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Will the Publishing World as We Know It End Today . . . or Tomorrow?

19 May 2011

The Passive Voice has recently gained a lot of new readers. Thank you all for coming and special thanks to those who have linked to Passive Guy’s rants.

One of PG’s frequent themes that recent readers may not have seen is that the book business is in the middle of disruptive change.

What is disruptive change? Most frequently, it is a new technology applied to an existing market that substantially undercuts the financial model upon which the existing market relies and provides end users with a substantially different experience.

Quick examples of disruptive change:

– iTunes selling downloadable songs for 99 cents disrupted the traditional music business based on album sales and associated music studios, agents and retail stores. In this case, the disruptive technology was the iPod, including its capacity for holding (at first) hundreds of songs together with Apple’s iTunes store where music was easy to buy and you could acquire the two best songs on an album for less than two dollars and skip the rest. iTunes also allowed musicians to easily self-publish into the dominant music retailer, bypassing studios and other traditional gatekeepers.

– The first digital cameras had horrible image quality and a long shutter delay that sometimes meant the “picture” disappeared between the time the photographer pressed the shutter release and the camera captured the image. Nevertheless, a few people bought them because it was easy to store digital images on their computers, manipulate them with image processing software and share them with others. Needless to say, quality has improved and traditional film cameras are now a niche market. Business disruptees included Kodak and an extensive network of small and large businesses that collected undeveloped film, forwarded it to film processors, developed the film and created prints, then returned prints and negatives to consumers.

The digital camera business is, in turn, being disrupted today by cell phone cameras to the point that sales of low-end point-and-shoot digital cameras are plunging.

To consider what disruptive change means, ask the question, “What if I want to listen to Just Can’t Get Enough by The Black Eyed Peas right away?”

Ten years ago, your answer would have been to travel to the closest music store, buy the CD for $12-15 and play it on your car or home stereo or Discman. (We’ll allow The Black Eyed Peas to time-travel back to 2001 to record the song.) If your Black Eyed Peas urge happened at 2:00 AM, you might be in tears until the stores opened.

Today, your answer is to go to your computer, download the song from iTunes for 99 cents and listen to it instantly. If you plug your iPhone into your computer, you can listen to the song while you walk down the street or in your car.

What about the same question applied to reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen via physical bookstore vs. Kindle ebook? When you consider where the ebook might go, remember the current Kindle 3 is the rough equivalent of those early digital cameras. The Kindle 15 will much different.

Disruptive change is like musical chairs except sometimes all the chairs disappear at once. Or sometimes big chairs are replaced by teeny little chairs and there’s no place for (metaphorical) fat-butts to sit.

Disruptive change in the publishing business is the reason agents are trying to be publishers and publishers (via Bookish) are trying to be bookstores and some people contend that what all these ereader buyers are really crying out for is a good hardcover book. There is nothing orderly and little predictable about disruption.

Donning his soothsayer robes, here are a few disruptive sooths Passive Guy hereby says:

  • The rules about what a book is and what it isn’t are not set in stone.
    • Is there a minimum or maximum length for a book? As far as a traditional publisher is concerned, there is.
    • If you’re doing POD, at some point, a book will be so long that the glue and binding just won’t hold that many pages together, but a POD decision on creating a series is much different than a traditional publisher’s decision.
    • For an ebook, you can write one that’s 5,000 words or 400,000 words (Amazon may have some restraints). In a physical bookstore, you have obvious visual cues that tell you how long a book is. On Amazon, you have file size and (maybe) printed book pages, but who ever filters on those? Your book can be as long or as short as your story is.
    • Would your 400 page ebook sell better as three 133 page ebooks? That way, you could run the Amanda Hocking play of pricing the first book in your trilogy at 99 cents and the last two at $2.99. Or maybe you’ve written a techno-thriller and sell the first 375 pages for 99 cents and the last 25 pages where the world gets saved for 99 cents. (PG would advise not being sneaky about what you’re selling, however, or you will see spoilers everywhere you look on the web.)
  • Genre is a marketing tool. Book sales reps use it with B&N. Amazon has just begun the process of creating a million genres with its categories – Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. We’re already beginning to see genre busters and there will be more. Look for Historical > Zombie > Arab > Arthurian > Cookbook
  • It’s a major deal to get pictures into a novel from a traditional publisher. Indie ebooks? No problem. Have your geeky boyfriend draw pictures of all your characters and plug them in. Don’t forget lots of unicorns and don’t scan from the Dungeons and Dragons handbook.
  • We’re already seeing prices doing things book prices aren’t supposed to do and there is more to come. If you find an interesting ebook for 99 cents, buy it now. In five minutes, it might be $9.99. Or set up an Amazon price alert to let you know when the price drops on a book you want to buy.
  • Readers are the new queens and kings of the writing/publishing world.  Don’t worry about sucking up to agents and editors any more. Suck up to your readers. The prescient Ms. Hocking was thinking the right way when she chose a contract with St. Martins so she could reach millions of readers who don’t have Kindles or Nooks (yet). After the paper books come out, a zillion more people will buy a Kindle to read all those ebooks Ms. Hocking still owns. Jeff Bezos will want to give Amanda a big kiss.


