December 9, 2010
Now about that Festschrift . . . and other things you need to know about the future of publishing (Part 2)
The future of publishing is not entirely bleak.
Some corrections and cautions are in order.
Print is not dead. Not yet. Not by far. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek (a top-selling business book for at least three years), reported that in his end-of-2009 royalty statement, e-books (of all sorts) accounted for only 1.6 percent of total units sold. But things have been developing rapidly even since 12 months ago.
That prompted me to look at IVP’s top-selling Kindle academic titles for August (a typically high month for academic sales) and compare them with their print counterparts. The percentage of Kindle sales to paper was generally in the range of one to three percent, with one as high as ten percent, and that being a single controversial book that jumps the usual academic track.
Clearly if there is a storm headed our way, it is at this point a cloud the size of a hand on the horizon. And I say this as one who thinks a storm is brewing. Like mariners who have seen a red sky in the morning, we (and other of your favorite publishers) have taken warning and are hustling to put our books into e-book form. But understand that when you hear of top-selling e-books constituting ten percent and heading toward twenty-five percent of sales, this is generally in reference to large New York trade publishers. And more than likely these top e-books are fiction. As IVP’s Andy Le Peau likes to say, “The e-book is the new mass-market paperback.” That, at least, is a snapshot of e-publishing in the fall of 2010.
Beware the early-adopter syndrome. Those who must have the newest thing and are the most vocal and enthusiastic about it can skew our perception. So beware of predictions that in five years the physical book will be extinct (Nicholas Negroponte recently). For example, perhaps the rise of e-books should be set alongside the flourishing trade in used book sales in this recession—all pulp books, of course. This phenomenon is largely under the radar of publishers. Bear in mind too that unlike transferring music from CD’s to MP3, there is no practical way to convert print books in our personal libraries into e-books, and no compelling evidence that the result will supersede the print book in every way. This reality creates a formidable visual and material cultural ballast in favor of the traditional book. (In fact I find the abiding power of the material culture of books fascinating to think about. There is something deeply human about it.)
The argument is made, of course, that this is a generational thing and that young people will quite naturally gravitate toward e-books. But this needs to be tempered by early evidence from pilot programs in which e-readers have been distributed to university students coupled with the ability to download class material and texts. Students pushed back, finding the e-reader an inadequate substitute for the traditional textbook—difficult to navigate and awkward to use in the classroom. As one student said, “I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions”—a statement that warmed my heart! But is this simply due to underdeveloped e-book technology? I think not. But time will tell.
Academic publishing remains a bright spot for IVP and no doubt for others who publish in our broad register of academic books (a Baker or WJK or Eerdmans, for example). Certainly a new reality of reduced sales expectations has set in with the present economy. But perhaps because the bar is set higher for publication and new strategies are being employed (I’ll mention some of these in the next part), academic publishing is still flourishing.
I don’t know what the prospects are for publishers such as a Brill or Mohr/Siebeck. Their stock in trade is the high-end monograph, held at a prince’s ransom, intended for a handful of specialists and mostly purchased to be salted and cured on the shelves of an academic library. With reduced academic institutional budgets and the fixed costs of publishing, my guess is that the new environment probably poses a harder reality for some of these academic presses. But they may prove to be more agile and adaptable than we might guess. Certainly (in the lingo of the trade) they have huge knowledge properties that could be repriced and distributed more broadly. Some of those $999.00 three-volume sets would fit quite nicely on my shelves. At $99.00.
In the next part of this extended blog I will mention some strategies authors need to adopt in this new and future publishing environment.
Posted by Dan Reid
at December 9, 2010 10:41 AM
Thanks, Dan for your comments - I look forward to the next piece of the conversation from you. As a person who's first book was released this week ('Heart Cries - Praying by the Spirit in the Midst of Life' - with Dr. Bob Rakestraw) - these issues are on my mind....should be release a Kindle addition, since we're on Amazon.com? (We haven't yet...)... so I look forward to your author suggestions...
