What Kind of Literary Ecosystem Do We Want to Build?

As readers and as writers, we’ve been watching the ecosystem of publishing, book distribution, and book retailing morph before our eyes on a continual (and seemingly accelerating) basis for at least the past five years. Are we stuck being onlookers to the March of Progress, having to content ourselves with whatever sort of literary landscape market forces leave us with? Or can we harness our powers as literary consumers and literary producers to help steer the market and possibly create a literary landscape we’d actually like to inhabit?

Many thousands of words have been written recently analyzing the evolving publishing world. Many issues are a-swirling in the present unsettled climate—agency pricing vs. wholesale pricing; Amazon vs. Apple and the Big Six publishing houses; Amazon vs. an alliance between Barnes and Noble and Microsoft; the efficacy and marketplace side effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for ebooks; and whether print books will survive into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Being both a reader and a writer myself, and potentially a publisher in the near-term future, the following articles have led me to do a good bit of pondering; so before we get around to my prognosticating, let’s take a look at a few recent articles, shall we?

Mark Corker, the founder of Smashwords, a major ebook publisher and distributor, discusses the implications of the federal lawsuit brought against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers for allegedly conspiring to fix ebook pricing and counter Apple’s rival, Amazon; Corker comes down in favor of the practice of agency pricing, favored by Apple and its publishing allies, versus the wholesale pricing preferred by Amazon, stating that allowing publishers and writers to control the pricing of their books will serve customers by ensuring a diverse marketplace. Preston Gralla, writing for Computer World, amplifies many of Corker’s points. Both articles came on the heels of author Scott Turow’s broadside, distributed to the members of the Authors Guild, of which he is the current president. Meanwhile, author Libby Sternberg (among others) supports Amazon and says the demonization of the company is out of line, as its competitive zeal is providing lower prices and greater accessibility to readers and consumers.

Amazon’s aggressiveness with its retail partners, typified by its pulling of 5,000 titles distributed by the Independent Publishers Group from its Kindle Store, has been inspiring a good deal of criticism and pushback. The Educational Development Corporation, a small publisher of children’s books, declared Amazon to be a “predator” and removed all of its titles from Amazon’s virtual shelves, costing itself $1.5 million in revenue but declaring they “were better off without them (Amazon).” Amazon’s sales of the Kindle Fire may have “fallen off a cliff” recently; big-box retailer Target will no longer sell the Kindle in its stores; and online retailing rivals eBay and Wal-Mart are both set to roll out greatly improved search engine technologies on their sites to better compete with Amazon.

Cory Doctorow, in a column written for Publishers Weekly entitled, “A Whip to Beat Us With,” describes how the Big Six publishers, in their zeal to not lose purchasing dollars to pirates, have actually shot themselves in the foot with their insistence on only selling books with Digital Rights Management (DRM). This has allowed Amazon to essentially “lock in” its vast customer base to its Kindle platform, since DRM does not permit Kindle owners to legally transfer their libraries of ebooks onto a competing platform. The Big Six publishers have thus ceded a great amount of market power to Amazon, allowing that company to steadily increase its fees and charges to the publishers who wish to have their books sold on Amazon’s Kindle Store, reducing the publishers’ margins (or blocking their access to the Kindle Store should they not come to terms dictated by Amazon, as has happened with Independent Publishers Group, distributors for the books of over 700 small presses).

Tor Books, the largest publisher of science fiction in the US, a subsidiary of German media conglomerate Holtzbrinck, recently reversed their policy on DRM. More than a decade ago, Tor released some of their titles as ebooks through a deal with Baen Books, but was forced by top Holtzbrinck managers to cease, due to Baen’s stand that they would only distribute ebooks without DRM. However, now Tor and their subsidiary imprints will return to their prior practice of distributing ebooks minus any DRM, citing customers’ preferences.

In a boost to Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-readers, currently second in sales to Amazon’s Kindles, Microsoft will be investing heavily in the Nook platform, and rumors are swirling that Microsoft will the Nook app a part of their upcoming Windows 8 operating system. This alliance represents Microsoft’s latest attempt to compete in the tablet market and Barnes and Noble’s latest effort to raise enough funds to remain competitive with Amazon.

So that’s the news of the publishing world. The majority of recent commentary regarding the changing literary ecosystem tries to gauge where things are most likely headed — i.e., what sort of literary ecosystem are we most likely to get stuck with? What will market forces dump in our laps five, ten, or fifteen years down the pike? What elements of the current ecosystem are most likely to survive, which will perish, and what may replace those elements that die off?

