Is Micropublishing the Death of Publishing—or Its Salvation?

Self-publishers are putting out thousands of books that almost nobody will read, and making money at it

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a charming profile of an idiosyncratic Australia book publisher, James Morrison. The article, by Times blogger David Streitfeld, contained two irresistible quotes, one by the writer, the other from his subject. Streitfeld wrote: “Now books can be efficiently printed in small quantities, like one copy. Amazon, meanwhile, is happy to do the job of fulfilling orders. The stage is set to allow everyone to become his own Alfred Knopf.”

Knopf was a prominent publisher in the ’20s and ’30s. The quote by Morrison was about a particularly idiosyncratic book he had published. It went like this: “The audience for an 1850 book-length Monty Python–style doggerel poem about a socially aspirant sea serpent is probably just me.”

When I say I found these quotes irresistible, I mean I started down a rabbit hole of wondering two things. First, how exactly do you go about publishing books—and make no mistake, these are physical books, not e-books—that might have an audience of one, without losing your shirt.

Second, how are these technologies, both for p-books and e-books, changing publishing? Because if you can publish one copy of a book without losing your shirt, why stop there? And when it comes to e-books, why stop anywhere? A hundred thousand? A million? And sure enough, when you get far enough down the rabbit hole, you’ll find a guy who, in little more than a decade, has published nearly a million books.

And so today’s show is a bit different. We have three interviews: two with publishers stationed at the frontlines of the publishing revolution—the guy who lovingly publishes a few books a year for his potential audiences of one, and the guy with sophisticated software that cranks out new books in as little as 13 minutes. The final interview, with a 30-year veteran of the book and e-book worlds, hopefully will put it all in perspective and give us a clear view of the rebellion even as it rages on.

My first guest is James Morrison. He’s the founder of his own publishing enterprise, Whisky Priest Books, which has published about 30 books so far. He joins us by phone from Adelaide, Australia.

James, welcome to the podcast.

James Morrison: Thank you very much. I’m intrigued to hear about the millions and millions of books as well.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, well, stay tuned. Let’s understand the technology here first. You use a desktop publishing software to lay out the pages and design software for the cover—and we’ll come back to the covers in a minute—but you use something called Lulu to print the books. First, though, where do you get the text?

James Morrison: Well, a couple of different places. Some of them are through widely available places like Project Gutenberg and places like that, that I’ll get the text from, but then it’s often the editors. I mean, the people that do all the proofreading for Gutenberg have done, you know, a very good job, but still things, typos and odd transpositions of text, get through. So then if I get a text from there, I’ll then compare it against the physical copy of the book to make sure everything’s where it should be, the original printed version.

But some of them are books that I’ve gotten, I’ve scanned myself, and then gone through and turned into text, sort of edited it and turned the text into an actual—well, basically like a Word file that I can lay out using just a publishing software. And a few books that have just proved too difficult to do that, I’ve just scanned the pages as carefully as I can.

Steven Cherry: I noticed in your catalog a somewhat obscure work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the guy who also wrote The Great Gatsby.

James Morrison: Yes.

Steven Cherry: Your edition can’t be ordered in the U.S. I guess that’s because the text is still copyrighted here, but in Australia it’s in the public domain?

James Morrison: Yes, it’s a bit of an odd one because Australia still uses the death-plus-70-years rule without exception. So, for example, someone like Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, his books have been available—as long as they were published during his lifetime, his books are in the public domain in Australia. But in America, I think his books that were published before 1923 are in the public domain, but anything after that isn’t, and the play falls into that category, unfortunately.

Steven Cherry: Let’s turn to Lulu. What is it?

James Morrison: Well, it’s basically just a print-on-demand outfit. There are a number of them, and I just chose Lulu because when I started, they had an Australian printing press, which made it easy for me because you’ve got to pay the postage to get proofed copies sent to yourself. And so if I was using a press in, say, in the U.S., which where the printing costs might be lower, but then, you know, shipping the copies to me would cost a fortune. So I can’t say which press, whether Lulu’s the best or not. They are the only one I have any experience of.

