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July 29, 2010

A contrarian view of the future of publishing

Based on a quick Google search, things don’t look too hot for publishing:

Google search for, in quotes, death of publishing results in 104,000 hits

What’s dying, though, is not publishing itself but the current model of distributing books. Unfortunately for traditional publishers, this also destroys their current business model, which was based on their effective monopoly on distribution channels.

Traditional publishers are supposed to provide the following:

  • Gatekeeping—a quality filter to ensure that high-quality (or at least commercially appealing) content is published
  • Distribution—the ability to have a book available in lots of bookstores
  • Marketing—making sure that potential buyers find out about the book
  • Production—turning a writer’s raw manuscript into a finished product, which includes book design, cover design, editing, and more

What happens in a world that includes print-on-demand and ePub?


The publisher’s brand position becomes critical. Publishers that have a reputation for excellence (such as O’Reilly for technical content or Penguin for classics) can credibly claim to be gatekeepers in their focus areas. Huge, unspecialized publishers who are mostly interested in finding The Next Dan Brown, The Next Nora Roberts, or The Next Nicholas Sparks? Not so much.


The value of widespread distribution isn’t zero, but it’s headed that way.


Authors are expected to do their own marketing. Big publishers can arguably help A-list authors with book tours and the like, but A-list authors aren’t the ones who need marketing help! For the mid-list or niche authors, marketing falls entirely on the author—this is not new.


Oddly enough, this is where I see a big opportunity for publishers. It’s just not the one they seem to be pursuing. Publishers are currently fighting a rearguard action that amounts to arguing that “paper is better” and trying to get people to stay with paper. They are also lurching toward creating eBooks.

There are a couple of strategic problems here: For starters, the vast majority of publishing workflows are built around print production with eBooks as an afterthought. There’s still a lot of friction and manual labor in creating ePub or Kindle formats.

But I think that publishing houses need to focus on production to survive. There’s value in producing a nice, shiny ePub—and right now, it’s difficult. The tools and the workflows will improve, and ePub production will be a commodity. That’s not where the publishers should go.

The business opportunity for publishers is in creating the next generation of content—at this point, most eBooks are little more than print-based pages moved to digital page-equivalents. As we move beyond that very basic approach, I expect to see:

  • Books that include live puzzles. Dorothy Sayers wrote several books in which puzzles or ciphers were an integral part of the mystery. Imagine an eBook edition where you cannot proceed until you actually solve the puzzle, instead of simply reading past it.
  • Books that include computer programs. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon contains Perl code. In the digital version, you should be able to execute the code and see what happens.
  • Books with soundtracks. Imagine the emotional effect of a Nicholas Sparks book with the tear-jerking music from the movies included…on second thought, don’t. But I can easily envision a book that describes an army on the march including sound effects.
  • Poetry books that include audio with the poetry being read.
  • Books with embedded video, which seems especially useful for technical content.
  • Mixed media. Content that includes audio, video, text, graphics, links, and interactive components to create something is more than a book. We have this sort of experience already with video games, but what if those techniques are applied to telling stories and to nonfiction or technical content?

This is where the opportunity lies. Authors will need help to create content that uses a variety of media. And I believe that consumers will be willing to pay for these interactive content experiences (I need a better name for them).