Based on these recent developments, I’ll put on my own Amazing Criswell sequined tuxedo and make a few predictions.

Within a few years, the Big Six Publishers will be down to the Big Five or Big Four, and one of them will be Amazon.

Margins are getting tighter and tighter in the publishing business. Several of the big publishers have traditionally made the bulk of their profits from their textbook publishing, which has benefited from a “captive audience” and whose continual cost increases have been absorbed by federal student loans. However, a great portion of textbooks will soon be distributed in ebook form, which should reduce prices (and margins) considerably. Also, pricing competition from Amazon (and other online retailers which rise to fight for pieces of Amazon’s market) will continue to put pressure on the profit margins of the traditional big publishers.

Here’s the rub — most of the current Big Six publishers are fairly small components of much bigger multinational conglomerates. Random House is a part of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, which also owns the RTL Group (European radio and TV), Arvato (international media and communications), and Gruner and Jahr (European magazine publishers). Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS Corporation, whose primary businesses are commercial broadcasting and television production. HarperCollins is part of the sprawling News Corp, which owns newspapers in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, and throughout the Pacific, in addition to running Fox Broadcasting, 20th Century Fox Studios, and satellite and cable television operations throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The Hachette Book Group is a subsidiary of the French multinational corporation Lagardere, which operates radio and television stations, advertising firms, retail stores, aerospace firms, and sports and talent management agencies in forty countries. Only the Penguin Group (a division of the British conglomerate Pearson) and Macmillan (owned by the German company Holtzbrinck) are owned by larger companies whose main business is publishing (Random House may also be considered part of this grouping, since book publishing makes up at least half of Bertelsmann’s business — although a lot of their revenue comes from textbook publishing). The other conglomerates, for whom book publishing represents a relatively small part of their operations and a smaller part of their profits, may be greatly tempted to sell off or even dismantle their publishing arms as margins get tighter and tighter. Those members of the current Big Six who opt to remain in the publishing business will likely merge many of their existing imprints and concentrate more and more on sure-fire best-sellers (or those projects thought to be sure-fire best-sellers): books by celebrities, media figures, or prominent politicians, or based on popular media properties. A handful of old-line literary imprints, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Scribner, and Little, Brown & Company, may survive as money-losing prestige or “halo” businesses for their corporate ownerships. Alternatively, such famed imprints may be sold off and reemerge as independent small presses.

Independent bookshops will see a modest resurgence as superstores pull back to their strongest markets.

Just as our small, ratlike, mammalian ancestors found some breathing room to expand and evolve upon the extinction of the dinosaurs, so will independent bookshops and small, regional chains of bookstores reclaim some of their former market share as Barnes and Noble shrinks the brick-and-mortar retail side of their business to focus on their most profitable locations. Membership in the American Booksellers Association, the nonprofit industry association of independent bookstores, peaked at 5,500 members with 7,000 retail locations in 1995. Their membership continuously declined for the next fourteen years, bottoming out at 1,401 members in 2009. In 2010, they saw their first increase in membership in a decade and a half, a modest increase to 1,410 members. I don’t foresee their bouncing back to anywhere close to their peak of 5,500 members, but an increase to about half that number would not surprise me, as small business people in more and more communities, which have already lost their Borders Books and Music and which may soon lose their Barnes and Noble, seek to feed an appetite for book browsing and coffee drinking which was whetted by the superstores. I foresee a decent percentage of independent bookstores having a print-on-demand instant bookmaking machine on site to supplement their physical stock, perhaps relying upon catalogs that customers can browse through before making their POD purchase (see more below regarding how I would prefer to see the independent bookstore sector evolve).

A number of literary agencies will evolve into small publishing firms.

This shift is already beginning to occur. As the numbers of imprints and editors at the Big Six publishing firms continue to contract, and the majority of midlist authors move either to self-publishing or small presses, literary agents will find themselves with fewer and fewer opportunities to make money through selling clients’ books to publishers. To make up their losses, they will need to increasingly rely upon their skills as macro-editors and project packagers, adding value to writers’ work (and earning commissions and fees from writers) through pulling together teams of cover artists, book designers, publicists, and copy editors.

The lines between small presses and self-publishers will begin to blur.

