The Book Bubble

Is the publishing bubble going to burst?

I’m thinking a lot about how literary publishing has really exploded in the past several years, with the rise of small presses, nonprofit presses, print-on-demand services, diy publishing, and so on. I think it is fantastic that there are so many ways to get books into print now, but I’m also a little nervous about the book market’s ability to sustain such diversity.

Whenever there is a technological advance–such as, say, the internet–there follows an enormous market swell of entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on the advance by founding companies, services, and such. Affordable desktop publishing was one such advance, extending the means of book production to more hands, and print-on-demand technology has been another leap forward, making those production means endlessly affordable by reducing the amount of up-front capital required to found a press or even print a catalog of titles.

All of this has, so far, meant great things for writers, particularly poets, whose work is not widely read by the American reading public. While the for-profit world tends to operate in a Darwinian way (the market determines the lifespan of a product or company), nonprofit organizations crop up whenever “market failure” occurs. Consider market failure to be something like the vanishing of the passenger pigeon. Nonprofit organizations ensure that for any market, nothing goes out of style. Instead, nonprofit orgs require the interested percentage of the market itself to support the activity by making charitable gifts, which are, in non-profit speak, the same thing as venture capital is to the for-profit, but the return on investment is social rather than capital in nature.

Now, more than ever, poets possess the means of production for their work, reminiscent of the days when writers assembled their own “pamphlets” of work. Wasn’t Walt Whitman’s book essentially a self-published title? It feels like it could be a very democratic time in publishing.

Except for that fact that many publishers are going to fail, particularly with the recession.

It’s as likely that a big publisher will fail, and possibly more likely because there is more capital at stake there, more money spent up front on printing and marketing, than a POD press, or even a DIY press. I think we’ll start to see a significant change in the publishing model, although I’m not exactly sure what that is. I fear poets will see more and more fee-based contests, but as an idealist, I’m sure there will continue to be fee-free ways to get books bound.

The internet + desktop publishing + print on demand technology = completely user-based production integration. For example, my online magazine, LOCUSPOINT, costs me $100 per year to keep alive. My labor is volunteer, my authors are volunteer, and my readers are volunteer (meaning they don’t pay). I feel like it’s a good use of my $100 dollars (and my time!) to do this. A print magazine’s budget can soar to $30,000 per year, just due to printing ($5K an issue), postage (yikes! always increasing), and staff salary (when appropriate). So, you tell me: which is the more sustainable model?

There’s a growing sense, though, that when the internet is involved, content should be made available for free. Charging for access to information on the internet is quickly becoming a fool’s errand, and I think another change we’ll see to that model is that fee-based news services will die (sorry, New York Times) because there are alternative options that don’t charge (Yahoo! news, for instance). And Google, with its insistence on extending services to clients for free, is really at the vanguard of this transition.

So this begins to beg the question: will there come a time when books are free? Now that we have Kindle and Sony Reader running around, it’s more possible. With the production costs of the bound book decreasing, there are fewer things to pay for. Normally, this would mean an increase in the profit margin, but in this case, it means a reduction in cost to the consumer because they sense there’s less value in their purchase (like how iTunes songs are cheaper than songs you buy on non-rewritable media).

And the next question: should books and literary magazines be free?

Yes, that is the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Free distribution is likely to widen readership (with no barrier to entry, people of all economic backgrounds can participate, which is something many traditional presses forget about, even contests who charge fees forget this).

Free distribution means the purpose of the activity is not to turn a profit, but to accomplish something else.

Perhaps what we’ll see now is use of the literary magazine as a “preview” of books to come. Like, a press collects a cohort of authors into its fold, uses its literary magazine to promote and publicize their work through a free system of distribution, and then entices readers to purchase books (online, naturally) so that they can read the whole thing.

…and isn’t that a model we’ve seen before (to some extent)? “Schools” of writers, banding together, publishing their work themselves, distributing it free or for low-cost, and then publishing books…

…yes, it sounds like something that happened the last time there was a significant advance in publishing: the photocopier.


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