This spring, some research had me making a series of calls to a range of people in the book publishing business, including authors, agents, publishers, and consultants. The topic--in broad terms--was about the shift to digital. How did these publishing leaders see the shift occurring today? How was it going so far, and--more importantly--what might the publishing landscape look like in 3 or 5 years?
As you can imagine, I heard a bit of everything. For some, the shift was happening more slowly than perhaps the public perceived. Others were all in: Each print title going forward would have a digital counterpart, or in select cases, publishers would be producing digital-only titles. Most saw growth happening more quickly here in the States than abroad, but some were working in selected overseas markets where adoption was happening quickly.
But here is the striking thing. While the details of each conversation varied, the mood did not. One executive said, "It's a renaissance for book publishing. More people are reading than ever before, and in ways we could not have anticipated even a few years ago. It's very exciting." While not everyone was as effusive, each of these leaders was upbeat about the state of book publishing, and there's certainly a lot to like.
Established channels for ebook distribution starting with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple and extending to a long list of specialized ebook channels such as ebrary, Knovel Corp., and CourseSmart, LLC are helping ebooks penetrate the market and gain wide-reaching acceptance. An explosion of reading devices and tablets, driven by the technical, creative, and marketing muscle of Apple, Amazon, Google, and others, have given readers more ways than ever before to consume digital content, including books.
It's not just ebooks, though. New technologies are changing the publishing industry in every way. From creation to workflow to long-term data management, the business is changing. Booming new avenues for self-publishing such as Lulu Enterprises, Inc. and CreateSpace are allowing writers to get into the content-creation game. Vibrant community sites such as Goodreads, Inc., LibraryThing, and Shelfari help create more awareness in the reader community, thus pushing great ebooks. XML-First and XML-Early workflows that enable publishers to create digital products concurrently with their print products are cutting down on the time to market. Expanding options for short-run printing and print on demand (POD) are giving publishers much greater flexibility over inventory and the ability to keep more books in print longer, with greater efficiencies as a result. Improved systems and methods for product data management help publishers better understand their inventory, and all of these channels and devices mean publishers need more automated ways of distributing their product information.
It's not hard to see why so many insiders see the big picture for book publishing as very positive. The revenues are there and growing. Outsell, Inc.'s research points to a 42% compound annual growth rate in ebook revenue over the 3 years from 2009 to 2012. Readers are excited by the new devices and are demonstrating their excitement in fast-growing device and ebook sales.
So many of these technological advancements are accelerants for ebooks specifically and improved digital publishing generally. The simple ebooks that dominate the market today are being joined by enhanced ebooks with more multimedia and interactivity. Some markets (children's books, elementary education) that have been slower to move to digital will--in all likelihood--be the focus of much more dynamic and exciting product development moving forward.
To keep pace, many publishers are investing in process improvement and technology across the supply chain. One of the main publisher complaints since ebooks first emerged onto the scene has been an inability to profit enough from these lower-priced, digital products. While incurring costs in the short term, lower publishing and channel costs are making it possible for publishers to offer their digital products at lower prices. This represents greater value for readers and fair compensation for all stakeholders in the publishing cycle.
Some of this will only take shape over a longer time horizon than we can currently see. Changes are still happening at a breathtaking rate-new platforms, new devices, and new offerings seem to be announced almost daily. But the overarching trend is clear: Book publishing is going increasingly digital, more products are coming, and the future is indeed bright.