Don Park responds to Ray Ozzie’s obituary for publishing, saying “Publishing is not dead.” I would tend to agree. Publishing is definitely sick, buffeted by unfamiliar pressures, in disarray, due for some changes, racing to keep up with technology changes, slow to adopt technology. Publishing is many things.
(I feel mildly qualified to comment myself having spent most of my adult life in the publishing industry, wearing a number of different hats—editor, author, agent, book packager, e-book experimenter—and the last eight years publishing online in one format or another.)
But the Web has been promising disintermediation for a long time and Tim O’Reilly has written some good stuff about reintermediation, where aggregation services fit into the supply chain, and Amazon.com as a successful web application using the Internet as an OS.
Publishing is in trouble if it doesn’t change, but I thought we’d all learned by now that these changes take time. Just because you can envision a future doesn’t mean that future has arrived. Often, the devil is in the details, and whoever solves the problems of the at-first insignificant-seeming bits of grit in the workings gains the benefits of friction.
Richard Tam, a visionary and entrepreneur, started iUniverse he once told me after seeing how major publishing companies deal in false scarcity and voodoo decision-making processes. “They don’t know where—or who—their customers are. They have to find them all over again every time they need to market something new.”
Tam’s idea was to publish freely and let the market decide. Stop doing things that don’t sell and keep doing things that do. This may oversimplify things the other way. At this point iUniverse is considered a print-on-demand vanity press and its success stories are not well known.
As for predictions, while they’re taking their own sweet time coming true, existing processes mutate to coopt or respond to changing pressures. Book publishing (just one form of publishing, after all) may take on aspects of electronic publishing (some publishers already produce their books in an XML format for easy expression in multiple form factors). Electronic publishing formats may integrate aspects of the book experience that are still superior to the modes of ingesting writing online.
There is always a dialectic. There are always—eventually—hybrids. I’d like to see a hybrid interface: some kind of smart paper, something tactile, something you can skim easily with your hands the way you can riffle the pages of a book, but with the augmentations of hyperlinking, deep structure, updates, interactive content, and so on.
In the meantime, we are publishing, and selling, more books today than ever before. This despite the fact of a computer-book recession, an IT recession, a tech recession, a games recession, an optimism recession.
Don Park mentions the aspect of time:
Technology will take at least 40 more years to reach the level of availability and convenience necessary to kill off publishing: 10 years to emerge and mature, another 10 years to be cheap and convenient enough, and 20 years of deathwatch (old habits die hard). Rising cost of paper will obviously become a major fudge factor.
Surprisingly revelant to this discussion is a book last revised 1960, The Truth About Publishing by Stanley Unwin.