I grew up in a small town in Northern India, where bookstores were a rare sight. Academic reading was very much encouraged, but the concept of reading for leisure was foreign to majority of folks. I come from a family of non-readers. Since I turned out to be the book-sheep of the family, I had to find my own ways to secure reading material. Beg & borrow aside, I used to walk couple of kilometers, twice a week, to visit the only library in our locality. Calling it library would be stretching it. It was just a hole in the wall, lined with a couple of hundred books. But to my book starved eyes, the place was salvation.
A couple of decades later the picture is quite different. Today, I have access to almost every book that gets published worldwide. I can read anything, anytime, in any format, without moving an inch.
With internet business models taking more and more concrete shape, publishing industry, as we know it, is undergoing a sea of change. Access to publishing platforms and access to content are two extreme ends of the traditional publisher’s role – to decide who gets published and how their books get distributed. Publishers have, in a way, acted as a Chinese wall between the reader and the author. That wall is crumbling as we speak.
Some believe that the role of publisher as the middleman is becoming increasingly redundant as self-publishing gains ground. With traditional distribution stuck in a rut, the readers are getting click-happy. The authors are discontent because traditional publishing methods don’t payout for majority of them. The readers are loyal to the author alone, so they don’t really care how the books are reaching them. So where does that leave the publishers?
As the part of this industry, we understand the value a publisher adds to the process of making a book. But an average reader is often unaware of the role the publisher plays in the making of the book. Most readers don’t spare much thought to the process of building a book. And as convenient as internet publishing models are, abundance isn’t always a good thing. We’re moving away from a streamlined dissemination of content to indiscriminate publishing, creating less value and more noise in the process. Yes, eBooks are cheaper and easier to find, but it also means chaos as every book fends for itself on an algorithm driven website. Most books run a hundred meters sprint and die. Suddenly, the derelict library from my childhood is looking so much better.
To survive this era of digital transformation, the publishers need to pivot and regroup. They need to rethink their ‘behind-the-scenes’ approach and start marketing, not just the books, but themselves as well. Readers need to understand the value publishers add to their favorite books. That is the only way to preserve the sanctity of this profession. Publishers need to bring the fight where their strengths are—print books. Readers are still loyal to the printed book, and that’s something publishers have an upper hand at. The digital model of publishing completely sidelines the ‘form’ of the book. No eBook or print-on-demand copy can compete with a lovingly reproduced book through the hands of an experienced publisher. The publishers need to re-calibrate their strategy to give the readers a reason to buy more books or return to the print format. The digital distribution battle belongs to Amazon, because they got there first. But publishing business as a whole is teetering on precipice of big change. The publishers need to up their game, because this can go either way.