The future of publishing — maybe

Andrew Sullivan thinks he has seen the future of publishing, and it’s print on demand:

My own view is that the publishing industry deserves to die in its current state. It never made economic sense to me; there are no real editors of books any more; the distribution network is archaic; the technology of publishing pathetic; and the rewards to authors largely impenetrable. I still have no idea what my occasional royalty statements mean: they are designed to be incomprehensible, to keep the authors in the dark, to maintain an Oz-like mystery where none is required.

The future is obviously print-on-demand, and writers in the future will make their names first on the web. With e-distribution and e-books, writers will soon be able to put this incompetent and often philistine racket behind us. It couldn’t happen too soon.

Joseph Zitt, meanwhile, is preparing to go the print-on-demand route with his new nonfiction book, 19th Nervous Breakdown:

Of course, I know that going with the print-on-demand non-returnable method in the first place cuts my odds on being carried in most stores down to just about nil. The current state of the book economy, however, makes bookstore distribution unaffordable to all but the largest publishers, and even they are starting to rethink it. (Harper Studio’s recent deal with Borders is a sign that een they are rethinking it.)

It is, however, essential to have the books available in online stores or to order, which means going through a house that has distribution through Ingram or B&T. So going through something like Lulu.com’s Published By You program is what it takes. And that has odd limitations on the book formats (the fault, they claim, of the printers that they use).

Full disclosure: I’ve known Joe for decades, and he asked me to contribute a blurb for 19th Nervous Breakdown, which I was happy to do — as those of us who’ve been following his blog already know, he’s an excellent writer with a unique perspective. To a certain extent he has, as Sullivan suggests, “made his name on the Web.” I would also point to John Scalzi as a model for writers using the Internet to establish their literary reputations. He’s even a big enough draw on the Internet to issue a volume of posts culled from his blog Whatever, issued by the boutique Subterranean Press.

The biggest difference is that Scalzi is a science fiction writer, and SF enjoys a well organized and durable fan base that makes it easier to get the word out. Self-published books have been around a long time, but the successful ones are usually titles with a guaranteed speciality angle: inspirational books like The Celestine Prophecy or business advice titles. Writers of general-interest nonfiction or literary fiction who opt to self-publish are still considered vanity-press clowns unable to make headway with real publishers. If self-publishing is, as Andrew Sullivan suggests, the wave of the future, the wave will only begin to crest when mainstream, established writers with good reputations decide to issue POD titles.

Hmmmmm . . .  I wonder what Andrew Sullivan plans to do for his next book? Or is the future only for other people?

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3 thoughts on “The future of publishing — maybe

  1. Jeff says:

    Sullivan is right that publishing is bogged down by archaic business practices, but he should think twice before voicing a weird desire for industry-wide Gotterdammerung. Our mutual publisher, HarperCollins, was on top of trends like e-books from the get-go. You can buy most Harper titles formatted for PDAs and obscure e-book readers, and much of the Harper catalog was Kindle-ready the day the device hit the market. (And, contrary to Sullivan’s sweeping claim, some editors do still edit. The Harper employees who worked on my book demonstrated impressive, old-school training.)

    And while I don’t want to downplay either Sullivan’s prominence as a pundit or the value of blogging, I think he’s in danger of overestimating the value of his online platform by not taking the unseen into account. If his books have sold well, then some credit belongs to Harper, whose sales teams had to sell his titles to large and small bookstores alike; whose publicists nagged book-review editors and helped land the author more media mentions; and whose marketing reps surely talked up his book at conventions. Sullivan may not be aware of this unsung army of professionals, but if they were to disappear the next time around, he’d likely feel their loss in his “incomprehensible” royalty statement (which, by the way, any good agent could help him decipher).

  2. Steven Hart says:

    While I did plenty of my own legwork in terms of setting up bookstore appearances, I couldn’t have gotten any of my big radio appearances — particularly the Leonard Lopate show without my New Press publicist.

  3. I suspect that Sullivan is probably right about POD being the future. But that’s kind of like a caveman looking at the invention of the wheel and saying cars are the future. Just because the traditional model for the publishing business is outdated doesn’t mean that POD is ready to replace it. Ten, twenty years from now, I suspect that POD will be the main method for printing and distributing hardcopy books, but until the market changes POD remains an impractical solution for publishing most frontlist titles.

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