The Old Crystal Ball

Posted on January 17, 2015


Recently I was asked where I think publishing will be 5 or 10 years down the road. My knee-jerk reaction was not to take the bite. Prognostication is a snake pit. I often have my students read articles about predicting what will happen in publishing. When we talk about them in class, the laughter takes on gigantic proportions any time there’s either a mention of CD-ROMs or Multimedia. What’s going to happen in a decade? You might as well ask me who’s going to win the AL East in 10 years. I’ll look either really really good, or it might take another decade to wash the egg off my face. No middle road. To haul out another cliché: anything but hitting the nail square on the head is bound to look inept and foolish. Same as horseshoes: if you miss the head by a millimeter, you might as well miss by a mile.

So, how did I answer the question? Well, I hedged. I said, “More of the same.” That is, more flux, more change, more back-and-forth. And if I look back 10 years, yeah, we have essentially the same amount of flux and change that we do now. What goes round goes round and round and round. Ten years ago we had the great digital divide, as it were. Print vs Digital. Or: Books (real ones) vs Ebooks (which supposedly aren’t real books). That great debate still has not left us. Ebook sales rate falls flat and in some quarters it’s a conclusive sign that they are passé and that print books will smite them from existence. Print sales inch higher and the ebook is vanquished. (It’s interesting to note that the bulk of the books sold/ordered upon Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of the first book in his book club were overwhelmingly ebooks. It’s also interesting to note that Perseus, the book’s publisher, notes that it could not fulfill orders for the print book without resorting to a new(er) technology — the digital press [see below]). I don’t see this debate ending any time soon. In fact, I grow impatient with it. And angry that so many publishers have their minds closed to change. And once you close off change, you close off opportunity and innovation vanishes. Basically, I have issues with those who are reluctant to embrace change; I get annoyed at those who get annoyed at not being able to do business as usual, and long for the good old days. (Next time I hear the phrase “the golden age of publishing” I swear I’ll scream… If you don’t believe the best is yet to come, why continue on in the profession?)

But back to the question at hand. Instead of answering it directly, I allowed myself to speculate. I started to articulate, in a stuttering fashion, what I’d like to see. So we moved from fortune telling to wish fulfillment. For one thing, my vision of the bookstore of the future is a storefront with a ton of used books, and some shelves stocked with the bestsellers and then at least one digital press with bindery (see: Espresso Book Machine) and possibly a bank of PC terminals. There, one could find the latest bestseller right on the shelf or one could dig around in the used inventory for a lost gem. Or if one wanted a more obscure book, one could either look it up on one of the terminals, or on one’s smartphone or tablet, and order it. The book order would be sent to the digital press where it could be printed and bound on the spot while one had a coffee or a sandwich, most probably in the store’s cafe. You could then pick the freshly printed book up on your way out. The little indie bookstore, or even the chain store, can effectively compete with Amazon by offering the same inventory (and be able to discount it, if necessary) and even go Amazon one better by offering delivery in 5 or 10 minutes instead of 1 or 2 days.

Nice scenario, but I have serious doubts whether something like that will come to pass. About four or five years ago I visited the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. It’s outlet city there, a nexus of vacationing skiers with an excess of cash. The management was enthusiastic about getting an Espresso Book Machine. I asked whether it was making money for them and was assured that it was — mainly from self-publishing projects, and to a far lesser degree with publishing cheap classics in the public domain (hello, Project Gutenberg). So I was taken somewhat aback when I visited the store this New Year’s Eve and they said they no longer have the machine. Turns out it stopped being a cash cow and, like any good retail business, if something is taking up floor space and not generating sufficient revenue, it’s gone. The major problem: there’s not an endless supply of self-publishing projects, and a lot more competition in printing them these days. Yes, there has been an explosion of self-publishing in the last 10 years, more a result of everyone dusting off those unsellable book manuscripts and now having the chance to publish them. Once that glut gets exhausted, and it seems like things are heading that way, the amount of self-published books in any year will taper off. (What’s that saying? Everyone has a book in them? Well, many have already used up their allotted one book.) And, yes, there’s far more competition online for self-publishing services.

