THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING (and other complaints)

30/05/2012 at 1:26 pm 1 comment

It’s a startling and slightly mind-spinning exercise getting one’s head around the massive changes happening in the book world at present. First up, read this bulwark against piracy from the erudite John Birmingham in the Brisbane Times for a glimpse into the perspective of the average* jobbing novelist. It made for essential background before hitting up the Vivid Ideas session last night at the State Library covering the fractal economic mysteries of exactly WTF is going on with the publishing industry right now.

A few predictions and assertations from the panel caught the imagination immediately. These are (likely or not) food for what quickly grew into a monster train of thought what kept me up longer than the final scene of the latest episode of Game of Thrones:

  1. Books (as we know and love in bookstores and libraries) will be obsolete within five years.
  2. Australia is eighteen months to three years behind the U.S.A. in terms of adapting to the changes in technology.
  3. Electronic reader technology has only been around for five years, and driven by the insatiable consumer lust for content-on-demand, is likely to become the dominant format for publishing for the foreseeable future.

Do the math. Taken as the hard truth these three factoids spell utter disaster for local writers. Apparently by the time we catch up on the absurd debate around bookstore pricing, the war will have been lost.  Australian publishers don’t know what to do; “it’s hard to turn the Queen Mary” as one panellist quipped. It was difficult to avoid seeing this as a bit of oversimplification, a throwaway line justifying an entire industry being a wombat frozen in the glare of Amazonian headlights – but one’s growing sense of disquiet as the debate went on tended towards sympathy with publishers and authors alike.

Because it’s not a publishing revolution at all. It’s a land-grab, with approximately two companies creating a virtual duopoly on information distribution channels in the new millenium. Lest we forget this is our information, our content they want to leech off of. With all the hype around access and cloud-publishing, it’s easy to lose track of the questionable track records of the companies providing this service. At best, they are behaving irresponsibly, at worst, they are the hacking, burning and pillaging Conquistadors of the Information Age. It’s the new frontier of colonisation.  Your mind.  And here’s the thing, authors are losing out, publishers are losing out, and yet we’re all kowtowing to our new electronic overlords as if it ain’t no thing. 

By the time the panel had switched to Q & A I felt an urge to speak up. Without knowing quite what to say, a range of anxious phrases turned one’s lips into what I hoped might address the concept of a publishing revolution that might actually benefit readers, publishers and authors together. It made no sense, no answer was provided (if there was one then the questions would not need to be asked) and I left the building more anxious than I had arrived. Listening back on the podcast (kindly provided by 2SER) I realised what I meant to say was “I’d rather give away my work for free than let those fuckers make money off it”.

Because (and I use the nomenclature ‘those fuckers’ to avoid lawsuit – let’s just say you know exactly who I mean) I don’t want to do business with companies who exploit their workers, who store their information in non-renewable clouds, who take no responsibility for their actions.  This is civilisation we’re talking about; the thing of which literature is the founding cornerstone, the thing that’s so fragile three days without running water could end it all, and yet has been going for thousands of years and what we hope will carry on for thousands more, if only we could see that far. 

Let’s go back to Game of Thrones for a second. One of the more heartening predictions from the panel was that publishing would get increasingly more “niche”, and driven towards consumers via the ever more popular channels of social media.  Not difficult to see that coming, but in the wee hours as I wept into my pillow for the impossible unborn slave-authors of the future I was struck by a kind of vision. Because as the George R.R. Martin novels have demonstrated: everything is niche, until it isn’t. And what’s happening in the book industry is no different to the changes to the international business models of music, film & television as driven by consumer demand. And reports indicate that Australians are world-leaders in ripping off creatives’ hard work with the laptops and internets and the piracies, as lamented by the aforementioned John Birmingham. The fact is that consumers don’t tend to think about how their entertainment gets made, as long as it gets made and they can see it right away. The handsome irony of all this; if you hang around the trendy Surry Hills bars with said eye-patch wearing hipsters is they all pretty much fancy themselves as creatives, and would be the first to complain when their employers’ cheque bounced, or when their favourite show gets cancelled because it was unprofitable. But I digress, that is perhaps an issue for another day…

The point is that the successful series of novels and subsequent HBO television event demonstrates a business model that can work, with video and literary crossover, satisfying a consumer demand in a way that’s sustainable for publishers – assuming they can see past the piracy issue – building fan bases niche-by-niche by giving away their content for free. I defy you to name a fan of the series who would not be willing to put up cold hard cash in order to keep that particular series afloat. Perish the thought- but should the powers at HBO see fit to cancel production, you can expect a riot. The HBO subscription model is proven, it is able to bring content of the highest quality to discerning consumers (whether they pay up-front or not); in fact the ability to quickly access the show within hours of release only generates more buzz online, more fans, and it’s only a small cultural leap from this sense of MUST-HAVE-NOW to a broad societal appreciation of the arts, and a willingness to reward those who provide the books, music and television shows we crave. I for one pledge to buy two copies of every episode on DVD – post fact. And not just because I’m a writer who one day might like to earn some money – but because I want these risk-taking companies to be rewarded for their efforts to provide something outside the box.

So there you have it, the future of publishing is this; increasing output of niche, quality content, branded and provided to the customers for free. Monetise it how you will, (if you must) but your true fans will come through a relationship based on giving. The greedy minds at other publishers won’t know what hit them. As for them who say ‘it-can’t-be-done’ I have only two further points. They said the same thing to the founder of Penguin, did they not? Adapt or perish, do not suffer the same fate as the Incans at the hands of the Conquistadors in the you-know-where.

sancz out.
*(above average)

Entry filed under: Festivals, Marketing, Publishing. Tags: , , , , , .


1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jamesroom964x  |  30/05/2012 at 2:25 pm

    As an aspiring writer, it’s nice to hear a little optimism amidst the cacophony of fear surrounding the publishing business. I agree on with your point about niche writing coming to the fore, and Game of Thrones is a nice, and encouraging example of how niche does not necessarily mean unprofitable.


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