Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barriers Fall


Over on her blog, thriller writer CS Harris quoted an article on the future of publishing.

I can, kind of, maybe, see where the writer's coming from. Just not sure if I agree. Or I do agree, but only kinda.

Seems like he's trying to extrapolate the changes in music onto book publishing... in the Dickensian era. Or maybe I'm getting it wrong.

Yeah, as the e-reader becomes ubiquitous and novels-on-paper attenuate, barriers to entry will lower. (Basically, a barrier to entry is something, land, equipment, information, a printing press, necessary to enter and compete in a certain business. Keeps the riffraff out. More here.)

And lowering barriers of entry always changes the game, any game.

One time this happened with books was the late 40's, early 50's, when some clever fellow noticed that GI's would tear the covers off their books to make them more portable and thought to market a book small enough to stick in a pocket, with a cheap paper cover.

The paperback made publishing cheaper and easier. This lower barrier of entry made it economical to publish 'trashy' stories to regular folks. There was a hue and cry then, too: death of quality, who will find the good stuff in a sea of lurid covers, etc.

And yeah, those pulpy paperbacks of the 50's-70's did give us a lot (A LOT) of best-forgotten trash, but they also gave us some fine authors who might not have found a voice without that cheap platform making the risk worthwhile.

On a side note, those trashy paperbacks are gone, but my understanding is that it was a problem with the distribution companies, NOT the publishing houses.

I believe the rise of the e-book will make for one big change, but it's a doozy: Publishing houses will cease to be Distribution Monopolists, no longer protected by the fact that they can afford a printing press and fleet of trucks. They will be Quality Portals, providing a certain amount of signal to rise above the noise of your Aunt Bee's Online Cookbook.

And even when the barriers fall, the early competitors often start with a significant advantage in the form of big pots of money earned before any dirty old rascal could join the game. The same advantage Random House now employs to make sure their picks are front and center when you walk into Borders will be the same advantage they employ to be at the top of your screen when you shop at iBooks.

The only real way the existing houses can fail is if they refuse to change. It does happen. But somehow I doubt that *every* major house today will fall by the wayside. More likely, one or two may fall, most will change and continue, and a new house or two nobody's ever heard of now will grow to be a major player. It's just how these things play out.

Sure, it's easy to imagine a wild and woolly future democracy where the new literary stars emerge by offering their books free on MySpace, but this crusty old cynic still sees those brash young lights jumping at the chance to be picked up by someone with the marketing muscle to, you know, pay them.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

There's always a period of shake down when one system gives way to another. People still want to get the wheat from the chaff but it might for a while be harder to do that. STill, major publishers have printed plenty of chaff.

You're dead on about the rise of the paperback. We got some great stuff from that, even though there was plenty that was forgettable as well.

Lana Gramlich said...

In a similar yet different vein, the computer has turned millions into "artists" (often of dubious talent.) Some digital art I don't mind, but when 90% of it is some 12 year old's crappy anime, it gets tired for me REALLY quickly.

Lisa said...

The internet is causing an upheaval for print journalism, for sure. Newspapers and magazines have not, for the most part figured out how to derive the advertising dollars they now get for printed space from the internet. It's a pretty significant revolution and sooner or later, someone will figure it out.

As far as books go, I'm having a hard time visualizing what the new business model will be. The old one clearly isn't working the way it once did. Disruptive technologies like POD, online book stores, etc. are throwing a grenade into the middle of the old model and like print journalism, I'm sure some clever entrepreneur will figure this out.

It will be interesting to see what we read and how it comes to us a decade from now...

SQT said...

I have a hard time seeing massive change since I don't care for ebooks at all. I get offers all the time for ebooks and I always turn them down. I suppose the industry will move me before I move it.

It will be interesting to see what it does for new authors. Personally I don't see it changing the quality much. With Amazon at my fingertips I always know, almost immediately, if something is awful.

cs harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cs harris said...

I agree books in electronic format will never find favor with a huge chunk of those of us who spend too much time already staring at a screen. But changes are coming to the industry, and it will be interesting to see what happens. I think I feel another blog coming on...

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I agree with Barbara Martin's comment over on CS Harris - reading books on screen is hard on the eyes and posture.

Also there is something so special about holding a book, the shape, design, illustrations and even the weight, that cannot be replaced by a screen.

Curling up under a tree in the garden with a 'notebook/laptop'? Not the same!

However, it will be interesting to see how things evolve!

Rao said...

I'm not a fan of e-books either. Unless that's the only place to find it. I would much rather curl up with a book. However I hardly ever look at magazines anymore unless I'm waiting in the doctors office. It is way to easy to find that sort of content online. I do follow online some of the magazines and newspapers I use to read. I also agree with Lana about a lot of the digital art being craptastic squiggly drawings.

Avery DeBow said...

I think the hopeful dreamer in all of us wishes for this revolution to tear down all the Old Boy's Club barriers, but logically, your vision is probably the more correct scenario. Advertising found a way to survive the popularity of the internet, so will major publishing houses.

Evolution is a bitch.

Glamourpuss said...

I agree. I understand the publishers are worried - Amazon has been chipping away at their margins and now the e-book threatens further losses, but let's be honest, their monopoly never ensured the best writers were heard.

Puss

FANCY said...

Hmmm...E-book can never be the same as a real book. who is so heavy that you don't have to go to the gym and build muscles... ;)

Steve do you remember that you have promise me a duet over the net and now I have figure it out how to do it. Time has come for you to fulfil your promise. *ROFLLOL* It will be publish in Contemplation blog...;)

Anonymous said...

I dunno..there is a new Ereader out that holds a charge for up to a week and holds 1500 books/magazines. The emarket makes up less than 1% of the total market but it is still growing. how did that go..The only thing we can be sure of is change....
- Rumplestilcliff ; )