The End Of Book Publishing

- - The Future

I think I’ve read enough glowing reviews of the kindle in the last month to know that combined with a flailing economy, skyrocketing fuel prices and a fundamental shift in the way we interact with text, that it signals the eventual death of book publishing.

Anymore, it’s going to start to seem ridiculous to print all those books to throw in the trash (I don’t know the sell-through numbers for books but if it’s anywhere near magazines where 70% go unsold on the newsstand then there’s a ton of waste) or store in warehouses or sit on your shelf collecting dust. And, then you have the fuel cost to drive something around the country that essentially started electronically and was printed on paper for distribution. With a device like this you’ve eliminated the single biggest cost in book publishing and the main reason book publishers exist in the first place. Now, authors can distribute their books for free and take most of the profits if they want.

I stopped short of buying one myself because I don’t need to spend any time on stuff without pictures and because what I’d really like to buy is a magazine reader. There’s about 40 magazine’s I’d like to check out on a regular basis, something I used to do at the newsstand in Grand Central, but now out here in the sticks (there are newsstands but the selection is somewhat limited) I’m faced with the prospect of signing up to receive close to 500 issues in a year to stay on top of who is shooting what in this industry.

Not to mention the fact that I was emailing the photo editor of City Magazine and reading about Seed Magazine over on Shoot Blog and wanted desperately to check out their latest issues and would have instantly bought a copy if there were some electronic way to do it. If I sign up for a subscription today the first issue should arrive in 12-16 weeks. That’s hilarious.

The interesting thing here is to look at iTunes and now Kindle and think about the recording executives and the book publishing executives who completely missed the boat and an opportunity to maintain a monopoly on distribution by bringing a revolutionary device to market. And now how we’ve got a handful of magazine publishers who run this industry, essentially to foot the enormous costs of taking something created electronically, print it on paper and drive it around the country.

I suppose there’s still time if any of the publishers are working on a device right now which somehow I highly doubt because many are still wrapping their heads around the internet (and telling me it takes 12-16 weeks for a magazine to arrive). But, when the device finally arrives we can talk about the eventual death of magazine publishing and the revolutionary device that put the power back in the hands of the content creators.

There Are 32 Comments On This Article.

  1. I feel that a photo needs to be on paper to be a real photo. I would have zero motivation to “read” (i.e. look at the pictures in) a fashion magazine online – I buy it for the tangible object as well as the content (then again, I don’t buy many magazines anymore, but always buy the issues I find exceptional, photographically).

  2. Wouldn’t this just be a shift in book publishing, not the end? A digital book is still a book.

    But semantics aside, I don’t think the Kindle is going to end publishing on paper anytime in the near future — think about the computer. When you bought one, did you stop using paper? No. In fact, I actually use more now.

    I love the Kindle concept, but it’s not there yet. Only people who read far more than average will pay $400 when they can find a used paperback for $5.

    (Magazines throw-away is waaaaaaay higher than books. There’s no reason for Barnes and Nobles to keep last November’s Newsweek, but they can still sell a copy of a book printed 10 years ago.)

  3. I haven’t used it myself, but I understand that zinio.com has many popular magazines on-line in the same format as the newsstand. They even have an iPhone-accessible version of their site. Single issues are available as well as subscriptions.

  4. totally prescient post. and spot on.

    re: kindle & iTunes. I give Apple at most a year before they have a device that has kindle-ish capabilities.

    re: blurb. most publishing industry folks say that a self-published book that sells 200 copies is doing extremely well. it’d be interesting to find out what kind of numbers their best titles and average titles are doing.

  5. I spend anywhere from $500 to $1000 on books a month depending on the projects in the pipeline. It is very much a part of my creative process to flip through the books and tab them for scanning, on top of that I have an amazing library of photo books. Yes I can find those images on the web at times, but most of the time I can’t.

    I think people in general like the feel of a book in their hands as well as the quality of the printed image, even when it’s in a magazine.

  6. There will never be a successful standalone e-book or e-magazine device for the simple reason there is no need for one.

