The Digital Publishing Revolution Is in the Rearview Mirror
Amidst the Sturm und Drang of the present times, an infrequently remarked-upon fact has eluded us all, especially those of us focused on the so-called Future of Publishing. ("Future of X" is a term that seems to arise in human society largely when X's future is in doubt—after all, we rarely discuss the future of chairs.) This fact—that the digital revolution in publishing began a quarter-century ago, and transformed publishing before it reached music and video—was hard to see in many respects. It did not directly affect too many people (largely industry insiders), and not all at once. So it was understandably hard to see it happening in real-time.
But we have no excuse not to see it now, nor not to discuss it now, because it tells us a whole variety of things about this present juncture. Publishing 2.0 began in July 1985, when Aldus Pagemaker went on sale. Before that, self-publishing was an activity for the wealthy, self-indulgent. Book printing was a highly specialized activity, operated by what was effectively a guild with a complex and highly technical vocabulary known only to a small group, mostly employees of the printers and a handful of employees of publishing houses. Design, typesetting, prepress—these activities were complex and untranslatable to the layperson.
Even if you had the $4,000 needed to pay for printing 1,500 books, you needed thousands of dollars more to pay for all the services required to convert your typed manuscript to something printable. Moreover, very few people were available to provide those services on an ad-hoc basis. Getting a book printed was no easier than going to a construction firm with a painting of a bridge—without architects and civil engineers they could not possibly translate your vision into executable form.
Pagemaker (and its successors) changed all that, because it allowed a person to create a file, a PDF, that could be handed to a printer without the need for expensive/unavailable intermediaries, and because it was software, not a person, and was licensable—meaning that it was soon available in copy shops like Kinko's for $6/hour.
In 1990, Bowker tracked 25,000 new titles published. By 2007, that number reached 275,000, and by 2010, it reached 3 million. (While it is true that 85 percent of that 3 million are on-demand titles largely created by content farms scraping public domain websites—and publishing existing content under different titles, such as the "spamming" Amazon has been battling—it is strongly indicative of an explosion in the creation of, and the rendering available of, unimaginably large quantities of words and images. Moreover, Bowker is only counting books with ISBNs—a great deal of self-published output doesn't bother with ISBNs.)
In hindsight, Borders wasn't some cancer on the publishing body—the growth of superstores was a logical outcome of the growth of individual titles in the United States. For every medium-sized, older publishing house absorbed by corporate publishers during the 1980s and 1990s, 100 tiny presses arose. Title count at the corporate houses increased as the hunt for increased topline revenue was enabled by cheaper production costs.
The Next Digital Publishing Revolution
This is Publishing 2.0. This is the digital publishing revolution. It already happened. It was almost solely on the production side, however. Ironically, despite publishing's reputation as the fuddy-duddy one in the media, it was ahead of music, ahead of video. It wasn't until the early 2000s that desktop audio- and video-editing software was as cheap and easy to use as desktop publishing software. So, if the digital publishing revolution is in the rearview mirror, what the hell is this in front of us? Well, it's the next digital publishing revolution, and it is a consumption revolution.
While the creation of books was radically transformed, their consumption was not. For the bulk of even the last years of the 25-year-old "First Digital Publishing Revolution," most people read print books bought in bookstores … whereas people had been consuming music and video digitally for 10 to 15 years already! Granted, the delivery mechanisms were physical—CD and DVD—but the format was digital.
The way digital consumption evolved, then, with music and video, from optical disc ($10 to $15) to digital download ($1 to $10) to streaming video (1¢ per play), suggests that the present nice revenue streams from the sale of EPUB files via third-party retailers may not be much more than the temporary bump that record labels got 15 years ago as consumers changed consumption format from analog to digital.
We have little reason to believe that the $100 million a month in e-book sales we're seeing right now is proof that revenues from digital downloads will replace revenue from print. Instead, what we're likely to see can be projected from the twin effects of a production revolution of the sort we've seen in books, combined with the consumption revolution we saw in music—via an ongoing increase in the creation of content and in the number of publisher-like intermediaries. These often will be operating on a labor-of-love, mom-and-pop, kitchen-table basis (publishing itself, as well as eBay, Etsy, etc.) to help orchestrate this creativity and far broader productions of artist-fan relationships, as we saw in music. They will be focused on cultivating attention, which is scarce, not on making and distributing copies, which are infinitely bountiful. BB
Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur. Founder of Cursor and publisher of Red Lemonade, he is now vice president of Content and Community for the LA-based cultural discovery start-up Small Demons. For most of the past decade, he ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press, for which he was awarded the Association of American Publishers' Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing in 2005. Books he edited and published landed on best-seller lists from the Boston Globe to the Singapore Straits-Times and twice on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, among others. The last book he edited for Soft Skull, Lydia Millet's "Love in Infant Monkeys," was selected as a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Last year the Utne Reader named him one of "50 Visionaries Changing Your World," and Mashable.com picked him as the "#1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing."