Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Exaggerated Reporting of Print's Death

So I've been in this publishing program for three weeks and change, and we're finally done with the magazine section (yay!) and on to books. Report: Print is not dead. Or, that's what practically every speaker said, apparently trying to answer some unasked question. It's like my dog is sitting there on the bed next to me and someone comes up and says, "Your dog isn't dead."

"Uhm, thanks, I know that from the fact that he's breathing?"

Stan Lee said something in an interview for the history channel during their history of comics segment about how reading something on a screen will never be as pleasant as holding it your hands, which is why comics will always exist. I don't doubt he's right; the manner in which they're delivered will be different.

I grew up with the internet. I was on it when I was thirteen, stupidly giving my name and address out to all takers who were interested in the same cartoon shows as me on Prodigy's bulletin boards until a nice man from the FBI called my mom and said maybe I shouldn't be doing that (true story). However, despite the many, many hours I spend reading things online - even novel-length fanfic that is sometimes better than novels I've recently read - it hasn't stopped me from buying books and subscribing to magazines. I read 2-4 books a week and subscribe to about 6 magazines, 3 of them weeklies (I'm a fast reader). I suppose I could be downloading illegal .pdfs and printing them out, but the cost of paper and ink is high and the product unwieldly in comparison to a bound book. However, I don't imagine that it's going to be that way, which is why the industry's response has been stunningly pathetic.

Print magazines seemed to have discovered the internet about yesterday. Several editor-in-chiefs came to speak to us and showed us their websites, which were relatively new (1-2 years) and largely just the content of their magazine with some video clips, and man were they nervous about the fact that all of these other magazines seemed to be doing a better job than them. And yes, a successful magazine website has a major effect on the magazine's health, it turns out. How are these people genuinely surprised by that?

More interesting to me, aside from the hilarity value, is the alarming change Simon & Schuster made to its boilerplate book contracts. As this was back in May, it's been much-talked about elsewhere, so I won't go into it in technical detail, but apparently it involves them retaining at least digital rights to your book forever. People have theorized as to why they did this, but as a technocrat I find the explanation pretty basic. Right now we have the technology to print on demand - meaning someone can take a .pdf of a book, put it into a computer, and a big printer will pop out a book a few hours later or whatever. It's costly and large - you know, like computers used to be. It's not impossible to imagine that we're only 10 or 20 years away from small, retail-priced printers that you can put on your shelf next to your scanner and your external hard drive. It'll come with glue cartridges and ink cartridges and you'll have to buy cover and inside-weight paper. You'll hit "print" on your file and about an hour later, an honest-to-goodness bound book will pop out. Books will live on, but the format in which they're delivered will be entirely different, and probably just as pirated as music is today. Publishers will deal.

If I was a betting woman, I'd be willing to put money on the idea that Simon & Schuster was thinking along similar lines, which means that they need those digital rights to your book, because in the future, all they may have to sell is digital files. They just want to get it in the boilerplate now, so it becomes standard and non-negotiable while it's still unprofitable, so when it is profitable, no one thinks twice. It's about the only clever response I've seen non-digital media form to the threat of the internet. That said, it's also pretty evil, so someone tell me when they reverse that, because I'm not signing any contracts with them until they do.


D. Robert Pease said...

Rather than printing an honest to goodness book on your home printer, I think the direction books will take in the not too distant future is downloading books to a book with digital paper. There are already some forms of this available. Imagine buying a blank book, of say 100 or 200 pages and then plugging it into your computer and downloading a novel to it. It will look and feel just like a real book, but when you are done, you can just download another to it.

The Rejecter said...

You know, I keep hearing things about smart paper from my techie friends, but I haven't mentioned it because I haven't actualyl seen it yet.

The Rejecter said...

Ouch. Painful typo there.

Anonymous said...

I can understand publishers wanting digital rights; what I think is unfair is the "forever" part.
I think contracts should revert to the time when they were for a set period of time: seven years, ten years, etc. If an author is satisfied, and if the publisher feels it wants to re-up, then they can. Much more fair than "forever."

JRVogt said...

Magazines are done, eh? I enjoyed that part, but was glad they left the books for the second half. It would've been a lot more difficult to motivate myself through magazines if we'd done the books first...though I knew plenty of people who felt the exact opposite. How did the panel receive your proposal?

Janet said...

It's about the only clever response I've seen non-digital media form to the threat of the internet. That said, it's also pretty evil, so someone tell me when they reverse that, because I'm not signing any contracts with them until they do.

Very well put. From the responses I've seen online, there are a lot of agents who are howling over that one. S&S is perhaps being a little too smart for its own good.

Austin Williams said...

Your postulation echoes a good deal of my own speculation on the matter. I already know some small publishing houses who are formatting their publications into .pdf and selling the files themselves. They usually sell it for about half the price of the book too!

I and several friends of mine are actually trying to pull ideas together to start up a comic book company that would focus on digital distribution, as well as traditional press. In my opinion however, this will be the future of publishing. I'm glad to see my voice isn't alone in this matter...

Dave Fragments said...

