Death of Publishing

I don’t know much about the Japanese book publishing industry, specifically, but I do know a bit about how publishing works in general, and about business relationships in Japan. Ryu Murakami has released a book specifically for the iPad that bypasses his publisher, Kodansha, entirely. Kodansha is the largest publisher in Japan. Even in the West, publishers see themselves as patrons of authors, supporting and nurturing them while making money off marketing their writing. In Japan, patronage and loyalty to a hierarchy are systemic and cultural values, so the fact that Murakami publicly bypassed his publisher while creating this new work is huge, huge news. That the talks about a print version are an afterthought makes it even more painfully obvious that traditional print’s days are numbered. And this is in Japan where the publishing industry has seen much less of a slump than the English-language market.

No matter what publishers think, e-books are here to stay this time. Amazon recently announced that its Kindle digital book sales have surpassed hardcover sales, and the iPhone and iPad are possibly even better platforms for e-readers than the Kindle.

You’d think that publishers would be wetting themselves in excitement over the prospect of bypassing distributors. After all, under the traditional publishing and distribution model, publishers hemorrhage money at every step in the process.  But most of them can’t change their business model fast enough to keep up with the changes that are already happening in the market, much less figure out how to benefit from those changes.

Some of them get it. Baen Books has put up free digital copies of books in the Baen Free Library for years now. Backlist books tend to be pretty stagnant for most publishers. The Free Library has generated substantial interest in backlist books and introduced people to authors they might not have tried under other circumstances. I wouldn’t be surprised if Baen is one of the first traditional publishers to go all or mostly digital.

The barriers to publishing something are virtually gone with digital distribution. This scares the shit out of publishers who have thought that far ahead, but who haven’t figured out how they can change to still be relevant in the future.

The publishing industry is going to have to move to totally different business models in order to survive. I see editors working more as curators of content, finding the cream, presenting some of the best work they see in attractive forms. Authors can still benefit hugely from the expertise of good editors, who can offer advice and criticism that often makes the difference between decent work and great work. Selling services to authors, and selling screening for quality and presentation to readers are two big niches that publishers can fill.

Print books are going to become collector’s items again, like they were primarily until around the end of the 19th century when the pulp process made printing cheaper at the cost of inferior paper quality. You can already see this happening with innovative designs and beautifully printed small-press books.

Mass-market consumer books will probably be digital, but there will always be a market for well-designed books of quality as art objects, if nothing else. There’s a visceral quality to tangible goods that can’t be replaced. In re-printing Art Space Tokyo, Craig Mod found out that the silkscreen printer he worked with is even seeing more business than usual lately because designers want to use different printing processes for book covers and promotional posters.

These are just a few of the changes I can see for the future of publishing. I’m sure that I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what’s possible. What’s fairly certain at this point is that traditional publishing is dead—but authors, editors, designers, typographers, binders, printers and all the other people involved in that industry will still be around, still doing most of the same things that they’ve done in one form or another from the time of Gutenberg.