I’ve just attended a three day conference in Manhattan, titled “Tools of Change”. Its objective was to bring interested parties together to assess the impact of e-books on the future of publishing.
I have been attending various meetings of this sort for the past ten years, ever since I committed my authorial presence to the technology of reading on screens. Ten years ago, through rights reversals, I put all my previously published English language books on every digitized platform I could find.
Even after ten years, I appear to be the only author with my output that attends these conferences. Indeed, I did attend what was billed as a major conference on e-books sponsored by The Authors Guild. The house was packed. The lack of knowledge was overwhelming.
For what its worth, here is what I learned at the “Tools for Change” conference:
1. The overwhelming consensus is that e-book will one day be the dominant method of reading content.
2. Reading devices will proliferate exponentially throughout the world. It surprised me somewhat to discover that many are reading e-books on their laptops. The trend, however, is a shift from laptop to reading devices e.g. Kindle, SONY Reader and others entering the market place.
3. A vast marketplace is opening up for reading on smart phones that projects a market of billions of devices worldwide.
4. The traditional print publisher, regardless of a valiant last stand, will implode at an ever-increasing rate as more and more devices and digitized content hit the marketplace. The same will be true for big box bookstores and independents.
5. Metrics providers at the conference told us that the e-book market is currently at 4% of sales but rising fast. I do not believe their conclusions. It is probably undercounted. They did not provide the one crucial ingredient in their presentation, which is that the dedicated reader who has been the first wave of device buyers is purchasing and reading e-books at an astonishing rate largely because of the convenience of downloading on devices without having to go to a brick and mortar book store. According to their metrics, the leading category purchased by e-book buyers is general fiction, which, for most people, is a one-time read.
6. Traditional publishers are swiftly losing their monopoly on distribution, marketing, publicity and content. While existing brand name authors will continue to sell print hardcovers, albeit in ever decreasing numbers, the branding devices of the mass media are becoming less and less potent as newspapers decline and methods of book information dissemination become fractionalized into even more niches.
7. Brand name authors and those authors with large output (more than 25 books) will eventually create their own publishing and marketing vehicles through online outlets, since they will discover that the traditional publishers will no longer wield the marketing power and financial clout they once held and they will do a lot better on their own. Some are already doing it, creating more heartburn for publishers and agents. As advances recede more and more authors will take this road.
8. The avalanche of authors trying to enter the publishing world is exploding. Without taking into account the quality of their work or their commercial potential, most have, for whatever reason, not been able to attract the attention of traditional publishers and agents in today’s hard pressed economy in a declining print based industry. Conversion houses and marketing and publicity purveyors have sprung up designed to help these authors enter the e-book and print-on-demand world and post their books on all major online stores. While getting one’s book onto the online publishing world will satisfy the hopes and dreams of the author, the likelihood of reaching anything close to brand name status or even to sell a respectable number of books is infinitesimal. Nevertheless one cannot discount the power of hopes and dreams. Anything is possible. Despite the awesome odds in a lottery, some lucky bastard does win.
9. The use of the social networking sites to sell books is, in my view, uncharted territory. I don’t discount their use for this purpose and I do see their potential. They do create communities and encourage people to enter a conversation with others of like-minded interests and they do enhance awareness of authorial identity. There are now a vast number of “specialists” attempting to monetize their familiarity with these sites and a number of those exhibiting their wares at the convention cited these networks as an add-on sure-fire sales and marketing tool. We shall see. There is a kind of one-on-one aspect to these sites and many are addicted to their use, but since their use is hands on, I wonder how many authors will devote a large chunk of their lives to using their time for marketing purposes. I wonder, too, if a “ghost” who poses as the author can really gain authenticity.
10. There were a number of presentations at the convention about the “enhanced” book, meaning a book that is accompanied with video or some other add-on to compliment the reader’s experience, a kind of upgraded model of the graphic novel. I guess I am the wrong person to make an evaluation since I am committed to the idea that the images created by the printed word in the imagination of the reader is the core experience of story telling. A book of fiction, for example, takes place in the imagination and cannot be replicated through other media. This does not mean that I am against adaptations into visual media. Heck, they have provided a great enhancement for my career, but I am against the distraction of anything visual or audible on one’s concentration during the reading process. It is a stand-alone experience, trancelike and isolated, requiring deep emersion and total focus. Any distraction of this process diminishes the experience. On the other hand I do believe that visual enhancements can be extremely useful in instructional books where a visual demonstration can be compelling. But then why would one need a book as an enhancement of the visual?
11. I did detect some interesting marketing efforts to take advantage of niche penetration for authors and publishers. The idea is to slice the marketing targets into “relevant” categories of potential readers and pursue them on the Internet. With the potential demise of the mass media and the proliferation of infinite sites in cyberspace these attempts to connect with bits and pieces of potential readers seems to have promise for the author seeking to build his awareness level and find readers. We shall see.
12. While there are still many unanswered questions of how the future of electronic publishing will evolve, one thing is certain. It is here to stay. It will dominate the publishing business. It will forever change the output and lives of authors. It is no longer a question of why or how but the speed of when.