What Will Publishing Look Like in 2021?

In the comment thread of my post on What Readers Won’t Miss from Corporate Publishers When They’re Gone, “Ghostly Girl” asked the above question. It sure is a hot topic..

What will happen in the next ten years? Will corporate publishers stumble along into dodoland? Will bookstores become a faded memory? Will all writers become entrepreneurial self-publishers? Will everybody who’s got a novel in him/her get fifteen Warhol fame-minutes on a bloated, crap-laden Amazon.com?

Things do look dire for corporate book publishing and brick-and-mortar retail sales at the moment. Early in the week we heard the Borders chain has finally shuffled off its mortal coil, and on Thursday, Publisher’s Lunch reported book sales suffered another huge monthly drop—especially for adult hardcover and mass market paperbacks.

This has made the future of publishing a hot topic of discussion everywhere I go. On Wednesday night, a friend in my critique group asked what the Barnes and Noble of the future might look like. Most said “Barnes and Who?” or “What’s a bookstore?”

But I disagreed. I predicted Barnes and Noble will survive—in a rather different configuration—maybe a combination of a much-expanded Starbucks café and an Apple-like outlet, displaying a variety of Nookish products, X-boxy things, coffee-related paraphernalia—and one book.

Written by Snooki.

Turns out I might be something of a clairvoyant. In that same Thursday issue of Publisher’s Lunch there was also news of a big-money auction of a hot new literary property, shorthanded as, “Pippa Middleton’s Pilates Coach.”

So. Maybe publishing isn’t so moribund after all. At least some Big Six guys are still partying like it’s 2009.

I had to look into it. Pippa Middleton’s Pilates Coach sounded like a brilliant satire of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture—maybe some uproarious comedy about fictional idiots spending millions to learn Pilates from the coach, “who’s coaching the girl, who’s related to the girl, who danced with the son of the Prince of Wales.” (Paraphrasing the classic song from 1927.

But a quick Google showed the celebrity-crazed idiots aren’t fictional. And the book is not meant to be funny. And it’s coming soon to a Barnes and Noble near you.

To further confirm the accuracy of my crystal ball, Kris Rusch reported the same day that Barnes and Noble is drastically reducing its book inventory in order to put in more toys and electronics. She’d heard from friends at Barnes and Noble who said they “were notified at our B&N location this week that in the next couple of weeks we will be receiving a ‘massive returns download.’ To coincide with this outflux of books we will be adding 3 more of the massive toys and games displays, as well as expanding gift and the digital presence.”

Toys, games, Nooks, and—an “outflux” of books. 

The books left will no doubt be written by the girl who danced with the boy who danced with the Pilates coach of the chauffeur of the Prince of Wales. Or whoever is current incarnation of Snooki.

This is how corporate publishing/bookselling will survive. As long as there are royals, vulgar bimbos, and aging rock stars with debauched tales to tell, people will buy their stories.

Thing is, people who buy Snookibooks aren’t big on other types of books, so they probably won’t invest in e-readers.

They will be kind of like the people who watch broadcast TV—the ones who don’t need to buy cable, because it’s stupid to pay money for some high-falutent Mad Men or Game of Thrones when you can watch America’s Got Broads who can Crush Beer Cans with their Boobs…for free.

So Snookibooks will have to be in paper. In bookstores. On that one shelf between the Xboxes, Nook carrying cases and Starbucks coffee mugs.

In fact, I see publishing following in the footsteps of television in many ways. The Big Six will be like the broadcast networks. Paper books will be the So You Think You Can Dance with the Biggest Loser/Big Brother fare. Plus there will be a few token Jonathan Franzen/Safran Foer tomes standing in for the Good Wife/Glee win-a-few-arty-awards broadcast offerings.

I think a few other very popular books will probably still be produced in paper as well.

In an article in the July 17th Boston Globe, Amanda Katz wrote about people who buy books in paper after they read the e-book. She reported a conversation with the general manager of the Harvard Book Store, who observed, “People come in and say, ‘I read this on my iPad, and now I want to own it’…as if somehow having it on their e-reading device is not really owning it.” (Italics are mine.)

So what books will people really want to “own”? 

Here’s what I predict—

Top-Selling Superstar Books in Hardcover, Suitable for Gift-Giving: An awful lot of people give books for holiday, graduation, and birthday gifts. You can’t give somebody a Kindle download and wrap it with a bow. So the biggest bestsellers will probably still be available in paper for quite a while.

Humor Books: You can’t leave your Kindle in the bathroom for your guests to chuckle at the latest Garfield offering, so it’s gotta be in paper.

Coffee Table Books: The paintings of Gustav Klimt in Kindle black-and-white are not going to have the same impact. High-ticket art books will stick around.

Impress-the-Guests/Keepsake Literary Books: That lovely leather-bound copy of Leaves of Grass can’t be replaced by electrons.

Bibles and other Iconic Religious Books. Thumping a Kindle is unlikely to give the same satisfaction.

