Monday, November 10, 2008

The Model T of Publishing

by Clare Langley-Hawthorene

My husband and I were walking with out boys to our favorite coffee shop - Peets in Berkeley when we saw a model T Ford parked on the road in all its early glory. The boys were (of course) fascinated but seeing this anachronism made me reflect on the world today - the model T Ford converted what was a luxury that few could afford into something attainable to 'the masses'. Now GM veers towards bankruptcy...hmmm...what's wrong with that image? Publisher's today are hardly on the verge of bankruptcy but GM's position makes you think - GM once had over 50% of the US market share but they failed to see change coming and didn't adapt to the market in time...
So what about the publishing industry (not known for being fleet of foot at the best of times)?

Are we in danger, just as the auto-makers are, of failing to see our own redundancy? Failing to heed the warning signs? What about the publishing industry as a whole - are they equipped to cope with the changing market - hell, are they equipped to cope with the changing world?

I have a biography on the man who established my own publisher - Penguin - who strived to bring (affordable) literature to the masses but now we have a system in which a few major players dominate and the lure of what is 'affordable' and 'accessible' as lost some of its attraction. If it's all about the bottom line, you have to wonder, how do publishers survive and how will they survive into the future? Are they merely waiting for the next Dan Brown to deliver his manuscript? Are publishers (the way we know them) going to rise and fall on the fortunes of the few at the top? Will there even be a 'reading public' in twenty years or are we just kidding ourselves? I have to admit that most of my readers are well into their 40's, 50's and 60's (and beyond) - so what happens when those who buy the books are no more? How will the industry adapt so my children will be as excited about books (in whatever form they may be) as I was?

We certainly live in interesting times - so what do you think? How will the publishing industry adapt to survive in the future? How will writer's adapt - hell - how will we even survive???


  1. I'm thinking the printed page is going the way of the dinosaur, and that may not be a bad thing as it will conserve paper. I'm not sure there is any way to get kids away from screens because that's where they find their entertainment, and I suspect they will be more likely to read on a Kindle or a computer screen. Publishers will make money and their investment less without paying for printing and paper and shipping. We can bemoan it all we want, but I think it's going to be a case of the market dictating the medium.

  2. I think young people are reading, just in different ways. Newspaper journalism is having to make a simililar transition, adapting to the new technologies and changing the marketing paradigm. Some are making the transition (NYTimes, for example), and others are going under. I think it'll be the same in the publishing world. I do see a last-millenium mindset to much of the publishing industry. It'll probably mean a lot of blood in the water before a new model emerges. As a writer, I just like to keep a lot of lines in the water, testing out various strategies. This approach has yet to make me rich (grin).

  3. Great introspective, Clare. These are questions we need to be asking about many established industries including publishing. I have very little sympathy for the U.S. auto industry. I believe the situation they’re in right now is a result of self-inflicted wounds and an arrogant attitude that no matter what they build, people will buy it—even it it’s shit. When customers found they had a choice to buy something from Japan or other sources with higher quality at a low price, Detroit never seemed to catch up. And their lack of foresight in being prepared for Global Warming and the fossil fuel crisis is beyond forgiveness. And the ones that are suffering the most now are the factory and assembly line workers who build what they were told to build.

    I think the publishing industry is a bit different. Unlike automobiles, no foreign source is threatening it with better stories at cheaper prices. But your point of the future generation of readers is dead on. My children and their children will not read in the same manner as I have. They will read, but it will be utilizing a different method of delivery. No, printed books won’t disappear anytime soon. But it’s the publishing industry’s responsibility to adapt or die. We live in a forward-moving electronic world. Future readers will utilize methods that are the most convenient and deliver the most pleasure. That might not necessarily be a printed book.

  4. Thanks John, Kathryn and Joe! I agree the book in the form we know it is undoubtedly going to change but the interest in reading a good story will hopefully remain. It will be interesting to see how story forms change. Even now you see people have a much shorter attention spans than they used to - they now need to be able to multi-task and absorb shorter and shorter 'feeds' of information. I just hope that doesn't mean people won't sit down and read as I once did - savoring the words and taking the time to enjoy the reading process. I find it depressing to think that my children won't sit down and read the classics like I did simply because their brains are no longer attuned to sitting and focusing on one story for so long! I don't care in what form they read just so long as they do and, I hope, the publishing industry can adapt so great writers get the chance to produce the next classics (and make money from doing so!).

  5. Ms. Lilley makes the point of paper journalism, but I have to point one thing out that ties into what Mr. Moore said about the auto industry: people won't continue to buy shit.

    I live in Raleigh, and have absolutely no interest in our local paper because of shoddy journalism, piss-poor editing, and overwhelming bias (and I don't just mean political, believe me).

    Half of these hacks get their stories from message board jockies on the internet, and so of course the fact-checking is masked by predatory journalism, where rumor becomes fact because hey, shock sells papers.

    It's disgusting and offensive, and I wouldn't buy the News and Observer with someone else's money, because it supports all of this crap.

    Bokks will eventually be the same way. If well-known writers continue to churn out good books, people will keep buying them. But if they drop a few stinkers in a row, it will have an effect.

    As for the midlist, I have no idea, but I hope the industry adjusts. Even if not for my own career's sake, I hope it adjusts so I can conitnue to find new authors and storylines to fall in love with!

  6. Thanks for your comments, Jake. Back in the mid-1980s, I worked for a company that produced television commercials, mainly for the auto industry. I watched the slow decline in quality both in design and workmanship in the cars that were supplied to us for the commercials. The attitude was obvious that customers had to take what they were given or else. Well, the "or else" time finally came along, and Detroit has been playing catch-up ever since.

  7. My mother hasn't bought an American car since the 1970's, when she had one that conked out every time she turned left, so she learned an elaborate route home that consisted of only right-hand turns...The next time she could afford a car she bought a Japanese car, and she's been phobic about American cars ever since....

  8. Regarding cars, my wife is Korean and for her Japanese cars are not a likelihood...plenty of bad blood there. The funny thing though is that she doesn't want a Korean car either. She says she'll wait until she's sure the quality is really good first, having grown up in the 60's while the country was still rebuilding after the war and products were cheap and poor quality. She's still enamoured with American quality, but wouldn't mind if I could afford a nice Land Rover or a Mercedes.

  9. On the publishing side though, I think paper books will always be around, but that the paradigm by which they are proffered to the public will significantly change. E-books and podcast audio seems to be a wave of the future and paper publishers will soon find themselves losing significant profit. Those authors who market themselves via the web and even with a good bit of freebies will most likely win out in the end.

  10. Thanks for all the great comments - just goes to show a lemon is a lemon whether it's a car, a book or a crappy local newspaper!

  11. Chiming in late here, but I actually think they're waiting for the CURRENT Dan Brown to drop off his next manuscript :)