Friday, August 12, 2011

Publishing Industry Crystal Ball: Demand for New Books Will Drop

Free-form Friday

In terms of publishing industry credentials, I have no business writing this post.

But given that a great many other people offering opinions about the future of the industry haven't been troubled by similar scruples, I'll join the crowd rushing in where wise men fear to tread.

I'm here to prognosticate that demand for new books will drop as the corpus of out-of-print books becomes available. Please note that I'm not saying there will be no demand for new books, just less.

Why?

Consider the structure of commercial publishing prior to 2011: the primary distribution channel through bookstores demanded a constant stream of novelty to keep customers coming back to the bookstore to see what was new. The business model was like that of many other retail industries in that it relied on turning inventory over periodically. In practice, this meant that individual titles might be available on the shelf for four to six months before all but a few solid sellers were cleared away to make room for the latest release.

The key structural consequence is that titles generally went out of print after they had been exposed to the public because no one could afford to keep them on the shelves just in case there was occasional interest. That system, in conjunction with changes to copyright law that have extended the period before a work enters the public domain mean that there's a large reservoir of out-of-print books.

The advent of a viable market for eBooks, essentially unlimited virtual storage, and essentially no barriers to electronic publication, the out-of-print dam has been breached.

Once everything that has been published and taken out of print during the last fifty years becomes available as eBooks, readers will have so many new authors (i.e, new to the reader) to discover that they won't need that many new new authors.

Put another way, just as we no longer assume others watched the same thing we watched on television last night, it will soon cease to matter to most readers whether something was published recently.

Elizabeth Gumport, in her piece, "Against Reviews," in N+1 Magazine, said:
"Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. 'Recent' is not a synonym for 'relevant.'"

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net