    One look at engadget and you’ll see a significant percentage of bright-shiny-new toys being produced are these small form factor laptops. If you could buy Aware Electronic’s A-Pad 7″ laptop, or any one of the ones from ASUS for about $300, would you ever consider a Kindle anywhere near that price?

  7. Canadian photoeditor

    Rob, to use a century old cliche, hold your horses. To quote Mark Twain rumours of the demise of the book are greatly exaggerated.
    You have to take a worldwide, not US-centric view. Yes the world economy is not in the best shape these days, but many economies are in better shape than the US economy (no subprime mortgages for example, many countries don’t even have mortgages and people build houses themselves or with contractors as they can afford over five to even fifteen years)

    It is a tragedy that the media economy in the US seems to be in free fall, but that’s not happening everywhere. In Canada we are scratching our heads in wonder and keeping our fingers crossed because a recent report in Editor and Publisher said the Cdn media economy is in better shape than the US. And another report I saw showed that print consumption is actually on the rise in the developing world as literacy rates climb.

    As the author of five books (not photo books by the way), I can assure you that no one likes the current publishing climate, but it’s pretty clear that the electronic book is not an answer. (I’ve tried reading an E-book on my Treo and I can only do it where there is subdued lighting.)

    One solution may be coming from India, where a friend recently had a book published. With the low incomes in India, books have to be cheap. Some Indian publishers are offering a deal like we’ll pay you $500 and that’s it for rights in India, but because printing is cheap, we’ll print more copies than we need for the India market, sell them at a first world price n North America and Europe and split the royalty profits (and people are taking it….it’s a better deal than many mainstream publishers are offering)

    For text based books publishers these days do only minimal editing, no or little proof reading, no marketing or publicity.
    So what good are they?

    Book publishing these days, high end, low end, is based on PDF files, the kind used to print the one off photo books. An author these days can take all the steps needed to produce a book up to the printing stage. (since today many authors have to hire their own editors, copy editors and publicists). An author can, if they can afford it, do a minimum print run with either a print on demand house or even a local printer. The problem is distribution.

    Everyone I know who writes book are just waiting for a distribution system that will let individual authors compete with publishers, since these days publishers do (expletive deleted) all.

    The person who comes up with such a distribution system will likely get rich putting the main stream publishers out of business.

    And one last point on warehousing. Books are different from magazines. For a century until the mid-1990s, publishers made their long tail profits and authors got regular income from the “backlist.”
    Books weren’t remaindered as long as they met the publishers’ back list quota each year. Then the stupid US Congress went and put a tax on warehoused goods (not just books). In the early 90s every US authors group tried to lobby congress to exempt books–but to no avail. That meant publishers could no longer afford to keep a backlist and couldn’t afford to invest in midlist books that would make a profit in the long run but not immediately.
    And what has authors who went through this period outside the US royally pissed off is that it is a US law that applies ONLY in the US, but because the publishers are multinationals, they now apply the policy worldwide, the conventional wisdom is that the shelf life of a book is 3 months, not 30 years and books are remaindered at a faster and faster pace.

  8. See, I can envision the end of magazines, but books? No.
    There’s one thing that is ALWAYS missing from these “death of book” things. And that’s that people will always (at least for the genertations living now) need something tangible and love interacting with a book store.
    I don’t think that on-line publishing like Blurb or LuLu (who print a HORRID copy of a test book of mine) are at the fine-art rate yet for most photogs (Steven Shore uses iBook, but his stuff isn’t like, say ugh…an Ansel Adams that NEEDS great resolution)
    and if they do reach the fine art plateau, then there’s marketing. Which is a WHOLE ‘nuther game.
    Collectors buy BOOKS for their shelves and tables. Books that look great and feel great.
    In NYC I haven’t seen ANY “Kindles” on the subway or trains. Same in my city of B-more. So I don’t see where all the hype is.
    I think that people look at screens all day and come home to books. Not newspapers mind you, because they’re read during the day while AT work.
    ramble..ramble…ramble…I’m done.

