There are two publishing revolutions afoot…

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It seems that there are two publishing revolutions taking place, one at each end of what we traditionally think of as a book. Both were touched upon in the ASJA-sponsored meeting in Berkeley on May 15. They barely fit under the umbrella title of “E-Books. Apps, and Clouds.”

Mostly unmentioned were the book’s core content and the author, the primary source of “a transmission from one brain to another brain (which is publishing),” according to author Margaret Atwood.

The author as publisher (and the explosion of the e-book) was the focus of Mark Coker’s prophesizing the end of mainstream publishing by the accessibility of an open press and the democratization of unrestricted distribution. On the other end, the salvation of the book, in David Marshall’s presentation, seemed to depend upon software, layering, video, animation, interactivity with the reader, and responding to the “age of reading TV and watching books” by smarter and tighter cutting-edge firms. Authors were asked not to think of themselves as book writers but symbols of creative change.

Marshall is the VP of Editorial and Digital at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco, a nonfiction independent house in the educational field.

He too focused on the “sea change” in publishing, emphasizing more the digital explosion in tablets and e-readers, ranking the top four as Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Google, and citing the four top formats as PDF (creating the exact replica of the print book), e-pub (with flowing text where type font and size can be changed but graphs and tables must be omitted), Mobi (in the Kindle), and the scanned process used by Google Book Search.

Most of the transformation from print to digital has been in fiction; nonfiction has increased from 7 to 12% of the total. Marshall then painted the vision of how nonfiction will look in the near future, as “enhanced” books including audio, video, self-assessments, and community portals where readers can talk with the writer and other readers. There might be games in the book or animation in the preface with the author’s voice-over.

Most of the book won’t live in the tablet either. It will “live in the clouds,” in a grand file beamed down from a database available any time from anywhere. The user can buy any section or chapter they want, paying through a meter. And the data can be continually updated, or added to, dynamically. Articles, too, can be modified as facts emerge or change.

This will transform the authors’ role. They will publish digitally first, then think print later. The barriers and excuses will be gone. If it makes sense, print it, David said.

The “power of free” then becomes possible with the digital book. The writer can capture market share by giving away the first book (or the first chapters), then charge as the fan base develops. An e-list becomes the authors’ selling center.

Since e-books in the future will be multimedia, the writer will be responsible for the text and the embedded media components. Writers will find partners from film, audio, and art to create the best format.

David encouraged the participants to read his “Tools of Change Conference Call Report” from February, 2011 (go to www.scribd.com, type the title in the search box, save the document, and read or print it out in PDF from there).

From the May 15 presentation and the report, it’s almost overwhelming what’s on the publishing horizon. Particularly interesting in the report are Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelley’s six trends that book publishers need to address in order to stay competitive and his eight ways to make it easy to pay but hard to copy. Brian O’Leary (Magellan Media) compares the old paradigm to the new and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) gives a chilling author’s perspective. In fact, all 12 pages paint a brave New Publishing World in which the major houses and even the self-publishers hardly fit.

Perhaps David Marshall’s summary of that report best expresses the sense he shared with clarity, conviction, and excitement at the ASJA gathering:

“All ‘heck’ is breaking out in the digital publishing space. E-books are just the first wave of many waves of digital innovation… As the market for pure text products, even in digital form, moves to free, publishers must innovate to provide new layers of consumer value, or perish. Products such as The Elements (185,000 sold) show the portent of the industry. Unfortunately, most publishers will not be able to profitably transform themselves into companies such as Touch Press, Open Road Media, or Callaway, and some of the stiffest competition to traditional publishers will likely come from VC-funded ‘born digital’ start-ups. I sat at a conference lunch table on Wednesday under the banner, ‘What’s the difference between book and software publishing?’ That is an apt reflection of how these two industries are quickly merging. (Berrett-Koehler’s) collaborative partnership business model is more important now than ever before. We must re-invent ourselves to stay relevant.’

[This is #3 of a four-part series about changes in the book publishing field. In a couple of days, here, I will suggest, in #4, that mainstream publishing may be irrelevant.]

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. If a free, monthly newsletter about this and related topics (all encouraging empire-building) interests you, join in. Three free reports too!

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