Thursday, May 25, 2006

Predicting the future of the book trade

Publishers Lunch reports that, at Book Expo America last week, there was a general sense that change is in the air. That being the case, I thought it might be worth taking a look at the form that change might take -- at least as far as the book business is concerned.

Predicting the future is, as noted here not so long ago, a hazardous business. And nothing demonstrates this more clearly than looking back at past forecasts.

A few days ago I was poking around a junk shop and came across a book published in 1991 in the US and in 1992 in the UK. Title: The Great Reckoning: how the world will change in the depression of the 1990s. The authors were James Dale Davidson and (Lord) William Rees-Mogg.

Davidson is (or was then) a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, and a principal of Strategic Advisors Corporation in Baltimore. Rees-Mogg (still around) is a former editor of the Times, and is therefore as well informed and well connected as any man in England. Between them these two were as well placed as anyone reasonably could be to sniff the wind and decide how things were going.

As you can tell from the title of their book, Davidson and Rees-Mogg took the view that times were going to be hard in the 1990s. And evidently a lot of people were keen to read what they had to say, because the UK edition was reprinted five times.

I bought the book because I wanted to know what these two experts had to say about the impact of home computing in particular. It was in 1991 that I first acquired a primitive word processor, and shortly afterwards I got an office computer with a connection to the internet. But before we get into that, let's see how the two crystal-ball gazers got on with their more general socio-economic and political predictions.

Here are a few predictions which they got right, or mostly right:

  • Taxes will skyrocket.
  • Islam will replace Marxism as the main challenge in ideology.
  • Multinational countries, including the Soviet Union, will break apart.
And here are rather more which (unless I am being more than usually forgetful) they got wrong or mostly wrong:

  • The decade will see the first lowered prices since the 1930s.
  • There will be a property collapse including a fall in the value of the average American home by two thirds.
  • Drug use will be widely decriminalised.
  • There will be a major migration away from big cities.
  • There will be a repudiation of secular consumerism.
  • Unprecedented numbers of government employees will be fired.
  • Retirement will be postponed or even revoked for most people.
  • Terrorists or small nations will get nuclear weapons.
Not all that impressive really, is it? So, let's have a more detailed look at what they said about 'the information revolution', which is the title of their Chapter 2.

I was particularly interested to hear what Davidson and Rees-Mogg had to say about this, because of my personal circumstances. I am actually rather proud of my own foresight in this area, although it didn't do me or anyone else the slightest good. I have absolutely no background in science, having undergone the traditional British, highly specialised, form of arts education. But because I worked in a university I began to hear about developments in computing long before the average layman.

I was secretary, for instance, to a university computing committee, which was discussing ethernet connections and IBM clones many, many years ago. And as soon as I began to hear about the internet, and what it could do -- and even more so when I first became able to get on to it, which again was long before the average layman -- I understood instinctively that it was going to change everything. I didn't know how, and I certainly didn't predict lots of the wonders that we have today, but that it constituted a complete revolution I had no doubt whatever. And I was slightly ahead of most in that respect.

So what did Davidson and Rees-Mogg make of it?

Well, for a start, you will search the index of their 1991 book in vain for the word internet. And ditto email. But the authors did take the view that the computer-based information revolution constituted the third great revolution in human life, and they considered that it entailed an entirely new principle of human control over nature.

They were particularly intrigued by the possible development of nanotechnology, and they feared that the human will might be made to conform with the will of those who controlled that technology -- which is interesting, because that was a central concern of John Sundman's novel Acts of the Apostles, reviewed yesterday. But by and large Davidson and Rees-Mogg didn't have a clue about what we all now take for granted, namely broadband connections, email, online buying, and blogs. Not to mention all the ten thousand other uses of computers to enhance the capabilities of machines and services.

In other words, the lesson I draw from the Davidson/Rees Mogg book, which was written only about 16 years ago, is that it is well nigh impossible to make meaningful future forecasts. If, in 1990 or so, when they were gathering together their conclusions, these two could not even imagine the impact of digital developments, the rest of us have little chance.

None of which stops us trying, of course. And for what it's worth, Publishers Lunch carried some reports, as did many other blogs, of what the 'experts' at Book Expo America were thinking.

It was noted, for instance, that Microsoft have started inviting publishers to submit titles for scanning and indexing; this operation goes under the name of Windows Live Search/Windows Live. And it appears to be another version, shall we say, of the Google Print project, which has caused so much discussion and anxiety.

