Publishing: The Road Ahead

With the closing of Spin Magazine’s print edition alongside the failure of the print edition of Newsweek (not to mention the shuttering of countless newspapers and magazines around the world) you’d be hard-pressed to say that publishing – particularly in the news space – is doing well.

Add in the merger of Penguin and Random House – a Napster-esque move designed to stave off the vagaries of a non-collusive market – and you’ve got an even bleaker picture.

In short, after centuries of progress, the old method of transmitting information via the printed page – not to mention the publisher’s tendency to control content with an iron fist – is crumbling. In its place we have an entirely new system and regime, one ruled less by a central authority – the editors, publishers, and printers of yore – and now ruled by the mob.

That’s not a bad thing. It lets people publish books that would have never seen a printing press and it gives an organization with seemingly bottomless resources – Amazon – the ability to define the rules to which all others must cleave. This new media has laid a book store chain low, bleeding publishers nearly dry in the process, and it has changed the way we consume media from a slow meal savored over time to an experience more akin to grazing or, more precisely, a bit of sushi on the go.

Here are my predictions for publishing this year. I love books and I hope not many come true, but we shall see.

You will stop buying paper books and magazines. If you’re here reading this, you’ve already stopped buying books. If you haven’t, you will. I got one book for Christmas this year, Building Stories by Chris Ware. We also bought some print editions for the kids. But a year from now? I doubt the Christmas list will even be on paper.

Digital comics will outsell print editions. In 2012 digital comic sales for DC rose 200 percent and, thanks to series resets and the like, the comics industry is selling more and more comics to a casual audience. Hardcore readers will prefer print for a while longer but folks who don’t want to trudge to the local Mutant Mania will probably be fine with a title subscription on the iPad.

Goodbye, magazines. Except for a few stalwarts, more print editions will disappear, leading to a chain reaction as others realize some of the same cash can be generated in selling digital copies. The New Yorker and Wired – most of Conde Nast’s catalog, in fact – is proof positive of this and the selection of ads in these magazines has gone from the same Rolex repeated twenty times in the title to cool, interactive advertisements that actually encourage further examination. This is a good thing.

Goodbye, Barnes & Noble stores. Barnes & Noble stores will see a massive contraction while smaller booksellers will thrive. B&N knows what’s up. They recently split their company into two and now one company sells paper books and the other one sells digital. In fact, Microsoft invested in the digital side, leaving the print side to fend for itself. And fend it must. Although this year saw brisk sales at small mom & pops, B&N saw a minor dip in retail sales due to store closings and slow sales in stores and on Even the college business is slowing.

A major writer will go digital. I doubt Stephen King will make the jump, but one of the lesser mystery folks will probably go all digital. Why not? It gets them more cash for their efforts and places them at the helm of their business – and blockbuster writing is a business. Going indie no longer has a stigma attached.

Big names in journalism and publishing will go online… if online lets them. What do you do if you’re stuck in a mid-tier job at a newspaper or cable news channel or publishing house? Heck, what if you’re at the waning Associated Press? You look around. And what do you find? Us. Engadget. VentureBeat. TMZ. Everyone except the Scranton Times Journal And Ledger. But jobs will be hard to find. After all, we’re looking for people who aren’t entrenched already.

All is not lost. Publishing will regroup. The written word is still an amazing medium. Change is good. Gutenberg may not recognize the heights to which his invention has flown but he will recognize its constant sacred intent.

This is not to say that good content won’t come out of this new model. This site, for example, is a testament to the will of one man who dedicated himself to a purpose. That it sometimes makes mistakes, is tricked, or is sloppy is part of what you get when you burn down a medium. I fear I won’t be around to see the electronic press become as mature and moribund as the current “old media,” but here’s hoping it stays exciting for as long as we’re alive.