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Is the Internet a Greater Threat to Publishers than Self-Pub eBooks?

Did youDavid-Hessayon_2750886b[1] catch the article in The Telegraph today?

The well-known British horticulturist and author, David Hessayon, is retiring at the age of 85. While this would not normally rate a post, I was intrigued by one of the quotes.

Dr Hessayon laments that the internet is having a negative effect on the market for non-fiction titles:

“My The Bedding Plant Expert was in the top 10 of all non-fiction books but that won’t happen again. People don’t have time for books when they’re always on Google, Twitter or Facebook.

“The garden reference book market has declined because of the internet. In the future I’ll offer people gardening advice but I won’t write any more. If you have a problem you go on the internet. I pity anyone new coming into writing. Five years ago, all the bestselling gardening books were how-to-do-it books. Now it’s look at my garden or look at other people’s gardens.

“The how-to-do-it book has lost its absolute supremacy. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.”

5378834706_be8881f599_o[1]I’m not sure how much weight I would put a critique of the publishing industry from someone whose 40 plus books aren’t available digitally (with a single exception), but it is an interesting premise is it not?

It’s an idea that I have not heard mentioned very often but it has been rattling around publishing circles since at least 2000, when a prescient literary agent wrote:

I’ve done a lot of work lately researching the impact the Internet is having on writing and publishing. And, in doing so, I see a trend that could hurt the nonfiction writer’s income. I don’t have a lot of hard data to back up what I’m going to say here, but I think for many authors it may have the sting of recognition.

The free availability of information on the Internet may dilute the earning potential of nonfiction books. The Internet itself has become a competitor.

A similar criticism was expressed in Andrew Keen’s 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur. Working from a viewpoint that had much in common with Robert Levine’s Free Ride,  Keen argued that web companies didn’t actually create anything but instead were decimating the culture businesses (to use Levine’s phrasing) :

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune,” Mr. Keen writes. “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.”

Sidenote: If you’re not familiar with either author, let me add that I have yet to read Keen’s book but I was struck by how the quote (copied from an NY Times review) shared Levine’s viewpoint that culture is created not by people but by companies. Naturally I disagree.

Getting back to the main topic, I have come across yet another version of this lament on a blog post by Alan Canton dating to 2010:

Publishing was so, so, so much easier in the 80s and 90s before the internet killed off so much of non-fiction publishing. Back then if you wanted to fix your bicycle or plant a garden you bought a book on bike repair or gardening. Not anymore. Today you go to a website where you will find a video on how to take apart your exact bike or a website with an interactive fill-in-the-form program on how to design and plant a garden in the exact amount of space you have.

Everyone is sitting on the edge of their chair hoping and praying that ebooks will be their salvation. I too am hopeful, but not as optimistic as others.

Four different industry insiders have made the same argument over the past 13 years; is there any truth to it?

Yes and no – but mostly no.

4112145071_bfd1e1eaf8[1]Yes, the internet has made it easier and cheaper to find new info on a wide range of topics. While this has been to the detriment of some publishing entities, it has also enabled experts of all stripes to share what they know.

The technical expert with the Youtube channel, the hobbyist with a website, and the community of enthusiasts are all examples of expertise that the publishing industry used monopolize but cannot any more. (They also stand as examples of Levine and Keen being wrong when they argue that businesses create content, but that’s not strictly relevant here.) Many of these folks would never have made it through the old gatekeepers. Some don’t have time to write a book, while others don’t have the skills. But that doesn’t mean they’re not experts.

So yes, the internet has broken up the distribution monopoly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing nor does it mean that existing publishing entities can’t survive or thrive in the new publishing industry.

Please note the distinction I made in the above paragraph; like indie authors those unpaid experts who are sharing their knowledge via Youtube, websites, or Wikipedia are arguably just as much a part of the new publishing industry as existing publishing entities.

IMG_0642And that’s why there are startups (and even legacy publishers) which are already looking for bloggers who are technical experts and might, with enough support, write a book. Hyperink is one such startup, and I’m sure there’s more. (For more details on how to go about it, check out Laura Matthews' post on Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer blog.)

Since I have wandered far afield, let me restate the original question:

Is the internet harming nonfiction publishing?

In some ways, yes, but in other ways it can help. A web presence can compliment book sales both as a promotional channel and a new revenue channel (and not just from sales or distribution). Some in publishing, including Seth Godin, have already figured that out.

Take F+W Media, for example. This thriving non-fiction publisher is divided into multiple business units, each of which focuses on a single topic or interest. All (most?) of the units include an online presence (blog and/or community) which compliments the content which is being sold to readers and to advertisers. They don’t show any sign of being harmed by competing sources of free information.

In conclusion, I really have trouble accepting the argument that the internet is ruining publishing. It is changing publishing, yes, but I predict that the long term effect will be closer to the what we see happening in the music industry.

6256317164_b132e2154c[1]All those experts I mentioned above are like the musicians who no longer have to go through a record label to reach an audience. While that is detrimental to the recording industry, the music industry as a whole has benefited.

Similarly, in the long run the experts will be able to make more from working around the legacy gatekeepers than they could by working with them. We are already seeing that happen with some indie authors and I expect the trend to strengthen.

And that’s why I think publishing will also gain more than it loses. Or at least that’s my 2 cents; what do you think?

P.S. I’d like to extend my appreciation to Mike Shatzkin and Brian O’Leary for helping gel my thoughts on this topic. Thanks, guys!

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Paolo Amoroso November 30, 2013 um 4:11 pm

There are a couple of issues with traditionally published non-fiction ebooks that don’t help their success: the limited availability of titles and their outrageous prices.

