The Future of Publishing - a report by Katherine Roberts
The answer is quite a lot, to the point of being unrecognisable when I got halfway up the drive. The original Parade had almost vanished behind sleek new buildings, and the campus now has wonderful sporting facilities as well as hi-tech student accommodation. I spent most of the first night playing with the coloured light display above the bed-shelf in my "Quad" pod, and a fair bit of time working out how to lock the door from the inside with my non-touch keycard (which, it turns out, you can't do unless you open the door first and tell it to lock before you close it). Keys are so last century.
Apparently so is the internet, according to futurist Christopher Barnatt who spoke at the conference on the Future of Publishing. I found his talk particularly interesting, since he was one of the few people there who did not work in the publishing business (apart from writing books about the future), and was therefore looking at publishing from the outside rather than the inside. When people work in a business and know it very well, as many publishing professionals and established authors do, there is a danger we can end up navel gazing, which leads to short sightedness when things change.
Christopher's talk was in two parts - new technology, and how this is affecting the business of publishing books and the author in particular. Regular readers of this blog will already be halfway there, but some people at the conference still seemed a bit e-blind.
The mind-blowing technology part:
* The internet revolution has been and gone, and now the internet is just a tool.
* Dedicated ebook reader sales peaked in 2012 and are on the decline. People prefer to read ebooks on multi-purpose tablets and smartphones etc. Soon this might be on wearable technology.
* Print on Demand will become quicker and cheaper, with local machines such as the existing Espresso in supermarkets and other outlets producing books in seconds according to local customer demand (I believe it currently takes about 6 minutes to print a book on one of these machines). Taking the local digital manufacturing revolution further, I am even wondering if every household might eventually have a small POD machine so they can make their own personal print copy of a digital book?
* Personalisation will become more important, with readers choosing details such as the font size, a customized cover, the hero's name, etc. You can already choose things like font size in ebooks, but print books could have e-ink pages too with hyperlinks.
*Nanotechnology will allow for moving colour images in books.
* 3D printing will open up small scale personalised manufacturing to individuals. While probably not useful for printing books, this could be great for merchandising items such as plastic models of your characters. You can 3D print on plastic, metal, chocolate and living tissue as well as many other materials. In China, they have already 3D printed a functioning car and a mansion.
*The good news is that Christopher thinks both print books and ebooks will be around for a while yet - it's just the way they are produced, the way they are read, and the way they reach readers that is likely to change.
So what effect does all this have on authors and their readers?
The old model goes like this, and is pretty much a one way street where the author has little control over the process except for writing the book:
author --> publisher --> distributor --> retailer --> reader
(Unfortunately for authors, money travels the other way, shedding chunks for services at each stage.)
The new model looks more like this:
author--> distributor --> reader
But since this model is missing the publisher and retailer, those functions will be taken over by bottom-up aggregators providing services to the author, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) agents providing advertising by enabling readers to find the books they want to read. In this model, the streets are very much two way, with both the author and the reader being involved in the aggregation and SEO processes and the distributor in the middle holding it all together. Currently, online retailers such as Amazon fulfill this purpose.
At the moment, Christopher says the publishing aggregators are not yet in place, although companies like Draft2Digital provide an increasing range of services to authors enabling their books to reach readers. The White Glove service provided by agents to their authors is another step towards aggregation. Meanwhile, the links in the resources tab and sidebar of this blog will take you to various independent services that might help you publish your book. SEO agents however do exist, about which I admit to not knowing nearly enough. My limited knowledge extends as far as Amazon's keywords (for which the KDP platform provides helpful guidelines) and placing my books in the appropriate BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories so that the readers who might enjoy them have half - or at least better than zero - chance of finding them.
Christopher thinks in the future the old model will only work for the top (i.e. most popular) 1% of authors, which seems to be pretty much fact when you look at the huge gap in earnings between the big sellers and what used to be called the midlist although it's probably still working for a slightly larger percentage than this - say the most popular 10% at a guess? Christopher says everyone else will probably do better with the new model. So if you are not in the top 1% of big-selling authors, then it might be time to start taking notes...
I find this quite exciting as both an author and a reader. The main reason I became an early Kindle adopter in 2010 was because I could no longer find the books (or the authors) I enjoyed reading in the shops any more. Yet on the whole I still prefer to read a physical book, so the idea of local POD machines where I can print one and buy it straight away without having to pay the postage charge or wait for delivery quite attractive. Why are these machines not in every library and supermaket now? Are they too expensive still?
