What publishers will look like in 20 years

Jan 26 2012

'Kindle3 Kindle Fire "on" button' by kodomut on Flickr

'Kindle3 Kindle Fire "on" button' by kodomut on Flickr

It’s hardest to see the future when the present is shifting so much. However, we can see clearly if we look at fundamentals and clearly understand the nature of change.

There are 3 major individuals or groups involved in book publishing:

  • Authors (usually one person, the creator)
  • Publishers (which include a long chain of people, which all process the author’s work)
  • Distributors (who get processed books to readers)

Electronic publishing is changing that. People assume that it’s killing publishers. That’s wrong. It’s killing distributors.

It’s obvious when you unpack the publication process. What do publishers do?

  1. Copyediting — Fixing typos and grammar mistakes, and re-arranging sentences so they flow better.
  2. Editing — Suggesting changes to the flow of information in the text, to improve the story’s speed, comprehension, etc.
  3. Layout — Choosing typefaces, deciding on the layout of chapter headings, etc.
  4. Cover art — Still important; books need an encapsulating image to catch a reader’s eye.
  5. Printing — Physically producing the finished books.
  6. Advertising — Buying ads in magazines and newspapers, sending review copies to reviewers, pushing on social media, etc.
  7. Broader marketing — Very different depending on the author and book, but can include arranging book tours, producing online videos, etc.

Electronic publishing affects one of those seven activities (with minor effects on some others).

Electronic publishing on Amazon’s Digital Text Platform, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!, and others allow an author to bypass the publisher’s process. This does not make those steps worthless; it makes them optional.

So: publishers will not be primary gatekeepers. They will still have a place.

To see the future of electronic publishing, think about The New Yorker. Even in a world of free publishing, it would still mean something to be published in The New Yorker.

So a publisher’s value will lie in its exclusivity and taste. People today will follow a blogger for recommendations; so will people 20 years from now follow publishers for their catalog.

Let’s imagine the website for an electronic publisher named Clio, 20 years in the future. Their main page lists the titles that they have available. The first thing of note is the relatively slow publication schedule. Clio intentionally releases only a few books a month, all of very high quality.

But now let’s click on their “Why Publish With Clio?” tab. We see a page explaining that Clio offers a full range of copyediting, editing, layout, artistic, and marketing services.

If you submit your manuscript to Clio (right from their website, of course) you’re sent to a web page that shows your manuscript’s exact place in the review queue, and estimates the number of days until your manuscript is reviewed. If your manuscript makes it through the review process, editors and marketers will polish it (with your input and acceptance, of course). All these services will be paid back by a small commission from sales of your book; once they’re paid back, you only pay a trivial amount for ongoing hosting fees.

You also select a marketing plan. You can do all the marketing yourself and pocket all the rest of your books’ profit, or you can have the publisher market for another small, ongoing commission. You can even change the marketing agreement later.

It’s all do-able, and it provides all the advantages of a traditional publisher with few of the drawbacks. It not only gives publishers a place in the market, it gives them a clear place.

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