Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Publishing in the Digital Age
The main effect digitization has had on publishing comes from how people access information now. Before the internet, if you wanted to learn something or even be entertained, it was pretty likely that you'd turn to a book. As the internet proliferated, it became more and more common to find information on the web. Suddenly, experts and novices alike could put up websites and blogs with information about dog grooming, fashion, tae bo, cooking ... anything really. The good news is that more and more people can position themselves as experts. The bad news is less would-be published authors will ever attain that goal. The reason is simple. Because people are buying fewer books, publishers are having a hard time making a profit. In turn, they are publishing fewer books, hence fewer authors. For more good news, it's also easier (and usually free) for people to find answers to basic questions. The flip side is that it's a little harder to find trustworthy information, in my opinion.
Digitization has had an effect on printing as well, mainly positive. On the one hand, publishers are printing fewer quantities, so the printing cost per book has gone up. But on the other, there have been huge advances in the quality of digital printing, which is cheaper than offset printing. A lot of publishers are choosing that option when they can. It's also made self-publishing more viable.
There's been another interesting effect of digitaztion: electonic publishing. Various vendors have made it easy to publish your content digitally. After making some changes to the book's file type (turning press-ready files into ePub format), publishers can make their books available on the Kindle, Nook, iPad, or computer. Digital publishing has also made self-publishing easier than ever. It's just as possible for an amateur writer to publish a book to Kindle as it is for a publisher, and some people have found a lot of success that way. Ebook-only publishers have sprouted up too, which is a really interesting model. There are some positives and some negatives to digital publishing, too. While the costs of publishing an ebook are lower than printing costs, there are still costs. Most publishers still have to put out some print versions, and as I mentioned, the lower the quantity, the higher the costs; so even if publishers print half of what they would have before ebooks, they still won't save half the costs. So, both publishers and readers will save some money on books, but not a ton. Also, even though you are saving paper, you're also introducing a lot of gadgets into the world, which will probably end up in a landfill. And to circle back to my earlier point, the publishing world is more democratic than ever, which is great. But it also means it's a little harder for self-published authors to find readers and for readers to sort through all the possible choices.
This topic isn't just theoretical to me; it's pretty personal. Like I mentioned, I work at a small publishing company, and it's been hard to see the quality of our books improve over the years but sales remain static. It definitely makes you wonder if you will have a job in five years. It's been exciting to explore digital publishing options, but it's also been a little overwhelming. You try to become a fortune teller, guessing which e-reading devices will become most popular, and even what general types of reading material will prevail (short pieces, easy to read on devices; enhanced versions with links, videos, and more; apps; etc.). It can make you want to get back under the covers until the whole e-reading thing levels out.
I've also had some first-hand experience with all this as a writer. I've written a couple young adult novels, and I spent a year or so trying to find a publisher or agent for my first effort. Maybe if this had been fifteen years ago, I would have found someone willing to take a risk on me, but publishers aren't really in the business of risk-taking anymore. On the other hand, a plethora of digital printing options have opened up. I could, for example, publish my novel directly to the Kindle. But, alas, I suck at marketing, and I doubt anyone would ever find it. Recently, I heard about Authonomy, which is a Harper Collins (yes, book publisher) site where writers put up all or portions on their novels, and other users read and comment on them—a lot like Blogger, in fact. I decided to try this out, and if you're interested, you can read part of my manuscript on Authonomy by clicking here. I realized quickly you have to have a knack for social netwrking to make this work too. Unfortunately, I don't, so the best thing it gives me is feedback on my writing from smart readers and writers, which is a pretty nice benefit. I found I don't have the time to engage that much in the community, but it's a worthwhile experience when I can.
As you can tell, this is a subject I think about a lot. I guess no one lives a stress-free life, and one of my stressors happens to be figuring out how my industry will evolve over the years so I don't get left behind, as an editor or as an author. But I also get to witness a lot of experimentation and change, which is pretty exciting, too.