Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Publishing E-pocalypse? Look At Your Information Footprint

Is the relatively inexpensive and widespread access to information technology hurting or helping book publishers and authors?

It would seem one needs a scorecard to figure this out.  Certainly with any change brought into the marketplace you will see a ripple effect across the board. New winners and losers will appear and the degree by which one succeeds or fails will be altered as well.  Those who gain early access to, and successful adoption of a new technology will win.  Those who are indecisive or just want to stick their head in the sand will fall behind. But with the advent of the next gadget, software or service, one can again jump ahead or fall further behind.  Change happens so frequently that it’s a certainty that nothing remains set in place for long. Publishing is becoming like the Dow Jones, with sweeping highs and lows by the day.

When it comes to book publishing we should examine technology’s impact on the publisher, the author, the consumer, and society.  There are overlapping interests as well as unique interests amongst them.  Technology has impacted who becomes an author, how one is published and distributed, and how books are edited, designed, promoted, and marketed. It has redefined the industry in such a short period of time. The publishing landscape is forever changed, for better and for worse.

Publishing is an industry deep in tradition and rigidity.  Where one sees standards and practices others see stodgy elitists dictating terms.  But book publishing, for well over a century, was an industry that was looked upon as special.  To have a book published was a dream to many.  Not only was an author’s voice heard, it was validated by the approval of the publisher. An author could feel proud of his or her accomplishment, knowing millions of other Americans wanted to trade spots with him.  Further, for a book to make a bestseller list, namely The New York Times, and to get reviewed in a leading magazine or newspaper, was quite an accomplishment. Publishing was quaint, intellectual, and somewhat exclusive for many decades. And New York was its capital. Now it seems like publishing’s doors have been thrown wide open to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Publishing is now very different.  For one, so many books are being published that the glut of titles overwhelms the marketplace, media, critics, and consumers.  Over one million new books were published in 2010.  Only about 45,000 were released in 1989.  That’s an increase of 2,200%.  The U.S. population has only grown by 33% since then. 

Who has the money to buy or time to read these books?  Of what quality are these books? Are there new stories and new ideas presented, or do so many of the books repeat and mirror each other? Is the very definition of what constitutes a book changing?

Coupled with the flood of books there is an overflow of other entertainment options – DVDs, CDs, video games, cable TV, and entertainment on demand.  You can rent, borrow, trade or buy millions of other information products.  Then add on the zillions of blogs, websites, and emails and social media (videos, FB page, Tweets, podcasts, webinars) and you just wonder what is the result, financially, socially, educationally, and otherwise on society and on the information peddlers?

We love freedom of speech. I fear we’ll soon come to love freedom from speech just as much.  I know the information universe needs a haircut – less will be more. It also needs a librarian, but not a censor or gatekeeper. We need to be able to process, judge, and understand all of the information that we have access to.  And the writers and publishers must reform their ways and take responsibility for the information overload that we each contribute to.  Perhaps I add to the information pollution as well.  We all need to examine our information footprint.

No doubt, many good things are happening with the creation and dissemination of information.  I love my smart phone, an Android, and though I don’t own one, the iPad looks great.  I know there is hope that we can find a balance between easy access to information technology and the practical employment of it but right now we have what seems to me a cluttered and chaotic – and not always profitable model – world of information.

Whereas a book gives us  sense of order – a cover, table of contents, beginning, middle and end, an index, a glossary, resources, etc. – the world of publishing is no longer so neatly ordered. With nearly 3,000 books published daily – or 125 an hour (that is one every 30 seconds) – we must seek to create a better system for reviewing, ranking, announcing, selling, and promoting them.

Whoever can figure out a way to solve this dilemma should get the Nobel Prize. 

Then he or she can blog about it and write a book.

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