Saturday, January 1, 2011

Publishing 2011 - You Ain't Heard Nuthin' Yet


At the moving picture show.

The scene was a caberet. A young singer gets up from a table, and shakes hands with his companion, and the title card flashes up on the screen and said "Wish me luck, pal!" The young singer jumps on stage and sings. There is music of course. After all music has accompanied silent movies for years, and music on a record is not that hard to sync with a movie pretty well, as long as there is no talking to make it tricky.

But then at the end of the song, the audience is applauding and the young singer waves them down.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," he says, not on a title card, but in his own voice on a soundtrack, in actual synchronization with his lips. "You ain't heard nuthin' yet. Wait a minute! You ain't heard nuthin' I tell ya."

The movie was The Jazz Singer, and the performer was Al Jolson.

And suddenly Hollywood was never the same. Sure they still made silent movies for a while. (Chaplin made Modern Times in 1936. But it was already an anachronism.) Sound was a huge success and a huge opportunity...

...and for some a huge disaster. It was expensive to switch over to the new technology. And careers were ruined as macho leading men were revealed to have wimpy girlie voices, or elegant leading ladies turned out to have thick Brooklyn accents. (As dramatized in Singin' In The Rain.)

Shifts like this don't really happen gradually. Sure little changes in technology and culture accrue over time, but very often when all those little pieces are in place everything changes fast.

We're on the cusp of this kind of change in publishing - bigger really, because it affects more than just the actors and the cost of technology - and right now it looks like it's coming faster than anybody expected.

2010 was a watershed year. eBooks went mainstream. Self-publishing, too, went in one year from something distasteful and on the fringes, to something in the mainstream. People who declared they would never ever ever read a book on a screen were suddenly oo-ing and ah-ing over cute little ereaders. People who never intended to start, found themselves reading on their smart phones and mp3 players.

And Barnes and Noble - the major power in the publishing industry, once a monster company eating up little bookstores like candy - is now in financial trouble. Today Publisher's Weekly says that Borders has announced they're in financial straits and will delay payments to some publishers.

Not good.

And yet it's also a boom time for authors - at least where they are not too entwined with the fortunes of the publishers and bookstores. And who knows, those small independent bookstores that were put out of business 20 years ago? Maybe once the giants fall (or more likely go into anohter business), the boutiques will be able to take up the slack, with the used books and the papercopies as collectables. And savvy publishers like Baen will be able to step to the forefront. You never know. (There are still buggy whip manufactures around, you know.)

I'm not one who feels in any way qualified to make predictions, but I've got that song from R.E.M. playing in my head: It's End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine). So now I look back on 2010, and all that has happened in the publishing industry, and look ahead to 2011...

I think we ain't heard nuthin' yet, ladies and gentlemen. We ain't heard nuthin', I tell ya.

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