My guess: at the end of the next 15 years or so, we shall see the establishment of at least one online library which will give massive access to knowledge, in book form, on a scale hardly imagined so far -- even in the nightmares of the Authors Guild and similar organisations, which seems to regard the prospect as something similar to the return of the Black Death.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, told the assembled troops that the book business remains stuck in an old paradigm. Change will come, and resistance is futile. 'Everything I know about business and technology after 25 years tells me that businesses that resist technology inevitably fail.'

On a personal note, Fiorina referred to her own forthcoming book Tough Choices and commented that the time involved in writing a book and getting it into circulation is 'quite stunning.' And she added that it was 'horrifying' that she had to keep dealing with marked-up 'physical pieces of paper when I did the book electronically.'

Poor old Carly. She was probably dealing with people who've only just got to grips with email. (And yesterday I recommended to a friend that he should approach a leading UK agent, only to find that said agent's web site stated firmly that he does not -- absolutely not -- accept electronic submissions or email enquiries.)

The AP reporter at BEA, Hillel Italie, said that attendees fell into three groups: those anxious for change, those who accept it, and those who resist. John Updike was among the resisters, referring to the 'grisly scenario' of electronic books.

Chris Anderson was at the BEA, talking about the long tail. Perhaps more interesting now, since we already know a lot about the long tail, was his idea that beta testing of material through online drafts, presented for public comment, is essential if you are to polish a (non-fiction) book to the point where it will be a success.

Away from the BEA, Lynne Scanlon has some scathing (as usual) things to say about the present mind-set of publishers and makes some predictions of her own. E.g.

  • For the world at large, the digital Universal Library [as envisaged by Google, Microsoft, and others] will rescue long-neglected, long-lost, and long-forgotten books: that's good.
  • As a result of the impending business-model implosion, the inflexible, traditional publishing industry will be sidelined: that's their personal problem.
  • Authors will now have the opportunity to capitalize on having written a book, rather than being forced to rely exclusively on paltry royalties: that will be reward enough, and those rewards can be enormous.
  • As free online publishing spreads and The Universal Library grows, the author who writes a book with the primary goal of selling tens of thousands of copies is going to find a smaller and smaller paying audience. But writing books has its rewards, even if not one copy of the book is sold.
  • Perhaps ignoring the traditional publishing companies as they skip merrily along their own well-trod path to who knows where is the best approach.
  • Self-publish right now online, and reap some of those rewards that are just out there ready to be discovered.

Well that's bold, and brave. And so here's my own (entirely useless) prediction for today:

  • The book business will change, in ways which cannot now be foreseen. And when they do, we shall look back and see that they were obvious, and inevitable. If only we'd been paying attention.


Lee said...

And my own, also entirely useless, addendum to your prediction: somebody will find a way to make money from it.

Dee Jour said...

I think the biggest scam (in regard to online publishing) has to be self publishing, and/or being published via small 'sites' that never pay (not that the money matters) but publishing companies can (if they desire) ensure a larger reading audience, larger than what a webpage offers.

The web, in terms of publishing is deceptive. People may search for particular terms online, they are options and they land on sites that may not reflect what they are searching for. Thus, a 'hit', isn't always a hit.

Self publishing by way of printing, only works for those who have the time and money, for the ordinary writer who needs to maintain their life with a job (who doesn't have access to funds) it doesn't offer much.
Scanlan's predictions are pretty amusing and unrealistic.

My prediction:
Ebooks only make money for Epublishers and will bottom out (after writers get sick and tired of poorer royalties, realising they're being ripped off) and don't offer a sufficient readership.It's much like blogging really where stats mean nothing, whereas bought books mean something and if in thousands, mean even more

Dee Jour said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter L. Winkler said...

“Still, there is plenty to criticize about Fiorina's tenure at HP. At this point, the changes that Fiorina made didn't turn out so well for the thousands of Hewlett Packard and Compaq employees that were laid off and the millions of HP stockholders who lost equity since she took over. HP stock is worth less today than it was in 1999. Dell and IBM stock has increased in value.

I guess the changes didn't work out too well for Ms. Fiorina either. Though based on her $21 million severance package and her generous compensation while employed at HP, I doubt very much that she's worried about making ends meet.”