I think greed has no bounds and that's exactly what S&S was up to... Don't think tomorrow or next year. Think 25, 35, 45 years from now when only your grandchildren or great-grandchildren are living.

Books selling will change significantly and not too many years in the future, someone will succeed in getting a massive library online. Downloads to either paper or electronic devices are not far off. Look at what Bartleby is able to do now. There's a few others that are compiling books in digital form. Think about walking into a bookstore and turning on your computer (like WiFi) or asking for a book that isn't stocked and the clerk says - "in five minutes we can give you a 6X9 with glued binding" .

Anonymous said...

As to "smart paper", that wouldn't fly with an old fashioned gal like me. I like to actually keep all the books I read. Yes, I do go back and re-read them sometimes, and sometimes, I just read certain parts, etc. Mostly, for me, I think having those books in my home enhances my life and my living space. Their "souls" fill the room - or as Cicero put it "a room without books is like a body without a soul." So, they can keep their "smart paper" and I'll keep my books. :) Also, when the power grid fails and all the computer batteries run out of juice, I can still light a candle and read. :)

Dave Kuzminski said...

What bothers me is the original mention of making the print rights forever eliminated reprints and is basically taking electronic rights without paying the author anything more. There is no formula at present that can successfully extrapolate the future earnings every book can make so that the author can be properly compensated.

Admittedly, royalties supposedly cover that, but writers look forward to those early paydays because under this new scenario, many of those earnings can occur after the writer is dead. Not much good to the writer then.

astairesteps said...


Given how much you read, study, work, blog, (and whatever else you do), how do you have time for a DOG? Or any relationship for that matter?

Also, if you make a painful typo, can't you (as blog host) simply delete your original comment and repost the clean copy?

The Rejecter said...

The dog is the family dog and lives with my parents.

The Rejecter said...


They did magazines first this year. The proposal went to ridiculously fine that we all sort of wondered why we'd stressed over it and done so much work. The book section is comparitively mellow.

ORION said...

I STILL agree it will be awhile before we only rely on digital. While I was traveling a few weeks ago there were many times I was not connected.
Here in the marina we rely on books for entertainment as many cruisers do not prefer to use precious power for the length of time it would take to read a novel.
To have a novel printed out while you wait...well?
I am unconvinced.
I love to browse through a bookstore and be drawn to the color of the binding. I like to hold it in my hand and feel the weight...try it on for size...
When I went to the strand last week I was physically overcome by the sheer number of books.
It was heady.
I do not think computers can replace that feeling.

Richard said...

I doubt books are going to disappear in the face of electronica any more than cinemas or radio died when television came about.

Electronic paper, slim computers or whatnot are no substitute for paper. Hypertext and hyperlinking, when done properly, are very effective to allow browsing, researching and tangential flybys. More often, they are poorly implemented and seem to do nothing more than break text into individual sentences or paragraphs - making the whole reading experience frustrating.

The problem is that we are trying to replace books or paper with an electronic simulacrum and it is not working. Resolution is one problem. Permanence is another. As is browsing and annotation. The only place electronic media excels is in searching. I like to have electronic versions of texts for quickly finding a paragraph or quote. Mind you, if you don't care about quoting, then it is pretty pointless.

Electronic books may be the way of the future, but they will not be in the form we see now - which are poor copies of the original. There will need to be some sort of paradigm shift in the way we interact /use with them. A similar analogy might be cars: they don't resemble the horse and buggy of a century ago - except in function.

I primarily use electronic media for quick snatches of information, but for detailed information I either buy hardcopy or print it out. I cannot bear to read more than a few paragraphs electronically.

writtenwyrdd said...

I see your logic re S&S, but they should never be allowed to keep the author's rights to any form of the work past a reasonable date. 70 years past my death is a bit excessive for any rights but my own.

Anonymous said...

To have a novel printed out while you wait...well?
I am unconvinced.

That sort of POD would be a big help in older, probably out-of-print specialty books. Ever heard of Jules Verne? He wrote hundreds of "scientific romances" besides 20,000 Leagues, yet only a handful are in print (and a lot of he work never made the jump from French to English). Or the other Victorian/Edwardian proto-SF/proto-technothriller/proto-disaster novels like the sample on the Forgotten Futures CD.

Anonymous said...

In-store POD would also change how books were distributed. Instead of ordering 20 copies of a book and returning 10, a bookstore could order 3 or 4 and top up their supplies as the book sold. Though that may sound like a small change, it would be huge for bookstores, since so much time goes into unpacking extra stock, storing it, pulling it off the shelves when it's stale, stripping it, and returning it.

It also means small presses and obscure books would have a better chance to sell. For me, books are an impulse buy. I don't want to wait for the store to order it or for it to arrive from Amazon. (And the shipping fees will kill you.) If I hear of a book but the bookstore doesn't have it, I just don't buy it. With in-store POD, I could have it in minutes. Plenty of people are lazy like me; there's a huge long-tail market out there that's untapped.

This still doesn't mean the death of print. It just means the death of the current book distribution system.