The Future of Writing

The Future of Writing
Pam Uphoff

The future is always different. For writing and publishing, along with the rest of the world.

But this change we’re undergoing right now, from print on paper content that has been vetted by layers of gatekeepers, to ebooks from everyone who thinks they can write, represents a major change. The publishing industry cannot hide from it, however much they seem to wish it would go away.

I’m not sure if we’re mid-bumpy-crossing-of-a-threshold, or have come back full circle to something closer to the original storytelling. At its very basic, you’ve got the person telling the story—and the people hearing the story.

Whether it’s verbal, or printed, or on an electronic device, that’s it. Period.

Everyone else, every thing else, involved is . . . subject to change.

But some publishers are trying to keep their place in the chain from storyteller to reader. And they are certain that their place is to determine what material gets published.

We took an odd turn at some point. The people in charge of those expensive presses, who had to risk money to print books in anticipation of sales that would show a profit, started thinking of themselves as the irreplaceable and all important cog. And being so important, it was obvious that they would produce important, tasteful and profitable books. They would pick and choose.

Which worked fine, while they kept their eye on the desires of the readers. When they started thinking they could influence the readers, by giving them only the right type of books, the odd turn stopped being odd and got proper! A much worse thing than merely odd. But they knew best.

Oh, yes, vast over simplification, and probably not as accurate as I think it is.

But the big publishers started forgetting some important parts about being a major publisher. They hunted for blockbusters, and neglected the solid reliable mid list authors who had brought in steady small profits and kept the company afloat for decades.

The neglect didn’t matter, they thought. It wasn’t like those writers had any recourse. It wasn’t like the slush pile wasn’t full of three times as many manuscripts as they could ever publish (and ten times as much rubbish that didn’t even count.)

If this blockbuster turned out to just be a bust . . . no one got fired over it. They had another one ready to go next month. Surely this one would take off, new name, young, attractive, just ethnic enough to show their PC credentials, the right politics, writing with the right ideas in the background. Or foreground.

Trying to jump from huge seller to huge seller, they saw no need to keep writers with slowly climbing sales, saw no problems in the evolving system of the mega chain stores ordering to net and the short shelf life of the mid list books.

They decided the writers weren’t important.

Which was really unfortunate, because the Industrial Age has already yielded ground to the Information Age, the Electronics Age, the Age of the Internet. Heaven only knows what posterity will call us. Other than fools, perhaps.

Heavy industry will be with us for a long time. The publishing industry . . . is fast approaching sink or swim, and can barely figure out how to dog paddle.

From a historical standpoint, this transition in the publishing industry is tearing past with incredible speed. For those of us stuck in the middle of it, it’s a long, slow, roller coaster from somewhere hot down below, with the gatekeepers in a frenzy to keep control and maintain their gatekeeper status. Or at a bare minimum, to be able to blame someone else for falling sales. We get one crisis after another. It seems like they’ll never end.

Those of us who looked ahead, leaped across the tech threshold with glee. Oh, some trepidation, a bit of stress and angst, but . . .

Traditional publishing tripped over that threshold. They are flailing about, trying to find their footing, clinging to the old and seeking ways to stay on top in the new age. You’d think, what with some of the stuff they’ve published that they’d be ready for the future. I guess they thought it would remain insubstantial fiction.

And on the far side of this new place, the horizon is murky. We peer, and wonder what new possibilities are out there. Trad pubs seem to think there be monsters, and stick their feet in and try to not budge away from that threshold with the comfortable old ways behind them. After all, it might not be too late to turn back! Maybe if they can make ebooks expensive . . .

I’m not turning back. I’m trying to get my binoculars to focus.

So . . . what do I see, off in the mist?

I see some ebook sellers expanding, and some contracting, or even closing. Amazon is acting like Target and Walmart. I expect them to be competing for decades, at everything, including ebooks.

I see more writers with their own website stores, and writers banding together to have more available on a single website, for browsers to look over. This will _probably_ remain a small market _unless_ Amazon goes belly up.

I see more POD in stores, probably through distributors that specialize in combing the available Indie and small press works to deliver tasty packets to bookstores. Yes. New gatekeepers. But just by being new, they will be trying to cater to readers, rather then try to lure them into reading the “right” books. After all, if the stores can’t sell the books a distributor pushes, they’ll find a new distributor with a better understanding of the market. These distributors may branch out to online ebook sales. Or perhaps they will branch out _from_ ebook sales. A very handy service that removes most of the dross, for the readers.

I suspect used book stores will be doing well for centuries.

