Future of publishing: short and long term trends


Yuri K. Shestopaloff


The analysis offered to your attention is based on my knowledge of general laws that determine how natural phenomena evolve, combined with common sense and real life experience. When I say "natural" and "general", I refer to a broad range of processes including social and economical events, as well as things that happen in Nature. I am not only a proponent of a scientific approach to any problem, but also a developer of such scientific tools. In particular, this analysis extensively uses the results of my research published in the book "Sums of Exponential Functions and their New Fundamental Properties, with Applications to Natural Phenomena". Let my readers not be scared off by this mathematical title. I am not going to cite the theorem I proved in the book, which represents real, fundamental laws embedded into Nature. Rather, I will emphasize that my analysis is not a purely speculative endeavor, and that there are some real, fundamental reasons for the inferences I make in this article. Although I do not refer to the theorem and other mathematically formulated laws of Nature in each case when I use them, they are the foundation of this research. On the other hand, not all factors can be handled adequately enough by scientific judgment because of their specifics and insufficiency of available mathematical apparatus. In this case, common sense and life experience fill the gaps. The good thing is that both approaches, the intuitive and the scientific, have to agree on the boundaries of their domains, thus supporting each other and increasing credibility and validity of the overall analysis.

            Let us start with the basics. All real life phenomena, without exception, are composed of multiple factors. So, in order to have an adequate perception of a problem, we should analyze it as a whole entity, ideally taking into account all meaningful factors and their relationships. Only in this case, having a thorough understanding of the current situation, we can see well enough through the fog of the future to make steps towards the solution.


          Overall situation


            With regards to the publishing industry, on a large scale, we have experienced noticeable changes in the industry itself, both technological and organizational, and slowdown and uncertainly of the overall economy. These factors, combined together, created exaggerated concerns, which in turn began to influence the real situation. (This is the usual, self-amplifying, feedback loop coupled with the properties of destructive processes that I consider in my book.) Fortunately, at this point, these concerns and worries did not do much harm. At BEA (a book exhibition) I saw attempts to offer the overall economic downturn "melody" as a strategic marketing vehicle, but it did not look attractive to people, as I noticed.

            Changes in the publishing industry, in fact, are not frightening either if we take a closer look. We will mention several factors, detailed consideration of which will reveal a similar picture, which is not exactly disappointing. Yes, there are some things to be taken care of, which is what we do all the time. Many publishers who are used to physical books view the growth of e-books and other electronic media as a threat to their business. As usual, many companies were formed to take advantage of the growing e-book market. Some of them are trying to make a buck, but some want to establish themselves in this apparently lucrative and quickly growing market segment for a long time to come. Publishers feel pressure: "Go on the bandwagon! It’s going to be too late tomorrow! Publish e-books! Right now!" Google is stuffing books into their Book Search program, and as a result of this, many publishers feel like precious book content is slipping out of their hands together with their money. Printers do not feel good about these changes either.


          The advent of e-books


I cannot draw graphs of mathematical functions here to make my arguments more convincing, but in a nutshell, the growth of the e-book business is a constructive, or synthesis, process. It faces many challenges, and its growth can be impressive only at the very beginning. Later on, several impeding factors of a different nature will begin to substantially subdue this growth. Depending on how much effort and resources will be put into the e-book business, if too many people rush into it, we can have a short downturn in e-book sales within a time window of two to four years. Otherwise, the growth of the e-book business will be quite commensurate with the overall industry development when things settle down.

            Saying this, we have to note that e-books will complement paper books in some niches more than in others. Smaller size books whose value is mostly in up-to-date information will be read in e-formats more than voluminous monographs (obvious, is it not?). The reasons behind these assertions are numerous. For instance, physiologically, people who pay money want to subconsciously have something tangible. Even the tradeoff between the cheaper file version and, in many cases, the more expensive paper copy does not compensate for this desire. Physical appearance appeals to many people. This alone is a strong factor to be taken into account besides others that work in the same direction. Some people predict a quick dominance of e-books based on the analogy with selling music and songs. This is not the right analogy; the entities we compare (music and books) are different qualitatively. The mere physiological nature of information processing is different for each of these entities.

Paper books will become less expensive in production. Recent developments, like the Espresso book machine and similar ones, move book production much closer to the point of sale, thus cutting the distribution costs. There are other short and long term trends that will allow the paper book business to evolve and strengthen its positions.

            There are also some niches which electronic formats will create, such as multimedia e-books. This is a whole new area where e-formats can create qualitatively new products. Of course, many other products that can be produced only in an electronic form are possible. In fact, the development of e-books will be most successful in the direction of least resistance and competition from printed books, while appealing to traditional readers’ values, which vary across different categories of readers. In particular, with the right approach, multimedia e-formats can become an invaluable resource in education at all levels if tailored properly to the interactive nature of the teaching process. Feverish copying of existing books into e-formats is a temporary, transitional process. The survival and prosperity of companies that do this is not there. They have to provide add-on value. Doing this is a slower process that I classify as a synthesis process.