In the future then, I will be able to do a quick online search and find the perfect kind of read for me, even when I don't know exactly which book or author I want. If I'd like to read the ebook I can download it straight away to a device of my choice and start reading within seconds. This digital edition will probably be free or very cheap. If I want a paper copy, at the moment I can order a POD edition from somewhere like Amazon and wait a few days for delivery. But soon I'll be able to drive to my local supermarket, or maybe stroll to my local print shop, and print the book I want to read in less than a minute with the font size I prefer and the cover image I prefer as well. Soon after that, I might even be able to set my new home book machine to produce my own personalised copy while I put the kettle on, and read it literally 'hot off the press'.
Yep, when I get my personal home book printing machine, I'm going to have that 'print' button 3D-printed so it's big and red like end of the world buttons always are...
|find this one at www.wackybuttons.com|
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and legend for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter, available in hardcover and paperback as well as ebook. All of her backlist titles are now available as ebooks. More at www.katherineroberts.co.uk
POD may be a different technology, but possibly not so different in practical terms. What company now would choose a business model that might need so much human maintenance, and/or travel between POD machines by its reps/minders, for such a rarely ordered object? I'm reminded of those almost-empty racks of neglected make-up ranges or greetings cards or vending machines one occasionally finds away from the big stores & malls. Might POD machines fall into that pit, though not that precise display style? Faded paper, aged glue, pages missing or blank. Sorry - the "button and cup of coffee" makes a more cheerful thought.
But what came immediately to my mind is the huge 24 hour Tesco about ten minutes from where I live. They have one fixture devoted to books. One. I'd estimate they have something like twice the space devoted to magazines, five times the space devoted to make-up, the same to shower-gels, shampoos, etc - about ten times the space devoted to clothes - at least three times to their pharmacy - probably ten times as much to electronics...
If books were anywhere near as profitable for them as, say, biscuits or cereals (twice the space) they'd be devoting more space to them.
Put this lack of interest together with Penny's remarks about the expense and trouble of maintaining book machines, and I'm not expecting to see one any time soon. (For the record, despite living in the populous West Midlands, which is not slow to adopt new trends, I have never seen one.)
I don't begin to understand this attitude. Amazon didn't kill off the local bookstore - Waterstones did. In the 80s my wonderful local bookshop in Hampstead closed six months after the big new Waterstones opened on the High Street. The owner - a cricketing buddy - mournfully invited me to the closing-down sale.
It's very sad, though in America there has apparently been a big resurgence in new independent bookstores.
We need them. It's not healthy to have one large organisation like Amazon controlling the whole industry. I say this even as I have to acknowledge that without Amazon I would never have been able to publish my three books, with another three to come.
Thanks for this really fascinating post, Katherine.
I tell them to order from my website - and I supply via Amazon.
I have had so many arguments about this with Luddites. I have found that the one argument that shuts them up/convinces them is to remind them that a child in the middle of the wilds somewhere in Africa/India/South America/etc., now has access to the world's great literature, and that if, when I first went to school I had been presented with a piece of plastic with all the works of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Chekhov, Moliere, Goethe, Confucius, etc., etc., etc., on it - how rich would my life have been?
Can you imagine what people like this were saying when the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, or even earlier when Pi Sheng invented movable type (just in case this looks amazingly nerdish - I only found out about Pi now, when I looked up Johannes just to confirm...)? All those poor monks who were put out of work...
I imagine that eventually POD machines will become more reliable, quicker and cheaper - making this option a reality for bookstores, even if not for supermarkets. It doesn't make much sense to me that we are still posting printed books and shipping them around the world when the technology exists to print them locally. It would take returns out of the equation for midlist titles, which could be sold via. POD machines in bookstores, and that surely would please publishers and their authors too?
However, while I was doing this I came to the rather startling conclusion that I only had about 4-500 books that I REALLY WANTED for their physical entities. The rest were all reference books and collections of one kind or another. All of these I would LOVE to have on a piece of plastic that I carry around with me. I thought of all the years as a teacher when I had either lugged books to class, or had to find them and lug them to the next class (losing many, many books in this way that were never returned to me by scatter-brained students). What's more, most of these books are irreplaceable - they're out of print.
Now I live in what amounts to a second-hand bookshop. If that sounds fun, it isn't...