But, yes, they—basically everything’s done online. You design your books; you upload them. I mean, you can just upload, you know, a Word document and they’ll, you know, you can pay extra and a designer there will lay it out for you. I don’t know what sort of a job they do, but, I mean, part of the fun for me is designing the books in total—covers and the interiors. So, yes, I’ll design the books, lay it all out, and then you just turn it into an Acrobat PDF and upload it. And the same for the cover, which you design to certain size specifications based on the size of the book, the number of pages. And then they just have it on a digital file, which can reprint for anyone at any time. And in my case, I then order a proof copy to actually make sure that the physical book looks the way I expect it to and to go through and check it for any errors that have still made it through the process. And then once that’s all done, you can make it available for sale.

Steven Cherry: So you use Amazon to sell and ship the books. So how does that work, and in particular does somebody in New York, or New Delhi for that matter, end up paying for international shipping?

James Morrison: Yes, and Lulu has an agreement with Amazon, whereby if you do a book with them, you can then have it automatically made available from Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K. And so people in both of those countries can then order it without having to pay shipping, assuming they meet whatever Amazon’s requirements are. But people in the rest of the world, yes, pay shipping from whichever of the two shops they order from. Or you can order it direct from Lulu, but then you pay shipping wherever in the world you are. So it’s mainly useful for getting your books into Amazon’s catalog because that’s where most people are likely to buy books these days, I suspect.

Steven Cherry: Now, the covers we both mentioned, and they’re a particular interest of yours, I gather. In fact, it seems like that’s how you got started with this in the first place in some ways. And I have to say, looking through the catalog, they’re clearly quite beautiful.

James Morrison: Oh, thank you. Well, yes, it’s partly because, I mean, my real-world job is as a writer, editor, and designer. And I’ve long been interested in books and book design and cover design, most particularly. And I write about that online. And I wanted to sort of have a go myself, because the things I design in my real-world job tend to be a bit more functional. You know, they’re sort of health organization pamphlets and books and things like that, which, you know, it’s enjoyable to do, but they’re not books. And so I wanted to do cover design. And they’re also books that I wanted to read and were out of print, and the only editions that were available were either hideously expensive or incredibly ugly.

I mean, there are companies that make a lot of books available as print-on-demand books, but they all have basically the same cover with just the title and author forked over, but they’ll have sort of a no image at all or just a generic image, where all the books look the same. And I wanted to actually have a book where I like the cover and I could read the content, and I thought, well, why not just do it myself? I originally intended just to print these books myself, but it was no harder to make them available for sale than it was to not make them available for sale. So I thought, well, I’ll put them out there, and if anyone wants to buy them, they can, and if they don’t, I’m no worse off, because I’ve still got the copy of the book I wanted.

And the book you’re talking about, this Monty Python–style sea monster epic, was the first book I did, because it just sounded so odd that I wanted to read it. And I can’t say that it’s great literature, but it’s certainly very interesting. And so, you know, it’s there for sale if anyone wants to buy it, and if not, they can get a free copy of it. I think Google Books has a version of the text available to download. So it’s, yeah, the designing of the cover was really what led me into actually just printing these rather than just downloading them as e-pubs and reading them on a computer or something like that. It was the cover design that, yeah, got me started.

Steven Cherry: So are people ordering these books? This is clearly a labor of love, but is it also a way to make money?

James Morrison: It’s a way to make some money. I think you wouldn’t go into—well, certainly on the scale I’m doing it, you wouldn’t go into it expecting to make a lot of money. I think I’ve probably profited a couple of hundred dollars over a few years, which is not huge. But mainly for me, as I say, it’s been about getting copies of the books that I want to read that look the way I want them to look. And the fact that other people have then wanted to buy them too has been great. I’ve been surprised in some cases the ones that have sold. For example, though it’s quite an odd Scott Fitzgerald book and certainly not on the level of The Great Gatsby, it’s barely sold at all, whereas much more obscure books have sold quite well. So it’s really hard to predict what people will like and what they won’t.

