A few random factoids about the future of publishing

In the world I grew up in (grad. high school 52, college 57), communication was by phone and letter. I was comfortable with that. It never occurred to me it would change. When the fax machine came along, I was stunned. How could text and even drawings be sent over a phone line? Well, look where we’re at now. I don’t remember when I last wrote a (non e-mail) letter.

And in publishing books, we used to prepare “mechanicals” (text and graphics) — large paper sheets and take them into the printers to be photographed for film, which was used to prepare aluminum plates for the press. Then the Macintosh came along, and all that changed. We adapted. In fact, the film for our 1973 book Shelter is now being scanned and converted to digital files, since printing plants are ceasing film-based printing.

Now, we’re apparently headed for a sea of change in the publishing industry. I haven’t studied it extensively, since I barely have enough time to work on book projects as is, but I’m keenly interested in what’s now going on out in the publishosphere..

For some reason, I feel a bit like the South Pacific natives in the last scene of Mondo Cane (1962 documentary) who thought that cargo planes were gods (I refer to the clueless, not reverential aspect of this scenario).

Our books are distributed by Publishers Group West, who in turn are owned by Perseus Books Group. Perseus has just set up a facility called Constellation to assist their client/publishers in navigating the digital world (“towards a digital strategy”). I went to a Constellation seminar in Berkeley a few days ago, and here are a few random facts I picked up:

-If you believe the media, the publishing world is in a state of turmoil. “Desperate,” “losing control,” “downward trend,” “bleak future…” Yeah, well maybe — maybe — things aren’t quite so desperate. Our bookstore sales have actually gone up this year. Books ain’t dead. “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” -Mark Twain

-There were 140,000 self published titles in 2009. This is incredible. Power to the individual.

-There are way more e-book devices than I realized. At Book Expo America in New York in May, Perseus will have 18 devices on display. Different features, different formats, different requirements. It’s dizzying. The iPad has got competition.

-We have some out-of-print books that we are now resuscitating with Print-on-demand and short run printing. Like Mrs. Restino’s Country Kitchen, our 1996 book about cooking from your garden, which was ahead of its time, or our 1983 book Aerobic Tennis, about using tennis to get in shape. Some of our old books are seeing the light of day once again.

-Right now, e-book sales are handled by Amazon, Sony, eBrary, Overdrive, e-books.com, Follet, Ingram e-books, BN e-books, and Kobo (Shortliners). Phew!

-I’ve been reading the New York Times on the web about every day. The other day when I went to Berkeley, I picked up a copy of the paper, and boy, what a difference!

We’ll keep publishing “hard copy” books forever. We’re also starting work on converting some of our books to e-books.

It’s an exciting time for communicators.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

4 Responses to A few random factoids about the future of publishing

  1. Lloyd I can't help but think as I browse your book Builders of the Pacific Coast and share my intrigue with Creative Potager readers at http://creativepotager.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/the-art-of-home how much I love handling the hard copy – how there is a synergy of random browsing which inspires me in a way that digital replication can never seem to compete. Each time I pick it up I find something new I hadn't noticed in a previous read.

    However, when I want to share about your work, the first thing I do is search for an internet link – because my community is global and to invite them into my home means an online interface.

  2. creativepotager: I love hard copy books and I love the internet. Neither, I believe, are exclusionary. TV didn't replace radio, computers didn't obsolete TV, etc. The world of communication has never been richer than it is now.

  3. Lloyd, you may be interested in the recent New Yorker article "Publish or Perish" by Ken Auletta, about the iPad, the Kindle, and the publishing business. As someone close to the industry, you may already know everything the article has to say, but I as an outsider found it an interesting look into the battles now being fought. Your post reminded me of this quote from Auletta: "Publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise; at one major house, there is a running joke that the second book published on the Gutenberg press was about the death of the publishing business."

    Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/04/26/100426fa_fact_auletta#ixzz0mFzwXe6u

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