What was Fiorina's great vision for HP? A merger with Compaq that didn't help either company. Fiorina should write a book titled "How To Get A Great Job, Do It Poorly, And Walk Away Richer."

Anonymous said...

To suggest that the booktrade is resisting technological change is pure bollocks and would only be written by an outsider with no hands-on experience.

Printing techniques, and thus book distribution times have changed enormously in the past twenty years. How many luddities has anyone seen within the printing companies.

As an industry we have become becalmed in all the shite about price : culture is not price driven. Quality, rather than pretension, will be a dominant survival factor for the niche market authors, publishers, and retailers.

Trade colleagues with whom I regularly speak are very willing to accept e-book downloads : we, the independent terrestial bookshops, just want to be sure that the publishers are going to be prepared to offer us fairer "distribution" terms than those currently offered for hard print books.

A new deal for authors via on-line publishing : you've got to be drinking an unknown potion. What guarantee is there that the author will get any better deal than at the present ?

How many readers of this blog would wish to undertake the financial liabilities, as publisher, for most of the drivel written in the 21st century ?

So one book in ten thousand will be a good earner : better playing the horses or dogs. Rather apt that, as most unsellable dreck would be referred to as "dogs".

Bring on the e-books, bring on the Sony readers, bring on POD expresso machines !!! The quality hard-print books will still have a viable market : there are plenty of different ways to crack an egg.

Anonymous said...

Good article GOB, it is amusing to read that even those who operate in the inner cabals haven't really got a clue about anything.

You're right not to draw any definite conclusions, the internet is changing our psychological environment as much as carbon emissions are changing our physical environment. Who knows how we will evolve/adapt.

Anastasia: How many of those books that are bought are actually read? Don't forget that the big publishers are actually just middle-men/women, they get in the way of writers and their potential readers; content, to them, is virtually irrelevant, sales and profit are all that matter.

Self-publishing is relatively cheap now even if you go to a traditional printer. POD brings the costs down to a level where it is cheaper than most hobbies to publish your own books.

A combination of a strong internet site and the availability of 'real' books on demand, looks like a fairly good model to me.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who's an author yesterday asked me how long it had taken me to write my (first) book. I told her "four years". She nodded, and said that the book she was just getting ready to send off to her editor had taken her four years so far. I routinely ask this question, when an author tells me, in my bookstore, that they've just had a book published. Usually people say: Six Years; Fifteen Years--etc. Which is to say that there's a gigantic difference between a "book" as we all commonly understand that word and all these instant-info systems now in place (like this blog). I think that's what's so funny about people who say that the internet will change everything where books are concerned. Because as long as each of us does understand that we've got to GET IT RIGHT sometimes, when we construct written texts to share with anybody who stumbles across our work, there will always be respect given by people LIKE US to the work of others who've understood this same principle. I respect a good book, because I have a feeling for what it took to create one. (I felt this way even before creating my first one. I knew it was brutally difficult. Nothing like writing a letter or email or journal entry.) And I think that deeply felt, polished written texts, created by committed writers, will always have a distinct "future history". The future history of books will remain all about "books". There will be no merger with some sort of free-flowing, all-networked "information" (there is no such thing, by the way, as "information" since all statements are tainted by the perspectives of those who create them. No objectivity, no neutrality. No pure "fact".)

Book have a future. (And critics DEFINITELY have a future!)

Dee Jour said...

to skintwriter

Anastasia: How many of those books that are bought are actually read? Don't forget that the big publishers are actually just middle-men/women, they get in the way of writers and their potential readers; content, to them, is virtually irrelevant, sales and profit are all that matter.

Self-publishing is relatively cheap now even if you go to a traditional printer. POD brings the costs down to a level where it is cheaper than most hobbies to publish your own books.

I'll put it to you another way. If Dan Brown created one web page and posted the Da Vinci Code on it, would it have 'sold' as many copies without the marketing machine of the publishing company?

yes or no? We're talking 40 million sales of the novel.
I don't think vanity presses can achieve the same thing.

I've noticed a few companies that are offering to print blogs as books and their prices are high, their word content per page is a rip off in terms of content (whereby more pages are required to be printed, at a higher price, naturally).

The fortunate writers who do have their work accepted by publishers don't have to fork out money for printing costs or whatever else (copyediting, advertising), all these costs, when added together are significant for a writer who is scraping by. Not all writers are well off, are supported by family, spouses etc.