Some Predictions About Books By Way of Some Predictions About Music

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “future of publishing.” After all, books have never had as much cash to spare as the recording industry, and look at the mess they’re in. Already it is not so difficult for a self-published manuscript to sell itself on What will happen when everything goes digital? The suggestion is that there will be an opening of the gates, and the latest best-seller will stand on the same virtual shelf with thirty self-published manuscripts. The optimists claim that this is where the great unpublished books will be discovered and pessimists point to the unleashed masses of poorly thought-out, half-written tomes filled with spelling errors. But it doesn’t matter if fantastic self-published books are available if they’re drowned out by countless other books vying for the consumer’s attention.
I’m thinking of this issue again because Chuck Wendig just wrote a post on this very subject. I must requote a quote that he included in his piece from a article (“When Anyone Can Be A Published Author“)

Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.

Chuck says in response, ” that doesn’t sound like what will happen when the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING is made manifest. It sounds like what happens right bloody now.”
As it is, there are about 100,000 brand new titles published and printed every year, and it is fair to say that even the most devoted readers may touch 1/100th of that. If you include self-published books, the number of books published is 600,000 to a million. That doesn’t take into account the thousands of reprints of absolute classics that exist. I am pretty sure that if I devoted my entire life to reading I would not get through every book on my imaginary wish list before I breathe my last breath. Now imagine compounding this with an onslaught of unpublished manuscripts, from gorgeous to garbage, that would land on the market place if the result of this revolution were a totally leveled playing field. What would happen?

I am in a unique position to answer such a question. I work in publishing, for a small but very successful independent press in Berkeley. But I am also heavily involved in the online music streaming community, which, I believe, is how most of us will get our music as access to high-speed Internet expands.

The Music Revolution

Once again, it is fitting to compare publishing to the music industry because they are in the midst of the revolution that is only beginning to touch the world of print. It is already the case that any jerk with a recording device can start a MyFace page and share their music with the world. This doesn’t get them into their local sound exchange. But very occasionally that is enough to launch a very good band onto the wider scene, where they achieve success first and the contract comes second (Los Campesinos!, Little Boots and Arctic Monkeys come to mind).
Despite this, most of us do not go galloping around the world wide web listening to entirely random bands. We all have a filter. It used to be that radio provided this for us but as the radio has become more repetitive and trite, most of us are slowly moving to the Internet to find our next favorite musician. This is important because most consumers forget the recording industry provides two services, not one. The first service is to actually record the music so that it can be purchased en masse. The second service is to provide a filter that those who distribute music can use as a starting point for what is quality. Thus they are critically tied to the music being distributed en masse.
The Internet is making the second service obsolete. Plenty of music sites are finding a way around the traditional distribution model. Sites like The Hype Machine and Mog give us a way to sample what music bloggers are pontificating about. Sites like Last.FM, The Sixty One and allow us to find music from people who like what we like already. There are tons of others, and that’s not even getting into music labels that are skipping the traditional recording model all together. My absolute favorite song of 2009 was put out by a band without a record deal; this will become more commonplace.
The first stage of the publishing revolution will, like music, be one of fear. Less risk will be taken and more books will be published that rehash past success. In music, this happened when bands like Limp Bizkit found success riding on the back of similar but profoundly more talented Rage Against the Machine (there are plenty of newer examples of course). The second wave of this revolution will happen when the fear of risk becomes so odious that publishers will miss several installments of “The Next Big Thing” and be forced to make changes or admit they are obsolete. This is the current state of the music industry. The hottest bands of the last few years still have label representation but they aren’t part of the corporate radio pay-for-play cycle (I’m thinking Passion Pit, Phoenix, or currently The National, The XX…I could name fifty others that are adored by critics and fans and virtually unplayed on the radio). Instead, they relied on bloggers to spread the word.

The Future of Music

My prediction is that when we find that we can trust these sites to distribute the music it will become less important who is printing and pressing them. Small labels that previously couldn’t get enough exposure to survive will find they can profit in this new distribution model. While the industry heavyweights moan about their drop in profits, the musicians seem to be weathering this revolution just fine. But this revolution won’t really come to full fruition until enough people have discovered these alternate filters and in the interim, there will be some terrible growing pains. We are already feeling this pinch in music, which is why people who rely on radio are misled into believing “they just don’t make good music any more.” On the contrary, there’s so much fantastic music out there it’s hard to keep up with it all! This is why I have confidence these websites are the future of the music industry: because I know they work. The people who are best informed about new music are the people who are using them.

Conversely, we have come to expect the recording industry to be as methodical and cautious as possible when picking their next big hit. They will plaster it everywhere and overplay it so even what was once good becomes an irritation.

The Fate of Publishing

Chuck Wendig sees this fate already touching the publishing industry:

Thing is, I think it’s important here to create a a separation between trust in the people and trust in the system. I trust the people. I trust my agent. If I get an editor, I trust that editor. And I hope to even trust the publishing companies themselves, but the entire system is one that could maybe use a little oil for its joints. This system produces bestselling novels of dubious quality. This system produces minimal support for good authors. This is an ecology with an uncertain life cycle—books get returned, books get lost on shelves, authors find themselves frozen out, robust advances can be a curse instead of a gift, and so on.

Though we don’t have a neatly tied conclusion to rely on, I think it is clear where the future of publishing is heading. Because publishing a book requires an investment it is a risk and because it is a risk, choosing to put it into print is a mark of quality. Where there is no risk, there is no motive not to publish everything to land in the slush pile. However, there will come a time when readers will find other filters to rely on, as they are just starting to with music. It is not even that the websites are lacking. Sites like Urbis and We Book are finding ways to bring undiscovered gems to to forefront. There will be more sites as the wave rises but it won’t crest until a critical mass of people discover them. Wikipedia (and the net itself) has taught us not to under-estimate the power of crowd sourcing and I have no reason to believe that amateurs can’t be rewarded for ranking manuscripts the way music is ranked on The Sixty One. It’s simple supply and demand. When the publishing industry begins to sag under its own hubris and the consumers are itching for it sites will pop up left and right to help crowd source what we should be reading. In THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING (as Chuck so grandly caps it) book lovers will no longer rely on the books table at Barnes and Noble (which, like radio, is not a real indicator of quality and is totally inaccessible to self-published artists). They will turn to a site that aggregates not one person’s but thousands of people’s opinions on what they should read next. These books will be cheaply and readily available online.
Publishers that survive will only print (on ink and paper) the very best of these. The publisher will still stand as a mark of quality because it will be understood that if very few people buy physical books then books that make it into print will be among the very best, as opposed to the 100,000 we see today. Smaller print runs will become the rule but a wider diversity of titles will be available online and, more importantly, accessible—as aggregator sites help push the cream to the top. Marketing gestures that focus on treating books as collectors items will best succeed. One publisher who I think is doing an exemplary job with this is Flatmancrooked Publishing. Their second edition is print-on-demand while the first edition is an extremely limited print run (400 copies) with a handwritten letter from the author accompanying each one.
Even if physical books disappear all together, traditional publishing still offers professional typesetting, editing, marketing and publicity. These things cost money, and thus require a risk. So even in an entirely digital future publishing will still have a place as a quality filter. Sure, like the music industry, the behemoths will shrink a little. They will have to invest less money in chasing a carbon copy of last year’s vampire/zombie/wizard. Good riddance. Perhaps there will be less presses all together. But if (as I predict) the smaller presses still remaining are better able to distribute their finds into the hands of consumers than we’ll all be better off.