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!