I noted yesterday that I thought Nick Mamatas’ point was cogent; that, one day, the predominant business model might be Print-to-Inventory, so, basically, Barnes & Noble might actually stock all of a hundred or so books, mostly including the newest releases and the most popular sellers, and the rest of the inventory might be consigned to digital files that could be printed literally on demand. By “literally on demand,” I mean the sort of demand like a customer might walk in, approach a machine like an ATM, find a digital file, and print it perfect-bound while waiting for a cup of coffee and perusing the magazines. I’d say I like bookstores as much as the next guy, but I don’t know who the next guy is and wouldn’t wager he’d be as into reading as I am, and, really, from a business standpoint, the entire industry is cumbersome at best and actually borders on ridiculous at worst.
As just one example, I don’t think I’m aware of another industry that allows for returns. So a publisher might invest an unhealthy amount into a particular book, but booksellers might shelve it behind the tomes on kumquat botany, which no one reads, and then, when they receive the invoice for their order, rather than paying it, send the books back. Does BestBuy return DVDs it doesn’t sell? Does Wal-Mart return CDs its consumers don’t buy?
Which brings me to an interesting piece of news; Wal-Mart is no longer the nation’s largest distributor of music. Care to guess who is?
It’s too obvious to state that the literary publishing industry has to change just like the music publishing industry has. Over here, I made some comments concerning Seth Godin’s thoughts on Borders’ turning books face out, which led me ultimately to mention the same publishing model I mentioned up above (though perhaps not as concisely). Now, today, I caught this New York Times article about how HarperCollins is planning to change their publishing model. I found the piece sensationalistic, ultimately; its headline is “New Harper Collins Unit to Try to Cut Writer Advances”, which strikes me as the buttoned-up New York Times equivalent of ZOMG TEY BE TAKIN MAH BUKKITS UV GREENE!!!
Which is a shame, because though Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp corporate machine was one of the reasons I left MySpace, the model the imprint’s new CEO, Robert S. Miller, describes makes a lot of sense. Perhaps part of the model is to slim down the advances the imprint will give its authors, but really, that might not be such a bad thing; selling an arseload of copies and participating in profits means that books don’t have to earn back their advances, which seems to me (and I could be wrong, as I’m only just now a young writer with a single book under my belt) as though it might take some long-term pressures of authors who don’t need it. One of the worst possibilities for second-time-out authors is for their books to underperform their debuts, which can bring their futures into question. Also, the two most popular modern publishing success stories (Brown and Rowling) weren’t really based on debuts; if I remember right, Harry Potter had some early buzz, certainly, but I don’t remember it hitting its stride, marketing- and sales-wise, until at least the second hardcover (and might have been the third), while The Da Vinci Code was Brown’s third or fourth novel.
All of which is to say that the combination of the two seems a pragmatic approach. One of the biggest problems with a debut hardcover is: who really wants to spend thirty bucks on an unknown writer, regardless of how much hype it’s gotten? I sure don’t; heck, I rarely spend more than ten bucks on any writer anymore. I rarely buy magazines; most of the ones I read are available online, with mostly free text available. I don’t read newspapers; I go to their websites. I probably read at least twenty blogs per day. Which is to say: I don’t read less–I just read differently than I used to. My attention span is really no shorter; I enjoy sitting down with a good novel (keyword: good).
One of Godin’s more cogent points regarding publishing and marketing was a division: some people read a lot and are aware of writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, while others don’t read much and are aware of writers like King, Brown, and Rowling. He mentioned there’s nothing wrong with either audience, but that one has to pick one or the other. Of that latter, I’m not all together certain, mostly because I’m one of the former who prefers the latter writers, but I realize, too, I think I’m an exception to a more pervasive, general thought about which Godin is correct.
The publishing model I described above might, in some ways, foster that division and make it even more marked, but I think the real benefit it is that, though it might cater to that divide, it still serves to the benefit of both types of customers.
I think, too, that the more these new technologies are used, the more blurry the actual idea of “publishing” is going to become. By founding McSweeney’s, Eggers blurred the line between traditional models of publishing and self-publishing, and I think, in years to come, the distinction is going to become even less clear.
So long as readers are satisfied, I’m okay with that.