Eric, over at Pimp My Novel, has dusted off his crystal ball and his spending the week gazing into the future of publishing. And, as usual, his observations seem eerily clairvoyant. Here are four of his predictions.
I've been known to tout the year 2015 as the point in time when e-book sales will reach parity with physical book sales; that is, the point where e-books will comprise 50% of the market. Given the current rate of growth, however, I'm now more inclined to estimate parity occurring in late 2013 or early 2014.
Parity means that fewer physical books will be produced, although I strongly disagree with industry professionals who believe it will be a one-to-one correspondence (e.g. the market can only support 200,000 copies of a given title, so if 100,000 are sold as e-books, only 100,000 will be sold in physical form). I am convinced that hardcover buyers and e-book aficionados are, at least for the time being, almost entirely separate markets, and moreover that e-books are encouraging non-readers to read, not converting current readers wholesale to the e-format. All this to say: greater e-book sales will, à mon avis, mean more sales overall, not the same number of sales split different ways.
Finally, there seems to be this rumor floating around that the rise of the e-book and the sophistication of current POD systems (where physical books are concerned) will not only make editors, literary agents, and publishing houses obsolete, but will usher in a Golden Age of Publishing where a true merit-based democracy will rule, and the reading public will determine, by show of electronic hands clutching electronic dollars, who will succeed and who won't. No more gatekeepers; no more insiders and outsiders.
As I said earlier, the sheer volume of voices competing for attention guarantees that a system of separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff will be necessary. Consumer recommendation systems (like those employed by Amazon) are helpful, but insufficient; people often give five-star and one-star ratings to books for nepotistic, spiteful, or downright bizarre reasons, and while this might not affect titles with large followings (read: established brands), it can wreak havoc on lesser-reviewed titles. Which, if branding is determined by consumer review, will be all of them.
All this to say: there has to be a way of identifying, cultivating, and branding talent such that the fresh, engaging, and important voices are heard, and the rest are left to their own devices. While word of mouth is a necessary condition for this to occur in a free market, I don't think it's sufficient. Another filter is necessary, and that filter is the publisher.
On the Big Shrink:
As print runs decrease and e-books become the norm, it will 1.) be increasingly fiscally feasible for smaller operations to turn out a greater number of books, and 2.) no longer require that there be so much specialization and segmentation within the industry. A new, "boutique" literary enterprise employing a few literary agents, editors, tech gurus, and a small staff of on-line marketing and sales folks will be able to do the e-work currently undertaken by individual agencies, publishers, and retailers. Why sign with an agent, have him/her pitch to a house, and have that house deal with the logistics of selling it through myriad channels (often requiring greatly varied and/or incompatible information and file types) when you can get it all in one place?
On the Indy Renaissance:
As the economy begins to recover and the e-revolution continues, I think it's pretty unavoidable that 1.) the chains will continue to close underperforming stores, 2.) existing indepedent book stores will begin to see their sales recover, and 3.) more money will be available for the creation of new small businesses (indie booksellers included).
The independent book store of tomorrow will be able to cheaply print copies of books that it doesn't have in stock, will be able to offer access to e-books, will promote local authors and host events, and will actively participate in on-line discussions about literature via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. They will adapt to changes in culture and technology, and they will continue to be relevant so long as reading remains relevant.
Like Eric, I tend to think reading is going to remain relevant for a while—on whatever device we end up doing it. He has many more provocative prognostications on his site. You should go visit the World of Tomorrow yourself.