Which Publishers and Authors Are Truly Engaged in Their Communities? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

Bridging the Gap: Why Publishing’s Future Is at Risk by Baldur Bjarnason

This blog post at Publishing Perspectives is adapted from a talk given by Baldur Bjarnson at a major European publishing conference. It’s the most worthwhile piece on the future of publishing I’ve read in a while. For some, it will read as fairly dark, but I see it mostly as a very good argument for why every author (and publisher) needs to think beyond the confines of the book. Bjarnason says:

Publishers aren’t in the content business. The core function of a publisher is to help people help themselves. Content—giving people information, lessons, documentation, and stories for them to entertain themselves—just happens to be a good way of doing that. Calling it a content business is just another way of focusing on the product instead of the problems they help solve.

The rise of digital content—websites and apps—is the first time we the consumer have an alternative to the book model to help us help ourselves. It’s not just new kinds of content (blogs, wikis, databases) but also self-documenting tools, better software, online classes and workshops, webinars, and online communities where people help each other.

Digital gives your customers alternatives and ebooks aren’t it. Your ebooks aren’t the new thing. They are the old thing photocopied onto a facsimile of the new thing. Ebooks are nothing more than a print artifact delivered digitally. … The web and apps are the new thing. 

Bjarnson’s argument echoes Clay Christensen’s thoughts on journalism (and other fields), where writing/publishing needs to focus on “jobs to be done,” such as “Entertain me for 10 minutes while I wait in line.”

I think it’s fair to argue all of this will unfold differently for nonfiction/information vs. fiction/narratives; Bjarnson might agree, but refers to narratives as explicitly being affected, too:

You are even starting to see it in fiction as new writers have been emerging from online fiction communities. They’ve been appearing on Wattpad, Livejournal, Dreamwidth and similar fan-oriented venues. Storytelling is becoming a mainstream activity—as it should be. 

Questions raised:

  • Bjarnson argues that books represent a convenient way for the community to reward people’s contributions to that community: “A book is just a lever that amplifies appreciation.” What approaches can writers (and publishers) take to earn money from a community-driven creative product?
  • Bjarnson points out that both traditional publishers and self-publishers are trapped in the old mindset of hierarchical production and linear processes, and don’t see themselves as engaged in communities. What publishers or authors are, in fact, engaged and can serve as models?
  • Bjarnson predicts most publishers will disappear in the next decade or two, except for a few “corporate behemoths” because they will not be able to serve communities. Yet in the US at least, we see the small presses increasing in number and some flourishing. How are we to reconcile these things (assuming we’re compelled by Bjarnson’s argument)?

Digital-First Publishing and The Troubled Fortunes of Digital-First Publishers by Jane Litte

Traditional publishers aren’t the only ones affected by competition from self-publishing. Digital-first publishers such as Ellora’s Cave, which were celebrated not too long ago at events like Digital Book World, now appear to be in trouble, and other digital presses are now inserting very broad language in their contracts to protect what they consider to be their intellectual property, and to prevent authors from leaving. Litte at Dear Author concludes:

Self publishing and even new digital publishers are hammering away at the base of older and established digital publishers as more and more authors are determined to forge their own path. It’s unsurprising that there are both financial troubles and contractual issues arising out of this.

Questions raised:

  • What value or services will digital-first or digital-only publishers need to provide authors to remain attractive? (I think we all know the rights grabs in contracts is not a long-term solution.)

Wondering Whether Printed Books Will Outlast Printed Money, or Football by Mike Shatzkin

In a post filled with many questions, industry insider Mike Shatzkin is inspired by a recent New York Times article that attempts to predict what technology will be commonplace in a decade, among other things. Shatzkin asks the following:

  • How persistent an activity is immersive long-form reading?
  • How persistent is the demand for printed books for long-form reading?
  • How much of the creation and selling of books spreads beyond the book business?

What questions do you have? Share in the comments.

Posted in Smart Set.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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An interesting, if rather dark prognosis. Content in terms of helpful, informative, entertaining might be heading in the directions outlined but where does that leave ‘long-form’ literature that does none of these things? Is that the equivalent of symphonic music, doomed because it takes too much time and requires too much attention? If the answer to this is yes, then is the conclusion that it should cease?

In which case are writers wedded to an idea of stimulating reflection, or weaving words to new purposes contemporary dinosaurs who should surrender and make way?

William Ash
William Ash

Predicting is hard to do, especially about the future–Yogi Bera. I remember the paperless office and the four day work week–OK, the four day work week might be here because most companies are using part-time and temporary staff. The problem with stating the long-form novel will fall away is because people are too distracted with all the other stuff is that is it is not reflected by historical trends–technology and forms of entertainment has been increasing over the last 100 year AND novel has become, on average, longer (so have movies and TV programs). The people who are engrossed with… Read more »

William Ash
William Ash

Baldur is basically making a strawman argument. Books and publishing are a mature market. There is little growth in a market that has reached saturation. While the business pundits like to make it look that growth is always infinite and larger, the reality is it is not. It is always a finite pot. The other problem has actually been stated on this web site–the greatest driver to sales is word of mouth. An author tweeting the world that they have a book to buy is not a great driver. That are authors that have no public front–Donna Tartt has made… Read more »


Ebooks aren’t an alternative? Tell that to Mr. Bezos. 🙂 Although I agree that some ebooks are digital retreads, others are not. Tablet readers are a different species altogether, even though they frequently mate. I assume Bjarnason believes writing to be headed into the realm of Computer Generated Characters, video games, and the other (unforeseen) elements that stir the process of turning prose into “tent pole” extravaganzas. Very cool. I can’t wait to see it. But, I don’t think its possible for writers to think beyond the confines of the book, unless the conversation is about further monetize a work.… Read more »


Just now reading over the complete Bjarnason text, I had these thoughts. First, if I were he, I wouldn’t mention the buggy whip analogy to blacksmiths http://goo.gl/JoMdgS … And I wonder if publishers would not do well to look to their corporate owners to open digital doors for them. It amazes me that Bertelsmann would ignore the synergies it could bring to bear with their Random-Penguin unit, assuming they don’t. Bjarnason writes, “Stories, learning, non-fiction, education, art, and culture, are all becoming emergent products of existing social networks.” No. They’re being amplified by social networks. And amplitude is the stuff… Read more »


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