Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Present and Future of Publishing

Apparently, it's panic time.

At least, that's what we're seeing in the publishing world. Long established houses are either closing or being swallowed by other houses and then closing (Hmmm... sounds rather like Municipal Darwinism). Imprints (a fancy word for what amounts to a "brand" division, not that readers care) are being reabsorbed left and right. And publishers, editors, associate editors and editorial assistants suddenly find themselves being chased by the industry equivalent of Alice's Queen of Hearts. WHACK! There goes another one...

What's a writer to do?

Relax, says this one.

Whether the industry shakeup is based on a media-produced economic panic (I think partially so, but that's a topic for a different setting), or based on industry false steps (and there have been a lot of these), I think for writers the end result will be positive.

In fact, I think we're going to witness a sea change in children's books over the next few years, which will all be to the good of writers, readers and the industry.

My predictions are that we will see a switch back to "tried and true" book themes over avant-garde, risky titles. Publishers are going to want books that sell in quantity over the long haul. This will have a two-fold impact. Quality will become even more important (good for the reader), while content will be targeted towards the consistent reader over the get-'em-to-grab-it crowd. As a result, we'll see less retreads of television shows and less controversial social commentary. Controversial issue-oriented stuff sells, but it has a limited market vis-a-vis the general public. It sells to a certain segment of the readership, and then stops. Temporarily it may get a boost because of controversy, but then the interest dies as soon as the next headline pops up. Instead, publishers will begin to trend toward books with broad-appeal themes. Some will be flashy, of course. But others will be quiet, literary in their quality rather than in their assumed social significance. Escapist literature (adventure, fantasy, action sci-fi, mystery and romance) will get a boost, as will "comfort" reads. Historical fiction will also likely pick up.

I might be wrong, and as a writer of more escapist stuff (with a literary bent), I might be engaging in wishful thinking. But, to put a label on it, the industry is going to go "conservative" in product, in appeal at least. And I'm not certain that's such a bad thing. They may discover they've been missing a large part of their market in recent years. And if that brings more readers to the bookshelves (and I think it will), even the avant-garde titles will pick up again. And that's good for all of us.

In the meantime, I'm going to write.

--- Howard Shirley


Anonymous said...

Recently, I was in a bookstore and I was looking through the limited titles that they had avaiable. It occured to me that all these stores are going to go under. I discovered the Kindle. The Kindle will do to stores and publishing houses what the IPOD did to music stopres and music companies. It will crush them. Wait till the big time authors realize that they can simply upload their stuff to Amazon or Barnes and Noble-the checks bypass the publishers. Interesting thoughts-I just think publishers are going to get crushed soon.

Howard Shirley said...

Interesting, but I think the Kindle's impact may not be that significant, especially in children's books. The high initial cost of the technology will put off many readers, particularly young ones, and the actual limited utility of the Kindle compared to more versatile devices like computers and iPhones will slow its expansion as well. Plus there's just the solid appeal of a good old-fashioned book; that alone will keep traditional publishing plugging along fine.

Where I do see the Kindle making inroads is in the area of non-fiction, technical and business markets; possibly even textbooks. What college student wouldn't rather carry a Kindle with inexpensively downloaded texts (particularly obscure ones) rather than lug around 40 lbs. of over-priced paper? And if you're a professional such as an engineer or lawyer or businessman trying to stay abreast of the latest concepts in your field, the Kindle offers fast and convenient access to a world of information.

But for kids wanting to curl up with a good book, or dads reading a bedtime story, the old standby of paper and ink between a sturdy cover will never go away.