Friday, May 28, 2010

BEA -Why Small Publishing Will Save the World

There's an artistic revolution coming.

A whole new form of something -what we're now calling an enhanced ebook -is on the horizon.

I have no idea what it will look like. It will be more than a book because it will be more than text. It will be more than a movie because it will be more than pictures and text.

It will be more than a compilation of things that presently exist. It will be something entirely new.

It will be interactive. It will be visual. It will be electronic. It won't be tactile. Other than that, I have no idea what it will be.

But it's coming.

And I guarantee you the place we'll see it first will be small presses: self publishers, small publishers, entrepreneurs.

Here's the main reason: there's no R&D Division at any publisher I know. Not even the small ones. Publishers depend on someone to bring them content. They can add value (and do!) They can re-purpose and repackage (and they do.) What they can't do is invent.

And this form needs to be invented. And when it is, it's going to fail. A lot. And by fail, I mean not sell. Certainly not sell in any kind of volume that would earn out or turn a profit if the publisher runs a P&L.

So, even if they see this New Thing, they'll say no. And if by some miracle they say yes, they'll start saying No as soon as the first quarter numbers come in and the stock prices drop.

For editors and staff at a large publisher, the consequences for a failure, and repeated failure are pretty big. Lower profits, getting fired. When you answer to the balance sheet and stockholders, it's hard to say "this is cool, but we need a couple years to make it work." Particularly if it's something no one has ever seen before. And no one seems to want. Or need.

And if you point out that software companies did exactly this, let me point out in return that most of those companies were brand new, the stockholders worked there, and the money came from venture capitalists. None of those describe publishing. We're one of the world's OLDEST industries, not the newest.

But here's what I think is going to happen.

Some guy in his basement or attic, or tree house lair is going to come up with Whatever This New Thing is Going to Be. And he's going to publish it himself. For free. To whoever will read/use/ogle it. Then someone else will see it and say, this is very cool, and do it too.

This is where the software revolution will be the metaphor: kids writing code in their basements that turned into Myspace; FaceBook; whatever.

And big corporate publishers won't be able to come in and "buy up rights" because who knows what rights they're buying? And how on earth will it be sold? All of general trade publishing right now is based on the model of licensing rights and paying licensors on a royalty basis.

This new art form isn't going to work that way, and corporate publishing simply won't be able to figure out how to deal with it very quickly (they will though, just not quickly)

The first guys who are going to make this new art form available other than one to one will be the guys like Ben Leroy at Tyrus Books and Johnny Temple at Akashic Books. Guys who can move quickly cause they own the company. They're nimble. And they can be creative about how to pay people (I don't mean this as code for NOT paying.)

I have no idea what I'm talking about here. No one else does either. It's like a black hole in space. No one can see it, but you can tell it's there cause of how objects around it shift and change.

I can feel shifting in the universe here; change is coming.

In a year, maybe two, I'll read this post and laugh at how much I didn't know. But I'm really really excited to see what's coming.

And I'm really glad there are places like Tyrus Books and Akashic Books to give me great hope that brilliant creativity will flourish.

And that's another reason I love BEA: it's a chance to see the guys running these small presses and talk with them about what they're doing; what they're excited about. Even guys who are going to save the world need to chat about books once in a while!


Lucas Darr said...

I am a technology analyst. You are indeed seeing the green clouds and smelling the ozone before the storm.

What you say makes perfect sense. I love your black hole metaphor.

Essentially, what it boils down to is decentralization and just-in-time (JIT) content models based on nimble movers and shakers that can turn on a dime.

I don't have the answers either, but I've been advising clients to network. Network early and often. Top-down is dead. Style is dead. Substance is king.

Great post!

Nicole said...

The whole e-book topic is scary and exciting. Considering how fast technology moves now even just this time next year should be exciting!

Andrea K Höst said...

Interesting to see "Books with DVD Extras" described in such high terms.

It would be a rare book indeed that I was even remotely interested in DVD extras, but I suppose there'll be a small market for such things.

Annette said...

Thanks for sharing all this, Janet. Like you, I hope the print book the feeling of having one in my the smell of new books in the bookstore. But change is coming. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who doesn't know what that change is going to look like yet.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I have sung that tune many a time, but I'm not sue I entirely agree with you with this one. The big six are more than just trade publishers, they're education pu lishers as well. Penguin isn't just Penguin, it's Pearson. Pearson has a large and forward looking media strategy. All thise apps Apple showed to sell the iPad: constellation viewing, etc. Those were all designed by Pearson, most of them Penguin UK. The first enhanced ebook is a Penguin book.

