Broken, Beat & Scarred: Is Traditional Publishing Really On Its Last Legs?

Influential tech blog ReadWriteWeb (headed by Wellingtonian Richard MacManus – well made New Zealand!) has posted a lengthy two-part article, “Bits Of Destruction Hit The Book Publishing Business” (Part 1, Part 2). The basic thesis is contained in author Bernard Lunn’s introduction to the first article:

“Bits of destruction” is a phrase Fred Wilson uses to describe the destructive part of “creative destruction” brought on by digitization. We hear a lot about the destruction wrought on the newspaper business. A more interesting and nuanced wave is now hitting the book publishing business… However this plays out, a lot of people will be affected, but the way in which it will play out is not at all obvious.

On top of the current recession, the three “Waves of destruction” affecting the traditional publishing industry identified by Bernard Lunn are (1) Google Book Search Archive Digitization; (2) Ebooks (especially those available on the Amazon Kindle, such as Voyagers); (3) Print on Demand. Bernard Lunn argues that, as they mature, these three technologies will radically change the relationship between authors, publishers, printers, bookshops and readers.

This is my very short summary of a long and complex argument that it is well worth reading in full. I have to say, however, that I don’t find all of it entirely convincing, although I agree with his general premise that many aspects of the traditional publishing model are being stretched if not broken by a combination of technological and financial factors. In particular, I take issue with his assumption that authors can effectively take on responsibility for the marketing and distribution of their own books.

I have had books published by large and small publishing companies, and in conventional print, POD and e-book formats (the latter two being the formats for Anarya’s Secret). I have been very happy with the production quality of all these books, but what small publishing companies and authors themselves find it hard to replicate is the ability of large conventional publishers to market and distribute books. These tasks take detailed, specialised knowledge, and authors do not usually have much success in taking them over completely. Like editing, such tasks can be sub-contracted to professionals in those respective fields, but that won’t be cheap for authors.

So I think that, despite some of the anachronistic elements of the present book marketing and distribution arrangements, it won’t be anything like as easy to replace the functions of traditional publishing companies as Bernard Lunn claims. On the other hand, I agree with him that, when and if the recession ends, the book publishing industry will not return to the shape it held pre-recession. I’m keen to follow developments, and will look to blogs like The Quiet World Project and How Publishing Really Works, as well as ReadWriteWeb, to see what is happening, and what will happen, to publishing.

Thanks to Jane Harris for alerting me to the RWW articles. And thanks to Metallica for the title of this post!

5 thoughts on “Broken, Beat & Scarred: Is Traditional Publishing Really On Its Last Legs?

  1. I don't buy all of Lunn's argument, either, but the essence is true – life is going to be different. And publishers will have to make their buck where they can add value. Some authors will still want to work with an editor (most should, but that's another story). The publisher may coordinate that, or the author my hire someone themselves. Editing will be done. I'm not prescient enough to say for certain how it will all pan out (and neither is Lunn, although we both have some ideas) but it will change – it has to! The world around publishing has changed and it won't change back.

  2. This seems to be THE subject this summer, at dinners, on the beach, over morning coffee. And people keep looking to me as if I have some special info. All I can do is shrug. All I know is that nothing will be as it was, and it's useless to fight it. The question is what are the best ways for authors to take advantage of the changes? This all might end up being good news for us…..

  3. Thanks for the insight and information. I agree with your responses. I had the same instant reactions (what about the promotion! etc.) as I was reading – it's always good to have your own thoughts seconded!

  4. Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Mark, Sue and Kay. Part 2 of Bernard Lunn's article suggests that things will get better for authors, and of course I hope that's true, but as I said in my post, I think he skirts rather glibly over some of the difficulties.Perhaps authors will find that it's best to band together to purchase editing, marketing and distribution services, and print publication facilities when needed. We're already seeing de facto collaboration on the marketing side with things like virtual book tours – can or should this collaboration be extended to other aspects of book production?

  5. Hi Tim – yes – I too can imagine an authors' co-operative model emerging … I'm interested to explore this further myself actually. Perhaps two or more authors chipping in for one of the group's books to be published, then once cost is recovered, using the money to publish the next author's, and so on … It would require that the group be people who trusted each other and liked and respected each other's work. And yes, editor hireage would be a must!Thanks for this whole post, and the links to the 2-part article. Extremely interesting.

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