Jan 7 2011 3:25pm

The Future of Publishing

Print is dead. How can we make money from the Internet? [Everyone runs off screaming.]

Since, ooh, the early 2000s I’ve sat in various editorial meeting rooms of assorted major U.S. and European publishers and heard some iteration or variation of those statements. In 2010, publishing was characterized by inertia and fear. Budgets and lists were slashed while jobs were lost as the industry struggled to make it through lean times foisted on the rest of us by avaricious types over in Bankerland. Publishers sat around waiting for something to happen, for something to give, for the new thing to announce itself and drag all those scared, bored editorial bottoms on an inexorable slide into a well-moneyed future where people can make money out of the web.

Well, World-of-Publishing, it ain’t gonna happen! Not the way you think, anyway. There’s been too much evaluation and not enough imagination. Here are some predictions that may get a laugh in decades to come. Join me as I catch a few glimpses of the future of publishing…

Near future:

Someone creates an app-style magazine for iPad, Kindle and all those other reading devices. N.B.—not an app per se, but a format that fits modern lifestyles, a format that fits around the rush of the everyday in a convenient yet engaging way. The cutting edge is always an old sword redesigned, reimagined.

The mag is called SUBWAY and is designed to take the average length of a subway ride to read. You can download a new edition daily for a penny. It consists of editorial, short stories, comics, short features, just like any current magazine, plus a load of hyperlinks. The hyperlinks will take you to relevant material such as author pages, further episodes of stories and comics, anything the editorial team feel may be of interest to their interesting 21st century readers. There’s a bit of advertising too, but the thing is based on a free subscription for a few months, by which time your readers are hooked—and they’ll pay that penny a day to stay subscribed.

Partially because of the success of SUBWAY, the short story as a medium in and of itself will return in force as people’s attention spans become ever-dwindling. Authors who like to write in serialized form will thrive. Readers will learn to love the cliffhanger and will look forward to the next installment of their favorite authors’ works. Print publishing will fight for the right to publish the most popular story collections of both text and comics—and just like Dickens, the printed versions will be slightly different to the original versions—reworked, pruned and spruced up.

In time, SUBWAY will also offer a print-on-demand feature where you can have your own compendium of favorite strips or stories bound and delivered to your doorstep.  As technology improves, any affiliate of SUBWAY will be able to use this service. Self-publishing creators will make use of it to create their own books with short print runs, which become highly collectable…

There will be two kinds of comics, as there are today: print and online. While the online version offers both traditional words and balloons as well as a new form that (often unsuccessfully) combines comics with animation, print becomes the preserve of creators with an artier intent, more nuanced and offbeat than its online counterpart. Mini-comics and self-publishing will continue to thrive…


Middle Future:

As the internet and TV finally blends into one, the news and magazine industry also merges. Little ‘bots trawl the web sorting out the bits of news you’re interested in—new bleeps from writers, updates from thinkers, bursts from newsers and journos, new installments and artweets from storytellers, image and music makers, anything from content merchants that you’ve indicated you like.

These separate items are collected into one single daily feed, a personal visual magazine edited by your own edbot. Edbots take a short while to get to know you, but are easy to train and they’re programmed to spot changing tastes. You can ask them to employ predictive behavior so that they find and suggest new items that might be to your taste, or you can keep them on a tighter leash so that they don’t get annoying. An edbot that has been trained over a number of years becomes a cherished item—most people wouldn’t know what their personal taste is without referring to their edbot.  

Advertisers have to work hard to entice edbots to include their infobursts in an individual’s daily feed, but those who manage to program their ad-droids in original and provocative ways do often get included. Ad men who program the ad-droids correctly are highly paid. Many ad campaigns are almost indistinguishable from blockbuster video events, the equivalent of a must-see big movie today—we still pay to see good, immersive visual storytelling. SUBWAY still exists, as a provider for much of this material, although it’s now been sold, bought and imitated many times.

Meanwhile, out in the actual physical world, the book doesn’t die. Books become highly prized and collectible items, enjoyed almost as much as loved objet d’art as useable objects. Turns out we’re still tactile creatures and some of us still like how books feel, how the turn of a page doesn’t require a power source other than the deft and automatic help of a human hand. Incidentally, online edbots are often characterized by little avatars that look like human hands with faces.