As certain self-publishers show special skill or capability at promoting their works, they will begin attracting other writers who write similar books, but who lack the time or proclivity for successful publicity campaigns, who will request the self-publisher to distribute their work in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Ridan Publications is a good example of this; Robin Sullivan, who had prior experience in both software design and public relations, began electronically publishing her husband Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy novels, and she proved to be so successful at this that other writers, including Joe Haldeman and A. C. Crispin, began flocking to Robin’s imprint to distribute their ebooks. I believe Gavin Grant’s and Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press had a somewhat similar genesis.

Meanwhile, existing small presses will move more aggressively into the ebook realm and will find new ways to capitalize on their small staffs, short decision-making chains, and relatively quick production cycles (versus the traditional large publishers) to rival self-publishers in their speed of putting out fresh, tightly targeted product lines. The most successful small presses will emulate Baen Books in developing publisher-specific brand identities, as recognizable to the reading public as the personal brands established by certain best-selling authors (such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy).

As Amazon continues to encroach on what has been the territory of the Big Six publishers, relatively new online competitors will seek to compete with Amazon in the publishing space, copying its model or seeking to improve upon it.

Amazon has built and continues to refine a vertically integrated production, sales, and distribution company not dissimilar from the Hollywood studios of the first half of the twentieth century. Those studios locked in their talents and draws, the actors, actresses, directors, and screenwriters, through exclusive contracts, then distributed the films they produced through chains of movie studios that they owned. They then made money off ticket sales and the sales of concessions. Similarly, Amazon is in the process of signing top-tier authors to contracts, whose books they distribute both through internet sales and shipping of printed editions and electronic distribution through their Kindle devices. Amazon is also currently the favored distribution channel for self-publishers. Of even greater benefit to the company is that wide distribution and use of Kindle devices by their book-purchasing customers gives Amazon continual opportunities to cross-sell those customers on Amazon’s thousands of other types of items for sale, based on that customer’s past buying history (all with “free,” or rather pre-paid but subsidized, shipping included if the customer has signed up for Amazon Prime).

Until the federal government decides to insert itself and break up Amazon’s production and distribution arms (as they did with the movie studios in the middle of the last century), this is simply too lucrative a business model to not attract imitators. The Nook alliance recently entered into by Microsoft and Barnes and Noble may presage such an effort. Other major players in the internet commerce space, Apple or Google or Wal-Mart or eBay, may combine their resources to create business entities to directly compete with Amazon. A business such as the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), which currently distributes the books of over seven hundred small presses and which has recently crossed swords with Amazon over fees and percentages, may decide to move into the online retail space. Or companies which have not yet been formed may arise to challenge the current eight hundred pound gorilla of e-commerce. I believe a gradual abandonment of DRM by most publishers of ebooks will make it easier for competitors to Amazon and its Kindle platform to emerge, as existing Kindle owners will feel less trepidation at the thought of switching to a newer e-reader platform if they know they will be able to (legally and easily) transfer their e-libraries.

Print books will not go away. However, there will be relatively fewer of them; certain types of books will continue to be published primarily as print books, while other types will be published primarily as ebooks.

I anticipate that the majority of textbooks, technical books, reference books, popular nonfiction, and what I’ll term “disposable” fiction (fiction meant to be consumed as entertainment and then discarded, rather than held onto for further reference and re-readings) will be published primarily in ebook form. Books relying heavily on illustrations, books intended for children (many parents won’t want to entrust an e-reading device to a young child), “permanent” fiction (fiction which a reader intends to display on a shelf or to re-read), books purchased to be given as gifts, and books intended to be collectibles will continue to be published primarily in printed formats. Some publishers will do quite well by focusing on the book as a beautiful, cherished object and producing books which can be appreciated as handicrafts, as well as platforms for prose.

So that is where I believe the literary landscape is trending in the next five to ten years. While there is certainly value to be had in this type of prognostication, I feel that it is not sufficient. As readers, we do not need to act as passive consumers in the literary marketplace; as writers, we do not need to act as helpless, powerless “small cogs” in the publishing machine. Perhaps more so now than at any time in the past, we, writers and as readers, have the potential ability, if we wish to exercise it, to influence and to build portions of the emerging literary ecosystem. We can become, in law professor/author/blogger Glenn Reynolds’ term, an “Army of Davids.” But before we can do this, we need to figure out just where it is that we wish to go from here. As a reader, what sort of literary world do you want to be enjoying ten years from now? As a writer, what sort of publishing world do you want to be working in ten years from now? Here are questions we need to be asking (to which I add some suggested answers):

What do readers want?

