Mar 22 2009

E-Books and the Future of Publishing

Published by at 9:04 pm under The Publishing Industry

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg argues that the Kindle will totally reshape the publishing industry.  Not likely.

As to the fate of book publishers, there’s less reason to be optimistic. Amazon, which is selling Kindle books at a loss to get everyone hooked, will eventually want to make money on them. The publishers will be squeezed at best and disintermediated at worst. Amazon is already publishing Stephen King. In the future, it could become the only publisher a best-selling author needs. In a world without the high fixed costs of printing and distribution, as the distance between writers and their audiences shrinks, what essential service will Random House and Simon & Schuster provide? If the answer is primarily cultural arbitration and editing, the publishing behemoths might dwindle while a much lighter weight model of publishing—clever kids working from coffee shops in Brooklyn—emerges.

I’m skeptical. Within a few years, the Kindle might, might present a credible alternative to selling books in a physical form. But printing books is not even close to the most important role that publishers perform. Publishers pick authors that look like they could sell, and then they provide services to maximize sales.  A new and cheaper way to distribute books will not reduce the need for publishers.

1. Publishers serve as a gatekeeper between readers and wannabe authors. For the authors that actually get published, this is very helpful because having a credible publisher is a mark of quality. That makes it easier to get into bookstores, to get reviewed, etc.

2. They provide advances to authors, which mitigates the risk of writing a book and starving because you can’t sell any copies. Judging from how many people submit their manuscripts to conventional publishers, this is something that authors value very highly.

3. Publishers provide free editorial support. Jacob acknowledges this, but he suggests that it’s not particularly important. Why is that? Why will authors be able to thrive without editors in the future even though they rarely do now? Jacob doesn’t offer any reason to believe that kids in coffeehouses will be able to produce work that people are willing to pay for.

4. The publisher provides free promotional assistance to help sell the book. I like online promotion as much as anyone, but what does Amazon know about real-world marketing? Why would they have close working ties with brick-and-mortal bookstores and other important players?

I don’t think that the potential growth of Amazon as an alternate publisher will change anything. Either Amazon will be another kind of self-publisher that only provides copies of a book, or it becomes another professional publisher that selects appealing manuscripts and then provides free services to maximize sales. If Amazon accepts every manuscript (like a vanity press), then it cannot provide these free services. If Amazon has a selection process, then it has every incentive to provide free services to maximize sales and its share of the revenue.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “E-Books and the Future of Publishing”

  1. Lunajamniaon 23 Mar 2009 at 6:55 am

    I do not plan on ever getting a Kindle.

    Actual books are superior by far.

  2. B. Macon 23 Mar 2009 at 11:47 am

    Hmm. I’m not a huge fan of books. And reading on a screen is hard on my eyes. My favorite way to read is to print out the sheets and then staple them together. I can move my hands away without losing my page.

  3. Holliequon 23 Mar 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Like B. Mac, reading on a computer screen hurts my eyes before long. I love books, though!

  4. scribblaron 23 Mar 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Yes, but it kills trees….

    Kindle is US only, though.

  5. Dforceon 23 Mar 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Trees can be regrown (perhaps not as fast, but while they are growing– maybe we could think of what to write next? lol).

    Print is better than online. No question about it.

  6. Ragged Boyon 23 Mar 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Print all the way.

  7. scribblaron 23 Mar 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I have a lot of e-books on my laptop, well over a 1000. I live in a 2 bedroomed flat. I have a loft with a thousand or so books. They are getting damp. There are good points about both (I love the feel of paper beneath my fingertips) and I can’t really rate one over the other.

  8. B. Macon 23 Mar 2009 at 1:57 pm

    I agree that readers definitely prefer to have something in their hands. However, a considerable amount of the money spent on a paperback or comic book goes to run the printing presses. If we could sell more books free of the printing presses, there would be more money for the authors, the buyers and the publishers.

    However, the market for electronic books will only take off when they can compete on quality. I’ve heard that the Kindle 2 is a major improvement over a regular computer screen, so that’s a step in the right direction.

  9. scribblaron 23 Mar 2009 at 2:00 pm

    More money for the authors, or books at a really cheap price. As a book buyer and future author I see the best in both points.

  10. Tomon 23 Mar 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Apparently Bill Gates said that in a few years we’ll have book-shaped portable e-books that can store thousands of books and thus render normal books obsolete. Kinda like that new DS cartridge that’s not a game but a collection of classic books that you read on the DS.

  11. Holliequon 23 Mar 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Hmm. I’m kinda dubious about stuff like that. I like having books on my shelves (and everywhere else). It could be handy for finding quotes and stuff, though.

