Current and Future States of the Publishing Industry

McSweeney's Future of Publishing
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[Editor’s note: Today, I’d like to introduce Editor and Author Andrew Doty. “Current and Future States of the Publishing Industry” is the first of a three part feature Andrew has put together to show what has changed in publishing over the past few years. Enjoy! – Kevin]

"Digital Reading" flickr user jose.jhg
“Digital Reading” flickr user jose.jhg

“The long-term trend is upward and there’s no reason to suspect this momentum won’t continue. The growing number of literate adults and children suggests that not only are more people capable of reading, but that more will likely choose to do so. Literacy is not a privilege, but a tool, and billions of people reach out to use it.”

Tatiana Schlossberg

Current States in Publishing

The Internet brought as many empire-crushing changes to the publishing sector as it did to the movie-rental industry or album sales. Plenty of publishing professionals already lament the death of print, while progressive views see the potentials for new tools and content as an opportunity to expand the separate concepts of printing and publishing into their own, individual realms.[1]

What was once the realm strictly of paper and ink now has been populated with intangible, strictly digital alternative publications like PDFs and eBooks, Twitter novels, and book apps.[2]

The publishing industry is dominated by the Big Six (Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, MacMillan, and the Penguin Group), who have been quick to step into the profits of digital publishing, leaving indie publishers and small presses free to refine a culture of creation centered on the object, rather than just its content. In Print is Dead, author Jeff Gomez proposes that “books will — after they have lost their general utility — be retained in many people’s lives as works of art.”

The Future of Publishing

McSweeney's Future of Publishing
McSweeney’s McMulens produces children’s books that defy the traditional recto / verso format. (Photo credit: McSweeney’s)

Some publishers, like my own associates at punctum books, embrace the future of publishing and the divergences it offers by using download hosting services like Dropbox to offer digital, free-to-publish copies for free while using Print On Demand (POD) services like Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace to earn small profits from physical copies without producing any more books than the number purchased.

As I network with authors, editors, marketers, literary agents, printers, cover designers, illustrators, book formatters, proofreaders, copywriters, and ghostwriters, it becomes clear that the while most publishing professionals were seeking full-time employment at a Big Six company a decade ago, the boom in indie publishers, self-publishing, and vanity presses has encouraged a nomadic culture of freelancers willing to work with multiple companies and authors, creating a publishing community rather than opposing companies.

This can be observed through the presence of new collectives, to avoid use of the word company, like The Pro Book Editor, who pool their resources to form a network of publishing professionals who arrange for a client’s needs to be met by multiple, conveniently organized freelancers instead of hiring the use of a whole company.

An April 2013 press release from Barnes & Noble reveals self-publishing to be the kudzu of the publishing industry, with 24% quarterly increases in the number of self-published authors uploading titles to the NOOK Store, as well as an even larger quarterly growth of 30% in self-publishing sales. Some self-publishing is handled through websites like Smashwords, who provides no printing or distribution — just eBook downloads. Some is handled by the authors themselves, who use POD services to buy, sell, and distribute their own works or hire their own distribution and marketing teams.

Most, however, is handled by Amazon, who provides the world’s largest market, taking enormous royalties from authors and providing one-click downloads to customers. Programs like 3D Issue are apps that make eBooks, allowing users to assemble, format, and upload their own eBooks within minutes, instantly placing them in a large market.

Ergodic Literature in the Future of Publishing

On the other hand, some small presses are offering extremely high-end books. San Francisco-based publisher McSweeney’s has used printers as distant as Iceland, Argentina, and China to get exactly the quality they’re looking for in their often unconventional print products.[3] German literary magazine BELLA triste has similarly won awards for their experiments with printing on cards, doorknob hangers, and flipbooks, according to the needs of the text. In an interview with Publishing Perspectives, BELLA Triste editor said, “We didn’t want to force any formal gimmicks onto the texts, we wanted the text itself to seek out its genuine form, for its physical appearance to be an integral part of what it’s trying to express.”

The literary magazine of the University of Illinois, The Ninth Letter, produces a biannual, massive collaboration between both the college’s reputable Graduate Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design, blurring the lines that separate a magazine, a journal, and a piece of art. Ergodic texts disrupt the traditional method by which a reader interacts with a printed book.[4]

The conclusions to draw from these two polarities — one prizing the prompt availability of content in a simple and presentable manner, and the other valuing the deliberate physical interaction with the format — suggests that a best-of-both-worlds scenario is possible via an easy-to-access, short attention span enabling, highly interactive, affordable, complex, beautiful, constantly-engaging publication.

The game has changed because of technology, but the notable refinements are largely occurring in print and production quality while the product remains the same. Popular culture reflects how the human mind and attention span are shifting. That new gaze is exactly where the future focus of publishing is coming into view.


[1] For evidence of this, see the articles of McSweeney’s “The State of Publishing” column from 2011, including “Some Good News From the World of Books” by the McSweeney’s Editors, “U.S. Book Production” by Joseph Sunra Copeland, and “The Book Club Phenomena” by Katie Wu. Other sources include “Predicting the Death of Print” by Christopher Mims, Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age by Jeff Gomez, as well as the ever-timely punchline article by The Onion: “Print Dead At 1,803”.

[2] Not only do authors attempt to confine a “novel” to a length of 140 characters so as to publish the whole thing via Twitter, as in “Twitter fiction: 21 authors try their hand at 140-character novels”, others have crowdsourced novels from contributed tweets (“A crowd-sourced and crowd-translated novel”) and published their own novels (“Writing a Novel — 140 Characters at a Time”) and attempted to share public access novels (“Live-tweeting Lolita: A classic novel, shared in small, delicious bites”) 140 characters at a time.

[3] See Joe Hagan’s 2006 Forbes article “Dave Eggers’ Small Notion” for a breakdown of the McSweeney’s approach. Also see Icelandic printing company Oddi’s portfolio.

[4] For a prime example of ergodic literature, see Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which requires the reader to reorient the book continuously in order to read it in a spiral pattern that reverses once the reader reaches the center of the story, unfolding in the opposite direction.

Andrew Doty (@paadoty) is a professional freelance editor, occasional musician, and infrequent writer. While managing operations and musings on writing, editing, publishing, and language at Editwright, he also scribes lyrical criticism at Lyricism and makes as many contributions as he can to the collective music blog Star Maker MachineConnect with Andrew via his website.