The Industry’s Future
Judging from the prognostications that Pat Schroeder remembers hearing at publishing conferences a decade ago, most people today ought to be reading e-books and regarding print as a quaint relic of the past. That hasn’t happened, of course, and the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) sees that fact as a useful caution when trying to predict the future of the industry. It’s easy to identify key factors, but misjudge their effect; trends that seem vitally important now could fade into obscurity, and the course of publishing could be shaped by things currently on no one’s radar screen.
With a number of historic elements coming together, from revolutions in production and distribution that promise to permanently reshape the author-editor-reader dynamic to an economic meltdown that is putting new investments on hold, predicting the future is no easy task. Will publishing be driven by reader habits? Digital media? Radical, new distribution models? Or is the appeal of books too wrapped up with the distinct culture of reading to ever become analogous to the salad-bar appeal of iTunes?
“It’s probably all of the above, and the problem is [that] we don’t know in exactly what proportion,” Schroeder says. “The technology companies haven’t come up with anything yet that will really replace books—in some areas [technology] will, and in some areas it won’t.”
Still, broader movements are easily discernible. If the major factors affecting book publishing can be compared to tectonic plates, the difficulty is in knowing whether some will push others down into oblivion as they roll along, reshaping the landscape, or if collisions will result in new mountains made up of everything that came before. Either way, there are sure to be earthquakes.
Give People What They Want
Many of the changes we can expect to see five, 10 or even 15 years down the road, experts agree, will be driven by expectations in a media market built around consumer choice, rather than top-down, push-marketing models.
“As consumers have grown accustomed to interacting with content on their terms with other types of media, they are coming to expect the same flexibility with books,” says Frank Daniels, COO of Ingram Digital. “For some consumers, this means an iTunes model for consumption, allowing for purchase of complete e-books or individual chapters as they choose. Other consumers will prefer to interact with printed content.”
Wed to an old model built around sales of expensive CDs, the music industry was swamped by a wave of consumer revolt—a reaction to the reality of being able to acquire high-quality audio by the song, and the industry’s initial refusal to legally allow it. Book publishers have the ability to learn from these mistakes and provide customizable content solutions where desired, an effort led by scientific, technical and medical (STM) publishers. “This has been the blessing of [book] digitization coming later [than changes in the music industry],” Schroeder says.
Still, the industry required a push of its own—namely, the Google Book Search lawsuit and settlement—to fully appreciate the potential of digital marketing and distribution. Just as, when the dust finally settled, iTunes turned out to be not such a bad thing for music (it took away much of the incentive for illegal downloading), the Google settlement will ultimately be good for books, Schroeder believes.
Google Book Search’s initial goal is to digitize millions of books stored in major research libraries. Books in the public domain can be viewed and downloaded for free in PDF format; under the recently-approved settlement between Google and book industry stakeholders, books under copyright can be bought or borrowed. A partner program makes books from authors and publishers available for search and download.
“People in very small towns will be able to research 7 million books. … That’s mind-boggling,” Schroeder says. “Then, if they want to print out a book to have a copy of it, they can do it for so-much [money] a page.”
Short term, expect initial attempts at monetizing this vast online database of material to be driven by print-on-demand (POD) solutions, she says. As the system is expanded and made available at libraries and other institutions, Google Book Search portals could be paired with book-at-a-time modules for instant book printing.
“In the near term, Google’s presence in the market will be a positive for many players in the channel, creating a rising tide of demand—much as the Kindle has increased Sony Reader and [other] e-reader sales,” says Daniels. “Longer term, we’ll see how Google squares off with Amazon for dominance in the retail book market, and how comfortable libraries are in ceding much of their collections and services to Google.”
The pace of growth will be, to some extent, determined by legal issues, as copyright laws will continue to be retooled in the face of the new system.
“You want to be able to create compilations on the fly,” notes Phil Madans, director of publishing standards at the Hachette Book Group. “The rights are so complex, especially if you are dealing with illustrated books. You might have the rights to the text, but not to the illustrations. … [There’s the issue of] where it’s going to be marketed outside the U.S., and who has the rights there. For educational publishers, even though they have all this content that they own, there are these stipulations that one author does not want to be in a compilation with another author. You’ve got to build that into the process, and it can be a real challenge.”
The desire for personalized options will contribute to the trend of custom content, pioneered in by-the-chapter book sales from STM publisher John Wiley & Sons, Schroeder says. Expect customized anthologies to become important in the higher-education market, followed by reference materials in the trade sector—such as recipes compiled in an e-book or custom-printed volume, she says.
In the trade world, much potential lies in serialization of longer works, says Florrie Binford Kichler, president of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). She expects services like Daily Lit, which delivers books in serial form by daily e-mails to subscribers (for a monthly fee), to become more popular and sophisticated as they tap mobile technology.
In order to make reading an important part of the digital future, “We have to deliver our content the way the reader wants it and when he wants it, both print and online,” Kichler says—especially in light of a continuing, and troubling, shift in reading habits.
“It’s hard to talk about the future of publishing without talking about the future of reading,” Kichler notes. A National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) report (“To Read or Not to Read,” published in late 2007) found that young American adults spend an average of seven minutes of daily leisure time reading, compared to two hours watching TV. The report also showed that reading scores among American adults of all education levels have deteriorated. (An updated NEA report is due out early this year.)