Image via Wikipedia"If you can see into the future, you're not looking ahead far enough," said the bloke that put the hole in the toilet seat that is the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee. Right now, that is particularly true in the world of publishing, where a great looming cloudy thing is gathering on the horizon.
Problem is, nobody knows quite what's in it.
I have long been fascinated with the question of where publishing's going. This is because I used to be in the publishing industry (before I fell into PR, insensibly, like a boiled frog) and also because I have a nasty book-writing habit. Harper Collins' experiment in online talent-spotting and stealth POD site, Authonomy, showed how book publishers were casting around for some way to use the Internet in their business models. At the same time, magazine and newspaper publishers have been watching revenues dwindle as all those bloodshot morning coffee eyeballs drifted onto the Internet.
The problem facing both categories of publisher is that they are wedded tightly to their business model - and it's a business model whose very existence is based on inefficiency. It's simply got to go.
This is not something I say because I want it to go. While I have long suffered from the whole 'carvers at the gates of Gormenghast' aspect of submitting to publishers, I am deeply attached to the papery wonderfulness that is a good book. It's just that it doesn't really work very well anymore.
Authors are paid a percentage of the cover price of a book. Publishers print lots of books, essentially speculatively, and depend on trying to sell a high percentage of the total number of books. They will never, ever sell all of the books. If you're doing very, very well you might sell 60%. The rest are returns and so the cost of any given book is actually a tad over 140% of its actual cost of production, print, shipping and so on. This is the first inefficiency - wastage on returns.
The total cost of the book will include something like 40% for the distributor (20% for the disty and 20% for the retailer). The author will make something around 8-10% of sales, although the percentage depends on who that author is.
Given that I can put a book in your hands for nothing using the Internet, the process of chopping down trees and squeezing them through printing presses, shipping them all over the world and then accepting the unsolds getting shipped back again (to be remaindered and then, if all hope is lost, pulped) seems to be terribly inefficient. And it is.
I have often said that the last refuge of the about-to-be-disintermediated is 'quality'. Never has it been so true of publishing the traditional way. You need professional editors to give a book quality. You can't replace the quality of a paper book. You'll lose all quality if you open up the publishing market to any Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks they can write a book.
In the time I was involved with Authonomy, you'd often hear me saying that I had found more books on the website that I wanted to read than I had found in my local bookshops. That was, and is, the case. There's a lot of great writing out there that could not be published not because it wasn't good or highly readable, but because it didn't fit into the commercial needs of a market that was based on focusing solely on the 'next big thing' precisely because of its inherent inefficiencies.
I have posted before about some interesting efforts to redefine book publishing that were born out of authonomy - and I think that life is about to get even more interesting for these fledgling attempts to find an alternative to the traditional publishing model.
At the same time, magazine and newspaper publishing (with many of the same inherent inefficiencies of sales and returns and the like) are both seeing declining sales and advertising revenue (see this guest post from writer pal and newspaper editor Robb Grindstaff). Early attempts to apply 'old fashioned' thinking to the Internet have racked up failure after failure - we ain't going to pay you for content we can get for free. This total disaster is the latest warning that newspaper 'paywalls' aren't the solution.
If Apple's announcement today is what I think it is going to be, a smart, usable tablet 'multi-reader' supported by a user-friendly transactional portal, then we will see if the soundbite of the year will come true: "Apple is going to do for publishing what the iPod did for the music industry."
Authors in the UK can make 75% of an e-book sale, which is not only fairer on the content creator, it reflects the fact that the actual cost of distribution of an e-book is zilch, nada and mafie. Editing and marketing are a cost - and an imprint will still want to gatekeep to keep quality high. But selling fewer books could make an author just as much money - and so smaller , more defined audiences can be served with more of what they want.
This doesn't mean the end for books and newspapers, by the way. It doesn't mean the end of journalism and authorship. It just means the end of publishing houses stuffed with gatekeepers, yoyo-toting cretins and marketing departments that want to sign up any half-celebrity or vampire novel rather than actually finding out what readers want. There'll be new publishers - quality imprints that are slicker, world-sourced and more nimble, marketing-centric and reader-driven, participative and community-minded.
And they'll be efficient.