Are We At The Beginning Or The End Of Publishing?

Posted by

What would you make out of a question like that?

Regardless, that was the exact question that Alistair Croll (co-author of Lean Analytics, BitCurrent, Year One Labs and one of my weekly link buddies) asked of Hugh McGuire (PressBooks, LibriVox, co-author of Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto and my other weekly link buddy), Julien Smith (Breather, co-author of Trust Agents and The Impact Equation and author of The Flinch) and me at today’s International Startup Festival. Under normal circumstances, this is a tough question to dissect and answer in a cogent way. We were asked to answer this during a concurrent session being held outdoors in a tent set-up with people mingling and networking outside. Trying to create some energy and excitement in the room (err…. tent) made my attempt frazzled. I’m hopeful that this blog post can clear it all up.

Traditional publishing still matters.

This isn’t about big book and magazine publishers killing trees and maintaining the transport industry while feeding a distribution channel to retail. It means that these big publishing houses still have professionals who love and care about content in a way that allows customers to get true value from the products that they are buying. These products may be physical, digital, audio, digital audio or whatever. When I look at the people who work at Grand Central PublishingHachette Book Group (the publishers of my two business books, Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete), I do not see the same type of professionals that I was subjected to for over a decade while I was in the music industry. These book publishers know and understand that the landscape has changed, they know and understand that their consumers are buying their products and using them in new and different ways and, they’re trying their best to not make the same bad decisions as those in the music industry. It’s not perfect. They are some ugly things happening. There is going to be more messy stuff as we wander this road through business purgatory. Still, traditional publishing matters. It brings long form content to a bigger and more diverse audience. Not every author is going to have a shared experience, some will get book deals because they have a lot of followers on Twitter, and others will get a book deal because some editor believes that their content could set the book world on fire. As Seth Godin likes to say, your mileage may vary.

Self-publishing matters more than it ever did.

Take a look at the bestselling business books on Amazon‘s Kindle ebook page. Along with the expected slew of new and notable business books, you will find self-published and independent authors rocking this list with books as cheap as one dollar. With minimal technology and investment, anyone who wants to write a book can do so. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to work, and it doesn’t mean that it’s going to sell, but it does mean that they can not only write a book, but have access to a viable marketplace to sell and promote it. This doesn’t mean that big book publishers go away, it simply means more competition and more choices for the consumer.

Digital publishing opens up a world of opportunities.

It is very alluring. Anyone can have a thought and publish it in text, images, audio and video instantly (and for free) to the Web (and to the world). Whether it’s a simple tweet or all the way up to building a robust online publishing platform like Tumblr or Medium. The opportunities and the ideas are endless when it comes to digital publishing. With each and every passing day, we are seeing new and creative ways for people to publish – look no further than what is happening on Vine or what people are creating with Instagram‘s 15 second video.

It’s just the beginning…

People crave content. It has never been easier to get content published or to make the decision to become a publisher. With that, more and more startups will launch new and inventive ways for content to find an audience. Will other kinds of publishing disappear? Possibly. Is it the end of the book as we have known them to date? Doubtful. People will still want and enjoy this type of content and media. I can’t imagine an end to books or magazines. With that, this moment in time is a new beginning for the publishing industry with no end in sight.

What do you think? Are we at the beginning or the end of publishing?   


  1. First let me just say that 90% of my purchases have been digital in the past two years. I think its very irresponsible if someone in the print industry doesn’t consider digital format first and foremost, after all our environment will suffer in the long run (look at latest weather around the earth and its not because its nature, its us!!).
    Second, buying digital has allowed me to read much more than usual just because of the price and don’t have to make my way down to a local store for just one book not to mention convenience and book is available all the time 24/7.
    Third, being digital only increase your audience in the marketplace, granted you have more competition but regardless this is the new playing field.
    Fourth, it has cut down on space in my home, at last count I had 20 boxes of books combined with my wife, we are now down to 4 only since we replaced everything.
    Fifth, I doubt stores would even give you the space for your book/magazine unless your a well known author.
    Lastly even books stores are experiecing purgatory (look at barnes and noble), and remember what happened to music stores.
    I my opinion we are just at the beginning of what might be considered the ‘Service Industry’, that is, people producing services instead of goods for each other. No longer will you be dependant on working for someone else for a living. It’s freightening even for myself just because I’ve always worked for someone else but I realize I have to change.
    All the more reason why marketing will become important for everyone, so I would say we are just at the beginning of the end of publishing.

  2. I think it is not the end of publishing, we are not even at the beginning of the end, but perhaps we are at the end of the beginning.
    Points if you can guess which war leader I just borrowed from.
    To know where the end is or will be we first have to agree on the beginning.
    Tim Berners-Lee? First web page.
    Guttenberg? First printed book.
    Anon, with first cave paintings (possibly the first infographic)
    If we define publishing as the technology in which to communicate one to many, then we can see that there have been many points in human history where technology has redefined the medium. Whether or not the period we are in is any different than the giant leap from stone to parchment, that will be for those with the benefit of hindsight to formulate.
    Each change brought huge opportunities for those leading the change, although Guttenberg lost out, but that’s another story.
    So answering the question originally posed. No, it’s not the end, merely a new chapter in human communication.
    And what a fascinating place to find ourselves.