  9. As a user on Kindle
    I can say it has changed how I read.

    Free chapters of new books Check

    Books brought to me in 2 minutes Check

    Taking 5 books while traveling on one
    charge for a week Check

    I can get Magazines on the Kindle Check

    Free books on the Kindle Check

    One of many futures of reading Check

    I read books I read the web
    I read magazines
    I read a Kindle
    I like it

    Mark Richards

  10. matthew pace

    While I think it is a great idea, I have to admit that eyes get more tired looking at a lit screen as opposed to a printed page.

    I also miss the point of the difference between Kindle and a laptop subscription,except for size, or will it constantly lead us down the never ending path up “upgrading” systems to read the new materials?

    matthew pace

  11. “the device, the device, the device…” you reminded me of Dr Strangelove talking about The Doom’s Day Machine…

    Paradigms might change a little but the most revolutionary device there is was already invented long time ago by Mister Gutenberg. Nothing beats the simplicity and charisma of a PRINTED book. Even a good magazine is something I prefer by far to read and collect on paper.

    You’re talking of two different things that will happily coexist and even complement each other, as mentioned in an interview you published regarding Blurb.

    And please, PU-LEEEEEEEESE enough about ultra-speculated “crises”. The planet keeps spinning, the sun’s still shining.

  12. warmdriver

    Kindle:

    Kindles are fantastic in so many ways. With the release of this device, Amazon has come way closer than anyone else or than any other piece of technology to revolutionizing how we interact with the written word, really on a par with how mp3’s revolutionized music consumption. It’s too expensive, but it is definitely the future.

    Anyone who is interested should really spend a few minutes with one, because it will change your perspective.

    Even though random access to bookmarked inspirational pages from literally all of my favorite classics — The Executioner’s Song, Waiting for the Barbarians, Trumpet of the Swan, whatever — and automatic daily access to the dailies and weeklies in a more appealing, less eye and neck strain-inducing form — the NY Times, the New Yorker, etc — all always seemed like a no-brainer, I was still a major skeptic.

    I just didn’t think Amazon would produce something that satisfied all that intangible experiential stuff we talk about when discussing the pleasures of interacting with books. Well, three weeks ago when I held one for the first time, the physical experience of interacting with the Kindle completely won me over. Now I am a believer.

    Publishing:

    I wish this meant the end of book publishing as we know it! While it’s true that mid-list authors have been unceremoniously dropped over the past ten years, there are still thousands more books being published every year than deserve to be. And that includes a ton of supposedly fine-art photography books. The fact that crappy books can now be manufactured for sixty dollars is the democratization of nothing more than the right to fill the world up with more shitty content.

    Good authors or serious artists can find publishing success within the traditional avenues, it’s still there. It’s still about creating compelling content and making a case for your content and getting it in to the hands of the right person, who will then be won over by the material, the timeliness of the subject matter, the poetry of the language, something. It happens every single day.

    Blurb and iBook have nothing to do with success as an author, and won’t until a truly great book that would’ve been a success however it was published, is produced using one of these services. So far it hasn’t happened, but there is precedent.

    Those Chicken Soup for the Soul guys — who were completely stonewalled by the publishing industry before going on to make a couple hundred million dollars as independent publishers — benefitted from another recent invention, the printing press.

    The discussion about the medium always seems besides the point, a way of avoiding an absence of truly deserving content. In my experience, quality has always found a way to market, despite the perpetual crisis that is the publishing industry.

    Meanwhile

    As someone creating fine-art quality large-format pigment ink prints who has published a book that was printed by Amilcare Pizzi, I can’t imagine a digital delivery that would replace or unseat the joy of those kinds of physical experiences. But the fact is there’s so much that I wouldn’t have ever imagined that has already come to pass, who knows if some form of ultimate screen won’t blow us all away sometime in the near future.

    Meanwhile, the Kindle is really cool. It satisfies entirely separate needs, and many of those needs are needs that have been created by the possibilities this device itself has finally introduced.

  13. If a crappy printed book can be made for $60 I’d hate to imagine the quality of an e-book made for free. I really enjoy the heft and look of a quality book in the hand, the same as I enjoy the look and texture and depth of a quality photographic print. Electronic facsimiles just don’t do it for me. yet.

