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(December 1997) [Printed in "Reality Module No.1."]

The Future of Publishing

This is a response to a letter from Spider Robinson which was reprinted by Jane Routley in ANZAPA in October 1997.

I remember reading a few years ago in one of my library journals about how publishing companies (Penguin for example) had been downsizing their great book warehouses - and that as a result the number of titles they had "in stock" had been savagely reduced. The backlists (copies of books printed years ago and kept in storage) have now largely vanished.

[This is especially bad for SF/Fantasy fans, because we have such a large number of classics - those books which don't sell by the dumpbin load but which sell steadily for year after year after year. (I'm sure all of us can think of dozens of examples.) The irony is it becomes harder to find that old classic you are after.]

Publishers no longer allow themselves the storage space required for the 100,000 copies of your new book which they might be able to sell in the next 6 or 7 years.

This is one of the reasons for smaller printruns of the works of moderately-famous authors. The other reason is the desire to maximise profits by selling as large a proportion of their copies as possible. (It's cheaper to store or remainder 500 copies of a book as opposed to 50,000 copies.)

Because of these factors printruns are only going to get smaller as publishing houses do their best to equalise supply and demand.

But we writers do have an unexpected ally. That ally is technology.

Sure printruns are getting smaller but adaptable printing technology means that there can be more reprintings.

In the past it was only economical to print large numbers of copies because setting up the machinery to produce a particular title was a major endeavour. Now it is much easier to change the book being produced. (In time it should even be possible to print and bind different titles in succession without even having to stop the presses! This will be a boon because a reader should be able to get a copy made of any book they want, and publishers will sell everything they produce.)

[I've read futurology articles where they describe you going to a bookshop and having the shop printing-out and binding a copy of the book you want while-you-wait (using some sort of electronic textbase), but I don't think this will happen. Publishers will want to retain maximum control over their titles - and besides their really expensive printing-presses can produce much nicer looking books than the bookshop could make. The only downside would be having to wait while the bookshop gets your special title in.]

With any luck the new technology will make it as economical to produce a thousand different books as it is to produce a thousand identical books. If we are really lucky the publishing houses will take on new authors because they'll know they won't have to sell huge numbers of that new book to make a profit!

I remain optimistic. With Internet newsgroups, fan networks, writers groups, and fanzines we will know about new books and promising new writers. We will certainly know what titles are available to buy. (And isn't reader-awareness what every author wants?)

[I can't imagine anytime soon when we'll be doing most of our novel-reading on the Internet - the screen technology still causes too much eyestrain - but it will be a good place for "teasers" from authors.]

There is also no guarantee that older out-of-print works will be resurrected for availability with the new technology. It'll all depend on the potential for new sales. Secondhand bookshops will still be invaluable.

Other benefits for authors? More accurate information on sales - and, hopefully, royalty payments appearing more than twice-yearly.

Unfortunately there is not much that can be done about nervous editors who keep printruns small or won't publish anything by a "great" unknown. (We can only hope they get "eaten up" by the "new" publishers with new technology and the desire for change and experimentation.) Publishing is a risky business - and unfortunately risk-taking isn't seen as a virtue in our over-managed money-nannying corporations.

There will always be a need for writers - for spinners of tales and crystallizers of truths. This is our final hope. Writers are undervalued now because our society has an obsession with its technological toys - but writers fill those toys with meaning. Writers compose the news stories, write the documentaries, give lines to the soap-opera characters, give radio-actresses something to say, allow your computer to give your virtual self an adventure in a magical land of sorcery, swords and puns - an alternative to lines and lines of code printing for hour after hour onto perforated paper.

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Copyright © 1997 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 22 June 2002