W(h)ither Publishing?
October 15, 2009

I'm feeling reflective this morning (or as reflective as I ever get, anyway), so I'm going to don my Nostradamus-like robes and prognosticate on the future of publishing. There is something in the air—is it just autumn previewing winter? or is it something more portentous?There is an interesting (some might say alarming) story in this morning's New York Times about libraries building downloadable digital collections, with several publishers coughing into their fists and muttering, "Unsustainable!" Simon and Schuster has introduced the wet fizzle they call the "vook." Former Harper CEO Jane Friedman has launched an ambitious plan to digitize the backlist of many successful authors. And soon there will be a bevy of e-reader options—from Barnes & Noble a two-screen doozy, and a cut-rate Kindle-esque reader called the iRiver Story, and many more ways to read books that make the Kindle look like slate and chalk. Soon you'll have your choice—electronic ink? backlit screen? giant screen? tiny screen?What does this mean for books? What does it mean for publishing? Publishers—and most authors—are clearly agitated by the idea that books may become the next medium to be pirated and passed around, like movies and MP3s. We all saw what happened to the record industry: artists survived, but big labels have not—or not in the same fashion. Nowadays recordings are seen almost as advertisements for the musician's tours and merchandise. The money has migrated. Will the same thing happen to traditional publishing? And if it does, as seems likely, where will the money come from? How will publishers or authors (in newspeak) "monetize" their craft and content?Michael Grant, who periodically pops up in the comments section of this blog to toss an F-bomb or two, believes that books will definitely all be digital soon. He points to his frighteningly smart son, who read the whole of a 750-page manuscript on an iPhone. Kids these days, he suggests, aren't allied to traditional media. His terrifyingly brilliant son, in fact, has created something he calls Frebook (the link is to a Quicktime animation sequence; it takes a bit of time to load), which embeds backstory and advertising within a text, and creates hypertext-like windows that pop-up when the cursor is rolled over highlighted words.Well, that's one way money might be generated. But I think it ignores how book sales are generated in the first place: By word of mouth.Another way to monetize digital books is to embrace free media and give the downloads away. That's what Cory Doctorow did with his bestseller (in print) Little Brother. He made it available in so many downloadable forms that it made the issue of pirating moot. Instead, it did something else: It spread the word. Doctorow quoted publisher Tim O'Reilly that "My problem isn't piracy; it's obscurity," and then went on to make a cogent point: "Of all the people who have failed to buy my books today, the majority do so because they've never heard of me, not because someone gave them a free, electronic copy." Giving away Little Brother didn't hurt book sales at all. If anything, it may have buoyed them.Certainly that's how it works these days in music. Anecdotal example: A friend gave me a copy of the Frank Turner album "Love, Ire & Song." I loved it so much that I've since bought three physical copies—for other people. And I downloaded his collection "The First Three Years" from iTunes. And I bought a physical copy of his new album. I love the guy's music, and so I support his work. I believe readerships might function the same way.Readers—like fans of music—are incredibly loyal beasts. Loyal to formats (else there wouldn't be such passionate defenders of print media), loyal to authors, loyal to the books they love. Readers aren't created wallet-first, but hooked by their love of a story. The other day, I bought a massive trade paperback of James Clavell's Shogun, a book I adored and read and reread as a teen. (I was so passionate about it and feudal Japan that my friends, in the way of savage un-PC teens everywhere, called me "Mr. Nip.") This is the third copy I've owned over the years. I didn't want it digitally. If I love something, I want it around in concrete form.I know that I will always buy books by the authors I love. Even if, say, I didn't buy the book that first exposed me to their work. Maybe I got that book from a library (Ray Bradbury), or maybe a friend loaned it to me (Robert Heinlein), or maybe I read it on an e-reader first.What do you all think? Where is publishing going? Where are books going? Is it really that worrisome for authors? Or only for publishers?