    Digital technology is breaking down the barriers to entry into markets that were once the realm of serious individuals who dedicated time, energy, and money into creating great works. Entering into the literature or photography marketplace required a “sacrifice” and dedication to succeed. While dedication is still required (and maybe a bit of talent and/or skill), the “sacrifice” needed to write a book or take a picure is so much less that just about anyone can do it. Therefore, we find the market bloated with wanna-bes who dreamed of being the next Adams or Stieglitz, King or Follett but never had the opportunity to enter into the marketplace (and probably never should have been allowed to). What’s the song…..”500 channels of shit and nothing’s on”?

    Certainly, great ones will be found amongst the dross. You can find useful items in your local landfill as well if you wade through enough garbage. This “easy technology” also provides a voice to many who never had the opportunity or means. Which is better, printed book or e-book?

    In the end, when the power goes out, I can still read a book by candle light.

  14. warmdriver

    @16
    Yes. Yes. And Yes. And Yes. Yes. Soooo … from someone who shares your sentiments and appreciates your post, I suggest that you may truly enjoy certain aspects of the experience of using a Kindle. The good thing is that as I type this note, in the summer of 2008, you may still do so without trading in your library of (at the very least emotionally) priceless originals.

    :)

  15. Time to book your flight for Colophon 2009 – We love Magazines- to Luxembourg.Its mostley about independant magazines who are – YES! -printed on paper (they have online mags too)

    A printed mag can do some things which can’t be done by anything else.

    Thats generally the case for analog. The only thing which yet was replaced completly by digital is the vinyl record (well not completly they still have some vinyl in tower records.

    Personally I read a lot of weekly and daily newspapers online. But I dont think that the Internet is doing magazines very well. I think 10 years down the line this will be a nonissue. We will see more stuffon the Internet which it does well (interactivity, myspace and all that) and possibly less online mags then today.

  16. Robert P

    The guys at Time Warner have just read this post, panicked, and laid off their entire book publishing staff. Their printers have locked the doors for the last time and walked away to the unemployment office, and Barnes and Noble have announced a fire sale…….

    Book publishing will outlast anyone reading this post.

  17. @7. Ed Fladung wrote:
    re: blurb. most publishing industry folks say that a self-published book that sells 200 copies is doing extremely well. it’d be interesting to find out what kind of numbers their best titles and average titles are doing.

    Even if each book there only sold 20 copies, the point remains that while conventional publishing is hurting, Blurb is booming.

    @11. J.M. Giordano wrote:
    I don’t think that on-line publishing like Blurb or LuLu (who print a HORRID copy of a test book of mine) are at the fine-art rate yet for most photogs (Steven Shore uses iBook, but his stuff isn’t like, say ugh…an Ansel Adams that NEEDS great resolution)
    and if they do reach the fine art plateau, then there’s marketing. Which is a WHOLE ‘nuther game.

    Blurb now offers professional solutions: http://www.blurb.com/b3info

    @15. warmdriver wrote:
    Blurb and iBook have nothing to do with success as an author, and won’t until a truly great book that would’ve been a success however it was published, is produced using one of these services. So far it hasn’t happened, but there is precedent.

    Depends on how you define success. Recently, a theatre I work for closed down. Two days later I was able to offer a book with 432 pages of images from their last 25 productions. Haven’t sold 200 yet, but it will.

    Bottom line: book publishing is far from dead, it’s morphing, as it has since the day Johannes Gutenberg got his bright idea.

  18. warmdriver

    On demand books is a great concept, and in the future that’s probably how mainstream publishers will operate.

    Paper is great. Who’s arguing it isn’t?

    Blurb, et al, is a fun, great new version of the snapshot, even as serious artists pick it up. There’s a ton of garbage being created, enough that it will still take a system of pr, marketing and press to delineate a navigable path through all of it. Or a curator a year of sifting through all of it in a hundred years to prove it was ripe with great content.

