Sunday, 28 October 2012

Future of publishing

Another day, another 'the dire future of publishing' report in the media. I suspect it's connected with the 'buy an e-reader or a tablet' debate that's starting just in time for shopping for Christmas. Well, that and the Penguin/Random House story. The BBCs latest even had 'Once upon a time there were books' as a beginning of a radio report, though I can't find a link to it just at this moment. Bonus points to these if they tell the story about the birth of Penguin paperbacks again or hark back to the days of the net book agreement and this is something I can only vaguely remember.

Business models in publishing are changing, but it's harder to tell exactly how this affects authors, readers, publishers and the number of titles offered. It's not as though any high street bookshop has empty space on the shelves. I'd need to be able to read contracts with authors (new and established) to see exactly how the print and digital book are visualised in the next few years in terms of developing lists. Will a publisher want to develop a print list in parallel with a digital list or concentrate on one form over another? More significantly, how are publishers and imprints to develop? Yes, Penguin and Random House are discussing a merger, but when hasn't a UK-based publisher (or should that be 'publisher with a UK presence'?) been the subject of takeover rumours, if not formal negotiations. At the other end of the scale, it's never been easier to put a book together and tiny, niche market publishers, like me, are able to thrive.

Online shopping is now so normal that it's surprising if a company doesn't offer it. Foyles and Waterstone's also offer websites that are a pleasure to use. It's certainly true that Amazon flourishes while many other bookshops have failed, but secondhand bookshops (online or not) do have some success. Others will say that Oxfam have taken over the sector and forced many dealers out, though I see a few towns with secondhand bookshops and Oxfam secondhand bookshops. The dealers I've spoken to say that Oxfam's arrival has forced them to specialise and ended some of their lower price sales, but are pleased that customers tend to browse and buy in both locations.

I suppose I'm most concerned about the future of the printed book. Some genres (romance is doing particularly well) lend themselves to e-readers. Plenty of friends swear by their magazine subscriptions and virtual bookshelves read on their tablets. I prefer to be able to turn the pages myself, though Project Gutenberg is a fantastic tool for trying out books you may go on and buy. If a distinction between e-book and print books continues in terms of price and format, it may also mean that the print book is seen as more of a work of art than a more simple story or that means that book design and quality will improve, then I can only support it. There's only so many times that I'm willing to buy a paperback that looks as if it's been thrown together. You all know the type - spelling mistakes because they've relied on OCR capture, tiny margins, soft paper and a less-than-attractive cover.

For the future, mergers between publishers seem likely. Will lists contract? Possibly. I'd need to do some more research across the genres as much of the debate seems applicable to fiction, though educational publishing and larger-sized books seem to have a secure future as 'presents' and 'reference'.

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