The concept of going a day without media, whether it be books, music, tv, movies, or the internet, is unimaginable. Media is a huge part of our lives, and the ways we consume and produce it are changing. “Designing Media” focuses on that changing atmosphere.
|Photo by Livy Hoskins|
Publishing has a Design problem. Big D Design, systems design, design thinking, all of that.
We’re at a weird spot in which writers don’t need publishers in the same ways that they always did. Forty years ago, writers needed publishers. Publishers took care of everything, they read through slush piles to find great stories, they worked with writers to make their stories perfect, they promoted and distributed those stories, in bookstores. This worked really well for most of the twentieth century. Without a major publisher, you couldn’t show a story to anyone except people you know in real life, and anyone they might happen to show it to. Self publishing would have involved you, writing your manuscript, having a friend edit your manuscript, then finding someone to print and bind it, and you, trying to convince people to buy it.
And then the internet was a thing that happened. E-books became a thing.
At first, they were awkward to read, and fairly uncommon. Then, the Kindle was released, they got more popular, Amazon had a financial interest in selling a lot of e-books, since they were selling the Kindle with very little profit. To make more people interested in buying e-books, Amazon was selling e-books at a loss – they would pay $12 for a book and sell it for $9.99. This was crucial in giving consumers an idea of how much an e-book is worth, which is why you see so many e-books priced at $2 or $5, but very few higher than $13. It seems rational to pay $20 for a new hardcover book, but for an e-book? No way. This means that traditional publishers need to sell far more copies of an e-book to make the same amount of profit that they would off of a hardcover.
Self-published authors have seen this opportunity and pounced on it. They operate with lower expenses than a publishing house, and they can afford to undercut the prices of a publishing house, and they’ll still make a profit. Self-publishing works for some writers, but for readers? There isn’t curation. The gatekeepers are gone, and no one knows what’s worth buying and reading.
The benefits of this new situation? There are many. Writers of niche books who are connected to their potential audience have the ability to publish books that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch. Prose works that aren’t novel length will find a place in the market. Genre will fade, slightly, and be replaced by “New for you” which might point readers toward books they wouldn’t have considered before.
What solutions are there for publishers?
They have got to innovate. They must change, and change fast.
As I see it, there are three main ways to go about this. The first is “publishing lite” which uses the current model of publishing. It’s leaner, and it has to be pickier about what it publishes, and a majority of sales are e-books. Authors are responsible for promotion, literary agents are responsible for sifting through slush piles. The publisher now functions as a gatekeeper, an editor, and a distributor. The second is “author services” This targets self-published writers, and provides them with editors, cover designs, publicity, and distribution. The third is “small press” and it operates very similarly to how small presses operate today, but primarily online. They would be focused on specific types of books, and thus provide some brand recognition. Readers may think “I’ve never heard of this author, but I’ve liked the other things that this publisher has put out. This book is probably worth a read.”
I don’t know which model will win out. If the big, traditional publishers fail to change, they’ll die, and we won’t see much of the first model. If small presses fail to change, we won’t see much of the third model. Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting to watch. I’ll be keeping an eye on Aspindle and Melville House, and I’ll also be interested to see what happens with Random House and their new online-only imprints.
One last thing: What about libraries?
I love libraries, I really do. I’m worried for them. I worry that printed books will become a premium product, which will make acquisitions more expensive for them. I worry that libraries and publishers will fail to work out a system in which libraries can lend e-books to patrons. I worry that governments will fail to see the value in libraries and reduce funding, which will only push libraries toward irrelevance.
My best bet for libraries? They’ll become community centers, more and more. That’s not exactly the mission of libraries, but it might be their future.
Also, this tumblr is great: Penguin Classics You Never See