I see a cheap storage medium for ebooks, that can be packaged and sold in stores. Perhaps something printable on a card bearing the cover art, with a download tab that wears out after perhaps ten uses. Anything more flimsy would have too many first use failures, anything more sturdy would have to cost too much, for the authors to get a reasonable amount of money for the number of downloads from each card sold.

Audiobooks are a growing market. I expect it to continue to grow, and text-to-speech software to continue to improve.

Oh, speaking of POD, I expect improvements in the production, and in the options. And the price. I expect the _purchaser_ to be able to select the size, the paper, and the binding that they want. To be able to order the book in their favorite font, in a font size they find readable.

I expect those writers and those publishers who hang back and try to avoid change to wither away. I expect the ones who learn the new tech and dare to lead the way to prosper, both individual writers and companies.

I expect experimentation and innovation.

I expect what I never expected.

And if you want an example of just how strange I think the future could be, try something from my alter ego . . .

The Barton Street Gym

22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Future of Writing

  1. Max

    I had a conversation with a gentleman the other day who told me that his reading interests had changed in the last few years. Why, I wondered? Well, because of Audible, actually. He’d found that in listening to audiobooks, what he was looking for in a book changed. He wanted lines that flowed smoothly, he adored alliteration … he wanted things that flowed in a manner that was different from what he read, because the voice in his head was different from one being spoken.

    I don’t think it’s indicative of everything, but it’s certainly something I’d not thought about before.

    Books are definitely changing. The Martian, a novel (and the authors first) that is about to be a massive motion picture, was a self-published novel, much like Wool. More and more the way people consume and find their entertainment is changing. Authors are experimenting with tying soundtracks and audio files into books. Self-publishing is spreading. Audiobooks are (I assume) more massive than they’ve ever been thanks to the internet.

    Who knows where it’ll be in ten years.

  2. Laura M

    The 30 somethings in my office show up at work with their earbuds in their ears, listening to their books or podcasts. I’m listening to a giant series by audiobook in the car synced to my kindle for reading in bed. The most amazing thing was that I had to do no set up to get that, just push yes when my kindle asked me if I wanted to pick up where my audio listening had let off.

    I think that’s the problem with the current book in the series. I had scooped it up cheap second hand in paperback, and the d* thing won’t sync. There appears to be no button.

    • Yes, this syncing between machines, with different media is a bit of the future that’s come whooshing in without me seeing it coming. I expect that’s going to happen frequently.

  3. Max,
    The difference between a spoken book and a written books is very true and something I had never thought about. I know once I got Blue Tooth in my car, I stopped listening to the radio and now either listen to podcasts or e-books on the way to work.

    On the topic of the post, if you look at how Steam is changing the way people shop and buy video games, you get clue to how books will continue to evolve. Since I got Steam on my computer (three years ago) I have not purchased a single game in disk format and doubt that I would have a reason to buy one. Steam does a much better job of getting me interested in new games than Amazon does in getting me interested in new authors. There is plenty of room for a Amazon competitor who can do a better job of connecting me with new authors.

  4. Eric

    My wife, while a reader, doesn’t read as much or as fast as i do so she has a fairly large backlog of ‘ to be read’ in our home collection. Several years ago, when we were dating. She drove to Dragoncon and I ended up reading her first Terry Pratchett book to her on the drive. for a short while that was the standard on trips, I would find books I wanted her to read/hear and then read them too her when she was a captive audience on road trips. Then we got an audible account and my throat was overjoyed, even if I do still read things too her now and again, it’s hard to read a whole novel out loud continuously..

    with the audible model, both the ‘read’ versions and the ‘radio play’ versions, a lot of books are hitting markets they wouldn’t have seen before and self published ebooks are doing the same.The Publish on demand market is slowly growing and I see the POD kiosk idea getting bigger, maybe like redbox is for videos or something similar.

    Pandora’s box has been opened again, and whether you see it as good or ill things will never be what they once were. It will be interesting to see how things change

    • Laura M

      Did she then finish them on her own or go on to read others by the writer?

      • Eric

        Pretty much every series or author I got her started on, she continues to read, or at least add to the to be read list. Sometimes we agree to disagree on authors, but on the whole I try to stick with ones I think she will enjoy.

        • Right now the various e-audio-books do not play well with our library interfaces so I perceive them more as headaches than opportunities. And so my audio-book “listening library” is all CDs.

          Here’s hoping they get it straightened out.

  5. TRX

    > cover art

    Cover art was a huge part of the LP disc. It wasn’t just something to protect the vinyl, it was a semi-independent art form of its own. I’ve never bought a book for its cover, but I admit I bought more than one LP for its cover… many of them wound up on the living room wall, with the disc itself in a generic sleeve on the rack.