Projects that make it into print are considered worthy keepsakes. Certain print-to-order concerns do limited runs if a title is very popular and collectors lovingly favor first editions of these. If a book makes it into print via the rarer avenue of an old-fashioned publishing house, it’s a big deal and, over time, these become even more valuable.


Deeper future:

The iMe is invented, a device that sheathes the human body in a field of imagery and infotext—it looks something like moving tattoos all over your skin. This isn’t so much Lydia the Tattooed Lady or Bradbury’s Illustrated Man rather than personal appearance-altering technology. You can use it to look like a walking animated neon sign and have a free flowing and ever-changing countenance or you can just use it to watch the latest anicomics on your wrist. Many people use it to constantly update their physical appearance and flash up their likes / dislikes moods—nobody actually talks anymore.

Indeed, there is worry that with these deep interfaces, people are losing the ability to physically speak as they mostly communicate in holographic pictograms (also known as “commux”). The iMe and similar devices throw up a new iteration of cartoonist, whose work is displayed on their own body. In what remains one of the last few bastions of physical public art, you have to go to public spaces to read these, in what are called masterspaces. Some masterspacers combine their time onstage with performance pieces—dance, living sculpture, gymnastics—so you have to be really quick on the hoof to read anything displayed on their bodies.

The creatively minded amongst us think up amusing sex games to be had with the iMe—the possibilities are endless. The younger generation likes to use it to become totally invisible and interact with the world only via their online personae. Online clones are popular, backup versions of the self that are descended from edbot technology.

More and more people live their lives through these translation interfaces, sealed off from reality in entertainment bubbles of their own creation. There is a movement against this lifestyle of course, as some turn back to nature and simpler times, but this doesn’t stop Infogeddon, a day when the internet bleeds out all over the physical world and the two become as one. On that day, life becomes immutable from publishing and we all become one big connected thought exercise, a molecular computer comprised of and dedicated to safely playing out all the notions humanity’s ever had. This entity names itself iEarth. iEarth is too complex an entity for me to detail here and anyway, my vision of the future is fading fast…

…but you heard it all here first.

Nick Abadzis writes and draws comics and also works as an editorial consultant.

Paul Eisenberg
1. HelmHammerhand
Fascinating stuff here, and I look forward to SUBWAY. But re: iMe: I heard it from Vernor Vinge first (ostensibly).
Nikki McCormack
2. Neyska
And then it all crashes and we have to dig out our paperbacks for entertainment. ;)
Justin Trhlin
4. Justin Trhlin
Well done. I find that I'm optimistic, surprised, annoyed and worried about this future all at the same time. Or perhaps I should say... :) , o.O , >:
Iceberg Ink
5. Iceberg Ink
Re: iMe: To me this is the beginnings of Alastair Reynolds CONJOINER human offshoot species to a T. LOL! Good stuff!
Ashe Armstrong
6. AsheSaoirse
I'm glad I won't be alive for those days. I don't mind reading comics digitally but words on a page are at the best when the page is physical. The feel, the smell, the eagerness to turn the page. Even setting the book on your chest while you digest when you just read.
Richard Fife
7. R.Fife
I, for one, at least endorse this new future. At least, the near one, where serializing authors become high art again. I like that. Heck I'm already trying to start it up on my new serialized steampunk story, The Tijervyn Chronicles.

Yes, that was a shameless plug, but it is pertinent too. I am offering a story in web, ePub, or kindle format with illustrations, or you can get a podcast that is iTunes friendly. In fact, that there is no RSS-type thing for e-Readers to use yet kind of annoys me, as I was unable to make one for them. Bah.
James Hogan
8. Sonofthunder
Oooh, scary! Well, at least parts of it. Made me laugh and cringe and shudder all the same time. Well done!! Bits sounded like Feed by Anderson...a book that was fun but also quite disturbing.

And I'll never lose my love for real books...massive epic books I can dive into and spend the whole night reading.
Christopher Orr
10. Daedalus
I am not saddened by the possibility. In fact, I am sad that I missed the excitment of waiting for the next issue of the Strand to see what Sherlock Holmes was up to next.

If SUBWAY could bring back the serial as a legitimate medium, I would be thrilled.