And partly that may also be because I don’t do any marketing or anything like that. So, you know, there may be an audience for these books that simply doesn’t know they exist, but marketing isn’t really my specialty. And to be honest, it’s not something I’m that interested in. So I’m doing myself a disservice, I suspect, by not pushing them. But then, you know, someone without any marketing skill, I’m not quite sure, to be honest, how you’d go about pushing them in the first place.

Steven Cherry: I think you do yourself an injustice, because I have to say, looking through the catalog, you’re terrific at writing blurbs for books. There’s at least six books I’m ready to order myself, and I’m not the only one. My producer is another. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to close by quoting something she wrote to you last week. She wrote, “I received two of your books, one via Amazon, one via Lulu. They’re absolutely lovely editions. I just started Saint Peter’s Umbrella.” So, I’m sure I agree with her, and on her behalf, let me thank you for becoming a publisher, and on my listeners’ behalf, thanks for joining us today.

James Morrison: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

Steven Cherry: One of the most interesting patents to come along in this young century has to be 7266767, “method and apparatus for automated authoring and marketing.” The inventor is one Philip M. Parker. Let me read you the first two sentences:

The present invention provides for the automatic authoring, marketing, and/or distributing of title material. A computer automatically authors material.

The patent was awarded in September 2007, but the inventor had been using the system before then, and to date the number of books, reports, and other works that have been published using it is closing in on a million.

Not all of them are on sale at Amazon, but you might be wondering what would happen if they were. Amazon currently has about 2 million titles. It would take another Philip Parker or two to quickly double the number of books Amazon carries. A thousand Philip Parkers, and you’d have to comb through a billion titles to find the one you want. Do we want to live in that world? The man to ask, obviously, is Philip M. Parker.

Philip Parker is a professor of marketing at INSEAD, which is a multinational business school that was started in France in 19601957. He’s the human author of a book from MIT Press titled Physioeconomics: The Basis for Long-Run Economic Growth. He’s the inventor of patent number 7266767, and he’s my guest today by phone.

Philip, welcome to the podcast.

Philip Parker: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Steven Cherry: A couple of titles caught my producer’s eye. Webster’s Slovak–English [Thesaurus] Dictionary was one, and the 2007–2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats was another. Are these fairly typical?

Philip Parker: Yeah, actually they are pretty typical. The publications are going after the long tail, or niche, topics that the publishing industry would normally not cover. And so for the toilet seat cover one, the inspiration for those reports came from microenterprises, mostly based on projects I was doing in Haiti and other countries, where small enterprises literally make very, very specific items. So if they want high-end market research or anything analytic, they would have to literally be down to that specific level. People don’t make products; they make very specific products. So the reports cover minutiae topics because that’s what importers and exporters generally sell.

Steven Cherry: So you produce a book in 10 to 100 minutes. What do you start with? And maybe the one about toilet seats is a good example. How do you build a book’s worth of material out of what you start with?

Philip Parker: Well, there’s nothing original in that process. Economists for, you know, since the 1950s, have been doing a lot of econometric work, doing demand estimations for products and markets and things like that. So we basically use exactly the same sources they do. What makes it kind of interesting is that when I was working in D.C. as an economist, I realized that when we did these market projections and forecasts, we tend to do it in a very formulaic way, always going through the same steps.

So the trick that’s interesting is that many of those steps are so formulaic, you could replace them with computer algorithms. Choosing the right variables, choosing the right econometric model, formatting the data, putting it into report form, coming up with the ideal graphic display given with the variance in the data, and then simply reverse-engineering all of these minute steps using algorithms to create the whole. And so the data sources are always the same. It was the same that was used decades ago, so basic macroeconomic data, microeconomic data, all those kind of data sources that are out there already. What the process does is eliminate the human element of compiling, understanding, estimating, and manipulating that data, and then finally reporting it and distributing it.

Steven Cherry: So take us through the rest of the production process. Once you have a sort of manuscript built out of this algorithmically generated econometric modeling, what do you do then with the content?

Philip Parker: Well, generally what happens is it goes through a metadata pipeline where the algorithms calculate the number of pages, because distributors need to know that. It calculates the spine width for the front and back cover. It generates the covers themselves. Those are usually separately sent. When they go to print-on-demand distribution, these are all separate files. So it generates all these separate files, and then we have an ingestion system using FTP, standard system, to generally locate those into the catalogs of the distributors. And that’s pretty much the end of the process.

Steven Cherry: So these are physical books, and they’re printed on demand?

Philip Parker: They’re all printed on demand. In fact, most of them aren’t printed on demand. Most of them are actually e-books sold through librarian consortiums where they get maybe a subscription to the entire catalog, so they’re checked out as e-books mostly. So the vast majority of everything we do is all e-formatted. However, if someone really wants to do print-on-demand, they can. And when Amazon approached us and asked if we would be willing to make these available for print-on-demand, and so we invested to make them available in that format. But by and large, most people use these in electronic format directly. They’re sold to corporate libraries, to central governments, to university systems, and things like that.

Steven Cherry: So do you have any concern that you’re producing these sort of authoritative-looking reports by basically extrapolating from just a small handful of factoids, or I guess in some cases even just a single factoid?

Philip Parker: No, I don’t have too much of a problem with it because that’s what economists do. This process is replicating what economists do anyway. What this does is it does it a lot faster, and often it’s not a single factoid. It depends on the source data and what it is. So from a Bayesian point of view, we always try to use the best data available and then make, you know, as a prior, and then make extrapolations based on those priors.

So in the field of econometrics, this is actually quite normal. It’s what one would do with or without automation; the same process would take place. In fact, that’s what we teach in business schools, is how to do that, actually, so taking parsimonious data and making decisions, portfolio decisions, based on those as part of business and economics really.

Steven Cherry: And there’s a lot in the patent about genres. Tell us about them.

Philip Parker: Yeah. The basic idea, this is kind of the thought process of automation, is that you don’t create a software to write books or videos or PC games. We do all formats, by the way; it’s not just books. But you do it by genre, so you have to say, well, fiction versus nonfiction, and you could say, well, let’s do nonfiction. And then within nonfiction, well, there’s different types. There’s genres, there’s bibliography, there’s biographies, there’s crossword puzzles, there’s dictionaries. And then what you have to do is you say, no, that’s not really true. There’s no such thing as a bibliography; there’s an annotated bibliography. And then you say, no, there’s not really an annotated bibliography; there’s a sub-subgenre called Cambridge-formatted annotated bibliography, etc., etc.

And as you drill down within a genre and you can no longer find a subgenre, typically at that level you’ll discover that authors, the people who do them manually, actually follow very formulaic patterns. And that’s true for poetry and other types of writing styles as well. And so that’s what I meant by “genre,” is that you drill down to the point at which there’s a formulaic approach to authoring in that domain.

Steven Cherry: I was actually going to ask you about, you mentioned poetry. I was going to ask you about works of fiction or books of essays or other things that on the face of them seem a lot less formulistic and algorithmically encodable.

Philip Parker: Right. Within literature, of course, there’s subgenres of literature, poetry being one of them. And then you say, well, there’s no such thing as poetry; there are subgenres of poetry. And you could say sonnet, and you can say, no, no, no, there’s subgenres of sonnets. There’s metasonnets, there’s—etc. And when you get down to the very finite level, even within poetry, you have highly formulaic approaches. Like as in a sonnet we know that it has a rhyming pattern of AB, AB, CD, CD, EF, EF, and then GG in the final couplet. The first line is a question. The ninth line is a turn, which usually has the word but or yet or since, something like that. They’re somatic, and we decided to do metapoetry, where the poem is about the poem itself or about the author of the poem.

Shakespeare wrote a sonnet, No. 76, which was a type of metapoem, where he kind of complained a little bit that he was stuck using the same formula in writing his own poems. So it’s a metapoem because it’s about himself and the poem itself. We took that concept and created algorithms of a computer program writing sonnets, stating it cannot write a sonnet properly, but doing so, it writes a sonnet properly. So it follows the iambic pentameter formulation, has the exact correct number of lines. It’s highly constrained writing once you get down to that level.