  3. Great article – I think we are the beginning of the shift to the content producer (as happened in the music industry) and at the end of a period where publishers acted as a gatekeeper to talent.
    For forward-thinking publishers though there is so much opportunity to change their model into one which is generative not controlling. They can set up schools and training to nurture talent, they can become broadcasters or narrow-casters, they can become marketeers – they can re-invent rather than burying their heads in the sand.

  4. I bought your audiobook on audible and enjoyed it so much I went down to my local bookstore and bought the hard copy. I do something similar with music I discover and love on Spotify.
    Looking at my bookshelf and healthy collection of vinyl, it is a lot smaller than it was ten years ago. True, it is a disservice for an author or music artist not to make their work available digitally, but it would really stink if they ONLY made their work available digitally.

  5. I don’t think that the answer is an either / or. It is, a deep and multi-dimensional issue. While it is true that more content is available to more people than at any time in history and will no doubt continue along that line of growth, the flip side is more interesting and problematic, to me anyways, which is that with content growth we also have significant “quality” dilution. While one can argue that the best content producers will find a way to attract the audience that can keep them in business, the ways and means to gather that audience has become as complex and challenging as the process of creating the content in the first place, if not more so. Some of my favourite writers of the past, Hunter S Thompson and Norman Mailer, would probably have floundered and loathed the processes by which they would have had to undertake to create their craft today (they loathed it 30 years ago), where as someone like Oscar Wilde would have been King of the Internets.
    I for one, am happy that this digital world has given me an opportunity to create my content in my own little corner of the uinverse and for that, I am grateful.

  6. It’s just the beginning of the publishing heydays.
    Like photography (my world), most photographers can’t make a living because they are competing with $1 stock photos, smart phones and Instagram — photography is bigger than ever and we are in the heyday of digital imagery. Some are embracing the new technology and winning, while others are crying for the good old days.
    Publishing is no different. Just because a few are not in control of published content the way it was, does not mean publishing is dead.
    My 4th book comes out in two weeks from Wiley. I’ve had two traditional publishers and I’m grateful for them, but I know my future is self-publishing/on demand. In many ways the ebook is the new blog. (by the way great blog as always)

  7. IMO, the issue stems from our need to define content by it’s final form.
    “I need to write a book.”
    “I need a brochure.”
    “I need a catalog.”
    In today’s world you must think in terms of creating content and being flexible enough to understand that the consumer of that content will dictate how they wish that content to reside. Too many businesses/creators are still trying to dictate the terms of their transactions and forget that the paradigm has shifted. The consumer is now, for the first time in history, in charge of the transaction. Consumers are no longer bound by buying based on location, hours of operation, outdated “retail” pricing or unsubstantiated hype. Those that understand this principle are winning.
    But, yes, publishing will always exist. The mediums will change and evolve.

  8. It’s interesting that you highlighted the number of indies selling their books at $1 as that’s probably one of the main shifts. Unlike other mediums where the prices are often the same or close to retail (music / movies) with books there seems to be a very large gap between retail price and digital price if you want to “rock the top 100” and it’s affecting all publishers.
    So actually I think book publishers are already making the same, and worse mistakes than other industries because they are being forced in to a large pricing war. Amazon for example had new books for £0.20 earlier this year including some of the biggest books of the year.
    If anything has ended in publishing it’s the existing price model. Even for indies this is a worry. With everyone else selling books for $1 the margin is very low, but at the same time there’s an expectation that all digital books must be cheap so everyone has to play along.
    The best thing to do? Sell your first book for as cheap as you can and then charge a fair market rate for the followup once you have an audience. That seems to be the best strategy at the moment, it’s not ideal but it is sustainable no matter how prices switch.

  9. I’m going to say up front that I write category romance novels in case some of you want to scatter. However, romance has carved out a huge market share in all three venues: traditional, epublishers and self-published. Thirty years ago the traditional pback category romance novel had a shelf life between yogurt and ice cream–longest time on a new book shelf: 30 days. That has not changed. An author with a following might sell 80- to a 100,000 copies in those 30 days, then the book moved into the used book market and got turned another four or five times. But the author did not earn royalties on those sales. With the innovation of epublishing, category romance writers now have an opportunity to put those pbacks on a cybershelf. For my first seven titles, I signed with an epublisher. I’ve since learned a few things about marketing ebooks. I’m indie-publishing another five. I love the indie market. I love my Kindle. I haven’t stepped foot in a bookstore in months. I have a pal who owns a used book store. She hates Kindle and Nook because customers are not trading in books. Moreover customers can buy new reads cheaper than she sells the used. Good news for the author! For years, my pbooks have been sold on Amazon and eBay via third party vendors–often for a penny, but $5.95 postage, which is more than the cost of the books when new. The lovely thing about an ebook is that it won’t end up in a used books store and it has a shelf life into eternity. Not a single one of my books will ever make the best seller list. I never considered they would–but by ‘going’ indie, I’ve assured myself of a small annuity–or not. I’m having fun and I don’t need a day job. My observation as far as traditional publishers is they were slow to embrace the ebook venue thus lost the control they once enjoyed as far as who will be published and at what price. Often in the past I willingly shelled out $15–$24 for a favorite author. Never again. To put that in perspective: I only paid 35 cents for C.S. Forester’s African Queen–new. Hugs, everybody.

Comments are closed.