Conversation on the future of books and publishing


I am at a lunch organized by book publisher Blurb with Robin Goldberg, SVP of global channels at the company and a variety of authors, journalists and photographers. Blurb’s focus is on personal self-expression such as photography, travel journals, wedding books and so on, so they largely print on hardcover in full color. Blurb has been running for four years and did $45 million in sales last year.

One of the interesting differences between Blurb and some of the other print-on-demand suppliers is that Blurb doesn’t take any cut from the markup that authors choose to put on the sales price of the book.

Below are some of the many discussion topics at the lunch (some with my own thoughts and perspective inject), in no particular order.

  • Does anyone read purely on digital devices any more? One person at the lunch, Stilgherrian, says he rarely reads on paper, and he intends to get rid of any books he hasn’t touched in the last six months. Some others in the group are rarely buying books. I am rapidly shifting to buying e-books though I expect I will still buy some physical books. We’ll see.

  • A critical issue is the physical space that books take. Some have tried to get rid of all the book in their house, but find that their children then don’t have books around them and are looking for them. Others recognize that their extensive home libraries are a ‘wank’ in that their primary function is to impress visitors.
  • Publishing is one of the most prominent examples of the very broad trend of individuals getting access to the means of production.
  • Creative control for authors is a key issue. It used to be the editor who controlled. Now writers can control every aspect of the creation and production process. The other side of that is that editors can add real value to the raw work of writers and other creative people. Most (though not all) self-published books would be better with an editor. Even though writers can choose the editor that bests suits them if they are self-published, many don’t have the discipline to get an editor or make the changes they are told to make.
  • The speed with which print-on-demand can create books makes a massive difference. The traditional 6 month plus timeframe for mainstream publishers to bring out a book is a big constraint. The ability to get a physical book out – and if you want to market – in days changes what makes sense as a publishing project.
  • One of the issues raised by Stilgherrian is the distinction between content and container. The content – be it words, photographs, or music – can be conveyed through a variety of formats. Reading words is not vastly different between e-readers and books – some don’t care though some have significant preferences. However the experience of photography currently can be quite different in digital and print formats.
  • As I wrote in Living Networks, one way to think about print-on-demand or digital distribution is in terms of an individual’s career lifecycle, where broader distribution is valuable in becoming visible, and in monetizing once you have gained renown, as Seth Godin is now doing. The role of working with a mainstream publisher is to gain credibility and tap the power of large-scale marketing and distribution. More recently I have decided these channels should be run in parallel, which is closer to the path of science fiction Cory Doctorow.
  • Blurb has found that traditional publishers are at times enthusiastic partners with Blurb, for example with Penguin UK, which is encouraging young upcoming authors that it can’t publish itself to publish on Blurb, together creating a short-term pop-up bookshop to sell the books.

In short, a great conversation with lots of juicy topics to delve more into at some stage. These days I am finding very little time to blog so just capturing conversations on the go as I can…