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The Future of Publishing: Dispatch from the Frankfurt Bookfair 2013

13 Oct

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British writer Matt Haig recently said, “Authors shouldn’t go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando’s.”

Presumably he meant writers seeking to get published. And I agree with him to some degree. Writers, listen up: Don’t go to book fairs looking to hook up with a publisher or an agent to get published. Especially if you are new at this game. You’ll get your heart plucked out of your chest and shredded. But do go to book fairs to educate yourself about this industry you so desperately want to belong to.

Many authors who want to take control of their careers spend far too much time complaining about the publishing industry, and very little time applying themselves to understand it, and therefore  be able to navigate it better.

I just spent five days attending the single-most important annual event for the literary and publishing worlds: The Frankfurt Book fair. An intensive, full immersion in the essence of anything and everything to do with the book world. A crash course of where this industry is, and more importantly where it’s heading. I’ve been attending this event since 1999, but for my day job. It’s my first time as a writer, and I saw it with a new set of eyes.

Publishers, printers, digital chain suppliers, agents (yes, those agents!), and logistics companies convene every year in Frankfurt to flex their muscles and show off, as well as make the big deals. Everyone’s there in droves. Except writers. Which is counterintuitive because this whole show is based on the products that writers (and illustrators) create. But that’s a point of another discussion.

What I want to do here is give you my take on the pulse of the publishing world based on my Frankfurt experience.

Books are going to be around for a long time

The most reassuring impression I had is that reading is alive and well. Concerns about the interest in books declining  as a result of diminishing attention spans are by-and-large exaggerated.

The fair is initially limited to trade visitors, but once it opened up to the public I felt a deep hunger and intense interest in books and authors. Granted the event is held in Germany, and Germans are known to be voracious readers. But this is a truly international party, and I’ve seen and heard attendants from all over the world with an equally passionate interest in the written word. The handful of rockstar authors who showed up were hounded just like movie stars.

This is good news if you happen to be a writer. Your craft is still highly in demand. Keep writing, even if the route between you and your future readers seems obstructed by the business side of the industry. On the other end, when you finally make it there, you’ll find an ocean of readers waiting eagerly to hear what you have to say, and interested and intrigued by this profession.

A book revolution is coming. But it’s not yet around the corner

The revolution we’re all expecting to rock the publishing world is coming. Mark my word. But not just yet. And it may take quite a while. The publishing industry feels ominously similar to the music world exactly ten years ago. The big players at the Frankfurt Bookfair seemed only tentatively nervous of what is about to come. But it is jittery. Gone is the resolute hubris of say, five years ago. Because there are intruders at the gates. Not posing any huge danger for now. But catapulting tiny fire balls at the fortress, patiently making small but effective dents. Microscopic gains that will one day add up.

Advances in technology have resulted in the explosion of electronic books and high-quality print on demand solutions, as well as somewhat reliable, wide distribution networks. This has lowered the entry bar dramatically. Producing a professional book and making it available for sale is no longer a difficult or prohibitively expensive pursuit. Anybody can do it. And I really mean anybody.

But herein lies an inherent contradiction of self-publishing that is both comforting and worrying for mainstream publishers.

Because anybody can do it, the emphasis on quality has never been higher. That’s the good news for traditional publishers because they can play up how their infrastructure filters out all the duds, and makes sure readers get only the quality material.

The ‘bad’ news  however is that even though there is a whole bunch of crap being churned up every second by anyone who fancies themselves a scribe, truly amazing works  can also slip through the cracks. And once enough excellent writers establish themselves outside the realm of traditional publishing, mainstream readers will start paying attention and look with a more serious intent at indie authors to discover the next great read.

The main juggernaut of the business has now been cornered to the last remaining strong-holds of the big publishers: Sales and marketing. As most self-published writers know all too well, even if you’ve just written the most ground-breaking novel of all time, if you can’t get it reviewed, and if you can’t get on the airwaves to promote it, and if you can’t get it stocked in all the brick-and-mortar book stores, and if you can’t flood the market with huge print runs, then you might as well wipe your *** with it.  And that’s what the big publishers are holding on to for dear life: Access to the public and the ability to shape their tastes and needs using unlimited resources.