– quality fiction that they enjoy and feel is worth their expenditure of time and money
– a reasonably reliable system of recommendations, i.e.: gatekeepers they can trust
– convenience and accessibility
– reasonable prices

What do some, but not all, readers want?

– a sense of community; the ability to share their love of particular books with others
– the joy and excitement of stumbling upon an interesting book they had no prior knowledge of
– the ability to communicate and interact with their favorite writers
– the ability to combine the acts of reading and book browsing with other pleasurable pastimes, such as eating and drinking, listening to music, or hearing a lecture
– beautiful, durable editions of favorite works, which are pleasing to the eye, nose, and hand

What do writers want?

– time to write
– opportunities and guidance to improve their work
– an audience
– opportunities to earn money from their work
– the appreciation of their peers and critics

What do some, but not all, writers want?

– the opportunity to write full-time
– control over the editing, formatting, and presentation of their work
– opportunities to interact directly with their readers
– opportunities to collaborate with other writers
– opportunities to promote themselves, their works, and works by other writers whom they admire and enjoy

So, taking these various needs and wants into account, what kind of literary ecosystem do I want to live in five or ten years down the road? If I could terraform that future ecosystem (to use a science fictional term), what would I create, within the bounds of the powerful trends I mention above?

Book Publishing

For the overwhelming majority of midlist writers, those without a history of best-selling books and those without a pre-existing “platform” of fame and public recognition, traditional publication by a large publishing house will be (and, for the most part, already is) a fading dream, a “winning the lottery” type of event. Most of us are simply going to have to do a whole lot more of the business end of things ourselves, if we hope to attain any presence in the literary marketplace. By the business end, I mean publicity, reader outreach, editing, and book design.

Some fortunate writers will find themselves with both the skills and the time to do all or most of these tasks themselves. Some will have the financial resources, thanks to a financially supportive spouse, inherited money, investors, or a stable and remunerative “day job,” to contract out all or some of these functions to specialists who perform work for hire. Some will have a spouse or significant other who is willing and able to perform these tasks. Some writers, whether working as a solo act or as the nucleus of a micro-publishing team, will discover great success at amassing an audience, whether through the exceptional quality of their books or through a highly effective business plan, or a combination of these.

Other writers, however talented they may be, will find themselves less gifted with resources. They will not have the time or the money to engage intensively with the business side of publishing or to hire contractors to do this for them. They may have some time and some money to invest, but not enough to amass more than a token readership. Or, like many writers throughout literary history have been, they may be socially withdrawn or self-isolating individuals, who lack the personality traits which allow for successful self-promotion and social networking.

As a reader, I don’t want writers who fall into that second group to be de facto barred from the marketplace, or only able to enter the marketplace in a feeble, exceedingly limited fashion. Just think how many immortal books we would now be denied had the skills of successful self-promotion been essential to publication and distribution during the past few hundred years. Hemingway and Vonnegut were formidable self-promoters. But was Kafka? Was Raymond Carver? In the realm of science fiction, was Philip K. Dick? Their works have only survived and come down to us readers of subsequent generations because they have had champions. Editors at major publishing houses, in the past, have often served as champions of writers unable or unwilling to champion themselves. But as I note above, there will be fewer editors at fewer major publishing houses in years to come, and those editors will have less freedom to take risks on pushing the work of obscure figures.

I think many writers enjoy helping other writers. I think this is so because writers were readers before they ever became writers, and thus learned to cherish other writers, and because writing is a solitary, lonely business and many writers hunger for a community of their fellow enthusiasts. I think as it becomes more and more crucial for us to assume greater responsibilities for the business side of our writing careers, it behooves the more successful among us to help our less fortunate, less resource-endowed fellow writers to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Because we will benefit as readers and potentially as business people, and because creating community is a source of joy and fulfillment.

I envision the growth and spread of writers’ co-ops. Such co-ops may have as their nucleus a self-publisher who has achieved notable success on the business side and who wishes to share that success and share profits with other writers (such as the example of Robin and Michael J. Sullivan’s Ridan Publications). Or they may arise from a teaming of a group of writers who seek to pool and multiply their limited resources, each of whom can contribute something in the way of editing, book design, reader outreach, distribution, or publicity. Ideally, these writers’ co-ops would be made up of writers with broadly similar or compatible works, so that the co-ops, essentially small presses, could develop strong, memorable brand identities that set them apart in the minds of potential readers. The Baen Books brand means military-oriented, action/adventure science fiction and fantasy. Tachyon Publications has come to be known for highly specialized anthologies of science fiction or fantasy, compiled by erudite and opinionated editors. The Night Shade Books brand implies literary fantasy and horror in non-traditional settings. Purchasers of books from these publishers don’t only shop the books’ authors; they also shop the publishers’ full lines, because they have a good idea of the qualities books in those lines will have, and they like those particular qualities.

Much has been written about the diminishment of traditional gatekeepers in the literary marketplace. Some applaud this development. However, I believe that gatekeepers, as signalers of quality to potential readers, will continue to play a key role in the literary ecosystem. Otherwise, how can readers be expected to choose from the millions of ebooks and POD books which will soon be or are already available? Clogging one’s e-reader with too many poorly written but inexpensive ebooks can lead readers to throw up their hands and seek out more reliable sources of entertainment and pleasure. Writers’ co-ops can serve as a new mode of gatekeeping/quality signaling. In order to be desirable entities for writers to join, writers’ co-ops would have to earn in the marketplace a reputation for putting out quality work. In turn, in order to preserve their hard-won reputations for quality, the writers within a writers’ co-op would vet potential newcomers’ work before bringing them onboard. Promising beginners whose skills aren’t quite polished enough could be referred to writers’ workshops organized by the co-op, and their early, “not quite ready for prime time” works could perhaps be published as free or near-free editions, either online or as downloads, available for readers who would like to sample the works of promising up-and-comers and offer feedback. The co-ops could develop talent the same way major league baseball uses the minor leagues to develop promising ballplayers. Writers’ co-ops could hire outside editors for the books they publish, or they could utilize internal talent, with writers editing each other’s books.

All members of a writers’ co-op would be expected to publicize, not only their own works, but the co-op’s full line of books, utilizing personal blogs and websites, appearances at their region’s bookstores and libraries, and appearances at conventions and festivals. Baen Books has pushed this model very successfully; I’ve been to a number of science fiction conventions where a particular Baen author or editor has served as an advocate for the full line of Baen’s books, often presenting slide shows or multimedia presentations featuring the cover art of recently published or soon-to-be published books from a number of Baen’s stable of writers. This model lifts a good bit of the publicity burden from individual writers’ shoulders (who but the wealthiest or best supported can attend conventions or bookstore appearances all over the country, or even much more than an eight-hour drive from their home?). It also multiplies the publicity reach of a small press, assuming that small press features writers who live and travel in different parts of the country and whose websites, blogs, or Facebook or Twitter feeds are followed by separate audiences.

Book Selling and Book Buying

I love bookstores. I don’t want to see bookstores go away. I enjoy the act of browsing and the pleasures of discovery. I like “romancing” a book before I buy it, browsing it at different stores or on several visits to the same store, allowing my desire for it to build before I surrender to the purchase and take it home.

That said, as a dedicated book browser, I find that large chain stores can become boring. The temptation upon traveling to a different town to visit that town’s Barnes and Noble is lessened by my knowledge that this new Barnes and Noble will carry 99% of the same stock as my Barnes and Noble store back home.

A good part of the charm and attraction of visiting independent bookstores is not knowing what they may carry. Many commentators on modern American culture bemoan the creeping homogenization of American regions, cities, and towns, how a traveler to the outskirts of Albuquerque will find many of the same stores and restaurants as he would in the suburbs (or center) of Albany. In my preferred future of a gobsmacking multiplicity of small presses and writers’ co-ops, bookstores could differentiate themselves and offer increased value to readers by partnering with their regional presses and becoming advocates for those regional presses and regional writers. Most independent stores cannot carry the breadth of stock that a Barnes and Noble superstore can carry; none, of course, can carry the breadth of choices offered by an Amazon. At least not physically. However, new and greatly improved (and continually improving) print-on-demand (POD) services can conceivably allow even a small, intimate independent bookstore to offer the same choices as an Amazon, without the delay of shipping (for those readers who will continue to prefer printed books). I expect the most forward-looking bookstores to maintain at least one book-making machine in their store, in addition to their physical stock of books. Adjacent to the machine, they could offer browsers computers, printed catalogs of books, and, from the regional small presses, pamphlets with the cover and first chapter or first story of their various offerings. That way, bookstore owners could maintain on hand “sample” copies of their slower sellers and of tomes from their regional small presses, printing individual copies for customers as needed, avoiding the cost of maintaining a large inventory. Customers could enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry while their selection is being printed and assembled (or, having sampled a book in the store, they could have an electronic copy downloaded to their device).

