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Book Publishing In Its Death Throes
The word from the Frankfurt Book Fair is that the traditional book publishing industry will be dead and buried within a year or two. Guaranteed. Everything will be digital. And authors are on their own.

Here’s an excerpt from a gloomy article in today's Huffington Post:

Mmm. When in doubt, read the small print. On the web, that is. Track down, if you will, the London Times' brave reporter, Helen Rumbelow, who wrote a piece called "Dead Or Alive" last week from Frankfurt itself. She said the people "in charge of the world's books" had gathered for a great junket -- and had encountered instead "a bloodbath"! "Nearly a quarter of a million people will arrive today at the glowering conference hall in Germany with an unprecedented mixture of fear and excitement," she wrote. "The reason is digital." She quoted one agent talking of "an industry in total flux and chaos," another saying: "it's like wrestling in fast-setting concrete." And one previous, best-selling, chair of the Society of Authors opining: "I hope to God I'm being apocalyptic, but I'm deeply worried for the writers of the future."

Summarizing, Helen noted: "The role of agents, publishers and retailers is up for grabs." Print goes down the sink, digital takes over among young people -- but without them being willing to pay the sums people did in the old days for a hardback book, and without the same number of books actually being read. Ergo: little or nothing left (at 10 per cent) for the poor author!

One literary agent declared the secret mood of Frankfurt as "vague hysteria" -- with no-one having any idea what to do, or how to do it, "in a market changing so quickly."
Well, authors: welcome to the same world that recording musicians have known for some time! It's not the end of music, or even the end of people listening to music. It's the end of being paid to make it! None of our author-societies -- or newspapers here in America -- is willing to tell the plain truth, but it is staring us in the face, and it's called ruin by any other name.

* * *

The printed book is dead -- at least, the book as we have known it since Gutenberg. It's going digital not only among the young, but even the ancient. And nothing can halt that -- any more than medieval copyists and aficionados of hand-made parchment Bibles could in Gutenberg's day. E-reading is a'comin'. The party's over -- and authors will have to adapt.
Part of that adaptation involves re-thinking the roles of agents and publishers. Did authors in Gutenberg's day employ such middlemen? No - the printer acted as publisher/bookseller, securing advance subscriptions from interested customers. So what is to stop the modern -- or postmodern -- author from getting Amazon to print, market and distribute his or her work, from the manuscript e-text? Even audio-book it, if the author is willing to read it onto a digital tape? Why bother with an agent? Why bother with a publisher?

The editor who spoke to us the other week predicted the wholesale collapse of publishers, as an industry, in America in the next 24 to 48 months. Out of the ashes, yes, there will be niche areas of paper publishing -- as in educational textbooks, perhaps -- where specialist knowledge of a defined market will prevent the complete collapse of an imprint. But in terms of general printed books, fiction and non-fiction? Their future is science fiction, metaphorically as well as literally. It's a brave new world in which the author is guaranteed: Nothing! You will be your own agent/publisher -- responsible for your own digital editing, your own digital typesetting/formatting, your choice of e-jacket, your "book's" advance publicity, and its marketing -- the latter in co-operation with Amazon. Or Google, once they go into distribution.

My epiphany -- such a big word for such a simple realization -- is that my days of plenty are over. The years of the locust lie ahead. Out of the back of my beloved Ford hybrid I shall, grey-haired as I am, be in the future encouraging people to buy and download my digitized work, or hauling boxes of instant-printed books to sell at readings/talks I shall give around the country, into my dotage, on my chosen topics: the American presidency, military history, German literature, biography...

"Hang on to your day jobs!" one of our members remarked, at our biographers meeting. (Each of us is devoted to resurrecting a chosen life in biographical form, and we gain comfort from sharing our common concerns with fellow biographers.)
You know what: she's right. Writing's a great and wonderful craft, like painting or pottery, or playing jazz in front of aficianados. A few, like Kiran Desai, may actually make it big in the looming digi-world, especially if film rights attach; but for the rest of us, it's going to be a matter of returning to our roots as authors rather than as commodities -- and that may not be a bad thing. If we know at whom we're aiming our work, we can surely match 300 copies -- even exceed that modest total. We won't get rich -- but we'll be published. And proud.

Nigel Hamilton is President of Biographers International Organization (BIO), and a senior fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston. His Biography: A Brief History, and How To Do Biography: A Primer, appeared in 2007 and 2008 (Harvard University Press). His latest biography is American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale 2010).

[See entire Huffington Post article here .]

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No, no, no! I absolutely love the printed format, and I'm not giving up on it, and some people call me quite young.

That said, this makes me want to attend 2011 even more.

What are your thoughts, Mr. Scribe?

With the economy in the tank, the only people getting publishing contracts these days are those who have had their books at the top of the best seller lists, or those too famous to turn down, like, uh, Sarah Palin, and what's-her-name, the Non-Witch from Delaware.

Hardcover books will never entirely disappear, thank god, but it's inevitable that digital will gradually take over the entire publishing industry, including literary agents.

How do I feel about that?


I tend to agree with your feeling — bleh. I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand I, too, like the printed format, and even our best technology so far cannot perfectly replicate it. So am I saddened by this writing on the wall. I do recognize that the change is indeed inevitable.

But on the other hand, I am utterly thrilled to see useless dinosaurs like publishers and agents starve and wither. Just as with the music industry, these people are, by and large, vermin. They contribute nothing to literature, and the very purpose of their existence is to maintain this status quo — by convincing the world that 10% is a reasonable cut for an author. For the person without whom he truly wouldn't exist. It's criminal. Let 'em rot, I say.

Unfortunately, this will put Amazon and Google in similar positions, but with the caveat that so long as the Internet exists, anyone can publish anything in digital form at little or no cost, and attempt to make money on their own.

Even before digital the vast majority of writers made little to no money for what they wrote. John Updike and a handful of others were/are anomalies. As a freshman at Harvard, Updike sold his first short story to The New Yorker, and then for the next three, four, five decades published and was paid handsomely for every single bloody thing he wrote. Again, an anomaly.

With digital, writers may be free to publish whatever they want, but 99.9 percent of them will make even less than they would have, had they been in the heyday of hard copies.

That's the depressing handwriting on the wall.

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