Back to the Future

Hoenig, O'Leary, Schwalbe(front row) and rear) get visionary
Hoenig, O’Leary, and Schwalbe (front) and Simon and Shatzkin (rear) get visionary

Put five creative, high-strung and high-minded publishing types together for a “New Visions Panel” at The Summer Publishing Institute and uniformity is certain not to reign. Take the debate on the Kindle, which most media gurus say is the way to lure more readers and generate sales.  “When you are done reading with a Kindle, you have nothing,” complained Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press, a highly regarded independent publishing company. “I don’t think it’ll be around that long.” At the other end of the table, Will Schwalbe, former SVP and Editor-in-Chief  of Hyperion and now the founder and President of the new site cookstr.com (which brings together recipes from the world’s great chefs and cookbook authors), listened in mild disbelief: “I think Kindle will spur not hinder book sales,” he protested.  “It’ll be around for a long long time!”

And so it went as Summer Publishing Institute students looked on with both interest and bemusement.  Simon and Schwalbe were joined by Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of the Idea Logical Company, consultants to publishers and their trading partners on strategy, supply chain and digital change issues; Carol Hoenig, author and publishing consultant; and Brian O’Leary, founder and principal of Magellan Media Partners, a management consulting firm that works with associations and smaller publishers on content operations and financial analysis. The “New Visions Five” talked about evolving business models and shared their predictions for the future of publishing.

Moderator Mike Shatzkin argued that Media used to be about product. “Now it’s about community,” he said. “Product creation and distribution no longer require scale or capital, which takes a big advantage away from organizations that have that capital. Publishers will be driven to focus on niches.” (Shades of Chris Anderson and “The Long Tail.”) Shatzkin also took the rather revolutionary viewpoint that  Facebook and Twitter are “phases.” What’s next, he predicts, are Facebook, Google and Wikipedia apps within large, dedicated sites.

Brian O’Leary spoke glowingly of the virtues of print on demand and how it’s much more important to measure the costs of books sold than books printed. POD, he noted, gives publishers the ability to keep content in print indefinitely and to lower the cost of books sold by eliminating returns. Looking to the future, he prophesized a blending of the role of editor, turning him into marketer and salesperson combined.  And, like Shatzkin, he predicted the growing power of niche publishing and the long tail.

Carol Hoenig, who has self published a novel and is on the advisory council of Author Solutions, forsees a powerful future for self publishing and also envisions more focus in mainstream publishing  on smaller, local authors. “They have the passion and the love for words,” she says.

Dan Simon, possibly the most romantic in the group, revealed his idea for kiosk book stores in green (car-free) city centers. “They’ll have espresso book machines [washing machine-sized contraptions that print books on demand], E-book monitors and a selection of real books. There will be plenty of butterflies, people on bikes, happy booksellers and low rent!”

The other four smiled indulgently at this vision, as did the students. A certain calm settled over the panel for a few seconds as images of butterflies danced in everyone’s heads. Then the panelists were back in debate mode:

“I see editors in tremendous demand in the future,” said Schwalbe. “They’ll be in the catbird seat. We’ll have about 300 trade book editors and they will be the tastemakers. My vision is for a multitude of publishing houses, editor driven.”

That image, like the butterflies, was not to prevail. Shatzkin looked at Schwalbe with a touch of incredulity. “I don’t share Will’s optimism of 300 editors,” he said. “They will all find it harder and harder to get work!”

Fortunately, Simon had some final words of optimism: Cautioning against cynical publishing, he told the audience: “We need to hold ourselves together…and  publish the books we love.”

by Andrea Chambers

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3 thoughts on “Back to the Future

  1. In the great kindle/ebook debate, it would be interesting to know the percentage of NYU Master’s of Publishing students who A) own a Kindle or another ebook device; B) within the last year, have read a full book on a Kindle or in digital form? Can we get a reading (pun intended) on this?

    I, for one, am an avid Kindle reader and love the convenience and transportability of the device. Given a choice between the print version and the Kindle version, I’ll take the Kindle — which is not a good business model for most publishers.

    Tom Woll
    President
    Cross River Publishing Consultants

  2. I’ve read several books in digital form now–on my iPhone. I think more of us (students) would happily own a Kindle if we could afford it. Remember, we’re students. Which means we’re also poor.

  3. Maybe I’m just “old school” at the age of 19, but I really do prefer a book I can physically pick up and read. There’s more of a connection to the words you’re reading, in my opinion.

    All of this debate over whether or not editors will have jobs makes me nervous! I’m a rising sophomore doing undergrad at UVA, and I want to have a job (specifically in publishing) by the time I get out? What do you guys think? Will I have a good chance at one in 2012?

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