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Welcome to My Digital World

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DIRECTOR’S DESK

by Robert Goodman

Board of Directors

Welcome to My Digital World

Remember the curse of the ancient Chinese philosopher that continues to haunt us: “May you live in interesting times”?

In the late 1980s, the desktop-publishing business was stepping out of diapers. Enterprising people realized that the barrier to getting published was being battered down by the desktop computer and the page-layout program. I knew how to do research, and I knew how to write (or at least I thought I did). Money, satisfaction, and independence were to be had in the book business, and I intended to get my share.

I was going to do it the right way. I greased my hair back and rolled up my shirtsleeves. I stayed up late reading books about publishing, even ones that had been written 20 and 30 years earlier that talked about things like rotogravure and hand-set type. I studied book marketing, accounting, advertising, and copywriting. I learned about page design and printing. I did everything right.

Then I came up for air and looked around. Nothing looked the same. The landscape was different. While I had been comfortably studying the traditional rules, the rules changed. None of my preparation had prepared me for what I was seeing. I had done everything the right way, but the right way proved to be the wrong way. Not because it had been wrong, but because things had changed faster than I could have believed they would change.

Technology was responsible, the same technology that promised to liberate publishing from New York’s genteel publishers and put it into my hands. In particular, it was digital technology that was responsible. Digital made it easier for me to pursue my goals. I could do all my design, typesetting, graphics, marketing, and bookkeeping from a keyboard. Printers could print my files instead of my camera-ready copy. Bookstores could scan my bar codes and send information directly to computers half a continent away for managing inventory and prices, and to order more of my books.

Awestruck by the Internet

The biggest of these changes was the Internet, which had quietly become a business and household necessity. It affected the very nature of publishing. The Web turned this business—and just about everything else—on its head, and it continues to transform the way we all function. Understanding the full meaning of the Internet may be beyond anyone’s capability. The times have indeed become more interesting.

The Internet multiplied the number of products we could offer. I once considered publishing to mean issuing books, newspapers, magazines, and an occasional “report” that I could sell in places like classified sections. Today, I need to think in terms of digital products like books, CDs, and blogs. We may need to come up with a new definition of the word print that comprehends all the choices we have and will have.

It’s not just the volume of products and information. I am astounded by the speed with which the products circulate. Back in 1988, I could tread the publishing trail with measured steps. Distributors had their calendars. Book reviewers had their schedules. It did me no good to rush books into production when I’d have to put them in a warehouse and wait for the right season. Today, distributors and reviewers still have their calendars, but that doesn’t affect me nearly as much. I can put an e-copy of my latest book on a Web site in a day or two. And I can sell and ship hardcopies the day after they come back from the printer.

Two decades ago, my publicity efforts were conventional and easy to define. I sought book reviews and sent books to columnists who might plug them. I looked for radio and television shows that interviewed authors. I stayed alert for bulk sales opportunities. Occasionally, I’d find a chance to write an article for a print medium. A few months later, I would turn my attention to a new book and hope that word of mouth would sustain the efforts I had made for the older one. I still do all those things today. But I put a lot more energy into other channels that never used to exist. Internet articles, links, and e-zines have become far more important—and far more effective—than the publicity outlets I once depended on. Meanwhile consumer reviews on Internet book sites have become the new word of mouth, and worth far more than reader recommendations ever were before.

The bookstore has always been the publisher’s nirvana. This was just as true in 1990, when 47,000 books were reportedly published in the United States, as it is in 2007, when the number has apparently multiplied to 300,000. But the available space for new books was limited in 1990. Today’s virtual bookstore has shelves that are virtually unlimited, as Chris Anderson points out in The Long Tail. My book’s digital record takes up virtual real estate only, so it and practically every other book in print can be available online simultaneously. Books published decades earlier are still available to readers. As I write this, in fact, I am preparing to fill an order from an online bookseller for six copies of a book I published in 1995. Not so long ago, that book would have been on remainder tables in bargain stores everywhere.

The book market has always been international. Twenty years ago, though, the international market was lucrative only in theory. I sold a few rights, but almost no books. Today, the Internet has torn down the international barriers to book sales as dramatically as it has shredded the barriers for music, video, and practically all other goods. I live and work in California. I recently packaged a book for a Greek client who lives in France and publishes in Cyprus. His book is now available throughout the world from Amazon. I have never met my client face to face. All our communication has been conducted via email. I know what he looks like only because he sent me a photo to be placed in his book—via email, of course.

Staying with the Leading Wave

And there is so much more. Not everyone celebrates these changes. They have brought with them a number of unpleasant problems, such as piracy and theft of intellectual property, that seem daunting. These problems, too, are products of the technology. We’ll have to adapt, to change our own way of dealing with these things. The publishing landscape will continue to evolve, just as it did when I first started Silvercat. This time, I’ll know enough to stay on top of the changes around me.

PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, is in a singular position to help all of us master the challenges the future will bring. Terry, the PMA staff, and the board of directors are all determined to keep independent publishing a vital and thriving business. Publishing University, the online course offerings, the Independent, the member benefits are all designed to keep everyone up to date and on the leading wave of the changes. We look forward to moving together into the future.

Let’s invite that ancient philosopher to join us.

 

 

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