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Introducing the Oblivion Principle: If You Have to Ask Whether Something Will Save Publishing, the Answer is No

15108185847_3b823d7bbe_bPublishing is in love with the idea of being saved by some external factor or new fad. If it’s not Pottermore (direct sales), it’s Apple. If it’s not Bookish, it’s Zola Books. (Even Amazon was viewed at one time as a savior rescuing publishing from the bookstore chains.)

The latest saviors of the publishing industry, as I sit here writing this post in the middle of 2015, are Youtube stars. Carolyn Kellogg covered PewPewDie’s new book contract with Randy Penguin on Thursday in the LA Times, and she goes on to add that:

PewDiePie isn’t the first with a book deal. JennXPenn is coming. Grace Helbig, Shane Dawson, Mamrie Hart and Zoella already have published books of their own.


What these YouTube stars share is an ability to connect with fans, usually teens but also older readers, who often can prove elusive to traditional publishers. The robust YA market has shown that young readers can be extraordinarily devoted, once they connect to an author. Or, publishing hopes, to a YouTube star.

So will Youtube stars save publishing?

To answer that, we’ll need to reframe the question for greater context.

Will the latest iteration of the celebrity memoir, books which are almost always ghost-written and have a famous name slapped on the cover, save publishing?

When we put it that way, the answer is obvious: No (which is good because an industry that went down this path is not worth saving).

When I first read about this book deal on Dear Author, I was reminded of the many previous saviors. No industry has been rescued so thoroughly by so many different saviors as publishing, and that thought lead me to coin what we are calling The Oblivion Principle. The principle is my own creation (unless someone beat me to it), but credit for the name goes to Lynn S.

To put it simply, The Oblivion Principle states: "Anytime someone says something can save publishing, they’re wrong."

It works from the pessimistic assumption that anything anointed as a savior will inevitably prove to just be wishful thinking on the part of the publishing industry. The latest fad will prove (at best) to be a moderately useful tool, and any external savior will ultimately be shown to be acting in their own best interest and have no real interest in saving publishing (why should they?).

So far, the Oblivion Principle can be applied to every new innovation or trend I’ve seen in the past five years. Would you care to bet whether the Oblivion Principle will be valid over the next 5 years?

P.S. Before anyone can say it, I already know of one possible exception to the Oblivion Principle: Agency eBook Pricing. Agency is not a savior but a stalling maneuver which was invented to keep the major publishers from having to switch from a business model they think they understand – print – to one they don’t – ebooks.

If you think Agency is a savior, congratulations. You’ve entered the second stage of an industry being disrupted; you’re celebrating that you have managed to hold back the hemorrhaging caused by the disruption while the disruption continues. But you haven’t actually stopped it.

image by paweesit

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fjtorres June 15, 2015 um 12:37 am

Personally, I do hope tradpub does go down this road.
Put all their money into vapid celebrity books.

That way we’ll be spared the sanctimonious guardians of literature posing.

Dianna Dann Narciso June 15, 2015 um 4:32 am

If you think we’d be spared that, you’re still giving tradpub too much credit.

DaveMich June 15, 2015 um 12:51 am

Someone HAS beaten you to it, long ago, in a general sense.

Nate Hoffelder June 15, 2015 um 5:46 am


I’d heard of a rule of thumb for headlines but did not know that it had a name.

Nate Hoffelder June 15, 2015 um 6:25 am

This inspired me to go change the wording of the principle, so thanks again.

Chris Meadows June 15, 2015 um 1:38 am

Reminds me of Mike Shatzkin’s most recent column, in which he goes, "I don’t see any new disruptions to the industry coming…"

Given that a disruption is, by definition, something you don’t see coming, this is a bit of a tautology.

Smart Debut Author June 15, 2015 um 4:06 am

Mike wouldn’t see next Monday coming.

fjtorres June 15, 2015 um 6:44 am

Now, now.
He would know it came… on Thursday.

Smart Debut Author June 15, 2015 um 11:57 am

A Thursday in 2020, maybe.

Rob Siders June 17, 2015 um 3:31 pm

I lol’d.

Will Entrekin June 15, 2015 um 9:37 am

It might be worth noting explicitly that we’re talking mainly about corporate publishing here, and not just publishing — the latter of which is doing just fine. Twitter and Amazon and WordPress and Medium (et al.) have seen to that. There’s better access and more opportunity for anyone who wants to get their work out there, and now that that is the case, I don’t see it not being the case anytime soon. There are people who have never not had access to the internet, and there are kids in school for whom Kindles have been for sale all their lives.

That’s going to make it more and more difficult for publishers to demonstrate their value to authors and readers. Those who can do so will survive, and perhaps thrive. But those who are fighting hard to keep the whole business model in the 20th century are quickly finding out it barely worked then, much less now.

Nate Hoffelder June 15, 2015 um 9:50 am

That’s one of the problems with this topic, yes. It ignored that we’re only really talking about a few dozen companies.

Will Entrekin June 15, 2015 um 10:51 am

"We’re only really talking about a half-dozen companies."

Fixed that for you. 😉

Paul June 15, 2015 um 10:27 am

By saving publishing it should be spelled out as paying a content creator for their work. Otherwise you can claim that there is no problem as people are reading more than ever, its just snippets on twitter and Facebook they are reading, not books.

Smart Debut Author June 15, 2015 um 10:37 am

Oh, they’re reading plenty of indie-published books too, and the content creators — i.e. authors — are getting paid just fine.

All this hoo-hah about 'saving publishing' meme isn 't about readers or writers at all… it’s the panic of the industry’s now-obsolete middlemen.

Nate Hoffelder June 15, 2015 um 11:04 am

This. Very much this.

Paul June 15, 2015 um 11:15 am

I’m not sure its obsolete, it just means that a lot of middle-ranked authors won’t be able to do this as a full time job.

And quite frankly I’m getting fed up with the whole indi author scene based on the quality of the copy editing and content that I’ve been reading recently. Finding the gems among the dirt is proving to be too time consuming, which is expensive (time is money).

Smart Debut Author June 15, 2015 um 11:28 am

Judging by the real industry stats, your viewpoint is the minority.

And don’t worry about those "middle ranked" authors — if they can make a full-time living while getting paid only 8%-15%, they can definitely do so when they’re getting paid 70%.

Episode 63 – KU Page Reads, Author-Customers, and the Oblivion Principle | Sell More Books Show June 17, 2015 um 12:07 pm

[…] Staring Into Oblivion  […]

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