The printed book is going the way of the 78 record. The Kindle, The Nook, and now the Ipad -- these new products with catchy names are the MP3 player-equivalents that are hastening the demise of the traditional publishing industry and the offshore printing companies in one fell swoop.
There is no denying the sales data -- when Jeff Bezos tells us that even a year ago Amazon was selling 3.5 copies of the Kindle version for every ten printed copies of a book, then it's clear that radical change is happening in book publishing.
But let's look at all this change through a different lens. For her birthday in November, Britney Spears was given a book. (More about the book, including pictures, can be found on Britney's website here.) It was a clothbound, dustjacketed coffee table book filled with the tweeted birthday wishes of her fans. Of course, who wouldn't want a book filled with the good wishes of your adoring fans? But what is interesting about this is that Britney (or rather, her entourage) took electronic content and turned it into a printed book.
While your average how-to book or trashy novel may find its life lived as electronic content, for the books that have emotional resonance nothing will ever be quite as good as words printed on actual paper. The words in Britney's book already existed in electronic form - but were considered valuable enough to memorialize on paper.
On my bookshelf I've got the story of my life in books -- my original copy of Macbeth with my chicken scratch ninth grade notes in the margin, my Constitutional Law textbook from my first year in law school (Marbury vs. Madison anyone?), and hundreds of novels and classics that have meant something to me over the years. None of these books could ever be replaced by an electronic version, and I'll cart them with me from house to house wherever our family may move.
Tweets from your fans are nice, but putting them into a book gives them a power and permanence that a web page can't provide. (Most of us aren't lucky enough to be able to fill an entire book with birthday wishes from people we don't know; if you happen to be one of the few who is, then put those great words in a book and keep it on your coffee table.)
Yes, traditional book publishing as an industry is in transition. But as the example of Britney's birthday book shows us, there are all kinds of new publishing opportunities that didn't exist before. Here are some of the winners that are going to emerge from the current industry changes:
1) Trees. No more wasting paper on the latest steamy romance with Fabio on the cover or 27th installment in the Gossip Girl series. That's a great thing.
2) Readers. I've bought twice as many books since I got my Kindle. Plus rediscovered classics such as A Farewell to Arms and Mrs. Dalloway. Do you know how many books you can download for FREE on the Kindle?
3) Writers with a niche audience. In the past it's been difficult for books with a small natural market to find their readership or even get published. Just as itunes has helped launch new bands, Kindle or Nook or ipad may begin to play an important role in connecting writers with their audiences.
4) Publishers providing added value. The publishing companies that will continue to thrive are those that bring significant added value to their stable of writers - strong editorial teams, innovative launch marketing strategies, multimedia packaging. Great book publishers do a lot more than just create a jacket design and start printing copies. The business model may be changing, but there will always be a role for those companies that can successfully launch new books and new authors.
5) Top-selling authors. Now that authors are being packaged as brands, they can command a bigger piece of the revenue pie from their sales. If there isn't a James Patterson E-Reader in the works already, I'll be shocked. These top-selling brand names, who represent a large share of the overall trade publishing industry's sales, will benefit from the coming disintermediation. Of course, as reported in the January 11 issue of Publishers Weekly, bestsellers are spending less and less time at the top - as there is more competition for readers' attention.
6) Self-publishing companies. Anyone with an elegant, easy-to-use technology for self-publishing, who can combine it with an effective distribution channel, is going to do well over the next decade. In 2008, according to Publishers Weekly, sales of self-published books exceeded those of traditional publishers for the first time. If I were a large bookstore chain I would be looking to make this kind of acquisition in the short-term. If I mention blurb.com here it's in part because I really like their technology and in part because I want the CEO to return my messages.
7) Agents. I don't know why in particular agents will benefit, but agents always find a way to make money, right?
I'm a book publisher, and I come from a family of book publishers (and agents and novelists and journalists). At the end of the day, the democratization of book publishing is a good thing for all of us.