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The Digital Tipping Point

The Digital Tipping PointWe’re at a tipping point in the distribution of entertainment.

Soon, almost everything will come to us when we want it, in digital form.

Following electronic readers from Sony, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, we’re likely to have a new tablet-style computer from Apple by the end of the first quarter of next year that is likely to be a game-changer among those kinds of devices. And the Motion Picture Association of America has just announced that it recommends that studios be allowed to bypass theaters entirely and transmit their movies directly to people’s homes.

This is likely to present the consumer with a raft of options for books and movies (on top of the existing ones for music), but it’s also a sign that new ways of distribution are likely to shake up the entertainment industry even further.

First there was music, when record companies expected to make money off the sale of records. Now, of course, records are what artists put out between tours and record companies are, to a certain extent, distributors and marketers. Musicians had to adapt to the changing landscape and, instead of being recording artists, became performers again.

It is perhaps too early to tell what will become of movie theaters, which are already under pressure financially. Blockbuster movies come and go. Flops are common. The average release lasts only a few weeks in theaters. And theaters make the bulk of their cash from the sale of snacks. Increasingly, people would rather have entertainment when they want it, even if the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen is something that is hard to replicate at home. The release this holiday season of James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar,” with its apparently stunning 3D effects, is likely either to strengthen a new technology’s hold on fickle moviegoers, or to be the last hurrah of a dying way of experiencing movies.

What does this mean for the hard-pressed publishing industry? More of same, I think: the continuing growth of the digital landscape and the falling off of the physical, printed book.

Recently, I was speaking with acquaintances who work in publishing, one an editor at a publisher that provides books for schools, the other an editor at a large consumer publishing house.

The publisher that distributes to schools conducted research that indicated that, while young people are comfortable with electronic devices for reading novels, they still prefer the old-fashioned textbook, because it enables them to look back and study earlier pages, which the current clunky crop of e-readers makes difficult.

But don’t you think that will change sooner than later? Coming new technological advances, such as fold-out screens on electronic devices, and the possible simplicity of scrolling back and forth or looking at spreads of pages as in a physical book, along with the probable high-definition color interface of a coming Apple reader, might erase that difficulty and pave the way for a future generation of college kids who’ll learn quickly to rely on e-texts rather than bulky physical books.

The other publishing acquaintance, an editor at that large consumer publishing house, says that the editors there who acquire books are almost paralyzed by uncertainty when deciding what to buy, because every single book has to be a home run. It now takes forever to sell a book, or for a publisher to decide whether to buy it (something I as an author with a book out for sale know firsthand).

Imagine thinking that your job depended on the success of every single manuscript you acquire. That is the kind of thinking that comes from relying on an old-fashioned sales model, where blockbusters support the smaller titles.

The trouble is, there are fewer and fewer smaller titles to support, fewer options for new material the old-fashioned way for readers, fewer bookstores to hand-sell, fewer ways of getting new product out there from big publishers.

Authors have to take matters into their own hands. The old-fashioned publishing market will remain geared toward existing big names and big advances, with the occasional left-field hit, while the newer breed of writers will have to nurture and build their own audiences, relying on digital distribution, digital marketing, and the potential for digital growth.

I wonder if the conventional thinking among certain publishers—a fear of failure that leads to an inability to take risks when the world is changing around them—will lead to failure anyway. In the end, publishing to a certain extent remains a field where no one knows anything — since who can predict the tastes of the public when the decision to publish a book is, to some extent, based on an editor’s personal preference?

In any event, the power is soon likely to reside with the author who can harness the power of the digital world to service the growing power of the digital consumer.

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2 Responses to “The Digital Tipping Point”

  1. Dave Allen December 28, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    Some solid insight into why I need to change the way I think and catch the new pulishing options.

    Thank you.

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