EDIT: could we get a little Young Ladies's Illustrated Primer as well? A dynamic book with the power of the internet behind it is quite the seductive idea to me.
Nick Abadzis
12. Nick_Abadzis
While I'm aware of Mr Vinge's work and his espousal of the technological singularity signaling the end of the human age, I've not actually read any of his work. I think the themes of AI intelligence taking over and/or blending with human intelligence have been common for forty years or more now - I became interested in it myself at an early age when I read 2001: A Space Odyssey, long before even getting a chance to see Kubrick's film. I think that the meshing of human intelligence with that of machine is at a far more advanced stage than any conventional wisdom might have us believe - it's only with hindsight that we'll recognize it.

"Are you alive?" Ha ha. That opening scene in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica was quite chilling. This essay was of course meant to be tongue in cheek, but there are plenty of ideas here that can be taken seriously. And back to publishing - as my wise friend Dean Haspiel observed on his own blog, "People love to read." I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, whatever the medium we use to contain our texts and illustrations.
Claire de Trafford
13. Booksnhorses
Perhaps in the same way that I (we?) went thru a phase of never printing out digital images, to creating boutique albums/home printing etc, books will move to print on demand for those who want them on the shelf. It's a bit like borrowing stuff from the library - some you never revisit, others you go out and buy so you can re-read.
Iceberg Ink
14. Wow,
a truly imaginatively optimistic list of notgoingtohappen. Allow me to add my own prediction:

Absolutely nothing is going to radically change for at least the next five years. All media publishing corporations will continue to fight a losing war with increasing viciousness. Sales will decline, content will cheapen, Apple will make a profit by providing easiest access to shoddy popular media (think of a cross between Americas Next Whatever and British tabloids). Readers will cling to their paper books or pirate poorly OCRed copies to read on their phones.

Then the Ross ice shelf will slide into the ocean and everyone will have more pressing concerns.

The only possible positive alternative that I can see is that someone writes a simple to use anonymizing P2P program, in which case all media companies go bust before Waterworld.
Iceberg Ink
16. Rowan Collins
Of all the outlandish predictions in this post, the one that I'm most sceptical of is one of the simplest, simply because it's been predicted for as long as I've been using the web and consistently failed to emerge: intelligent agents.

User profiling and automatic customisation is certainly big business, and will continue to improve, but I think this will continue to take the form of services that facilitate search, browsing, and discovery. Google doesn't have a face, it has an index, and publishers of the future will provide something much more like a personalised catalogue than an anthropomorphised "edbot".

AI of the strength that could really replace talking to an expert on Twitter is not something we can extrapolate from current technology - it might happen, but it would be a genuine breakthrough, not a continuation of any trend, so it would be foolish to put a date on it. More importantly, it would be foolish to make your human staff redundant just yet...
Bobby Stubbs
17. Valan
Thanks Nick. This was highly entertaining.
john mullen
18. johntheirishmongol
I just got a kindle for xmas and it is pretty fabulous, but I doubt I will ever give up books totally. I do think it will be much more prevalent and that you will see prices for ebooks show up at a more reasonable level. I expect publishing to be more about promotion and less about paper and ink, but editors will still be needed, in fact they may be needed more than ever. There will be a ton of garbage and some undiscovered writers who make it by understanding and using the new systems better than others.

It's all good, life is change. When we quit changing and learning we might as well curl up and die.
Michael Burke
19. Ludon
My belief is that whatever the next big step in publishing / communication turns out to be, it will not be a replacement for the book. The book - or other printed material - is, like the wheel, a mature technology. There will always be a place for printed material just as there will always be a place for the wheel. We may have some of the things you've talked about by the end of the century and we might even have anti-grav lift-sleds by then. But, what happens when the power fails or the whole system fails? Back to the wheel and books.

I do agree with the point about the meshing of Human intelligence with the machine - or the net. However, I'm at odds with #16. User profiling and automatic customisation have a long way to go before they can be said to have improved - and that's before you can say continue to improve. My main interests are in art and writing and I've been doing a lot of searches for figurative artwork. My searches include the words Impressionist, Symbolist, Painting, Drawing, and certain artist's names like Vlastimil Hofman or Antonio Mancini just as often if not more than my searches include the word Nude or Figure. Yet, profiling has led to me seeing ads for hard-core adult sites - not ads for art gallerys or art books. To those of you responsible for the current generation of profiling technology, I fart in your general direction.
Iceberg Ink
20. andrew wildman
Nick. You are a scary man.
I am going to switch everything off and go and hug a tree.
Iceberg Ink
21. David Camus
Very interesting, thanks Nick!
Iceberg Ink
23. Nathan Schreiber
Very cool Nick! Looking forward to my iMe

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment