Is the Internet a Greater Threat to Publishers than Self-Pub eBooks?
Did you 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.”
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.
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.
And 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.
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!
images by Penn Provenance Project,