    When CDs came out I wondered how they would handle the cover art part of things. An LP-sized album with a small cutout for the CD? A folded poster? No, we got miniaturized artwork and the craptastic “jewel case” that aficionados assured us would be replaced by something better Real Soon Now. I’m still waiting. And while cover art still exists in the CD world, it’s of very little importance compared to its relationship with LPs. Cover art isn’t completely dead yet, but putting that row of album covers over the bookcases in the living room is a lost cause unless I dig out the opera glasses.

    I know that book cover art was important for some people… but most artwork doesn’t scale well. I still maintain that bad art is worse than no art at all; and with a cover, a large ad image, and a thumbnail image, you now have three chances at making bad art.

    • Bwahahaha! Yes.

      And that thumbnail on Amazon.com has the most weight. So the larger version has huge Title and Author all over it, which in many cases is a blessing . . . I have a few covers that really ought to be in the Bad Cover Hall of Infamy.

    • Reality Observer

      Wife is far more into music than I – IIRC, it was “Wings” that released a CD collection in a LP sleeve (don’t take my word, though, I haven’t gone digging for it – she’s rather protective…).

  6. Oh, this post is so beautiful! I’m taking a break from reading a book to review in my Hugo run-up, and JUST before I did, I was struck by the convenience that the mobi format brings to looking up unfamiliar references. I’m a incessant pack rat of both meaningless and meaningful data elements, but somehow didn’t know of Walter Duranty. In print world, you MIGHT get a footnote, or you might have an encyclopedia nearby, or you could ask your Mama. In mobi land, you highlight, click, select, and read as many articles as you like, plus see pictures of old Walt.
    With respect to cover art and the CD case, I’ve bought a lot of boxes that had, in addition to the packaging material, an instruction manual and some great wall posters, but there ain’t nothing like looking at some of the insane details on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or the beauty of Yes albums.

  7. Uncle Lar

    “Oh, yes, vast over simplification, and probably not as accurate as I think it is.”
    Well Pam, if the meme fits, declare it!
    I think you’ve done an excellent job of summarizing the current state of events and what led up to it. At a 10k foot level naturally, but everything you’ve said fits my observations. And as a good author once remarked: the true sign of genius in someone else is in how well their opinions match your own. (WEB Griffin, by the way)

    • Well, so many companies, so many ways to end up, swear to something, the biggest, most prestigious publishing houses chasing readers away with big sticks.

  8. Arwen

    Interesting article. As a reader, I find all of this very exciting. I never thought I’d go for ebooks but I love my Kindle.

    What do you think will happen with libraries?

    • I think a lot of that will depend on how Amazon.com’s KULL program works out. How, and how much, publishers get paid, how much authors get paid. A good library rating system for Indie works would be useful–libraries don’t want the heap of slush part of the available ebooks.

      One thing I do expect is Amazon dropping the exclusivity clauses for their special programs, possibly after legal action, but they do have a delightful tendency to be on the ball, as changes happen. I think they will eventually allow special prices for public and school libraries.

  9. So… we’re going to get a new class of middlemen working in the market. Sounds good. Nobody appreciates the middleman the way they should.

    (Yes, that is totally an in-joke reference 🙂

  10. And I’m returning after hardware and wetware difficulties to my Hugo run-up. Here’s the PATHETIC job I could do with one of the best.
    http://habakkuk21.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-brilliant-jeffro-johnson-hugo.html

  11. Reality Observer

    Since we’re on the subject of market changes – what do the people here think of Amazon’s new “pay by page read” notion?

    • Laura M

      It seems fair. It certainly normalizes across short stories and novels, and will reduce the “serialization” phenomenon. Amazon should also have the ability to count pages the same at some core level. In other words, if you and I read in different size fonts, what would be x pages for me in a print book and x + 5 for you, should, we can hope, all be counted the same for payment purposes. Given that Amazon knows the percentages read, this seems likely.

      Kris Rusch at kriswrites.com has quite the discussion of the issue. She has long held the view that one should not be exclusive to any one venue. I get that, but when the other venues just don’t provide much in the way of sales, and Amazon offers increased visibility, it seems very tempting. Full disclosure, I have one book in KU. I admit that when I see the little blue borrow line I am very pleased that someone is reading the book. Otherwise, you usually don’t know.

    • It’s a good idea. Shorts will pay less than novels, which seems like a good idea, and well, dreck that gets discarded after a few pages, ditto. Although not paying until a certain percent was read probably also helped dis-incentivize publishing the really poor quality stuff.