Ewan Morrison wrote about the future of publishing from the publisher’s and author’s perspectives. I somewhat share his bleak, perhaps apocalyptic, outlook for the future of the publishing industry (see “Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?“; for “outsider’s” perspective, see Tony Cole’s discussion of Morrison’s article, ”Can Authors Survive in the Age of eReaders and eBooks?“).

The mistake being made in publishing is, I think, one of clashing perspectives. People in the industry look at a book, regardless of its form, as simultaneously a commodity and something unique. The mistake is that it has to be one or the other; it cannot be both. It cannot be both because each perspective demands a different approach to the book and the two approaches are incompatible.

As a result of this clash, each step in the production of the book is degraded. The result is that, for too many authors, the only thing that matters is getting “published,” with the consequence of “free” being the optimal way to get noticed. With the growth of free, there has to be a decline in “not free.” Misbalance of free and not free is, in the end, the death knell of “traditional” publishing.

The interests are competing. Most authors and wannabe authors know that they will never be able to give up the full-time day job; they will never earn enough from book sales to consider writing as a full-time career. Consequently, pricing is not high on their priority list; free is acceptable. Yet a publishing company cannot accept free. Publishing companies have bottom lines, have expenses, have staff, have myriad things that require cash flow, which is not a synonym for free.

With free being unacceptable to publishers, they can preserve themselves only by getting as close to free as they can. Ultimately, the questions are (a) how close is close? and (b) is that close enough?

The degradation of the publishing industry has ripples. The Agency 6, with the connivance of Apple, “created” an agency pricing scheme supposedly to preserve the value of ebooks (Apple’s reasons were different: competing with Amazon, rather than preserving ebook value). The market response has not been preservation of value.

With free as the selling price, much of what traditional publishing provided has had to be put to the side. For example, editing and proofreading, services traditionally associated with book publishers as part of the package provided to authors, become nonexistent. With no income, it becomes unjustifiable to spend, and previously required and desired editorial services become options that the author can pay for or not, with not generally being the response. (See, e.g., the discussions in, Is There a Future in Editing?, Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks, and The Changing Face of Editing.)

So the degradation cycle begins: author writes a book that a traditional publisher declines to publish; author now has decisions to make: (1) Should author self-publish? (2) If author self-publishes, what should be the price of the book? (3) Should author pay out of pocket for professional editing and proofreading services? Increasingly the answers to the three questions are (1) yes; (2) free or 99¢; and (3) no.

With the flood of self-published, free/99¢, unedited ebooks, consumer expectations are changing. Consumers increasingly are looking at ebooks as commodities; traditional publishers are fighting to keep consumers thinking that an ebook is something unique. As a commodity, consumers are not overly bothered by lesser quality; they view an ebook as a throwaway item and expect the price to reflect that throwaway “quality.” Publishers, on the other hand, want consumers to view ebooks as unique because uniqueness can command a higher price.

Alas, in this battle of perspectives, publishers are their own worst enemy. For years publishers have been chopping away at the quality concept by focusing on the bottom line at the expense of everything else. If a publisher cannot offer a quality differential, then all the publisher is offering is a commodity and consumers are following the publishers’ lead in rushing to the bottom line — consumers want ebooks priced at a point that is below what publishers need to survive and still offer author advances.

By focusing so fiercely on cost cutting, publishers produce ebooks that are virtually indistinguishable in quality from those offered by self-publishers. Publishers themselves are establishing ebooks as commodities – just what they did not want to happen. To consumers, a commodity is a commodity is a commodity, and consumers recognize the difference between commodity and unique. The high ground that publishers want and need is being eroded by their own machinations.

The worst part for publishers, authors, and editors is that lower expectations on the part of consumers means loss of income for publishers, authors, and editors. No one will spend to create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed.

We have now come to the crux of the publisher-created problem: No one will create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed. For too long, publishers have been focused solely on quarterly shareholder returns and what services to reduce to squeeze out more profit. It was this squeezing that led to declining emphasis on editorial quality. (Consider the effects of offshoring; see, e.g., Editors in the Offshore World.) Publishers have spent years conditioning consumers to consider lesser quality as the norm.

It was this conditioning by publishers that led to consumer acceptance of self-published ebooks, especially at very low (and free) price levels. It was this conditioning by publishers that led to the change in perspective by consumers, from seeing books as unique to seeing books as commodities. At the root level, the fall of the necessary supports for traditional publishers is directly related to actions taken by traditional publishers. Unfortunately, the ripple effect that such publisher actions have unleashed, affects the entire publishing chain and does not bode well for the financial future of publishing.

Ewan Morrison may have written apocalyptically, but he did so with foresight.

Via An American Editor


  1. Two things. First: “By focusing so fiercely on cost cutting, publishers produce ebooks that are virtually indistinguishable in quality from those offered by self-publishers.” In fact, a significant amount of publishers’ ebook content has been markedly lower in quality than the average self-published work. Which brings us to Two: “No one will create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed.” A great many self-published authors are creating superior quality works right now, and have no intention of allowing their quality to slip just because publishers’ quality slips. Authors’ taking on the role of editor and proofer does not automatically mean a lesser product (though every editor and proofer would obviously disagree); it means a purer, more personal product, not homogenized by system or committee. I think the public actually does know the difference, and is willing to pay for quality, if they can afford it; the future worth of the book will be partially established by its quality. Low quality works may drive their own prices down, but at some point, people will just give up, turn on their TVs and MP3 players, and abandon bad books.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail