Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The future of publishing: a nightmare?

In a recent Publishers Weekly article about the upcoming Frankenstein app (click here for a more in-depth look at the implications of this app), a quote by app author Dave Morris caught my eye.

“If Kindle books are the new paperbacks, book apps on tablets are the new hardbacks. That means they will need to be dressed up to look more like a premium purchase.”


We’ve talked about how the model needs to change, and we’ve talked about how so much risk goes into making a good enhanced ebook. But for some reason, I’d never realized:

We could reverse the model.

Normal model

Usually trade publishing goes like this: publish a hardcover book. Then later, if it looks like there will be a decent paperback market, the book comes out in paperback—either through the original publisher or through a paperback publisher who’s purchased the rights. So the model goes expensive first, cheap second.

In this model, all of the resources that go into making a book are being factored into the profit/loss expectation for the hardback run. That is, all of the costs of editorial, design, marketing, publicity, production. Sure, these costs are incurred on a lesser scale when the book comes out again in paperback, but the bulk of these efforts are paid for through the hardcover. The paperback is kind of money in the publisher’s pocket. It’s an afterthought, the same thing repurposed. (Sometimes without even redesigning the typeset pages.)

Okay. Got that? Now let’s look at Dave Morris’s proposed system and pretend we’re in a world that doesn’t put books on paper. (I know, probably distant, but bear with me.)

The Book

In this paperless world, the book is electronic. That means that it has one format (ebook) instead of two (hardcover/paperback). The collector’s appeal of beautiful hardcovers is no longer a thing that justifies higher prices. Amazon has trained consumers to want cheap ebooks. Conclusion: As Morris says, ebooks are sold at paperback prices. Paperback comes first.

The Enhanced

If the book earns back its investment, or hits a critical mass of followers, or shows in other ways that it should be a candidate for an enhanced ebook, the publisher does some intensive market research. He/she looks at the user base for the book and determines what that audience would find most valuable in an enhanced ebook. The enhanced ebook is put out for development companies to bid on. The author is brought in to consult, and possibly is commissioned to create extra material for the enhanced book. A lot of time, effort, and resources are invested in giving this enhanced ebook enough added value that it will fly. Conclusion: Instead of pouring resources into books at the initial acquisition, the real expenditure is after the book has proved itself to have a solid fanbase.


The Scream


What does this mean for authors? We know that it’s already ridiculously hard to get published, and many authors (even published ones!) are taking the self-publishing route. If publishing takes the Dave Morris path, will it make it easier for authors to get in, since the greater expenditure is at stage two, after the book has proven itself? Or will it make it even harder? (Not only does a book have to succeed, it has to be something that can be easily or effectively enhanced.)


Where can we budget marketing and publicity activity in this model? If we sell the initial book at paperback prices, can we count on earning back enough (or being able to set the price reasonably enough) to cover marketing expenses? If not, what happens?

I can imagine it turning into a downward spiral: no marketing → low awareness → low sales → no enhanced ebook → minimal revenue → fewer ebooks published → publisher moves to publishing enhanced ebooks only → self publishing becomes new norm.

Then is social media our savior? Is self-promotion, not talent or merit, the new criteria for successful authors? And will this make us miss out on, say, the next Thomas Pynchon? Which begs the question: do we need Thomas Pynchons? Which begs another question: will publishers still be arbiters of taste, as we have so long believed?


My last post was pretty optimistic; I realize this is a big downer. I also realize that these are the night terrors that much of the industry is having now. We’re figuring out where things are going and how we as individuals will fit into the new order. I still can’t wait to find out what happens next, and I think the future of publishing/reading/storytelling is going wonderful places. But I’m also trying to find a balance between crazy excited for the industry and terrified for my specific career. It’s a roller coaster ride. And at the end of the day, I have to trust that looking ahead and dreaming of what’s next will help me—and all of us—predict the skills and experience we should be seeking now in order to prepare for the brand new world that’s ahead.

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

4 comments on “The future of publishing: a nightmare?

  1. Dave Morris
    May 16, 2012

    Well, I said enhanced books are going to be the new hardbacks, but maybe the new hardbacks will be… hardbacks. We already have publishers testing the water in ebook format with some titles, then moving to print. The “50 Shades” model. It’s a small step from there to say, okay, this book (or series) proved it has a following in ebook form, now let’s issue a deluxe hardcover edition.

  2. Leah Thompson
    May 17, 2012

    Exactly– but whether we’re talking about physical hardcovers or enhanced ebooks, that’s still flipped the process on its head, so that books are being put out there with little support or investment, then resources are getting thrown at them when they catch on. I’m interested to see how that will play out.

  3. Pingback: Nightmarish Hypotheses: The Uncertain Future of Book Publishing | xbooksblogger

  4. Pingback: The mystified oracle: How can we predict what digital will do to publishing? « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on May 3, 2012 by in Opinion and tagged , , , , .

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