The End of Publishing?

Internet theorist Clay Shirky, in an interview on the blog Findings, said recently:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

Wow. A whole industry dismissed with a wave of the hand, just like that.

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Can it be true? Can society dispense completely with the services provided by the publishing industry?

The trends are mixed on the answer. Yes, textbooks are going to iPads, but they’re still published by publishers. Self-publishing (like our book series, Be a Person) is on the rise and actually eclipsed regular publishing in 2008, according to Bowker, the folks who run Books in Print. There are 18 self-published titles in a yearly Top 100 for 2011 (not a single self-published book was in the Top 100 for 2010).

Also according to Bowker, between 2002 and 2009, the total number of books published in the US rose from 247,777 in 2002 to a projected 1,052,803 in 2009.

Fewer of these books are being sold, however. The value of US book sales increased only 11 percent from $25.5 billion in 1995 ($35.78 billion in 2008 dollars) to roughly $40 billion in 2008. The pace of publishing is, in fact, accelerating, according to Worldometers, with 403,185 books published so far in 2012 for a projected annual publishing total of 1.2 million books.

There are rays of light in all the gloomy stats about publishing: e-books. According to yet another study by Bowker,

Nearly 30 percent of respondents in the February 2012 survey reported an increase in dollars spent on books in all formats since they began acquiring e-books, while nearly 50 percent reported an overall increase in the volume of titles purchased in any format. [ . . . ] Some publishers are reporting that even when overall revenue has declined, profitability—particularly for e-books—has increased.

So what about ebooks? Recently, Amazon listed more than 1.3 million Kindle titles on its site. According to an Association of American Publishers survey, eBook sales of $128.8 million for January 2012 represented 25.5% of the total trade market (basically everything except textbooks). Adult e-book sales rose 49.4% in January, to $99.5 million, from reporting companies, more than triple mass market paperback sales.

Ebooks from publishers are experiencing phenomenal growth, eclipsing paperback sales. But self-publishers of all types are starting to hit the big time.

Where exactly is traditional publishing going? We can say one thing for sure, it’s not dead yet. Clay Shirky has a habit, though, of being a little out ahead of the curve, so the jury is still out on his obituary for the publishing industry. Like many industries (music, TV, travel) it will be utterly changed by digital.

Some of the services publishing delivers have value, even in a post-paper world: editing (including helping an author realize his/her vision), book design (even indie darling J. A. Konrath uses an ebook designer), promotion, and distribution.

If you don’t think there’s a need for promotion and distribution in the digital world, take a look at the experience of the rock band Radiohead, who self-released their last album, King of Limbs. Front man Thom Yorke said that it was almost like the album didn’t exist, even though the band made lots of money by releasing it themselves. One of their only albums not to sell over a million copies, Yorke was certain it hadn’t connected with the band’s audience.

It remains to be seen whether the brave new world only contains books that have been self-published electronically, or no books at all.

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