Bookstores could partner with regional small presses and local writers to offer book discussion groups and other social events. Local stores would still offer a full range of nationally distributed books (particularly those stores with book-making machines), but they could specialize in regional offerings. Conversely, small presses could rely upon both print-on-demand services (such as CreateSpace and LightningSource) and on book-making machines at their local booksellers to distribute printed copies of their works, selling their ebook versions on their own websites or through e-commerce sites. A terrific example of this sort of symbiosis between an independent bookstore and its local small presses is the mutually beneficial relationship between Borderlands Books in San Francisco and both Tachyon Publications and Night Shade Books (in fact, Jeremy Lassen, one of the founder partners of Night Shade Books, once worked at Borderlands Books). I could imagine tour groups setting up regional bookstore tours for avid readers; such tours would be justified by the fact that different stores in different communities would specialize in works from different regional small presses, offering literary tourists true diversity.

So, my fellow readers and writers, that’s my vision of tomorrow’s literary ecosystem. What’s yours? What would you like to build?

36 comments

  1. Person of Choler says:

    Some economic reasoning on the impermanence of an Amazon monopoly:

    “when economists start looking around for evidence of predatory pricing leading to the establishment of such a monopoly they can’t actually see much of such evidence. The reason is that for a monopoly to be maintainable, for it to be stable, it isn’t enough to just be the only seller in the market. It also has to be impossible for a competitor to enter the market. That is, your monopoly cannot be contestable.”

    The linked article, as is most of Mr. Worstall’s stuff, is worth reading.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/04/15/charlie-stross-on-amazon-and-e-books/

    • Andrew says:

      Thank you so much for providing a link to the Charles Stross article. I had read it and intended to include it in my roundup of recent analysis, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t recall where I had read it!

  2. [...] Fantastical Andrew Fox, May 2012 (GREAT [...]

  3. John C. says:

    I don’t think that reference books, and other types of books that require comparison between pages, will go mostly to e-book until some sort of electronic codex device is available; having only one screen makes direct visual comparison difficult. I do expect that most reading for pleasure will end up on e-books, though a paperback’s batteries seldom run out…

    • Andrew says:

      John, thanks for visiting and commenting. Regarding double-screen e-reading devices, I think that’s just a matter of time…

  4. werewife says:

    I am a public librarian, and just printed out this piece to circulate among my colleagues for discussion. What do you think is the place of the public library in this oncoming Brave New World of publishing options?

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Werewife,
      Thanks for visiting and for sharing my article with your colleagues. The question you raise opens up, as they say, a whole ‘nother can of wax. I am very fond of libraries and spend many, many happy childhood hours at the North Miami Beach Public Library (where, if I recall, my mother would drop me off; ahh, for the days when parents weren’t expected to be continuously eagle-eying their young!). I know that most libraries now engage in lending of electronic books. I think many communities will want to preserve the access of their residents to books which are too expensive or specialized for most households to own copies of (I’m still thinking in terms of printed books, which I do not believe will go away). In years to come, we may have fewer but more comprehensive public libraries, and many of those may end up affiliated with local colleges and universities. I wouldn’t be surprised if public university libraries and municipal libraries end up merging in many communities.

  5. K Scott says:

    I would go a long way to get to a “comfortable” or a knowledgeable or a “complete” bookstore. Best of all would be a cross between a coffeehouse (comfortable), what bookstores used to be (knowledgeable) and Amazon (complete). So I guess there would be an section that looked like the library in Clue (chairs, a fireplace), a section that was more a coffeehouse, an electronic books section (people’s lists + wifi), a publishing section, a way to access reviews of books (like Amazon or just Amazon itself by free wifi). And don’t exclude conservative books – stores have done untold damage to themselves by insulting conservatives and excluding their books. The country is divided. Why is a industry in decline allowing insults to at least 50% of their potential customers? when those customers have a very viable alternative – ie Kindle, Amazon -and are great book readers.

  6. “Amazon’s aggressiveness with its retail partners, typified by its pulling of 5,000 titles distributed by the Independent Publishers Group from its Kindle Store…”

    That should read “…its removal of 5,000 titles they were no longer legally allowed to sell after their agreement with the Indpendent Publishers Group lapsed…”. If they had continued to sell those titles after the agreement had lapsed, they would have been in violation of the law.

