You don’t have to walk very far to bump into someone offering an assessment of “the future of the book”. In debating book publishing futures, though, the incumbents are ill served by a tendency to look inward at a time when they desperately need to look outward.
As a result, many predictions of book publishing futures feel like an extension of the current situation, though a touch more “digital”. Relatively few get at “what reading could be.”
Book publishing futures are more than an extension of its past
A think piece by New York Times reporter David Streitfeld provides an example of the “extension” school of thought. Streitfeld has written a number of articles about “Amazon’s diminishing discounts“, a focus that perhaps inevitably led him to explore “the future of the book”.
Streitfeld worked diligently to shoehorn the “book publishing futures” into some sort of promotion for platforms like Citia. I didn’t have much enthusiasm for continuing to take potshots at the quality of publishing coverage at the New York Times. In any event, others were on the case, including Philip Jones, who edits The Bookseller.
Closing his response to Streifeld, Jones invited interested parties to submit essays that addressed “the future of ‘the book’. What will it look like? How will it be produced/imagined? How will readers use it? Will it be commercially viable? Should we ever stop re-imagining it? Over what time-frame will this change occur?”
A small group of judges read the essays, ultimately selecting “The A-Bomb”, Simon Appleby’s call to adopt the skill sets and management practices he thinks publishers will need to compete in the future. The essay appeared in a recent edition of The Bookseller and is now available to read online.
Book publishing futures: “A New and Different Era”
Although the essay I had submitted for consideration was not selected, Jones offered to post it on FutureBook, The Bookseller‘s digital site. In “Publishing has entered a new and different era“, I invite readers to consider the implications of a set of scenarios that I loosely label “the inevitable”, “the probable” and the “possible”. I start with the inevitable (all these bullet points are taken verbatim):
- The use of bundled media as the dominant form of shared content is ending. This trend has already affected newspaper, magazine and some types of book publishing. As readers look to customize their own content consumption, it will continue.
- Scale-dependent publishing models are fundamentally broken. Cutting costs won’t fix the old order. Nor will efforts to become more efficient at making and marketing eBooks. Instead, we need to strengthen our abilities to identify, support and sustain communities, growing overall demand for relevant content, not just the content we decide to publish.
I continue with “the futures that are probable”:
- Boundaries between “types” of publishing will blur. The rise of long-form platforms like Atavist, Byliner and Longreads, as well as the development of multimedia stories like “Snow Fall”, challenge the notion of what a book is and can be.
- To the extent that they persist, identifiers will tell a smaller part of the story. New and different content forms will emerge, increasingly determined by the reader, not just the publisher. Trends (or fads) like “lean publishing” are an early version of that “living manifestation,” one that may still produce objects, but not exclusively so.
I end with the possible:
- Consistent with Frank Chimero’s vision of “what screens want”, we’ll have to adapt content to embrace interactivity. On its own, interactivity won’t spell the end of uninterrupted reading, but a failure to celebrate its potential will certainly shrink the market for traditionally published works. Developing this new order requires something I call an “architecture of collaboration”, one that will be created whether we participate or not.
- We will find ways to make money creating and selling these new and different content forms. To be fair, I actually think this is inevitable, but it is an opportunity that will probably not accrue to most of the incumbents.
What readers want
Shortly after FutureBook published my contribution, one of the judges posted “What books want“, perhaps a response in part to my invocation of Frank Chimero’s “What screens want.” In it, Molly Flatt tried to explain how the panel saw “the thesis of “The A-Bomb” as a challenge to, or clarification of, every other idea.”
While I appreciate Appleby’s perspective, I struggle to see it as a challenge to or a clarification of what I wrote. If anything, Appleby’s essay emphasizes book publishing’s pronounced tendency to look inward at a time when I believe it needs to look outward. Before we care about “what books want,” we should think about what readers (and non-readers) want.
All these links are live, so you can read for yourself. That said, I was struck that Appleby’s essay contained no outbound links. On the web, that’s a metaphor in action.