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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Future of Print (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

I love having a birthday party. I've done so every year since high school. Not because I'm trolling for attention or presents, but because it's fun, and it falls at a good time, coinciding with the end of the school year and all. It's an annual excuse for a party. These days, it's also an annual excuse to clean our house ...

(I kid, I kid. We also clean at major holidays and when expecting relatives.)

The past three years, it's also fallen the weekend after ConCarolinas. Since I go mostly to see all of the Magical Words authors and community members who can make it, and to attend the writing panels, it feels like the best birthday present I can give myself. We even have a party there, too, and it's a blast. Especially when one inadvertently plays bouncer and successfully discourages would-be crashers with the words, "sorry, we're just writers". But hey, that's another story.

So, here I am, finally recovered from the jet lag and the celebrations. I'm sharing the following notes first. It was a Sunday, but as was emphasized during this panel, the publishing industry is currently in flux. Big changes are happening on a nearly-daily basis. So while they couldn't guarantee that this info is still valid beyond the hour of this panel, I think they're a great snapshot of things as of a week ago, an excellent discussion, and definitely worth thinking about. Enjoy!

* * *

The Future of Print
Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, Stuart Jaffe
Moderator: Edmund Schubert

Is Print Dead?

SJ: This is one of the most fluid times of publishing. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow – this is a snapshot of *right now*.

Print won’t die completely, it’ll shift to what types will survive and what won’t. Theatre in the 1800s was a dominant form of entertainment, a lucrative job. Then came movies and TV. Theatre didn’t die. It just provides a different medium. What it provides is a different experience. The theatres able to survive were the ones able to adapt and change. Youtube and TV can do the little things much better.

There will be a rise in hardcover and quality because the people who collect paper are going to still want it. Mass-market paperbacks were invented for people to consume and throw away. For people who didn’t care, they just wanted the story. E-readers do that now:  they’re cheaper, faster, and serve the purpose of mass markets. In some ways, even serve it better.

FH: It takes a publisher about $28,000 to put a book through the system, not counting the cost of print. Once they get their money back, they could change the price, but they won’t.

SJ: The big news from last week (i.e. week of May 26th): Self-publishing when it first started was written off as an economic model that wasn’t viable. The returns system was difficult. Stores were only allowed to order and return books in set quantities. Last week, Baker & Taylor announced that they will accept one-copy orders and returns. Now a self-published author can get their single title on the shelf. This is a direct outgrowth of Print On Demand.

FH: We’re not just going to see bookstores anymore. Big bookstores are going to be gone. Everything will be done online. Small presses have shifted to e-books. They’re making money with this and loving it.

DC: Tectonic changes in the industry means dog-eat-dog among booksellers, publishers, and distributors, and everyone is fighting with everyone. E-books loosen the grip of big publishers.

SJ: Took him a year to stop thinking of self-publishing as a stigma. Really, truly at the beginning of the line are writers who want to write, and at the end of the line are readers who want to read. People in the middle either help or hinder. Every writer is different depending on what they want from their careers. What’s helpful for one dream may be a hindrance for another.

ES: In the next 10-20 years, Print On Demand machines will come down in price and you might be able to buy a book that way. Stores won’t need to maintain an inventory. Instead of bookstores, there might just be kiosks.

SJ: Also, e-books are a first world problem.

FH: The phone is an equalizer. Anyone with a cell phone will be able to read e-books.

SJ: When big bookstores disintegrate, and they will, there won’t be a thriving indie market, but there will be a niche market. Bookstores will exist in some way or another. Like the theatre. People who figure out how to make it work will do so.

ES: Just as big box stores pushed out mom and pop stores in the 90s. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there will be a rise of mom and pop stores that *have* figured out how to do it.

SJ: We are at the the prototype stage of a star trek replicator. 3-D printers are now an industry disruptor to any object sold anywhere.

DC: But won’t that cause unemployment and then people won’t buy our books?

SJ: People pay for our talent.

FH: New jobs will come from the shift. This happens every decade. Invention will always create change.

