Pub Rants

Is Publishing Just About To Be Disrupted?

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STATUS: How the industry is shifting does make me lie awake at night.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY by Donna Summer

And to piggy-back on to what I was writing about yesterday on the blog, I want to share this very interesting article by science writer Michael Nielsen.

I read his blog entry earlier this week and my mind has been in a whirl since. He tackles the question of whether scientific publishing is about to be disrupted but I think the parallels to traditional publishing are very clear.

In the article, Nielsen highlights the signs of impending disruption in the newspaper industry: “Five years ago, most newspaper editors would have laughed at the idea that blogs might one day offer serious competition. The minicomputer companies laughed at the early personal computers. New technologies often don’t look very good in their early stages, and that means a straight up comparison of new to old is little help in recognizing impending disruption. That’s a problem, though, because the best time to recognize disruption is in its early stages. The journalists and newspaper editors who’ve only recognized their problems in the last three to four years are sunk. They needed to recognize the impending disruption back before blogs looked like serious competitors, when evaluated in conventional terms.”

The signs of disruption in the publishing industry are already there. The big question is whether we’ve recognized them in time. The big publishers today are like the Titanic. Huge. Cumbersome. Potentially perceived as unsinkable. And yet, huge tech companies such as Google, Amazon, and the upstart Scribd are changing the face of publishing. What will the big publishers be like in five years? 10 years? They see the ice berg but can they turn in time?

I hope so. I don’t have any answers to share but I certainly see possibilities. Will they merge with big tech companies such as Google? That would not be surprising. What will the role of agent be as publishing transforms?

And digital is the key that has changed all of this.

And how interesting that I’m reading one of the more extraordinary articles to tackle this question on a blog. By a science writer. Not in a publishing industry magazine. Not in a newspaper.

That says a lot in and of itself.

42 Responses

  1. Evangeline said:

    I do wonder what digital publishing and digital rights mean for agents. Perhaps that disruption is why so many in the industry are wary of jumping aboard? Based on the Romance Writers for Change debate, quite a number of published authors fear the RWA’s acceptance of the digital publishing method (no advance but 35-50% royalties) would convince NY to move in that direction.

  2. Aimee K. Maher said:

    The number one mistake in the news industry? Free online news. There should have been a monthly charge equivalent to the actual paper minus delivery costs years ago. I hope the publishing industry doesn’t make the same mistake. If Publishers get their butts in gear and start selling secure downloads on their own sites that can’t be copy/pasted, I think there’s hope for digital print. They need to get organized and set a standard. It’s more cost effective for readers once you remove the actual labor costs of printing, and it might get more authors into their Palm Piloted/Kindled hands.

    I think.

  3. Rebecca Knight said:

    I’m excited to see what happens, and have high hopes for e-books and e-readers revolutionizing the industry.

    I think the main problems are going to arise from publishers changing the way they charge for books, and the way they pay authors (and agents). Authors probably need advances to do crazy things like “eat,” but how will that work out with e-book royalties? There is already a lot of debate and rewriting of contracts… how will it turn out?

    It’s fascinating to be the edge of a huge change like this as it unfolds.

  4. Scott said:

    First – I love “She Works Hard for her Money” by Donna Summer. In fact, I absolutely love Donna Summer.

    Second – puslishing needs to wake-up and change with the times. The world is becoming digital. I read my books, for the most part, on Kindle. I love my Kindle. I love having an entire library of books easily available.

    Will agents still exist in a digital world? Of course. I don’t think the publishing world is going to change so much that agents become (gasp) unnecessary.

    In the end, we must adapt. Resistance is, at least according to the Borg, futile after all!


  5. Stephanie said:

    Recently I was offered a contract from an ePublisher. I was ecstatic to find a home for my book. And the further I get into this process, I can’t help but feel I am getting into something really wonderful that is going to explode in the not so distant future.

    Look at music these days. While us old people still buy cd’s (I’m only 31, but to my nieces and nephews, I am ancient), the younger generation may only own a handful of cd’s. They all have ipods or other digital music players. Every song they own, hundreds, thousands, fits into a 1-1/2″ x 1-1/2″ gadget. It’s the next generation that is going to love digital reading devices. I think they’re pretty cool…even though I am ancient… but the kids, the 20-somethings, they crave technological wonders. They could care less about holding something, a book, printed pages, in their hands. And if technology is what it takes to get more kids reading…get more people to read, I think it’s fantastic.

    I’m truly looking forward to the future and seeing the new devices that are introduced and how far they come down in price, just like mp3 players have.

  6. Lazy Writer said:

    It’s scary! I’ve heard rumors about problems with our local Newspaper. Apparently, you’ll only be able to read The Kansas City Star online soon. I’m sorry, but I prefer a hard copy!

  7. Kwana said:

    Excellent post. Times are changing at a rapid pace and digital is leading the way. You’ve brought up am important point about the agents role in all of this. Thanks for this post.

  8. Dawn Maria said:

    I have yet to see a Kindle on an airplane, beach or park bench. I’m not a hater, but I don’t think things will change rapidly until EVERYONE owns some sort of e-reader and (this is very biased) I don’t think that will happen until Apple seriously enters the market.

    But the change is coming. For me, one of the best things about following agent blogs has been how my fears about all the changes had disappeared. Most agents seem excited (resolved) about the future. I wish publishers communicated that same enthusiasm.

  9. Elle Robb said:

    I have to agree with Lazy Writer. I know I’m old fashioned, but I love the feel of paper in my hand, whether it be a newspaper or a book. That said, I’m dying to get a Kindle because of the size/space/portability issue.

    Excellent post, by the way. I’m glad to see some in the publishing industry recognize that this needs to be recognized and dealt with while the technology is still in its relatively early stages.

  10. Lisa said:

    It’s very good food for thought. As an emerging writer myself, the great hastle of becoming published makes me and probably even other writers look at digital publishing and easier ways to get their works out there. It’s all very interesting and at times, disturbing. I sense it too even being on the other end of publishing as a writer. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Torsten Adair said:

    First, go read Cory Doctorow’s “Content” (it’s available free online).

    The problem with new technologies is that they are always compared to old technologies (“radio with pictures”). The old guard panics, pulls up the drawbridge, circles the wagons, and doesn’t think about how to exploit the new paradigm. (Movie studios were afraid of television until they realized they could sell programming to the networks. And they were frightened of people taping programs on videotape. And of giving stuff away for free (even though commercial television has been doing that for seventy years).

    Almost everyone does own some sort of e-book reader: a cellphone. Just as people used to be hesitant when sending text messages, they are now hesitant to surf the web on a phone. (I marveled at how my brother, living in Germany, was so adept at sending texts to people, while in the U.S., hardly anyone did.)

    I read stuff online everyday. Literotica, 9 Chickweed Lane, this blog. I blog from my phone (a Treo 755p, but I once did it with a T9 keyboard). My cellphone can read Word documents and PDFs, play YouTube videos… pretty much what my laptop can do, although a bit slower…

    Apple has seriously entered the market. You can download IDW’s Star Trek comics at the Apple store to read on your iPhone. I’m sure other publishers have titles there as well.

    Currently, we’re feeling small earthquakes as paper collides with digital. Until one slides under the other and we get some new mountains, ride it out.

    I don’t think kids are prejudiced against paper. I believe they see it as just another way to get information. They may not worship it as a wonderful gateway to fantastic storytelling, because there are so many gateways available now.

    Geeze… I just turned 40… cable television and Apple ][ computers and CDs in the mid-80s, the World Wide Web hitting just as I graduated from college, MP3s and ipods and cellphones and who knows what else… I think my generation, the generation right after the babyboom, are pretty open to whatever is new. We might not be early adopters, but we’re not like our parents who have trouble setting a digital clock, or working a DVD player, or…

  12. Anita said:

    This is all so true, and having a 13-year-old in the house makes it very apparent. Ask her to find out Mass times while we’re traveling, and she’ll run to the laptop or grab the iPhone–these kids are tech savvy, fer sure. The whole family is moving to Paris next year and one of the kids’ #1 concerns is which technical gizmo we’re buying so that we can read English language books.

  13. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    Eventually all information, entertainment, games-whatever will come to you digitally through your wrist watch… which, with a USB port you plug into a home LCD/plasma screen, (or you just buy a big magnifying glass for your timepiece).

    Agenting in the furture will consist of lawyer like understanding/expertise of ever changing copyright laws as it pertains to emerging media. Agents will be hired on a “as needed basis” with the preceived best 20% getting 80% of the work.

    Editors will go the way of agents. 20/80.

    The reputation of Agents and Editors will act as the vetting process for an author’s work. (the better the agent/editor the more consumers will trust the product).

    Big House publishers will slowly die or fracture into nimble moving pub entities.

    The attention span of the average consumer will be 45 minutes to an hour, if not less.

    Haste yee back 😉

  14. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    Oh, sorry… forgot. Digital technology will be replaced by pulses of light, (an electron, having mass, can only travel so fast)… Light travels at the… well speed of light because it has no mass.

