The Trouble with Doomsday Prophecies

Wendy Lawton

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?

15 Responses

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  1. It’d be nice to have a crystal ball right about now.

  2. I was struck by your comment about do-it-yourself ebooks: “It’s not so different from the excitement of would-be filmmakers and actors to the access afforded by sites like YouTube.” Very interesting and certainly gives much-needed balance to all the ebook hype and doomsday predictions out there. Thanks, Wendy. The next several years are going to be interesting, that’s for sure!

  3. Lee Abbott says:

    Change=doomsday? Nope.

    The October snowstorm that took out our power for three days reminded me how much I like my furnace and hot water heater.

    I may look back fondly on the good ol’ days of publishing yet at the same time contentedly carry an entire library in the palm of my hand.

  4. When I’m not writing or chasing my tots around, I’m working
    on a local postpartum floor. About a year and a half ago we
    were told that less and less people would be having babies
    due to the down turn of the economy. Truth is, we’re busier
    now than we were then.

    A more significant factor is God’s favor on our lives. He
    isn’t concerned with market predictions. When we “delight
    ourselves in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our
    hearts.” Dismal predictions? Insert God into the equation
    and anything is possible. 🙂

  5. Jill Kemerer says:

    I’m so glad you’re tackling this topic, Wendy. Why do we have to take sides on publishing’s future? Life for me has always been more gray than black and white. I don’t believe we’re seeing the end of traditional publishing, and I don’t believe every self-published author will be satisfied with their sales in the coming years. I can’t predict the future, but I can keep an open mind to the possibilities.

  6. Lynn Dean says:

    Not worried at all, but excited at all the possibilities.

    Change is the only constant in life. How we adapt to it decides whether we become obsolete or transition successfully into the next phase. Railroads became obsolete, but the transportation industry is stronger than ever. And as you pointed out, the introduction of television did not weaken the motion picture industry, but provided a new venue for aftermarket films and a broader field of opportunities for those who act.

    What we shed are the limitations–whether to rails or stage/screen or to paper–but the sharing of information and the telling of tales is as needed and popular as ever.

  7. Larry Carney says:

    I agree with most of what you presented Wendy, but I’m not quite as convinced on a few points. For example, I do not think readers are quite as confused with the amount of ebooks out there, and most confusion seems to be on the part of the web design of the ebook sites. As with traditional books a reader can read the copy and reviews and decide if it is something they want. While there is much to search through, it may be claimed that it is still a much easier system than the days of using the Dewey decimal system: here, technology is the clear victor 🙂

    Most of the confusion I have heard of, and dealt with myself, is navigating the web design of the ebook sites. Even Amazon has a poorly designed classification system regarding Christian fiction; not all links lead to Rome, or the genre one is looking for. To find Christian sci-fi for example, there is only one link-route which takes one to that genre, whereas other genres are more linked-up with other search links.

    The best part of this new era is that it allows the written word to be much more interactive and prominent. Imagine what Mark Twain would do with modern technology; a virtual tour down a certain river, perhaps? Live Tweets as innocents abroad tour Europe?

    The very, very best part? The same thrill from traditional publishing: finding new, exciting storytellers describing the world in ways never before imagined.

  8. “To find Christian sci-fi for example, there is only one link-route which takes one to that genre, whereas other genres are more linked-up with other search links.”

    @Larry: Do you think this is because Amazon knows no one is looking for that genre? 😉 (Oh, come on, I’m a Christian Spec-Fic writer…I can make that joke, right??)

    I personally haven’t run across a lot of confusion about uneven content-quality in eBook publishing, but I have run across a TON of misunderstanding about the way publishing works and thus a dangerous perspective on how much eBooks are worth to some readers.

    For example, I was recently among a group of women, only some of whom I knew, and the conversation turned to books and e-readers. Some of the ladies got surprisingly impassioned about having to pay more than 99 cents for an eBook, one woman joking about her elderly mother storming into Barnes & Noble and grilling an employee about the ‘outrageous’ cost of their Nook books. It seems the consensus was that they already paid a lot of money for the device itself, therefore the files which “cost the publisher nothing” should be free. To which I promptly blurted, “But authors, agents, and publishers still need to eat! We don’t work for Barnes & Noble!” In the awkward silence that followed, my poor mother, seated beside me, had to explain that I’m an author and thus have a different perspective on the issue. Indeed.

    I’m definitely a fan (albeit a hard-won fan) of e-readers and eBooks, but I think the industry has an uphill battle in undoing some confusion caused by the “free eBook mania” that marked the beginning of this new era in publishing. While I’m sure there was/is some value to that marketing strategy, we must be careful, lest our audience begins to devalue what we’re selling.

  9. My grandfather told me when movies were invented people predicted the end of live theater. When TV came out lots of folks said movies would die out. Neither of those things happened. But books are no longer written on scrolls, and radio has changed a lot since TV programs now portray comedy and adventure. There may have been more changes in the last 30 years than historically usually happened in a century, but we’ll find ways of adapting. And technology becomes outdated soon, so e-book readers of today may not work in the future. I think the hard part will be the next five or so years.

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    Vocationally I follow the Telephone Answering Service Industry. Over the past 50 years (way before my involvement!) there have been episodic doomsday reports, predicting its eminent demise.

    Although things have definitely changed, the industry has survived and continues to serve clients in meaningful and valued ways. Authors, agents, and publishers will be no different.

  11. I echo what Tanya said above. “Insert God into the equation and anything is possible…”

    Wendy, I’m wondering, too, if all of the doomsday predictors/naysayers actually have lives or is instilling unease their only occupation?

  12. This sounds like it will be a great discussion for the week! About ten days ago, I met a 9 year old who passionately proclaimed he wanted to be an author. After I told him I was an author, we became fast friends. He pelted me with questions about everything from choosing the right words to who decides what a cover looks like and how to get a book in a library. He’s enchanting! As we talked (twice now), I found myself thinking that perhaps what he really wants to be, but doesn’t know it yet, is a publisher. Then I wondered what publishing will even look like in 20 years when he’s old enough to venture into the fray. But I’m looking forward to reading the book he’s writing and feel encouraged that a generation is coming who still wants to make books.

  13. I predict more readers and writers than ever before…and all the greatness and challenges that may bring. And everyone who comments on this post will reap extra success! 😉

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Wendy!

  14. A lot like what iTunes did to music.

  15. Awesome discussion, even if I am several days late for it. Silly freak snowstorm left me without power for a week. Talk about feeling like I’m out on the Dakota prairie in the 1800’s.

    I used to work in book binding manufacturing in the mid 90’s. We kept hearing how our business would fold because businesses were pushing for paperless environments. Yes, there were some slow months, but overall our business didn’t experience such a horrific downturn. I’ve yet to see a paperless office, and while I no longer work there, the company is still around.

    I love all the new technology in publishing, but there’s a lot to be said for the longevity of the industry. I’m sure some of the practices that the naysayers are opposed to have helped to keep it running as long as it has.

    Going off to see what else you have for us this week.