Disruptive Innovation

15 Comments to “Will the Publishing World as We Know It End Today . . . or Tomorrow?”

  1. Well, you pretty much nailed it. I don’t think the publishing world – as we’ve known it – will vanish. But it must change – consumers are demanding change. So change will come from the bottom up. As a believer in, and member of, the proletariat, I’m okay with that. (I’m also a cross between a Libertarian and an anarchist.)
    It’s like this…I have teenagers/YA-ers – they are very comfortable with technology. They love technology and they aren’t so eager to delay gratification. Thanks to technology, we live with the Veruca Salt mentality to varying degrees – “I want it now!” It’s not that younger adults and teens are spoiled and any more narcissistic than we were, it’s that this is the world they’ve grown up in. And it’s only going to become more so.
    I have to say…I think you’re great. Don’t let it go to your head.

    • Julia – Thanks for your compliments, but I promise I’m too old to let anything go to my head except a cold, which I can’t do anything about.

      I’m pleased we have Proletariat Pride happening. The Traditional/Indie divide does manifest some aspects of class warfare from time to time.

      The disruptors never get respect from the soon-to-depart. In the tech world, the established companies always looked down their noses at these cheap little products that would never meet the needs of the exalted customers of the giants. The cheap little products found some buyers and they knew how to evolve fast. Pretty soon, the cheap little products did 80% of what the established products could do at 20% of the cost and the avalanche came down the mountain whether the establishment predicted it or not.

  2. Fantabulous post!

    Luuuvvv the musical chairs metaphor too! LOL!

    I shared this on both my Facebook and Twitter and will be checking back here often!!!

    • D.D. – Welcome to an alternate reality. Thanks for the props and thanks for the shares. Comment whenever you have something you want to say.

  3. The key here is that readers are central to publishing now, which still is an alien concept for traditional publishers who have focused for decades on distributing books to consignment retail outlets.
    I think the changes that are happening will continue at an exponential pace and all those deals being made now for books to be published in 2014 are rather naive in thinking the landscape will look the same then.

    • Bob – I agree that readers rule now.

      When there are only three kinds of dogfood, the dogs are going to eat one of those three, the one that’s closest to what they really want. When there are a thousand kinds of dogfood, the dogs will find the one they really like and the Big Three dogfood companies will discover if they really are the best or not.

  4. From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to know whether it’s even worthwhile to worry about publishing in print any more. It’s looking more and more as though print books will be a luxury niche market within 5 years or so.

    So, authors, sell ’em if you’ve got ’em . . . so you won’t end up with a garage full. Of course, those publishing POD won’t have a storage problem. I just hope they didn’t invest a whole lot of money. It could take a while to earn it back if print sales continue falling off.

    And those who bagged a contract with a traditional publisher? Well, I hope you got a really sweet advance.

    • Wendy – It’s easy for me to see the future and forget that I don’t live there yet.

      Today, it’s clear that hardcopy books outsell ebooks by a substantial margin. Since ebook sales are so concentrated at Amazon and they don’t provide detailed sales info, it’s hard to say what today’s ratio is.

      My guess is that it’s something less than one ebook for three hardcopy books with big deviations from the overall average for certain genres.

      So, from where I live today, I would never invest in a printing press or a book store, but if people ask me, I always recommend releasing both an ebook and a POD at the same time.

  5. Reading through this, I couldn’t help but think that disruptive change is one perception of the effect of chaos theory on the marketplace. Very interesting blog here.

    • Thanks for your interest, PD.

      I’m a big fan of chaos theory as anyone who looks at my desk will confirm, but had never thought about the relationship between disruption and chaos of the mathematical variety.

  6. Interesting post 🙂 Thank you PG

  7. I’m consumed with envy at your skill at soothsaying. I first became aware I was genetically challenged in that regard at the tender age of six, when my father scoffed at our black and white TV screen and pronounced, “Six month’s from now, no one will even remember who Elvin Pressler was!”

  8. Bob – LOL. Elvin Pressler was my favorite weatherman! 🙂

    Right now is the best of all times for book/publishing soothsayers – everything is in the future. In a year or two, I may have to switch to predicting when the end of the world will take place.

    But as for your own soothsaying future, don’t despair. It’s not in the genes, it’s all in the wrist.

  9. Sooth on my movie-rating-initialled friend!

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that smell wasn’t me. Wait… oh right, posts like this are going to get bookmarked and dragged out a year from now (or two) when the world really HAS changed, and people will pay you to predict the next Royal Wedding or some shiz.

    You’re spot on too, in that the whole nature of this is going to evolve just like everything else innovative and impactful in our daily lives, I’m stoked to see which way it goes.

    PS – It’s wickedawesomecool to see in the comments so many names I recognise from my email lists and the forums I frequent (where I’ve been pimping PG like nobody’s business). Seriously, I should wear some velour and platforms and carry a cane, I reckon.

    • Thanks for the pimping, Judd.

      As far as the next Royal Wedding, I’m predicting an Australian bride.

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