The Future of Publishing

In 1996, I attended my first-ever Children’s Writing conference in Los Angeles. I was about as green as they come, and I soaked everything in like those ShamWows you see advertised at 2:00 in the morning – or maybe I’m the only one up to see that.  At any rate – I couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.  Among the keynote speakers were children’s literature stalwarts such as Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville, Paula Danziger, and  Lois Lowry.  There were editors and agents and people of all levels of influence.

Among the general sessions offered at that conference was one with the ominous title of “The Future of Publishing” – which I just knew I needed to attend. It was given by an editor from Random House, if I remember correctly, and it was ominous indeed. The well-dressed man in his heather-grey suit talked about the “radical changes” that were hurtling toward us writers at break-neck speed. “Rocket Books will revolutionize the way children read,” he said, his arms flailing about. “Electronic publishing is ringing the death knell for traditional printed books.” I remember that line specifically because it struck such a chord of sorrow in me.  I LOVE books!  I have them piled on bookshelves, in corners, on tables, next to sofas and chairs. The thought of reading my favorite stories off a small computer screen was as appealing to me as lunch with my ex-husband and his wife. I’d rather have a root canal without anesthesia, thanks so much.

But here was this giant of the publishing world, Random House, pronounce the death of the hard cover and paper back, and me just entering this brave new world. It seemed my dream would be over before it had actually begun!

The man in the grey suit prattled on and on about “print-on-demand” and “electronic publishing” and other, equally disheartening terms.  I looked around the room and noticed a variety of emotions registering on the other participants faces.  Some were shocked, some bemused, some skeptical, and some like me who looked as if they were attending a funeral of sorts.

 Then a woman from the audience, who I later learned was Judy Blume, stood to ask a few questions.  “How much market share do these Rocket Books account for now?”

“Less the one percent,” came the man’s answer.

“And print-on-demand?”

“Again, less than one percent,” he said, and then quickly added, “but that is the fastest growing segment of the electronic market.”

There was further discussion about the quality and the editing of these products, but the mood of the audience had obviously begun to lift.

So here we are, 12 years later, and interestingly there are still traditionally published books rolling off the presses in record numbers. True, the market has its ups and downs, but phenoms such as Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, among others, have made certain that the traditional form of publishing isn’t going away anytime soon.

So what of those “revolutionary” forms of publishing?

There has definitely been some headway in the electronic market.  I, myself, have several books loaded onto my iPod. In fact, I heard someone recently say that the iPod is ringing the death knell of the Rocket Book. 

As for print-on-demand – well – that one is hit or miss.  I-Universe, the on-demand publishing arm of Barnes & Noble, has yet to turn a significant profit or to produce a block-buster breakout that shakes the publishing world to its core.  There are on-demand printers in every corner of the galaxy, it seems, but they share several common issues: editorial oversight, quality control, and distribution abilities. 

Many, though truthfully not all, of the on-demand publishers offer little or no editorial service to the books they produce. In some cases, these publishers will offer contracts to anyone who looks like they can write a coherent sentence. Granted there are a few who will ask the writer to work with a qualified editor before the book goes to publication, but these companies seem to be few and far between.

With the computer boom of the ’90s, it didn’t take lake for someone to connect the idea of document printing to the world of publishing.  High-speed printers made incredible progress over just a few short years, and inevitably, someone figured out how to print books. But as with all things mechanical, these printers are prone to errors, jams, and other issues.  Whereas the traditional publishers  have constant quality control in the form of people (and a few hundred years of experience), most of the on-demand companies don’t employ enough people to maintain the level of quality demanded by the American consumer, despite their guarantees that “it’s just as good as XYZ Publisher.”

I attended a book signing a few years back for a guy I went to high school with.  He was signing his third published title.  I had never heard of the publisher, and when I asked him, he told me that it was an on-demand publisher. He proceeded to tell me about how much he loved not having to work with an editor who would try to rewrite his story, but that it was a full-time job, driving from book store to book store, dropping of free copies, hoping to get the manager to carry his books.  He talked about his web site being devoted to selling his book, and how he didn’t think it would be so much work.

I read his first book.  It was a good story, but it really would have benefited from an editor.

He asked about my experience, and didn’t I find it hard to get my books out there.

“No,” I said. “My publisher does all that for me.  And the publicist handles all the contacts at book stores and with the media.”

“How much do you pay for that,” he asked, a bit surprised.

“Nothing,” I said, equally surprised. “That’s just what they do for me.”

A few days later I got an e-mail from him.  “Can I get the name and address of your editor?”

Hmmm.

There are a few on-demand guys who are realistically concerned about producing a product that competes with the big publishers.  Many of the larger traditional publishing companies have started an on-demand branch to stay ahead of the curve.  But the independent on-demand folks face several road blocks: most of the major chains will not carry their books, and since they are not tied into the big distributors like Ingrahms, they have to rely solely on the web for marketing and sales.  And if you’re working with authors who nobody knows, that can be an uphill battle.

It’s true that electronic publishing, like ibooks and on-demand, is a growing segment of the market in publishing, but as far as putting traditional publishers out of business – not likely in the near future.

There is something about the feel of a book; the tactile involvement of turning pages and the visual element of black ink on white or ivory pages.  The traditional publishers will, indeed, need to share the market with these revolutionary technologies, but as was proven in Fahrenheit 451, many of us would still rather die than give up our books.

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