So we decided to create a site called Toto Poetry, TotoPoetry.com, which are didactic poems which teach people definitions of words via poetry. So each poem is kind of a poetic definition of a word, and we use graph theory to come up with the content of the poems—pretty standard graph theory, looking at word associations. So if the poem is about love, you see words like affection and adoration and things like that, and you might see the word zero, because in tennis, 40-love the score is zero. So if the poem is about the love of tennis, then all of a sudden you see the word zero show up as kind of like a punish type of inclusion into the poem. So we used graph theory for that genre, and it seemed to do quite well. We got some good feedback from some readers who enjoyed the poems.

Steven Cherry: That’s pretty wild. The Slovak-English Dictionary costs $29, while the World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats book cost $795. How do you come up with the prices?

Philip Parker: Basically, high-end market research or analytic work, econometric work, usually costs thousands of dollars. Education titles, again, what you see is a list price there. What libraries really pay is only like a dollar a book, because they get a whole collection for one flat fee, so they really don’t pay that high a price.

So I’ve used the high-end research reports, which are mostly purchased by investment banks and corporate strategy departments, to subsidize the language-learning books are minor, very small language-learning books. This is elementary school books, are basically given away for free on the backs of these high-end market research reports. So the pricing is a strategic subsidy toward our language-learning books.

Steven Cherry: It won’t be so very long before you’ve single-handedly doubled the number of books in the world. Certainly you should be able to do that in your lifetime. If a thousand people did what you did, we’d pretty soon have a billion books. If every high school student in the world did this twice a year even, maybe as their term project, in seven or eight years there’d be a billion of these books. Does that thought give you any pause? Does it fill you with pride?

Philip Parker: I think for most of the underserved languages, it’s fantastic. I mean, most languages don’t even have math books. I mean, we’re working in projects right now in Uganda and Malawi, Bangladesh and India. I’m working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in creating relevant materials for these underserved languages, and they literally just don’t have books on the topics. Just things we take for granted, even a coloring book or a spelling book.

Steven Cherry: A lot of your stuff is educationally related, and I guess you’re moving into video as well and television, and a lot of that is for education purposes as well. The strategy is the same, right? Figuring out an authoring methodology for the genre, encode it into algorithms, feed the software a thin veneer of content, and then just let it rip?

Philip Parker: Yes, that’s right. It’s exactly the same. And we’ve—our first use of this was in Africa, where we produced literally weather reports 24 hours a day, always up to date, in local languages. And that was a very fun experiment, both video and audio. In audio it’s for rural radio stations, and these are low-footprint FM stations. And what’s really interesting is that some of these cultures and these languages have never heard the weather in their native tongue. The national government may do it in English, but in their local language they had never heard weather reports. Right now we have operations running for weather in Bangladesh. Some are starting in Indonesia very soon, in the next few weeks, all automatically generated both for video and for audio.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Philip, I usually try to refrain from judging the technologies we cover on the show or even trying to predict their consequences. I confess to feeling a certain dread about where you and others might take us with on-demand publishing technologies, but there’s a lot of value as well. And certainly if I were a buyer for Home Depot, I would definitely want that wooden seat toilet book. So good luck to you, and good luck, I guess, to all of us, and thanks for joining us today.

Philip Parker: My pleasure. Take care.

Steven Cherry: We conclude our show today by taking a step back to look at these two enterprising publishers in the context of the industry as a whole. My guest today has had a career that, early on, presaged Morrison and Parker, and then went on to span the length and breadth of modern electronic publishing.

In the 1970s, Thad McIlroy founded one publishing company and cofounded another. He was a desktop publishing pioneer in its early days, and for five years he was program director for Seybold Seminars, to which I personally, as a desktop publishing pioneer myself back then, owe a huge debt.

Today he’s an independent analyst and consultant in the area of electronic publishing, and he shares his view of the publishing industry in a remarkably open way, as analysts go, at his website, Thefutureofpublishing.com. He joins us by phone.

Thad, welcome to the podcast.

Thad McIlroy: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: So let’s start with your general thoughts about our self-made publishers. First let’s start with our James Morrison.

Thad McIlroy: It’s fun to put those two publishers up against each other, because Morrison is our romantic vision of the publisher, the hand-crafted, beautifully designed cover, carefully scanned and corrected text of classic authors, you know, and bringing them back into print so that they’re available to us once again. It’s part of the romance of publishing that he’s rekindling, as it were, for us.

