Monday, February 4, 2013

Will Book Publishers Become Irrelevant?

(updated) I was interviewed today on NPR's All Things Considered by the amazing Audie Cornish.  We talked about how the rise of ebook self-publishing will transform publishing for the benefit of writers and readers.

I shared how when we launched Smashwords five years ago, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort, and today it has becoming the option of first choice for many writers.

But what about publishers?  Where do they fit in the future landscape? I expressed my view that in publishers' attempt to acquire books that they think have the greatest commercial potential, they are excluding many of the potential breakout bestsellers. These authors will find their way to market via ebook self-publishing platforms, and once they learn they can do it better, faster, more profitably and more enjoyably on their own, it'll be tougher and more expensive for publishers to win them back.  For this reason, I said, "over the next few years, traditional publishers are going to become more and more irrelevant."

At the end of the interview, they interview Michael Pietch, the current top Editor of Little Brown, and the incoming CEO of its parent company, big 6 publisher Hachette.

He takes issue with my comment about the future relevancy of publishers.  He says:
"I think Smashwords is an amazing opportunity for people who want to publish themselves.  I love the diversity of the publication that is possible now, but I object strenuously to the notion that publishers are irrelevant because publishers are doing things now that are extraordinarily complex [and] exciting.  The ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing since Gutenberg first put down a line a type."

It's a cool comment, and I don't disagree with him. 

It's tough to capture my complex thoughts about publishers in a five minute interview.  I don't want to see publishers suffer as the industry evolves over the next few years.  I think the world is a better place with publishers, especially if publishers can do for authors what they can't do for themselves.

Will publishers become irrelevant?  No, I don't think so, and I hope not.  In the future I see, indie authors and publishers will co-exist and co-mingle along the publishing spectrum.
Four years ago, here on the blog, I wrote a piece titled, Why Book Publishing is Like Venture Capital. It's starts with a summary of how VCs aren't as necessary for some Silicon Valley startups as they once were, and it ends with a word game you can play with your word processor.  If you're writer, the game is fun.  If you're a Big 6 publisher, not so much, because the transition will be difficult.

Publishers once controlled the printing press, the access to retail distribution, the knowledge of professional publishing, the access to professional editors, and the marketing capacity to give their books merchandising advantage in stores.  These advantages are dissolving.  The playing field is leveling, readers are propelling indie ebook authors to the top of the charts, and the field is tilting to the indie author's advantage.

If you like interview above, please share it with your friends, embed it on your blog or on Facebook, and share your views about the future of publishing.

The next day on All Things Considered, Mr. Pietch shared his perspective on the future of publishing, and why he thinks publishers will remain relevant.  It's a great interview.  I like that Hachette is putting a former editor in charge.  Editors are the heart and soul of good publishers.


Paul Salvette said...

Great interview, Mark.

A.G. Claymore said...

What concerns me about the big houses is the shrinking shelf space. Borders is gone and B&N is probably shrinking faster than they want to admit. If the big publishers are basically just putting their authors on Amazon and the distributers that Smashwords already reaches, how much longer will new writers have any interest in going with an old school contract?

I think it might be worth their time and captial to try opening their own small footprints at local malls. No stock carried - just rows of touch screens with their hot new authors on default display.

They could pick up the catalogue from Smashwords in much the same way that Apple does. That way, they get a piece of the indie action as well, but still get to put their own titles front and center when you walk in.

For those who prefer paper, they could put an espresso printer behind the till.

Unknown said...

We're all at the same side. If only publishers could see that.

Take Back the Internet said...

I couldn't agree more.

Virginia Llorca said...

You're all right with me. And I say that every where I get a chance to.

The thing I love about all this is the publishers going through all these somersaults and backbends to get a piece of the epub pie.

Nancy said...

Mark, it was a great interview, and Audie Cornish put all the right questions to Michael Pietch, though Pietch's responses didn't quite do it for me. As you said, we're all on the same team. Traditional publishers must face the fact that the playing field has changed and they need to adjust their business model if they hope to remain relevant. One thing traditional publishers still have the upper hand in is marketing & publicity. Pietch drove that fact home as well.

Peace & love to us all in the pursuit of our goals!

Anonymous said...

I think the world is changing far more rapidly than we realize. I just got word today that schools are considering not teaching cursive writing anymore. Opting out for technology alternatives, meaning they won't be teaching our children how to write their own signature. Now, with that in mind, it tells me when this generation grows up, Everything will be on tablet or computer. Paper copy will be the old relic and kept under special lock and key like a valuable antique. So...all those who do business via paper or rely on some form or that will be obsolete. Publishers are part of that old fashioned 'paper' idea. Everything is becoming instant...including books. Short cuts, and simplification are the way of the future...and ebooks and everything online is the way we are headed. Those archaic publishing companies (in my opinion) will be hit hard. Already, paper is becoming obsolete...or everyone is pushing it anyway. How many of us have to go online to get our paychecks now? 'Save a tree' everyone says...I'm thinking the publishing companies are like those trees. We aren't really talking about preserving as much as we are simplifying in this demanding, time consuming, complex world we live in. Everyone wants a quicker, easier method because TIME is the factor for everyone. I also think teachers will become obsolete, but that is a whole other can of worms.(Just my humble opinion:)