Publishing Apocalypse or Reincarnation?

Boy what a few weeks to be in the publishing business. Apple comes out with their iPad among the flashing lights of paparazzi and technology journalists. Macmillan and Amazon duke it out for a Price is Right type eBook war. What’s next?

The Apple of Your Eye

Apple showcased stunning photos and content from the New York Times, Time Magazine, and National Geographic during the iPad launch press conference in late January 2010. This is a blend of futuristic tools and top-rated journalism at its best. Can it work? Sure…

Then there’s Apple iBooks service. You know publishers will want to be all over this, like white on rice. This service is much the same as iTunes except for electronic books. There are plenty of opportunities for users to modify how their eBooks appear: books can be viewed one page at a time in portrait view, or two pages at a time in landscape view, and they will be able to change the font size and typeface to suit their needs and preferences.

How exciting is this? I can help my reader get the most out of my work once it’s on the Internet or in eBook format. Love it. Of course…this points to the need for writers to get their work out there.

…Yeah, So?

Everyone has an opinion on how long it will take for print to be obsolete. It all serves to reinforce the importance of a writer’s adaptability.

Traditional writing styles for print media such as magazines and newspapers, niche writing for journals, and the more casual and conversational tone of online content management are all merging together.

Have you seen your favorite fashion magazine lately? It’s probably so skinny, it rivals the images of starved models inside its pages. This is all because, after years of indulging in too much advertising, now all that’s left is content! Imagine that.

So what we’re seeing in Wall Street translates into advertising and subscription reductions. Newspapers are juggling staff reorganization, reduced advertising dollars, and the prospect of having to put up pay walls (NYT paywall article here) on their online content delivery.

Major players such as the New York Times are wondering whether they should tease online readers with a preview and then ask to pay per view or for an outright subscription (more about this here).

Rupert Murdoch announced to the world that he’s now hiding his content from online search engines—inspiring both mockery and a serious conversation about protecting traditional journalism content (more on the mockery here and more on the serious discussion here).

Murdoch says that “there are no websites, news websites or blog sites anywhere in the world today making any serious money.” Are you so sure about that? Apparently, he is enough to put his money where his mouth is: “we’d rather have fewer people coming to our websites, but paying.”

Many newspapers think this is the way too, just as the Wall Street Journal has for some time now. Is this a way to protect writers’ intellectual property, protect revenue flows for hurting media, or just desperate clawing at a shriveling vintage business model? Only time will tell.

Nobody Does It Better

The New York Times has been in business for 150 years and therefore is in a position to provide a fantastic and solid role model for publications and writers everywhere.

The NYT website is content intensive, but richly and attractively displayed to appeal to all the senses. The photographs bring to life the words, the words capably paint images in the reader’s mind, and additional multimedia content (interviews and videos) helps ground the story.

The NYT proves there is a lucrative future for excellently written content disseminated via diverse Internet channels (the new iPad—bringing in readership while allowing them the flexibility of choosing how best to access the content they need. Smart!

Publishers seem to also be making headway in the electronic book frontier. Just ask Macmillan Publishing.

Amazon.com attempted to deliver a blow below the belt to Macmillan Publishing when it opposed the publishing house’s request to raise eBook pricing to $14.99  from $9.99. Amazon refused and proceeded to pull all of Macmillan’s eBooks offline. Just when everyone thought Macmillan was down for the count, the publishing house legal team KO’d Amazon.

The eBooks were reinstated and royalties flowed back to wearied authors. Check out the NYT coverage of this fight here.

What does this all mean? As a user of eBooks I’d prefer the lower price, but as a writer, wouldn’t it be neat to enjoy the higher royalties?

Comrades: L’union fait la force! Where would Amazon be if publishing houses such as Macmillan, Random House, and Penguin Books ganged up and took their content away from Amazon and Barnes and Noble? You can’t run a book store by selling air.

In this same vein, my next post will cover some of these newfangled and diverse dissemination channels. Writers have quite a rich marketplace available to disseminate their work, but only if they’re prepared to 1) let go of their favorite formats, and 2) be very flexible–or as one writer put it, be format agnostic.

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8 responses to “Publishing Apocalypse or Reincarnation?

  1. I used to work for Follett Higher Education Group (the college bookstore branch of Follett which also provides services for many public libraries in the US). I worked in the intellectual property department and to some extent started to see the decline of the publishing industry right before my eyes. I’ve kept in touch with some of my former colleagues. According to some of my former colleagues he IP department over there recently folded and merged with the general merchandise department (responsible for apparel, branded merchandise, and supply items– pencils, pens, staplers, etc.) due to declining sales. A few of my former colleagues lost their jobs in the transition, a few were able to find new jobs within the company in completely different capacities than what they had been working before.

    I do believe that e-books will change the complexion of the publishing industry substantially. I see a rise in publish on demand. Publishers being less picky about what they publish as the investment for ebooks is substantially less than the investment for print books. Also I can see publishers using eBooks to test the waters to determine how much money to invest in marketing and publicity for certain books. In recent years the industry has taken huge hits by investing in 6 figure marketing campaigns for books that totally flopped (Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters comes to mind– I read an advance galley of that when I worked at Follett and was rather underwhelmed and couldn’t figure out why the hell the publisher was investing so much in publicity/marketing for the book– in the end it did flop quite royally. It wasn’t a bad book, but at the same time it wasn’t deserving of the 6 figure marketing campaign either).

