There Will Be No Books on Mars—Or Publishers, Either

An ex-publishing industry employee explains his vision for a book-free future.

Nov 11 2014, 12:00pm

Richie Rich / Flickr

Ten years from now, you're reading Grant Morrison's latest masterpiece on a glowing leaf of Flexi-glass while the girl across from you on the subway is reading a paperback copy of some radical, underground sci-fi thriller. Your 19-year-old hipster nephew (along for the ride) is skimming a collection of Gabby Bess' greatest tweets on his ironic, vintage iPhone 9. Form is irrelevant, democratized; there's something for everyone. What no one notices is every major publishing house has ceased to exist. All of these 'books' are sold by blogs.

Since the Kindle, public discussion of the future of reading has perseverated on what books will look like, all stuck on the simple refrain that 'paperbacks are dying! ebooks are gonna be huge!' The less focused-upon story is that ebook growth has slowed (dramatically) and our youngest reading demographic—born into a world of MP3s and ubiquitous internet access—still overwhelmingly prefers their books in hardcover and paperback.

There won't be any books on Planet Mars—digital is durable (and the cost in fuel to move an old world library is astronomical). But on Planet Earth long-form content will appear on paper as well as our (newly-enormous) iPhone screens for at least the next few decades. The more important story is that technology has enabled smaller, independent media outlets to create long-form content that, with fully liberated channels of distribution, now sits equal on shelf space once monopolized by the New York City literary establishment.

I started working for the Penguin Group in 2009 as an editorial assistant. I was a 23-year-old spy, certain I'd be discovered at any moment—I never wanted to be an editor. I was playing a game of Trojan Horse, infiltrating the system in order to learn how to publish my own work. I imagined years of stealth study, biding my time in the shadows of the immortal, invincible, much-dreaded slush pile before finally learning the secret. Anyway, it took me a week. The machinery works like this: There are nine dragons at the gate before every enterprising young writer and his dream, and he must Michael Jordan slam dunk slay every single one of them to succeed at this game.

1. Write book (doesn't have to be good). 2. Find agent. 3. Find editor (via agent) to take book on. 4. Convince publisher (via editor) to publish book. 5. Persuade publicist (via editor) to give book attention. 6. Persuade corporate sales team (via editor and publicist) to push book. 7. Persuade book stores (via corporate sales team) to stock book. 8. Persuade journalists (via publicist) to write about book. 9. Persuade readers to actually buy the book (via journalists).


So what's the alternative?

Going it alone on the internet was, five years ago, the highly-unglamorous Plan B. Self-publication of ebooks and paperbacks printed on demand threw a writer squarely up against the problem of discovery—how could any book be chosen among tens of thousands of other, low-quality self-publications? Without a tastemaker to help consumers navigate, not even the shiniest gem would be found among the garbage, and so every independent book was treated like garbage. To a writer, the publishing houses' stamp of approval meant attention from journalists and signaling to readers that said 'this is a real thing.'

There's simply no longer a reason for Random House to exist

But today, from BuzzFeed and Gawker to the New York Times, writers are publishing directly to enormous audiences they've built online, and in some cases to platforms that also sell books. 

My first novel was published by Thought Catalog, a perspective-agnostic blog with an incredibly loyal, young readership, which circumvented the signaling problem by delivering my material straight to a proven audience (and eliminating dragons 2, 4, 5). The bleak truth is, book sales are almost always depressing; a few thousand copies is considered a major success for most first-time authors. But my paperback isn't even out yet, and I've already captured a nice portion of this. I'm not skinny dipping in a pool of gold doubloons (yet), but I'm connecting with a real readership, and that is incredibly meaningful to me.

For digital copies, all of the major e-reader files are married with services like Oyster that provide access to digital libraries hundreds-of-thousands of books strong and live in the reader's pocket (eliminating dragons 6, 7, and 9). Boutique print shops are already providing physical copies of books for the fetishists so inclined, like myself, and here we're just one technological jump away from tapping your phone and having a book, freshly printed and bound, delivered directly to you within the hour by a friendly bike messenger—or drone.

This is where we're going.

Every new media site will begin selling books by the end of the decade, poaching editors from the crumbling houses not already bought by Disney, probably, for their intellectual property (because Disney is very good at this). A gold star from Random House already means significantly less in terms of sales power than the attention of WIRED's 3.6 million Twitter followers, or Jezebel's niche, highly-loyal 220,000 followers, and now technology has progressed to the point that the tastemaker can be the publisher.

There's simply no longer a reason for Random House to exist.

Once new media begins to publish pet authors en masse, traditional publishers not actively nurturing their readerships every day with shorter, free content will no longer be able to compete with the marketing powerhouse publisher hybrids. Mechanically speaking, it's easy to build books, and especially ebooks. The value in publishing isn't in form, but captive audience, which is the only mark of a successful blog.

One hundred years from now your great-grandson lies back on your granddaughter's nice leather couch in her quiet villa on Olympus Mons and kicks up his muddy shoes (which he knows is not allowed). He straps on his Thinking Cap™, wakes up in a digitally-recreated Library of Alexandria—where authors from around the solar system have directly uploaded their thought pattern volumes—selects a pretty blue title from his favorite shelf, and is imprinted at once with the memory of having read his now-favorite book (naturally), Citizen Sim: Cradle of the Stars

This is the future of what will have previously been known as 'reading.' But in the shorter term, books are about to transform, and the old guard is no longer a part of this equation. The publishing oligarchy is over, folks. Our anarchist literary utopia is about to arrive.