One of the hot topics over the past, few weeks as been the “future of publishing.” At BookExpo America, the Future is Digital, according to the Washington Post. (You can also find a lot more information on the topic through Publishers Weekly.) While I’m offering my opinions related to the future of professional publishing and the digital market in this post, a word of caution — digital publishing is currently a tiny, tiny market. During a panel at WisCon, Tor Books relayed that of the entire book publishing industry, 98% of those are in “hard goods,” whereas that remaining 2% is digital. Perhaps due to the economy and/or the popularity of the Kindle, digital has exponentially grown over the past year even though book sales have declined slightly. (Remember, in a downturn economy people might be more likely to visit their local library and check out books for free as opposed to buying them.)
What is the Potential Market?
First, let’s look at some numbers that will help put internet usage into perspective and see if they reveal anything about the “potential” market for publishers online.
Take into consideration that the saturation of internet users in the U.S. is 75%(1). Even if the internet usage stats (after some digging, I found were pulled from Nielsen online) are accurate, they don’t show what people are using the internet for. Are they looking at all of the 109,734,433 active domains on the web? (2). Probably not, since Nielsen states that the average time a visitor spends reading a web page is less than a minute. Alexa’s top-ranked websites only show us part of the story, because you’ll notice that search engines, blogs and social media sites comprise most of that top 25.
The point that I’m trying to make here, is that even though internet usage is rampant, visitors use the medium for different reasons and there are a lot of websites trying to grab their attention. Unlike a physical bookstore where you have so many chances to make an impression on a potential buyer, the web is flooded with information — including ads — that are vying for that visitor’s attention. As every bookseller knows, positioning is key. The same may be true for the web, but the question remains “where” that positioning will be the most relevant to get the greatest effect.
Why a Paradigm Shift Might Be Necessary
Working for both online-and-offline companies in both the public (government) and private sector, I can tell you that there is a definite difference between a company that focuses their efforts online vs. offline. Online companies move faster, keep up on daily (if not hourly) trends, and have to make quick decisions that they can then track through virtually instantaneous data streams. As I’m sure you’re aware, offline companies might be structured around seasonality or production timelines, which may be supported by their web presence. The pace in an offline business can be much slower than an online one, depending upon which market you’re in.
Although publishing may not continue in the same vein as it has been, I hope that they don’t place all of their emphasis into an online presence. We’re still in the “Wild, Wild West” of the internet, where specific legal rulings could dramatically impact accessibility and deliverability of content. I’m seeing many businesses pour everything into online marketing because it’s “free” (e.g. have a website), but I think this may yield disastrous results over the long-term. There are a number of factors in flux that may affect publishing, some of which also relate to other businesses as well.
- a) Internet Law (copyright, piracy, social media rulings, net neutrality, etc.)
b) Production Schedule (Time to Market)
c) Offline “Support” (bookstores, schools, libraries)
d) Technology (online and offline)
e) Pricing (free vs. paid)
f) Content Saturation and Distribution
Hopefully, publishers will continue experimenting while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. (Tor and Harper Collins are two examples of publishers who are dipping their toe into the space.) Book publishers have a unique challenge, because their product (e.g. “books”) can be offered in multiple mediums. This may be good news for the longer-term, because a product that can be adapted either physically or electronically is a product that has the potential for great accessibility.
What’s to come? The future is anyone’s guess, which is why I highly recommend that authors stay on top of these changes. Either way, it’s pretty exciting stuff!