The Future of Publishing 2020: The Push And The Pull

This is the first of a series of articles on The Future of Publishing 2020.

I’ve been preparing this article for a while on the future of self-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.

I’ve heard so many people in the industry, mainstream media and publishing analysts try to explain and define the explosion and impact of self-publishing, together with the entirely separate dimension of digitalization and democratization of the industry. Too often I see these two dimensions of change dreadfully confused.  Certainly self-publishing has now moved into mainstream online channels through the growth of ebooks and the surge of independent digital publishing platforms developed and supported by retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble (Kindle and Nook), and the entry into publishing by Apple and Google (iPad/iBookstore and Google Books). The jury is still out on whether self-publishing will hold its own within the greater publishing industry in any significant way, and, more likely, high street bookstores will continue to decline with the shift from print to digital formats. By 2020, e-sales will dwarf what is generated from foot traffic sales.
The real spark that led to the rejuvenation and explosion in self-publishing began around 2000/1 with the emergence of POD (print on demand) as a new print technology to address the increased costs in print production and distribution logistics. Fundamentally, it allowed early adopters like academic presses to publish new texts and republish older texts which otherwise may never have seen the light of day. I suspect, even in 2020, history may somewhat muddle what happened in retrospect during the first decade of the 21stcentury because of the acute speed of change and volatility in the publishing industry and the pressure of high street discounting among booksellers.
Authors have been ‘publishing’ their work online as long as they have had access to the Internet, but the real game changer came with the emergence of social networking (quickly utilized as a marketing tool by individuals) and the ability for authors to monetize their written content  through a user-friendly retail platform. Much is made of POD technology within the self-publishing community, but, in reality, it simply removed the gatekeepers from the established path to publication and brought self-publishing within the pockets of hundreds of thousands more authors. Examine carefully the authors who have become runaway successes by self-publishing and you will discover a very different landscape and reality than the one often painted by companies offering publishing services and analysts professing less than objective views of the terrain.
As whole, self-published books solely utilising POD may provide a gentle entry for new authors into the stark commercial world of publishing, but this print-to-logistic technology is entirely flawed as a business strategy to sustain an author brand and book, attain widespread distribution to retailers and compete on pricing. During the early part of the last decade, the self-published authors who gained the most success achieved it by using traditional print methods (digital short run/lithographic) and crucially made the breakthrough into brick and mortar stores. Frankly, any publishing service in existence now and offering only POD as a viable method of publication to its authors is on an ever decreasing path to doom. At their worst, they are treading dangerously close to offering nothing more than an ‘old style’ vanity arrangement for authors with shallow promises and a combination of either greed or sheer ignorance. In today’s new world of publishing order, I’m not sure which sin is more reprehensible. One thing I am sure of – so-called POD publishers alone have less than three years left to run their course, and, ironically, have benefited somewhat from the perceived confusing between the rise of self-publishing and the greater development of digitalization and democratization within the publishing industry.
With the advent of social networking, self-published authors embraced the idea of the ‘book’ as a project of content management and brand awareness long before the sacred gatekeepers of publishing thought beyond the next best seller list. It’s only now that self-publishing as a community and the independent authors who believe in its basic ideology appreciate what they have, and, for the time being, still choose to hold on to. That’s quickly changing, and the general publishing industry is right and quick to point out that the self-publishing fraternity remain – for the most part – disorganised, unaware of their creative wealth and the importance on holding rights, but still dogged by poor editing, product controls, and distribution and marketing reach with core physical booksellers. It’s no surprise that we are witnessing the Amanda Hocking era – authors who build their brand independently, but ultimately succumb to the lure of a big house looking after the business end of publishing while authors revert back to what they passionately do best – write.
Before we even start to understand where publishing will be in 2020, we have to consider where publishing is and where it has been. I’m not going to spend too much time on the consideration of where the industry is as a whole at the moment – The Independent Publishing Magazine does this day in, day out, here and there. I will say that publishers over the past 30 years have slowly given up control of ‘their’ industry to retailers, and in more recent times we have seen the big six publishers try to wrestle back some of that control using the Agency Model with retailers and the development of digital partnerships and an extension of their online presence from dull static pages to places of reader engagement and resource. It’s working, but not without a great deal of headache, and I remain unconvinced the big six publishers – as designated by the slowly decreasing hold of New York publishing offices allied to media conglomerates – will survive beyond Penguin, MacMillan and HarperCollins. I’m less convinced that Hachette and Random House will remain operating as large publishers before being picked off by Google, Amazon, Apple or some new or existing conglomerate. If anything, we may be approaching a period where large publishers, or their brand parts, will be slowly picked off by established media companies more adept at content integration and have the ability to deliver that content through integration with film, written word and the rising online game communities established by Sony and Microsoft.
The rise and strength of independent publishers like Canongate and Faber should not be discounted in 2020. I’m convinced strong independent publishers will still be around in eight years time, and both the above houses will become part of an alternative ‘big six’ globally. That’s the difference – this new independent six will be global and not an extension of what happens in one big commercial city. Sure, the current big six will mutate – it could be Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Kobo, and A N Other. Time will tell.
I said earlier that the past often tells us more about where we will be in the future once we put it in perspective. There is nothing newabout self-publishing. It’s as old as the Gutenberg press. In fact, self-publishing – in a way – is the very origin of publishing itself. Long before printed presses we had ‘publishing houses’ in the guise of the first learning academies, monasteries and communities hand writing books for record and preservation. Once mankind grasped how to record the written word, the value of patronage, support and championing a work became the first true social network. With the new landscape of publishing – via the Internet – we are seeing some of the old values of a long forgotten tradition re-emerge.  Literature is full of champions and supporters like Gertrude Stein. The latest movement in self-publishing is crowdsource or crowdfund publishing. The practice is becoming more widespread with independent authors. An author rallies either the funds or resources of an already inbuilt small community to financially support and aid the promotion of the book before it is produced and published rather than promote the book after it has been published.  
Around 1993 I stopped wearing a wrist watch. I didn’t have to. I didn’t need it. A wrist watch became a piece of jewellery – something I wore when I went to a party. By the end of the 1990’s I didn’t have a calculator in my house either. Today, the mobile phone, also has resulted in people not having a walkman while they jog, even an iPod, a calculator, camcorder, a TV, a satnav…whatever you can think of now that is a necessity for a trip may not be needed in 2020. One thing I am certain of is when I attend the London Book Fair 2020; I won’t have to bring a mobile phone, laptop or any other device. More likely, I won’t have to bring any form of electronic device, and the immediate content I need to access will be with me through a pair of sunglasses! Whatever the case, I know access will be simpler, and in spite of the changes, the world will be a lot less complicated.
One of the clients I work with as a publishing consultant is TAUS, an innovation think tank and interoperability watchdog for the translation industry based in the Netherlands. This is a quote from one of the recent articles the company founder Jaap van der Meer posted after a conference in Japan. He was speaking about the growth in automated translation in Asia.