  12. Dforceon 23 Mar 2009 at 2:45 pm

    You mean like how the internet was going to replace the Libraries? Bwahahahaha! (I apologize if I offend any proponents of this e-book idea; but I am a proponent of the status quo and can’t help but to express my opinion; everyone is entitled to theirs, whatever it may be).

    Realistically though, I can see the benefit of this thing, but all I can see in the near future is hardware to be bought, software to be bought (and updated– surely for a price, too), and tiny little easily breakable devices and plug ins.

    Now that I think about it. Why buy that when you could just buy the software and run it on your computer? (That’s surely saving you more than a few buck– but I could be wrong, as I haven’t researched this thing yet).

    Still. Books for the win.

  13. Mia.xoxoon 23 Mar 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I think I’ll have a similar problem with this Kindle as I do with trying to read my copy of 1984 on my iPod Touch. Sadly, I do this as being the distant future’s replacement for books, but for now, at the price they’re asking I doubt anyone will care to spend as much as Amazon is asking.
    As far as comic books go. I do believe the fans would not be able to afford the Kindle meaning that magazine-like print will reign supreme.

  14. Ragged Boyon 23 Mar 2009 at 4:36 pm

    I like the idea of the portable e-books. I wouldn’t want to be rooted to my living room if I wanted to read a book. When these e-books are out and affordable I’ll look into it. Until then, I’ll stick with my library card and Barnes & Nobles.

  15. B. Macon 23 Mar 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I agree that the Kindles themselves are hopelessly expensive right now. But I think the price will plummet as the technology improves. For example, ten years ago an entry-level computer cost nearly $1000. Now you can buy an entry-level desktop or a netbook for $300-$400. Furthermore, the 2009 entry-level computer will be far better than any 1999 model.

  16. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 24 Mar 2009 at 1:52 am

    I think I’d prefer print books over e-books. I like the idea of a book shaped device that holds thousands of books, but I think that the actual thing will always be superior.

  17. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 24 Mar 2009 at 2:31 am

    After all, how else am I to fill the bookcases in my bedroom? Haha.

  18. B. Macon 24 Mar 2009 at 2:37 am

    Similarly, I think one of the major appeals of books is that they are a sign of education and intelligence. When someone has a bookshelf in his office, is it because he wants to read those books or because he wants to look sophisticated? An e-book will never be able to establish status.

  19. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 24 Mar 2009 at 2:49 am

    I get migraines from the computer sometimes, and reading an e-book could bring one on. Also, an e-book isn’t as convenient as a traditional book. You can carry a print book around, but you’d need a laptop or a phone with the capabilities to read an e-book while out and about.

    For some reason I feel that the classics like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights belong in print, not on the computer.

  20. Wingson 30 Mar 2009 at 9:33 am

    Ever since I was little I loved books. I didn’t know what video games were until I was 11 (nearly 3 yrs ago). I still remember opening a book (some people like new-car smell, I like new-book smell) and feeling how smooth the paper was, and just seeing how nice it looked in comparison to most other things in life.

    – The Reminiscent Wings

  21. Wingson 30 Mar 2009 at 9:35 am

    One thing I forgot: Electronics are expensive. People steal electronics. Books are not inexpensive. Not many people steal books.

    So, to prevent being mugged in a dark alley, read lots of books every day! (I need a tshirt that says that!)

    – Bookworm Wings

  22. Holliequon 30 Mar 2009 at 10:07 am

    Haha, my Mum tells me stories about me flicking through illustrated children’s books when I was tiny. So, I loved books even before I could read. 🙂 But I’ve always lived in a house of readaholics, so that was inevitable.

  23. Wingson 30 Mar 2009 at 10:14 am

    *hugs Holliequ*

    You are an inspiration to us all.

    – Wings the Readaholic

  24. Holliequon 30 Mar 2009 at 10:40 am

    *hugs Wings*

    An inspiration or not, you are definitely huggable. ^_^

  25. Ragged Boyon 30 Mar 2009 at 10:42 am

    I wasn’t a reader when I was young. I was always drawing and getting into trouble, I was a bad child. I only recently got into books and found that I love them. However, I don’t read alot becuase I’m very picky on my books. For example, I like sci-fi novels, but I put down The Left Hand of Darkness as soon as I picked it up, it was boring. But I still try to read it every once in a while, it won many awards and is well written, so I’m trying to assimilate what made it so great.

  26. Dforceon 30 Mar 2009 at 10:58 am

    Mia.xoxo, nice! I loved 1984 (despite– hmm… better not ruin it here, lest MiniTrue come and take me to that place, lol). Anybody else read it?

    Also, what exactly are the problems with viewing things on iPods? Are the pages cut-off, or is it that you need to scroll? (Both would bug me incessantly– but curiosity abounds).

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