Steven Cherry: And Philip Parker?

Thad McIlroy: Parker’s an interesting character—not necessarily the opposite of Morrison, but certainly at another extreme in terms of quantity. Parker I admire as well as I do Morrison, because he’s a professional. He’s looking at an information need in the marketplace, and he’s responding to that need in a, you know, honest and useful way. I’ve got open on my computer as I’m speaking to you one of his books, which is the diary of Samuel Pepys, you know, a classic from the 17th century. His version is the Webster’s Turkish Thesaurus Edition, which sells as an e-book on Amazon for $6.36. You could get cynical about that and say, you know, this shouldn’t be a book. I look at it the other way and say it’s a good use of the technology to reach an incredibly minute audience.

Steven Cherry: You know, Parker himself seems to be a pretty responsible guy in his own way. I mean, even cranking out as many books as he does, he drills down to that sub-sub-subgenre and carefully crafts algorithms for that sub-sub-subgenre. I kind of worry more about the generation that will come after him, not crafting algorithms as lovingly as Morrison crafts books, and just throwing stuff out there that gets called a book and gets cataloged as a book, but may not have Parker’s quality.

Thad McIlroy: That’s a legitimate concern, absolutely, and it’s happening now. But I think part of this that we need to differentiate to make this discussion bang on, is a recognition that we have a kind of sentimentalized view of books in publishing. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a good basis of that in books that have moved us as children, or as adults. You know, there’s such a fabulous canon of literature out there, so it’s a legitimate feeling. But we can’t use that as a black and white-ism, whereby if it’s not something from an author who we respect, therefore it must be garbage. No, there’s lots of very specialized texts, as long as they’re produced with quality, no problem whatsoever. So when we talk about the problem of kind of filling up the pipeline with garbage, yes we fill up the book pipeline with garbage, but we also fill up the blog pipeline with garbage, the newspaper pipeline with garbage, the Internet is at one level an amazing garbage publishing machine, and it’s not just books that suffer.

Steven Cherry: So how are we going to sort our way through this if there are, you know, if Amazon’s catalog 20 years from now has a billion entries in it, what is the average person who wants to read something of quality going to do?

Thad McIlroy: There’s a real challenge there right now. I was, in preparing for this interview, looking back on some of the analysis I did last year, specifically on the garbage that’s filtering into Amazon. And there’s some experts out there, “expert” in a diabolical sense, as far as I’m concerned, who are learning how to game Amazon, and they’re putting really badly written books, really badly produced books, they’re putting them into the Amazon publishing pipeline, but then they’re also doing . . . that in itself is okay, because it would find its own audience. But what they’re doing is they’re going with the sock-puppet reviews, as we call them, which means they’re hiring people to go in and then review these garbage books with five stars, and then to go in with the five-star reviews and vote up those reviews. So right now you’re seeing a lot of really crummy nonfiction. It doesn’t work with fiction, but with nonfiction on certain topics, the pipeline is getting jammed with . . . one is tempted to use obscenity.

Steven Cherry: And we have a podcast in the works on book reviews, and it’s working both ways. People are nefariously voting down competing works. You know, it seems that there’s an upside to this as well. So, for example, I noticed that there’s an upsurge in what I guess we would call the novella, which is a largely forgotten form until recently—works that are longer than short stories but still substantially shorter than novels—and for a long time they’ve been commercially unviable, because to print something that’s less than a book is just not an attractive proposition for readers if the price is going to be similar to a book. But online these things can have an appropriate pricing, and I mean, the novella has always been an awesome literary form.

Thad McIlroy: I agree with you on that. I was thinking through, you know, how does one define a book? When I started in the business in the 1970s, we defined a book, one way we defined a book was to say that it was more than 96 pages. Why more than 96 pages? Because you needed to have at least 96 pages to make the book thick enough that you could print on the spine, so that when the book went into a bookstore, and the bookstore only had one or two copies and put them spine-out, there would still be a title that was visible to someone browsing in a bookstore. Now that’s a pretty crazy definition of what a book is.