“It is driven by what we refer to as the democratization of globalization. The business world is moving from a ‘push’ (traditional publishing) to a ‘pull’ model of information consumption. This means that everyone everywhere in the world has in principle access to the necessary information and pulls it when needed.”

Publishing – Push or Pull?

For me, this encapsulates everything about the publishing industry and where self-publishers – and more importantly, readers – find themselves in today’s world. Publishing in 2020 will be about discovery before profit and disruption before integration. Profit will only follow discovery because the retail landscape will be about access, identification, and maintaining longevity there. In reality, ‘publishing’ will be for the vast majority of authors – as a way of expression and not profit. For most, the challenges of disruption and democratisation will prove too much. In 2020, most authors will never consider self-publishing as a path to profit. Profit will be an exception rather than a rule and ‘publishing’ like ‘self-publishing’ will simply become an accessible and universal form of communication, rather than a prescribed career path through publishing.  Indeed, I suspect the reality, speed and immediacy of a network like Twitter, or whatever succeeds it, will become the medium we first hear news of a global nature.  How we interpret, valuate and disseminate that material will say a lot about who we are.
The whole concept of traditional publishing was built on ‘PUSH’ to retailers/readers. Publishers got used to celebrating authors and pushing the books they published out to sales reps and retailers, and eventually on to the end reader. It’s been like this too long. Publishers now don’t sell books to readers – they sell books to buyers in bookstores. As long as publishers hold that ground – they’re fucked – awash in an industry universe a million miles away from both author and reader. And in a strange way, publishers implementation of strategies and buzz words like ‘disruption’, ‘disintermediation’ and an imposed ‘democratisation’ brought on by circumnavigation of the industry by authors is only emphasising the clear ‘PUSH’ of authors to reach their readers, and the inevitable wish of the consumer/reader to demand discoverability and ‘PULL’ as hard as they can with the technology at their disposal. The centre is being squeezed as authors try to reach readers, and readers try to reach authors. Agents and publishers are at the centre of this new digitally enabled maelstrom, and something has to give.
Publishers in 2020 may inherit what they deserve – a liaison with a select few large agents delivering sure-fire manuscripts based on the latest trends, guaranteed to deliver profit over risk. We may see little future for midlist authors or debut authors who can’t provide a brand that can deliver over several years.  I’m less convinced about agents in 2020. With the move of self-published authors to ebook publication with platforms like Amazon and Apple, I see less of a place for agents in this less complicated world of publishing. Sure, Picoult, Patterson and the large legion of successful New York Times authors will never have the time the self-published authors have to sacrifice to these matters, but there will be a place for large agencies. The rest will submerge into the media and conglomerate entertainment edifices, and the sole agents will exercise an existence as scrappy as the authors they once represented. Of course, just as in the past year or two, we will see crossovers and reinventions. I predicted five years ago that major publishers would develop self-publishing imprints, and that has happened. Agents will try their hand at setting up digital imprints for out of print and new titles – that’s happening. Established authors will crossover and take control of their empire – whether in print or ebook – hi, Paulo and JK, hope is all well with you both. Agents will even throw in the towel and dive into the waters themselves – hi, Nathan, hope all is well with you too!
In 2020, there won’t be a ‘self’ in publishing. It’s meaningless. Come to think of it, in 2020, there probably won’t be a ‘publishing’ in publishing anymore! It’s all becoming meaningless.
But one thing is certain. Writers will be writing in 2020. Whatever you do, whatever you write, do what you have to do and believe and enjoy it. Just maybe, someone else will also agree.

The second article in this series of articles on The Future of Publishing 2020 will look at Control, Disruption and Discoverability.  

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