Print-On-Demand, the Internet and the Future of Publishing

11th December 2001

1. The Original Article
2. Responses
        2.1. G. B. Presley
        2.2. Barbara Watson
        2.3. Clive Warner
        2.4. Jane MacDonald


1. The Original Article

720 words

What is the point of the publisher? Ten years ago, the answer was obvious: the publisher is the means by which an author's work is disseminated to the public. Now, it's not so clear whether that role has much importance. Technological advances - primarily POD (Print-On-Demand publishing) and electronic publishing on the Internet - mean that authors now have much more ability to distribute their own work without needing help from a conventional publisher.

But publishers have always had another function, which has historically been somewhat obscured by the more obvious and visible physical processes of printing and distributing slices of dead tree. In choosing which books to publish and which to decline, publishers have always acted as a filter to draw the reader away from bad books and towards good ones. (Yes, there are exceptions. But they are exceptions. That's the point.) In effect, publishing houses have acted as proxies for the readers' own taste, enabing us to buy books with some confidence in their quality.

As the world moves inexorably towards POD and Internet publishing, this role will be lost: because anyone with a few hundred dollars can have their work ``published'' via POD - and anyone with a few cents can put it up on the Internet - there is no longer the barrier that we have grown used to, and which protects us from inferior work. If I pluck a random POD book off the virtual shelf, the expectation is that its quality will be lower than that of a regular book randomly picked from a physical shelf in a traditional bookshop.

So there remains at least one role for traditional publishers, if they are flexible enough to think in non-traditional ways: they can still provide this sort of taste filtering. In this way, the set of books available in big stores like Borders will continue to be filtered by publishers - as PODding authors who have tried and failed to place their books with the chains have found.

But it remains to be seen whether publishers can move their ``taste'' expertise across to the electronic arena, providing (and of course charging for) the service of filtering the good POD and Internet books from the bad. My hunch is that they will not be able to do this? Why not? Because readers can do it much better - for themselves, and for each other.

This is not a slight on publishers, but because they cater to a diverse audience they must necessarily apply ``lowest common denominator'' taste criteria in selecting the books that they back. They have to pick the works that will be liked by the majority of their audience. In making that selection, they will miss more idiosyncratic books that will appeal enormously to some readers but not at all to others. So under the traditional model, books that I love, but which you and most people hate, will never get published; and I lose out. Conversely, books which you'd love but which I and most people wouldn't also fail to make the cut.

By contrast, when readers do taste-filtering for themselves and each other, this problem will disappear: I'll get my POD and Internet book recommendations from people whose taste is similar to mine, and I'll consequently enjoy the books I choose this way more than the books that I currently choose by the traditional method - including books that simply would never have been available at all under the old model. Granted that publishers have a better-tuned sense of ``generic taste'' than I have, they can't possibly have a better sense of my taste.

How will this happen? There's no question that the Internet needs more infrastructure, and it's not yet clear what form it will take. What's needed is some way for people to comment on books that they have read - and more important, assign marks to them. A suitably sophisticated ``taste engine'' can work its way through the vast and ever-growing database, and find maybe a hundred or a thousand people whose taste is similar to mine. Then it can tell me which books that I've not read are most liked by those hundred people. (That's why marks are more important than comments - because they can be added and averaged). Those are the books that I'll buy.

All the details of this are very hazy of course: the necessary software isn't there today - indeed, it's not even been designed in any more detail than my vague ideas above. But you can bet that it's coming. Within ten years, conventional publishers will be dead and dying.

2. Responses

2.1. G. B. Presley

In response to this article G. B. Presley <> wrote:
We've moved from a legend-spinner sitting fireside entertaining prehistoric people to Greek theatre to street entertainers to the printing press to the Internet.

Yup, that's how I see it too. The interesting thing is that where we're going to end up is closer to where we started than where we are now. As in the old days of the fireside tale-spinner, we're approaching an age where everyone can find his own audience without being reliant on the help of a corporation which may not be motivated to do so. Don't you just love the Internet?

2.2. Barbara Watson

Barbara Watson <> wrote:
One thing which I've heard from a number of sources: If a self-published book sells well, the traditional publishers take interest. Perhaps that's how POD books will, in part, be ``screened.''

Interesting. I see that as a transitional phase that the industry will go through, but in the long term, people are just going to say ``Who cares what publishers think?'' and follow the recommendations of people whose taste they know is similar to their own.

2.3. Clive Warner

Clive Warner <> wrote:
Mike, the problem is MARKETING. Unless you get your message out there, nobody will buy your POD book because no-one will know it even exists.

It's true that marketing is one of the functions of traditional publishers, and that the only way to get that marketing is to make it through their filters. At the moment, as throughout the last century, that marketing has been a necessity for finding a readership. But that's changing.

This business is all about money.

Yes - the writing business is about money, by definition. But the writing business isn't what writing is all about. It's an artefact of the last few hundred years of history that at the moment, the only way to be read by a lot of people is via the writing business. But that's all it is. The art and craft of writing thrived before the days that there was a writing business, and will continue to thrive when the writing business has shrivelled up.

I'm sure if you surveyed a hundred writers and asked why they write, the answers would break down like this: 50% ``because I have to.'' 20% ``because I have something to say.'' 20% ``because I can'' (that's me, by the way!) and maybe 10% tops ``to make money.''

The problem with POD is that there is NO advance, and NO publisher to pay for publicity. This means that POD books are doomed unless their producers invest in advertising and marketing.

Today, yes. Tomorrow, no. If the Internet has taught us one lesson (thanks to Napster, the Free Software movement and more), it's that communities spring up when given enabling technology. Once people start to find out how they can discover books that they like - whether printed on demand, downloaded into e-books, or whatever - they will start to do it. The genie will be out of the bottle, and there will be nothing that anyone in the publishing industry can do about it.

If you will indulge me for a moment, I'd like to use the overworked analogy of the Internet to the printing press. I'm sure that in the first days of the printing press, the early adopters were disappointed with their results. They got nice, printed copies of their work, but no-one took them seriously: back then, it was a given that Real Books were the ones copied out by trained monks. It didn't take long for that to change, and it won't take long for book distribution and publicity to change either.

Take heart! As one of our poets has written, ``The times, they are a-changin' '' :-)

2.4. Jane MacDonald

Jane MacDonald <> (who incidentally is as asute an analyst as I've come across) wrote:
I think I know what the big problem is and how to solve it. Much of the promotion money publishers spend buys copies of the book to send out for review, and big ads in the book review supplements. Right now, there are few, if any, POD book review specialists. That has to change.

Somebody has to realize that a really good Web book review site could be built, and could make money. At first, such a review site would need a little capital to get going, but it could rely at first on amateur reviewers. Some people apparently really love to write book reviews - witness Harriet Klausner, Amazon's number one reviewer the last time I looked. She's not getting paid for Amazon reviews. Authors of POD books would review other people's work if asked, because there'd be a plug for their books and a URL at the end of the review.

Quality P.R. would get the site known, and when hit numbers became significant, POD authors would be willing to pay for ads on the site. Print review editors would read it, and then they'd at least look at books that got good reviews there.

This is so simple I'm amazed it hasn't happened yet. I'm not going to set up the site, but I might buy an ad one day. Until something like it exists, however, POD is going to stay a hard row to hoe.

I have nothing to add to this except - great idea! Maybe one day I'll find the time to build it (I am a web developer in my Day Job!)

Feedback to <> is welcome!