic about Tomorrow) that declared that in the 21st century every person would have a personal robot to serve them. I was at a Minneapolis apartment complex at the time and looked up to see a dumpster diver near the alley. “I don’t think that fellow will have a personal robot any time soon,” I thought to myself."

:)