May 13, 2009

The Future of Publishing

With all the new technology, there's a lot of exciting stuff happening . . .

And a lot of depressing stuff . . .

Because of the economy and digital competition, print publishing is on life support. It's not dead, and won't die soon (I don't think paper publishing will EVER die). But it's hurting. Mom and Pop shops are closing left and right, unable to stand under the pressures of the economy, when combined with competition from Wal-Mart (and stores like it) and Amazon. Amazon and Wal-marty type stores equal convenience and low prices -- you can shop for just what you want in the privacy of your own home, or while you're at a store you're already visiting every week. Those bookstores that are staying afloat are doing so because they manage to offer something else: unique service or coffee or atmosphere. But even the chain stores aren't immune. I'm not sure about Barnes & Noble, they seem to be doing well, but Borders has been on the cusp of bankruptcy for what feels like a long time. In the comic book realm, there's been a number of shake ups, including much higher price points on products and distribution difficulties.

These factors also make small press publishing harder. Wal-Marty-type stores aren't going to carry something with no history or "hotness" to it. Mom and Pop Shops that are still in business can't afford to take a chance on a book that they might not sell -- it's a financial risk. Amazon will carry anything, but in all of these scenarios the end result is the same: people are not likely to stumble on your product if they are browsing the shelves.

Print publishing and its future looks bleak.

But, there are some exciting things happening as well. Because while all those doors are closing to small press publishers, and increasingly to larger publishers who are trying to promote new material, the same factors that are causing the problem are actually opening new doors.

Amazon's Kindle DX is an incredible machine, a nearly paper-like book reader. The iPhone and iPod Touch are making some pretty interesting book applications and readers in a much more compact (and diverse) format. (Games, music, internet, social networking, communication -- all on a device that can fit in your pocket.) (Not to mention the Google Android and the other iPhone-like devices . . . I'm just partial to Mac stuff.)

Publishers who are not thinking digitally are missing the boat. Every hardcover a publisher sells in a store should come bundled with a disk that has the book in a format that the Kindle, Sony e-reader, etc. can read (at least, it should be a PDF -- although that makes piracy easier), so readers get the digital book but also the paper book. I don't know why no one is doing this, but they are foolish not to. (Licensing fees may be the reason, and in that case publishers can't be faulted.)

I predict, though, that in the next year or two we will be seeing a new product from Mac. I'll even go so far as to name it. They will call it the TouchBook. (Laugh at me when I'm wrong; but admit it, it's not a bad name.) It will basically be the iPod Touch, with a screen about the size of a small laptop. But it will be a touch screen, that you can use a stylus with, with optional plug-in keyboard (although it will retain the touch-style keyboard). It will be an artistic canvas, a desktop publishing composer, a video viewer, a music player, a book reader, and an internet connection. I don't know much about how Mac reveals stuff to the public, or their development process, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens soon.

That's all pretty specific, but even if they don't do exactly that, a product like that will be available soon . . . and these types of things break down all sorts of walls that used to be in the way of publishers. Suddenly, printing costs aren't as much of a factor. In comic books, I see comics being made available in two formats: one strictly digital, and one strictly collectible in that it comes in paper with a digital format. Just like my hardcover book publishing idea.

The only factor in this equation that has to change is price. When the reader prices finally come down, more people will buy them . . . and more people will use them. And more publishers will be able to find their niche audience easier.

Yeah, it's not all "sunshine and gumdrops" . . . but it's also not all "rainy days and Mondays".

I'm excited to be a part of this new frontier.

~ Ben

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