Shelflife: The Future of Books

May 14th, 2008 | Category: Essays

The other day, Soft Skull‘s Richard Nash posted a link to a speech by Mike Shatzkin on the future of books and booksellers, calling it “dead-on.” Having heard the doors to traditional book publishing creek as they close, I have to agree with Richard: insights abound. It looks like the Cluetrain has finally reached the dead media…

One of Shatzkin’s main insights concerns the impact of the web on publishing. No, it’s not the old, knee-jerk “end of print” claim, but one that may still point to print’s end. Where the book industry’s organization is arranged around formats (i.e., it is horizontal), the organization of the web lends itself to topics of interest regardless of format (i.e., it is vertical). The file is now the medium of distribution — not the book or the magazine or whatever: The barriers between media dissolve online. He explains it thusly,

…the Internet naturally tends to vertical organization, subject-specific organization. It naturally facilitates clustering around subjects. And as communities and information sources form around specific interests, they undercut the value of what is more general and superficial information within horizontal media. At the same time, format-specialization makes less and less sense. Twentieth century broadcasting, newspapers, and books had special requirements that demanded scale, sometimes related to production but more often driven by the requirements of distribution. On the Internet, distribution is by files, and files can contain material to be read on screen or printed and read; it can contain words or pictures; it can contain audio or video or animation or pieces of art. When the file becomes the medium of exchange, not a book or a newspaper or a magazine or a broadcast delivered over a network with very limited capacity, it eliminates the barriers that kept old media locked in their formats.

The audio files of the music industry are much more suited for the digital revolution of production. That is, the shift from atoms to bits (though there is The Institute for the Future of the Book which hosts projects such as McKenzie Wark‘s G4M3R 7H30RY, Lawrence Lessig’s release of The Future of Ideas free online, and No Starch Press recently offered free torrents of a couple of their titles). Shatzkin argues that audio books, portable readers, and digital print-on-demand will enable the same for books. Even so, we aren’t seeing the total paradigm upheaval in book publishing that we’ve seen in music. Its transformation is happening piecemeal. For the book market, the shift is good for consumers and long-tail-ready retailers, but not so much for old-order publishers.

For the smaller publishers, branding is now social. Building community through social sites — as Disinformation and Soft Skull have done — is essential, but it just doesn’t make sense for large legacy publishers like Harper Collins or Random House. These smaller web-age publishers are much more agile and attuned to the times. And, as some older publishers are finding out, having an extensive back catalog does not necessarily mean having viable long-tail content.

Competition is stiff and getting stiffer, the zeitgeist is leaving books behind, and the shift to digital is still infecting everything. What does all of this mean for book publishers and authors? As a self-publisher and as a writer, I’ve seen the effects of these trends at work firsthand. Though I opted for a more traditional route with Follow for Now (I’m maintaining an inventory of atoms), print-on-demand services are good and getting better. The digital options are now rivaling the traditional paths to print. This is good news for writers looking for ways to get their ideas out there. The same can be said for the ease of blogging. Making the transition to “paid writer” or “author with a book deal” is the difficult part, though it’s still possible: Christian Lander, the guy who started the “Stuff White People Like” blog, recently landed a reported $300,000 book deal with Random House.

But where is the middle ground? Lander’s deal is clearly an exception to the new rules, and to call the unpaid blogging community “overcrowded” is to do the word a disservice. Can writers — like their musician counterparts — make a living in the new market? Is its resistance to digital assimilation a boon or a burden for book publishing?

Further Posting:


  • Gyrus said:

    To me, the analog vs. digital contrast is much sharper with words as opposed to music. Maybe I’m not as sensitisized to audio, but while I appreciate the qualitative differences there, it seems to be another order of shifting in jumping from print to the web. There’s a similar shift in the creator losing “control” over presenting whole experiences, content being fragmented by user-driven technologies. But I still get blown away by music that’s wholly digital; whereas reading stuff online is almost never anything more than interesting-for-a-few-minutes or a prelude to discovering a great book.

    I prefer to see print vs. web as complimentary, though market/cultural forces will no doubt leave web dominating print. Maybe the opposition will break down with more advanced digital paper? The fragmentation of attention will continue, though.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    I feel you regarding reading on the screen. We always tried to keep the interviews on as short as possible for that very reason — the same goes for my posts here. As much as I like to consider myself a progressive media type, nothing digital beats the printed page when it comes to reading.

  • brian tunney said:

    I know this is a personal prejudice (which doesn’t apply to this Web site or many others that I frequent), but I still give more value to the printed word than the digital word. I’ve probably been on the New Yorker’s Web site five times in the past ten years, but a week rarely goes by where I don’t read New Yorker magazine from cover to cover in that same ten years. That being said, I would totally subscribe to a Roy Christopher weekly magazine…

    There’s also the portability aspect to be explored, which can start at the base line, with bathroom reading, continue on into public transportation (buses, subways, planes), and end at the park bench on a nice summer day. There are still places where books and magazines function better than a file.

    And finally, I’ve never known anyone to get mugged for a book, whereas laptops are a different story.