The Future of Publishing 2020: Disruption

I’ve been preparing these articles for a while on The Future of Publishing 2020. One thing I have learned is that predicting the future based on current practices and trends is a precarious business. The publishing industry–as a community and business–is undergoing an utter sea change in methodology and ideology not seen since Gutenberg’s first print press. When I speak of the publishing industry as a community, I include publishers, agents, authors, printers, guilds and associations, as well as readers in this community.
The first article in the series, The Push and The Pull, dealt with the shifts and changes in the industry with the evolution of digitization and how things are shaping up for 2020. In the second article, Control or (Jeff Bezos stole my books andate all the hamsters), we looked at the new emerging players in publishing, how vertical integration has helped some players leverage control from the big six, and how that control may be exercised by 2020. In the third article, we are going to look at Disruption in publishing.

So, what is disruption in publishing?

Well, the dictionary will describe it as ‘unplanned, negative deviation from the expected…’ and the more pragmatic among us might just describe it as ‘life’. If you have read a great deal about the changes in the publishing industry in the past few years, you might be forgiven for believing it only exists in that sector of the business world—so eager were industry moguls to portray every ill-wind to technological disruption. You may even have heard the same industry voices personify certain emerging companies as ‘disruptors’, akin to bold boys who should stand at the back of the class and let the lesson proceed as the tutor planned. The biggest mistake any industry can make on the path forward is treat disruption as a mere distraction. A distraction is a momentary pause on the road and may or may not have any relevance to the direction ahead, but a disruption has a relevant reason and cause to block or impede the way forward. Ignore it at your peril!
I would prefer to immediately dispense with any negative connotation disruption in publishing has been labelled with, specifically, because the disruption in the publishing industry has been brought about by the drive of technology and the emergence of digital innovation. New innovation in an industry always brings change, but often with that change, comes opportunity (inside and out) and the potential for an expanded market. But the publishing industry has really been challenged in the areas of digital rights, pricing and distribution, critical areas—as explained in my previous article on control—that publishers have allowed bookstore chains and modern distribution networks to leverage control away from them. Faced with the expanding market for ebooks and a greater number of print and distribution partners, niche and dedicated digital publishing competitors (formed from the digital ground up), publishers are finally grasping that ‘the book’ is now ‘content’ to supply as a service or subscription rather than solely procurement and production of a physical product.
Disruption in publishing has not only changed the method of delivering book content to the market, but has challenged the existing linear flow between author, agent and publisher. Now each unit of that old established dynamic can be a publisher and content manager, and moreso, given the relative infancy of ebooks and wide variation of quality even from established publishers, digital disruption has helped challenge the belief that ‘real publishing’ is a preserve of the chosen few. While the new digital dawn has provided publishers with the ability to more cost-effectively reissue backlists, the practice has brought with it disputes on rights between publishers, authors and agents. While disruption in the publishing industry has provided opportunity and opened new markets, it is becoming increasingly harder for established players to quickly adapt old standards of practice and quality to new players with indigenous digital engines.  It is one of the fundamental reasons I don’t see our current big six publishers arresting back much of that control we talked about in the last article. You can survive certainly in a world of disruption but sometimes you have to accept the need to realign your place in it.
It should be noted at this point that while we are talking about disruption in publishing, we should not hoist up the severed head of ebooks as the interloper in the ranks of publishing, no more than the car industry can blame the continued use of bicycles as a reason for less car sales. People will always have to move around whatever their choice of transport. Disruption should provide opportunity and options—not dedication. I suspect dedicated ereaders will eventually go the way of the first cell phones. What? You mean you can only read books on it and it won’t change the channel on the TV, open the garage door or switch the lights on at home?

And how long will this disruption continue?

A great deal will depend on the sustained growth of ebooks and whether we get close to a print/digital 50% market share. It will also depend on how committed the big six as we know them deal with enhanced ebooks and cross-media integration. I think we are going to see a degree of part-disintegration of the larger publishers if print continues to slide and much of the internal investment in digital divisions will only take hold when media conglomerates like News Corp(HarperCollins) and Lagardere Group (Hachette) are convinced there ain’t no future in pulp newspapers and magazines. It also looks like companies like Amazon, Apple and Google are in for the long haul and I would expect to see Amazon continue expanding their publishing machine and some signs of life from Apple beyond just their iBookstore, but I do not expect it to have the impact iTunes had in the music industry. There will be further players to come and it remains to be seen how they will change the dynamic of publishing.
Perhaps the biggest disruption in publishing is still to come in the shape of how authors choose to publish and how readers choose to buy books. I said in my last article that 80% of authors by 2020 will operate independently outside the established network of publishers, preferring to deal directly with publishing services and e-retail partners. A significant amount of highly established authors will also choose to professionally manage their content and brands through media agencies and e-tailers. If that doesn’t spell out the biggest disruption to the industry to come then I don’t know what does. It will mean a slowly but ever-decreasing pool of authors for large publishers. But then that is not an entirely alien profit structure for publishers over the years. Publishers make the bulk of their profits from a handful of their biggest list authors—a case of low title/high unit turnover. A freer entry market with multiple players lends itself far better to publishing services that make their profit based on a fee-charging high list/lower unit turnover.
We should also not overlook the continued rise in published titles from now until 2020 and the inevitable disruption to the quality of content. One of the shifts in publishing as a result of continued disruption will be a much more discerning reader—forced to weed the chaff from the corn. We have witnessed a similar fate with the democratisation of the Internet and the need for the unsuspecting surfer to steer clear of the sharks and the riptides. But I do wonder if the book reader of 2020 will awake in a sudden fever and hope the odd disruptive feeling experienced through the night is nothing more than a bad dream and books are just the way they were all those years ago.
In the next article on The Future of Publishing 2020, we will look at discoverability—for publishers and readers—and how it works now and in the future.  

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