    • Andrew says:

      Point taken, Martin. However, by taking an existing business agreement and jacking up its terms to levels it knew its partner could not or would not accept, I’d say the onus for having those titles removed from the Kindle Store lies with Amazon. They were the ones changing the status quo, and its seems they treated (or attempted to treat) IPG as more of a vassal than a partner.

  7. [...] suggestions on what the future might look like. I think it’s not too far off from what I might imagine. Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  8. [...] observations over here (via Ed Driscoll on Instapundit) on the future of publishing.  I personally have three criteria [...]

  9. Ron says:

    Interesting essay, but there is something I take issue with:

    “Just think how many immortal books we would now be denied had the skills of successful self-promotion been essential to publication and distribution during the past few hundred years. Hemingway and Vonnegut were formidable self-promoters. But was Kafka? Was Raymond Carver? In the realm of science fiction, was Philip K. Dick? Their works have only survived and come down to us readers of subsequent generations because they have had champions. Editors at major publishing houses, in the past, have often served as champions of writers unable or unwilling to champion themselves. But as I note above, there will be fewer editors at fewer major publishing houses in years to come, and those editors will have less freedom to take risks on pushing the work of obscure figures.”

    Instead, I think that with the rise of epublishing, we will get more “immortal books.” A writer whose book is misjudged and rejected by the traditional publishers now has the opportunity to self publish an ebook.

    Also, concerns that skillful self-promotion will be needed by self-published authors, I think are overblown. Amanda Hocking’s paranormal romance novels were rejected by traditional publishers, so she went the self-publishing route, and has sold over a million copies (source: Wikipedia). And she really didn’t do much self promotion.

    The best self promotion for a writer is writing a great book.

    • Andrew says:

      Ron, thanks much for writing. I’d also like to believe that the only truly essential task in finding an audience is to write a fabulous book. Every once in a while, extraordinary word-of-mouth will propel an obscurely published book to huge and appreciative audiences. But that is more the exception that tends to prove the rule. Contrary to what you state about Amanda Hawking, in interviews of her I’ve read, she stressed how much time and effort she has had to sink into publicizing herself. It has basically been a full-time job for her, on top of the time she spends writing. Yes, personal recommendations and great word-of-mouth are the best book publicity. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, or get kick-started by just tossing a book out onto the web for sale. Just as a thermonuclear reaction needs to be started with a nuclear explosion, so do most successful word-of-mouth campaigns need to be started with an initial publicity push, whether that be performed by a publisher or by a writer. Publishers do very little of this anymore, especially not for midlist writers. More and more, this responsibility falls on writers themselves. And, as I state in my article, not too many writers have the combination of extroverted personality, time, money, and willingness to continually push themselves to the wall needed to get successful campaigns rolling. That’s why I suggest writers’ co-ops as one possible solution: they can potentially magnify individual writer’s reach by combining the efforts of a group of like-minded authors.

  10. [...] Writers Go From Here Via the Fantastical Andrew Fox: a far-reaching essay on the current state of literature (I’d say “publishing” [...]

  11. Tasha Turner says:

    Interesting thoughts on the new world. I like the idea of writing co-operatives but suspect the usual issues will come up about some people not carrying thier weight and many will fail.

    Absolutely love the idea for independent bookstores but wonder if the start-up cost is too high to manage for most.

    • Andrew says:

      Tasha, thanks for visiting! Regarding the writing co-ops, I agree that many will likely fall apart, for the reasons you mention and for the various reasons such cooperative ventures have always run into problems. However, the up-front costs of starting such efforts are relatively small, so the participants are free to start over again with other partners, hopefully with greater harmony and success. About the independent bookstores, I picture them leasing, rather than buying, the book-making machines (which are already available, by the way). That would offset the capital outlay a good bit.

  12. Karen Magill says:

    My only concern with having textbooks in ebook format is that there are many families that cannot afford a home computer or another device for a child to read the books. I can’t see them disappearing totally for awhile.

  13. Mark Sarney says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Great post, and lots to think about. Your idea of co-ops that are centered on particular kinds of fiction, way down in the subgenres. Or the co-ops could follow the movie production model, where writers, editors and formatters team up for specific projects and then recombine for different projects.

