Friday, January 23, 2009

The New Publishing

A pair of articles has arrived simultaneously in my mailbox, from far different periodicals but on the same topic: the future of publishing. What's interesting is that both say the same thing, in different words.

TIME magazine profiles four books that started out self-published and ended up on the NY TIMES best-seller list, garnered million-dollar movie deals, or both. The article also covers all the reasons traditional publishing is antiquated (the advance system, the returns system, the distribution system). It quotes PUBLISHERS WEEKLY'S prediction that 2009 "will be the worst year for publishing in decades." But not for the oft-quoted reason that people aren't reading. In fact, a new NEA study, released January 12, finds that fiction reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002. So if traditional publishing is tanking, what are those adults reading?

Non-traditional publishing, which includes e-books (especially Amazon's Kindle), print-on-demand books, on-line fiction, manga, graphic novels. They're also listening to fiction on podcasts. In Japan, cell-phone novels -- which are first written on, broadcast by, and read on -- actual cell phones, accounted for 4 out of 5 of Japan's most-read novels. In TIME'S words, publishing is evolving into "something cheaper, wilder, trashier, and more democratic."

Meanwhile, in the SFWA BULLETIN, Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick continue their dialogue on SF. Although in a previous dialogue both pooh-poohed self-publishing, in this installment they point out all the non-traditional readers at Comicon, a gigantic gathering of comic book fans held annually in San Diego. Malzberg and Resnick's point is that SF writers are beginning to discover they can sell regular books to non-regular readers, if they make the push to do so. But the sales of graphic novels, comics, and manga far, far outstrip books.

The essence of both these articles: The publishing times are a-changin'. Hardcover books chosen by editors and backed by corporations will always be there, but will become "only the tip of a huge pyramid" of publishing. Will this be good or bad for writers? It probably depends on the writer, and on the kind of things he or she writes. Editors' tastes do not always match readers' tastes. Lisa Genova's book STILL ALICE, which was turned down by every agent and publisher she contacted, is #5 on this coming Sunday's NY TIMES bestseller list.

I also received a third magazine in the mail: the March ASIMOV'S. It contains a story I'm proud of, "Act One." The story is about genetic engineering, the movie business, and just how much empathy the human race can stand. Despite its venue being a part of traditinal publishing, I still hope my story will be read.


Nick A said...

Nancy, I read the Time article earlier today, and this is a very exciting topic to me, hence the long response. If my response hits the yawn-meter, I apologize and/or delete.

The change in publishing market channels could significantly increase the growth of consumers of an author's ideas, and potentially bring the reading public back to a level equivalent to the 'huge readership' from a hundred years ago, the era of the Saturday Evening Post and Jack London. The opportunity is tied to the merger of reading and other media, with a consumer-subscription or angel-funding for generation of the content.

Ten years ago, the company I was working for tried some real ‘leading edge’ consumer software applications, around Universal Messaging and subscription-based content on mobile devices. The ideas were ahead of market (in the same way, in the late 1980s, a now completely forgotten company called Xanadu launched the idea behind Ebay, but failed because the internet had not yet grown enough), but the same concepts could be applied in the new publishing world that is emerging.

1) Universal Messaging is the merging of different source content, and exists today. A concept, lets call it Universal Media, could do the same to merge different types of entertainment. Currently, an author’s idea and in particular an SF author’s world building, if successful, is repackaged in different formats that are currently completely separate from a commercial end-product perspective: book, ebook, graphic novel, electronic gaming, movie adoption. In parallel, Moore’s law marches inexorably forward, and the cost to generate computerized versions of ‘an idea’ continues to steadily decrease. The ability to generate a computer animated film with truly lifelike graphics will eventually commoditize in pricing. So, imagine, say 10 years from now, readers buy new stories from an author in a ‘Universal Media’ mode, with the ability to ‘bookmark’ at any point, switch formats, and continue through the story, with an option to ‘observe’ the story in a role-playing mode. The costs for doing this is prohibitive now, but mark my words it will decrease significantly in the near future.
2) Subscription-based services and angel funding could merge where an author’s idea could be ‘brokered’ on a controlled market (call it an author’s NASDAQ), and individuals could become the equivalent of ‘sponsors’ to an author in general or to a specific work. Consumers could either pay an ongoing subscription to receive all new works from an author, or ‘invest’ in an author or a particular work, where the investment ‘pool’ size would be equivalent to an endowment: hit a prescribed level of funding, and the ‘Universal Media’ version of an author’s story would be generated, and the investors would reap the profit or loss.

Regardless, there’s an intersection that is happening between technological evolution, the ever-growing hunger for good stories, and the removal of the ‘middleman’ between consumers/investors and artists (the last is an optimistic hope on my part). It’s going to be fun to watch it evolve.

TheOFloinn said...

Comic books and graphic "novels" are one thing. Last I looked, comics are written, edited, printed, and distributed by corporations. Neither is kindle or other e-media anything more than a switch from scroll to codex. How the writing gets there may be the same. Only the substrate on which it is written is different.

Self-published is another pair of boots. It is orthogonal to the other items. IOW, you may have a self-published dead-tree book, or an edited, mass-produced dead-tree book. Ditto, you may have a self-published graphic "novel", or an edited, mass-produced graphic "novel". Ditto ditto for an electronic graphic "novel" or electronic "book."

The self-publishing difference is this: while it may allow for the occasional breakthrough that could not find a conventional editor to mother-hen it, it also allows for all the self-indulgent juvenalia. One of the advantages of a House or an Editor is that it says someone beside the author thought this is kinda okay.

Self-pub is more a pig in the poke. Might be pure dreck or pure gold.

I predict the emergence of free-lance imprint editors. The self-pubber passes it through the "editor" (who might be Famous Writer Nancy at the Writing Workshop) who says, "Blurb!" (or who may make suggestions a la workshop. The book is still self-pubbed. Editor Nancy (a name merely of convenience - no actual Nancy is intended) takes no financial risks of publication, but her name (or his, let's not be judgemental) goes on the cover: "An Editor Nancy recommendation!"

I can see Oprah getting in on this.

Nancy Kress said...

What is this hypothetical Nancy's financial incentive for reading all that stuff in order to rcommend the best? Reading takes precious time, and traditional editors get paid.

TheOFloinn said...

Obviously, it would be from the goodness and generosity of her heart. If the author pays the editoreviewablurber there would be a conflict of interest. The Muse must never be sullied with thoughts of filthy lucre.

Mark said...

Would this be another example of the Aarchistic Communism mentioned in an earlier string, ala The Dispossessed?


cd said...

From the perspective of a writer, though, what should one do? That's what's unclear but intriguing. The only suggestion in the article is get more episodic and melodramatic, but that sounds to me like a little guidance being a dangerous thing.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

Ah, no. Sorry, Nancy.

Not a living soul wants to read a word you've scrawled anymore. Too bad!'s a woeful situation.

C'MON, NANCY! Everyone of us here likes your fiction. Wouldn't be here otherwise, would we?
(My own situation excepted. Me parole officer =insists= I should post here. Guess she's a Kress reader too.)

James A. Ritchie said...

If I had a dollar for evberytime I've heard that publishing is changing, and another dollar for every incorrect prediction made in this area, I'd be high on the list of world's wealthiest people.