There's been much teeth gnashing and lamenting over the impending collapse of the publishing business. See, for instance, the exhaustive New York Magazine article titled "The End", with the lead: "The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after." Readers are reading less (supposedly) and buying fewer books, sales are stagnating, and the Internet is ruining everything.
Well, the traditional publishing business might be in for a rough ride, but I think we're poised to see a flowering of a new kind of independent writing, book-making and reading, driven by the web but rooted in the old-fashioned book.
Take a look at the music business. I don't think there has ever been a time when music was more varied and vibrant than it is today. Yet this explosion of music and access happened as the major record labels have shed great rivers of tears over the demise of music, the end of civilization, and fears that soon all we'll hear are the sounds of crickets chirping in the silence. And instead of figuring out how to better serve their voracious fans, they started suing them.
Music itself is doing just fine, thank you. Musicians are making music, and listeners have a richness of choice and quality never before seen. The new business model is still evolving (hint: live shows, inexpensive drm-free downloads & web-based CD sales, and connecting with fans in new ways online). In the indie world, things are great. Says Derek Sivers, ex-of CDBaby: "Despite the moaning you hear from the major labels, independent artists are selling better than ever. Even physical CD sales are up 30% over last year!" If your metric of success of a cultural space is the amount of new material produced and consumed, we're at a zenith.
If your metric of success is the number of record exec Ferraris, things are looking bleak.
I think we're going to see something similar happen in the book publishing world, as a new generation of writers and readers wrest the tools of publishing from the big companies that have gobbled up all the little guys. It's happened already in journalism (with blogs), encyclopedia (Wikipedia), but books, because they are harder to make, are hanging on as a kind of last bastion. Yet Ebook readers are getting better, print-on-demand is becoming a viable alternative to traditional publishing, and in 2007, Japanese sales of books to cell phones grew 331%. The web is the most powerful tool of distribution we've ever had. You've heard it before, but every individual can reach a global audience of billions just by pressing "publish." We're now seeing new ways to engage with literature, fan-made translations, and we are just getting started. Eoin Purcell was "amazingly not depressed by the [New York Magazine] article," and I think that's the right reaction. Even within the belly of the corporate publishing beast, some are working hard to transform things.
There's going to be a shake-up, no doubt. It'll be ugly for publishing companies that don't adjust.
But if your passion is writing, reading, books and literature, I'll bet things are about to get much more interesting for all of us.
Publishing is dead. Long live publishing.
Follow Hugh McGuire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bookoven