Friday, May 13, 2011

The Sky is Falling

Free-form Friday

Between the economic downturn during 2008 and 2009, and the rise of e-books in 2010, it seems that the voices prophesying upheavals of apocalyptic proportions for the book business have grown louder and more insistent.

Today (Friday the 13th) seems like a particularly auspicious day to celebrate doom and gloom for the publishing industry.

Of course, there's been a book business for roughly four hundred years, so doom and gloom are nothing new. In just the twentieth century, and not counting the Internet, radio, television, paperbacks, video tape, and computer games have all been identified as evidence that the sky is about to fall on the publishing industry.

'Wait," you say, "this time it feels different."

Perhaps. But things tend to survive, sweeping change notwithstanding. Automobiles are pervasive, but there are still buggy whip manufacturers.

Books aren't going away any time soon. The book business, however, is another story.

If I asked you to name the major players in computing you'd likely answer, "Microsoft, Apple, and Google." If you're tech-savvy, you might add Amazon (because of their cloud computing services), and if you have a sense of history, you would include IBM. With the single exception of IBM, it wasn't that long ago that a completely different pantheon, with names like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Cray, dominated the industry. And before them, there were the elder gods like Control Data Corporation.

Other industries have seen a great deal more changes. What is it that has shaken publishing to its roots?

It's simply that we can no longer rely on the certainties that defined the business for decades.

So, what's going to happen to publishing?

The most cogent argument-by-historic-analogy I've heard is that publishing is more like television than music. (See Kristine Kathryn Rusch's piece on changing times in the publishing industry for a much more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the structural changes facing big publishers.)

The key similarity between the two industries is that they grew up around a distribution network that was, for a time, basically the only game in town. If you wanted your television program to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the three major networks. If you wanted your book to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the major publishers. Remember, the key service historically provided by publishers was distribution.

Television changed when cable systems expanded and provided new channels outside the three networks. As viewers, we have more programming options than ever before. For broadcasters, it looks like the audience is smaller because we now spread our attention across all the providers. (And for the national networks, it feels like fall from grace because they're just one of many providers now.)

The new distribution systems supporting ebooks will most likely produce an analogous change: readers will have more to read than ever before, while the major publishers will have to compete for what looks like a smaller audience.

We clearly are subject to the old Chinese curse that says, "May you live in interesting times."

Image: Photography by BJWOK /