Future of Publishing

Have you ever wondered what the future of the publishing industry will look like? Unless you are an English major, aspiring author, or just plain, old book nerd, you probably have not even given a thought about it, because you know your favorite books are published, you can buy them, and you are happy. It is a very simple system in your mind, and as long as the books you like are available on the shelves of Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, you think the industry has a good thing going.

While this is true in many respects, we are on the brink of something in the publishing industry has not seen since the 16th century: a revolution.

Gutenberg’s printing press forever changed the way books were created and distributed. Gone were the days where books were a rarity, where authors had to handwrite or dictate their thoughts to a scribe, and where each edition had to be painstakingly copied when new information was discovered. The printing press allowed for the process to be semi-automatized to increase production and output.

Fast-forward to today where books are created digitally–taking the physical strain of handwriting the first copy before going to print out of the equation–sent to printers digitally–taking the need for typesetting almost completely out of it–and printed automatically by machines designed for one purpose–taking out any errors that could come from addition of the “human element.”

This is the system as we know it. But this is not the system that is wrestling with the tension of change. While, yes, it can be argued that this system will be revolutionized in the future, the only radical overhaul that I can foresee is that machines start creating masterpieces equal and surpassing that of humanity. In that moment of singularity, what it means to be human will be on the verge of extinction.

But the system I am talking about that will change the publishing industry for good is the process that takes place around the actual printing and binding of the book–which is a word that will evoke images of paper, binding, hardback covers, and ink for only another generation at most. This system is less about the physical process; instead, it is about the philosophical process: the relationship between the author and the audience which, in turn, influences the relationship between the author and the publisher.

Ever since I received a Kindle, there has been an subconscious understanding that has been growing. It developed the awareness that the chasm between author and audience is narrowing with each passing day. With the ability to digitally publish a work almost instantaneously for the world to read, the author has moved away from a secluded, introvert who tirelessly edits, edits, and reedits a story that he or she hopes a publishing company will have enough faith in to give a chance to a vast canvas in which everyone can see the work in progress and add their two cents in–for better or for worse.

Craig Mod, in a very systematic, dense way, explains this idea in a recent journal post on his website–which inspired and guided this most of this post. He uses graphics to help illustrate the old system and the new system.

This is the old system:

The Classic System of Publishing

Here the idea is conceived apart from the audience. It all takes place in the mind of the author. He or she slaves over what could be years pouring countless time and effort into a product that they are not sure will have the wings to fly on its own. Once the product is finished, or at least finished as far as the author perceives it, it is sent to a publisher who sends it through loops of editing until a final product is agreed upon. Then it is sent to a printer. The book is then in its final form. The ink is mixed, the pages are aligned, and the machines are warmed up. It is no longer a personal manuscript written by author; it has been transformed into what Mod calls “The Great Immutable Artifact.” This is what we think of when we think of books. It is something that will forever live on in its current state. It will not change. It is an accomplishment that a very small percentage of human history has ever achieved. It is something that stands as a point of pride for the author. But, more than just the concept of this idea changing into an immutable artifact, the physical material itself is immutable as well. No one can go in and change the words that have been printed. Just because someone highlights something in his or her copy does not mean it will alter your copy in any way, shape, or form. The author’s original intent, form, and ideas have been perfectly recorded just the way he or she intended it. This immutable artifact is then distributed to readers regionally, nationally, or globally. The readers have their book in all its glory.

That is the way the old system functioned. Mod suggests there is a new system forming; one that looks more like this:

The New System of Publishing

The first thing you will notice that is different is the “pre-artifact” system. The author is no longer the only one interacting with the idea. Instead, the audience is invited into the conversation in order to talk about the issues, problems, and point of views that this idea raises. In our modern time, this is the main point of the blogosphere. Just look at Donald Miller’s blog. Inside the scrolling header it states, “Before it becomes a book, it all gets tested here. Forgive the rough patches. Here is the writing process.” That is the point of a blog. It is to get your ideas out there to get feedback in hopes of convincing others of your point of view, hearing other people’s ideas, creating a discussion, or a combination of all of them. The revolution of digital publishing allows for the audience to interact with the author–and more notably the idea–in the pre-artifact stage which, in turn, shapes the final product, rather than waiting for the finished product. The line has also been blurred when trying to determine publisher and author. Each time I hit the “Publish” button on my blog, I become the publisher–alright, technically it is WordPress, but we are not going to get into semantics. With digital publishing it will get harder and harder to distinguish between who is doing the writing and who is doing the publishing, if that kind of thing is important to you. Regardless of that, when the publishing happens there is one of two directions it could go: digital or print. Let’s start with print.

