Appazoogle: Dispatches from the Digital Revolution, a blog that explores the technological future of publishing, recently posted this provocatively titled entry: “The future of publishing: a nightmare?” The article, written by Leah Thompson, takes the form of a reflection on possible changes to the publishing industry from a hypothetical point of view. Thompson’s take is radical, but is also, I think, representative of the direction in which the industry could very well be heading due to the digital revolution. Thompson begins by explaining the traditional publishing model (eg. hardcover → paperback takeover), but then goes on to suggest that a movement to the digital realm could result in a complete reversal of this process (ebook → enhanced ebook).
In order to follow her argument, we have to grant her the possibility that printed books will no longer be in existence (a turn of events which I can’t bear to think about in reality, but am willing to entertain for hypothetical purposes). Producing the cheaper option (ebooks) before the more expensive option (enhanced ebooks) will push the “real expenditure” to later on in the process, “after the book has proved itself to have a solid fanbase.” While this makes sense in a lot of ways, I think there are some problems with this model, many of which Thompson herself acknowledges. In the current model, hardcover production is by far the most costly, but it also brings in the most revenue. Consumers are willing to pay more for the hardcover because 1) it is a better quality product and 2) it is often the only option initially available for a title, and will therefore entice the reader who doesn’t want to wait for the cheaper version to hit the market. I am skeptical as to whether this will work in reverse. If the cheaper version is available before the premium version, those readers who are dying to read the book will likely be satisfied with the first version, and will not purchase the second. Because this is still such a new market, there’s no way of knowing how much value consumers are likely to place on enhancements to books that they already own. Thompson also raises the concern that the earnings of the initial version may not be enough to cover marketing costs for the title, and that this will lead to a minimal sales and revenue for the ebook and no production of the enhanced ebook whatsoever. It’s interesting to compare this article to the one from Content Wrangler that I discussed earlier. Thompson considers the possibility of the production of the enhanced ebook as being contingent on the success of the ebook, while Abel sees the enhanced ebook as being the next crucial step for the industry, and ultimately wants to eliminate the basic ebook altogether.
One specific element to which Thompson devotes some attention is the implication of this potential model on the author. She poses the question about whether this new model will make things easier or harder on the author, but doesn’t present a definitive opinion or argument either way. I recently saw a presentation by Rob Sawyer, acclaimed science fiction writer, who made an impassioned argument against enhanced ebooks. He claimed that, for authors, the most profitable course of action is to hold on to all multimedia rights for your titles, and to not give publishers the opportunity to produce enhanced ebooks, as there is no guarantee that they (the publisher) would ever take advantage of it. This holds true in Thompson’s hypothetical model as well. If, for example, an author hands over these rights to the publisher, but his or her book is unsuccessful in ebook form, those rights will likely never be exercised to create an enhanced ebook. Furthermore, even if the title is turned into an enhanced ebook, this will likely not make as much profit as other potential uses for these multimedia rights (eg. film, television, etc). Essentially, enhanced ebooks may not be as profitable for authors as we think.
Additionally, Thompson goes on to suggest that this model may make it even more difficult for authors to be published, because “not only does a book have to succeed, it has to be something that can be easily or effectively enhanced.” This implies that the content that the editor is looking for, even as far back as the acquisitions stage, has to be compatible with enhancements in order to fit with the publication strategy. I think it’s problematic to select content based on its potential for enhancements. It’s a standard practice that content should dictate form, not the other way around. If we decide to publish only what will be easily enhanced, we would greatly limit the diversity inherent in the book industry. Shouldn’t the content be able to speak for itself?