I was fortunate enough to recently score an invite to NYC Book Camp, dubbed a “non-conference”, it was a loosely-structured forum on the future of publishing.
As my recent foray into the world of app development spawned largely from a desire to be a part of the migration from printed page to pixel, I was of course, most curious to learn a little about the future of publishing.
The event was well attended and garnered interest from individuals across broad swaths of industry (as long as we’re only talking about the publishing industry). The shared desire was insight into the future of publishing, and perhaps more pointedly the implications digital media pose for a new generation of books (if we can still call them that) or portends one’s job security. The answer remains wistfully elusive, but there were many insights to be gleaned. I’m going to comment on a few (most of which I’ll probably make up as I go along).
First: The promise of screens is most compelling for those dealing in non-fiction. Science, education, art, and children’s books all stand to enter a period of post-pulp-fiber renaissance, as the new medium caters far more capably to the inherent goals of these books: To enrich human understanding, to convey ideas and principles that aren’t entirely abstract but aren’t entirely tangible.
I ultimately see the industry (to which I am, admittedly, little more than a casual observer) splitting into three camps: First, the traditional brick-and-mortars. These guys will fold or consolidate, until there will only be a handful left (oh wait, that’s already true). I don’t think they’ll ever go away entirely, just as printed media won’t go away entirely, but I think it unlikely that any of them are truly agile enough to position themselves into one of the next two camps, which is where most of the fun will be. The second camp will capitalize on the move to screen in ways that are practical, but that don’t particularly impact the content itself. Words will still be words, which only compel us with the ideas they convey – these guys will explore and solidify new distribution methods, bring writers closer to their audiences, and introduce some very handy features that utilize the new media – social commenting, for example – but ultimately the content itself changes very little (maybe an audio snippet here, a video clip there). The third camp is where the really exciting stuff happens, and it will focus on finally delivering what the internet and computers promised us years ago but never delivered: The development of non-fiction, educational, art, and children’s books no longer as books, but as rich-media objects, whereby the delivery medium is being fully utilized to actually enhance the underlying content – enriching and broadening the consumers ability to perceive, grasp, and appreciate the content.
Second: Apple’s iPad is regarded the defacto medium for discussion, at least amongst these people (and these are the media elite, folks). The term iPad was on everyone’s tongue – I can’t recall a single mention of Kindle, Nook, or E-Reader. Despite this, loud murmurs of agreement echoed the audience when a speaker suggested discontent with Apple’s notoriously heavy-handed business practices. As you’d expect, I have some thoughts on this.
As it stands today, I think Apple’s iOS has material benefits over even the promise of devices that aren’t on the market yet. The benefits begin with an easily accessible international market place where cost structures are simple, and carry over into the technology itself. More about rights and licensing later.
Apple operates differently than any other company of its size or scope. It has very strong ideas about how things should be, and frequently defies convention. More often than not, they literally up-end arenas that other players have ignored or under-utilized (smartphones, 2007), or passed as altogether untenable (tablets, 2009). Do you remember what smart phones looked like before iPhone? Can you name a tablet before iPad? There were plenty.
Apple is demanding. They demand from their industrial design team. They demand from their software engineering team. They demand from their content partners. They demand from their developer community. They demand from the vendors and teams that manufacture their products, and then from the retail teams who sell them. They behave in ways that would seem naive and counterintuitive to anyone with an MBA. They reject, with hostility, the notion that consumer knows best (the costumer doesn’t know what they’ve never seen, argues Jobs). The demands are part-and-parcel of Apple’s character, like Jobs himself. Teetering on the verge of maniacal, the only thing you can count on is that they will defy expectation, and consistently deliver products that exceed what came before, by leaps-and-bounds.
Personally, I struggle to reconcile my desire for a rich, diverse ecosystem of technology manufacturers with what I observe. I don’t think it healthy for one player (be it Apple, Google, or Amazon) to completely control or dominate the market. That said, nobody is doing what Apple does, and until other players start not only meeting but exceeding Apple in terms of the products they deliver, I will remain sadly unreconciled. I think Apple’s behavior is remarkable, from a perspective of shear curious observation. It’s truly stunning. The largest tech company in the world, and they conduct themselves with the agility of a couple of guys in a garage.
Third: Everything that is the business of publishing beyond finding writers, drawing their working into the light of day, and promoting it, is going to shift dramatically. It’s going to be bloody. To anyone with no previous publishing experience, the idea that you can provide one deliverable product to a distributor, and then sit back and collect 70% of revenues while your product is sold throughout the world in any language (written or read-aloud to you, I’d add), is frankly, obvious. To anyone who has had chance to deal in publishing, it may be neither obvious nor desirable. A great deal of the business of books is precisely this: Assessing local markets across the globe, acquiring and positioning a book properly for a given market, assuring that appropriate licenses are in place for both the language and media being presented in that market, collecting royalties, paying taxes according to where the book was sold and where the author resides, etc, etc, etc.
And what about that 30%? Is it reasonable? It’s a chunk, but you couldn’t do it yourself for less.
There are absolutely arguments to be made that this part of the business is nuanced, and that Apple’s one-size-fits-all approach is not the ideal. That said, it is not Apple directly who will destroy this model, but the trajectory of human society across the board. The world is flat and getting flatter. You can fight it or you can reposition yourself (even if it’s a less-than-ideal position). I do not think that new models will diminish our collective need for good writers, agents, and publishers. What they will destroy is most of the paradigms of how things actually get done. If you got into the business for the love of books, you’ve nothing to fear. Your future days and hours will be less consumed with filing away foreign royalty statements, and more concerned with discovering great books and conceiving creative ways of building them for people.
Fourth: The future of book publishing is in Brooklyn. No one actually said this, but it’s where the writers and developers (read: future publishers) live and probably prefer to work.
My next post will address one of the most common questions I was asked (I was very luck to one of few if the only independent *actual* programmers on hand) was about the actual process of bringing an iPad e-book (I use the term loosely) from concept to market.