Publishing Faces The Future

Posted on: Monday 25 June 2012 8:55pm

Publishing Faces The Future

The publishing industry is undergoing a seismic shift as its traditional tectonic plates of acquisition and distribution rearrange to face a digital future.

Jeff Norton, author and producer, explores this new future at the Meet the Commissioners (Publishing) event on Friday July 6th in Cinema 4 at 9.30am.

After the music business, fiction publishing is the next media business to be digitally disrupted, albeit in the post-Napster age. Piracy, while always a looming threat, is not the industry-busting reality in the book world that upended music. Readers generally don’t mind paying for books, though there is certainly a strong downward pressure on prices driven by aggressive retailing and the rise of cheap/free self-published novels. The paths to market for digital books (Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iTunes) are real businesses, not pirate bays. These digital distributions portals look like mature, grown-up businesses compared to the stroppy teenagers of Napster and BitTorrent that hollowed out the music business.

On the adult side of the book trade, publishers are currently racing to mine the potential of self-published novels after witnessing the explosive mega-success of ‘50 Shades of Grey’; an erotic trilogy that began life as online fan fiction and then self-published novel before being picked up by Random House. At the same time, e-readers have gone mainstream, allowing consumers not only buy books digitally (instantly, from a vast library bigger than any high-street bookshop) but also read those books incognito (thus improving the sales of “embarrassing” genre books like Mills & Boon, fantasy/sci-fi, and what some have called 50 Shades of Grey: “Mommy Porn”).

On the children’s and YA (“young adult”) side of the market, the digital frontier is still developing and is bifurcated between app-happy toddlers consuming digital versions of picture books and school-aged (middle-grade and YA) readers starting to own (or inherit a second hand version) their own an e-readers/iPads. These are two very different markets, the former being picture-driven and heavy on interactivity, and the latter prose-driven and essentially a traditional reading experience on a digital device.

But as more and more children and young adult readers embrace kindles, kobos, iPads, and screen-reading, what is the implication for publishers?

One school of thought, let’s call it the Indie School, asserts that publishers will become distributors of self-published novels that first prove themselves in the digital arena. This model is akin to today’s independent film ecosystem, where self-funded indie films vie for attention through the festival circuit and hope to be picked up by distributors like the The Weinstein Company to be marketed to a larger general audience. Another school of thought, let’s call it the Studio System, suggests that in a world of infinite choice of content, the major publishers and their editors will have a larger role to play to seek out great stories from great writers, polish them into gems, and release/market to a large audience. This model is probably closer to the Hollywood film studio system, which runs its own creative development pipeline and places a green-light bet on a film while still in script stage. Of course, there is a creative debate to be held about which system produces better content – indie vs. studio. It’s a debate worth having, but not one I can tackle in the confines of this blog!

My own bias is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Readers don’t care where a story comes from; they just care if it’s good. Now, “good” is a relative term and can mean everything from high literature to page-turning pulp, but each individual reader has their own barometer for what they consider to be good. I believe that the technology will become invisible to the user and the only thing that matters is the content. Readers, whether of paper, e-ink, or a back-lit tablet, will want always to lose themselves in a fictional world with compelling characters telling a strong story.

On July 6th, at 9:30 a.m. at the Children’s Media Conference, I’ll be hosting a panel of three leading commissioners from the children’s publishing world (Rebecca Frazer from Orchard Books, Sara O’Connnor from Hot Key Books, and Eric Huang from Penguin/Puffin), commissioners whose job is to decide what gets published and what does not.

I can’t think of a more interesting time in publishing history to investigate the commissioning process and explore where the next great creative may be coming from. Please join me, and if you get a chance, tweet me your questions in advance to @thejeffnorton or via the CMC LinkedIn group.

(Jeff Norton is the author of the upcoming high-tech thriller, METAWARS: FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE, and the founder of Awesome, a global creative incubator. On the web at: twitter: @thejeffnorton )


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