26 June 2010

The Future of Publishing: Free Books at a High Cost?

Scott Adams, himself a bestselling author and even artist, recently wrote on his blog:

I predict that the profession known as “author” will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. . . .

The iPad [and its coming clones] has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. . . . At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page.
Back in December, I quoted publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin saying much the same thing. He then proceeded to discuss other ways that authors will be able to make money, primarily by using their ability to attract eyeballs, just as storytellers in the free but advertising-supported media do now.

Other analyses of the future of publishing focus on bottlenecks. Currently the narrow spot is getting published. In future, the distribution part of publishing will be easy. The finding-a-significant-audience will be hard. The bottleneck will therefore move further down the pipeline toward readers.

Agent Nathan Bransford predicts:
bookstores are still going to work according to the current system, i.e. they’re going to be selling books published by publishers. What will expand further is online bookselling, where there are already millions of titles anyway and where you are already successfully navigating a giant jumble. I don’t really see this impacting how you find books, except that you'll have more options if you want them. . . .

Nor do I think everyone is going to have to self-publish first. Publishers are still going to exist and will still probably be the place where the biggest books are generated, including debuts! . . . What will change is that books that may not have been taken on by publishers because they weren't seen as a safe bet will have an opportunity to catch on with readers and spread through word of mouth via blogs, Forums, and other social media, and I see this is as a really awesome thing.
However, Laura Miller at Slate imagines the future of literature as the equivalent of publishers’ slush piles:
Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also -- as is less often admitted -- emotional and even moral.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.
But of course that’s why Editorial Assistants get paid the big bucks. Hahahahaha!

Miller concludes: “it's a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours. Also, no one will pay you for it.” On the bright side, according to Scott Adams, you won’t have to pay anyone for the privilege.

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