Saturday, January 24, 2009
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!