Bit won't be large or small presses that settle this one. It'll be the market. Enhanced ebooks are the director's commentary of literature. There will be a rush for features and then readers will remember they just want a book to read. Enhanced ebooks really matter in education. You're going to see sone revolutionary stuff there. It'll blow your mind!

Karen L. Simpson said...

Johnny Temple, at Akashic Books with their slogan of reverse-gentrification of the literary world is saving the careers of established African American literary writers and giving birth to the next generation of us. And they are making money off it.

It is and will be independent publishing that will allow for a wider variety of voices of color to get out there.If authors of color sat around an waited for the big corporate publishers to do it the only stuff that would be out there about our lives and comunities would be street lit, erotica,slaves and maids.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

I've been saying this same thing for years. I really do believe that we are living in the early days of a great age for literature, ideas and reading. It's a new world and it's being built by the small presses. The big houses will help, of course: they are exceptionally good at imitating, replicating, repackaging and broadcasting. These things are necessary. But the real innovation, the real commitment to books - that's in the small presses. Houses like McSweeney's, Bleak House, Hawthorne, Graywolf and the nine million more that I can't remember right now - that's where the great literature is. Long may they flourish!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

There's no reason why publishers can't look to the software companies that went before them. Learn from the successes and mistakes.

I've been involved in marketing and advertising new technologies for a long time. I wrote about the dawning of a new age when encyclopedias on CD made their first appearances. Hear famous speeches! See sharks attacking their prey! It was the written word brought to life through multimedia.

That was 20 years ago.

If publishers can't take advantage of two decades worth of lessons learned when it comes to technology, then maybe it's time they go the way of the luddite dinosaurs. The ability to adapt quickly in the business world is key to survival.

I'm excited about the changes about to be forced on the publishing world. I'm just rather surprised it's taken this long to get here.

Eva Gale said...

Did you SEE that Alice in Wonderland interactive book? Jeebussingingsharks it was gorgeous.

I can totally see characters (and actors being paid for thier images) being brought to life within the screen of the books. Or an artists/author rendition of what the fantasy world would look like. Interactive maps,'s going to be AWESOME.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

No, I hear you, and I can feel it too. And I didn't go to BEA because I'm a small press owner and I couldn't afford to. In fact, I can't afford to leave my day-job yet.

Yes... and it's going to be some kind of app for the new iPad, innit and for Kindle for PC and then....

I'll shut up now, but I wish I was better at coding, I know that much.

Heidi Willis said...

I love this post!!

And I'm glad to see someone excited for change instead of cowering in the face of it.

I can't imagine traditional books ever going away... but the opportunity to make their exposure wider, bigger... I don't think this will be a bad thing. If one is flexible.

JDuncan said...

However it works, whatever form it takes, I honestly don't care as long as it is presented in such a way that it creates more interest in reading.

Hart Johnson said...

I LOVE the idea that the innovation will open up the market to many more options. It is SO heartening.

And if somebody with a million bucks and a lot of tech experience is just short on ideas, I have a couple. Call me.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you somewhat, but the changes toward electronic publishing will never put a random individual on par with an established business.

I'm in the software industry, and yes, anyone can write awesome code in their basement and many people do. But getting the kind of exposure that will help you make a dent in the market takes SERIOUS cash.

Or try this...make a web page.'ll have one...just like CNN, but guess who's going to get more hits. CNN of course...

It's pretty much always going to be that way. Maybe the big change is that Publishing Houses will have to change the way they do things, but the process of discovering writers will stay about the same. Look at the music industry. They're light years ahead of the publishing industry, but that hasn't changed their way of discovering talent...a little maybe, but not much.

Not trying to be a party pooper...99% of the time I'm an agreeable person, but I just not sold on the idea that changing the format of delivery is as big a deal as people think.

kathy taylor said...

It's one more reason for authors to consider small publishing houses as a viable option.

Julie Weathers said...

Here's an interesting thing to think about. In Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the biggest problems is boredom. They guys and gals do their missions. A lot of them involve dangerous situations, but even in the convoys, there is a lot of waiting.

Many of their living quarters are cramped and they don't have room for books. Internet connections are spotty at best and expensive. So, they listen to music, play an X-box someone has, if they are at camp, and they might read on e-readers. The e-readers are small enough and light enough they can carry them. A lot of the older soldiers have them, but they younger guys got a taste for them. Will couldn't wait to show it to me when he got home.

There is a charity called Books For Soldiers because there is a demand for books for those who are wounded or have a place to keep them and pass them around.

Even though Will didn't get an e-reader while he was in Iraq, he did as soon as he got home. His biggest complaint is the lack of selection, especially in older titles.