And writers know that. Even the ones who start off as indies and break through to the mainstream. They invariably jump ship and sign up with the big guys as the first order of business.

So where will the revolution come from, one might ask? From a third-party.

Just like Amazon and Lightning Source democratized the production process for printed books, sooner or later some smart entrepreneur will figure out a business model to provide effective sales and marketing services to small or self publishers. Not the con artists who currently prey on inexperienced authors like vanity publishers or self-proclaimed literary consultants. But legitimate players. Of course if mainstream publishers can heed the cautionary tales of the music industry, they would be rushing as we speak to plan for the future and make sure  they’re providing these services ahead of the competition. But who am I to dole out such advice?

In the future, instead of the big five, there will be thousands, even millions of smaller publishing cells, being serviced by professional and effective enabling vendors. Not just on the production side, but before that at the editorial level, and after that at the sales, marketing and distribution points. Social media will be a part of that menu, but not nearly as a main course or even as a side dish as the prognosticators would like us to think. But more like a condiment.

Will the printed book really die? That would be, like, so 😦

Video didn’t kill the radio star, and YouTube did not kill television. Which by extension means that electronic publishing will not bury the printed book any time soon.

The feeling I got at the Frankfurt Bookfair was that ebooks are now widely accepted not as a killer of print, but an alternative reading tool. Just like we use our phones, tablets, and computers to watch television content, while still keeping our televisions.

After five days at the Frankfurt Bookfair, here’s what I think will happen: Print will not die. What will change however is how books are printed and it will be a factor of how physical books are sold in the future.

In today’s book market, three main players deliver printed books to the end consumer:

  1. Online vendors like Amazon: infinite availability + delayed gratification + highly discounted prices.
  2. Large brick-and-mortar chains like Barnes and Noble: immediate availability + not as wide of a selection as online vendors + at full price.
  3. Small independently owned book­stores that neither pro­vide a wide spectrum of availability nor ­competitive prices, but fill an entirely different need: They serve as emotional hubs in the community for people who are pas­sion­ate about books.

There are of course vary­ing degrees of inter­section amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain, the small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.

It’s not a huge secret that many folks go to their local Barnes and Noble to browse for books and to get the book store experience. But when it comes to buying books, they do it online on Amazon where they stand to save a lot of money. Unless of course they want instant gratification and are willing to pay full price. Which means the large book­store chains are doomed. It’s just a matter of time. Not sim­ply because  online vendors are deliver­ing books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially, and no store will ever be big enough for the inventory of the future.

But if the online book seller kills the mega brick-and-mortar chain, who will step in to fill the void? Not the indie book stores. Not at all. Namely because they were never competing with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble to start. And they would be stupid if they ever thought they were.

Consumers will still crave the bookstore and instant gratification experience: Walking in, walking out with a book in hand ready to be consumed. And this is where print-on-demand will come to the rescue.

Imagine this: You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store of the future where there are no physical books on dis­play for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse in store. Sometime even before you get to the store. That’s not important.

When you’ve finally decided which book you want to buy, you simply click on some screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready: Printed, trimmed, laminated, pack­aged and ready to go back home with you. At highly discounted prices. Even a lil’ hot off the press. Just like a fresh baguette.

I am talk­ing any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray-scale rather than color.

Behind the scenes, highly automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated for­mu­las that cal­cu­late royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.

Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?

Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.

Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flip­ping pages, and see­ing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks.

They love the art­work, and to hold a book in pub­lic and silently tell the world what they are read­ing. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.

Imagine if in addition to our ebook readers, a new class of book “vehicle” is invented? It would look and almost feel like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid print and electronic book device. With a fancy name like the “Pelec­tronic Book.” Or something pretentious like that.

It’s an advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400–500 blank pages of your device get pop­u­lated with electronic ink that’s virtu­ally indistinguishable from real ink. Probably much better.

And what if you have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelec­tronic book Franken­stein? Fear not. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.

The future of book production is com­ing. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.


Tune in next time when I give you the lowdown on literary agents! Everything you need to know to avoid getting burned.

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