    Photo albums are way more convenient because of these services, and yes, somehow, some independent author will eventually make an impact with something created this way.

    But even though iTunes and CDBaby and all these places have been accessible to independent artists for years, no music artist has elevated out of those venues without support from the traditional system.

    It’s all good or great, or fantastic: the future is here, right? I just don’t think it will ever be about the medium. It will always be about the art. About the content. If it’s good enough that we’re talking about it, it won’t really matter if the artist spent sixty or six-thousand or 250,000 creating it.

    The one thing I hope is that “pop” never fully disappears. I love discovering obscure artists from past eras, and freedom from the “man” is a great thing too, I guess, for those who can’t get a deal, but I also love the sense of collective joy and excitement that comes with a particularly hot summer song or holiday movie that simply everyone is talking about.

  19. Any and all electronic reading material for me would have to be available for my laptop because I don’t want to be carrying around yet another gadget. The whole idea here is similar to the MP3 player, there were many people who said yes and no but in the end there was still a market for it. There is no problem with pure text documents being displayed on competing devices. However with the inclusion of images in magazines and photo books the issue of consistent colour and luminosity arises. I do not like the fact that photographs made on my laptop are displayed in infinitely different ways over the internet, I think the same applies here. As far as I know standardisation takes a very long time.

  20. I wish I had known you were looking for a copy of CITY magazine. I went to a little party they hosted last night, and I probably could have picked up a copy for you. I do enjoy your postings, I read almost every day. I’ve foreseen the death of the printed newspaper for a while. Having worked at a large chain of newspapers, I saw how much resources were wasted to get the paper out, from ink we used to print sample photos for the editors to look at (why couldn’t they view them on screen?), to all the paper used to print those photos, to the paper and ink for the actual newspaper, and then the drivers who deliver them. Tons of waste involved. But I’m not so sure I see the death of printed books or magazines just yet.

  21. Paper will be around for a long time but there’s so much that just doesn’t need to be published on paper anymore and there’s a huge number of consumers who aren’t willing to make the investment in money, space and time. Cheap electronic versions can recapture that audience. They’re all on the internet reading, searching, commenting, writing and following links. Doing all the incredible things we know text can do now… if it’s published electronically.

    As far as all the crap that’s published, soon the recommendation system will be the most powerful way to find new artists. I’m buying music that I never would have because of the mixes that people make on iTunes and the “users who bought this also bought this” feature. Same thing happens on Amazon. I find books sometimes by reading the review of a book I’m interested in where someone mentions a better book on the subject. The same thing happens in photography. People ask me all the time for names of photographers I like to shoot a particular subject or who live in a particular place. You can ask experts or consumers or peers and each gives you a different way of looking at things.

    So, in the end books and magazines will still be printed but the mega corporations who control this content because of the exorbitant price of printing will dwindle and many small little publishers with efficient business models will pop up in their place and who knows maybe they will get bought by mega corporations and we’ll start the cycle all over again.

    All I know is that I have boxes and boxes of books and magazines that I’m hesitant to go recycle and I really wish they were electronic so I could search and reference and store them. And, I’d really like to subscribe to 40 magazines but I don’t want 500 issues to throw out each year and I’m not sure it’s worth the $500 in subscriptions because most of them I’ll only look at the pictures. So, I’m not buying your magazine because you don’t have a cheap electronic version and if you want me as a reader. Make one.

  22. Interesting and very timely article Rob: seems more relevant now than ever before and I think it’s rather ironic that the fuel crisis might seriously start the dead-tree media’s decline. I’ve posted the link on a book trade forum and hopefully someone will comment. I get the feeling they’re still in denial about electronic media.

  23. Brenda Milis

    re: City magazine
    hi rob-
    i may have misunderstood your post, but City Magazine IS available to look at immediately online–every page, which is fantastic:
    http://www.city-magazine.com/ezine/

    if you have a subscription, the current/newstand issue is free to look through and even if you don’t, all previous issues are archived and you can look at every page of the issue–
    love that they’re doing this and can’t wait until ALL magazines do this to!
    brenda

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