My 18-year old just bought (and then sold) and
I-Pad - it was a disappointment to him, and not what he thought it would be for college next year. We can trust 20-somethings to be discerning, too - will they read both e-books and print? Probably.
Thanks for the discussion....
I love that, Jane! An 18-year-old turns in his iPad! There is hope.
A thoughtful assessment, thanks! My parents (!) have a kindle for travel and they use it exactly as you describe - easy access to NY times fiction, stuff they would get at the library or buy in paperback. So perhaps this is obvious, but ebooks seem more pertinent to reading-for-entertainment.
Not that a good theology book isn't entertaining, but they hold a different space down as a tool (or trophy) which derives from a different buying evaluation, not quite as market/pop culture driven.
I received the BN nook as a gift and I tried so hard to make it useful to me academically. I downloaded PDFs and tweaked and converted them and then I come to find out that there is no search capability nor note taking function available. And, even if it was available, it was ponderous to use.
No doubt I enjoy reading on this device, but, I do think e readers are technologically inept for research at this point.
If that technology gets better, I think there will be an increase in ebooks sales and possibly in classroom use. Until then, a regular book is way better.
Thanks Dan. Looking forward to the next parts.
As one who frequents coffee shops in the Chicago area, I see Kindles, iPads, and other electronic reading devices being used quite a bit. Many users are older adults and business professionals. I myself am reading several books right now using the free Kindle app on my Android. I almost never use a paper Bible anymore. When I do, I find myself cross referencing translations and texts using my phone app, which gives me every translation imaginable, commentaries, and many other tools.
As a writer and editor I am intrigued by the idea that I can "publish" a book myself by uploading it through Kindle, Nook, etc., and it will come up in search results everywhere from Amazon to Google Books, right there in the same list as books distributed by traditional publishers.
I think you are right that a storm is brewing. Your analogy to being a property broker is right on point. Ten years ago very few people searched for real estate on their computers (maybe less than 5 percent). Today, 95+ percent of house hunters begin their search online. In 2000, very few Realtors knew how to navigate a computer environment. Today, it's do it or die, as some homes are even sold over the Internet.
Publishers like IVP need to be busy forming completely new strategies for this new paradigm, not strategies that strain the old paradigm by trying to adapt old assumptions. The world is no longer flat and the locus for the center of the universe is being redefined.
Those who lightly dismiss these realities by treating the matter casually or taking it "in stride," risk finding themselves left in the dust (of empty book shelves).
Be assured that at IVP we spend a great deal of time thinking about and formulating strategies for our changing environment. And we have someone on that task full time. But the question is, What is the new paradigm exactly? It’s a quickly developing game, and it will not do to put all our weight toward the left when the next move might be to the right. There is always the risk of getting way out ahead of where you think the game is going, and finding the ball is now going in another direction. The basic athletic stance, in a position to move left or right, is the better choice. I think publishers like IVP are keeping a keen eye on the game and are working our strategies accordingly.
Your analogy of the real estate business is interesting, but on reflection I don't think it takes some important factors into account. And my brokering analogy also only goes so far. To put publishing on a solid parallel with the real estate business, we would need real estate agents who are at least half-contractors also—who are involved in the architectural plans (of the author), who give the home added value and market appeal (not just “staging”), and who have a hand in its construction. For that is what editors and publishing firms do.
Publishing is not just a matter of getting the text to fit on the page, negotiating a deal with the printer, doing some advertising and then filling orders. There is much value added in the process of publishing and in the marketing of books (prior to it ever entering, say, Amazon’s electronic distribution system).
Come to think of it, it seems to me that real estate agencies are still operating alongside CeMeSell and other do-it-yourself real estate agencies. I used a conventional real estate agency eighteen months ago and intend to do so again shortly. Why? Because in a busy life they offer a service I value, and I believe they are far more effective than I would be on my own. Likewise, I think there are good reasons to believe that informed authors will continue to regard publishers as playing a key role in effective publishing.
Thanks Dan! I appreciate the insights.