Welcome back, dear reader, and a belated Happy New Year! Are you optimistic about this year? The news is so full of economic doom and gloom these days, I’d understand if you were feeling a bit mis. January was a long, dark month. Then today saw the start of the heaviest snowfall in the UK for 20 years. This is also the traditional season for a staff cull and restructure among some publishers. Those left may find their salaries as frozen as their fingers, their workload increased and their budgets squeezed.
The recession was declared a reality in the UK a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve seen a few high street shops close, including Woolworths, parent company of wholesalers Bertrams and EUK, causing a bit of a distribution flap at the end of last year.
But is it true, as Publisher’s Weekly predicted last month, that 2009 will be “the worst year for publishing in decades”? I think that’s a little bleak. Easy for me to say as an industry outsider, you might think. I’m not saying it won’t be tough. But I think there are opportunities for publishing this year. It’s just that I might mean something different than you when I say ‘publishing’…
What I think is in trouble is the traditional business model of print publishing by media corporations: bad times. But publishing is changing radically, and for those prepared to embrace the new realities, technologies and opportunities: good times.
Publishing doesn’t just mean shifting product. It doesn’t mean churning out ever-increasing volumes of paper products (including all those marketing leaflets and catalogues) when it’s clear that people do not access information in remotely the same way they did even a few years ago. People’s attention is shifting away from print and on to digital media.
Anyone who writes a blog, records a podcast, uploads a website, films a YouTube video – or uploads an ebook, a video or some music to Lulu, Yudu or Createspace – is also a publisher. When I press the ‘publish’ button on this post – I have just published something.
An article in Time Magazine a couple of weeks ago sums it up well:
If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century. Novels are getting restless, shrugging off their expensive papery husks and transmigrating digitally into other forms. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle have gained devoted followings. Google has scanned more than 7 million books into its online database; the plan is to scan them all, every single one, within 10 years. Writers podcast their books and post them, chapter by chapter, on blogs. Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones. Compared with the time and cost of replicating a digital file and shipping it around the world–i.e., zero and nothing–printing books on paper feels a little Paleolithic.
One of the interesting side-effects of the problems with EUK/Bertrams was that many publishers and booksellers were able to get around distribution problems by dealing with each other direct. The value of a distribution business is in its relationships. If we can manage without the middle-man and form our own relationships, do we still need large wholesale distributors?
Part of the value of a publishing business is in its production capabilities and marketing channels. If authors can cut out the middle-man, self-publish and develop relationships with their readers direct using free online marketing tools – do we still need publishers..? This is the year when ‘vanity publishing’ will stop being a dirty word. Publishing will, finally, become disintermediated.
Publishing will still be around, but it will change into something you may not recognise. The possibility of publishing increasingly becoming an activity done by authors rather than (or as well as) publishers is a very real one.
So will publishing as we know it become a service industry and provide production and marketing services to authors? Will it become a rights business? Will its value be in editorial judgment, gatekeeping and filtering? In providing a brand identity? What IS publishing? The Association of Online Publishers define it as “original, branded, quality content.” But how will that content be delivered in the future? Who will decide the quality, and who will brand it? Does the average reader really care who the publisher is?
Are we finally reaching a tipping point in the industry, as happend in the music industry a few years back? It seems very up in the air at the moment. But these are the questions to think about in the coming months. Meanwhile, wrap up warm – and don’t have disintermediation nightmares.