Declarations and forecasts of Great Change in the book business need specificity to be useful and often do not provide it
From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
The extended discussion in the comment string of the prior post had to do with to what extent publishers serve authors, and to what extent authors are better off eschewing publishers and working on their own. Unless and until publishers turn digital marketing at scale into a clearly compelling proposition, their power to serve authors effectively diminishes with each closing bookstore. The less bookstore- (or brick-and-mortar retailer-) dependent any book is, the less additional benefit in sales and exposure can be delivered by a publisher (although a cash advance and somebody to handle all the business aspects of putting a book out will still be both helpful and persuasive to many authors). Bookstore shelf space, and printed books, seem to be suffering slower erosion over the past year or two than they did in the several years before that. Michael Cader has made a convincing case that we actually know that for a fact. But, even if we accept the fact, whatever erosion continues will affect different books and authors to different degrees.
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So generalizations about the book business, whether they come from a self-published author or an industry expert like O’Leary, really require us to do a little parsing to make them useful. We’d be steering toward a more constructive conversation if we posed three questions every time somebody posits a Great Change we will see in the book business.
1. Which books, exactly, should we expect to be affected by this particular Great Change? This is necessary to specify now that most people would agree that “books” has become a pretty worthless generalization.
2. How soon can we expect a meaningful change in the perceived utility, and therefore the demand, for the affected books? That is, are we talking about a change that is already happening and evident and having a commercial impact (travel books are suffering and have been for years) or one we expect to see in the future (readers abandoning longer form books for shorter content choices) for which we might have only the scantiest evidence is affecting commercial reality today?
3. How likely is it that whatever the Great Change is going to be that publishers are well-positioned to affect or control or accommodate it? Brian suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, the answer is “often not”. That being the case, the prediction of the Great Change should not necessarily be accompanied by the prescription that the publisher should change behavior to address it, although it seems to me they almost always are.
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Could a publisher of travel books have created Trip Advisor? Does the publisher-created Cookstr do the job of digital assistance for a cook better than allrecipes.com or cookbooks.com or betterrecipes.com? It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to see that a publisher’s skill sets are not the best match for building an interactive internet business where content is a component of the strategy but everything else about it is different from publishing books.
Over time, I expect the book business is going to get smaller, whether the number of books consumed goes down or not. Among the reasons for that is that, over time, the intrusion of self-publishing entities will be even more disruptive than self-publishing authors have been.
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Whether “book publishing” or “book retailing” shrinks, disappears, or changes form depends on how widespread across the various silos of interest and utility we call “books” today are the many disruptions that will affect those verticals in different ways and at different speeds. And generalizing about what these changes mean, let alone delivering advice that isn’t informed and bounded by an understanding of how any particular book or author or publishing program fits into the time and scale of any particular change, is as likely to be wrong and harmful as it is to be correct and illuminating.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files
While PG sometimes disagrees with Mike, he usually thinks what Mike says makes sense when viewed from the perspective of an established publisher.
This post is pretty loosey-goosey, however.
What is happening to the publishing business begins with technology disruption – ecommerce and ebooks – and is manifesting itself in a massive restructuring of the publishing business that involves the disintermediation of traditional publishers, distributors and booksellers from readers.
Complaining that the precise boundaries and directions of this tumultuous change are not being forecasted with useful precision sounds a little like a surfer complaining that nobody can specifically describe what the next wave will look like.
One of the reasons disruptive change is interesting is that it’s impossible to forecast with specificity.
If Apple hadn’t rehired Steve Jobs in 1997, the music business would look much different than it does today.
Yes, digital music would exist and portable digital music players would be sold in large numbers, but the contours of the digital music business would not be the same as they are with iTunes, iPods, iPhones and iPads. A Microsoft-driven digital music business would look much different than an Apple-driven digital music business or a record-label driven digital music business.
Likewise, the ebook world would look much different if Jeff Bezos still worked for a hedge fund and Sony had led the market into ebooks.
One thing that is clear is that some individuals and some businesses respond better to disruptive technologies than others do.
So far, in PG’s persistently modest opinion, Big Publishing has been remarkably inept in its responses to ebooks and ecommerce. It’s not a business that is tech-savvy or tech-friendly, for one thing. It’s not a business that really wants to change, for another.
The fact that major publishers are owned by large media conglomerates (another group without a lot of tech chops) is a huge disadvantage in a dynamic and rapidly-changing technology and business environment. No big media conglomerate will allow a large subsidiary to lose money or fail to deliver steady profits like the stock market permits Amazon to do.
Mike and Big Publishing want predictability in a business which has become and will remain generally unpredictable for a while. Too bad they can’t choose a different business.