janniauthorphotoIs publishing doomed? Writer Janni Lee Simner has posted an essay to her LiveJournal looking at the idea going around “that Right Now is the moment that publishing is falling apart.” She is rather skeptical, because she’s been hearing how much better things were "5 or 10 or 15 years ago” for as long as she’s been writing—over 20 years—and doesn’t recall the state of publishing in her early years as being that much better. To hear the pundits talk, the publishing industry has always been on the verge of collapse.

Not only were those years not particularly better than those we are experiencing now, but Simner sees signs of improvements. Teenagers seem more apt to embrace reading, and there aren’t any real signs that quality has fallen off.

Aside from a new format (ebooks) and a new way for sharing recommendations (online) with the friends who’ve always shaped my reading more than reviewers, I’m not seeing the level of change, let alone collapse, that everyone seems determined to convince us we’re in the midst of. What I see the ongoing and shifting and unpredictable challenges that have always gone with being a writer. That’s all.

Simner calls this simply another iteration of “the Kids These Days phenomenon,” in which everything is always worse off now than it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ day.

Is she right? It would be nice to think so, since that would suggest that the publishing industry does have a future after all, rather than being about to collapse and go right down the tubes. I suppose time will tell. Who knows, perhaps in twenty years or so, if the publishing industry is still around but still on the verge of not being, we’ll be able to look back at these days for perspective. I wonder what the next great threat will be after e-books?

Previous articleWhy Harper’s Magazine avoids the web
Next articleAbundance vs. scarcity in the publishing world
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. So, in the mind of Ms. Simner, the current epochal transition to digital books, is basically no different than twenty years ago when nothing much special was happening?

    It’s as if somebody in 1943 wrote an essay about how all the ongoing World War business was really no different than 20 years previously, back in the 1920s, because, what the heck, there’s always some trouble around!

    Talk about dim perceptions! I’d say this is a fine example of how people have an almost infinite capacity to construct a pleasing bubble around themselves and see the world in terms that they find pleasing.

  2. While I’m perhaps not quite that optimistic about things, I tend to believe that the major publishers will eventually figure out how to keep making money while making books. While the democratization of things has achieved a ground swell in the past few years, opening the doors for those fortunate enough to be savvy, talented, and with the resources to make it happen, I am of the mind that eventually things will tip back toward the mainstream pubs, even if that means books sell for less and authors are in an even crappier position than they find themselves in now. Corporations tend to be good at that for the most part, even if they take a big hit with incoming changes. They’ll eventually adapt and a new way of doing things will emerge.

  3. No, it’s just a time of transition. Epublishing needs a powerful standard format to replace the proprietary variations of epub from Amazon and Apple. It needs several Ingram-like wholesale distributors to eliminate the hassle of dealing with different (and often nasty) contracts with every retailer and the mess of file uploads for each. Smashwords could have worked, but it has gotten itself too tainted with erotica to be credible. To many authors and publishers, locating there has all the appeal of starting a bookstore in the red-light district of Amsterdam.

    In short, digital publication needs to put down those who want to own the entire market with customers locked in by proprietary formats and DRM. It needs a smooth and efficient distribution system that doesn’t add to costs by adding hassles. Digital publishing needs to be as smooth, efficient, and well-established as print publishing.

    As an example, for printed books I send two PDFs (cover and interior) to Lightning Source, something that takes about 15 minutes. Approve the result, and I have hassle-free printing in multiple countries and global distribution within a couple of weeks. I get paid for all that with a handful of checks or direct deposits that come at the end of each month.

    In contrast, with digital books, I have to format each book separately for Amazon, Apple and B&N not to mention all the small ones. I have to deal with contracts written by lawyers obviously intending the screw me. I have to deal with differing upload interfaces, taking care I don’t authorize any of the outlets (particularly Amazon) to opt me into something I don’t want. I get checks from too many sources on an almost random basis. It’s a pain, it’s a nuisance. Having to deal with all that is more than enough reason to price a digital book twice as high as its print cousin.

    It’s all one giant headache because, I’ve concluded, the execs, managers, and lawyers at these retail outlets (I’m looking at you Amazon and Apple) are either jerks or clueless twits.

    To illustrate that, ask yourself why both Apple (iBooks Author) and Amazon (KF8) have book formats that are just non-standard versions of epub with a few not-really-necessary tweaks. Why doesn’t Amazon have something like iBooks Author? What can’t IBA generate epub books for everybody? I’d be happy to pay two or three times the price of Pages for that. And why was IBA designed with input only from a few very large textbook companies and not a healthy cross selection of authors and publishers? It’s weird in how text is brought in and weird in how ebooks are formatted. It gives every indication of being created by people who were clueless about just how varied ebooks are. It’s not iBooks Author. It’s iBooks Giant Textbook Publisher.

    No, digital publishing not a healthy market yet. That’s the problem. B&N is mature enough it’s playing tolerably well. But Amazon’s excessive zeal to dominate and Apple’s relative indifference to the ebook market means there’s no real competition much less healthy competition. Maybe things will get better in a few years after all the corporate executive and lawyerly jockeying for power and stock options settles down and some good sense enters the market.

  4. The publishing industry is most assuredly changing. With any change comes opportunity. And I am exciting about what I see for in the future of publishing.

    However, for those who can’t — or won’t — change, this is a huge threat to them and they have reason to be afraid.

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