New Media and the Future of Book Publishing
I’ve been going to BookExpo America for close to a decade. It’s a huge convention filled—for one weekend every year—with people whose life pursuit is all about The Book. Once you’ve gone for a year or two (particularly if you’re working), it’s easy to forget how glamorous and intriguing it seems to the outside world. (After all, Kathy Lee Gifford and Eduardo Galleano were in our booth this year.) For the past few years I’ve suffered through BEA rather than really enjoy it. A fellow editor captured the typical mood for those of us who spend the whole weekend working the convention floor when, in response to my question, “How was BEA for you this year?” he answered, “Both invigorating and depressing—as usual.”
This year, I have something different to offer. A bit of hope. The book business is still thriving and getting published doesn’t need to feel like an elusive dream. However, for those in the business, comfortable with a certain model and hoping against hope that we can turn this tide and go back to the old ways of doing business, the news is not so upbeat. Publishing is changing. But in my mind, this is a good thing.
The most interesting part of the Expo to me, aside from scoping out the competition, was new media. There are amazing services that promise to revolutionize publishing. (And yes, threaten the status quo and upset paper-lovers who think the Kindle is the Devil.) I have a Kindle, and I love it.
One cool new Amazon service is Create Space, a self-publishing tool that looks like a good alternative to Lulu. Self-publishing, in fact, was the most improved service offering at the show. No longer is it the maligned pitiful creature it once was—-in part because of online marketers like Amazon that allow you to distribute your book on their sites. With print-on-demand (POD), no one has to warehouse your book. No one is going to inform you that they’re pulping your entire inventory unless you can buy all the stock at cost. Not only are these services smart, they’re offering another small step toward saving the planet.
I will say this: I am an optimist. There are people in publishing (and lots of everyday Luddites who fear that the printed word will disappear) who don’t like what new media promises to do to the industry. There are authors, too, who wouldn’t dream of self-publishing—and I understand that. DIY publishing is no small undertaking, after all. Self-publishing is to book publishing what blogging is to the news industry. Anyone can publish, and some stuff is better than others and so it falls on the consumer to figure out what’s good and what’s bad. Which is an exercise in subjectivity, clearly. And this model takes control away from the Decision-Makers (people like me who make our living deciding what’s fit to be published on our respective lists). Lots of Decision-Makers do not like it and want it to stop. In an April decree on Publishers Weekly, Jonathan Karp, celebrated publisher of Twelve, wrote about all the ways publishers need to do publishing better so that Decision-Makers like us can continue to control what gets published. The article is an excellent example of paternalism at its worst in that he exerts it’s the responsibility of the publishing industry to undo what’s not ours to control. (To me it also echoes the CBS exec who offered his assessment of the bloggers who were damaging his news team as a “guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.”) And he doesn’t take into account all that’s brilliant about the changes in the industry. Just as the music industry has summarily freaked out over the impact of the Internet on music, so too has the publishing industry reacted to new media.
New media has been featured at BEA for years, but never has it been so front and center, occupying good floor space and commanding a different type of attention. Maybe it’s Amazon and their ability to convince readers (even book lovers who like to stick their noses in the spines of new books) that they can and want to read on e-readers. Or maybe it’s just the sea change in the public’s attitude toward self-publishing and POD and e-products. Bottom line: There’s more digital everything. And for writers, this is a good thing. It opens up the possibility for you to say yes before you say no—or to say yes after you’ve heard no—and encourages you to be open to all the possible roads you might walk down when exploring your publishing options.
I left BEA this year feeling invigorated, like my colleague in Seattle, but far less depressed than I’ve felt in past years. Maybe it’s my own shift in perspective. A reframing that’s been needing to happen. That instead of buying into the idea that we’re somehow witnessing something in dire need of fixing, perhaps we’re instead experiencing a new beginning that we can only truly understand when we stop reacting and start asking ourselves what’s possible.
Until next month,