The Trouble with Doomsday Prophecies
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
If you keep up with the conversation on publishing you’ve probably already heard that the sky is falling and traditional publishing stands smack in the middle of the fallout zone.
We’ve all read the commentary. Traditional publishing will crumble by the next decade. Literary agents will follow. Soon brick-and-mortar bookstores will be as hard to find as blacksmith shops. Forget slush piles, publishing committees, acquisition editors and gatekeepers. Because of do-it-yourself publishing and direct-to-reader distribution the doors of the once tightly closed enclave of publishing have been thrown wide open. According to the doomsday prophets, those who’ve been inside the enclave– publishers, agents, contracted authors, publicists– are all living on borrowed time. Our days are numbered.
Doomsday prophecies are historically unreliable. Before we draw the curtain on a venerable industry let’s look at what we know to be true and what we recognize as hyperbole. This week I’m going to indulge in a few predictions of my own. Today we’ll talk generally about the change in publishing. Tomorrow we’ll explore what that may mean for traditional publishers. Wednesday, I’ll look at my own profession and predict what the changes may mean for literary agents. On Thursday we’ll talk about what these changes mean for writers and on Friday we’ll look at traditional bookstores and the distribution chain.
So is the sky falling?
No. It’s not even wobbling. Change is happening– profound change– but change can be a good thing. John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
In part, here’s what we do know:
- With the advent of do-it-yourself ebooks ANYone can publish ANYthing and make it available to readers through a number of distribution services. The DIY ebook evangelists are positively gleeful about this new open access. One commentator–Richard Smith, an advocate for open access in the science arena– wrote a piece comparing traditional publishers to slave owners and open access proponents to abolitionists. That kind of over the top attitude seems to have grown out of deep frustration over the difficulty of getting an agent and/or getting a traditional book contract. It’s not so different from the excitement of would-be filmmakers and actors to the access afforded by sites like YouTube.
- Traditional publishers are embracing the ebook revolution as well with great success. Sales for many traditionally published authors are growing because of ebooks.
- Agents’ roles are changing. Those who were primarily dealmakers are having to rethink their way of doing business. Career management and holistic book management are becoming more important than ever.
- Some agents have become ebook publishers as well as literary agents, raising the question of potential conflict of interest.
- New businesses are springing up, like small ebook-only publishers, ebook formatters, freelance editing services that cater to DIY authors and ebook graphic design services
- Amazon grows bigger with every passing month, moving from their early years as an innovative online bookstore to the premiere ebook distribution service to a self-publishing (both ebook and print book ) press to their newest incarnation, an aggressive full service publisher who pays advances and works with agents (effectively competing for authors with the very publishers who were once their valued vendors).
- Many traditionally published authors are anxious to jump on the DIY ebook opportunities with out-of-print books or books specifically written for ebooks. This has caused a number of wrinkles–some small, others potentially fatal to traditional careers. Some have had some financial success with this but many can’t seem to figure out how to drive readers to these books.
- The sheer avalanche of ebooks books and the unevenness of quality is creating confusion among readers.
Those are just a few of the changes. Several have likened this change in the world of publishing to the cataclysmic Industrial Revolution. It turned everything upside down but fortunes were made. The likes of the Rockefellers, Astors, Goulds, Carnegies and Vanderbilts all came out of that transformative period. This week we’ll explore some of the changes and I’ll stick my neck out with some predictions.
I’d love for you to chime in as well. Are you up for any predictions? What changes have I missed? What’s the best thing about this revolution? What worries you the most?