We have thousands of soldiers coming home who have seen how handy these e-readers are and they do read. The demand is growing.

The love of gadgets is also there. Look at the fascination with the iPhone apps. Will bought a cookbook app for his iPad.

I have no doubt what Janet said is absolutely correct.

crow productions said...

Things are changn. With Twitter & texg we no longer hav 2 say everything like in yor blog u kept sayin "Cause" instead of because. I'm just sayin. I think not only the publishing industry is going through perhaps a painful evolution, our own dear language is going to take a hit.

Will Entrekin said...

It is so nice to finally read someone who knows so much about publishing, as you so obviously do, Ms. Reid, say all this. Thank you for this.

Jason Black said...

The essence of what you're saying: spot on. It IS coming. What it will be, I have no idea either, but whatever it is, it's definitely coming.

But I think it's going to take some time and iterations before it really happens.

Why? Because every "enhanced ebook" offering I've seen to date takes a perfectly engaging story and clutters it up with animations or other bizarre techno-tricks that do nothing except pull me out of the story.

The magic of reading is that state of "flow," when the story is unfolding in your head, complete with sights and sounds, and you're not so much aware of the words on the page, or of the act of turning pages, or even so much of the pages themselves.

The magic of reading is being able to lose yourself in the story. And in exactly the same way as bad writing draws attention away from the story and onto the writing, the various "enhancements" (<= note: irony quotes) we've been offered so far do exactly the same thing. They only distract from the story.

They break the magic by pulling your attention out of the story and reminding you that you're interacting with a gosh-golly bit of gee-whiz! technology.


Remember the advent of the desktop publishing era, and people over-used font choices simply because they could, resulting in some of the ugliest memos and newsletters ever to blight the landscape?

It's the same thing with every ebook enhancement I've seen so far. Every one.

It took a decade or so for people to get over their glee at simple font choices. It'll probably take a decade of miserable failures in ebook enhancement before someone finally figures out how to enhance an ebook without breaking the magic.

Again, I have no idea what those ebooks will be like, but I certainly look forward to finding out.

Christina Auret said...

It sounds a bit like a blog to me. In essence it would be making use of exactly the same resources that blogs do. I'm not saying it can't be amazing though.

At the moment the market for this product does not exist. Sometimes a product like this creates it's own market, in the I never knew I wanted this until I had it sense. Sometimes it does not.

I do not think this thing, whatever it may turn out to be, should be seen as competition for books in anything but the broadest sense. It would be only be competition in the same way that television is competition: As an alternative form of entertainment/enlightenment/killing time.

As someone who has disliked the distraction of illustrations since well before the age of ten (those illustrations in the Famous Five books - showing you what will happen on the next page is just wrong!) I do not think I would be in the market for something like this. Then again, I like reading blogs.

Robert Brookover said...

What matters in this new world is whether you have a following. If you're friends and family follow you and that's it, you will die a slow death along with traditional publishers. The publishers don't get it
However, if you develop a following - increase the number of people who genuinely want to delve into your writing - you'll succeed. The issue is, how hard do you want to work? Too many author/writers dream the next great American novel dream. Develop your following and you'll be the next great author for them. What happens after that is up to the gods of writing. It's a new day. Live into it.

Matt Phillips said...

If the enhancements to fiction e-books consist of images, video, audio, etc., intended to ,accompany the text, that's not necessarily a good thing. Part of the craft of fiction is the author's ability to engage the reader's mind to create those images and sounds for themselves. In other words, novels are already interactive.

If, on the other hand, the enhancements to novels are more akin to games (help Langdon solve the symbo-gram puzzle to move onto the next chapter with him), or are supplementary, for example, easing navigation and information recall, particularly in the case of series (link a character's name to a database that summarizes his or her backstory or family tree, or a location mentioned in the text to a detailed map); or informational extras that add to the reader's experience without becoming a crutch for the writer (historical or cultural materials hyperlinked to passages, such as a soldier's letter about a real military engagement or a compilation of music or art from a real or fantasy culture, so long as they are supplements and not accompaniments to the text) - THEN I think they could add a great deal of value to the reader's experience.

Amy said...

I work in technology, and I think you're exactly right.

Joan Kremer said...


Just a quick thanks for your four great posts on BEA! They were by far the most interesting, engaging articles on the event and actually made me want to attend some year!

Ricky Bush said...

My vote goes to Ben Leroy for cracking the code. By the way, for a great collection of short stories, pick up Delta Blues from Tyrus Books.

steeleweed said...