    Who’s going to come out on top in the publishing, agenting, distribution, and retailing aspects of publishing? I don’t know. But it seems like publishers are becoming more profitable rather than less, mainly because they are squeezing more money out of authors’ pockets. I don’t see how bookstores survive at all, even if print hangs around. It’s just easier to have the book show up at your door than having to go get it. Bookstores could go the way of record stores and typewriter repair shops.

    I posted my thoughts about what may happen to public libraries on my blog back in December: http://marksarney.com/2011/12/22/will-libraries-survive-the-e-book-revolution/. Bottom line: I think libraries face a do or die moment in the near future, and the faster they recognize that, the better they can prepare for it. I think public libraries can exist without paper books.

    • Andrew says:

      Great to hear from you, Mark. I’ll have to take a look at your article on the future of libraries. One of my earlier commentators is a librarian, and she’d be very interested in your thoughts.

  14. Dean Sweatman says:

    Great posting.

  15. Andrew says:

    Here’s a link to a very kind comment on this post from Alan Beatts of Borderlands Books in San Francisco:

    http://borderlands-books.blogspot.com/2012/05/constructing-literary-ecosystem-with.html

    Thanks, Alan! I love your store.

  16. Andrew says:

    My friend Marty Halpern shared a link to an article in Britain’s
    Guardian about groups of writers who have started writers’ co-ops already, somewhat along the lines I have proposed:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/apr/30/author-collectives-self-publishing

    Thanks, Marty!

  17. Andrew says:

    Alan Beatts of Borderlands Books has looked more closely into the current economics of book-making machines for independent book sellers and says that, at least as matters stand currently, the machines don’t appear to be economically feasible for smaller stores:

    http://borderlands-books.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/print-on-demand-not-coming-to-store.html

    He makes a lot of good points. However, I should’ve emphasized in my original article that I foresee independent stores leasing these machines, not buying them. It comes down to a kind of “chicken-or-the-egg” problem — if enough book sellers (or kiosk operators in shopping malls) decide to lease book-making machines, the economics of manufacturing them will turn more favorable, allowing for lower lease costs. Also, I would foresee independent book sellers who opt to lease a machine do so in some sort of partnership with a group of regional small presses (and self-publishers) in their area, spreading the costs of the lease across a wider group of benefitted parties.

    • Alan Beatts says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the shout-out. I’ve actually got a phone meeting with the folks who make the Espresso Book Machine tomorrow and I’ll have a much better idea about the financials then. But, based on the info they’ve sent me thus far, the lease option actually looks worse than the buy option. Interest rate on the lease is 8% and it runs for a 5 year term. With decent credit, even now, I’d think that I could get a business loan at a better rate with a longer term . . . and at the end I’d own the machine. I’ll let you know when I post the follow up after my meeting.

      The idea of sharing the machine among a collective is a good one. Someone on my blog suggested that a group of stores share one machine, which wouldn’t really work. But, if the collective consisted of one bookstore, one or more publishers, and some writers, that might make it _much_ more do-able. I’m going to think about that . . . a lot.

      All Best,
      Alan

      • Andrew says:

        Dear Alan,

        I think it is extremely cool that you’re doing actual research on this. Please continue to keep me informed. I am very interested in any and all innovations which will help keep the retail book sector healthy, and I have a personal love for independent stores which are curated with care and creativity (such as Borderlands!).

  18. Andrew says:

    Here’s a recent article which provides much to think about, as well as a wealth of valuable links:

    10 Reasons Why You Should Skip Traditional Publishers and Self-Publish Ebooks Instead — http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2012/05/29/10-reasons-you-should-skip-the-traditional-publishers-and-self-publish-ebooks-instead/?singlepage=true

  19. Maury F. says:

    I tremendously enjoyed reading this (posting? article? essay? manifesto?), Andy! At last! A hell of a lot to think about. I know from my working at the food co-op in Brattleboro, which is one of the most renowned in the country, that there must be a clearly established format of who (of the members) does what and the vital necessity of commitment to the whole. I imagine many co-ops don’t last long because of the members going in feet first without first establishing a foundation of all that needs to happen in order to keep things functioning efficiently.

    • Andrew says:

      Maury, thanks for the tips. Quite a few of the comments have been very helpful in setting parameters for a successful (or less UNsuccessful) cooperative venture.

  20. [...] term was a commonplace for most writers, because they had come of age in a literary ecosystem (in Andrew Fox’s good phrase) in which book reviewing was both a means of support and a way to [...]

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