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The Future of Publishing – A Writer’s View

Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature.  My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers.  I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’,  using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen.

However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years.  I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers.  I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold.   I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for  UK mobile phones!).

I’ve also had the odd experience recently of having a novel disappear completely in one territory while winning a big prize and becoming a bestseller in another, hammering home to me yet again the fact that in 2010 success with publishing fiction is as random unpredictable as a lottery.

Most of my discussions to date have had an edge of frustration to them, both from myself as a writer excited about technology but annoyed by the glacial pace of change, and from publishers and agents who have been doing perfectly well for the past two hundred years, thank you very much.  However, things do seem to be changing rapidly at the moment as digital books at last become a reality.

Readers aren’t much interested in publishers; most people can’t remember who published the last book they read, and that’s as it should be.   In the past few months several agents have whispered to me that they can see a future where the roles of publisher, agent, and bookseller merge online (this is something Amazon is already attempting), while writers make more of their status as sole traders, their name their brand, their backlist their business, supported by this new agent/publisher/bookseller hybrid.  I can see a future where publishing is turned on its head with the writer as CEO, hiring and firing editorial, marketing, etc., as he or she sees fit.  Doubtless this future would be as dog-eat-dog as the present day, with the bestselling author being able to afford the premium editorial and marketing talent, with their books finding the largest audiences.  This model is of course perilously close to vanity publishing.  And most writers don’t want to be CEOs, they want to write.

Instead of voicing the same old frustrations and demands, I thought I would take this opportunity to think a bit about what I would like from a publisher in the future, the stuff that I need help with, that I want someone else to do beautifully while I stick to writing.

1. Editorial:  I still want an editor who can help me make my novel better.  Of all the roles that publishers fulfil, editorial remains the most valuable to me.

2. Marketing: While most readers don’t pay much attention to which publisher publishes which book, a strong editorial brand might work online in a world where people are looking for guidance on what to read next, beyond online- bookseller-recommends automation and book clubs.  One of the toughest tasks for publishers and writers alike is how to find your readers – in a world where many books are published, whether print or digital, finding your way to readers is still the trickiest, and most important, thing.  I’m completely enamoured with the way that social media allows me to connect with my readers directly, but I’m not naïve enough to think I could conduct my own marketing campaign.   The publisher of the future needs to be smaller, smarter, and nippier, willing to work harder to recognise, seek out and find the multitude of niche groups that make up the readership for most books.

3. Nuts and bolts:  proof-reading, proper conversion to relevant formats, cover, prize submissions, fiddly bits like ISBN etc.   I need help with this stuff, please.

4. Payment:  I want to have the potential to make money from what I write.  This might sound idiotic but it is a fundamental principle that sometimes gets overlooked in these discussions.  I won’t be surprised if the traditional advance on royalties disappears completely for all but the biggest sellers, but I will be surprised if writers don’t find a way to demand a better rate of return than the 10-15% on print, 25% on ebook that is standard currently.  In order to move away from this advance/royalty structure writers may have to share financial risk.  Historically, financial risk (beyond that of the huge investment of time any writer makes) resided with a sponsor/benefactor, then a printer/bookseller, and more recently, the publisher.  How this will play out in the future is a key question but we need to be willing to try new models.

5. Conviviality:  From the editors and agents and festival organisers to the journalists who write about books, people who work in publishing are among the most intelligent, funny, gossipy, well-read, and passionate people I know.  No future industry would have any spark or wit without them.

6. Innovation:  What is reading going to be like in the future?  What kinds of stories will our wired-up online kids want to read?   Is literature evolving beyond the printed page?  Are we up to creating stories that make the most of what the technology offers while remaining true to our long-held notions of what the word ‘literature’ means?  In a world where the roles of publisher/agent/writer/bookseller begin to merge and change, the truly innovative ‘publisher’ will be the one who begins to experiment in multimedia content instead of simply adding on ‘enhancements’ and marketing extras.  This is the publisher I want to work with, one who is interested in new platforms, new business models, and new ways to tell stories.

Reading is changing.  Publishers need to be able to move quickly:  the massive conglomerates may have the deepest pockets, but their vast overheads combined with their entrenched reliance on territorial rights mean they are not light on their feet.  As US publisher Richard Nash put it in an inspiring talk recently, forget about all this supply chain stuff, publishing is, or should be, devoted to connecting writers with readers.

One final thought:  is it possible that digital libraries hold the key to our future as readers?  Some pundits insist that the book industry of the future will drown under a tsunami of digital piracy.  Is the current system of PLR for writers – a few pennies for every copy borrowed – one that we need to look at more closely for clues about how books will be distributed and catalogued, protected and housed, indeed, how books will be found by readers, in the future?   If so, what will this mean for publishing?

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