Print is the traditional means of publishing. If you look closely at both diagrams, you will see the print arm of the new publishing system looks similar to the old system of publishing. It still involves a printer and distributor, but these are the only real similarities. The biggest difference is “The Great Immutable Artifact.” If you look closely the word “great” is actually crossed out in the second diagram. This is for two reasons. First, “great” inherent refers to the physicality of the published piece. There are pages after pages, hardback covers, and contrasting ink. It is a “great” accomplishment that this final product actually turned out–or did not turn out–the way the author intended. Secondly, with the ease of audience feedback, authors can craft their works to find the niche markets in which their ideas will be sold. So rather than publishing companies having to be selective in their choices of who to publish, the revolutionized “pre-artifact” system allows for a greater number of authors to be exposed to the audience creating more opportunities to accomplish something only a few American greats every had the privilege to do. Mod calls that in the traditional, printing arm of this new system, the “great” is no longer applicable.

The other arm of the new system is the revolutionary arm that will forever change the publishing industry: digital.

With the growing popularity of eReaders such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, publishers have just recently been able to understand that the future of the digital publishing age is here. Authors no longer have to wait around for months as books are printed, bound, and shipped to reach the audience. Instead, books can be uploaded to the Internet and downloaded almost instantaneously. This has two implications for the way we read and comprehend books:

  1. Authors no longer create pieces that are finished, static, or complete; digital publishing has allowed books to become dynamic, interactive, and mutable.
    Mod says “for only the briefest of instances — seconds, perhaps, for popular authors — does the digital edition of a book exist in this static, classic, ‘complete’ form.” This is because companies like Amazon have created the “Popular Highlights” function on Kindles. You can now look through books and see the highlights and notes that people before you have commented on. It is no longer a perfect version of what the author intended, but rather a amalgamation of personal thoughts, ideas, and connections from every person who has read the book before you. Which leads me into the next implication…
  2. Books are no longer individual escapes for people; they are places that inspire community, discussion, and engagement.
    Sure, you can still get lost in a good piece of fiction or nonfiction, but only up until dotted lines or yellow marks invade the page. Mod has a term for this: digital marginalia. He says it is the process of “layering atop the content…manifested properly, each new person who participates in the production of digital marginalia changes the reading experience of that book for the next person.” When you highlight or comment on a digital copy of a book, it is then transferred to any person who reads that part after you. You have influenced the way someone else reads, understands, comprehends, and appreciates the author’s intended words. That is why in the digital arm of this new system there are dots spread out along the time. Each person advances the piece which is always changing and morphing depending on who is reading it. You shape what the person after you reads…they shape after them… they shape after them… they shape after them…

This post has been grounded in speculative theory–for the most part, but there are a few out there who have foreseen the changes that lay ahead for the publishing industry. Most notably–in my opinion–is Seth Godin. A marketing guru who has given the world insights such as The Purple Cow, Linchpin, and The Dip, Seth saw the opportunity rising in the publishing industry to do something that had never been done before. Typical Seth Godin style, he jumped at the chance and started The Domino Project. There are a couple places you can go to find out more about what the goals of The Domino Project are (read Seth Godin’s announcement on his blog here and read fellow Domino Project author Steven Pressfield’s explanation here), but the short of it is The Domino Project is a mainly digital publishing house that partners exclusively with Amazon to create new, short works from the authors that people want to read the most. That is it in a nutshell. They are the first ones, that I am aware of, that are taking advantage of the new “pre-artifact” strategy that digital publishing offers. It will be interesting to see what kind of products are released. Although, truth be told, I am already a fan since Steven Pressfield signed on and released Do the Work–the follow up to The War of Art.

Where is the publishing industry headed? I have no idea for certain, but with the revolution of digital publishing, whether it be across the Internet via blogs or across portable devices such as the iPad or Kindle, we can be sure that it is bound for change. Books will never die out completely; they will only change format, because the essence of what makes a book a book is not the pages, binding, or ink, it is the story that each word invites the reader into.

Until the story is taken away, books will always live on.

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