June 2, 2009
Is 2029 to Publishers What 2012 Was to Mayans?!?!?
But for goodness' sake, don't tell them in person or over the phone. Send them an e-mail with a URL for your book page; group-message them on Facebook with an embedded link; blog about it; tweet about it. Display it, don't say it. The mouth has gone digital.
My friend Mr. Steve turned me on to this report from BookExpo America, only the latest industry-wide hand-wringing to take place among publishers in light of an economic downturn and a technological shift to a paperless (surely that doesn't mean bookless?) society. According to some, including authors of recently printed and bound and pricey books about information longing to be free, publishing is not moving inevitably into extinction, but it does desperately need a facelift and a tummy tuck.
The world may end, according to the Mayans, in 2012, but on the off chance it doesn't, the printed book may vanish by 2029. In its place will be digital content that transcends particular platforms such as the Kindle, let alone paper and ink. That digital content, we're invited to presume, will emerge 140 characters at a time, as Twitter and Facebook and other social networking locales become greenhouses for long-form content.
If I may borrow from Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before and will happen again. It's not so much ideas and art that live and die; it's the media through which those ideas and art are conveyed, and the architects and profiteers of those media. Such has been the dilemma of news, which is experiencing a shift from newsprint to something else as we speak, and music, which has provided its own moribund soundtrack for the past few decades as the corporate giants of the recording industry shrink while indie music on Myspace grows. Again from the Post:
Trust me, those of us in the "major labels" of book publishing (even us minor leaguers) are strategically stroking our beards and scratching our heads over this. But again, dear authors, you're not off the hook. If Facebook and Twitter are the breeding grounds of the new literati (and not of the new illiterati, as their naysayers might suggest), then writers need to figure out what art looks like in those media, how ideas there germinate and sprout and blossom and flourish, and what shape such a fully evolved idea ought to take. If we're going to publish in new ways, we need truly new stuff to publish.
So there you go. Your twenty-year mission, authors, should you choose to accept it, is to change the way we absorb, engage and convey fully conceived ideas. As for us publishers, our twenty-year mission is to figure out how to make money off of it, and of you. So say we all.