            So, having e-books in the publishers’ line of products is an objective trend, but it has many more dimensions than simple e-formatting of existing or upcoming books. This phenomenon is not a burden, nor is it a threat. Rather, it presents new long term opportunities and new developments that in the long run are going to evolve and become inseparable and inherent constituents of the book industry. However, this will not happen overnight and everybody will have plenty of time to adjust to the new situation and find the right place to be in. A prudent attitude is much supported by the lack of a jurisdictional base and practices protecting the publishers and authors from copyright piracy and unscrupulous businesses. These gaps will be gradually filled, although the process will sometimes be painful, especially for small publishers. In any case, it will not happen without concentrated and united efforts of all participants. The less order there will be, the more pain will be incurred.


          Internet: is it a blessing or a curse for publishers?


            First of all, the Internet is here, and we just have to accept this fact and start from there, trying to adapt and make it friendly and useful. A wild horse can be trained to become a useful animal. A wolf is another story, but Internet is not a wolf.  The problems are brought not by technology, but by its inadequate usage. These days, one can find a lot on the Internet. However, it requires knowledge, effort, and time. Most people go the way of least resistance and follow conventions. Several percent of people will go to the Internet, for different reasons, and download a free book. However, in the same way one can buy illegal copies of printed textbooks at university campuses. Most people will do this because the original textbooks are very expensive. If we make them cheaper, perhaps less illegal copies will circulate. On the other hand, for some people the only way to read certain books is through an illegally downloaded copy. However, it is very inconvenient to read a large amount of text on the computer. Usually, people do not read a lot on computer screens. Many prefer to print out several pages and then read them offline. However, given the cost of printing and paper, most people eventually buy a hard copy of the book if they find themselves using it often enough.

            Maybe an even more serious issue is the easiness of scanning, printing, and selling books anonymously on-line. The present legislative and technological environment offers with this regard an opportunity as wide as Strait of Gibraltar. Big publishing houses are certainly armed against this invasion of modern Barbarians, but even their armor is vulnerable. What can we say about small publishers? They will be defenseless unless they are united and determined to protect themselves.

            In any case, piracy is a separate, multifactor, problem that requires a constructive approach and compromises, as well as improved legislation, including international treaties, new technologies, etc. This problem will never be completely eradicated as long as the notion of money exists, but it should not get too big, otherwise publishers will stop publishing and e-formatting all sorts of books, and many authors will stop writing. This is when the whole society begins to suffer.

Finally, let me make a note. There are some fundamental laws in Nature that allow me to unambiguously assert that these problems have solutions. The best thing to do in this situation is to take a proactive stand, stop worrying about uncertainty, and start solving these problems.


          Promoting books. Accessibility, objectivity and future of reviews


            Marketing and promotion in the publishing industry is changing. Traditional review sources cannot cope with the growing number of titles, while this growth is an objective trend much supported by technological breakthroughs, organizational improvements, and a lower threshold of expertise and quality required to enter the book market. Monopolistic positioning of many review journals does not stimulate much activity, not to say qualitative changes in business organization and practices needed to adapt and support the new environment. Libraries also do not have much of a stimulus to notice anything outside of the recommendations of leading review journals. Another issue is that the pace of reviewing lags behind the modern technological base and industry’s organizational structure that allows writing and printing a book within a few weeks. These contradictions are serious obstacles for the future development of the publishing industry and improvement of books’ content quality. Having paid reviews for several hundred dollars is not a remedy and, in fact, this is a temporary phenomenon. Alternatives will appear, and grow quickly.

Marketing is trying to take a leading role in the book industry. Writers are taught to write to satisfy readers’ wishes and to comply with their standards, vision, and mentality. (Do you think marketing people know exactly what people want?) Marketers forget that people are looking for new ideas and are open to a broad spectrum of different opinions on any subject. So, it should not be a one-way street. Rather, the process should mutually enrich both writers and readers.

With this lack of objective professional reviews, the Internet allows the transfer of this duty to the readers themselves, although (as usual!) intermediaries and profiteers do not miss their chances. In this situation, Google’s Book Search program is a good example of a vehicle that delivers the book content directly to the readers for their judgment. Some on-line stores allow people to see a small portion of the book’s content. However, when the publisher or author knows that the same on-line store owns a POD (print-on-demand) company that can easily reproduce the book without the author’s permission, the desire to release all files required for the book’s production somehow diminishes.

So, what might happen next. One of the likely scenarios is that Internet reviewing, presently chaotic, will grow and gradually produce some organized structure and de facto standards allowing the delivery of reviews from all over the world to the reader much sooner than present review journals do. We have such an option now when shopping for, let us say, car rentals. The issue will be how to choose trusted sources of reviews (like those that help us choose better car rental companies), but this problem can be addressed. This stream of internet reviewing is becoming too powerful and too demanded not to pay attention to. Traditional review journals, in fact, can excel in this environment too if the right and prudent approach is taken. However, monopolists are generally slow to realize what changes in their environment, when things go well for them for too long.


Concluding the article, I would like to emphasize that the present, and possible future developments are not determined by fate. This has been said many times before by many people really worth listening to, beginning from the Ionian philosophers Thales of Miletus and Anaximander, as well as Aristotle. Natural laws govern our lives and Nature’s evolvement in the same way as wind and snow force us to drive slower, or take another route, or cancel the trip - the choice is ours. Other natural laws that are invisible to us are as real as the wind and snow. They also can force us to change our previous intentions, although we often do not realize why, because we do not know those laws. However, this sort of limitation, in fact, not very restraining one, is the only restriction imposed by natural laws. Otherwise, our future can be made in one way or another depending on how well we understand the environment, what resources we have, and how we want to live in this world.