Eric Riback November 30, 2013 um 4:15 pm

I think the point is that if you don’t produce something that is clearly different and better than what is available on that subject online, you won’t sell books. So the availability of free information has raised the bar on what is required for paid information, regardless of whether it’s in digital or physical form. As he says: "To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.” I am publishing a series on a subject that is much covered online, but not well-covered. Most of the sites that deal with it are hobby sites that have essentially been abandoned. I’m doing it in print form because I understand the business model; I can sell it in stores that cater to the niche interest I’m writing about. I may do it in digital as well, just to see what I can do with it.

New Name Same Guy November 30, 2013 um 4:18 pm

LOL, someone should dare that writer to give away the digital rights to his books. No doubt if he republished everything digitally he would probably be very successful and enjoy a renaissance. But let him be miserable if he wants.

jjj November 30, 2013 um 4:58 pm

They just failed to adapt and complain about it. There is a big social benefit to having the information easily available and it encourages creativity, if anything the internet greatly expanded the market ,they just need to exploit it in other ways.
Maybe a great way to do so will be soon Google Glass apps ,Glass should be a great tool for teaching people how to do/build things. And once Glass can recognize what it’s camera sees the apps will be quite awesome.
Services like Google Helpouts also have a role to play.
Plenty of ways to make money out of it ,just a little bit different than printing books.

fjtorres November 30, 2013 um 6:22 pm

Well, certain categories of non-fiction books are dead and gone and not likely to come back in any recognizable form; atlases, world almanacs, encyclopedias, and most pure data reference books.
Non-fiction that carries added value from the author in the form of clarification, opinion, compilation, or authority can still flourish. But the unique added value is indispensable: generic data is all over the internet. For free.

Will O’Neil November 30, 2013 um 7:45 pm

Someone should tell the atlas publishers that atlases are "dead and gone" and that their sales are all to zombies. At 96dpi you’d need a 60-inch display to show a typical atlas map, and a tabloid-format printer to make a copy. Not coming to every desk anytime soon.

My "Home Generator Guide" book is an example of a something that in theory shouldn’t have a market in the Internet age, but does anyway. Most of the information in it could be found on the Internet if you look, but readers seem to value the fact that I’ve assembled it for them into a coherent whole with a narrative thread. Interestingly, I sell more in paper than Kindles.

The general rule about generalizations is that they’re wrong.

To say that the technology trends are hurting publishers is not the same as to say that they are hurting publishing. Gutenberg utterly wrecked the business of people who were publishing books in 1460, but did a tremendous service to publishing. And, yes, the early printer-publishers struggled to find business models that would make them any money.

fjtorres November 30, 2013 um 11:20 pm

Once upon a time atlases and encyclopedias were big money makers and the core of every active library reference section. Then came CD-ROM and every household with a PC got Encarta or Britannica for $30 at most. Then came Wikipedia and Google and even Microsoft saw no reason to stay and fight over scraps.
I don’t doubt there is still a (small) market for atlases as collectibles or objects d’art but as productive reference sources the data is more readily available free online. No need to wrestle 40 lb books and you get a very broad range of zoom factors. The whole point of reference books was that they made useful data available. Well, the data is now free to all comers. The book was just a delivery vehicle and the bulk of the sales are gone.
Specialty niches for coffee tables may endure but the volume business is gone.

James Nuttall November 30, 2013 um 8:05 pm

I self published a small book on dyslexia this year. I would have never been considered for publication by the regular publishing establishment. But with Amazon Kindle, I’ve made a nice royalty. Nothing to make a living on, but great for a guy who has an interest in how children learn to read.

Greg Strandberg November 30, 2013 um 11:16 pm

I’m just getting so tired of these people saying that the internet killed books. None of them realize the problems my family and I had in Hallstadt.

You see, back in 1449 we had the best woodcut printing business around. A few years later in Hamberg this charlatan named Gutenberg came along and started to undercut all our work with his silly Bibles. By 1455 we were bankrupt and working in the mills down by the Regnitz.

I rue the day that movable type was invented. It’s witch-craft, plain and simple!

William Ockham December 1, 2013 um 3:34 pm

The mistake is to think of "non-fiction book" as a meaningful category. Gardening how-to books aren’t competing with James Nuttall’s book on dyslexia. The publishing industry is confused about what its product is. They think they are selling the packaging. Amazon knows that they aren’t selling those cardboard boxes. People buy what is in the box. If Amazon’s sales started to fall off, Bezos wouldn’t be moaning about the destruction of the cardboard box market.

For the most part, non-fiction is about selling packaged information. Some types of information are simply better suited to the web than a physical book or ebook. The 85 year old author understood the world better than most publishing execs. Why can’t they figure out the simple formula "choose something you can’t look up on Google"?

Greg Strandberg December 1, 2013 um 3:51 pm

So what can’t you look up on Google? What don’t people know but want to? How to advertise on mobile? The secret to finding missing socks? Bigfoot’s mailing address?

I wish I knew.

fjtorres December 1, 2013 um 4:05 pm

Two starting points right there.
Where *do* missing socks go? Hyperspace? 🙂

Ben December 2, 2013 um 5:55 am

Books for the most part is a linear reading experience and when you compete against internet, you have a big problem. You can’t compete against free, speed and nearly same info, hence reference books are the first to drop dead. Coffee table books are next in line…

Publishers are not technical nor inventive enough to transform reference books into great apps yet. They likely never will transition at all, leaving fiction the last standing ground in the digital era. Book publishers has an inferior business model when it comes to adapting new formats. They are still praying epub will save them, not before Amazon takes their lunch money too.

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