    So, things will only get faster!

    Buckle up!

    Haste yee back 😉

  15. Dawn Maria said:

    Torsten Adair- I didn’t realize how much you could do on the iPhone, I’ve only had mine for five weeks. Still, I really wouldn’t want to read on it, I’d prefer something bigger, like the Kindle. Great info!

  16. Dorothy said:

    Utne Reader has an interesting article on this very subject this month: “The Revolution Will Not Be Published” They conclude they can’t predict what the future of publishing will be, but that efforts to stop the rush to digital is and has been futil.
    They incluse the oft disputed claim that the stigma of self publishing is vanishing…Well, not yet. But each article like this one points in that direction. I bought my first self-published e-book this week. Very cool and worth the 10 bucks. One Spirit (spirituality book club) is survey members for interest in an affordable e-reader in competition to Kindle. This is bigger than the 7th wave and smaller than a tsunami. So far.

  17. Anonymous said:

    I don’t remember what particular clip it was from BEA, but there was something similar –a video–from someone talking about the future of publishing making references to newspapers and other casualties along the way…

  18. Jerry said:

    Dawn: I couldn’t imagine reading on my iPod Touch until I saw the video for Eucalyptus. Since, I’ve stopped keeping a paperback in my bag. Eucalyptus only downloads from Gutenberg, but the potential is clearly there.

  19. Sela Carsen said:

    Dawn Maria, I’ve seen several Kindles in the last several months — and mostly in the hands of people who qualify for AARP discounts! On park benches, in Boy Scout meetings, and in airports.

    After having lugged nearly 30 lbs of books with me on a recent trip — just to get through two weeks — I’ve finally come to the conclusion that an e-reader may not be so much a luxury as a necessity for the way I live and read. Or is it read and live?

    Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for technology that doesn’t tie me to one shopping outlet so ruthlessly. It’ll come. I hope.

    Aimee Maher nailed when she said that newspapers should never have provided so much free digital content so early on. It paved the road to their destruction.

    I wish I had some input on the agent’s role in a digital publishing age. I anticipate change just like everyone else.

  20. Do said:

    Very interesting and thought-provokig article! thanks for sharing.

    I’m living here in Germany, and there has been a similar essay, in a media-blog – it lists 4 main reasons for the current drama of the newspaper / music industry. one of it: that both industries are acting rather inside their box, or their “status-island”, and don’t see the wider picture, especially where new techologies from “other” market segments are concerned.

    another main point: as humans, we tend to think linear, while social / and especially technological developments are often chareacterized through exponential growth.

    here the link to the article, it oviously is in german, but the diagram speaks for itself:

    makes me think of this two-sided chinese saying: “I hope you are living in interesing times”.

    and yes, interesting that these analysis appear in media-blogs.

  21. Al said:

    I don’t have time to get to many writer’s events, but at the Emerging Writers Festival here in Melbourne, one of the big topics of conversation,was epublishing as an alternative to traditional methods.

  22. Sabrina said:

    Buggy whip manufacturers were probably laughing when the automobile was being tinkered with initially, too.
    We adapt and experience unimaginable things! Whatever happens will be awesome in its own way.

  23. Kathleen MacIver said:

    I wish RWA would read your blog, Kristin. No, I’m not one of those who is angry with RWA about e-published authors being left out. Yes, it happens, and I have no idea what the ideal fix is.

    BUT…it does seem, to me, that RWA is riding with the big publishers on that ship. I wish, for the sake of all romance authors, that this wasn’t the case.

  24. Mechelle Fogelsong said:

    I wonder how this will affect third world nations? Will the invention of new technologies like Kindle make it possible to increase literacy due to easy access? Or will it widen the divide between technologically advanced countries and developing nations? Maybe hard copies of books will, one day, only be available in remote, third world nations? If so, it might be time to move to Somalia, Ms. Nelson.

    FYI: My great-great-grandparents died on the Titanic, and that’s no fictional tale. Hopefully nice Midwestern agents will survive the Arctic plunge into the technological age…

  25. Carol D. said:

    Times, they are changin’…and while I don’t think we can stop the fact that information such as news, blogs, music, etc. are/will be “free,” for me as a writer and speaker, I have to change how I look at and utilize my books and blogs–“use” them as my calling card for other business ventures. Books in the nonfiction world has become a your business card for speaking engagements, tele-classes, workshops, and consulting services.
    This can translate over to fiction as well–school, business, library talks, community classes, etc., as well as film deals–which I think YouTube and cable are going to open even more opportunities for written to visual exchange.
    No way literature is dead, it’s just morphing–and we have to morph with it.