Decorator Books: Books make a room feel cozy without being cutsie. I suppose people will start making faux-book 3-D wallpaper, but it won’t be the same. So books will become a premium decorator item. I predict used bookstores will become much more upscale as hardcover books become rare collectibles.

Books for Small Children: Patting the e-Bunny probably won’t amuse your 2-year old in quite the same way. And until they get holographic, an e-book is not going to replace the pop-up book.

And of course, Snookibooks: I include those big-advance political books published to be bought up by PACs in this category. Schlock never dies.

And as for everything else—that will of course be in ebooks.

But I can picture us reading our Kindles and Nooks while sitting in the Starbucks inside the Barnes and Noble, because, let’s face it, people like the feeling of a bookstore.

So when I look in my crystal ball, I’m seeing a few bookstores sticking around. There will be the Barnes-and-Noble one-Snookibook model, and the upscale collectible bookstore. 

I also see the survivor-indies still hanging on. Those are the ones that have weathered the last century’s bookshop assaults: first from Costco/Walmart, then the Big and Nasty chains, and then from Amazon.com. These are the tough little guys who survive partly on greeting cards, crystals, games, and/or coffee—and mostly on damned good service.

And what about the corporate publishers? Will they be part of the vast non-Snookibook market? 

Mark Williams of Mark Williams International (the quiet half of bestselling author “Saffi Desforges”) sees things going this way: “It cannot be long now before the Big Six start taking on authors on an e-book only basis. Offering all the traditional editorial services, translations and access to the full range of e-markets, but without the cost of paper production. If they get realistic about royalties they could yet survive the Transition and emerge stronger.”

He’s probably right. If the corporate guys finally figure out they can make more money without their heads crammed into their derrières, they’ll probably figure out how to cash in and take control of the e-books.

But while the corporations try to make their creaky way out of the 19th century, I see a huge growth in small presses. There are hundreds of small publishers mushrooming up everywhere on the Interwebz. (Just Google “small presses”.)

I also see the emergence of the collective small press—groups of writers in the same genre banding together to form their own brand.

Like independent cable TV companies, small and collective publishers can each address a different niche. With e-books, their overhead will be almost non-existent, so they can afford to put time and energy into building brands and promoting writers.

We already have Ellora’s Cave for Playboy channel-type erotica, and I’m sure there will be another for “characters welcome” caper stories, another for FX-style noir and dark thrillers, women’s fiction presses for the Lifetime TV crowd, etc.

Some will come and go, but the small publishers who become established will be the new "gatekeepers” for readers who want professionals to sort through the vast number of books on offer.

Literary agencies who have become facilitators for self-publishing may expand to become this kind of branded-niche wholesaler.

Midsized and University presses might play the part of the premium cable networks as literary stars and Pulitzer prize-winners are dropped by their corporate publishers and/or seek homes outside of the déclassé corporate Snookibook-world. As Pulitzer-winner Alice Walker said when she moved to a small press, “As water is to flowers, independent publishing is to democracy.” 

Smaller publishers aren’t just smarter, they’re cooler. 

And of course some superstars will create their own franchises/networks. Joe Konrath’s indie superstar turn might be compared to Keith Olberman’s TV network. Konrath Inc. is certainly a brand that needs no gatekeeper or umbrella (My crystal ball isn’t quite so sure about Olberman, since my satellite company doesn’t carry his network.)

Other branches of the industry will jump in and fill the void as well. Amazon-the-bookstore becoming Amazon-the-publisher is rather like Direct Satellite TV becoming the producer of Glenn Close’s Damages. Both in TV and publishing I see the retailer controlling the product in a much bigger way. (If that is good or bad, I don’t know.)

The innovation and creative spark that fuels all this will originate with the indies. Yes, there will be tens of thousands of us—all doing our thing on Amazon like amateur filmmakers on YouTube. Some will become breakout superstars who get their books on that hardcover gift shelf at B & N; some will find a steady income with small e-publishers or collectives; some will establish their own brands, and most will fade into obscurity. But at least we’ll all have a shot at our Warhol minutes. A way better shot than we had in 2009.

So I think we will still have corporate publishers, bookstores, and paper books in the next decade—all quite different from the ones we have now, but traditions will be preserved, at least in appearance. People hate change.

So what about you, scriveners? What do you see in your crystal ball? Do you think bookstores will dodo off to extinction before 2021? Do you think publishing will reconfigure but not really be all that different, like the TV industry?

BTW, if you scroll down, you will see I made an Awesome Announcement on Friday. Yes! I’m going to be back in print. And yes, I love small publishers. <3

And next week, I’ll have yet another Awesome Announcement! This one is concerning an exciting addition  to this blog. I’m totally jazzed about it.

In two weeks, we will have a guest post by the incomparable Samuel Parkwhose literary novel, This Burns My Heart  has been getting rave reviews from all the most prestigious literati--and is one of Amazon’s top picks for this month. Come read Samuel's words of wisdom on August 7th.

And if you’re going to be in California in September, there’s still time to get the early bird discount for the Central Coast Writers' Conference. Deadline: July 31! 

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