    • I also think that publishers will test the eBooks waters with a freer hand because of the lower cost to market, but as you explained in the Gordon Dahlquist example, their content selection still speaks to a publishing house’s brand equity and sustainability. Six figure publishing PR projects are a little scarcer these days, I hope.

      And my two cents on Follett. A local community college I’ve taken classes at on and off for the past 9 years urges students to purchase textbooks from eFollet. Although they make comparison shopping difficult by not listing ISBNs on the class textbook requirements pages, I’ve still successfully done it. I found both the high cost of books and shipping alarming and unacceptable for my budget. I hope the margins translate to royalties for the authors…one can hope.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences in the publishing industry! I always learn something new from our interactions 🙂

    • Not many textbooks come with a CD in the back like they used to. I agree that the PDF versions or portions of textbooks is the way to go. While the option to purchase the print book is preferred by those who use as them a reference in their library, for those topics they are subject matter experts in or have a career path in (I do this with social sciences textbooks).

      PDFs do much to help students keep their education costs under control, while also helping publishers maintain an eye on keeping things in the black. They’re also easier to use due to searchability when reviewing for exams or projects.

  2. One of the explanations I heard for the higher cost of textbooks vs. traditional books. If you look at the list of contributors/authors for most textbooks it’s quite a long list– all of those people have to be paid for their contributions thus driving up the cost of the textbook substantially. “textbooks” with single authors are considerably less expensive because there are less hands in the cookie jar so to speak.

    That being said I completely understand where you’re coming from in regards to price shopping and getting your textbooks elsewhere. I know that Follett was working with textbook publishers on ways to make textbooks more affordable at the time of my departure from the company (the online purchase and download in .pdf format of only the pertinent sections of the textbook at a reduced cost for example).

  3. I recently finished reading Woodswoman IIII by Anne LaBastille. Ms. LaBastille went through a publisher for some of her books but then turned to self-publishing. She mentioned that with her first books she would buy her own books @ the 40% wholesale discount and then sell them to small bookstores in the Adirondack Mountains (where she was from and the region she was writing about– her target audience) at cost. Basically she’d collect no profit when selling to those bookstores and would end up turning the profit on royalties. She did this because most of the small bookstores up there didn’t do a large enough volume of business to warrant purchasing books in the quantities necessary to be eligible for the 40% discount and her publisher refused to reduce the quantities needed to get the wholesale discount.

    I actually recommend all 4 of Ms. LaBastille’s books in her Woodswoman series. She was/is a fiercely independent woman and a staunch environmentalist. After her divorce in the 60s she built a cabin on a small remote lake in the Adirondacks and became a freelance writer/ecologist/Adirondack Guide. She watched the effects of Acid Rain and Global Warming firsthand from her cabin over the years and ocassionally would teach environmental and/or nature writing courses for a semester or two (at a time) at various colleges around the US.

    Based on your postings here and your blogspot blog you strike me as a rather strong independent woman yourself (and please take that as being complimentary) so I think you may find a somewhat kindred spirit in Anne LaBastille.

    • Thank you for the compliment, I always enjoy hearing about strong women who pave a path for themselves. It’s inspirational. Her chosen path certainly shows plenty of strong character, self-sufficiency, and ingenuity. 🙂

      Ms LaBastille sounds like an amazing person, whose story would make a fascinating biographical book. I will look for her woodswoman series, so thank you for sharing her story and her books’ titles with me. She stirs memories of a cobwebby long-ago when I read American naturalists in high school and found I agreed with their philosophy.

      It’s a fortuitous coincidence that you bring up self publishing. I began working on my next post last night, just on this topic, relating how self publishing can help new writers.

  4. Just a rather belated postscript… On Tuesday night I was at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville for a signing (Christopher Moore) with a former colleague from Follett. He’s still working over there (although for a completely different division now). He mentioned there’s been a lot of turnover in our old department because the “corporate climate” has changed and a lot of the old guard was not/is not happy with that change. The “problem” before was that many of the book buyers were too emotionally invested in what they were buying and the culture now is to be detached and focus on buying what will bring the best ROI, what will sell the best, etc.

    Also before he started signing books, Christopher Moore mentioned he had a Kindle and it was crap. He said any book he bought for his Kindle and enjoyed he ended up just getting the actual book because he hated trying to read it on his Kindle. He mentioned that if eBooks take off (and he said as long as the Kindle and other eBook readers are as user unfriendly as they currently are, books are generally safe) that we would be more likely to see him working at McDonald’s than signing books because he could forsee eBook piracy taking off the way music piracy took off with Napster.

    • I haven’t tested the Kindle out myself, but from what I’ve seen all the ebook readers look hard to read in aliased fonts and layout. Screens always strains my eyes. I wonder if the shiny screen on the upcoming iPad will cause eye fatigue. You can download pretty much anything illegally already, but pushing many more ebooks out there will only make piracy easier.

      Looks like Follett is going through some growing pains. It’s true, employee detachment is the best medicine, especially until things settle down in the economy and with companies. But it’s a give and take, a career becomes just a job. It’s quite similar to events at the company I work for: lots of redesign and reorganization. Gets the old nerves a little rattled but it comes from a good place and hopefully assures the longevity of the company.

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