Publishing Prophecies & Predictions for 2011

Okay, I do NOT have the gift of prophecy. But as I look ahead at the year 2011, there are a handful of things I think are clear about the world of publishing…

First, 2011 will be the year of the publishing start-up. I think we’re going to see an explosion of new companies. Technology changes (in the way books are written, edited, acquired, produced, marketed and sold) have slowly re-shaped the large publishing houses. But those houses have tried to keep the same basic model in place for how they run their businesses. Now we’re going to see a bunch of small, print and e-book publishers arise who are faster, more nimble, and conduct business in an entirely new way.

Second, publishers will begin to re-organize around smaller business units. That means a small team of people (editor, marketer, sales guy, accountant) will have one sharp focus and will produce fewer books, but will try to have a better plan for each title. We’ve already seen this happen with nonfiction, but now we’re starting to see it happen in fiction. This has huge implications – think if a house had a small team producing one great thriller each month, another creating one big Amish book each month, and another team producing two strong historical romances each month. They’ll compete with each other for acquisition and marketing dollars. That means fewer titles, stronger books, and better support for each title.

Third, everyone will finally recognize that e-books are not only re-shaping the way we read books, but the way we manage the business of publishing. E-book sales rose roughly 400% last year. How we manage the growth, and how we react to the unique challenges of e-books will reveal which companies thrive in the future. The big questions for those of us working in the industry? (A) What is a fair royalty, and isn’t 25% a bit low, since publishers are making more money off e-books than print books? (B) How do we manage English language e-rights in foreign countries? (C) How can retail stores benefit from the sale of e-books in a tangible way? (D) Will consumers view the iPad, the Kindle, and the Nook as unique devices, or simply as brand names on a utility device?

Fourth, Borders is going to go bankrupt. The company is struggling with huge debt, much of it due to real estate leases. They owe hundreds of millions to publishers for books. The solution, of course, is to declare bankruptcy and reorganize, therefore cancelling many of those bad contracts and giving them debt relief. But the owners recognize that bankruptcy means they lose their investment in the company, so they’re fighting it. A shame, since Borders is still most publishers’ third biggest account after Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And B&N needs the competition — history has proved that a monopoly is never a good thing for consumers. So eventually the owners will face facts and go through a bankruptcy. Let’s hope they survive.

Fifth, the Google Book Settlement will finally be decided… and then it will meander its way through the court system for a bunch of challenges. What started as a huge power-grab by Google has become recognized as a good (even perhaps a necessary) step. A couple million out-of-print books suddenly becoming available in a digital format? That’s a boon for researchers, readers, and writers.

Sixth, the Espresso Book Machine will be embraced by local bookstores. Print on demand will continue to grow, and that means indies will adopt the technology for you to walk in and print ANY BOOK YOU WANT. Consumers like immediacy – so no more waiting for shipping from Amazon. Come in, print it, and take it home.

Seventh, brick-and-mortar bookstores will continue their move toward gift centers, curriculum centers, game centers, toy centers, and snack centers. CBA bookstores have long done this with religious jewelry and t-shirts and Christian crap (“I always stop into a CBA bookstore – whenever I need a Precious Moments statuette!”), and now B&N is focusing on games, Borders on educational toys, Books-a-Million on yogurt. There will be fewer book titles on shelves, and they’re all still trying to figure out how to get people using e-readers to regularly visit the store.

Eighth, your platform and participation in marketing will be more important to publishers than ever before. Book marketing has shifted from “business-to-business” (e.g., an ad in a trade magazine) to “business-to-consumer.” That means the future of marketing your book is going to be focused on social media. It also means you, as the author, will be expected to take an even bigger role in promoting your title. And not just via Facebook and Twitter — you’ll want to know about Wattpad, Copia, Figment, Flickr, Tumblr, Cursor… the list goes on.

Ninth, the self-publishing craze will remain hot, but it still won’t make people any money. Sure, somebody with a huge online platform like Seth Godin can do it successfully, but for most everyone else, self-publishing continues to be largely an exercise in vanity. Without the ability to stand in front of thousands of potential readers, you’re probably just doing this to make yourself feel important. I don’t know how to tell you this, but if every publisher has looked at your manuscript and told you it isn’t salable… well, they could be right. Sorry.

Tenth, there’s going to be this great unknown writer who breaks out and sells a ton of books, thus giving hope to novelists everywhere. Why do I think this will happen? Because it happens nearly every year. I don’t know who it’s going to be, of course (though I’m hoping you’ll pick up a copy of Kimberly Stuart’s fabulous OPERATION BONNET). But it will happen. And we’ll all be excited that, once again, genuine talent has been discovered.

Chip MacGregor is President of MacGregor Literary Inc., a literary agency that works in both the CBA and general markets.