The Future of Publishing - a report by Katherine Roberts

Earlier this month I attended the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators Group conference at Bath University. I have never been to this annual event, despite being a member of the Society since my first book Song Quest was published in 1999, so thought it about time I checked out the business side of things. Also, I was a student at Bath in the early 1980's and was curious to see how much the campus had changed.

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

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

Christopher Barnatt is Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies at Nottingham University Business School. He also writes books.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you. You brought the handwriting we've all read on the wall into sharp focus, with practical tips that set me to clicking your kindly provided links to further timely info.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thanks Katherine. As a self certified tech geek I found this really interesting. The POD book machines I heard about 2 or 3 years ago and saw a video demonstration. However, I am not sure if they are being used anywhere. Do you know if they are?
Chris Longmuir said…
As a techno geek I found this post fascinating, and these advances will certainly be great for readers. One note of alarm near the end of the article was the fact that the digital editions will be very cheap or free, and as the POD book machines work from digital files this will apply to the these files as well with the reader paying approx one pence per page for printing. This is fine and great for readers, but where does it leave the author who is providing the very cheap or free digital file? I wish I could have been there at the talk.
Dennis Hamley said…
I heard a few years ago that Blackwell's had one of the first POD machines but I've never been able to find it. I'd love to test one out for myself, though I'm not sure whether all this cheers me up or not. Bath was first CWIG conference I haven't been to since Brighton 2000. I'm not surprised that, even after the earbashing Sue gave the conference in 2012 about going independent, some children's authors are still e-blind. I didn't go this year because last time's feeling that it didn't concern me any more has deepened even further. I wasn't even enthused by the top publisher who told us, without a quiver of irony, that prospects had never been rosier for the writer.
Penny Dolan said…
Thanks for this, Katherine, as I wasn't at the talk. It's all very interesting, especially the use of tablets & phones rather than dedicated e-readers. You ponder on why there are so few POD machines? Well, as I read the piece, I couldn't help thinking about the maintenance of any such machine - rather like the "office printer" that nobody fills, and where there's always the problem of where to store the paper, find the ink refill cartridge, remove the crumpled paper blockage, etc.
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.
Susan Price said…
I think Penny - who always talks sense - is exactly right.

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.)
Mari Biella said…
All very interesting stuff, Katherine - thanks. It'll be interesting to see what happens next.
Brian said…
Dennis is right - Blackwells in Charing Cross Road, London, had one. Sadly they're now gone. The Espresso machine apparently had some initial problems, but that was quite a while back. They've probably ironed them out by now. I've always thought that the way forward for small booksellers lay in several of them getting together and hiring one in a centralised (for them) location. This would vastly expand their ability to serve local customers. If I knew I could just go down to my friendly local shop and order a book that would arrive as soon as any Amazon order I would definitely prefer to do that. Actually my local shop could just order it direct from Amazon already. Unfortunately they're involved in a cut-off-your-nose-to spite-your-face battle with The Big A. A friend of mine wanted to buy one of my books, went to his local bookshop, where they told him it was unavailable. I told him to go back and tell them that they could order it from Amazon and get their publishers' discount (not as much, but, for the amount of work involved for them, still a good profit). They told him they didn't do this. He ordered it from Amazon. Subsequently, having discovered Amazon (he was not an internet freak), he has bought several more. All lost to his local bookstore.
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.
Susan Price said…
What you say is very interesting, Brian. I've been told by teachers who want to buy some of my self-published books that they 'can't order from Amazon.' That is, they're not allowed to by their bosses, whether the local authority or the company that operates their school. - The same face-spiting attitude.

I tell them to order from my website - and I supply via Amazon.
Brian said…
It's so self-defeating. Those who will not keep up with progress will be run-over by it.

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...
Thanks the interesting discussion - I have never seen a POD machine, either. But we have an excellent independent bookshop in my home town, and I can see no reason why (other than the possible maintenance headaches Penny points out) every independent store shouldn't keep one so they can offer a full range of print titles on the day a customer asks for them, along with their book expertise. I know you can order most titles from your local bookshop, but there's always that "got to go back into town to pick it up" issue standing in the way of the purchase... people want instant these days.

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?
Umberto Tosi said…
... The Espresso POD machine future looks bright, like all projections, in pristine conception. When I visualize them in shops and cafes, however, I'm reminded that I've never owned a reliable home or office printer. Mobile phones have advanced light years, but printers -- even those guided by cyber-brains -- remain plodding mechanical devices that really haven't improved much since the 1990s in practice. My expensive Epson and HP printers can barely process 20 pages without a glitch, much less put out 200 with the smoothness of that POD machine in the video. I suspect that in that shining future, a lot of shops will have out-of-order POD printers, with blinking red lights, out of paper, or ink, or paper jammed, or out of alignment half the time - even with expensive updates - sending cranky readers flocking back to one-click Amazon with drone-copter delivery and no hassles.Just saying.
Have to say, these days, I only buy a 'paper' book that I know I will either want to keep for a long time, or give as a gift. But on the whole, I prefer to download and read novels on my Kindle. Partly it's my desire not to acquire any more paperbacks unless they are beautifully produced with good covers to match the contents. I suspect the quality of a POD book churned out in a shop would not be very good and I can't see myself bothering to go for this option when I can instantly download a novel online. I certainly buy the occasional POD text for historical research purposes, but only if I really can't afford, or can't find, the original - but I buy those online, and would never go into a shop looking for them. And the thought of the queues that might build up doesn't appeal either. But perhaps it makes a difference if you live reasonably close to a bookshop. I'm with Umberto on the potential printer problems. Why do they always wait till you're really desperate to print out a longish document, before chewing up the paper?
Brian said…
I had a rather instructive moment four years ago. I had to move from a slightly bigger flat to a slightly smaller flat. My books - about 2,500 of them, lined the walls in three different rooms. Now I only had two - and those were a squeeze. I tried to cull my book collection, managed to offload about 400 on various charity shops (though these started looking askance - they wanted best-sellers, not the esoteric weirdos they were getting from me).

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...

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee