The Atomization of Publishing


What gets published in 2013 can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Traditional publisher output: represented by all the publishers that exhibit at events such as Frankfurt Book Fair, Book Expo America, etc.
  2. Self-publishing output: represented by the many distribution and publishing services available to authors, such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Lulu, CreateSpace, etc.
  3. Custom publishing output: represented by the vast number of businesses and institutions outside the traditional publishing industry who might produce one or many titles per year.

In the future – assuming the container or attention unit of the book has not disappeared or become anachronistic – I believe we’re going to see vast expansion in the third category, given that the function of publishing is now far less difficult and specialized, and book distribution and production pose less of a challenge and expense than ever before. Any business or institution can feasibly start their own press or imprint and publish works that are in line with their mission and values, and distribute or sell them to a target audience they likely know better than a traditional publisher. This doesn’t preclude the possibility and likelihood of partnerships between traditional publishers and institutions (as there are now) – nearly a necessity for widespread bricks-and-mortar distribution – but certainly it’s not a requirement for success to have such a partnership, particularly if the content works best in a digital environment. Industry expert Mike Shatzkin has called the trend “atomization”:

Publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. […] This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years. […] Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.

If the publishing function does in fact disperse across many entities, then what will the so-called traditional houses focus on? One imagines the realm of fiction will remain a mainstay and focus, but I’d also like to propose that publishers will turn increasingly to analytics, data, and consumer research to make publishing decisions – for both fiction and nonfiction – since this would produce more profitable publishing decisions and might not be pursued by other, new competitors.

Research-driven publishing decisions aren’t exactly new. During my tenure at F+W Media, we had a very strong consumer research component to every acquisition because we were (in part) publishing to satisfy our homegrown book clubs, where consumers were automatically sent a new book every month unless they proactively declined it. Of course, the book-club model has all but died, but F+W, as well as other direct-to-consumer publishers, often use research to ground their acquisition decisions.

Now that research often takes the form of SEO and keyword analysis, publishers can identify what people are searching for and quantify demand for a particular book concept or title. Online publications and magazines already use SEO and keyword analysis to determine what gets published, and as such analytics become more rich and detailed. And as purchasing continues to move online, we can expect that trade publishers focused on profit will be gathering all the data they can to make the best acquisitions decisions. (F+W now keeps an SEO specialist on staff who assists with book titling decisions, to ensure discoverability.)

In other media industries, consumer research has long been part of the process, whether for good or ill. Movies, TV and music are all extensively market tested and modified based on consumer reaction. It has become a widespread cliché in the movie business how little creative control a director retains if the test audience reacts negatively. There has even been software development to help predict blockbusters, which Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The New Yorker in 2006.

Such a proposition likely sounds deadening and offensive to anyone who works in publishing, which is seen as an aesthetic pursuit (even an elitist or snobbish one, if compared to movies or TV) focused on producing important work or creative work, without concern for demand. Yet because the function of publishing is now more like pushing a button and less like a specialized process, there is less and less reason for publishers to dominate the playing field. We can already see how both new and established authors (especially when they band together) can successfully self-publish and produce their books with as much sophistication as their publisher. And for any institution that reaches its audience directly, the value a publisher provides is fairly minimal; it would make more sense to hire a consultant or freelancer, or hire someone away from the publishing industry if a long-term program is envisioned. This is happening already, in fact.

Will traditional publishers lose their “best” books and authors? Perhaps some can hang onto their business if they retain a brand or prestige that remains desirable to authors. This seems an unreliable strategy, and publishers certainly can’t depend on distribution and production services to provide value. To survive in an era of atomization, general trade publishers will likely have to focus on other ways they add value to the process, which probably involve their editorial function and their marketing function. One thing the mainstream publishers can do beautifully, if they put the money behind it and fire on all cylinders, is launch, package and place a book with impeccable presentation, so that no one can possibly not know about its existence – a marketing and promotion campaign of global proportions. That’s something you won’t find a self-published author or most institutions capable of pulling off.