Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The vook and some personal ramblings on the future of publishing

I'm a couple of days late on this, but here's Simon & Schuster's introduction of the "vook," a hybrid book/video story. You have to give them credit for trying something newish. I pray, though, that the hideous portmanteau "vook" doesn't catch on.

For what it's worth (approximately two cents), I don't think this is the wave of the future for publishing. Storytelling that needs video explanations isn't good storytelling. Maybe it works for nonfiction.

I do think digital books--text that can be read on assorted devices--are here to stay. The printing part of publishing, with distribution, storage (which is taxed), returns, and other forms of waste are huge inefficiencies.

I have a Kindle and like it a lot. But it's a crude, crude device, with images that take us all the way back into the late 1980s in terms of computer graphics. Also, any book design is tossed away in the conversion to digital format, which is a real shame for people who appreciate such things.

For writers and eventually illustrators, the target to watch is the publisher.

I used to work in the newspaper business, and got out in the mid-'90s after I realized I was making 25 percent less than the person who had my job eight years earlier. At the time, the newspaper wasn't filling open jobs to save money. This didn't strike me as a business that had any future, and I left rather than face an inevitable layoff. From what I have read about book-advance sizes, they are also declining--in part because of the economy, but probably in part because of the economics of publishing.

I left the newspaper business to work online and within a few years, had major responsibilities at one of the world's largest websites. Since then, the newspaper business has rapidly declined because new technologies and services (the Internet and specifically Craigslist) offered more efficient alternatives to what they were doing and newspapers failed to adapt.

It's not that people are necessarily reading less. Indeed, it's easier to read more newspapers than ever. It's also not true that no one is advertising online, something many newspaper publishers have told me. This is how many sites--including Google--make their money.

The parallel here is the Kindle/Sony reader/iPhone/whatever device is next. If anyone can publish to the platform, people will figure out how to make money doing this. It won't necessarily be the traditional publisher, as heartbreaking as this is to contemplate.

It doesn't mean good books and stories are going away. That aspect is here to stay. But the people who get to tell them are going to be the ones who pay attention to the opportunities--and the people who create the opportunities.

Update: Agent Kristin Nelson posts today about how many of her clients' books are selling in digital format.

Related: Disney is selling $79.95 annual subscriptions to its library of digital storybooks.

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