The Problem with the Future of Publishing

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Churchill Club open forum on The Future of Publishing. Moderated by Author, Entrepreneur and Publisher Guy Kawasaki, the panel included author Barry Eisler; Clark Kepler of Kepler’s Books; Dane Neller, CEO of On Demand Books; and Steve Piersanti, President and Publisher of Berrett-Koehler.

The discussion was lively and addressed several important topics, yet I felt a growing sense of impatience throughout the evening. Before I explain why, here are some of the evening’s highlights.

Ebooks vs. Print: the Search for the Right Metaphor

Hosting forums on the future of anything is a powerful way to shape the questions people ask. In the case of publishing, the inevitable questions are: what is the relationship between print and ebook sales? Does this correlate to what people actually read? How should we think about the rise of one and the fall of the other?

Barry Eisler said that digital distribution has upended the entire business model of publishing. He compared the current situation to what happened to candle-makers after the advent of electric light. Candles are still manufactured, but as a niche product, and he predicts the same will be true of print books some years from now.

Steve Piersanti took issue with this metaphor, and said it was more like the relationship between radio and television. After television came on the scene, radio did not fade away. Indeed, it is still ubiquitous and in some markets primary, yet television has the lion’s share of revenue. I found this a much more useful way to think about the future of print books.

The Fate of the Bookshop, and Marketing to the Masses

Clark Kepler, though no longer at the helm of Kepler’s Books, had an interesting response to Kawasaki’s question about the impact of all this on bookstores. Kepler lamented the demise of the publisher’s sales rep, who had deep knowledge of each bookstore and was essential to finding the titles that would sell best. He rightly pointed out that today, most authors don’t know who reads their books, and most readers can’t discern any difference between publishers’ brands.

He suggested that authors develop their own relationships with bookstores in their area as a way to mitigate this loss. There seems to be an opportunity here for small publishers and individual authors to band together and re-create this co-marketing role for themselves, while giving book buyers the convenience of that single point of contact once again. Ah, the possibilities!

Meanwhile, Dane Neller proclaimed a renaissance of independent booksellers while the big box retailers decline, and touted the Espresso Book Machine as an example of how they can emerge stronger than ever. But the price remains prohibitive to many booksellers, even to my popular, local indie chain Copperfield’s Books.

Neller wins my prize for quote of the evening, with this pitch for cross-marketing books and other real goods: “Chances are if you’re reading a book on divorce, you’re buying furniture.” He predicted that we can expect to see more on-demand book sales at places like CVS and Walmart, where tie-ins with other product lines are obvious.

Tough Truths, Plus Some Good News for Authors

Some of the most insightful comments were made by Steve Piersanti, whose “10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing” was handed out to everyone. His first suggestion to non-fiction authors was to “give up the idea that anyone is going to read or buy your book.” The reason, he said, is that most people find the book’s main message in other formats. If they do buy the book, it is usually as a “memento” from an author event.

That was hard to hear as a non-fiction author, but I have to admit that I do exactly the same thing. There are simply too many books to read, so if I want to know what a non-fiction author is saying I will search for quicker ways of finding out rather than adding to my stack of unread books.

On the bright side, Piersanti also said that in a crowded market, brands stand out. Non-fiction authors who are serious about marketing their books will develop a strong brand identity and promote awareness of it constantly through their marketing and platform-building.

David Marshall, Berrett-Koehler’s VP of Editorial and Digital, was also there. Marshall made the comment that over time, non-fiction books will be much more about interactive learning and less about text.

Finally, both Dave Marshall and Guy Kawasaki had great advice about promoting books by giving away digital downloads. Marshall suggested that speakers and conference leaders give away access codes for free downloads to those in attendance. Kawasaki created a sponsorship deal with Samsung for his last ebook on Google+. In exchange for a full-page ad in the front of the book, Kawasaki gave Samsung 6,000 free downloads through YouSendIt.

The Present of Publishing, and What to Do About It

All in all, I gained some valuable insights from the evening. Yet I find the “Future of Publishing” something of a misnomer. During the Q&A session I realized that even in this Silicon Valley audience, nobody is really talking about the future of publishing. Instead, everyone seemed to be trying to grasp what the present of publishing is, and we were fortunate to hear some best guesses that may or may not pan out.

As Piersanti’s 10 Awful Truths reveals, the surge in ebook sales is slowing. Despite that, Kawasaki’s new book shines a bright light on how to self-publish, and this is becoming an increasingly popular choice among writers in all genres.

It seems clear that while book publishing in general is on the rise, Brian O’Leary is almost assuredly correct that “the ‘opportunity of abundance’ won’t accrue to the incumbents.” In other words, don’t count on big publishers to lead the way in any meaningful sense.

That leaves the rest of us to muddle ahead as best we can. At least we’re in good company.

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