I am a techie - 47 years in IT - as well as a writer. Google Books will soon morph into a true distribution process, but they will not aim for eReaders like Kindle, Nook, etc. or even a separate app. It seems they plan on feeding your browser. However, before you start saving your Word files as webpages and trying to embed picture, video and sound along with mouseover notes, you should take a look at Storyspace. They have software that just might be what you need to create the book of the future.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess there goes any chance for a relaxing weekend.

Thank you for the kind words, Janet. I know I speak for everybody at Tyrus when I say that we are committed to celebrating the history and the evolution of the book. At the heart of it all is a love for the written word and the exploration of the human condition.

You're the best,


Terri Coop said...

It's already happening . . .

Visit the new world of video games for the high end platforms of XBoX 360 and PS3.

My husband has been recovering from an accident and for amusement got back into games. His latest, "Fallout 3" is for all intents and purposes an interactive, total immersion novel.

I can see synergy between horror, thriller, and action adventure and the new gaming technologies.

Not just licensing of characters, but conversion of entire novels into interactive experiences.

I, for one, can imagine joining the band of wanderers led by Stu Redman in "The Stand" fighting across America or being one of the kids in "IT" battling Pennywise.

Like the clouds on the horizon, it is coming and it will be amazing. And you will be right in the middle of it.


Rose Margaret Deniz said...

And it will take collaboration. It will take writers thinking like artists and artists thinking like marketers, etc. And other people coming into the publishing mix that haven't before. But most importantly, cross-medium thinkers collaborating together.

Vlad @ Third Place Books said...

I think you made some excellent points; most notably the lack of R&D at publishing houses. That's exactly what I was thinking about as a follow-up to my post last week:

I'm glad to see several Tech people alighting on this post because it's high-time the innovation of that industry began to merge with the needs of the publishing world in more than just a 'contractor', 'tiny IT department' manner.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

It's great to see someoen like janet saying this kind of thing. I think you're right, but I think you're wrong about BEA - I think the basement and attic nerds who will make the breakthrough aren't interested in being oart of the "book world". They hacve their own scene, and we probably only see the very very tip of it (places like ), and what means it will be successful is its absolute self-absorption and belief in what it does. These things have their won energy to whcih others are drawn.

I would anticipate the evolution will happen as a scene does its own thing (whatever bundling of materials that may be - at Year Zero and eight cuts we combine live events, non-standard book formats, audio, art, music) in a rather amateurish way but utterly full of conviction. The energy of the scene will be so great that it will begin to break out and at that point the high school nerds will develop the open source code to do what we're doing more efficiently. THEY are the ones who'll get rich, of course, because they will facilitate the breakout.

I think the one thing even the most forward-looking industry insiders don't yet get is that the next thing will not try to enter the mainstream; it will not care about, or position itself in any kind of relationship to the mainstream. Precisely what will give it its success is the fact that it is so busy doing its own thing with 100% conviction it won't even know the mainstream is there.

Oh, and don't underestimate the older methods of delivery as well as the newer. Zines and pamphlets may be as old as the hills, but they are darned cheap and effective.

Sofie Couch said...

Absolutely. And with the greatest respect, I would argue that this "new" phase in publishing has already begun.

Any RWA member knows through Brenda Hiatt's "Show Me The Money" that their prospects are, with few exceptions, at best poverty level.

Instead of going the small press route again, some of us have decided to offer the book for "free". Through blog sites, visits equal clicks equal advertisers pay-offs. That's phase one.

Phase two consists of POD. The book is still made available free on-line through a blog-site, but readers can also purchase a hard-copy, (at a much cheaper rate, I might add, than most small press releases,)through some of the more accessible sites - Amazon and B and N.

Phase three is to make the book available through e-reader formats. So long as it does not tie-up rights, it just offers the consumer one more convenient interface.

The phase four, missing from the market at present, is going to be a digestable means of promoting and marketing, as well as a means of tallying readers to determine what constitutes a "best seller" (even if the book is being given away "free".)

This could, (and is,) painting a bleak picture for publishers. The company for which my significant other works, which supplies a software product for the distribution of books, magazines and journals has seen business drop dramatically due entirely to the closing of chestnut publishers. Afterall, who wants to bother with the waste and mess (inky fingers and bulky lay-out,) of a newspaper when you can sit down with your i-pad at the local Starbucks and flip through the news without muss and fuss. It's cheap (free,) has a pleasant interface (colorful,) and doesn't pollute.

The thing that has been sadly lacking in the publishing industry, has been a democratic business model. Ahhh, what a novel (ha ha) idea, that the person creating the product should actually be paid for their work - nothing obscene - just a sum equal to demand. I think we all understand the role of gatekeepers, but I would also argue that it does come at the expense of creativity.