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Axioms in the Future of Publishing
Planning Tools for Writers
by Andrew Burt | Comments

Bits Of Destruction Hit the Book Publishing Business is a good article; I applaud him for taking a peek at one possible future, and I hope it spurs a debate where others analyze it, and project other futures.

In that vein... :)

I'm not sure this specific article stepped back far enough, or projected far enough. I imagine a buggy-whip maker analyzing the impact of the automobile, calling it a shakeup because cars don't need hay to eat, and projecting that buggy-whips makers will have to split their profits differently in the future. Yet not imagining results like suburban sprawl, inner city problems, drunk driving deaths, air pollution, cars' contribution to global warming, the rise of the mideast as a power center and source of global conflict, peak oil, etc.

I doubt any of us could accurately project what the future holds for reading, publishing, or writing as an income source. However, I think there are some unshakable first principles that one can start from. I'll lay out what I think they are, then let's see where they might lead.

Axioms:

  1. People get a certain amount of benefit from reading "stuff" (for example, readers get information or entertainment).

  2. People have limited time, limited money, and many choices of how to spend those — thus there will be time and price competition imposed on reading material in general, and on any one piece of reading material in specific.

  3. Someone has to create that stuff.

  4. Readers have to locate that stuff. Requires getting eyeballs onto product.

  5. Readers will employ some kind of filter to choose what to read when faced with choices. (Favorite authors, recommendations, pretty covers, what happens to be on a shelf when they walk by, etc. etc.)

  6. Various intermediate entities have potential to increase the eyeball-attraction and creator-profit. Examples: Publishers today are in this category; they help get certain books seen (even by merely paying for enough copies to get printed and shipped to a lot of bookstores where eyeballs can walk by to see books on shelves). Bookstores are in this category. (Books currently sell better if available on store shelves.) Distributors too. Printers. Reviewers. Preview sites on the web. Search engines. Social networking sites. Oprah. Etc. etc. -- very long list of potential facilitators.

  7. Creators and intermediaries who are good at what they do, and make the right choices and/or get lucky, will earn money.

I think those are fundamental concepts that don't go away because of digitization.

However, digitization impacts every one of those elements individually.

(List of just a few random examples: People may get a different amount of satisfaction from digital reading. [I read almost 100% digitally now, mostly on my Blackberry, and I enjoy it more, and read more now than I ever did before, as one random and optimistic datapoint.] People have more choices how to spend their time and money. But ebooks can also be priced cheaper and make that money equation tilt in favor of reading. Free e-copies, pirated copies, people writing (possibly dreck) and giving it away free on web sites, potential impacts on copyrights, etc. are a result of digitization and impact the money equation. Creators may create different forms of "stuff to read" as a result of work being digital, and thus not necessarily text-only, or necessarily linear, etc. Words will play a secondary role in some cases, e.g. gaming. Locating "stuff to read" is quite different in an Internet age, and this will only get more different. "Filters" are changing right now, and I don't think we seen nuttin yet. For one thing, there will be many more intermediaries because of digitization (1999: Google has what to do with books? 1993: What's an "Amazon"? 2005: What's a "Twitter"?), and of course many impacts on existing ones. Just for example.)

I don't think we can predict the impacts. Just like buggy-whip makers couldn't foresee sprawl. (Which, as science fiction writers, gives us amazingly fertile ground. Gives me chills just imagining.)

But we do know there will probably be some readers, and some people creating "stuff to read", and some links in various kinds of chains between those. Some of those chains will involve money. I feel pretty safe with those predictions. :)

The axioms above are like chess pieces, and the set of possible futures like the set of all possible chess games. Uh, that's a lot. But we can, like a chess player, shape that future.

I also think playing it conservative with the guesses on kinds of impacts that will arise is nearly useless. I think to improve the odds of success, the better approach is to imagine as broadly as you can, and lay out plans for every scenario we can collectively imagine. Then choose from the most promising plans as time plays out. (Rather than trying to craft a plan based on reacting to what's happened.) In other words, I'd rather imagine the possible events and as a result install a smoke detector in my house and have a fire evacuation plan instead of winging it if the house catches fire in the middle of the night.

The good thing is that creators (as a collective group) hold more cards than any given intermediary. We should, though, be imagining scenarios and making "what if?" plans. Trying experiments. Not just waiting to see how it plays out.

There are many possible outcomes that could be analyzed. What happens, for example, if bookstores cease to be the focal point of sales? Or, do authors want to continue to sign over exclusive electronic rights to publishers and risk that publisher not being facile enough in profiting from changes as they happen (publishers not being notoriously fast to adapt)? What are the warning signs for when free ebook copies cease to be promotional and start eating into profits?

I think, for example, that organizations like SFWA are one of the untapped intermediaries in the chain from author to reader. I've said for years that SFWA has potential to become a brand that readers understand, a marker of quality (perhaps SFWA does not equal "excellent" but maybe "above average" -- which is saying a lot in the face of the long-tail sea of dreck). SFWA could be a well known source of digital editions, and payment collection. Sort of like what I set up with "iFiction" but on a broader scope (iFiction is a payment collection tool for direct author-to-reader sales). Or why not a SFWA-Kindle store on Amazon? SFWA could offer "free for a time" licenses monitored via the net (a la http://copyrightaccess.com/license ). And so on.

Maybe digital editions won't become worth real money and tree paper will reign supreme, but the odds seem agin' it. The trend is looking that way. (Considering the shape of the curve of time vs. the percent that digital editions are of total sales, statements like Amazon's that Kindle sales are 35% of sales for titles with Kindle editions, and so on.) The writing looks like it's on the wall; so in case it is, it's worth planning for. Publishers have already started creaking in that direction, and authors are behind the curve.

Yes, there will be plenty to complain about those intermediaries on the way. The Kindle contract sucks. Google is evil. Etc. But we have to be aware of the point where we're cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

I think as SF writers we're more uniquely positioned to think of the "what if?s" than other groups. We might, had we been around at the dawn of the automobile, been able to imagine peak oil, MADD, sprawl... And ways to deal with it.

This isn't an article where I make prognostications of how it will be. No single one of us can know (barring a time machine). Rather, it's an article laying out a framework we can all use to propose and examine possible futures.

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So let's open the floodgates of creativity and imagine future scenarios, given the axioms. I open the floor to your wildest visions of the publishing future. Post them here:

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