Friday, October 23, 2009

Publishing is evolving

Okay -- you have to start somewhere.

E-books in their current incarnation are no improvement over paper books except that you can carry a lot of them around with you easily on a single device (Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook, iPhone, etc). Despite all the self-serving hoopla, industry proselytizing and early adopting, there is no compelling reason for anyone to jump on the e-book bandwagon unless you read great masses of material for a living and travel a lot. Or you collect toys. E-readers are ugly, and the text that appears on them is an affront to anyone who has ever read a well-designed book. The fact that they are the "fastest-growing segment" of the book market doesn't mean much when one considers that those sales are coming at the expense of traditional format books. Them's cannibals in the bushes, bub, and they ain't coming to help your bottom line.

As for price, you can't beat the library. And if you need to own a book, try buying used.

As for being able to download a book "instantaneously," I say have a glass of wine and take a look at all the unread books already sitting on your shelves. You say you can't wait for a book -- what about all those books waiting for you?

That said, the digitization of texts and the ease, lower cost, and speed with which they can be distributed does indeed constitute a revolution in publishing, a revolution which clearly cannot be successfully managed from within the industry's current structure. Otherwise a lot of out-of-work people would still be employed.

What we are witnessing isn't so much the birth of a brave new format -- the new format isn't worth shite even when stacked against the mass market paperback -- as it is the birth of a new
process. A process very different from the one all of us are used to. It is real, it is here, and it is scary. Not to consumers, who just want something good and cheap to read, but to all of us who have earned our livelihoods producing, distributing, and marketing physical books. We're behaving like a lost tribe trying to preserve a primitive language on an ever-shrinking reservation. If we want to be part of a craftsman-like cottage industry producing printed and bound books for a coterie of like-minded individuals, let's go ahead and stick with the old process. Some may argue, not unreasonably, that this noble pursuit is what quality book publishing has always been and should remain. If, however, we want to publish written works that reach a sizeable and shifting audience, we're going to have master this new process and turn it into something sustainable from a revenue-generating standpoint. Always keeping in mind that publishing is all about making written work public, not about returning a twelve percent profit per annum to some offshore corporate entity.

Wags have quipped for years that publishing is a slow business trying to make it in a fast world. Books are signed up years before publication, the editorial process is protracted (how could it not be? it's a collaborative process that involves people's egos, ideas, insecurities, passions), deadlines are set and broken and re-set, covers are designed, rejected, re-designed, books are catalogued and sold, publicity and sales bring marketplace and media feedback into the loop, production schedules are altered, warehouse and delivery dates are set, and everything is tracked with software designed for hard goods manufacture, working backwards from a magical street date that nobody but a few key retail executives and alienated booksellers give a hoot about. Finally the book goes on sale, and, after years of effort, has a few days to prove itself in an unbelievably competitive marketplace.

Who in their right mind would place confidence, or invest, in such a business? It's archaic, arcane and easy to ridicule, both by its practitioners and by the tight-arsed MBAs who periodically stride into town to show everybody how things should be done. Easy to ridicule and rail against, but exceedingly difficult to change. Why? Because the heart of publishing -- the development of a meaningful text packaged to gain attention in an obliteratingly noisy marketplace -- operates on a
human schedule. Not a machine schedule. Books -- in whatever format -- are written and sold by humans. Thinking, talking, debating, double-checking, emotional humans. Humans prone to revision and procrastination. Is that a bad thing? As my old buddy Quist used to say, "I dunno, I'm just a human being, poot."

You say that the new technology should surely speed the process, right? Okay, but what part of the process? Acquisition? Not likely. It's the same crap-shoot it's always been. Editing? Sure -- there's no more mailing paper manuscripts back and forth, but this has been the way for some time. Can technology do anything to hasten the delicate back-and-forth conversation between human beings, editor and author? Not likely. Cover and book design? Sure -- these days software allows designers to work more efficiently than if they were still using scissors and glue. But this a double-edged sword, in that it allows them to present many more alternatives for consideration, thereby lengthening the time it takes to make a decision. Nothing slows things down more than having too many choices to make. (Hence so many agonizing and indecisive meetings.) Publicity and marketing? No way: these activities are focused on gaining mind-share and tickling short attention spans. If anything, technology has made it more difficult to get an intended audience to concentrate. Which means the publicist's pitch and the marketer's message must be repeated endlessly to gain traction in somebody's head. Repetition takes time. Niche marketing takes time. Segmentation takes time. Aggregation takes time. Crafting a compelling pitch? You can wait a long time for lightning to strike.

Maybe at some point in the near future someone will invent a brain-implanted device which will augment the cognitive process, thus allowing humans to produce books without thinking. (Some would say that this device is already in wide use -- just look at the Amazon Top 100.) Until then, we're kinda stuck with having to operate within biological, psychological, and sociological limits.

Thank god we're still evolving.

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