Meanwhile, on the other side of the world…

It is a rainy day in Wellington as the global book industry gather for the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. Although Iceland is this year’s country in the spotlight New Zealand gets handed the baton for next year at the end of this fair.
On his way to Frankfurt, Mike Shatzkin wrote this post on his blog, talking about the potential for new competitors in the ebook market.

This is an existential question for big trade publishers. They have forged partnerships with other brands, even media brands, for many years based on their unique ability to deliver printed books competently and to put them on bookstore shelves. Those are things that a magazine, a broadcast network, a movie studio, or a packaged goods company couldn’t do for themselves.

I think this is a crucial insight and its related to the Sam Harris article I posted on last week. The digital transition is a disruptive moment not just to the way the business has run itself for a decades but as the rules of game have changed so new people are fully equipped to play.There is no doubt that media organisations, magazines and newspapers in particular, have the editorial/content creation capacity to produce ebooks themselves. But they have something even more important than that. They have all developed reader-facing high traffic websites. They have an audience and thus potentially a marketplace.

The principle advantage of say, newspapers and magazines, is having staff writers, respected columnists and the ability, indeed the instinctive understanding of the need to publish quickly. If you combine those elements with an ebook you can create rapid fire publications covering up to the minute stories. And you can do so with a depth and quality beyond that of a newspaper but without the time lag and ‘padding’ of a print book.

You can see how this might work. All those non-fiction proposals that ‘had something’ but didn’t feel  quite substantial enough for a book? Ebook shorts. Want to know more on the Arab Spring? Buy our in depth analysis right here. Like our literary reviewers? Try some of our specially commissioned short stories.

For all the difficulties the newspaper/magazine industries have faced over the past decade, it is possible at least that they have built themselves a lifeboat. Their websites, while detracting from print sales may just have built them an audience that is just waiting for a wider range of products sold in more unusual, more flexible methods than ever before. I’m sure that this range of products does not include anything resembling the New York Times model. However, I can certainly see how expanded content, depth of analysis and speed of delivery could become so and how I’d be willing to pay for it.

This is a real threat to the current trade publishing model. We’ll first have to see if it happens but it seems increasingly clear to me that, as Sam Harris describes, the distance between writer and reader is closing and the nature of its mediators rapidly evolving. In short I can’t see why someone wouldn’t have a go. The future shape of writing is going to be determined by those who can master the digital connection of writers and readers and make it pay. I’m certain that someone will do this but we may well be in for some even more disruptive times. As Sam states:

Where publishing is concerned the internet is both midwife and executioner.

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