  26. Carolyn said:

    This topic of disruption of traditional media has been discussed for YEARS in tech circles. Dave Winer started talking about it at least 10 years ago and a good many of his predictions have come true.

    The collision between what Technology people know about what they’ve created and what the affected companies experience is interesting to watch as the collision becomes painful. Really, there’s little in that article that hasn’t been discussed by the IT folks for some time.

    It’s nice to see the discussion finding its out of the Technology sphere though.

    The times, they are a changing.

  27. Jancy St.Mary said:

    I got the Kindle app (free) for my iphone last week. I was very hesitant; it’s so small, would I get glare etc…

    I really love it. My DH commented we will probably buy more books now. And we have no interest in buying a Kindle.

    I am thinking the Kindle would might be too big! The iphone size is perfect. I love that I have my phone, books, music, maps, and LOLcats in one small device.

  28. David Allred said:

    My last post must have been too long… 🙁

    For an example of how I think this new process could really help the industry check out some of the stuff from Digital Longbox:

    I believe the trick is to keep the wall high enough so that good stuff is not drowned out by mediocrity, but low enough so that the envelope keeps getting pushed. I blogged about it here:

  29. Anonymous said:

    Yes, but…how many new technologies died in the water? I mean, is he cherry-picking the examples of ‘these industries adapted in this way to these new technologies’?

  30. Matilda McCloud said:

    I guess I’m the lone holdout here for preferring a good old-fashioned book. I love wandering through bookstores, sampling the actual books. But my sons are bored in bookstores…oh well…pretty sad (at least to me)…

  31. Teh Awe-Some Sauce said:

    “Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for technology that doesn’t tie me to one shopping outlet so ruthlessly. It’ll come. I hope.”

    You can buy books for the Kindle from other outlets. I buy books from Samhain because they are cheaper on their direct site than on Amazon. Just plug the Kindle into your computer and drop and drag like you would for any other device.

    It is disappointing when some books are not yet available in digital form (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games), but for the most part I love it. The screen even looks like a book.

  32. Firefly said:

    This is a really interesting topic. Yes, traditional publishing is being disrupted. But unlike other business disruptions we can point to, there isn’t a single impending event or technology here that is causing this disruption. It’s not a single earthquake that registers a seven on the Richter scale…. no, it’s lots of small one’s and two’s… some that no one even felt. It’s the totality of lots of different technologies, and the adoption of lots of new tools and standards that is causing this one… and those little earthquake waves are likely to continue.

  33. Evangeline said:

    I wonder how this will affect third world nations? Will the invention of new technologies like Kindle make it possible to increase literacy due to easy access? Or will it widen the divide between technologically advanced countries and developing nations?

    That is an angle I never thought of–and it’s very interesting. I sincerely hope the former will happen, but more often than not, it’s the latter that occurs. I think the question of access to digital books will be tied to the still-tangled issue of geographic-bound e-books (as opposed to language bound: but then, if English e-books are available to those who speak English, will that increase the dominance of the language and the cultural baggage that goes with language?).

  34. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, thanks for the link to Michael.

    He lived a few doors away and was always brilliant growing up. I’d lost track of him since we all moved on.

    Just check out that bio!

    The net sure is a serendipitous tool.

  35. amber polo said:

    When agents represent authors in the epublishing venues, epubs will have to clean up their acts and begin to behave like publishers and not vanity presses who just don’t happen to charge upfront fees.

  36. Chris said:

    I really believe we are looking at a paradigmatic change in publishing. I think it is generally accepted that the MP3 changed the record industry but what I don’t think is popularly held is that the MP3 has only BEGUN to change the record industry. The increasing ubiquity of portable media devices and the atemporality of once fad-bound media entertainments have to cause a major shift. Technology has, to my mind, always been the single causal factor in the evolution of culture. I think that publishing, that looming Victorian giant that we know today will be a thing for the history books.

    What comes next I cannot say.

  37. Genella deGrey said:

    Think of it this way:

    I love both paperbacks and my ereader. Much like I enjoy both theater and motion pictures.

    I don’t believe one will overtake the other – it’s just a different way to be entertained.


  38. danceluvr said:

    This is WAY off topic, but I didn’t know where else to post it.

    I’ve been working toward submitting my WIP to agents, and one thing that worries me is how young many of you agents are. I feel so old when I meet these youngsters who will have so much power over my future.

    Just wanted to get this out. Thanks for listening.

  39. Nicole said:

    I just read yesterday that McGraw-Hill is laying off a HUGE component of their educational publishing divisions, including the entire copyediting department.