Steven Cherry: It seems that, since now we’re talking about pricing, that it’s a very attractive proposition for authors, right?

Thad McIlroy: The self-publishing phenomena has been exceptional and extraordinary, and really in my mind wonderful. I was, I think, an elitist snob at the beginning. I tended to be very negative, and I was very negative about the Kindle at the beginning. More fool I for that. The self-publishing has broken down a lot of barriers and has allowed a lot of very . . . some very entertaining, some very high-quality, all kinds of different types of fiction and nonfiction, to get into the marketplace. And that’s, I think, a very good thing. You know, at its basis, it is a democratic use of the e-commerce channel. And, you know, a book of only $2.99, well, Amazon will give you a royalty of a buck a book at $2.99, which used to be the royalty of a $10 book if you went through a commercial publisher. So it’s still a reasonable proposition.

Steven Cherry: Is the comparison to music apposite here? In music everybody can be a publisher now. Aimee Mann has a record company. Maroon 5 has a record company. Stephen King could be his own publisher.

Thad McIlroy: I think that the music industry is a very important comparator for book publishing, because we have to learn, or see the lessons that were learned by the music industry and apply those to publishing. We’ve got some precedents that can inform movement as we go forward. So one of the most important ones that’s really clear to look at is the containerization, or making the artwork into a physical form. So we’ve seen that the CD per se, the CD in its jewel case, is not an essential component of music distribution. Is the book in its physical form an essential component of literary or literate distribution? That puts that question into a different context.

Steven Cherry: Self-publishing is still in its very early days, and it seems like it’s going to evolve. Are we going to start seeing ads in books? Product placements? Or are books going to become vehicles for ancillary commerce? A lot of music groups make much of their money on live shows and T-shirts nowadays. I don’t know how far I can push this analogy between books and music, but will something similar take place?

Thad McIlroy: It’s great that you would raise that analogy, because to me it is one where the average author doesn’t have at his or her disposal the same opportunity that the average musician has. You know, there is no . . . a reading from a book is really not that analogous to a concert to a musician. So we can’t see authors performing their work and expect that to be, for most of them, a substantial revenue stream.

So then, do they become, like myself, a consultant and analyst, and try and earn money that way? That works for a lot of nonfiction authors, but that was already a preexisting condition, as the doctors would say, for publishers or writers of nonfiction. I think it might be more informative to consider moving beyond the book as we move forward. I think the book is also now having the spotlight put upon it and saying, you know, why is it that we take these 30 000 words, maybe print them, maybe put them into a digital container, and we call it a book? Well, why do we do that? So we can sell it. So what can you sell it for? Well, somewhere between $2.99 and 30, 40 bucks. Well, is there other ways to get that content out there and, as they say, monetize it? That’s the question, and I think there’s a lot more opportunities outside of the book than there is within the book.

Steven Cherry: So finally, what does this do for literature? For many people, you know, let a billion economic reports and Turkish thesauruses bloom, but don’t ruin the market for literary fiction and memoir.

Thad McIlroy: I think it’s a wonderful time for literary fiction. I mean, I think all of this has been stupendous for writers and for readers. For my friends who are in the publishing business who have any kind of lament, I say wipe away the tears, take off the arm bands. This is a fantastic time for publishing. Why is it a fantastic time? Because we’ve got more readers than we had 10 years ago. With the explosion of self-publishing and e-books has brought more people to literature, to thrillers, to vampires, to kids’ books, all kinds of things. So with that as the fundamental that we’re building on, the opportunities are just endless.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, I’m glad to see that in some ways at least, there’s more reason to be optimistic than pessimistic.

Thad McIlroy: Oh, I think so.

Steven Cherry: Thanks for your time today, Thad.

Thad McIlroy: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with electronic publishing consultant and analyst Thad McIlroy, and before him, self-publishers James Morrison and Philip Parker, about the future of book publishing.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

The interviews with James Morrison and Philip Parker were recorded 23 January 2013.
The interview with Thad McIlroy was recorded on 28 January 2013.

Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Read more “Techwise Conversations” or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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