SJ: Publishing may look very different, but it will continue. And without writers, the chain can’t happen, regardless of whatever’s in the path between writer and reader. It’s our job to navigate these waters.

FH: The same thing happened to music.

ES: The mode of distribution has shifted.

SJ: There aren’t as many quadruple-platinum musicians, but more musicians are making a living. He (SJ) is now putting food on the table with his self-published books.

ES: But more people have more options, and making a living isn’t happening as much, and only the ones who have mastered the distribution are really making money.

DC: Midlist authors’ earnings have been on a steady decline. Authors are working harder, producing more, publishing more and are making less.

FH: But often making more money in percentage sold as e-books. Greater percentage as more books sell.

ES: E-books are also opening up options for books once considered dead.

SJ: Amazon stated their own imprints because they were trying to accomplish things with publishers and not succeeding, and then finally decided to do it themselves. Authors they think are good, they’re acquiring.

Audience Question:  This is also impacting libraries. You’ll have centrally located libraries. E-publishers are already making inroads on “first sale” – treating it not as a physical books but as a license. Thoughts?

FH: This will help authors in the short run because they will see more money, but they will see less fans. We need to turn the used-book buyer to the buyer of something affordable.

DC: With the Kobo, a Canadian* company, you purchase, not license, the book. Kobo could force Amazon to stop doing the licensing.

* At this point, I have to interrupt these notes to say how loved and welcome I feel. There I am, sitting in the front row, rapidly typing notes, and one of the panelists joked, “But everyone knows you can’t trust Canadians.” Because as far as I know, I was the only Canadian in the room, and the panelists (MW alumni all) knew that, too. In hindsight, I should have replied, “Hey, at least when we take over the world, we’ll say ‘sorry’ after,” but it was Sunday morning, sleep was beyond me, and I was too busy laughing with the rest of the audience. Good times. ^__^

ES: Amazon and Kobo are fighting outside of the US, and Amazon isn’t always winning. This could be a major game-changer in the future.

*cough* Our takeover will be swift and polite.

Audience Question: What about piracy?

SJ: "Sure, pirate it. I get exposure. [As a self-published author] Getting people to know I exist is hard work for me." People who pirate stuff will only ever pirate anyway, so you’re gaining a reader. Or they can’t get it any other way. Exposure leads to greater readership in the long-run.

Audience Question:  Will e-publishing change word count and book length for getting books onto shelves?

FH: It already has.

DC: But some books are best at shorter lengths, anyway.

SJ: Writes shorter fiction; is now able to sell the novels for the size they’re supposed to be, rather than adding unnecessary subplots. Also, there will be a rise in short stories sold via e-book.

DC: The 49 cent short stories.

FH: The business model is always going to be in a constant state of flux.


  1. Interesting panel and great notes! Thanks for sharing, Laura. Seeing how thorough you are will help me to improve mine for ConTemporal, coming up. Looking forward to more of your notes from ConCarolinas!

    1. You're welcome, Margaret! And thank you. :) I also have a lot more notes from SIWC, too, so this won't be a boring summer.

  2. I'm always amazed at how much detail you get into your conference notes!! Mine read like a chimp's version of shorthand.

    I still haven't accepted the prediction that books and bookstores could disappear. But the statement about them needing to adapt to survive is logical. I have a Kobo now (well, it's actually my hubby's) but I still love my paper books. As mentioned, I think eBooks will be the 'throw away paperbacks' equivalent, and print books will be the 'keepers'. I have a lot of the latter and can't imagine I'll ever stop gathering more.

    1. It is hard to imagine this right now, Carol, I agree. I wonder if we'll say the same ten or twenty years from now.

      I have a lot of signed paperbacks I want to keep, but otherwise, I get the draw about the e-reader. My how we live in interesting times. ;) As always ...

  3. Very intriguing discussion! I am a book lover, but I also have an e-reader. I adore bookstores, but I purchase a lot of my books online. I hope SJ is right and that bookstores will always exist in some form.

    I'm passing on a Liebster Award to you - cheers!

    Brandy's Bustlings