Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Go listen: a good primer on current change in publishing

I don't listen to podcasts much because almost everything I do is writing- or reading-related and listening interferes with that. But yesterday, while unable to read, I listed to the SF Signal podcast on bookselling. (Via Cheryl Morgan.)

The panelists, Cat Valente, Chris Roberson, Allison Baker, Alan Beatts (plus moderator Patrick Hester), discussed the fallout for the bookselling ecosystem of the restructuring of Borders. They're all smart and well-informed, and between them cover a variety of perspectives. So it turns out to be a pretty good primer on how bookselling works these days. So for those who have never really understood the ins and outs of the (complicated and deeply fucked-up) business, go listen. (You only really need the first 40 minutes.)

However, you'll be shocked to learn that I'm not in complete agreement with the concensus.

  • I believe we've passed the point where we can talk about a monolithic publishing industry (if we ever could). Over the last decade 'publishing' has morphed to encompass a variety of models. It's a whole new ecosystem. Cooperatives. Small e-only publishers. A changing role for agents. Independent editors, book designers, and developers turning the reviled (by many) 'self-publishing' niche into a new, better, stronger animal call 'indy publishing'.
  • Epublishing is already driving paper publishing decisions. We've passed that tipping point.
  • Cat Valente mentioned the inherent unfairness of a world where only rich people could read ebooks. (I'm paraphrasing wildly. Cat, if I've got it wrong, my apologies.) But my guess is that within a year the Kindle, and similar e-ink readers, could be functionally free.
  • The role of communities such as Goodreads, Library Thing, ad hoc blog and Twitter communities, genre sites (corporate, such as, and not, such as Dear Author) will grow and generate the kind of awareness (and then word-of-mouth) that used to be the purview of the broadsheets.
  • The Big Six trade publishers will go one of two ways:
  1. Assume a role more akin to Hollywood studios: buying finished product, tentpoles, blockbusters, while the smaller projects originate independently elsewhere.
  2. Finally understanding that their previous B2B stance (their customers being wholesalers, resellers, distributors) has to change to B2C, that is, dealing directly with the reader-as-customer.
  • It may well be that some will pick one way, some another, and one or two try both. I don't know. But if I had to bet I'd say 'both'. I think we'll know more in a year or so.
  • Allison Baker sounded smart, in terms of economic Darwinism and forced efficiencies in the business--and yet I'm always wary of treating the market (and book buying and selling is just that) as a rational system.

In the end, I think the truest thing said was by Alan Beatts (who runs Borderlands, a fabulous bookshop in San Francisco). "How you spend your money is a vote." If you spend your money at (and many of us do, for many reasons), you're voting for the rise of Amazon's power and influence. If you spend your money at an independent, you're voting for the survival of that independent. As someone once said about politics, voters gets the government they deserve.

What kind of book ecosystem do you think we, as readers, deserve?

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