So the revenue stream from self publishing goes down and there’s not enough demand for public domain classics to justify either the purchase cost, or the leasing cost, plus maintenance and supplies, as well as footprint costs. Not enough work to keep the machine, and an operator, busy. What could keep it busy? Well, how about the output of trade, niche and small presses that don’t make the bestseller’s list? All that virtual inventory touted on Amazon. If one excluded the bestsellers (and we’re talking roughly 1000 titles a year — for example, HarperCollins had 252 titles hit the bestsellers lists in 2014), one estimate has approximately 28 million titles in print in English as of 2013. If all of those titles were in a database and could be ordered and printed by an in-store digital press, that could constitute enough revenue generation to justify the expense of having an in-store digital press. However, the current database of in-print books (we’re not talking public domain titles here) available for printing by an Espresso Book Machine falls way short of that 28 million. But this scenario would solve the thorny problem of returns since publishers would no longer have to guestimate how many copies of a book would sell and then print them. (While digital press manufacturing costs might be higher than traditional offset printing costs, those higher costs would be offset by drastically reducing the number of returns to practically nothing. — But that’s worth a blog post on its own.) But once we have this database of books that could be printed by digital presses in bookstores, the data format would have to be intelligible to any and all digital presses printing these books. So we’d have to have all publishers and digital press manufacturers agree on a common standard for transmitting and tracking orders, book metadata and book printing files, and agree on who is to manage these data. Making this proprietary would more or less preclude standardization. Given the lack of agreement on a common standard for ebooks (and reluctance to shift from proprietary thinking), I don’t hold much hope for agreement for a just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing standard. (And another source of impatience with the industry in not realizing that setting aside sectarian interests would provide all players with better market standing in the end…)

As far as I know currently only one company manufactures a digital press geared specifically for bookstores. There are a number of digital press manufacturers, key among them Hewlett-Packard and Xerox. More competition for the bookstore market would drive down prices of the systems. And that leads to another rub (not of our crystal ball or magic lamp): bookstores would have to lay out the capital to either lease or buy a digital press. Bookstore owners are loathe to fork over monies for capital investment. Remember: they essentially have their inventory extended on credit. At most, bookstore owners lay out capital for furnishings and sales equipment (shelves and displays) and do that very grudgingly. They are not accustomed to enduring such a capital expense. Plus its demands on floor space, an operator and maintenance/supplies. The odds are against adoption.

My other vision encompasses periodical publishing — newspapers, magazines and journals. For that, I would love to see better integration of periodical content with our handheld devices — smartphones and tablets (computing ones like the Surface, or iPads, or Kindles, etc.). More and more people depend on them for news of family and friends via social media or voicecalls or texting, and on them for news of the “outer” world from online sources. Those of us who read print newspapers and magazines are becoming dinosaurs. While the list of print magazines I subscribe to or read regularly numbers in the dozens, I’m finding myself reading more online. I’m also finding that my social media use is generating more and more news of the outer world, that social media rapidly and easily expands that “hey-you-gotta-read-this-article” push you get from family or friends. Growing up my daily ritual was reading the Hartford Courant, the Hartford Times and the New York Daily News every night because my father brought all three papers home from work, where he got the three newspapers for his barber shop to keep customers happy (and to read in downtime). Nowadays, I begin the day with reading the print New London Day over coffee and then in bed at night I’ll hit the Hartford Courant and New York Times apps on my smartphone (and sometimes BBC News). I’m merging both modes, but still in the habit of getting news from more than one source. But the bottom line here is that my handheld is gaining strength in becoming my go-to point for periodical content and to a great extent that drive depends on its reliance to my social and professional networks, which my smartphone keeps me in contact with. But this push towards handhelds does mean that these periodical content providers need to come up with a more integrated approach as to how to present content to visitors coming from a handheld device, from a dedicated workstation and now from their flatscreen televisions.

One last note: I have one more vision of the future of content generation and publishing that I did not share. From time to time I share this with students just to note their shocked reactions. But I can envision one day when humans will have a device embedded in them that will allow them to view, hear or read content in — for lack of a better term — their mind’s eye. That over a wireless network they can receive and chose to “view” content in their own neural net, much like a memory, or a dream, inhabits space in the brain directly. Something with incredible potential — for good and evil. Ain’t that a kick in the old crystal ball? In final estimation, I firmly believe that it’s not how well you can see in the future (which is mostly playing with smoke and mirrors) but how well you can really see what’s there and present and right in front of you, instead of seeing what you want to be there. Pure vision of the immediate stands a better chance of realizing what could be envisioned in the future.